Quirky Resort - A True Art Village
Earth Garden editor Alan Gray describes Desa Seni, a magical eco-village on the south coast of Bali, whose visionary owner
has kept it untouched by the tourist hype of the present-day island.
The texture of the rescued building timbers in each cottage at Desa Seni
creates a special atmosphere.
Desa Seni is a highly unusual resort near the coast in south Bali. But it feels more like a unique set of concentric artistic circles, rather than any kind of resort or village. It is a place where an individual piece of artwork - such as a pair of handwoven, antique copper nightcaps from Lombok - is placed in a building surrounded by other artworks. The collection creates a powerful artistic effect on anyone staying in the building. Next, the building itself - rescued, revived and reused from far-flung parts of the massive Indonesian archipelago - is a work of art. Viewed from the inside or outside these wooden cottages are stunning. Some are a hundred years old, and their timbers are full of ghosts.
Finally, the buildings have been arranged on a once-bare 1.75 hectare site near the beach at Canggu, surrounded by thriving, landscaped food gardens in a way that brilliantly reflects the meaning of Desa Seni: 'Art Village'. The artistic sensibility of the landscaping is subtle but powerfully reflects the Balinese skill for making any garden beautiful, not just functional.
There are no tourist resorts or hotels in Bali like Desa Seni. It is the impressive creation of Tom Talucci, a fanatical collector of texture-laden, culturally important wooden Indonesian houses and artworks. Eighteen years ago Tom decided that if he was going to make Bali his home he couldn't be part of the replacement of Indonesian culture with homogenised Western tourist facilities. All over nearby Seminyak there are giant hotels. Their architecture, use of resources, and repatriation of profits do little to enhance Balinese society.
Wayan, the Head Farmer at Desa Seni, was keenly
awaiting the Wet Season rains.? Photo by Alan Gray.
The heart of Desa Seni is a collection of 14 antique accommodation buildings (plus another 16 for other uses) that Tom searched far and wide to find and bring back to the site to build his very own village. Once he found a suitable abandoned house to buy and return to Bali Tom would have to sleep under the stars for up to three nights, guarding the timbers, until each plank could be stamped by government inspectors to authorise their removal. This was the 'long way' to do things. The short way - not an option for Tom - was to pay bribes like all the illegal timber plunderers in Indonesia.
"These buildings are all about chasing stories. I'd hear a story about a building in Madura, and I'd go off and maybe look at 20 buildings, driving for hours along dirt roads in the rainforests, until I found one suitable."
The cottages are all made of teak and other rare timbers, with high ceilings, and superbly-textured floorboards, some nearly 50 cm (18 inches) wide. The internal posts and beams, the linings, all the rafters and verandah posts are hand-adzed. Sleeping in Rumah Bendi, one of the village houses, was like going back in time, to an Indonesia before Krakatoa, before Suharto, and before the frantic pace of the 20th Century.
As Tom was assembling his quirky collection of buildings he was also planning the other aspects of Desa Seni: a strong focus on environmental sustainability, organic food production, minimal waste, harmonious relationships with the local community, social welfare programs, and top-quality daily yoga classes led by gifted teachers.
The food gardens at Desa Seni are a marvel. As you walk around the village you spot carefully-maintained beds of sweet basil, chillis, brassicas, corn and water spinach (kang-kung is a Balinese favourite). But once Judith and I were shown the entire food garden by Head Food Farmer, Wayan, we were seriously impressed: there are food garden beds everywhere. There are ten times more garden beds at Desa Seni than you'd think. Tucked behind every cottage, up every garden path, behind every banana tree, and beyond every hedge, there seems to be yet another set of beautifully-tended garden beds. Wayan and his team of food farmers do an astounding job of providing 80 per cent of the food needs for the resort and its restaurant. They practise crop rotation, use no chemicals and rely entirely on compost made on site to feed the soil.
It's hard to imagine a more picturesque setting
for a yoga class.
