At World’s End – an adventure to Nihiwatu, Sumba

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We tumbled out of the airplane like a sack full of puppies onto the steaming hot tarmac at Tambolaka Airport in Sumba, accepted the huge drinking coconuts pressed upon us by our smiling driver and set off on our way to Nihiwatu resort, our home for the next 6 days. The road wound past terraced paddy fields, cashew plantations, villages made of clumps of thatched roof huts, craggy mountains and cliffs falling away to reveal crashing surf in the distance. Pressing our noses up against the window, we watched scenes from within a time machine.

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Goats, dogs, chickens and toddlers ambled across the arbitary path with nonchalance. A wedding procession of men in ceremonial ikats led a buffalo towards a sacrifice table, their parang swords swaying from their waists as they strained with the great animal. A bunch of tiny knee-height pranksters jumped out of bushes in front of our car and screamed HELLO and then dashed off giggling. I pointed out to my children the Dr Seuss-like towering kapok trees by the road with their football sized wads of cottony fruit, used to stuff bedding in the tropics. My 7 year old Finn sniggered and said that it should be called the rabbit tree as it looked as if someone had hot glued bunnies to its branches.

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When I’m in Bali, the Indonesian phrase I use the most often is “Berapa harganya?” What’s the price? How much? Which is swiftly followed by “Yang mahal!” Too expensive! While travelling in Sumba, the phrases I use the most are “Awas!” Watch out! or “Hati Hati!” Be careful!. And sometimes at particularly thrilling times these phrases can be combined to form a continuous AWASHATIHATIAWASAWASAWAS!!! Maybe I’m fretting too much. Everyone else is chilled. As the Malays in Singapore say, Jangan Tension! Hang loose!

I watch as a man climbs out of the passenger window of the moving truck in front of us and clambers onto the roof to join the 5 small children already crammed on top of the bouncing vehicle. A minute afterwards, the truck passes under a broken electrical cable dangling overhead, sparking with live menace. Somehow the people on top of the truck survive. At this point, Finn turns around and tells me that he must spend the rest of his life in Sumba.

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Once we’re safe in the luxurious and serene surrounds of Nihiwatu resort, we settle into our villa like feet sinking into warm sand. The shoes are unpacked and never worn. Our gracious, enthusiastic butler Reuben is quickly adopted into the family and becomes Uncle Reuben to the children. Reuben brings the children an endless array of treats, from french fries and swimming floats to a pair of beautifully hand carved miniature replicas of the parang sword he wears at this waist at all times. Finn gets sword fighting lessons and thumps the bougainvillea outside our room half to death while Reuben eggs him on. Reuben later comes back with an ikat cloth which he carefully wraps around Finn’s waist and inserts the wooden scabbard into. Finn doesn’t take it off for the rest of the holiday, sleeping with his sword under the pillow.

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Nothing is off limits here. Finn gets to drive speedboats, ride in the front of a Land Rover, and even gets a diving lesson with a real adult sized air tank, jacket and regulator. My 5 year old girl Dylan signs up for a cookie baking class, has a hair smoothie at the spa, wades around rockpools and makes up cocktail orders. On Day 3, she tells Natalia the Guest Relations Manager that she would like to have a job at Nihiwatu running the Kids Club Programme. Dylan thinks that she can teach children cutlery balancing, flower hair weaving and of course (deep breath) MAKING COOKIES! f9c07cf8-c1d1-43d9-aa90-699f47e2627e.jpg

Our teenager Sean is the most sedentary of the bunch, initially circulating on a closed circuit of bed, computer and pool, but Nihiwatu works its spell on him and he ends up busting some cool moves on the dance floor at White Party Night and the next morning, he decides to go for a breakfast hike with his dad across the cliff tops to a secluded beach at Nihi Oka. 871e1935-d692-488e-9bec-05012647ce6c.jpg

Unlike Bali where everything has is neatly packaged, parcelled out and available for sale, in Sumba there are no compartments, no separation. You are at one with everything and everything is one with you. Food is handed to you in banana leaves and as soon as you pull the toothpick out, rice bursts out over your ungainly tourist hands and you end up licking your palms without a trace of shame. Chickens and pigs live in houses next to grain stores, toddlers and parents. At the market, piles of sweet potatoes, betel nuts and bananas spill over each other on the grass. We walk around barefoot all day whether we’re hiking across the paddy fields or waterfalls (flip flops just get stuck in the mud) or going for lunch at the beachside restaurant, and at the end of the day the soles of our feet are indistinguishable from the land, darkened with mud, grit and sand. This is life without makeup, at its most raw and vital.

