The World is Your Canvas – Karamea’s Rongo Backpackers Where Self-Sufficiency Meets Creativity
Paul Murray is a self-realized artist. He has invested his whole life and soul in his current work: The LivinginPeace Project, which aims to combine the elements of; art, travel, education and permaculture into an environmentally, socially and economically sustainable business.
Most people may identify Paul as the amiable man behind the reception desk at Rongo Backpackers & Gallery, or the handyman around the Karamea Farm Baches. However, when delving deeper to discover the intricate web of inter-relationships that embody the LivinginPeace Project, one realizes Paul is not any ordinary artist. He is an artist who believes life is his canvas. The project thrives on exactly this idea, that we are all artists, interdependent on one another and Earth, and our lives are our current works of art.
Paul grew up on Kangaroo Island in Australia where he says, “whether real or perceived, there were certain expectations of who I was as a person.” Feeling pigeonholed and unsure of his own identity, Paul moved to Tokyo where he was thrown into a foreign culture and a whirl of thirty-three million people he didn’t know. Ten years living in Tokyo and travelling the world created Paul’s mantra on travel: “international travel is the best means of self-education.” Travelling allows one to actively gain valuable experience, while tourism is an entirely different endeavour where one only pursues places to check them off the list, not to form new relationships with others and yourself. At Rongo, guestomers (guests+customers) and woofers (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) find a space asking you to indulge in your own self-education in any manner you can imagine. Rongo is exploding with self-expression from individuals who have come from all over the world to experience the place. The positive messages on the Visitor’s Wall, the colors of the building, and the infinitely different styles of art on the walls illustrate the open and creative aura surrounding Rongo.
While Rongo’s free-spirited existence exudes an attitude pivotal to the understanding of the LivinginPeace Project, this is only one facet of the project. In fact, the reason this art project is the most unique to Paul’s portfolio is because it has no end. Paul has always found himself incredibly motivated to make change, but once that larger change takes place, the goal has been achieved, and movement begins to plane, he loses interest. With the LivinginPeace Project, “there is always movement forward. It has no end.”
The project began six and a half years ago when Paul bought property in Karamea and wanted to create a place where artists could live and create, free from the shackles of societies expectations. In this pursuit, he discovered there must be concurrent focuses because, for example, the artists must eat. They must have water to shower and do laundry. “We also need to recognize we are part of something else,” Paul says. The LivinginPeace Project thrives because it recognizes and embraces that we are all part of something bigger. It creates a model ecosystem in which the Earth and its inhabitants rely upon one another and give back to one another, a simple equation which has been lost, forgotten, or complicated beyond understanding in places around the world.
“We learn by teaching others,” Paul states. Self-sufficiency is overlooked in the world today and, on a very basic level, the project also strives to teach people how to live sustainably. Rongo is set up to teach people how to live sustainably and people are trusted to pursue this type of lifestyle. The hostel is run by volunteers, and Paul believes this is an essential piece to Rongo’s success. Woofers are not told exactly, for example, how to clean the rooms after guestomers leave or given an in-depth guide to checking guestomers in. Instead, they teach one another as new woofers arrive and depart, passing on what they learned to the next Rongolians. “Responsibility and trust makes you work bloody hard,” says Paul.
Rongolians, the name given to the inhabitants of Rongo, are encouraged to speak first, think for themselves, and take action. If you see a wall, paint it. If there’s a garden bed in need, tend to it. If the vacuum bag is full, empty it. Not only does work get accomplished, but it is accomplished with unique flavor and flare. A goal is set but how you go about achieving that goal is up to you. “It is not necessary to tell an intelligent young individual how to mop the floor. We try to let people find their own way,” says Paul. “They usually find a way far better than mine.”
Although The LivinginPeace Project has surmounted numerous seemingly unconquerable obstacles, it will always be a work in progress. It strives to be self-sufficient one day but it is far from achieving that today. Paul has purchased eighty acres of land around Karamea to offset the carbon emissions of travellers. A permaculture farm is taking rapid shape. The LivinginPeace Project will forever encounter new obstacles and Paul admits there are discouraging moments, but when these arise, he comes back to the Visitor’s Wall, which is covered in messages and drawings telling the stories of past experiences of volunteers and guests at Rongo. Hundreds of inspired words slink along the walls as a positive reminder of the impact of the project. Paul hopes, if anything, that “people walk away a bit taller.” And past woofers and guestomers have made it clear that they experience tremendous personal growth. One individual, who arrived last year and ended up staying for six months, recently wrote Paul saying, “Last year [while staying at Rongo] was one of the single most enjoyable times of my life.”