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Entries about environment

Who's Vago?

New Musings from an Old Backpacker



Arriving at a new destination, even if you’ve arrived at hundreds of new destinations, is still a humbling experience. As I’ve gotten my chops as a traveler, I’ve learned to research a little before getting somewhere. I’ll know what animals are around, places I might like to see, if a nice restaurant for vegan food exists (less and less a rarity)…but, even so, ultimately, at some point, I’ll be left feeling as if I don’t know squat.

Our latest stop was Puerto Viejo, the popular spot on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. We’d set up a work-exchange at a nearby organic farm—Vago’s Place—where we’d pay a reduced flat rate for room and board and provide a little labor. Amanda, the farm’s Dutch matron, was nice enough to time her weekly shopping trip with our arrival in town to give us a ride to the farm. Amanda’s baby in tow, the back bumper swinging precariously below the tailgate of her truck, and a co-volunteer (Sangeet) in the passenger seat—we’d set off south and quickly cleared the restaurants and cabana bars.

The farm was a healthy ride away from anything resembling a town, just as we’d hoped it would be. That night, Memo, the farm’s Costa Rican paterfamilias, whipped up some noodles and vegetables for dinner, and as we digested, we sat around chatting. An obvious question, especially considering we’d met everyone and yet still not the farm’s namesake, finally surfaced: Who’s Vago? Everywhere has a story that guidebooks and the Internet reviews just don’t tell, something that makes places personal.


Vago’s Place

Vago’s Place technically is about five kilometers (three miles) away from Puerto Viejo, near a village called Cocles, where the beaches are a little less infringed upon but still not devoid of sunbathers and body surfers. Anyway, at some point, you turn off the costal highway, drive two kilometers away from the sea, along a gravel road that cuts into the jungle. Development dissipates the deeper you get, and eventually, you get to Vago’s Place, not quite at the end but with not much beyond it.

Amanda and Memo have been working on Vago’s Place for two years now, as of December 2013, and they are trying to create the ever-illusive sustainable farm. They have a small herd of goats that provide milk and cheese. They grow a scrappy collection of crops, including (amongst others) Brazilian spinach, assorted herbs, papaya, and okra, a favorite I’ve not often found outside of Louisiana. Amanda, a wealth of local flora knowledge, also scavenges a lot from the property’s naturally occurring plants, with which she makes medicinal teas and other products.

The two have built themselves a comfortable dwelling, two floors high with two enclosed sleeping areas currently used for volunteers, one-and-a-half baths with a collected rainwater/onsite well water source, as well as roomy open-air spaces for a kitchen, living room and work station. Next-door are a small stable for the goats and an unfinished kitchen for handling the milk. The garden beds are minimally manicured (aka left weedy), the greenhouse is hodge-podge but productive, and the property is steeped in fruit trees. Bamboo grows in nooks and crannies everywhere, and bamboo construction is a big part of what is happening there.

While the farm is productive—we ate lots of spinach and okra, had delicious ginger-lime tea, and gathered wild gooseberries from a little patch of grass—like most others we know of, it’s still a few hectares off sustainable. On Saturday’s, Amanda participates in an artisanal/organic market in Puerto Viejo, where she sells her products: a huge variety of medicinal teas, kombucha, pesto sauce (made from her own basil), soaps, toothpaste, cheese, and various other handmade items she conjures up from what’s available. This provides the income necessary to supplement the farm’s food needs.


Our Experience

For us, Vago’s Place was a quick and high-impact (at least on our backs and hands) experience. The days start at 6:15, with volunteers meeting at Amanda and Memo’s kitchen for breakfast. All meals are prepared together, the tasks haphazardly portioned out: Someone cuts vegetables while someone prepares a drink while someone watches Kian, the very adventurous and mobile baby, while someone cooks things up. Usually, by 8:00, we were setting off for work.

