A Peek into Permaculture

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While in Costa Rica, at Aquas Sagradas, an up and coming organic cacao farm created by a middle aged california hippie, I dove (or was thrown) into practicing the art of permaculture.

We (the other volunteers and I) worked hands-on at the farm with Max Myers, one of the current leaders in the field of permaculture. He made this information digestible to us, so I owe him credit for my current knowledge of the subject.

What is permaculture you say? Permaculture is grounded in several principals: everything is connected to everything else, everything has more than one function, and the needs of one thing can always be filled by another.

The overarching premise is a symbiosis with everything around us, and turning problems into solutions while expending the least amount of energy and creating functional, diverse ecosystems.

Permaculture is rooted in natural cycles, and it uses basic tools and culturally appropriate material to create sustainable habitats for humans and the environment. Human habitats catered to specific environments create empowered, healthy, and self sufficient individuals and communities. It’s a beautiful fusion of design and ecology, and it creates an ease and flow for all systems involved, as it doesn’t yank or strain any one system.

Merriam Webster may put it as “an agricultural system or method that seeks to integrate human activity with natural surroundings so as to create highly efficient self-sustaining ecosystems.

While many have the notion that “going green” is difficult and requires more time and effort than necessary, I found the solutions encountered through a permaculture lens to be profoundly… basic.

Modeling our human-made settlements after the natural ecosystem of our environment, so that everything can flourish, is just so intuitive, so… un-American. After all, it seems we will do anything possible to avoid simplicity and ease.

My experience with permaculture in Costa Rica reminded me of some radically simple solutions:

– Growing and harvesting our own food. We grew a variety of food and spices at the farm: ginger, beans, vanilla, potatoes, all spice, papaya, lemongrass, mangoes, cinnamon, you name it. We blended up fresh almonds to make almond milk, and created our own chocolate from harvesting cacao.

Creating a biodigestor for scrap food. In the biodigestor, scrap foods will ferment and produce a gas, which can power other areas of living: cooking, lighting, etc.

Digging swales for maximized water flow. Enhancing the natural routes in which water already flows, and growing food along these routes, allows for the best possible use of water.

-Composting. Food Scraps can be composted to create rich fertilizer for plants and gardens. (As you can see, a common theme of permaculture is taking waste and converting it to new sources.)

If permaculture lived inside the box, it would look like a very complex equation between plants and animals and humans per square inch of land in order to equal complete sustainability and synchronicity.

But often we don’t see that nature already lays this foundation for us. Exhibit A: The vanilla vine needs shade and likes to climb, and cacao trees provide the perfect girth and height for the vine, creating the perfect symbiotic relationship between chocolate and vanilla. The opponents of the inevitable first date question grow together. Who knew?

Max continually reminded us that with permaculture, nothing is impossible, our only limits lie in the mind, and he used this specific example:

We cannot feed everybody in the world. (False!) 11% of the worlds rooftops could provide all the food for everyone in the world. Permaculture screams, WAKE UP! Lets utilize space and resources, and grow food on top of the rooftops! Nature provides us everything we need, problems are solutions, done.

I find that the principals of permaculture can not only be applied to nature, but the way in which we live. As we are constantly careening in and out of each others lives, we must remember that we are connected to everything else, and the more diverse webs we create, the better.  Most importantly, we have all the solutions, and in order to find these solutions, we must first be mindful and embrace simplicity and abundance.

[I traveled to Costa Rica with Volunteers for Peace (VFP). To read more about VFP, check out my previous blog post http://wordsofawanderer.com/2012/03/08/volunteers-for-peace/ or visit their website at http://www.vfp.org/ ]

Volunteers For Peace

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I am often asked how I can afford to travel for such long stints of time while having such meaningful experiences abroad AND while not spending ridiculous amounts of money. My answer is this: Volunteers For Peace.

Here’s the truth: the first time I saw the website for Volunteers For Peace (VFP), I thought… this is too good to be true. The sheer number of affordable programs offered in a plethora of countries was a beautiful sight. From social work to architecture, animal care to agricultural work, VFP embraces our span of capabilities as humans and allows us to dabble in a wide variety of fields.

Volunteers For Peace is a non-government organization founded in 1982 whose name fully embodies their aim: promoting peace through volunteer efforts. I find that the volunteer projects reach past cross-cultural exchange and delve into solving pressing problems in this world; VFP grasps ‘the big picture.’