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Nihiwatu resort must surely be one of the most beautiful resorts on earth, with its pretty thatched roof villas, panoramic ocean view and hot pink bougainvillea lined rock paths. But more importantly, Nihiwatu is also one of the most responsible. The resort buys coconuts from locals, and instead of throwing away the husks, they feed them and the oil to their biodiesel fuel processor which powers the generators, air conditioners and hotel equipment. Fish is caught by traditional methods by the staff in the morning and turned into free flow plates of sashimi at the bar in the evening. Organic gardens, chickens and compost heaps are a given.

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The Sumba Foundation is the resort’s charity and it has reduced Malaria infection rates by 85% in West Sumba since its inception, supplying more than 16 primary schools with supplies and water. Every time we venture outside the resort on hikes, we see the big yellow water tanks with the red Sumba Foundation tank in the surrounding villages, the foundation having provided more than 240 water stations across the land and healthcare to over 20,000 people. 4f0c0cfa-da2c-45dc-8854-e3e4e3b2db0c.jpg

On Thursday, we are invited to a presentation at sundowners on the Sumba Foundation. Health Program Director Dr Claus Bogh, also a senior adviser and malaria expert for The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, talks to the resort guests about two of the latest patients the Sumba Foundation has helped – a pint-sized girl, born blind, who can now see again after her cataract operation, and a 13 year old boy who they are helping get a prosthetic limb to help on his arduous walk to school. My children stuff their faces with hot sea salted popcorn offered to them by Reuben and ask us many questions long after the video ends. Why does that boy have only one leg Mama? Where are the parents of those children? Why does everyone in the family share the same bed in Sumba? Why can’t I walk to school by myself like all of the other children here? Good, big questions for little people.

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As the days go by, Sumba works its magic and the tight knots in my neck, shoulders, and gut loosen. I start to feel languid, going along with the flow. Even though I’m not remotely sporty, I sign up for a long hike to Blue Waterfall, one of the many glorious waterfalls in the area, and the Irishman and I trek for hours through the rainforest, the sweat rivulets down our neck merging into a continuous wash in the heat. Just when my ankles are about to give out, we hear the soft white noise of crashing water in the distance. The canopy of trees thins out and we arrive at a majestic waterfall, spraying explosively from a hole in the cliff side and churning a whirlpool into the surface of a topaz blue lake. 25d93b7c-33a4-41ce-bc44-94d00c078ea2.jpg

I have never been one for swimming in natural waterholes, but I can’t get peel off my sticky shoes and t-shirt fast enough. Plunging into the crystalline pool, the Irishman and I swim out towards the spout and climb onto a boulder just out of its torrential path. Overhead, the cliff face is covered with thick, dripping moss. Little water icicles dangle off the emerald covered rock, eternally forming and reforming, as beautiful as diamond shards on a Christmas tree. The waterfall roars high over our heads and sends iridescent arcs of droplets which drench us from head to toe as we shriek with laughter. f3ffbd5b-073c-4683-a467-25d688ebd41e.jpg

The next day, I wake up early and clamber onto a fishing boat with the Irishman and Finn and head out to the Fish Aggregating Device seventeen miles offshore, which we have heard so much about from Chris, Nihiwatu’s resident fishing expert. The FAD sounds fancy and we expected something akin to a floating Death Star in the ocean, but it turns out to be a bamboo raft, anchored with oil drums to the seabed with a weight. Algae forms around the FAD and that attracts small fish, which then draw bigger fish. As soon as we put out the lines, an entire shoal of about fifty huge mahi-mahi fish turn up for the bait. A French guest on the boat reels in the first one. The Irishman has a go at the second one, but not without a good eight minutes of wrestling with the fish, a huge female mahi mahi.

I decide to have a go. Chris hands me a rod with something tugging gently at the end. It feels deceptively easy as I start turning the reel, but that’s because the fish is still far away and swimming towards the boat. And then all of a sudden, I feel a giant yank at the end. “What’s that!” I yelp. The supremely capable Chris leaps into action, shouting orders in Bahasa to the boatman to steer towards the fish and simultaneously issuing me a rapid-fire stream of instructions. Hold the rod upwards, stabilise the end against the rail, lean over to let some slack in the line and quickly reel it in on the downward motion of the rod. Don’t stop reeling! When the fish starts another violent bout of struggling, let him have some more line and when he is exhausted, start the process again. Don’t stop reeling! Ok, stop reeling! Put the rod up! Now point the rod down.

