“I think having land and not ruining it is the most beautiful art anyone could ever want.” – Andy Warhol.
Meet Gil Frei, also known as Bamboo Gil, a yacht captain who jumped ship in Bali 18 years ago and now grows his own food and medical herbs on a little piece of paradise near the beach.
It is Sunday at Gil’s house. I park my bike and am greeted by four dogs and a cat. Upon entering the bamboo house I am offered a homemade ginger beer and an appetizer of sour cream and marmalade on toast, all made by Gil. He lights a papaya pipe of Mugwort (a healing blend which is also anti-mosquito) and sounds of Miles Davis play with the breeze.
How many years did you spend at sea?
Most of my adult life. I ran off to sea at nineteen. I was living with a wild girlfriend who created a lot of drama. I will not go into the details, but at just the perfect time I received a phone call from a friend asking if I would like to sail from New York, where I lived, to the Caribbean. We left NY harbour late on December 1st on a beautiful 100-foot teak yacht. We hit a terrible storm and were blown north to Nova Scotia. Took us more than a month to limp half broken down south. I worked long as crew and somehow finagled my way to captain chartering throughout the Caribbean, Europe, New England and finally Indonesia.
And here you are in Bali after years at sea! How did that happen?
I was captain of a 100 foot vintage yawl from the 1920s. The owner was the guy portrayed in the movie “Wall Street”. One day I just got bored with it all. I would never abandon my boss so I trained up my mate to properly take my place and then went on vacation to Bali and never went back.
What got you into bamboo?
I remember as a kid I loved ’Mysterious Island’ and especially the bamboo house; the way it was built from everything on hand. I purposely didn’t look at books or magazines when I designed this house. That is cheating. I don’t look at cookbooks either – takes away all the fun.
Tell me the story of your bamboo home and how you created this sustainable way of life you generously share with your friends.
I was living in central Seminyak in a small house when I saw this inexpensive last remaining little farm near the beach. I leased it right away. The most important thing about building is not so much the design as it is the placement of the building on the land. The house should fit into the land. I wanted to get to know the feel of the land and because I had never built anything and didn’t have a clue; I did not build on it for two years. During that time I put in the lotus pond and vegetable and herb garden. I had a cute pond at my Seminyak house, the water of which actually saved my home because no other water was available from a fire that was jumping from roof to roof. Later I had a dream about a spirit living in the pond. I wanted to move this good spirit to its new home.
The lotus pond does have a good spirit! When I backed my bike into it that spirit kept me from falling over. How did you commence building your house?
I made a broomstraw model which I had in my kitchen for a year before building. The second floor is larger than the first. It is really a one story building with a huge loft upstairs. Bamboo construction must have diagonal beams for support. The bigger upper story lets you put in lots of diagonals outside. The roof is a large crossed gable intersecting in a large pyramid. The alang-alang roof was the most expensive part of the house. It is difficult to get good quality grass these days, but the Ubud boys did me well. I keep myself busy thinking of new gadgets, as it’s sort of fun living in a grass house with all the modern gimmicks like remote control lighting, remote music control, Wifi and the rest. The hot tub is heated by the office air conditioner and the movie screen pulls down from a hollow bamboo beam.
What you are eating right now is a sawi tart. It is made from local feta cheese, dark local greens, and other ingredients all from the garden. The arugula salad as well, and the ginger vinegar is homemade. It is all grown and made right here. I rarely need to go shopping. I like knowing my food is organic. It just seems ridiculous to me eating something that was flown from Europe or the States with all the effort and energy and plastic that entails. I enjoy a good French or Italian cheese as a rare treat sometimes, but do prefer to eat local.
This is the tastiest organic food I’ve eaten in Bali. Did you raise the ducks? Is this one of them?
Yes, this is one of my ducks. I told the ducks, “No eggs – into the pot”, but they didn’t listen. They had a good life but we can’t afford to keep feeding them if they don’t produce. I just got some new ones and we have the same agreement. They have free range of the place and are well kept.
You have helped several people I know with your medicinal herbs. The Mugwort is a great tobacco substitute for those wanting to quit and has some health benefits. Tell me about your other healing plants.
So much of what grows wild here is medicinal. We were taught to kill weeds like dandelions, as though they were useless when in fact most plants have useful properties. I now collect Meniran, which dissolves kidney stones, cleanses your liver, reduces tumours and boosts one’s immune system. I have been studying Sambiroto and other local plants that grow wild here and am reading about the recent trials by major medical centres such as Sloan Kettering and New York University Hospital suggesting that they may help combat cancer, hepatitis, flu, and many more common ailments.
Do you think if more people lived as you do, this would be a better world?
It’s a bit of a problem. I grow too much and do not want to waste good food, so I am sort of obligated to cook often and invite friends for dinner. I’ve been reading about the medicinal qualities of plants around me and it’s nice to be able to help friends in need with these traditional Ayurvedic plants. Of course I advise them to see the local doctor as well.