In 2014, my son’s mother and I took our 3-year-old Noah to Bali. I had judged a film contest with IHG Hotels and they compensated me with points to use at any of their resorts.
After a while at their lovely InterContinental Bali on Jimbaran Bay at the southern tip of Bali, we yearned for a more offbeat jungle experience and discovered through Airbnb the astounding Green Village Bali, a sustainably built housing community near Ubud.
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Before we even checked in, they assumed we were there to see Green School Bali, which we had never heard of. A quick, deep jungle walk later we entered into a clearing where massive twisted bamboo buildings poked through the trees like giant foraging dinosaurs. A small group was gathered with designer John Hardy, the school’s creator, who was about to start a rare personal tour of his school.
It was impossible not to be overwhelmed by the idyllic Swiss Family Robinson meets Willy Wonka nature of the mind-blowing campus. John described his deep passion for creating a new way of learning and a school that was the most sustainable on Earth. “Every surface is made of bamboo or built with recycled materials,” he said. “The ‘chalkboards’ are repurposed car windshields. All the power comes from solar and our water turbines. All the food we eat is grown on campus by the students.”
As we took it in, we both thought the same thing: We must enroll our son there eventually.
During the trip, I had a profound experience with my son at Old Man’s, a bar and surf area in the coastal village of Canggu. The author/screenwriter Spalding Gray had this thing about searching for the perfect moment in life. I remember floating in the ocean while looking out at the rice fields and Balinese children playing in the surf around us. This was one of those truly perfect moments.
A few years later — in the aftermath of the 2016 election, at a time when political divisions in the U.S. had grown exponentially — my now ex-wife and I decided after much discussion to go back to Bali and send our son, then 7, to the school. Because we split custody, we rented a house near Green School and another near the beach.
I joined the school’s adult offshoot Bamboo U, an intense 11-day bamboo design and building course that I just loved. Over the course of that fall — because you can construct an amazing, elaborate structure from bamboo in a fairly short period of time — I helped build a new building for the school, working closely with lifelong Balinese bamboo masters. It was a true A to Z of bamboo.
We settled into the rhythms of life on Bali — the frenetic, often terrifying drives to and from school through tiny, scooter-jammed roads (made better by Jim Dale’s brilliant performance of the Harry Potter audiobooks) and the loose, easy calm of campus life, a true, idyllic, utopian hippie jungle, where nature, community and play were strongly valued above traditional academics, and ziplines, snakes and Indonesian traditions are as important as math and science, if not more so. My son thrived.
The school held lovely Hindu ceremonies where we had to wear the proper traditional ceremonial garb. Part of the curriculum is understanding the culture, and I tripped into other ceremonies here and there, too. Those were some of the things I found most powerful and mesmerizing about Bali as a whole, understanding these ideas of karma and Balinese Hinduism.
For my son, being in Bali at Green School and easily traveling to places like Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam for extraordinary weekends changed him for the better. I think it kicked his independent mind as a 7-year-old into high gear, and now he’s so worldly and adaptable and at ease. There’s no doubt that was a seminal point.
Bali had changed massively since our first trip: Whole areas that had been endless, quiet rice paddies were now luxury resorts, empty surf beaches now throbbing clubs. But the island’s stunning beauty and soul overshadowed the development blight. I feel the magic of Bali is its people, traditions, art, ceremonies and nature — all those things are still so profound there.
On the island, every day is an adventure. I loved it. I really loved it. Politics faded from my daily media intake. Movies and entertainment faded away. Life became much more in the moment. It felt more alive and honest.
As winter came, we began hearing about a strange illness coming out of China — Bali had multiple direct daily flights from Wuhan. But everyone ignored the news and we continued savoring our life full of stunning sunsets, slow scooter rides through rich green rice fields, heavy surf, Balinese art tours and wild island explorations. Daily inspiring parent gatherings, organic food and Hindu celebrations filled our days. Then, in March 2020, I heard on the news that Tom Hanks had tested positive for COVID in nearby Australia. Within hours, we were on the last flight leaving Bali.
I left with the realization of how “Western” I am — and not in the best way. The feeling that our culture is increasingly indulgent and distracted and lacking empathy has stuck with me, and I remain in awe of how beautiful and soulful the Balinese people seemed to me, even as they face an onslaught of invasive tourism.
My time on Bali holds a very complex, romantic place in my heart. I know Noah and my ex-wife would definitely want to go back for a year, and I would, too.
A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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