This is like ballet, a technical dance with its own peculiar rules and rhythm. I learn to waltz with my fish. Forward I go, spinning like a maniac, backwards I arch, feeling the fish take my weight like a tango partner. My left arm cramps and aches as the fishing rod is on the wrong side for a right-handed person, but the show must go on.

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After what seems like an epic struggle, the fish tires and allows me to gain on it, pulling it closer towards the boat. It makes one final leap in the air, and we all gasp. It is a giant dolphin-like creature, golden with blue spots. Chris bellows more complicated instructions to the boatmen, manouvring the boat into final position, as I bring the fish as close as I can to the side. It thrashes and flashes just under the surface of the water. Chris runs over grabbing a spear and stabs my dance partner in its side and brings it up to the deck and hollers for everyone to stand well back as the giant fish spasms all over the floor. He manages to wrestle it into the ice chest and one of the boat boys quickly slams down the lid and sits on it as the fish thumps angrily inside. Finn watches with fascination, and perhaps a touch of morbidity.

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Later on, back at the boathouse, we measure my fish and it is the biggest of the haul, 11 kilos and 1.3 metres, as long as Finn. Its glorious neon yellow colour has faded out of its skin. I feel a shard of sorrow. Over the past few years of living on the farm, I have become intimately acquainted with my food, learning to slaughter our free range chickens, ducks and sheep. So why does taking the life of this fish feel so different? It was a wild, abundantly available fish who had lived a long healthy life, caught in one of the most ethical ways, due to become food for the resort with not a bit of it wasted.

But I was connected from my sternum to this magnificent creature with a taut line vibrating with its energy. It was a worthy opponent. As I remembered the glory of its metallic cobalt and gold skin, I thought about our pet peacock back home and said a prayer for the fish. And for us, that we would not waste the precious, worthy life that we had taken.

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So many more memories. Having a bath with Dylan in a gigantic bronze outdoor tub. Watching a boy not much older than Finn learn how to use a harpoon. Seeing horses and buffaloes bathing in the waves. Watching the ruby red sun sink into sea from the Nihiwatu yacht. Eating the freshest fish on earth with rice and a fiery tomato sambal on the beach.Learning to surf with the Irishman under the watchful guidance of Chad and Kaieve, Nihiwatu’s two bronzed resident surf gurus, in the famous Nihiwatu break, one of the best in the world. The wave is a thing of beauty, a perfect tight roll, running left to right along the reef. When it gets big, it hurls against the boulders, smashing into a fine mist. I swear you can taste the negative ions in the air.

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On our last night, the staff of Nihiwatu arranges for a special surprise dinner for Sean’s 16th birthday. We are led to a special birthday table, ensconced within walls of palm fronds and with a giant bougainvillea rising out of the centre of the tabletop. When we go around the table, taking turns to say what we are grateful for. All of us have our own highlights;- diving, hiking, fishing, cookies, but the children agree that this has been the most amazing holiday they have been on and say that they never want to leave. Sean says that he is most grateful for Reuben, and just then, Natalia, Reuben and the rest of the staff turn up with a birthday cake and sing him happy birthday in English, and then in Bahasa. Sean is presented with a wooden birthday plaque, an ikat sarong, a pair of board shorts and big hugs from everyone.

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Later that night, I look at Finn as he sleeps bare chested, one hand on his wooden Kris, and think who is this Robinson Crusoe child? Will there still be golden monster fish in the ocean for him to dance with when he grows up? Whether it is possible for this Sumba to exist in a rapidly changing world. The night air is velvety and outside a frog starts his baritone chorus, breaking the crisp stillness. The next morning we pack our bags in a surreal stupor, six days went by in a heartbeat. As we walk out of the door, I notice that the kids have erased the sand door mat outside our deck which used to read “Welcome The Leahys” and have written “We LOVE Reuben” in it. Nihiwatu, we will be back. In the meantime, we are happy just to know that you exist.

x,

Crystal

*All photos with the Nihiwatu watermark are copyright of Nihiwatu, all other photos are mine

When the lights go out

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Yesterday, ferocious winds of 130 kilometres gusted across the Peninsula. I drove home, feeling the car buffeted left and right by the waves of wind. It was like steering a ship. Power lines were down, the traffic lights were out and brave traffic police directed traffic in the lashing rain while cars flashed their hazards at each other to indicate fallen trees ahead.

