On May 1st, 2021, I sat down on a rainy evening in Oaxaca, Mexico with landscape architect, nature enthusiast, and birder Iris Van Diel.
At the time I was interviewing her for an article I had been tasked to write during my journalism internship at Envia; an organization that provides interest free micro-loans to indigenous artisans in Oaxaca. For the article, I was meant to interview my fellow interns and volunteers for the inside scoop on what we get up to in our free time. I was to collect all of this information and condense it into one cute little summary. However, as I sat with Iris on either side of a bottle of Mezcal, what was meant to be a quick chat about her favorite cafe turned into a fascinating and comical exploration into the rich ecosystems present in Oaxaca, and the winged creatures that call them home.
Upon re-listening to the audio, I realized that the audio deserved a platform of it’s own. I hope you all enjoy, and please be warned if you are listening with young ears present, we do not refrain from a few profanities.
The Oaxacan sun is already peaking when our small group of Fundación En Vía volunteers and employees pile into the tour van at 9am. We are the pilot tour; a group consisting of two photo journalists, a translator, a prospective En Vía tour guide and communications intern, the new tourism coordinator, me, a communications and journalism intern, and a couple other interested En Vía fans. Although En Vía has been successfully running tours for 10 years, they, like the rest of the world, have stopped because of the pandemic. Our purpose here today is to test out new Covid safety protocols and hopefully get the ball rolling for many tours to come.
As the tour van bumps along the winding dirt road towards the small community of San Marcos Tlapazola and the Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range rolls along beside us, our responsible tourism coordinator reads off the itinerary for the day, emphasizing the importance of the new Covid-19 protocols for these communities that were hit so hard in the past months.
This is the first coordinated tour with En Vía since December. This is also my first time venturing outside of Oaxaca de Juárez since arriving a couple months prior and making a comfortable life for myself volunteering at a hostel. A life that, as full of friends, delicious food, and mezcal as it was, prompted a prying restlessness. I began interning at En Vía with the desire to scratch the surface of the tourism culture here and discover what I could about everything going on underneath.
Since December when Covid-19 finally made it’s daunting sweep through Oaxaca, En Vía has relied on the generosity of donors to keep up with its interest-free micro loan program, which has been the backbone of the organization since the beginning.
With interest rates in Mexico ranging from 70 to 200%, an organization that offers interest free loans is almost unheard of, and certainly hard to believe for most of the indigenous artisans who have struggled to get their businesses off the ground without the kind of opportunities that are offered in the west.
This was the case for Angelica, who waits for us at 10am behind the counter of her dress and apron shop with her hands confidently folded in front of her own embroidered apron.
She was introduced to En Vía by her sister in law, who convinced her after her own success story that the micro loan program offered by En Vía was to be trusted. A year later, Angelica has turned her craft into a growing business using her facebook business page as outreach for her commission work and drawing in customers from America.
As security and as a way to hold the women accountable for paying back their loans on time, En Vía groups the women into threes. If one of the three women in a group doesn’t hold up her end of the bargain to pay a loan back on time, the whole group is charged with a fine. Therefore, in most cases these groups of three are bonded by family ties or close friendship. After thanking Angelica for her time we step outside her shop to gather around her sister in law, Marcelina.
Marcelina is standing proudly behind her table of assorted pottery and tostadas, wearing an embroidered apron made by Angelica. Her pottery is an assortment of tea kettles, mugs, vases, and mezcal shot glasses with faces molded from the clay. She describes to us her process of hiking to the mine to harvest the clay she uses for her pottery. She says for each trip she hikes back with about four sacks of clay tied to her back. She says that although the clay itself is free, she has to pay people to help her harvest and hike the clay back. She admits that the pandemic has been hard on her business, but that she has found relief in the Growing Strong program provided by En Vía, a program that gives the women the option of either starting a vegetable garden or hosting chickens. Marcelina, like most of the women, chose the chickens which she says provides her with the options to either sell, butcher, or keep for the eggs. She says that she started off with 35 chickens, and when asked where she kept all of these chickens she answered with a grin, “Tengo en mi casa [sic],” (in my house).
Angelina is the third woman we visit in their group of three. In 2018 she joined the two women and has since put her loans entirely into her clay business. She has a spacious studio that is a sweet relief from the harsh midday sun. She says she has come a long way since she was a teenager and would help her parents with their clay business, carrying the pottery in a basket into Oaxaca city center and using the money she got from her sales to buy groceries and carry them back to her family in the same basket. She leads us outside and gives us a thorough demonstration on how she makes her pottery by hand, using a seemingly strange assortment of tools in replacement of the wheel.
After we break for a delicious lunch of sweet chicken mole over yellow rice, grilled Oaxacan cheese, crispy enchiladas and pickled vegetables, we visit the community of Teotitlán del val, home of the weavers. We are warmly greeted by a group of three cousins, Minerva, Magdalena, and Leticia. They have laid out for display on a hard dirt floor a multicolor row of yarn with bowls corresponding to each color. Inside each bowl are the various natural ingredients used for dying the yarn. Spanish moss creates shades of forest green and beige, sweet acacia bark for blacks, and a type of scale insect that lives on prickly pear cacti called cochineal creates oranges and reds.
Minerva is the oldest of the three and has been weaving since the ripe age of 12. She is the most advanced and specializes in the most intricate of patterns. She has just completed a large woven tapestry after three months of work with over 30 colorful birds flying around a geometric tree and vines crawling in and out of the branches.
Similarly, Magdalena, Minerva’s younger cousin, hopes to save up enough money to buy smaller looms so that her own children can already start learning how to weave. She says that it is common in the community for the children who aren’t yet tall enough to reach the looms to perform other tasks such as brushing and washing the wool. As soon as they are tall enough to reach the pedals of the loom, that’s when they begin learning how to weave.
She speaks of how before she was introduced to En Vía she worked for companies that required her to weave certain patterns with certain colors, stifling her creative process. Now that she has been able to build up her own business using the loans from En Vía, she says she is free to weave on her own creative terms. Minerva is passionate about her weaving and its significance to Teotitlán, and she shares her concerns that this age old art form is dying with the older generations. In attempts of preserving her culture, and with the help of her growing business, Minerva has a long term goal of founding a weaving school for the children of Teotitilán.
