The Pirates Retreat: Fire Spinning in Indonesia

Finn and I have been hula hooping for most of the year and recently started learning poi. I’ve been learning to juggle and Finn has started spinning the obscure illusion prop buugeng. We decided to attend The Pirates Retreat to meet fun people and spend time learning about our toys on a remote tropical island.

We showed up at the pick up spot in Seminyac, a beach town in the south of Bali, at 630pm and Finn spotted a tall man with a huge bag that contained either fire staffs or golf clubs. He turned out to be a friendly fire spinner who led us around to where the ‘pirates’ were waiting for everyone to arrive before getting on the bus.

It was clear right away that this was (thankfully) a very different event from Sacred Circularities. For one, it was a mix of men and women rather than only women. Also, people were drinking. We were offered beer right away. Some of my friends from home may be surprised to know that I don’t really drink anymore. I’ve indulged on occasion when there were $1 cocktails or local people offered a glass of their wine in friendship, but I’m not really interested in drinking anymore, for now at least. It was costing me an obscene amount of money and I often ended up blacking out or doing things I regret. Without a hangover it’s easier to wake up for a morning run too.

Despite my lack of drinking, the alcohol created a fun atmosphere. The bus ride was a party. I loved the boisterousness and silliness. It was great laughing and get to know everyone. One of the most enthusiastic drinkers ended up having to pee and couldn’t hold it until our next stop in Ubud. It turns out ziplock bags have many uses.

We stopped in Ubud to pick up more pirates and eat a bit of food with everyone before continuing the journey to the island. The first boat we took was to Gili Lombok at 1030pm and since the ride would take four and a half hours I was quick to claim one of about 30 thin mattresses covering a section of the small ferry. Finn and I paid for 3,500 rupiah (about $3.50). I was happy, despite the heat and the mattress being too small for Finn and I, to sleep for a few hours.

It was still dark when we landed on Lombok. We watched the sun rise and drank bad instant coffee in a little restaurant on the shore until four blue boats arrived to take us and all our luggage (circus props sticking out of every bag) the final 45 minute leg of the 13 hour journey.
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I was worn out by the time we arrived on Gili Nanggu, but I was thrilled to be on a beautiful, tiny island with lots of fun, excitable circus people. I went to sleep as soon as I was shown my bungalow.

The Pirates Retreat rented out all the bungalows on the island, so we were alone except for tourists who came on day trips. In addition to tourism, the island was also engaged in conservation. There were three or four windmills visible above the trees as our boats approached the island. Baby sea turtles were being raised in big tanks to bolster the local population and coral seeds were scattered off the coast and protected with cages until grown. I saw great results when I was snorkelling. Five metres from the beach the water was teeming with colourful fish and vibrant coral.
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There were about forty pirates all together. Most were white, about two thirds were male, many were French, including the organizer (captain), Jay Firecat, plenty were Australian, some were from other parts of Europe, a few were from North America and a couple were from Japan. Most were over age 25 and under 40. All were talented fire spinners and performers, some were the best in the world at what they do.

The first workshop I attended was acroyoga, which involved a ‘base’ supporting the ‘flyer’ as they take different poses together. I had very little experience with acroyoga, but I had a knack for it and the acroyoga sessions were my favourite activities of the retreat. The poses involved strength, balance and coordination. It was rewarding to get into acrobatic positions I thought were beyond my capacity. Because I’m small it made sense for me to be a flyer. I faced my fear of jumping up so that my shoulders balanced atop my base’s raised feet as they laid with their back on the ground. It took core strength to move into different positions and work with the base as they turned me around from below.

Despite my small frame, I have strong legs, which meant basing was easier for me than flying. I laid on my back and supported the weight of my flyer on my feet as I turned them into different positions. The only trouble was when my flyer was taller than me, which made some poses awkward.