A huge gum tree fell on the road outside our house but I managed to drive around it. Thank goodness for our reliable Toyota Prado which has had plenty of practice trampling through the thick bush surrounding our house to get out on the main road when the driveway has been blocked.

All day my phone beeped with messages from neighbours comparing notes on who had power and who didn’t.  76 year old Lilian called to ask if I had blown away in the wind. I thought it was funny that she was checking in on me. Then I called her back to ask if she needed to come over to ours for a sleepover.  The water pump wasn’t working. I called the Irishman, who was in Darwin on business, probably sipping a pina colada, and he helpfully suggested that I “suck on a tube and siphon the water tank.”.  I told him he could suck on his own fecking tube.

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The dogs had drank the last of the San Pelligrino and were farting copiously from the sparkling bubbles. I ran to the grocery store and bought their last 6 bottles of mineral water and San Pellegrino.

We were one of the lucky ones, the electricity came back on at 3 p.m. in the afternoon, thus preventing Finn’s tropical fish tank from turning into sushi soup.

The first thing you do after your power comes back on is to fill up the bathtub with water so if it goes off again, you’ll have somewhere to do the dishes and wash things.

The second thing you do is to scream with horror when you see the disgusting kombucha tea like liquid pouring into your tub and realise that this is what you’ve got to drink for the next few months.

The next day, I dropped the kids at school which was still in black out mode. Teachers wrapped in beanies and layers of woollens stoked the wood stoves in the classrooms and the gleeful kids told stories about how they had to have a sleepover at their aunt’s house the night before, or how they had to read by candlelight or how they toasted their sandwiches in the fireplace. Half the families I spoke to said that their power was still down.

Finn and Dylan were thrilled, it was quite an adventure to see their school transformed into a shadowy cozy place and the teachers running around saying things like “The printer’s not working!” and “We’ll have to cancel cooking today!”.
As I walked out, I saw Finn sitting on the floor in the dark, captivated by the stories his classmates were telling about the various adventures they had in the dark. And then a teacher from next door burst into their class room with a scary face on and yelled “It’s a spooky day at school and all the teachers are wearing black and sneaking around so the kids can’t see them… Woooo!!!” and the kids fell about the floor in hysterics.

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Back on the farm, I did a walkabout. Pooky the peacock seems to have had quite a few tail feather broken off, but he was in good spirits and ate his oatmeal and the kids breakfast scraps gratefully. The ducks and chickens were fine, enjoying the muddy puddles in the orchard.

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Our courtyard garden is very sheltered so it was situation normal there. Some yellow daffodils had sprung up and were nodding cheerfully in the wind.

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The forest was a different story. A few trees had come crashing down in the North East corner of our bushland, bringing down a large section of fence separating us from our neighbours property.

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The sheep were encrusted in bits of bark, twigs and brambles and stared at me accusingly when I threw them a fresh new biscuit of hay.  The wind had blown the top off the pail storing the alpacas vitamin, grain and molasses mix and I gave them the sodden contents of the bucket as a special treat.

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It’s funny but I quite enjoyed our little lock down yesterday. Whenever there’s a storm, our community pulls together and we feel that much more connected to each other, making sure that every one is ok, no one gets left alone in the dark. I read C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe to the little ones at night and we wondered about passages to magical lands.

Sometimes when the lights go out, we go in, and there is magic waiting.

The rhythm of Winter

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A chilly wind blew away the last of the golden Autumn sunshine this week and it’s well and truly Winter now. Being a Singapore girl, I relish the change of seasons. It’s still subliminally exotic to me after a lifetime of monotonous 30 degree C tropical humidity. My first proper overseas trip was to Perth when I was 9 and as the airport doors opened and blasted us with freakishly cold air, my brother and I screamed and ran about wild-eyed with joy. I don’t even think it was winter! What wusses we were.

Where was I? Oh yes, it’s Winter – the time of the year when we turn our attention inwards to heal, replenish and prepare for another cycle of growth.

Winter means that it’s time to fill the fire baskets with kindling and wood. To collect the last pine cones from the forest to use as fire starters. Bring out the fur lined Sorel boots. Swap the jasmine candles in the living room for the wood and incense ones that smell like an ancient church in Europe. Worm the sheep and trim the alpacas hooves. Rake, mulch and prune in the garden. And the list goes on.