After Minerva’s weaving demonstration I meander over to watch Leticia skillfully play her loom, which resembles a piano in its grandiosity, foot pedals, and many strings. The patterns she has planned for her rug are based on grecas, which is an ancient Aztec pattern. She forms these patterns through mathematical formulas that she has memorized, counting the rows of each color based on her chosen design. She says her goal is to become as skilled as Minerva so she can bring to life all of the designs she has in her head.
At the end of the visit the women hand us each small cardboard cutouts, which I realize soon after are their business cards neatly handwritten with their name, type of business, phone number and if they have it, their email. After shopping around their store, and personally after eyeing a particularly fashionable black and grey woven handbag with leather straps, we thank the women for their time and head back to the tour van, our appetites satisfied by Oaxacan cuisine, cultural exchange, and handmade trinkets gathered from each stop.
It is 3:30 and our pilot tour has come to an end. I am exhausted from the heat of the day and all I can do on the trip back to Oaxaca de Juárez, back to my little hostel life, is stare out the window with my head pressed against the glass and reflect on the passion and talent of the women I met today. It makes me wonder if more female indigenous artists everywhere had the opportunity to weave or mold or sew their way out of the poverty trap, where they may take women on a global scale; what dent in the patriarchy they might make. It is questions like these that run through my head after this tour and fill me with not only my own excitement for my adventures with En Vía to come, but for the prospect of these tours inspiring other tourists who, like me, are restless to scratch the surface and engage in organizations that give life-changing opportunities to women who have been historically bullied out of their creative freedom.
A huge shout out to Payton Haynes for his natural talent with a camera. To follow his work check out his photography page on Instagram @payrayhay
Oh hello there, everyone. You have found me in the SJO airport waiting to catch a flight to Cancun, Mexico, drinking one last Pilsen and reminiscing on my last almost four months spent in Costa Rica. After leaving Finca Las Hormigas I made my way up to Monteverde to be reunited with my family after over a year of being apart. We split the holidays between the Monteverde rainforest and Samara beach. In Monteverde we explored the eco-diverse cloud forest, being so lucky as to sneak up on the mystical Resplendent Quetzal bird, a tapir, a coati, multiple species of hummingbird, and, to my mom’s absolute delight, the famous blue morpho butterfly.
I can’t express enough here my gratitude to have been with my family for the holidays. On New Years Eve a fellow backpacker inquired about my favorite moment of 2020. Without thinking twice I responded that it was looking up from a coffee at the treehouse restaurant in Monteverde to see, to my absolute surprise, my mom, sister and brother looking around for a place to sit (my dad was parking the rental car). Since none of them had had any data, and I’d had no contact with them for the last few hours, I had begun to worry. Apparently I’d had some reason to worry since on their way from the airport to Santa Elena, Monteverde, they had managed to get into an accident with a motorcycle on a very steep and narrow road. My poor brother who’d been asleep in the backseat had awoken to a man on the windshield. In the end, the man and my family were fine, and the rental car got away with only a dent in the left head light.
My sister had been drawn by mere instinct, some sisterly supernatural phenomenon, to the same restaurant that I was sitting at; hence my surprise when I looked up to see them, flustered and with a mirrored expression of surprise. That night we celebrated our reunion and their aliveness over Casado and beer on tap.
Before I go further, I want to acknowledge how fortunate I am in a time like this to have been reunited with my family. As the saga of the coronavirus pandemic oscillates, and I watch from my backpacker bubble as most of the world grapples with isolation and separation from loved ones, it does not escape me that my globetrotting may not be looked upon so sympathetically. My world of connecting to other travelers and experiencing culture outside of my own; of hopping from hostel to hostel, sleeping in bunk beds crammed into tiny rooms without air conditioning and bumping up and down in buses cozied up to jaw dropping cliffs, is anything but relatable to my friends back home.
This acknowledgement aside, and with all of my sympathy for those who are suffering from illness, isolation, or job insecurity, I would still like to offer a window into my reality; the strangeness of being an adventurous young adult exploring Latin America during a world-wide pandemic.
Since I have been living in the land of pura vida, which is the common catch phrase in Costa Rica used heavily in casual conversation either as a greeting or farewell, or to describe the chillness of a situation or to offset it’s misfortune, I think it is time to dive deeper into its philosophy. In English, it is directly translated as “pure life.”
As an example of one of its uses, when my family and I went on a guided ocean kayak trip to Isla Chora in Samara, I cornered our tour guide and nit picked him for any information he had on the strikes that had been happening earlier in September and October. For those of you not so up to date on Costa Rican politics, there erupted out of the injustice of a raise in government taxes during a time of financial despair for most Costa Ricans, a plethora of strikes. These strikes caused road blockages for weeks, some buses to stop running altogether, and many stores to be closed down. During the peak of these strikes I was in San Vito working at the farm Los Patos Suertudos and wondering to myself if I would ever be leaving the top of that isolated mountain.
To my inquiry, the kayak guide replied that yes Costa Ricans have been struggling economically, and yet, it is still all “pura vida.” As he said this he motioned all around him at the rocky island, the lush jungles, the palm trees, the families with young children screeching for joy as they plunged into the ocean…you get the picture.
Later one night as I was sitting around the hostel living area, I listened in on a conversation a Canadian was having with two Costa Ricans. The Canadian had been in Samara for some weeks and was jokingly asking what he had to do to become more “Tico”, which is the affectionate term for the locals of Costa Rica. To this the Ticos replied, “you gotta stop thinking about tomorrow man- the Ticos, we enjoy the color in the sunsets, we don’t know if we will have tomorrow,” and with that they clinked their cacique shot glasses, shouted “pura vida”, and threw their heads back.
I have seen pura vida stuck onto the bumpers of dusty volvos, heard it called out between strangers across the street, as the name of restaurants, woven into beach blankets and tattooed into tanned arms; it is ingrained in everything.
In 2005, the term “blue zone” first appeared in a cover story of the National Geographic naming five places in the world where people live the longest. Unsurprisingly, Costa Rica was among the five; specifically, the Nicoya Peninsula where I spent the last few weeks. I do not believe it to be a coincidence that Costa Rica, with its culture so heavily steeped in a philosophy that teaches presence and gratitude, is among these five blue zones.
