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.
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.
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 clichĂ© 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.
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.
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.
(photo credit Brian Neller)