While I was doing these things, it occurred to me that I love the rituals and rhythms our family has built over the last few years on the farm.

Our gratitude ritual at dinner. Taking turns talking about our “high-lights and low-lights” of the day. Foraging for pine mushrooms in our secret forest spots. Filling jars with homemade spicy kimchi, so full of good probiotics. Taco night (though the kids are now campaigning for Chinese DIY Hot Pot night now).

I even cherish the silly little things that have become stone-set family tradition like yelling “Not McDonalds AGAIN!” whenever we pass by any branch of the Golden Arches (a ritual which originated from a trip to the Grampians when Daddy took the wrong turn on the highway and got lost which resulted in us doing many many circles around McDonalds)

And Dylan and Finn’s favourite – when they get cranky on long car trips, we bust out a round of “Dada’s Underpants” – a game which involves answering all questions directed at you with the response “Dada’s Underpants”. Any smiling or laughing gets you instantly disqualified.  E.g. “What’s your favourite breakfast in the morning Dylan?”  “Dada’s Underpants!”.   Dylan is such a zen master at this game that she didn’t break form at a pit stop and when a Bunnings employee asked her how she was, she replied “Dada’s Underpants” with a polite nod.

Rituals, routines, rhythms are all part of the fabric of building a family. They are the things that make our kids feel safe and also part of something bigger than themselves. We quarrel less and feel more like a team when we built a common language. With any luck they will be passing some of these down to their own children in time to come and I will be hearing Dada’s Underpants for decades to come.

What are your family rituals? I’d love to know. Wishing you a peaceful and healing winter.

x,

Crystal

Leaving a margin

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I’ve been thinking a lot about leaving a margin. In the past few weeks I’ve been doing a lot of travel, really packing the appointments in, cutting things so thin that I could be a salami-slicer.

I realised that I could be more generous with myself, to allow myself some space. So my practice this month is almost laughably simple. A fridge meditation.

Once in a while, I step away and pour myself a glass of water, stand at the kitchen counter and drink the whole thing. No bringing it back to my desk. No multi-tasking allowed. Focusing on the fact that I’m doing a small good thing for myself, filling myself with a tumbler full of metaphorical space in a busy day.

The other side of the equation of being generous and kind with oneself is being having good boundaries, something that takes a lifetime to develop in my case. Sometimes kindness means saying “No” instead of “Yes”.

In our family, I’ve long given up with the long list of rules governing bedtime, table manners, screen time and so forth. Banished! Replaced by the golden Kindness Rule. Can I stay up till midnight Mum? No, that would be unkind to your body and your poor parents! Throwing food at your sister? Unkind! Too much time staring at the iPad? Unkind to your eyes and your soul! (Slightly esoteric to my 5 year old, the last riposte…) You get the idea.

As the Dalai Lama says, this is a simple religion – “No need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple. The philosophy is Kindness.”

Elemental happiness at Nihiwatu

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The world is short of secrets these days. Sometimes I wish I could travel not just to a different country, but to a simpler time, before the age of budget airlines, overcrowded beaches and camera phone waving tourists. And then, Nihiwatu happened.

A few weeks ago, on a well-connected friend’s advice, I flew to the deep, lush heart of one of the last Stone Age civilisations on Earth, to Sumba, Indonesia, an island twice the size of Bali, just south of Komodo island. More Africa than Asia, Sumba is a wild place that time has forgotten and nature has claimed as her own. Pure chromatic turquoise waters surround the island, itself a haven of emerald green terraced fields and unruly jungle.

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This island has a pure, savage and elemental magic about it. The waves roar and dash eternally upon boulders on pristine sand. Villagers believe in the power of animal sacrifices of buffalo and celebrate festivals with outrageous displays of jousting with lances upon horseback.

Walking is the preferred mode of transport on the island, and you meet villagers carrying pots on their head, children on their waist, herding goats and cattle gently towards the pristine beach.

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For years Sumba remained almost unknown to the developed world. Then in 1989, Claude Graves, a veteran surfer who built the first house on Kuta beach in Bali, decided to seek out fresher, less touristy waters and landed in Sumba. Immediately entranced with the land, Claude camped on the beach with his wife and newborn baby for nearly five years while laying out the plans for what would become Nihiwatu resort.

Over cold beer at sundown with the Nihiwatu team, I heard stories about how he survived warring tribal kings, assassination attempts through black magic and more than 30 bouts of Malaria.