To expand on my own experience traveling for these last three and a half months, the ticos and ticas that I have made friends and acquaintances with have been among the chillest and happiest people I’ve ever met. And in my airport reflection, I feel so very fortunate to have spent this particular time of global disarray steeped in the philosophy of pura vida.
After my family left, I stayed in Samara at the hostel Las Mariposas, which means butterfly in Spanish. There I met a group of fellow backpackers and we bonded over our similar situations and niche sense of humor. We called ourselves the “Cacique Squad” after the cheapest liquor you can get in Guanacaste. Together we rented a car and spent a long weekend exploring breathtaking and mountainous Alajuela, the area surrounding the active Poas volcano.
There is something about the people you meet traveling, the experiences you each are having, so outside of the daily routine. My theory is that because these experiences will most likely stand out from the rest of your life, so will the people that you meet.
We found a cute Airbnb home that looked over the cityscape and the rolling mountain range. One of the benefits of finding a handful of people to travel with is that the cost to book a bunk bed in a shared hostel is roughly the same as splitting a cheap Airbnb six ways.
On our drive up the mountain to our Airbnb I couldn’t stop saying “wow”; the air was crisp, the flowers somehow smelled sweeter and looked even more vibrant, and don’t even get me started on the views. We spent the next three days going on hikes through the national forests, cooking, playing cards and charades, and playing music.
Now, you may be wondering what on earth I am doing on the verge of a flight to Mexico after bragging on Costa Rica and the friends that I have made?
I am simply being dragged along by the leash of my restless heart.
After traveling up and down the coasts and in and around the peninsula of Costa Rica, I am ready for a change of scenery and culture; and more specifically, to learn about how Mexico has been influenced by permaculture and other types of environmental agriculture.
Hola! First and foremost, thank you for joining me here on this windy afternoon up near the cloud rainforests of Monteverde. Although these pictures and this project was carried out in the humid ocean-side jungle of Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, I am finishing up this post in a restaurant literally built in and around a tree in the small town of Santa Elena in Guanacaste. Whether you are here because you are genuinely passionate and curious about vetiver grass and contouring (on slopes, not cheekbones), or you are a die-hard fan of See Gressa Go and you love me enough to step outside of your comfort zone and learn something about permaculture farming, I welcome you whole-heartedly and hope you have as much fun reading as I did digging and writing.
To start, I will give a short explanation of swales for those of you who are new to this (myself included). If you are dealing with a pesky slope and want to prevent erosion while simultaneously capturing as much water as possible for the soil, listen up. I can guarantee that if designed properly, swales will be your new best friend. Also vetiver grass, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
The concept is quite simple. On contour, swales work by slowing down the water flow so that it is able to absorb thoroughly and evenly into the soil.
Now I’ll introduce vetiver grass into the mix. Vetiver grass, more commonly known for its designer fragrance than its key role in preventing erosion on slopes, is native to India and Indonesia; however, today you can find it growing in most countries around the world. Fun fact, in ancient India, it’s essential oil was named “the oil of tranquility” and could be (and still is) found as the base for most designer perfumes.
As it relates to contouring on slopes, when planted in close proximity to each other on the down side of swales, the roots of vetiver grass weave into each other creating a wall that is as strong as it is deep. The roots also help by pulling moisture and rain water down into the soil. In this particular case, I have skipped digging swales and am just planting vetiver grass on a contour line. Over time, a miniature swale will naturally form from built up sediment pushed against the vetiver wall. For more information on why swales will become your new best friend and how to build them separately from vetiver grass, click here.
So, as you may have gathered thus far, planting vetiver grass on a contour line is a winning combination for both soil hydration and erosion prevention. Now for the broken down, illustrated step by step guide!
Say hello to my little friend the A-frame. This is how you will keep the contour on a 15% gradient, which is important so that the water doesn’t either flow too fast or become backed up. To make one is quite simple, as you can see it looks like the letter A, hence “A-frame.”
It is important that the two legs are the same length, and halfway down you will attach a center board where you can either do it the old fashion way and hang a plumb line from the top of the A and mark the point where it hits in the middle, or you can take advantage of 21st century resources and simply attach a level. For a thorough step-by-step video guide to putting together an A-frame, click here.
Once you’ve got your A, it’s time to get out there on your slopes! To use your A to get a contour line, you will do something called “walking the A.” This is quite an elementary maneuver that is way easier shown than described in words. The video hyperlinked above showcases a beautiful A-walking, but for your amusement I will also attempt to describe it. Simply, put down a stake by each leg, and then, while keeping one leg of the frame planted to the ground, swing the other leg around until it is roughly at equidistance to its companion leg. Put a new stake down beside this leg only when your plumb line falls against a satisfactory mark on your middle board.
When marking out the contour, it’s important that the plumb line hangs as close to the middle as possible, but, and this is based off the A-frame pictured above, anything between the 0 and 5 will work just fine. You’ll end up with a staked out contour line which may surprise you as it surprised me, revealing more of a curvy line than an evenly graduating slope.
So now that you have your contour line, it’s time to get out your handy-dandy shovel!
You’re not going to shovel out a trench so much as delicately split the earth like you’re performing reconstructive earth surgery. Any extra dirt is placed accordingly on the down side of the slope. The idea is that after planting the vetiver grass, you will simply re-close the opening in the soil and the vetiver roots will act as the stitches.
I don’t, unfortunately, have any pictures of me attractively battling to dig this clump of vetiver grass out of the ground, however I must warn you that the blades of this particular grass are anything but warm and fuzzy. Vetiver roots have been known to grow up to 12 feet in favorable soil, which I understand is quite intimidating to shovels and humans alike, however, thankfully, you only need about 100mm of the root system. Pictured above, I have moved on from my battle and am now giving the grass a fashionable snip. The excess grass, when dried, is perfect for mulch, roofing, or even aromatic hats and rugs! Click here for more ideas on how to use your excess grass. 🙂
Now that you’ve given your vetiver a fresh cut, it’s time to separate the clump into sections that we call, in the vetiver world, slips. These are little clumps of roots more tangled up in each other than high schoolers on prom night, and you’ll recognize them because breaking them apart with a hammer and a machete will be close to impossible.
