Monday, August 2, 2010


It's a funny thing about yoga retreats, especially the international kind.  Generally there's a tropical location involved, one in which our dollar travels farther, buys more of a kind of luxury that is truly relaxing and certainly not the norm in our daily lives.  Places where we can bargain items of clothing or jewelry down to less than a tenth of what they would cost us at home, where we are haggling in the tens of thousands but really only quibbling over a quarter or a dollar or two when it comes down to it.  Places where you can get a 75-minute massage for $3.  Eat like a king for $10.

So far I've been on retreats to Mexico, twice, to Peru, and to Bali.  Each trip has been fantastic, combining extended and excellent yoga practice with tourism, relaxation and adventure.  Not one of them has really been a retreat at all in the sense of withdrawing from the world.  We've been fully engaged in our new environment, only retreated from our usual day-to-day.

The latest retreat to Bali -- the aptly named Bali Bhakti Bliss with Laura Christensen -- was no exception: fantastic, truly, and busy.  We had a week in Ubud, a week packed with yoga and visits to temples, to the volcano Gunung Batur, to Nusa Penida for snorkeling; two days in the hills of Munduk, among clove and coffee plantations; four days in Canggu, by the beach.  Each location was gorgeous, the accomodations very nice, food delicious, service excellent.  And always the yoga: deep, intense, life-affirming.

Perhaps because it was Bali, I feel as though I had more conversations with people there, more opportunities to talk with locals, with guides and drivers, to inquire into the conditions of daily life there, a daily life so rich (at least to my eye as an outsider) with ritual, so full of generosity and warmth.

From a taxi driver we learned, as we passed scores of children on motorbikes leaving school at 1pm in Ubud,  that there is no public education in Bali.  To go to school you need to pay.  We confirmed this later with Putu, a trekking guide in Munduk who has two children of his own.  The registration fee, books and uniform cost about $100.  Ongoing tuition, we were told, is about 25,000 Rupiah/month -- $2.50 US -- and this is where the problem lies.  While this may seem such a tiny amount to us Westerners who are accustomed to spending more on a morning cappuccino, many parents are unable to pay this amount.  There are no scholarships available, so those children simply don't go to school.

Meanwhile, I and my yogi companions are snapping up bargains at the market, things we don't really need, spending the equivalent of a child's entire annual tuition on a bag or a bracelet without a second thought.  And then, when reunited at the hotel or in the cafe, gleefully showing off on new acquisitions.

It's not that I feel guilty about any of it.  I don't.  I work hard and am happy to have had the opportunity to be in Bali, to have my experience of it with my beloved teacher and friends and to have spent money which I hope will benefit local people.  I don't see it as an either/or.

I want it to be a both/and.

What I'm researching now is how to add an element of service to our upcoming retreats, to enhance our sense of engagement to the community we are visiting and learning about.  Something small and direct, not burdensome.  I'm not talking about digging latrines or building houses, but perhaps a relationship to a school or a village -- some way of extending the practice off the mat and into the place where we are.

So because my mind is still filled with Bali, I've been researching it a little this evening, and came across Cate Bolt's Project 18. Here's what she has to say about education in Indonesia:
The Indonesian system is broken down to 4 levels of schooling – Kindergarten, Elementary, Junior High, Senior High. The vast majority of kids in Bali, depending on their family’s status, might make it to Elementary school, some will go to Junior High, and very few will make it to Senior High.
The reason for this is that If you enroll at Elementary school you might pay, for example 1,200,000 ($120 US) rupiah to enroll – this covers your admin charges, building contribution, books, uniforms to get you started. Then you might on average be invoiced at a rate of 100,000 ($10 US) rupiah a month.  Many families find the initial enrolment fee – somehow! Anyway they can. But the ongoing monthly fees they can’t afford to pay.
For the most part the government school allows them to stay whether their fees are paid or not, up until it’s time to move to the next level of schooling. If their fees are not fully paid, they get no report from the school – no certificate which says they are eligible for the next school level. The only way to receive that certificate is to pay the outstanding fees. So if a family has had a child in school for 3 years, they haven’t kept up their monthly payments of 100,000 rupiah – they’re now looking at 3.5 million rupiah to finalise their debt, PLUS another 1.5 million rupiah to enroll in the next level of school.
Just to put this into context, the average monthly income for many of these families is around 1.5 million rupiah. We’ve met families of 4 living on 700,000 per month, and families of 4 living on less than 50,000 per month. A basic room to rent might cost 400,000 per month, food (healthy standards) would cost 10,000 per person per day. So you can see, there’s just no leeway for education. These parents desperately want their children to go to school. They know that the only way that their children will be able to make a better life for themselves is to get that education – but they need to survive.
Cate's project is to raise money to keep kids in school. The amounts of money are so low to us, but make all the difference to these kids and families: $200/year for elementary school, $300/year for junior high,  $360 for high school.   She's also opened an orphanage in Bali and taken in her first ten homeless children.  Really great.  There's a whole conservation angle to it, too, that I'm still learning about.  She's had an incredible life.

So anyway, for what it's worth, from now on when I'm going on retreat, I'm adding to my research list.  In addition to checking out where I can go see and touch animals (always #1 on the list), I'll be looking for local projects that offer a possibility to connect in to efforts to make the community a better place.  This doesn't have to be on the formal agenda for the retreat itself, although I do think that would be a genius (if I say so myself) enhancement to the usual itinerary.  It doesn't have to be anything earth-shaking, but I do need to do something.

In the meantime, I'm thinking about what we could call these retreats instead, what word would better describe what they're really about: not retreating at all, but instead exploring more deeply than our "regular" lives allow.  I'm thinking about it.  If you have suggestions, I'd love to hear them!

1 comment:

Janna said...

YES!!! Beautiful!! Two years in a row, once with my family and once on my own after retreat, I volunteered in an after school program in a small town in Mexico. I offered yoga to the children and staff. We invited our friends/family to help with donations of any sort, and we were able to bring many supplies the school wished for.
I dream of bringing a group on retreat and working together with that school again!