As VFP states in their mission, “We provide projects where people from diverse backgrounds can work together to help overcome the need, violence, and environmental challenges facing our planet…Through the exchange of ideas and international understanding, our projects are practical ways to both prevent and resolve conflict while meeting local needs.”

VFP continues to be my number one choice, because I know I am traveling not only as a volunteer, but as an activist united with passionate organizations who strive to make this world a little better. With over 30,000 volunteers exchanged already, the roots of these projects have taken a stronghold, and they continue to provide solutions for tomorrow.

Ok, so how much is it? The volunteer pays for his or her own airfare. (Fear not, there are some good deals to be had.) The base registration fee for VFP is $350 for every project, no matter how long the project. After that, 40% of the projects (many in the US, Europe, and Asia) don’t have any fees on top of that. However, depending on project location and duration, there may be an additional fee for food, accommodation, and travel. For example, the extra cost for my two-week project in Costa Rica was $150, which included food, location, and some transportation. With everything, I have not paid more than $1,200 for a VFP trip, including spending money, which I think is unbeatable for a month-long experiences in a foreign country. Think of it as saving $200 a month for 6 months. Definitely do-able.

Although some projects have specific dates, there is  a huge flexibility with dates and duration for projects that are offered year round. Furthermore, many projects offer the option of a homestay, which allows volunteers to gain an even deeper understanding of the host culture. When volunteering in Haiti this last summer, I stayed with a family, and it was such and eye-opening experience.

While in Haiti, I also had the pleasure of working alongside Meg Brook, the Executive Director of VFP. Before leaving for Haiti, we had had several skype-in sessions with her, and she was able to prepare the rest of the group and myself for our journey. (Check out the Haiti program info if your interested http://www.vfp.org/explore-volunteer-destinations/volunteer-central-america/haiti )

Because the staff of VFP partakes in projects, they have a true understanding of the projected project goals, and they help to guide volunteers in the right place. They are actively involved in the creation of cross-cultural connections.

Chelsea Frisbee, the international placement coordinator of VFP states, “Travel is such a huge part of my life, and it helps us gain an understanding of the world. We come out as better people, and we develop relationships with people the world.” Their passion and involvement is evident in their work. Chelsea fervently declares, “There’s a lot I love about my job. My favorite part about working with volunteers is seeing them change… When they come back they have a different sense of self, and a different air about them. It’s incredible to see the confidence they come back with.”

Although the VFP staff guides the process, volunteers are always involved in decisions and discussions during projects; we are completely active in the process of problem solving. I love the fact that projects are not micro-managed; this complete, hands-on learning experience is very much volunteer-led. In this cooperative process, we all must work together to create ideal solutions for problems that may arise.

Chelsea states, “We live in a world of so many different people…VFP is about the cultural exchange, becoming global citizens, thinking about the impacts we have on the world.” When I asked her, how important in travel? Her answer echoed my own personal opinions on the subject. “Personally, it’s the best decision I ever made. And I think it’s especially important for young people, and women. And it’s not just about the change, but becoming more aware of what is happening in the world around us.”

Travel in general is a great way to get to know a country and its people; however, volunteering with like-minded volunteers and locals in a cooperative setting in order to achieve a common vision takes it up a notch.

With Volunteers For Peace, I have traveled to Haiti and Costa Rica, participating in education and permaculture projects. (I have several previous blog posts about these experiences, if you would like to read more about them!) I will be participating in another project this summer; I will be working in Peru at a girls home, which aims to strengthen the development and self-esteem of young girls who have been victims of sexual and physical abuse.

If you’re your not looking to go half way around the world, VFP has a new project in Jamaica; volunteers will work to teach sustainability in elementary schools. (Check out the info- http://www.vfp.org/explore-volunteer-destinations/volunteer-central-america/jamaica )

I highly encourage you to check out their site, and volunteer abroad. Their website is www.vfp.org or you can shoot them an email at info@vfp.org. They can always guide me to exactly what I’m looking for; they have something for everyone.

If your still not convinced, VFP gives out 10 scholarships to volunteers, so be sure to check this option out, the deadline comes up yearly in March. These would help to cover volunteering expenses!