The hammer and machete method is absolutely not the only way to go about this, however it is so far the method that I have found has lead to the least amount of hair pulled from my head. Please feel more than free to comment if you have personally come up with a more efficient method, I am all ears!
Here, after a fair amount of blood, sweat and tears, we have a slip of vetiver grass! Time to give these babies a new home and our freshly split open earth some nice new stitches.
Here I am tucking in my vetiver slips, which is about as straight forward as you can get. Just cover the roots and firmly pack the soil around the base of the grass. Vetiver grass requires watering for the first few weeks, especially if you live in an arid environment, but before too long they shouldn’t really require much maintenance other than a hair cut about twice a year.
And there you have it! The beginning of a fully functioning, plant-based, vEgAn, hydraulic system. If you’ve been following along up until now, and you still have questions, I can’t recommend enough the website https://www.vetiver.org/, which I personally have spent a good part of a cloudy afternoon nerding out on and as a result have come to the conclusion that vetiver grass will save us all. And of course feel MORE than welcome to drop any questions or comments you have below and I pinky promise to get back to you as soon as I am able.
I will add that I am currently traveling through Costa Rica without a phone (pro-tip, if you ever put your phone in a bag of rice it is Essential to slap some tape over the changing port), and therefore replies may be slower than usual, as well my ability to market myself and the miracle of vetiver grass on contour…so if you would like to help out your favorite broke travel and environmental enthusiast, you can share this article via your social media platform of choice! Also if you are feeling extra generous this holiday season I have made it possible to throw some financial support my way by clicking on one of the purple buttons below. I wish all of you a very very merry whatever you celebrate; on this particular day, merry winter solstice and Jupiter and Mars in conjunction. I will be in touch soon after the holidays spent exploring the lush jungles of Monteverde and white beaches of Samara with my fam. 😀
Hi! I thought I would just write up a little update of what I’ve been up to since leaving San Vito; the in-between travels sandwiched by two die hard off grid permaculture farms. It’s been three and a half weeks since leaving Los Patos Suertudos and I am still unraveling from the trauma of leaving that paradise and embarking on two weeks of restless travel in and out of San Jose; once again in communication with the general public and its unfaltering use of styrophome packaging. I’ve been considering the word trauma and the ways that it can manifest for an individual, even if gone unrecognized. In my opinion, I would say that spending a month in deep spiritual connection with myself, nature, and the people around me, and then taking a 7 hour direct bus ride into the world of cheap beer, trashed cities, and the unrelenting patriarchy, is absolutely traumatic.
Of course that is not to say that I didn’t have my fun. In those two weeks I met some fellow globe trotters and together we explored Santa Teresa, a cute and touristy surf town on the Pacific coast, and then since it was raining the whole time, Puerto Viejo, a small surf town on the carribean side bustling with afro-carribeans, flavorful rice and beans, and young people partying on the side of the road with their car speakers.
Since I was still trying to find a good fit for my next workaway, I was happy to go with the flow of the people I clicked with and at peace with wherever I would end up. That’s the thing I’ve learned about traveling without a plan; to truly reap its magic you have to be willing to move with the current. And to do that it is absolutely necessary to be in touch with your intuition. Solo-female travel and intuition: name a more essential duo, I’ll wait. Ooo nice, that’s gonna be the title of this blog. To be quite honest, the majority of my two weeks of traveling were spent surrounded by a bubble of young dutch men, and therefore the majority of my female solo travel concerns were put on the back burner. My intuition was then able to switch from its main focus of dealing with potentially sketchy taxi drivers and overly-friendly surfers wanting to give free surf lessons, to considering in which direction my soul would best be fed. The answer to that turned out to be a permaculture farm 15 minutes outside of downtown Puerto Viejo. Quick side note, if you are a female solo traveler (or just anybody) wondering what the difference is between anxiety and intuition, please don’t hesitate to send me an email or instagram message me, I am more than happy to share some tips and tricks. 🙂 Or you can click here for an article all about it that’s been super helpful to me!
The farm I was intuitively pulled to is a whopping 100 acres, although only a handful of that acreage has been sectioned off into zones and given thought to design. It is almost entirely off grid, with the exception of a small generator and a new Wi-Fi box that allows for whatsapp messaging.
I am joined here by a small handful of volunteers, an intact cat family, two horses, a ram, and 24 chickens. Our work hours here are distributed into garden and farm work, home and kitchen care, and creative sprucing. Our down time is mostly spent playing card games and obsessing over the kittens. As I’m still new to the farm I’m still in the process of figuring out how my skill set and interests can best be applied, but so far I’ve been happy to do a little of everything. I have recently started on a project to redirect water flow on a sloped section of the property. This project is especially exciting for me as it is the first time I am able to apply some of my knowledge from my permaculture course, and I have been documenting the process with the intention of writing a step by step guide for the Finca Las Hormigas website and of course for my own blog to share with you all.
The property itself is paradise- at night especially. When the sky is clear the fireflies bleed into the stars, and if you’re looking up from my bungalow to the main house on the hill, the torches lighting the path and the tiny lanterns hanging from the ceiling emanate such warmth and magic I feel like I’m in fairy land. I wish I could capture it at least partially with my refurbished iPhone 7, but until I can afford a nice camera my descriptions will have to do.
I am currently taking my day off downtown sitting at a coworking coffee shop called Puerto and Co, but my tablet is on 10% and the beach is calling my name. I promise to be back soon with a blog about contouring on slopes. Ta ta for now! Hope everyone is staying sane and hydrated!
Hey readers! I don’t know about you, but I am a firm believer that the universe has hands. I believe this because I have felt them on my back, pushing me when it is time to let go and move forward. I have felt them often as gentle, loving nudges; but when these nudges are ignored (which I admit they often are) the hands aren’t afraid to shove. The most dramatic example of this in my life so far happened just last month when I was suddenly deported from the European Union during, might I add, this global pandemic, and given two weeks to pack my things and find a place to be deported to. I had felt the loving nudges, the gentle caresses, leading up to this as various housing siuations and job opportunities simultaneously falling through. I’d felt them constantly as the stubborn presence of bronchitis that would lie dormant and flare up whenever I got particularly stressed. I felt them as the rejection letter from the American liberal arts college in Berlin I was sure I would be accepted into. I felt them as neurotic roommates, expensive BVG fines for getting caught every single rare time I rode the train without a ticket, and as the sudden end of a solid relationship. And, since apparently none of that was enough for me, I felt them as the final forceful shove of deportation.
