This story was originally told at HuBud, Bali’s November 2017 ‘FuckUp Night’ where people tell their stories of failure and redemption.
My name is Russell, and I am humbled to share my story with you today. This is a story about how I fucked up my life and found myself stranded in a remote indigenous village in the Northern Philippines for four years. I lost everything. It was one of the lowest moments of my life, when everything that I held dear slipped out of my fingers like sand.
But in that dark night, I also found gold– and I would also like to share some of these insight with you. Its an underlying theme that we have heard in the other talks tonight: What we think is a failure, a crash, even a piece of trash, can, with a shift in perspective, become…. gold.
This story begins in Paris. I had just moved into a fairy tale with my girlfriend in Paris. Working as a professional exhibiting artist in Canada, then traveling, making art in different places, I had gotten to know her over two years. We had landed a beautiful apartment in the heart of the city and I had just finished a dream exhibition of my paintings in Berlin. Things were going great. I was in love. I had the deep feeling that there was something special and life changing about our relationship. I was excited about my career as an international artist, showing in galleries, becoming a big name in the contemporary art scene. Everything was on track.
We were invited by my girlfriend’s father to visit him in the Philippines. A top executive with a big corporation, he was running factories in Manila. I was keen to meet her family, thinking that this was a big step in our relationship, so we bought return tickets and headed off for a vacation.
Things did not go well. Artists and industrial executives aren’t exactly on the same page! At the end of a strained vacation, my girl friend and I decided to spend some time apart. She flew back to France, while I stayed on to do some art in the north of the country. We kissed goodbye at the airport and I remained hopeful that things were still good between us. Our plan was that I would see her again in a few weeks.
Those hopes were soon dashed!
Upon arriving in France, she broke things off and stopped communicating. By this time, I had made the long, journey into the Filipino Cordilleras for an art project idea. The only way to get in, or out, is a long tortuous 16 hour journey of buses and jeepnies. My intention was to enrich my art with the insights of the indigenous wisdom there.
You have to be careful what you wish for!
I was staying in a village with limited Internet and cell signal. Not only could I not get through to my girlfriend, but I could not get through to change my return ticket either. Heart broken, depressed, I let everything slip. My ticket expired, my commissions dried up, and soon I was hopelessly over the limit of my three week visa. I couldn’t pay the bill of my homestay, so I stayed longer. The longer I stayed, the deeper and darker the hole. Soon even my passport expired. I was fucked.
It was one of the darkest moments of my life.
I really wanted to leave. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t paint or do my art. I had lost my love, my vocation, my European career, and soon the connection with my family. I missed my grandfather’s funeral. I missed my brothers wedding. I was incredulous at how completely my life was shattered and trashed.
So what to do? The villagers took care of me for a while. Slowly my creative energies returned, and like a good artist, I looked around at where I was, and what materials I had to work with.
I decided to settle in and make the most of my situation. In the Philippines, same as in Indonesia, there is a lot of plastic. I started to experiment with making things with plastic trash. I also started learning the Igorot language.
One intriguing thing I learned quickly, was that in the local dialect there was no word for “trash”. That’s right… they had no concept of something who’s value had gone. Everything in their worldview had its place, and when it was “trashed”, it simply became something else of value. Instead they have a word that we don’t have: “Ayyew”. Its a virtue that celebrates how well you beneficially re-cycle something. For example, when cleaning a rice field of weeds, one could toss them into the ditch. But its more Ayyew to bring them home and feed them to the pigs– more benefit to everyone through cycling!
This spoke to me deeply. In my home, I began to experiment with a technique of dealing with my “trash” plastic. Instead of throwing it away, I packed them into a bottle as tightly as I could. Then, using local clay, I used it like a brick to build my garden. Suddenly, I had no more trash! I shared, the technique with my community school, and 200 students and I made a three year old pile of plastic disapear into bottles– or what has since become know as “Ecobricks”.
I remember staring for a good hour at those first ecobricks. A great joy was beginning to kindle in my heart: This is it! Here is a solution for plastic that anyone, anywhere can do!
My Igorot friends and I put together a guide book and visited more schools. The local superintendent made ecobricking mandory in her 263 schools. The reports flowed in from joyful teachers, parents and principals: the solution was working! Within a year, the regional superintendent had followed suit. 1000 schools were now ecobricking. I began to travel around, helping churches and schools get creative with their ecobricks. At this point the Undersecretary of education at the national level, had taken notice. It fit with his vision of school gardens. He convened a conference of superintendents and it went out to 10,000 schools. Together with principals and student leaders we developed a simple technique for building green spaces– gardens and play grounds from the ecobricks. At this point, the undersecretary estimated that a quarter million students were ecobricking.
Hundreds of tons of plastic have been kept out of the Filipino biosphere.
My sister’s wedding was now approaching, and I had promised her, cross-my-heart-hope-to-die, that I would be there. Things were going better then, and I was able to reach out to the Canadian Embassy and get a new passport sent to me. Optimistic that I could make it back, I bought a ticket for the wedding, and made the long trip down to Manila.
Alas, my hopes that a fresh passport would get me through the immigration line, were soon dashed!
I was blocked from leaving the country at the airport. Apparently, I had accrued 10,000$ in visa fees for my four year overstay.
But this time, I was determined to make it. I still had a week before the wedding, so I sat down at an internet cafe and emailed all of the political contacts that I had made through ecobricks. I asked the mayors, bishops, superintendents and the undersecretary all write to the immigration commissioner about my work and request an amenestry to let me leave the country.
In a sheer bureaucratize miracle, I was able to get the letters through and the paperwork processed, in six days. With a special letter from the commissioner in hand, I rushed to the airport and was the very last passenger to board the very last possible flight to make it back for the wedding.
In a rather poetic twist, as I scurried onto the plane it turned out all the economony seats on the plane were taken. I was bumped to first class and was able to celebrate my departure from the Philippines with a glass of champagne. I have a big smile to this day remember that miraculous moment.
I was able to make it back to Canada, to my sisters wedding, and joyously got to see all my family again. Afterwards, I had a long and deep moment to contemplate my life and what to do next.
No longer was I obsessed about making art for galleries, about becoming a famous artist. It was clear to me that the planet, the pollution and the regular people needed my creativity far more. I’ve continued Ecobricking, and have choose to reside here in Bali, precisely because there is so much plastic.
Let me be clear about my words, not “trash” instead: “plastic”.
Imagine if everyone saw failure, as a golden opportunity, there would be no Fuck ups
Imagine if everyone saw plastic as precious… pollution would likewise be a thing of the past.
Together, we can tell this story.
Russell Maier is a regenerative designer and one of the leaders in the global ecobrick movement. He is a principal in Global Ecobrick Alliance. Unable to return to the Philippines, he choose to head back to South East Asia and settle in Bali because of the islands with a high profile plastic problem. He continues to make ecobricks with his plastic, he composts his biodegradeables, burns his paper, and builds his home and garden with his bottles and ecobricks. The ecobrick movement is now spreading throughout Indonesia.