During one of the morning acro classes I had a moment that would be a cliché in the embarrassing stories section of a teen magazine. I didn’t realize until after, but some period blood had leaked from my mini shorts and the inside of my thighs were smeared red. That might have been uncomfortable for my spotters helping to support my hips as I balanced upside down spread eagle.
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Every night after the workshops there was a fire jam. A dj spun loud electronic music and everyone took turns fire spinning. Once the first prop is lit the fire is passed from prop to prop all night. On the first night I spun fire hoop, which is different from a regular hula hoop because the wicks stick out around the hoop. What you can do is limited compared to a day hoop, so I found it challenging and awkward. I was still getting over the fear of grabbing the hoop in the wrong place and hitting the flame with my hand. Feeling the heat of five flames around me was intimidating especially since they swung so close to my body.

The next night I spun fire poi for the first time and I loved it. It was less scary than the fire hoop, even though I had far less experience with poi. The flames don’t have to come as close to my face and I could do the same moves that I practiced during the day. I got up and played with the poi when a bunch of people were spinning so I wouldn’t be the focus. Because I’m a beginner I felt shy when everyone but me finished and no one replaced them, leaving me alone spinning in front of professionals. I knew it was an accepting an non-judgemental group and I was having fun so I wasn’t really afraid.
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(photo credit Reece Dunn)

It was a treat to see professional performers spin poi, fire hoop, fire staffs, rope dart, dragon staffs and other obscure fire props whose names I don’t know every night. Some of the spinners playfully chased each other around with the flames, clowning around. I was inspired and humbled by the ease and grace that some spinners danced and manipulated their props.

Everyone ate meals together, which were included in the retreat costs. For breakfast we had a few options to choose from, of which I always chose a banana pancake, which came with a few pieces of fruit and a coffee (or tea). Lunch and dinner buffets included stir fried veggies, some meat and tempé (an Indonesian soy product that I love). It was adequate, but repetitive, oily, bland and not frequent enough for me. I was always overly hungry by meal time.

There were workshops in buugeng, staff, double staff, dragon staff, poi, hula hoop, yoga and acroyoga. I did every yoga and acroyoga class. The last yoga class was held partially on the beach and partially on a floating barge that we swam to for the resting poses as the sun set. It was so relaxing that I fell asleep at the end and woke when someone jumped off the barge and gently splashed me. I did most of the hula hoop workshops and learned tricks, tosses and balancing hula hoops. I attempted some of the poi workshops, but they were tough for me to follow as a beginner.
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I also learned from practicing on my own and getting help from people casually. There were no official juggling workshops, but juggling clubs were left around so I played with them and got tips as people watched me struggle. My new goal is to juggle fire clubs.

By the end of the retreat I had made lots of friends. Everyone was friendly, down-to-earth and a pleasure to be around. I would offer any of the pirates a place to stay in Vancouver if they pass through.
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(photo credit Brian Neller)

Pai New Favourite Place in SE Asia

Finn and I boarded a minibus from Chiang Mai in the morning. The driver handed each passenger a bag as we got in and I wondered why, but it was a short lived mystery. The 762 curves along mountain roads made me more ill than any other ride on this trip. At least the scenery was nice, and after a few hours of testing my intestinal fortitude we arrived in the centre of Pai, nothern Thailand.