Looking back on my last days in Berlin, my experience can best be compared to the numerous times I’ve found myself standing on the edge of a high rock overlooking a deep river, and have closed my eyes, turned my brain off, and jumped.
When I opened my eyes again, I found that the hands of the universe had landed me safely on the top of a mountain in Costa Rica, San Vito, surrounded by a mirage of blue-crowned motmot birds, menelaus blue morpho and glasswing butterflies, DMT drenched cane toads, a very large cat named Pete, a hyperactive puppy named Finn, four lovely humans named Kristy, David, Nestor, and Jefferson, and, many, many happy earthworms.
To catch everyone up who is not in the know, I have been spending this month tucked away on 33 acres of liberated jungle; a property guided by permaculture principles and steered masterfully to the edge between harmony and chaos. During my time volunteering here I’ve had my nose to the grind stone working towards a permaculture design certificate. This is an opportunity that was not even on my radar until days before leaving Berlin when I was frantically scrolling through Workaway at 3am with a cappuccino and stumbled across Patos Suertudos. And now, a month later, permaculture has opened a portal for me to experience the natural world in all its glorified ancient intelligence and clever methods of design.
I’ve always been a nature lover, but becoming aware of all the underground partnerships that trees form with mushrooms, and the business they have exchanging sugars for nitrogen, for example, takes my disconnected admiration to feelings of an intimate kinship. Like how you think you know your parents when you’re young, but it isn’t until you’re older that you realize that they are complex people with memories and an entire life unrelated to you; that their sole purpose in this life is not in fact to raise you and clothe you and spoil you. And it’s that moment in your growth when you begin to see your parents as people outside their parental role and the relationship becomes something more like a friendship, if everything goes well.
I think it’s problematic to live our whole lives viewing nature as a parent, and essential to our true understanding and respect of her (in attempt to avoid referring to nature as an it) to begin forming a symbiotic friendship.
So with all of that said, I am very excited to share with you my end of course project that Kristy, Nestor, and myself have been working enthusiastically toward all month. The final product of all of our creative and intellectual talents combined has come together in the form of a musical puppet show. The show is a symphony of hand-painted puppets and backdrops, an allegorical storyline that follows a rebellious fish named Joe, and an original song composed out of the deep urgency to reunite with our natural world. By communicating the message of permaculture through the medium of a musical puppet show, our hope is to reach a wide audience that trancends age and language.
The song, We Already Paid, written by Kristy Trione and musically arranged and performed by Nestor Padilla and myself is, at its core, a call to action to align our values with natural systems as opposed to a system that rewards an endless cycle of sociopathic consumerism.
You can find the lyrics in English and Spanish attached to the bottom of this post. We have left it open sourced, and encourage all to take it in as their own. Spread it around as an anthem of the people, add some maracas and dance salsa to it… North Carolina folks I want to hear your best country covers, and to my fam in Berlin I’m very interested to hear a techno cover!…Sing it in the shower, sing it to your tomato plants as you water your garden, sing it to the tiny immune systems of bees, sing it to all the rebellious plants pushing through the cracks in the concrete!
Thanks so much for reading all the way until now! Stay tuned for a post about my new home on the Caribbean coast on a year old 100 acre permaculture farm.
Pura Vida my good fam!
We already paid
We already paid We should have what we need We’ve already paid We’re done feeding your greed
We’ve already paid We should have what that’s worth We’ve already paid While you’ve trashed up the earth
We’re all gonna turn to nature To be our true guide Everybody’s gonna turn off the tele With its pack of lies
We’ll work for ourselves No more for the “man” We’ll work for each other To restore the land
We’ve already paid But it’s never enough We’ve already paid While you’ve taken too much
We’ve already paid We’ve paid with the time for our kids we’ve already paid chasing soul’s empty success
We’re tired and we’re going home
We’ll turn to nature To be our true guide Turn off the tele With its pack of lies
We’ll work for ourselves Not for the “man” We’ll work for each other To restore the land
We’ve already paid with our land, seas and our skies Now we are going Beyond corporate demise
We’re tired and we’re leaving it behind
We’ve already paid For our parks, roads and war We’ve already paid We won’t pay any more
We’ll turn to nature To be our true guide Turn off the tele With its pack of lies
We’ll work for ourselves Not for the “man” We’ll work for each other To restore the land
Ya pagamos Deberíamos tener lo que necesitamos Ya hemos pagado Hemos terminado de alimentar tu codicia
Ya hemos pagado Deberíamos tener lo que vale Ya hemos pagado Mientras destrozaste la tierra
Todos vamos a recurrir a la naturaleza Para ser nuestra verdadera guía Todo el mundo va a apagar la tele Con su paquete de mentiras
Trabajaremos por nosotros mismos No más para el “hombre” Trabajaremos el uno para el otro Para restaurar la tierra
Ya hemos pagado Pero nunca es suficiente Ya hemos pagado Si bien has tomado demasiado
Ya hemos pagado Pagamos con el tiempo para nuestros hijos ya hemos pagado por perseguir el éxito vacío del alma
Estamos cansados y nos vamos a casa
Recurriremos a la naturaleza Para ser nuestra verdadera guía Apaga la tele Con su paquete de mentiras
Trabajaremos por nosotros mismos No para el “hombre” Trabajaremos el uno para el otro Para restaurar la tierra
Ya hemos pagado con nuestra tierra, mares y nuestros cielos Ahora vamos Más allá de la desaparición empresarial
Estamos cansados y lo dejamos atrás
Ya hemos pagado Por nuestros parques, carreteras y guerra Ya hemos pagado No pagaremos más
Recurriremos a la naturaleza Para ser nuestra verdadera guía Apaga la tele Con su paquete de mentiras
Trabajaremos por nosotros mismos No para el “hombre” Trabajaremos el uno para el otro Para restaurar la tierra
Before we get started I’ve got some news! If you enjoy reading my blog entries and want to throw some support my way, I have just made it possible to do so right here. 🙂 I have also created a patreon account where I will be uploading all these posts plus more. If you wanna check out what I have going on over there you can follow the link posted in my about section. So with that out of the way, I will waste no more time in reporting back from this little piece of permacultered paradise I’ve found through Workaway, nestled in the mountains of San Vito.