Seriously, go scroll through the projects, and sign up for a project now. Travel is one of the few decisions that you will never regret, and volunteering for a cause in a foreign place is when we are truly opening our minds and becoming active citizens of our planet.

Be an advocate and activist for global solutions… Become a volunteer for peace!

Pura Vida

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Many countries have a catch phrase that sums up the nature of the inhabitants, while capturing the eternal state of the country.

‘Pura Vida’ is the catch phrase of Costa Rica, and an abundant manifestation of the way of life.

Pura Vida is a please and a thank you, a kind gesture, and a constant reminder to never take life too seriously. In a rough translation from Spanish to English, it’s the pure, full life.. the good life.

How are you? I asked my Taxi driver in Spanish. “Pura Vida” he answered with a simple nod and a knowing smile. How are you? How do you feel? It’s an answer to many questions. And as Magdalena, the owner of Nomadas Hostel told me in Spanish, “you can even say it to your mom!”

Pura Vida captures the yin and yang of the lifestyle of the Ticos, Costa Rican natives.

It embodies the wiry jolt received only from fresh Costa Rican coffee, needed to begin strenous work in the daytime sun. Several hours later, as the effects of these potent coffee beans wear off, the sluggish state that follows is received warmly by hammocks, which provide intense bouts of relaxation.

Pura Vida is also reflected by the weather. The whole country is under a soft, constant mist, as if the countries of the world made up a grocery store, and Costa Rica is the needy vegetable, which need to be misted most frequently. As earth needs water in order to thrive, this soft rain always brought about a buzz from the locals and the landscape grasped onto even greener shades than before. Bits of brilliant colors peeked out through the green spectrum.

Back in the city, although McDonalds and Wendy’s plagued every street corner like a bad infection, the streets still oozed with a vivacious, lighthearted people.

My new years exuded the aspects of ‘Pura Vida’ from its pores. We generated an irresistible fusion of mangy gringos and trendy Tico’s with dreadlocks, which made for a wonderful night of Tecate’s, tents and fires along the rocky beaches of Dominical. With a flavorful group of people, all whom I had know for less than 24 hours, we rang in our New Years together: new friends, new experiences, and the lessons of Pura Vida to help us in the approaching year.

For me personally, Pura Vida took into account the backbreaking work of digging swales, gardening, creating beds for the plants from organic materials we gathered, and planting every fruit I’ve ever wanted to know. As life in Costa Rica would have it, this work would sometimes call for a fiesta afterwards, which could be appropriately accompanied with copious amounts of ‘contrabando’, the pungent handmade liquor, which was created with the local, abundant sugar cane.

Pura Vida was knowing that the afternoon jumps in the private rivers would always prove to be more refreshing and cleansing than any shower. It soothed the bug bites on our bumpy, red legs and never failed to be an experience with nature, which continually renewed our relationship with Mother Earth.

My spirit was consoled and cajoled as I stood under a waterfall and felt the weight of falling water pound on my head, and I could focus only on laughing, because…. I dunno, at the time, that just seemed like most logical and natural thing to do.

The oh-so-refreshing jumps in the hidden rivers and waterfalls tucked behind fields of green was enhanced with the sounds of the distant howler monkeys and the fact that we could always gaze up at the small, sleek toucans with the signature fiery, lime green circle around their beady, black eyes.

Pura Vida was knowing that the ‘Morpho’ butterfly with a deceivingly brown outside would fly past the screened-in deck just about the time when we were all sitting down to breakfast. It would reveal its brilliant blue inside wings as we gathered to eat together and enjoy the food we had just harvested.

Pura Vida encompassed the ever-average combination of rice and beans, and if you you got tired of rice & beans, you could have Gallo Pinto… rice and beans pre-mixed together… this, folks, is the simplicity of Pura Vida at its finest.

This attitude and mind-set makes it impossible to neglect the little things; the sharp blade of the machete coming into contact with the juicy, fleshy, inside skin of the coconut made for an ideal afternoon pick-me-up.. far from insignificant.

As our amigo Jeffery, a Tico, said in practiced English, “when you need to do something important,.. there will be a problem.” This is the last thing most people want to hear, yet, a wise observation. As in many other countries, the Ticos are well-versed with life not going as planned, but with a nonchalant, ‘Pura Vida’ attitude, nothing is ever a catastrophe.  In fact, the biggest news story of the day will probably be that a crocodile ate one of you cows.

