Travel That Makes a Difference

Traveling to Bali, it’s easy to get blinded by beautiful landscape, wild nightlife and the island’s spiritual side. After all, those aspects are what draw millions of tourists to Bali each year. But, despite its bright and luxurious facade, the island does have humble roots.

To explore this, many travelers turn to CouchSurfing Indonesia — the national branch of a global hospitality network that connects travelers to local homestays. The network teamed up with local organization Komunitas Anak Alam (Nature’s Children Community) to hold a charity event at a school in Blandingan village in Kintamani as part of the CouchSurfing Indonesia Festival 2012.

The annual festival is a chance for CouchSurfing members to come together from all over Indonesia. This year’s theme was Nacula — Nature Creates Culture and Adventure — and the festival included a series of events, including hikes, photography workshops and volunteer activities.

Volunteers started out with a drive from the south of Bali to Songan village in Kintamani, located in the highland area in the northern part of east Bali. Spending more than two hours on the road was tiring, but volunteers were rewarded with views of Bali landscapes: the south’s white sandy beaches and turquoise sea, Ubud’s lush paddies and rocky hills in Kintamani.

Songan is a small, rural village nestled at the foot of Mount Batur. While volcanic activity has resulted in incredibly fertile soil suitable for growing tomatoes and onions, it also gave birth to the lucrative — and destructive — sand mining industry in the area, evident in the heavy quarry trucks rumbling up the narrow, winding road.

Songan, along with about 15 other villages in Kintamani’s Mount Batur caldera, was recently accepted as part of the Global Geoparks Network by Unesco for the region’s volcanic activity and distinctive vegetation.

After parking at the Ulun Danu Temple in Songan, the comfortable leg of the journey ended. From here, volunteers continued on their way in pick-up trucks along a bumpy, meandering path to Blandingan village, which is located 45 minutes up a dusty and dry road.

Many locals walked vigorously up the hill, clouded in dust, unlike the face-masked volunteers in the truck. Most locals can’t afford the luxury of such transportation — a one-way ride to Blandingan costs Rp 100,000 ($10), money that’s usually reserved for more essential items.

In late morning, the pick-ups finally reached the final destination: SD Blandingan, the only elementary school in the village. Class is dismissed at noon at SD Blandingan, as many teachers have other part-time jobs to help make ends meet, and the students, even those in first grade, often spend the afternoon helping their parents tend the farm or cattle.

Without wasting time, each of the eight volunteers from CouchSurfers proceeded to their designated post, related to their individual passions. A traveling doctor from Canada performed free medical check-ups, while the photographers in the group conducted a photography class. I was teaching what I think I know best — writing. We hoped this would be a welcome change from the school curriculum, which emphasizes the sciences but not the arts. Students selected the classes they wanted to participate in, and mine filled with enthusiastic students wanting to learn how to write a story.

The kids were clearly excited for the lesson, their faces lit up with smiles and eyes sparkling with curiosity. I pulled out a copy of Bobo magazine — a popular kids magazine that many Indonesians grow up with. Or so I thought. In fact, none of the kids had ever seen the magazine before. This came as quite a shock to me, and I was reminded that things we take for granted are sometimes a luxury to others.

The students, who ranged from grades one through six, crafted stories about their daily adventures — what they normally do after school or on the weekends. I was expecting tales that resembled my own childhood: playing with friends and family or having fun with hobbies.

I was surprised, but fascinated, with their stories, which were so different from my own. Many of the kids walk home from school on an uphill mountain path, as this is the only elementary school in the area. They trek through hilly forests and dusty rock paths — even encounter the occasional snake.

When they reach home, their day is not yet over. The kids often help their parents find grass to feed the family’s cows or tend the farm until sunset. The tough chores to be done also come with possible dangers — one of the boys even showed me an open wound on his knee, resulting from a mishap with a sickle.

I guided the 50 students in writing down their adventures, then turning the writing into illustrated stories. Many students displayed impressive talent, and it seemed like drawing came as naturally as breathing to them. The stories were then bundled together into a book called “The Adventures of Blandingan Kids.”

Soon, my pity toward these children turned to admiration for their bravery and work ethic, which was more developed than in any of the city kids I’d met.

As the class ended, students left, waving and smiling, and asking if I would still be there for class tomorrow. Deeply touched by the progress they made, I decided to stay the night and offer a second workshop the next day.

There is no hotel in Blandingan, so we camped in the teacher’s room at the school. The accommodation was sufficient, but the lack of clean water in the village posed the real challenge. Although Blandingan is located close to Lake Batur, where fresh water is abundant, the lack of facilities makes it difficult to pump the water uphill to the villagers. Health and sanitation problems result from the dirty water, and many of the residents suffer from skin and respiratory infections.

While the government should certainly step up, travelers can also make a difference by giving back — volunteering, building schools or water pumps, or even developing recycling programs.

That’s why Komunitas Anak Alam connects responsible travelers to volunteer opportunities in Blandingan and other villages in Kintamani. It also collects donations for books and school uniforms, runs nutrition programs and provides scholarships to keep kids in school.

Let’s not only travel, but instead, let’s share, inspire and make the world a better place.

More information on opportunities to volunteer with or support Komunitas Anak Alam can be found at

As published in The Jakarta Globe:

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