It’s been a little over two weeks since my arrival from Uvita. I took two buses, neither of which I was 100% sure were taking me where I wanted to go and I was dropped off nowhere near the bus station. Thankfully I was only 20 minutes from the farm I would be working at, Los Patos Suertudos, and had been given the name of their favorite taxi driver, Johnny. All the way up the mountain, Johnny beamed in his best English about the people who ran the workaway. It was dark so I was unaware of the breathtaking (and very steep) view from the roads, and I learned later that only a few years prior a local bus had driven off that same road. It was only a week later when I biked into town that I first laid eyes on the Lord of the Rings worthy landscape with its thick, dark green mountains cascading into sheared (and chemically soaked) farmland.
When we pulled into the driveway we were warmly greeted by Kristy, David, and their dog Finn, who were happy to welcome their first workawayer in almost 7 months. We sat down to a dinner of chicken soup, local greens from the garden, and for dessert a fruit that I’ve become obsessed with called mamones, which reminds me of a dragon’s egg with it’s red spiky shell and milky incandescent egg shaped fruit. After dinner, Kristy lead me down to the little cabin that would be my home for the month; a quaint, treehousey little thing with black shade cloth stapeled around the sides in replacement of walls. Not having walls alone in the middle of the jungle took me some time to get used to I must say, but I’ve come to adore waking up with the sun cradled inside my mosquito net that hangs around my bed like a royal canopy, surrounded by layers upon layers of lush green. The cool thing about shade cloth is that it is like tinted windows in a car, so wildlife goes on in oblivion of my existence and I am witness to it all. It is a lot like how I imagine it must feel to wear the cloak of invisibility. (I know I know….dork alert, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings reference and I’m only in my 2nd paragraph).
My mornings here are my favorite part of the day, which I can’t believe I’m saying after a whole life devoted to hating mornings. I wake with the tropical birds and the rooster and slowly make my way along the thick jungle path to the main house where I almost always find french pressed coffee and freshly blended golden milk waiting for me. I then perch on a bar stool with my mug and brainstorm with Kristy about what the day will look like, or as of late, brainstorm plot ideas for the puppet show that may or may not be airing on a public Costa Rican television channel.
On my second day, Kristy sat me down and offered me the opportunity to work towards a permaculture design certificate. Up until very recently if you would have asked me to define the term “permaculture” I would have mumbled something about naked hippies dancing around a campfire. Haha… oh baby, how this little word has changed me and the direction of my life in only two short weeks. I am now a dedicated student of Bill Mollison, who coined the term permaculture, and Geoff Lawton, a former student of Bill’s who has for the most part taken his place since Bill’s passing some years ago. Lucky for me and all students of permaculture, Bill and Geoff held a 72 hour long lecture in Melbourne, Australia in 2005 and filmed the whole thing in its entirety (save their hourly tea breaks between lectures). It is my stormy afternoon ritual to sit on a comfy chair with a notebook and pen or a painting project and watch these lectures with my ears perked and my pupils dilated to the size of mamones. I’m about 30 hours into the lecture, and, probably related to being up here on this mountain with limited social opportunities, I have begun to feel something resembling friendship with these two visionary men.
For those of you who hear the term permaculture and imagine naked hippies dancing around a campfire, if you’re interested I have attached to the bottom of this entry the link to Geoff Lawton’s website and an article that I think does a wonderful job defining permaculture in a single article. For those of you who just want a brief definition and to then get on with it, permaculture, the word, derives from the words “permanent” and “agriculture.” The basic idea is to observe and apply to our farming and agricultural design, systems that are already working flawlessly in nature. It’s similar to Rudolph Steiner‘s biodynamic farming in most of the core values and back to nature movement, but one difference is that the mystical/spiritual edge of biodynamic farming was largely dismissed by Bill Mollison. One thing I’ve learned about Bill in the 30 hours I’ve spent in his digital presence is that despite his “fuck fairies” facade, deep down he was a big hearted softie. Unfortunately for the public standing of the permaculture movement however, his outspoken aversion to religion and his controversial political opinions can probably be blamed for it’s slow start as a respected, scientifically-backed approach to sustainable farming. Nonetheless, the more I learn, the more it becomes clear that the vision of permaculture deserves way more recognition than it’s been getting. So, you can look forward to hearing more little snippets about permaculture as my relationship with it develops!
Well, I hope everyone out there is able to hold on to some fragment of peace amidst this planetary shift. It’s easy to forget how much chaos is going on out there while I’m wrapped up snug in this little jungle bubble. My fear of contracting the virus kind of got transferred to a big and very realistic fear of getting bitten by a terciopelo or bush master; two snakes that can kill you within 6 hours if you aren’t able to get to a hospital in time. And even then, people who’ve been bitten sometimes end up in the hospital for 7 to 8 months. I’ve gotten into the habit of walking around with a machete resting conveniently at my hip nestled inside a badass looking scabbard. Who knew that all my childhood fantasies of being a piratess would come to life here at this permaculture farm? Luckily I haven’t had to use it yet, but apparently if I do I’m not supposed to cut off it’s head because terciopelo’s have muscles in their necks they can use to launch themselves even after beheading. Instead I’m supposed to wack them along their spine, breaking their little bones so they can’t jump. I promise I’m not a violent person, but the prospect of either dying a painful death that apparently dissolves your skin or spending the better half of the year in a hospital will absolutely lead me to some violent wacking.
All of this is to say, pandora’s box leaked some freaky shit, and yet I have spent so much time walking around this place in utter awe of the magic that vibrates off of every glistening banana leaf after an afternoon rain, and of every butterfly wing being hauled off by a trail of dutiful leaf cutter ants. There is so much here to observe! And way too much to write about in one post…I don’t want to scare you away with my current high on life, so I will save the rest for another post. If you are currently stuck at home, please feel more than free to virtually join me as I make my way around Costa Rica. I hope that the excitement of my forced adventure can serve as some much needed entertainment for those of you in lockdown. I’ll be back soon!