Today, Nihiwatu, having changed hands to US billionaire Chris Burch, remains an enigmatic luxurious resort that redefines the concept of “eco-travel”, being totally off the grid, producing its own food, generating its electricity and diesel from coconut husks and enriching the lives of thousands of villagers through the anti-malarial efforts of it’s flagship charity – the Sumba Foundation.

Now it is perhaps the best place in the world to be in if you were to come down with Malaria, having a state of the art Malarial facility and reducing Malaria in the surrounding villages by 85%.  It has also provided clean water to almost 20,000 villagers in nearly 200 villages across the island.

 

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I flew to Nihiwatu to scout it out as a venue for Legacy Retreat, the holistic holidays of self-discovery and rebalancing which we have pioneered in the Asia Pacific. It was a beautiful fit for us, timeless, a million miles away from the noise, and full of pure spiritual energy. All this, just a one hour flight from Bali.

In my all too short time at Nihiwatu, I met new owner Chris Burch, a irrepressible big-picture ideas man and his right-hand man, James McBride, the authoritative and detail-oriented ex-manager of the Carlyle hotel and they brought me through their vision for Nihiwatu, expanding it to 30 villas while maintaining the bohemian family vibe.

Luxury with a wabi-sabi attitude, the resort is understated, authentic and tasteful. Talitha Getty rebel chic. Villas have expansive views, patios are littered with daybeds, ikats, local artifacts, you bathe in the open air under a thatched roof, steps away from the beach.

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best outdoor cinema ever

Business aside, I learned to surf on one of the best breaks in the world with USA pro big wave surfer Mark Healey, a guy who is more famous for riding 12 metre waves and hitching lifts on bull sharks, and felt alive from an infusion of pure salt water and sun.

I walked through forests full of buffalo, goats and ponies and had breakfast of scrambled eggs, sambal and tropical fruit on a bamboo platform festooned with palm fronds, over looking a deserted stretch of beach.

I drank many many gallons of fresh coconut juice and buried my feet in the baking hot sand.

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I had sundowners looking at the most dramatic, pigeons blood red sunsets which would make Photoshop weep. Dinners were either on the beach or in the stunning ocean front restaurant, eating unbelievably good home-cooking style dishes like Mexican Poblano mole or Ikan Bakar charcoal grilled fresh Mahi Mahi fish, which I had seen Mark & Chris, the resident pro-surfers, haul in on their fishing boat earlier on that afternoon.

Then afterwards, we talked late into the cool, ice-clear night, while others watched a movie at the best outdoor cinema ever.

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It was utterly rejuvenating. A very different kind of luxury.  A deep, rooted, spiritual calm. Just what I needed. Sometimes serendipity happens and being at Nihiwatu was being able to live a golden memory of a purer time.

It’s with a lot of excitement then that I announce our next Legacy Retreat, a profound journey of self-discovery, in the luxurious, one of a kind, Nihiwatu resort in Sumba 31 October – 4 November 2014. We will fly far away from the crowds and find our crisp, clean consciousness. We will learn about the secrets of happiness, motivation and unlock our fullest potential while rebalancing our bodies, minds, emotions and spirit. Hike through jade-green forests and meditate under a secret waterfall. All this and much more.

Details to come shortly at http://www.thelegacyretreat.com, contact us at crystal@thelegacyretreat.com.

Real luxury

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In my old Singapore life, from the minute I woke up I had people tending to me. The kids would have been dressed and sent to school by the Fillipino nanny. From bed, I would dial the extension to the kitchen and place my breakfast order with the Indonesian cook. The driver would start idling the car when the cook cleared away breakfast, making sure the air conditioning cooled down the leather seats before I got in so my pampered little bum wouldn’t stick to the hot seats.

Didn’t that last paragraph sound obnoxious? But I want to give you an idea of why my friends thought it was highly ridiculous when I announced that we were voluntarily moving to the middle of the Australian countryside to grow vegetables, wash dishes, cook 5 days a week and live 62 km away from a decent hairdresser.

When I announced I was leaving, one of my friends dramatically crumpled a piece of paper and smoothed it out over the starched restaurant table cloth to show me what my skin would look like if I exposed it to those nasty uncultured Australian sun rays. “You’ll regret it. Take care of yourself. ” he intoned ominously.

Another one came to visit and said “Well, you see The Good Life, and all I see is “lack of domestic help”’.

Anyway after nearly more than 3 years of surviving in the countryside and seeing me covered in everything from drake blood to chicken shit, I think they’ve finally accepted my crazy decision and every conversation with a Singaporean friend doesn’t need to be tinged with faint pity and concern on their part and a mild prickly defensiveness on mine.