We had a reservation at Pai Circus School Resort, so we walked along the main road and out of the town centre to find it. Along the way I was excited to see restaurants were selling avocado, brown rice and creative smoothies. We stopped to get some delicious ice cream in waffle cones and after following signs and walking along a path for about 10 minutes found the circus school across the river on a hill.
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The view from the circus school was spectacular. Beyond the infinity pool you could see the hilly landscape far into the distance. There was a pool table and a gazebo with hammocks and a wide open space for playing with hula hoops, poi, or whatever toy you prefer. Young people were lounging everywhere, soaking up the sun. Our $15 triangular hut was tiny and contained only the minimum furnishings: a mattress on the ground, a lamp and a mosquito net. The blankets were flimsy and thin so we were freezing at night. There were big holes in the floor, which made be worry I would clumsily fall through one or accidentally drop my valuables out. We wanted to stay there anyway because the circus school and pool were fantastic.
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Most of the people who stayed at the circus school weren’t interested in circus, but stayed at the school because of the beautiful view and chilled out atmosphere. Most days there was a beginner poi lesson from 3pm – 6pm for $20, but I didn’t take one because I’m not particularly interested in poi. The best thing about the circus school was making friends over the course of the week. A small group of us who were passionate about hula hooping, poi, other hippy props and circus found each other and become good friends quickly. Three new Americans friends told me about a flow toy festival called Pacific Fire that happens in Oregon in September. I definitely want to go to that. It was great to be around passionate people because it reawakened my and Finn’s interest in hula hooping. I also learned to juggle a bit and Finn learned some contact staff.
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Every morning in Pai I went for a run and then to breakfast with Finn and our new circus friends. A place called The Good Life served delicious, healthy, natural foods, so we ate there every morning until we found a place that was even better called Om Café. All the food was healthy, affordable and unbelievably delicious. They had lots of vegetarian options like quesadillas, hummus, poached eggs, avocado and grain salad. They had a smoothie that was nothing but blended avocado and coconut milk for $2. It was hard to choose between getting a cappuccino or a smoothie, so sometimes I got both. It felt indulgent, but necessary, to top the meal off with fresh carrot cake with perfect cream cheese icing.

In the evenings we usually walked into town and strolled through the night market. The stores stayed open after dark and stands selling food, jewellery or clothing popped up. A stand called Juice Queen had fantastic healthy smoothies with generous helpings of fresh fruits and vegetables, real cocoa, avocado, homemade peanut butter and no added sugar. I was floored by the healthy deliciousness. All of it was amazingly cheap too. A high protein vegetable smoothie cost $2 and a strawberry banana smoothie cost $1.

After a few days we forgot to extend our room reservation at the circus school so it was sold to someone else. Initially we were disappointed to move out, but then we found a place called Family Huts that was nearby, which was half the price of circus school and the bungalows were a lot nicer, so it turned out that our eviction from the circus school was actually a good thing. We still spent a lot of time hanging out at the circus school and they were happy to have us because we contributed to the circus atmosphere.

Pai is surrounded by lovely wilderness, but aside from my morning runs I only went out to visit it once. Finn, our new friend Melissa and I rented motorbikes for a few dollars for the day and went to relax by a waterfall. The water was cold but refreshing when I jumped in for a short swim. We met a few people at the waterfall and chatted a while before moving on to another tourist attraction called the Land Split, which is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a tourist attraction created around a split in the ground that I would barely have noted if I walked by it on a nature hike. I was glad we went anyway because at the entrance is a little stand with snacks and drinks by donation. We sat down on hammocks and juice, wine, peanuts, chips and fruit, all made on the property, were brought over to us. We relaxed and then dropped a few dollars in the donation bin on our way out.

After that we rode the windy road up to a huge canyon. I walked and climbed along the dusty, narrow path that would never be open to people walking in Canada. It was extremely high and looked dangerous, but it provided a beautiful view and fun negotiating the way along the uneven terrain. I ventured out on my own and met some lovely Americans who invited me to hang out with them along the path. It was the perfect way to end the day.

Another afternoon Finn and I went to a fermentation and kombucha making workshop that was advertised all over town by the Good Life restaurant, which is also the primary kombucha producer and distributer in Pai. The workshop was a short walk out of town on a small farm. We were offered bottles of kombucha to drink as soon as we got there and were told to help ourselves to more whenever we wanted. I wasn’t the biggest fan of kombucha but I wanted to give it a chance because it supposedly has wonderful health benefits. Also, I can’t resist things that are free. I drank a bottle and didn’t mind it. Throughout the workshop I drank more and more of it, largely because it was something to entertain myself with.
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A man named Lance, a large aging hippy from northern Saskatchewan, ran the first part of the workshop about fermentation. “The only things that don’t ferment are our spirits, our souls,” he said. He went on about the magic of fermentation for over half an hour before getting into the process of it. He talked about people’s misguided fear of bacteria, “If you step into the flow of nature at the appropriate point, you have nothing to fear. Fermentation is observing that part of nature.” Lance told us that processed food is ‘dead’ because all the bacteria is killed, so it doesn’t give our digestive systems necessary bacteria, which is why we should eat fermented foods, yoghurts and foods with active bacteria.
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Lance pickles and ferments anything and everything. He showed us the freezer bags of random vegetables that he threw together to ferment the night before. He had also packed a bag of kimchi vegetables and fermented it for a day for our class to work with. We wrapped the freshly fermented, spiced kimchi in bok choi and into freezer bags to ferment further and kept some fresh for our class to eat at the end of the day.