A huge heap, like a four-metre-diameter cone, is composed of fresh grass clippings, prunings, kitchen scraps, and vegie stalks. Each week two farmers spend half a day forking this heap from one side of an enclosed yard to the other. After two months the heap is fully composted and dug into all the beds. In the meantime a fresh pile has built up beside the composted pile ready to begin its weekly turns.
Wayan loves his work. His parents were vegetable farmers at Bedugul, high in the hills of Bali. "From a young age I loved planting seeds and watching the vegetables grow," he says in gentle, halting English. Now he practises this gentle creative art at Desa Seni. I love seeing the compost made with no external inputs: no outside manures, compost accelerators, or sources of nitrogen are used. As you'd expect, the quality of the meals served at Desa Seni's super-cute cafe reflects the quality of the ingredients - everything we try is just delicious.
Each pathway at Desa Seni seems to lead around a corner to yet another magical series of food garden beds.? Photo by Judith Gray.
We tour the food gardens with Wayan at the very end of the Dry Season. He's eagerly awaiting the rains to kick the garden along. Yet even at this time of year, the least productive in tropical climates, the kitchen staff are wandering about quietly harvesting: bok choy, basil, corn, carrots, chillis, cucumbers, snake beans, spinach and water spinach, sugar cane, cauliflower, cabbage, aloe vera, tumeric, lettuce, leeks, tomatoes, mangoes, pomelos, kaffir lime leaves and fruits, jambu, mint, oregano, sweet potato, beetroots, lemongrass, eggplants and more.
It's not obvious at Desa Seni but there are no plastic water bottles, no drink cans, no plastic straws (bamboo instead) and nothing is served on plastic. The entire resort is built of recycled, or sustainably-made, products from local sources. Composting and recycling are just the obvious cornerstones of the Desa Seni low-waste program. The design of the site allows the reuse of any water in the gardens: rainwater is filtered through water plants and then through a three-tier septic tank system. Organic and biodegradable cleaning products and energy-saving light globes all help too.
"Tom won't even let us laminate the menu!" is the joking complaint from Gede, the new operations manager.
Tom's background, using recycled timber and old-school carpentry techniques in the furniture business for 12 years, no doubt helped his Desa Seni vision become reality. But perhaps also his childhood, growing up in a supportive Italian family of food gardeners, in Mexico, Brazil, and then the USA, helped just as much. "I've had a vegie garden all my life, and my dad loved his Beefsteak tomatoes and his whole garden. He always had us kids out there helping him with jobs in the garden. He'd say: 'If you want your allowance, get out here and help!'"
Antique water buffalo bells make great light
shades. Photo by Judith Gray.
Desa Seni provide free yoga classes for locals twice a week and traditional Balinese dance classes for children. They also have a fundraising program, which they use to sponsor, support and teach at a local orphanage. One of their most successful initiatives is the work-study program, which allows children from the orphanage to work at Desa Seni and be apprenticed in different departments of the resort among the 70-strong workforce. "It's very exciting to see children live through the orphanage, choose education, then get trained here at Desa Seni," says Tom.
The resort's first-rate daily program of yoga classes for guests and non-guests take place in an open-sided studio with exquisite recycled timber flooring, led by top-class teachers. One day Judith and I were lucky to do classes led by Octavio Salvado, a talented young Australian yoga teacher who incorporates subtle Eastern philosophical titbits into his classes, along with a few gentle sighs from his harmonium at the start and end of classes. Delightful. Am I dreaming, or is this place, as Judith simply puts it, "a refuge"?
"I wanted to do this whole project with integrity. I went and looked at every single hotel in the island and all I made was 'Don't' lists. Once I made a list of everything I'm passionate about: gardening, yoga, art, people, creativity, design, and I was already doing charity work... it was a painting, and what I see today is what I saw before it was built." Tom quotes a Dalai Lama saying: "The meaning of life is to help others".
"I just consider myself extremely fortunate and now it's time to share. In today's world there's so much 'me' and 'my' yet there's so much abundance,". It's clear Tom's not your everyday kind of resort owner. Desa Seni is unique and it's no surprise that the welcome booklet for guests includes the famous quote from Mahatma Gandhi: "Be the change you want to see in the world."