It’s good because for the first time I’m anticipating going back to Singapore for a trip and just being happy to be myself without having to explain my choices.

Charlie Chaplin wrote “The saddest thing I can imagine is to get used to luxury.” And we do get used to it if we don’t watch out.

When I was a Singaporean I used to grumble all the time about petty little inconveniences. I come from a nation where your plane touches the tarmac and 12.01 a.m. and you can walk out of the sparkling clean airport bags in hand 8 minutes later. If real life dares to interfere with your plans, there’s hell to pay.

Now I may not have the freshly squeezed fruit juice and steaming fresh nasi lemak in the mornings, but I drink my homemade soup barefooted on our stone terrace looking out over the sea to Phillip Island. My home is smells of fresh eucalyptus in the rain.

We don’t have a swimming pool in the countryside, but the other day Mark put the garden hose sprinkler on the garden and Dylan shouted “This is the LIFE!” and the trees in the bush echoed “..life…”

True luxury is an inner sense of calm and being at one with the world. This I know we have. And we are privileged and lucky for it.

Tonight I fly to Singapore and around the world for nearly 6 weeks, but what I’m most looking forward to are the dinners with my family, good unpretentious home cooked food, trolling my younger brothers with annoying questions about their personal life, Mum holding my hand when we walk together just like when I was a little girl. And of course the nasi lemak. We can’t not have that.

Tomatoes, singing and mindfulness

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Gorgeous juicy heirloom tomatoes are everywhere in our garden! A friend who was visiting from Singapore asked me why our heirloom tomatoes were so juicy and special, the simple answer is that supermarket tomatoes are bred to be thick-skinned, high-yielding and hardy so that they can survive being transported, handled, packed and brought back home. Mass market tomatoes don’t mature on the vine, even the “vine-ripened” ones are picked when they are still green so that they don’t bruise.

I think the commercial tomatoes have a much mealier, starchier texture than the complex, savoury jellied like flavours of homegrown tomatoes, which are so good it’s almost an insult to do anything more to them than sprinkle with a smattering of sea salt and perhaps the merest drizzle of olive oil and vinegar.

I must admit I am not a very good gardener even if our vegetables give me much amusement and pleasure. Just this week we had a spectacular failure of a watermelon we harvested too early and was the exact texture and taste of a dishwashing sponge on the inside. And a bunch of shrivelled pungent horseradish roots, which necessitated Mark putting up a sign on the fridge that read “Horseradish roots are inside, they look like rubbish, do not throw away”.

I’m far better with the animals and I love the intentional time I spend feeding the alpacas and sheep lucerne every evening in the long rays of sun dusk.

Coincidentally, I read this passage from a collection of Thich Nhat Hanh’s writings and I thought it was such a charming and meaningful anecdote to share:

“ One day in New York City, I met a Buddhist scholar and I told her about my practice of mindfulness in the vegetable garden. I enjoy growing lettuce, tomatoes, and other vegetables. She said, “You shouldn’t spend your time growing vegetables. You should spend more time writing poems. Your poems are so beautiful. Everyone can grow lettuce, but not everyone can write poems like you do.” I told her, “If I don’t grow lettuce, I can’t write poems.”

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Mark has taken up singing lessons although he’s not exactly Pavarotti, and I think it’s so cool that he’s doing something completely for himself, just because he enjoys it. Not as a means to an end. I think it must be incredibly healthy.
What do you do that’s just for you?

Finding a way out of the hole

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It all started with a small comment at a party. Someone recognised me and told me a story. Apparently I had a stalker, not just a cyber stalker, but someone who lived within 10 minutes of my house. This person had trawled through reams of my old blog posts to extract details like my car licence plate, would spot my car at the local super market carpark and watch me from a distance, while i darted in and out of the shops with laden with paper bags of meat and flowers.

It’s not the first time in my life that I’ve been stalked before, but this seemed worse, a incongruity in this pastoral corner of the world we live in, where neighbours leave fresh avocados at your door, where the post office has a special corner for your parcels, marked with a cardboard sign and roadside stalls with honesty jars line the way home.

I didn’t feel like writing much any more. It was the New Year season, and for many reasons other than the stalking, I felt like I was stuck in a liminal space.

No routines, no structure, the rictus grin of inane festivity.