Pura Vida is a stability and steadiness of all opposites. It comes down to a very simple equation, which is really a question that wish I could ask myself more:

How can I do this outdoor work most efficiently so that my hammock time is maximized?

It’s finding that sweet balance of working hard, and relaxing just as hard.

I’ll take advice from the Ticos; balancing work and play with unscripted equilibrium is the radically simple solution for living our lives.

If I can lay in a hammock with a good book after a productive day, with not even a hint of tomorrow lingering in my mind, then, by golly, I’m living ‘Pura Vida.’

Pipe Cleaners, Rocks & Globalization

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Often, I associate the term ‘Globalization’ with grand, sweeping gestures of domination and upstaging, and rightly so; the deprivation and disposal of culture that can accompany globalization are devastating, but benefits are reaped as well.

Globalization makes it easier for us to travel, to experience an array of cultures and colors, and because of this convenience, we should be striving to share in this experience together. However, in order to think big, we must think small. Simple things like rocks & pipe cleaners…

Who knew that one bag of pipe cleaners could generate a creative, inspiration-filled afternoon? This summer, at children’s camps nudged in the hillsides of Haiti, little Haitian hands molded pipe cleaners for hours on end crafting bracelets, glasses, and endless inventive designs; they twisted gorgeous fake bouquets until their hands were sore.

 The older Haitian male teachers were just as enthralled with pipe cleaners, and it was heart warming to see the teacher’s enthusiasm and curiosity equaling that of the children’s. I loved seeing one of the Haitian teachers, Maurice, wear a pair of lime-green pipe cleaner glasses all day, and I couldn’t help but laugh as he started to have a serious conversation with me about our lesson plans for tomorrow, still wearing them.

About a week later, we passed by a town meeting being held by some of the women, and I noted that an old, Haitian woman was wearing a fancy pair of blue pipe cleaner earrings.

To this day, pipe cleaners never cease to amaze me. What universal, useful items!

Outside the aura of the children’s creative spirits, the Morne a Brule schoolhouse was a devastating wreck, still in bad shape from the earthquake. Had this school been in the U.S., caution tape would have sealed off the premises, and kids would have been scolded for going near the dangerous mounds of dirt and rubble. The main concrete schoolhouse on top of the hill was falling apart, and chunks of concrete and rocks were scattered all over the uneven landscape.

On the last day of the children’s camp in Haiti, we used this to our advantage. We had the kids collect their favorite rocks and falling-apart-school-bits from the piles. The students then wrote words and painted pictures on the rocks, and all of them ended up going to get second pieces of rock to decorate. The energy when doing this project was explosive; it was so moving to see these children personalize and be able to take part in renewing something that had been so devastating in their lives. I realized that they weren’t just painting, but they were reclaiming their land, their school, their hearts. After the rocks had dried, the children were able to go set them in their own special place outside. This was such a simple, yet inspiring activity, and this can be done almost anywhere in the world. A small, universal activity, which leaves a big impact on the souls involved.

An old, happy, Haitian man, Gerard, who had always looked out for the children during the day, gestured for me to paint him a rock. I took my time and made it very sparkly, and his face lit up when I gave it to him. Every time we crossed paths for the rest of the day, he would give me a bright smile and an enthusiastic thumbs up.

It’s the little things like this that count. He got a present, a rock. But I got a flame ignited in the pit of my stomach that urges me to do more, to see more, to meet more people like this man. It was a lively push to keep exchanging with people, to partake in the little experiences, like this, which make the world a little smaller, and a little friendlier. Maybe globalization doesn’t have to mean showy Coca-Cola advertisements… it can mean painting a rock for a new friend whose smile will be dearly missed.

Globalization is funny, fickle thing.

And just when I thought globalization couldn’t get any fickli-er, up in the rolling hills of Haiti in La Vallee, four hours outside Port Au Prince, I saw a kid eating a starburst, and I sang Akon songs with my Haitian friends. How is it that Haiti is so far behind in infrastructure and common sanitation practices yet I can still hear the infamous, irritating Nokia ring tone wherever I walk? If you’re cooking over a fire, while texting are you new wave, or old school?

Because of globalization, Haiti is an inexplicable, explosive combination of old and new; it’s fashionable & acceptable for everyone to wear second hand clothes that have been shipped from U.S. thrift stores in large quantities. I have never laughed harder than when I saw a scrawny Haitian man wearing a shirt that said, “Don’t let my big tits scare you, I’m really a nice lady.”