Daily chores more or less revolve around the goats. The working part (as opposed to breakfast preparation) of the workday starts with milking them, something I attempted with mediocre success—Amanda came in after I’d finished and acquired twice as much as I’d gotten. Then, there is the precarious task of moving them from one field to another for daytime grazing, and usually that involves chasing down rogue goats who’ve stopped for leafy snacks along the way, often in the most difficult areas to reach. At the end of the day, we’d have to do the same thing in reverse.

Other tasks we took on while on the farm: Day one and two were laborious to say the least. Memo and Amanda had dug a massive hole, imagine a small swimming pool, to start curing their bamboo in larger loads (soaking bamboo in salt water helps with bugs) and we had to expand it quite a bit. It was hour upon hour of digging and lifting large buckets of earth to get everything out of the hole. In the end, the hole was bigger. The plan is to seal it with concrete, fill it with salt water, and start producing large batches of construction grade bamboo.

After the hole, we attempted to battle the mud on a shortcut/path between Vago’s Place and Amanda’s parents’ home, where she and Memo are currently living. The mission consisted of collecting trimmed branches from around the property, raking up a dry season worth of fallen leaves, and mixing them with the mud so that it would harden into something roughly walk-able. Somewhat successful, we went on with our Christmas Eve, using the evening to make the traditional Costa Rican feast of tamales (of course, in a very untraditional, vegan way).

Next, we took on making an outdoor cooking area, a space centered around a small stove that is used to create charcoal, a key ingredient in Amanda’s toothpaste and a good component to fertilizing the clay/soil for crops. Using the clay/soil, we’d dug out of the bamboo pool, we created a stand for the little oven, as well as multi-leveled floor, one level for the cook and another for a table. For us, the project also included building a found-wood frame for the ceiling, creating a stone drainage system, and creating paths leading to it. It would be our last project at the farm.


Who’s Vago, then?

So, vago, then, was a completely new term to Emma and me, and it means something along the lines of a lazy vagabond, unwilling to get a real job—basically Emma and me. When Amanda and Memo announced to Memo’s family they’d decided to be organic farmers, not career-oriented highflyers, the family had shown disdain by calling them vagos, as farming was no way to go through life. Unexpectedly, they took a shine to the term and named the farm as such. However, after spending a week there, I can assure you that it is no place for vagos. The days start early, the work is hot and hard, and there is always something more to do.

Sunday morning, one week after we’d arrived, we limped onto the gravel road to head back towards Puerto Viejo, and amazingly, as if he were driving a fairy tale chariot, a man in a truck came rumbling down the road and gave us a lift.

Cool Things We Learned or Learned More About:

How to cure bamboo and that you’d better do so
Green bananas make wicked vegan burgers
Charcoal makes teeth white, which turned into inspiration for starting to make our own toothpaste, as well as shampoo, conditioner, and deodorant
How to milk a goat
How to make tamales
Ways to earn an income while living the “sustainable” lifestyle
How good it is to be interconnected with other farmers—Amanda got loads of free mangoes that she dried and let us snack on, as well as avocadoes
The importance of knowing the local and wild plants around because they can be put to good use—not everything has to be in a garden!
The truth about what some vagos do

Posted by jonathonengels 12:38 Archived in Costa Rica Tagged animals travel farm backpacking environment expat Comments (0)

Talking Trash in the New Year

New Musings from an Old Backpacker


In many ways, I can see conscientiousness about trash has grown in the last three decades: Recycling is rampant, biodegradable is a byword, and most of us wouldn’t dream of littering. I think there is even a consensus state of shame over the garbage mass floating the Pacific, the waning ozone layer, and the many varied forms of pollution seeping into everything. We are working to lessen our negative impact, right some of the wrongs of our forefathers, and keep our surroundings generally tidy.