And then one of the children did something deeply upsetting and required extra care and especially mindful parenting. The cure to everything is love. What if it doesn’t work? Increase the dose. Simple, but not easy.

Out of nowhere came the horrible heatwave in Victoria, a week of incendiary temperatures that swept through our area, leaving fires and parched grass in its wake. We were lucky to escape unscathed, but the damage was everywhere. Our friends olive grove where we camped at last year was wrecked by a violent fire tornado, and our favourite cafe burned to a crisp.

We started drawing up detailed fire escape plans, realising the perils of the beautiful acres of native bushland surrounding our house, the only sizeable thicket of trees for miles around us. Each tea tree, gum tree and olive tree a miniature explosive device.

Everyone has little routines, secret poker tells, are leading indicators of their well-being. If they’re doing them, you know everything’s alright in their world.

For my husband, it’s exercise.

For me, it’s cooking, having friends over, taking photographs, putting on lipstick in the morning, and most of all, writing.

But the writing dried up and the usual wash of morning shower ideas thinned to a weak trickle, not worthy of documentation or even rumination.

The difficulty of getting your groove back is an exponential curve. If you make constant small adjustments and regular maintenance, the wheel keeps turning, the momentum goes on. Once you stop, the effort it takes to start again is painful. Writing this post has been torture. Five words forward, four words deleted. It was the same when I went back to work after having children. Self-doubt is a familiar stranger.

At times like these I go back to basics. One foot in front of the other. Meditation to Sogyal Rinpoche. Playing music that gets me going. Light a candle and sit in front of my desk. Go outside and watch the prayer flags flutter in the wind.

One of the lines from a book I love (American Dream Machine by Matthew Spektor) – “If you live long enough, you get to play all the parts. You get to be every person in the play.” Everything comes and goes. Everything is a phase. This too shall pass. And I am slowly learning to be cool with this.

Unplanned perfection

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Living in the countryside is learning how to dance with chaos. Where our life in the city was a tightly choreographed ballet of appointments and plans, our other life in the countryside is improvised, loose, freeform.

You never know what the day has planned for you when you wake up.

A tree blown down in the middle of the night. The sudden arrival of snowy cherry blossoms. The death of a beloved chicken (RIP Explorer Biscuit) or the smallest peeps and flurry of activity in the coop signalling the arrival of a new duckling.

Walk into your kitchen and there could well be your plumber who’s popped in for a cup of tea and to collect a cheque. Or you could find your eldest son missing, having been taken to the movies by a neighbour since they were passing by your house on the way there.

I’ve learned to make it up as I go along. And also to always wear a nightie around the house (although the plumber did give me a generous discount that one time…).

Now I “plan” my dinner by surveying the vegetable patch and what’s left in the fridge. This week we had an abundance of zucchini in the garden. Masses of papery lantern like blossoms on shiny car-enamel yellow stalks. When you have zucchini, you really have zucchini. It’s like that old country joke that you know you have no friends if you’ve got to buy your own zucchini. I’ve been known to push eggs and veg on my friends until one of them shrieked “Stop! You’ve become a produce-pusher!”

So I made a feathery light tempura batter spiked with curry powder and sea salt and fried these gorgeous flowers up. The secret is cold cold sparkling water and mixing it in a lumpy fashion.

The kids loved it, I’ve never seen them fight over zucchini before!

Another improv memory – we came back from an overseas trip and realised we had nothing to eat. Then my friend Imogen texted me to say that she had seen a huge smoked eel at the fishmongers and bought it for me and dropped it off in my fridge as I was the only person she knew who would appreciate such a cadeau. I was overjoyed! That night I made smoked eel cakes, mashing the eel with potatoes and onions and then fried up some silver beet from the the garden with tomato passata, red wine and simmered lentils. The Irishman declared it one of his favourite meals ever. (That’s Imogen below saying “The eel was THIS big!”)

And lastly, one of my favourite unplanned memories of 2013. We were supposed to go to a party at our neighbours house, when their water tank broke. “What shall we do?” said Anne. Well the answer was obvious. So we ended up hosting a party for 20 or so adults and children on a magical sunny afternoon.

The kids borrowed swimsuits from myself and the kids and played in the sprinklers, rowed in the dam, chased the chickens about and picked sugar plums in the orchard for dessert.

And of course there was much rolling down the hill in billy carts, bikes, ride ons, skateboards and tractors.

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Can there be anything better than unplanned perfection? Cheers to 2014 and to all the surprises it holds, I can’t wait.