It’s 6am in Playa Jacó Costa Rica. I’m hanging from a chair swing in the outdoor kitchen of Casajungla Hostel, overlooking their thick jungle of a garden. Even the colorful potted plants rebel from their pots, their roots dangling out from the bottoms; their leaves swooping and barely brushing the ground like giant ape arms. A chorus of unfamiliar bird melodies and screeches surround the hostel like surround sound speakers. Two large toads hop loudly after each other in the wet leaves behind me, stopping suspiciously after each hop to check they are still undiscovered. I’m jet-lagged, otherwise 6am is not typically my time of day. But I’m grateful to get a couple hours of daylight before the heat and the humidity take over.
A mosquito just took the liberty of biting each one of my toes on my right foot; I’m not kidding, the little guy didn’t miss a toe. It’s tingling and swelling. The trade off of being in a tropical paradise is you share it with biting things. Apparently my upcoming destination of San Vito is home sweet home to no less than 7 types of deadly snakes. I am recommended to wear tall rubber boots and always carry a cell phone in the unfortunate event that I am victim to a bite.
At this point you may be wondering, wtf is Gressa doing in Costa Rica in the middle of a world-wide pandemic? I thought she was in Berlin? Last time we spoke, I was quarantined with my au pair family in the brunt thickness of winter. I had just escaped an awkward roommate situation, and was preparing myself for bear-like hibernation and isolation in Zehlendorf. I can imagine that you might be confused. Let me catch you up.
Turns out, after almost a month of a heated back and forth debate between me and the ausländerbehörde (foreigners authority building), I have technically been working here illegally as an au pair and therefore was “kindly” asked to leave the European Union. In other words, I have been deported. I realize this sounds dramatic, and I guess it kind of is. But since my attempts to attain my visa were snuffed by the pandemic, and I was here on a legal and quite innocent basis, it didn’t occur to me that actual deportation was in the cards. At maximum I had prepared myself for a light scolding.
I was given two weeks to organize a flight and a plan, and in that short time I decided with the help and support of friends and family, that I would stay far from the United States and embark on an adventure in Costa Rica (at least for 3 months until I can return to Germany, but who knows where I’ll be by then). And that is exactly where I am now. Hanging from my swinging chair in the bohemian outdoor kitchen of my hostel. This is my 2nd day waking up in Costa Rica. Last night I stayed close to the airport in San José. So far I have been alone in the hostels, and therefore greeted with enthusiasm and treated quite royally. Yesterday morning the owner of my hostel, a tall middle aged man with a white Fedora and kind brown eyes, offered me a free ride in his jeep to the bus station in return for a good review on hostelworld, saving me almost 50 dollars and a big hassle of tracking down a taxi. I learned on our drive that he is an expat from Quebec and came here in 2015 upon purchasing a hotel. Since the pandemic, he said he’s had to sell the hotel and is now just the owner of the hostel until things pick back up. I noticed on the way to the bus station, in the streets of San José almost everyone wears a mask. According to the Fedora wearing hostel owner, the covid situation in Costa Rica wasn’t that bad up until July when there was an inflow of migrants from Panama. As a contrast from reckless, rebellious Berlin, it’s odd to see everyone compliantly wearing their masks even walking alone in the humid streets. On my bus to Jacó, I passed a mother and her two small children sitting completely alone at a bus stop in the middle of nowhere, and all of them wore masks.
In Berlin it was admittedly too easy to forget about the world pandemic roaring outside of the city. With all of its persistent public events and lack of social distancing in parks. No one likes to be told what to do in Berlin, it’s probably a part of the reason I feel so at home there.
It’s now 9am here and I’ve finished a large breakfast of rice and beans, a salty omelette, and two watery cups of coffee. Check out is at 11 and I am told there is a mountain I must go to by one of the free hostel bikes before leaving Jacó.
I will be back before long to share updates of my forced life adventure. Until then, Pura Vida.
Merry Christmas, Happy New Years, Happy birthday to me, and last but not least, Happy bubonic plague!! A lot sure has happened in the last three months… I’ll put the kettle on. 😉
First of all, I hope you all are safe and mentally sound in the midst of this global panic and making the most of your temporary “time-outs” delegated by our mother earth. It’s both a scary and exciting time that we are witnessing from inside our homes. On my end, it’s been quite the sociological experience to be in Germany during this crisis. I am realizing from a new perspective just how flawed the U.S. health-care system really is. People here are worried, but not nearly on the level of Americans, so many of whom are without health insurance. As an American I’m realizing that as I compare myself to my German peers, I’ve always lived with this sense of self-dependency as the result of the absence of a safety net. Of course I’m privileged and I’m not living on the streets, but if I were to get into an accident that affected my ability to work and I didn’t have health insurance, I would be in way bigger trouble than any working class German. Oh to be able to fall back on your government in a time of crisis! Here, people mostly still gather in parks and bend the quarantine guidelines to fit their preferences. Neighbors wave sweetly to each other from their fenced in gardens, and children have been spotted getting ice creams with their Au-Pairs (since the weekend however we have put the brakes on this tradition). Point is that people here do not seem to be panicking the same way I’ve seen panic sweep through North America. As of Monday, Berlin is on a general lockdown until further notice and I am quarantined with my Au-Pair family in Zehlendorf. We are allowed to travel to work, go to the grocery store, go out for exercise as long as we stay six feet apart from others, and visit loved ones to bring them necessities.