Globalization can also makes things hilarious.

Some of the most dazzlingly hilarious moments of my life included participating with the Haitian children in the insanely intense, enthusiastic game of duck-duck-goose and other nonsense American games. And I will never, EVER forget the whole group belting out the call and repeat joy song A TOOTIE TOT; its repeated motions had all of us sticking out our tongues, and butts, spinning around in circles, and simply acting silly together… everyday. For me, these moments make globalization worth it.

Globalization: it’s happening, & the fight against it is not worth it. However, we can preserve the integrity and character of every location by cherishing our connections with those around us, and of course, savoring the little things.

Vote pipe cleaners and rocks for globalization.

First World Failures & Haiti

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Americans came to Haiti expecting to change lives and to supply the students with material goods, which they are ‘deprived’ of. Silly, because people here are deprived of absolutely nothing, in fact, they are teeming with enthusiasm, gratitude and youth. Embarrassingly enough, we came with bags of pencils, paper, string, markers, and every possible medium of coloring and crafting. We had beads and parachutes, and yes, it was beyond exciting to partake in crafts with these kids, but in all honesty, the most practical and repeatedly used item I had brought was my Leatherman pocketknife.

We came into this experience expecting to make a difference, and maybe we did. But we learned more from the Haitians than we could ever expect to teach them.

Hey Americans, jokes on us; no Haitian needs a lesson about life, love, goods or work. Even if I made a difference in my children’s lives, they taught me a better way to live mine, and for that, I am eternally grateful.

People come to Haiti with deficit modes of thought. But, it would be so disrespectful, degrading, and pointless to pity these people. Sure, compared to our standards, we can feel bad, but our perceptions, tainted with un-necessary and extravagant material things prove to be a poor judge of fulfillment. Every day I remember that my children in Haiti are choosing today whether they want to use their ration of water for bathing or for drinking. Then I have to ask the age-old question, why do Americans, who have so much, seem so deprived, when societies like Haiti who have ‘nothing’ are so happy and fulfilled? Does it take nothing to truly appreciate? If this is the case, America is surely going about fulfillment in the wrong way.

Their pencils and paper will eventually run out, but they will still walk barefoot over the rocky terrain for 2 hours just to be able to sit in a broken school desk for a little while. The bracelets that we all made together will eventually fall off and disintegrate into the dirt, but that won’t fade their shining smiles, energy, and zeal.

I miss, most of all, the rolling velvety green hills, which span the entire Vallee, and wrap people into Haiti like a hug. America practically steam rolls down our hills and any other imperfections in order to have a completely flat land on which we build cookie-cutter houses, with fences to keep the neighbors out. And I wonder, when the land is flattened out like this, does it teach our kids not to climb mountains? Where kids learn on the rocky terrain in the rolling hills in Haiti, they are not afraid of climbing, or falling; their caution is thrown into the wind, and they boundlessly chase soccer balls across drops and rocky areas. I can only imagine that ones imagination, inspiration, and willpower for life is embedded in the land they grew up in. And our children in America who walk on sidewalks and who can only play on manicured lawns without so much as a rock out of place may never be able to learn how to climb over obstacles or push themselves to higher places.

As I lay in my comfy bed I think about how I would give anything to be back on the concrete floors with our dusty, lumpy thin mats listening to Haitian and American voices combining in a sweet symphony with the strumming of guitar chords and the tsk tsking of nearby cockroaches coming through the windowless windows.

It’s the ripple affect; I don’t know how far our impact will go, but I do know that it starts with educating our children. And our children recognized the love and passion we came with, which makes my volunteer work a success.

But our passion is minuscule compared to the passion and perseverance of these kids, better yet, the whole country, which is destined for great things despite the physical environment.

I believe that the ways we gauge success are skewed. America likes to measure success by the amount of resources we consume; with our consumption of materials, resources, and unnecessary things, yes, we are number one. But, as Haiti taught me, what if a country was defined as successful when everyone felt belonging in a community? When everyone you cross paths with lets you in with a smile and a wave, which raises up every soul in the country with unconditional love … What if we measured countries in terms of the love they share and their ability to support each other despite life-shattering conditions?

Then, for the first time, Haiti would be first world.