Fellowship in Far-Flung Places: ‘Knowmadic’ Culture in Bali

Solidarity. That was the watchword of February 14th at Green School, in between Ubud and Denpasar on the popular Indonesian island of Bali. For anyone who is not good with dates (and annually gets in trouble with their loved one), this was Valentine’s Day, but it also the date for the less well-known and more recently coined ‘VDay’, which celebrates women’s rights and protests against violence towards women and girls. It may seem a heavy topic for a school, but this is no ordinary school.

VDay dance at Green School

Founded by John and Cynthia Hardy, Green School opened in 2008 with an ethos of education for sustainability. Children from across the world follow a holistic, student-led curriculum, which includes more time spent out of the classroom than inside it. Though even being inside a classroom here is still a vastly different experience to most people’s school days – the campus is a sprawling wonderland of natural beauty and breath-taking bamboo structures.

Green School teaching building Green School classroom

It was in one of the more modest of these bamboo buildings that I found myself on VDay 2017, watching a flash dance performance from students and their Mums (plus some very enthusiastic Dads) celebrating women and girls. I was here to meet with Chris Thompson, Director of Hubud, a community and coworking space based in Ubud, one of the cultural hotspots of Bali. Hubud was the reason I had travelled the entire length of Java on two trains, followed by a ferry and a very long drive (punctuated by a storm so intense I had to spend a night in the tiny town of Negara to wait until it was safe to drive). I have visited coworking spaces all over the world, and my dual senses of intrigue and adventure drove me to see what coworking was like in such an unlikely region.

I had visited Hubud itself the day before, nestled down near to the famous monkey sanctuary that is one of the tourist hotspots of Ubud. Its aesthetic is similar to Green School’s bamboo-elegance, although a little more conservative; workers can tap away on their laptops sitting on beanbags under bamboo eaves, gazing at the endless green landscape from the garden, or seated at more traditional desks (and even in the odd air-conditioned meeting room). Here I chatted with Niels, one of the latest recruits to Hubud’s team and was intrigued to hear that it was in fact Hubud itself that had drawn him to come to Bali after saying goodbye to his old life in the Netherlands.

The garden at Hubud Desks at Hubud

I wasn’t surprised to find that Hubud was filled with foreigners rather than local entrepreneurs. The community is a mix of startups, freelancers and some long-distance workers, all taking advantage of the freedom of movement that digital careers can offer. These are the new ‘knowmads’ – knowledge workers who have chosen a nomadic lifestyle that allows them to see the world without giving up their careers. I suppose I am one of them, although I am more of a nomadic student than a nomadic worker.

The story of why people leave is typically similar: growing tired of the traditional, often corporate, lifestyle; searching for a new sense of purpose; adventure and exploration. What is more interesting are the new communities that are forming to serve the needs of the knowmads. In Bali it began with the local culture and ethos. People came to Bali for the lush beauty of the landscape, the cultural richness of the traditional crafts and dances, and the peaceful, spiritual way of life. Services began to build up for the foreigners choosing to make their homes in paradise, and prime among those was Green School.

Green School sign

Green School went beyond simply offering a place for expats to educate their children, it aimed to reinvent education, just as the Bali immigrants had chosen to reinvent their own lives. Green School became a beacon, drawing a new wave to Bali, those like Chris and his wife, who believe education needs a dramatic overhaul, and saw Green School as a way to give their kids the best start in life. Among the Green School parents are Renee Martyna and Steve Monroe, two of the co-founders of Hubud.

Renee and Steve saw the rise of the knowmads in Bali, and realised that they needed a way to come together as a community and support one another. Hubud grew out of this idea, and it is as much a community as it is a physical working space, putting on almost-daily events and providing workers with a small anchor back to some of the positive aspects of their old working lives.

VDay assembly at Green School

It is about solidarity, just as VDay at Green School was a call for solidarity. As part of the celebration on February 14th, the students put together an assembly filled with poetry, songs, videos and presentations. They didn’t talk just about women, they talked about everybody working together in solidarity, and supporting each other equally. This solidarity is the most interesting facet of the knowmadic movement, for people who have left it all behind, and waved goodbye to their communities, are managing to form new and stronger communities as a result. Speaking to people about why they enjoy working at Hubud, a common factor was the lack of hierarchy and the openness to support each other in ways that just wouldn’t have happened back home. The banker giving up time to offer advice to the startup; the ex-director of a major corporate division sharing a bench with a young web developer. These people may have left what they know, but they have found people who understand them better: fellowship, far-away on the beautiful island of Bali.

Barong dance in Kuta Traditional dance in Ubud