That said, my latest travel ventures have opened my eyes to new thoughts, namely the amount of waste we create: Individually wrapped everything, somehow still prevalent plastic shopping bags, and even travel-sized throwaways. I grew up learning not to litter, believing in the power of recycling, but never thinking about how to reduce the actual amount of garbage I produced—period. I rarely thought about where it all goes and what happens there.

Then, I met Martijn at Totoco Farm, and his theory made me feel really aware, respectful (of him and the earth), and inspired. Though inconvenient, Martijn works to keep Totoco (the farm and eco-lodge) a 100% waste-free environment. Organic stuff is composted, and recyclables recycled or reused. Electricity is from solar panels and the excess is stored in batteries, of course. The gray water from showers and kitchens goes through bio-filters and is used to water the garden, while toilets are all of the composting variety and go to feeding the plants. The other stuff—amazingly—is hoarded away until he can figure out what to do with it.

Herb Garden Made of Rum and Wine Bottles (as designed by Emma and Ming)

Herb Garden Made of Rum and Wine Bottles (as designed by Emma and Ming)

It is within this other stuff, that which is otherwise destined for the landfill, where much packaging resides. All those wrappers around candy, pasta, rice, cereal, beans, legumes, potato chips, corn chips, microwaveable meals, store-bought bread, snack cakes, 12-packs of soda pop, and just about any purchase-able item that might benefit from see-through packaging: sports equipment, toys, toiletries, cigarettes, drinking straws, magazines, newspapers…Usually, all of this is shoved into plastic bags—often one or two items at a time, taken home, taken out of the plastic bags, and unwrapped. All but the item we wanted is then deposited in another plastic bag (the garbage bag), which eventually goes to live eternally in some other place.

It builds up quickly, even at Totoco (though much less than a normal house), because it’s damn near impossible to avoid in the modern world. Incredibly, Martijn keeps it. He keeps it in a large enclosure made out of old plastic bottles and chicken wire, and he waits for a solution. He waits in hopes that these items can one day be recycled. Occasionally, he comes up with some other temporary fix, like throwing it all in a building’s foundation, in place of some of the concrete that might be used. It’s inorganic, so it’s not going anywhere. But, basically, his idea is that his business has created the mess, so he has to live with it.

It makes no littering seem juvenile. Martijn does more at Totoco—to the extent of storing his own inorganic, unrecyclable waste—than any place I’ve experienced. Again, there is no human waste (composting toilets), no organic waste (animal and plant food) and though it continues to pile up in his massive reused-plastic bottle storage bin, no inorganic waste. And, when you have to live with it all—possibly forever—you don’t think twice about turning down those meaningless shopping bags, take-out utensils, and snack foods in shiny, ever-lasting wrappers. You do think about how what you’re buying is packaged.

Piles of Garbage, Right Where It Should Be But No Less Disturbing

Piles of Garbage, Right Where It Should Be But No Less Disturbing

By now, we’ve all read lists on reducing our waste: composting organic material, reusable shopping bags, refillable bottles, and simply being mindful about buying unnecessarily pre-packaged items (especially things like carrots, lettuce, etc.) and overly packaged items (like snack packs or portioned cookies). By now, we should all be recycling when possible (or feeling shameful if we don’t). But, for me, it’s time to start anew. The list of things we can do—I’ve been learning to do—grows and grows, and my many years of inactive apathy cause me true sorrow.

This year, I pledge to create less waste. I would love to measure the reduction, but being on the road makes that difficult. So, I was hoping some friends and family with firm addresses and their own trash woes might join me. The goal would be to last longer and longer before filling and emptying the landfill-bound items in your garbage can. I’d love to get a few volunteers and regularly feature your progress on a new blog (or forum, in which we could all participate, adding helpful tips and other stuff we learn, even of only be providing links to useful articles, etc.). Please contact me at jonathonengels@gmail.com if you’re interested. And, don’t hesitate because the more who join me, the better for the world.

Posted by jonathonengels 13:53 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged travel farm living backpacking environment expat Comments (0)

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