Although I already miss my friends and social life with people in my age group, I got really lucky to be quarantined here with a family I’ve bonded with in a nice big house with a big backyard, a fully stocked fridge, and a beautiful quiet neighborhood. Day one of my official quarantine began Monday at 8:30am when the father of the kids picked me and all of my things up from my old apartment in Neukölln and whisked me away to Zehlendorf just in time for the crackdown. Lucky for me, I wasn’t on a contract in this last apartment and I only paid the security deposit and one months rent. Regardless of this quarantine business, I was planning on moving out in the beginning of April anyway as I found myself in an unfortunate roommate situation. This nearly 40 year old woman wigged out when I did a much needed dusting and cleaning of the bathroom and then moved some of her cleaning supplies from a shelf to a bucket without her permission. After this incident I was informed that the apartment was not my space to make myself at home, as I was merely a “subletter”, and I was not allowed to have friends over. To top all of this off, I received the news after moving in that the bathtub does not work, which for those of you who know me know is a deal breaker. Needless to say, I am relieved to be outside the limits of her bad juju again and temporarily cradled in the comforting arms of wealthy family life.
Despite the outside world coming to an end as we all know it, to quote R.E.M., I feel fine. 🙂 My days are filled with leisurely sun dappled mornings curled on the edge of an enormous couch with a cappuccino and a toddler on my either side, afternoons of collecting acorns, sticks and daffodil pedals for fairy houses, and nights that smell of sweet chamomile and bath-bubbles. Now more than ever, my sanity is needed. Everything I learned from growing up in a caring Quaker community, the hours I spent in meditative walks in the woods as a teenager, pouring over spiritual self-help books and performing my own little rituals, everything I learned from my month volunteering at the Omega Institute, and everything I learned in my months traveling in India; everything I learned is needed now. I haven’t just spent years of my life training my mind and spiritual self to mentally crumble when the world outside grapples with western mortality and hardship. Our world needs our sanity now more than ever. What our world does not need are toilet paper and milk panic buyers and upper middle class wookies thinking only of themselves and their families.
So that’s enough apocalypse talk for now. Obviously I can’t write a blog during this time and not offer my personal reflections. But there are plenty of other things going on in the world that are being totally swept under a giant rug right now and deserve to be talked about and explored. For example the not so insignificant asteroid that ignored social distancing policy and zoomed by us 50 times closer than what is considered the standard safe distance according to astronomers. And the fact that Miley Cyrus told Hilary Duff that the only reason she wanted the Hannah Montana role was to copy her, and honestly who can blame her?
So with that I’m going to leave you until next time and go for a jog around the neighborhood, making great care not to pop anyone’s 6 foot bubble or make eye contact with any police officers looking for an excuse to hand out a fine. Stay safe, smart and mentally sound my friends!
So, you’ve probably been wondering where your favorite blogger disappeared to after a year of silence. If you must know, she was plotting and scheming her next big move in the heavenly oasis of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Working a semi stimulating cafe job, attempting to save up the pennies, breathing in the sweet valley air and simultaneously cherishing and resisting the warmth and comfort of being close to the womb, surrounded by the support of family and friends. This year has reset me, charged up my batteries and reinforced my intuition that I’m not done learning lessons from uprooting and transplanting myself around the world. After India, the spark had been lit and there was no snuffing it out. The rush of endorphins I’d felt bouncing up and down in a tuk tuk in the Himalayas overlooking dizzying cliffs, cradled in the arms of the deepest presence and peace I’d ever felt, this sensation haunted my cute yet sheltered life at home. I couldn’t shake the restlessness I felt to go get lost in the world again.
And so on November 11th at 11:30am I found myself squeezing the armrests of an Air Portugal aircraft as I hurtled upwards into a clear blue sky in the direction of Berlin, Germany; this time with a one way ticket and the determination to not come back until I had found the sense of direction I’d been falsely promised I’d find in college.
So why Germany? Why was I going to a notoriously cold and sunless place on the cusp of their dreaded winter, a place known for it’s dark history and white supremacism? I’ll tell you why. Because Berlin is a hidden gem; a city crawling with young creatives and fetish freaks unafraid of exploring their deepest kinks. It’s a city that refuses to hide in the shadows of their grandparents and great-grandparents mistakes. It’s a buzzing international hub of tech workers, desperate students drowning in debt and seeking low tuition grad schools, European sightseers and the rowdy and the restless seeking what is known around the world as Europe’s party capital.
After doing my research and hearing from those who had been, I couldn’t get the city off my mind. I swore I could sniff out the freedom of Berlin all the way from North Carolina, kind of like the way one can smell the salt from the ocean when they get close to the coast. A place where I could step outside my door and go a whole day without running into anyone I recognized or knew from a childhood play group. A place for reinvention and a fresh start.
Yet another reason Berlin appealed to me, only three months prior to my own migration two dear friends of mine, Tessa and Helena, moved to the city for their own self exploration. In the three months of them being here I’d received strings of pictures, videos, texts and long calls about how badly I needed Berlin, and in turn, how badly it needed me.
So here I am, one month after a 15 hour flight looking like the walking dead and with the biggest birds nest in the back of my head due to leaving my hairbrush in my checked bags. I was met by Tessa, obediently awaiting my long last arrival with a bouquet of flowers and a home-made sign with “G-Swizz” inscribed with colorful duct tape followed by the hashtags #welcomehome and my personal favorite, #keepessastogether.
In the month I have been here, and after enduring my share of sleepless hostels and overpriced week long sublets, I have found myself a cute sublet through February, which in this housing economy is something to be celebrated. And in the new year I am starting work as an au pair that will just barely cover my rent and groceries ( a win in this economy) and will also get me a longer term visa. I have done my share of braving the bitter weather to enjoy a Christmas market with my hands wrapped around a steaming mug of gluvine (hot, sweet red wine). I have delighted in currywurst and doner kebabs and schnitzel. I have skimmed the surface of the rich nightlife, although I haven’t quite worked up the courage to pull an all nighter and get lost in a nightclub experience yet. But for now my priority lies not in being a busy bee tourist. I crave days spent huddled up inside on my big, beige sofa with ginger tea and a book while the smoke from a Nag Champa incense stick curls bountifully from where it has been stuck into the potted soil of an aloe plant. I crave collage get togethers and jam sessions in the glowing warmth of someone’s living room. I crave movie nights and potlucks and long candle lit baths.
I’m here to get to know Berlin on a personal level. To prove to myself that no matter where I am in the world I am capable of turning a foreign city into a trusted home. And I’m writing this blog to share with you all who care to follow my unfiltered experience of moving to this extraordinary place and all the obstacles and treasures I will find along the way. Welcome back to my world. 🙂