By Cat Wheeler

Those of us of a certain age who have been here awhile agree that much as we enjoy our quiet lives in Ubud, we miss intellectual stimulation.   Well, I just attended my first TEDxUbud event and it was so stimulating I had to go straight home and lie down.

What a treat to spend a whole day in a beautiful environment, in perfect weather, listening to entertaining and spirited speakers who never talked for too long, and eating delicious things in between.

The owners of the award-winning Fivelements provided the venue for the full-day event. Three hundred guests wandered the grounds, examined their handsome gift baskets, greeted friends, nibbled croissants and sipped coffee. Then we entered (barefoot of course, this being Ubud) the soaring bamboo hall and settled down for a day of sometimes thought-provoking, sometimes funny, always interesting talk and music.

_RIO7721TEDxUbud’s co-curator Mila Shwaiko

TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) is a non profit organization devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. Started as a four-day conference in California 30 years ago, TED has grown to support those world-changing ideas with multiple initiatives. The annual TED Conference invites the world’s leading thinkers and doers to speak for 18 minutes. Their talks are then made available, free, at Last year, over one billion people viewed TED videos. When I’m in a place with enough bandwidth, I join them.

DSCF9715“TEDx is an offshoot of the TED conference, a non-profit dedicated to ideas worth spreading,” explains TEDxUbud Co-Founder Daniela Burr. “The events are then independently organized by each local community. There are 10,000 TEDx events around the world, and the program is only five years old.

“These are non-profit events; the ticket fee goes entirely to meet the event costs including communications, printing, technical support, lighting and sound systems, air fares for some speakers and other expenses. No one makes any money, and the time and dedication input is huge.”

This is the fourth TEDxUbud and it sold out quickly, with a waiting list of 170 snoozers who missed the registration deadline. Oh, and the TEDxUbud venue Fivelements was ranked 14 out of the 10,000 TEDx events that took place last year.

A full day of speakers and performers kept the audience riveted to the scarlet stage. The pace was intense, the amount and quality of information dizzying. Every hour or so we were released to exhale outside, and to inhale excellent Anomali coffee, pastries, ices, sweets and other wholesome treats supplied by generous local sponsors.

I recently told someone that after writing about environmental issues in Asia for 25 years, not much has changed; I was getting tired and bit disheartened. But hearing young people like Sayan Gulino and Jennifer Croes speak so knowledgeably and passionately about water issues and wildlife conservation, it’s clear that the torch is being passed to the next generation. And it’s exciting to watch idealistic young people being excited.


_RIO8297Wildlife conservationist Jennifer Croes

The outcome of the hotly contested national election had most of us biting our nails up to the wrists. Singapore-based Indonesian Ainun Najib used crowdsourcing to mobilize 700 Indonesians from across the globe to recount every ballot electronically in an astonishing six days. To me, this young man is an authentic hero. The group continues to use social media to design simple governance tools that will help achieve transparency at the local level as Indonesia moves into a new presidential era. All digits firmly crossed that things are really going to change now.

_RIO8466Ainun Najib with the TEDxUbud 2014 host, comedian Ernest Prakasa

Celebrity Chef Will Goldfarb confided with charming self-deprecation how he had almost accidentally penetrated the realms of haute cuisine to make his name as a magician with pastry.

Sisters Annabel and Cindy Gallop bracketed the day with their talks. Dr Annabel is a scholar of Malay literature from the British Library. She took the audience on a romantic journey into the arcane world of illuminated, hand-written 17th century manuscripts and Korans from Sumatra and Java, recounting tales of the writers. Cindy took us on another kind of romantic journey, explaining how the digital age was eroding sexual skills as young men took their erotic cues from porn sites instead of real life.   She confided that she had “shagged her way around the world,” mostly with younger men, in order to conduct this important research.   Her studies have resulted in the educational website www.makelovenotporn to help people recognize the distinction. Dinner conversations in that learned and articulate household must have been interesting indeed.

_RIO7764Annabel Gallop

Journalist, author and epidemiologist Elizabeth Pisani brings together many dimensions of Indonesia. Her intimate knowledge of and love for this country, coupled with her eloquent delivery and humour, make her a delight to listen to. One of the pleasures of the day was the freedom of the speakers to deliver their uncensored opinions, and her take on the nuances of KKN brought both grins and frowns to faces in the audience. Her excellent new book, “Indonesia Etc” should be required reading for anyone living in this country.

_RIO7826Elizabeth Pisani

Digital technology and social media was a recurring theme throughout the day. Jakarta comedian Ernest Prakasa moderated the event, iPhone in hand. One of the earlier speakers was Nancy Margried, who brings together the complex algorithms generated by computer with the ancient art of batik. The program designed by her team allows both professional batik artists and lay users to design unique batiks incorporating traditional elements. Increasingly often I see both ends of this amazing country curl up to meet one another with fusions of the traditional and contemporary in this way.

_RIO7944Nancy Margried

Elora Hardy entranced us with a tour through a breathtaking six-storey bamboo house designed by herself and her team, where almost every element was crafted from this versatile grass. Bamboo appeared again when the inspiring and enthusiastic Duncan McKee distributed bamboo percussion pipes to all 300 people in the audience along with mysterious scores. Within a few minutes he had us all playing a version of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, demonstrating the power and positive results of collaborative effort.


Elora Hardy

_RIO8120Duncan McKee

City planner John Taylor led us through a moving presentation of how simple planning tools can help governments serve the urban poor by mapping their access to social services. His project in Solo was so successful that he was invited to replicate it in Ulan Bator, Mongolia.


John Taylor

Two performances during the day featured Indonesian musicians using bamboo instruments to accompany original music.   Rizal Abdulhadi closed the day playing a unique combined guitar, didgeridoo and percussion instrument he’d created himself from bamboo. Jazz sax player Chika Asamoto honoured us with a piece she’d written especially for the event. Three streamed TED talks from around the world rounded out the day.

Did I mention lunch? Popular TV host and singer-turned-raw food chef Sophie Navita assured us that we would enjoy the vegan banquet hosted by Fivelements, and even the carnivorous among us tucked in with appetite. Afterward, friendly young people wandered around with baskets of ices and trays of brownies.

It was my first TEDx event, and I absorbed almost enough intellectual stimulation to see me through to next year.   I was an event manager myself in a past life and given the scope and scale of TEDxUbud, it was brilliant in its professionalism and seamlessness. It took nine months and 36,000 hours of combined volunteer time to put this event together, and volunteers flew in from Java, Germany and Mexico to help pull it off. I found it thought-provoking, inspiring, informative, funny, delicious and tremendous value for money. The day was a feast in every sense.


Individual videos from the event will be available in early October on YouTube. Follow TEDxUbud on social media ( and to keep updated on the releases.

All photos © Rio Helmi.

Ubud Now & Then offers HUGE congratulations to TEDxUbud curators Daniela Burr, Mila Shwaiko and the whole TEDx team for delivering such a stellar event. And thanks to Cat Wheeler for permitting us to publish this piece!