Konstantin, who goes by Kay or Mr K, a small, good-natured Ukrainian man with a goatee, ran the second part of the workshop. Before getting into kombucha, he showed us that you can put certain little mushrooms in milk, soy milk, almond milk, coconut milk or any kind of milk-like product and turn it into yoghurt or kefir overnight. He told us about bacteria with a long winded metaphor about good people stopping bad people in human communities. I was amazed to learn that the process of making yoghurt is so simple. I found the prospect of making my own granola and yoghurt once I have a stable living situation again exciting.

Kay taught us about the history, health benefits and process of kombucha in long-winded, if passionate, explanations. I could hardly believe these men ran this workshop daily with this much enthusiasm. I was drinking bottle after bottle of kombucha the whole time and developing a taste for it.

Kay brought us into the cellar and showed us big jars of kombucha at various stages of fermentation and had us taste some. Along the wall were shelves of mysterious looking-jars with liquids of different dark colours. We were told that one jar contacted a pickled tiger penis. Kay passed around a bottle for us to smell, but Finn and I weren’t listening when he told us what it was. I thought it was for tasting, but I didn’t want any. Finn put a little in his glass and drank it, but it tasted terrible. He asked what it was and Kay said it was fermented beaver kidney. We weren’t supposed to drink it.

I was getting really hungry by 430, but the workshop was supposed to end at 5 with a communal meal. Kay wasn’t finished at 5 and kept up the tangential ramblings and silly jokes for what felt to my rumbling stomach like forever. I had enjoyed the workshop, but had completely lost my ability to concentrate. Kay slowly handed out starter mushrooms to participants who wanted to make kombucha at home or on the road and made them name each one. “I’ll call mine Clementine,” said one participant. When it was my turn to receive my mushroom I almost wanted to refuse to name the silly little thing, but I didn’t want to ruin the mood with my hunger-induced grumpiness, so I said it’s name was Comet. I don’t know why I would name it Comet, but it’s all that came to mind.

At 5:30 Kay asked if we had discussed everything and I couldn’t resist but answer, “yep!” which I hoped didn’t come off as rude. Still he talked for another fifteen minutes and then we were free to go to the table where a spread of kimchi, bagels, cream cheese and pickled vegetables, all produced on the property, was laid out for us. I impatiently waited for others to sit down at the table before I started hungrily shovelling lots of food in my mouth.

After the workshop, Finn and I went to the circus school where we could watch and participate in a fire show most nights. Finn had tried the fire hoop for the first time that week and was hooked on it. The circus school had already asked him to perform for one of their parties.

That night after the workshop I was trying to have fun, but my stomach started to turn and I was nauseated. That afternoon I had drank about five bottles of fermented tea and then ate a huge spread of pickled vegetables for dinner. It was far too much for my bacteria-unaccustomed stomach to handle, so it suddenly emptied itself onto the grass of the circus school before I could make it to the toilet. I read later that you’re supposed to introduce kombucha to your diet slowly, starting with half a bottle. It was unfortunate, because I had finally developed a taste for the healthy, hippy drink, but now just the thought of it makes my stomach turn.

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia Finn and hadn’t met many people who we really connected with. The party scene in most tourist areas attracts a lot of superficial people, but in Pai there was a community of people who were into having fun, but not only getting wasted and shopping. Pai isn’t very exotic since it’s built for tourism and full of westerners, but it was great to be around open-minded people who enjoy the same things as us.