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Three Months of Adventures in Permaculture, Panama Edition:

Ten or More Things from the Last Month on the Farm

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Well, just yesterday, we hit three months of working on our project here in Arenosa, Panama. The property, just over two acres, is basically bisected by a sidewalk. The owners have given us free reign over one side and asked us to maintain the other as you would a normal yard. The difference is really beginning to show, and the project takes more and more shape each month.

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The idea with our side of the property is to basically fill every space that isn’t a path with something nourishing, either for us or for the earth. By no means are we there yet, but some of our labors are really starting to show in the soil, in the expanded garden space, and in our meals. We eat from the garden every day, and we add new plants, more mulch, and different systems every day as well.

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On the other side of the property, we toil at least a couple of days a week to keep the grass cut and weeds down. It looks like a nice yard, with trees here and there (some of them fruit-producing) and ornamental plants dotted around. It’s an incredible thing to see the difference and interesting experiment to see which is preferable (for the owners, who obviously like gardens but don’t necessarily garden themselves).

Without further ado, here are ten or more things we’ve gotten up to since last you read:

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1. Expanding the Front Gardens: In the front yard, we’d built two beds that produced very well. We ate about a dozen cantaloupes from one, half a dozen watermelons from the other, and have grown the biggest hibiscus plant on the property, far bigger than its brothers and sisters. Along with these beds are some great productive, pre-existing trees: two water apple trees, a lime, and a guava that were there before, as well as a macadamia nut, several moringa trees, and another lime we planted back in February. Now, we’ve joined up everything with massive garden beds between them, in which we’ve started bean plants and sweet potatoes (both great for “fixing” soil), as well as ginger, marigolds (good for bugs), pumpkin, chard, mustard greens, collard greens, and sunflowers. Now, the “yard” part is merely paths providing access to all the garden beds.

2. The Lakeside Pizzeria: From early on, we’ve planned to build a cob pizza oven somewhere on the property. We've discovered it will have to be clay instead of cob, but we finally settled on a place and have actually started moving the project along. We’ve already built a nice herb garden to go next to the oven, as well as a potted plant garden (with an emphasis on tomatoes) on the porch next to the oven. And, using some cinderblocks already on the property, we’ve made the first moves on building the foundation on which the oven will sit. We’ve got the plans for the rest of it and will be trying to complete the project over the next month.

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3. The Medicinal Herb Garden: We’ve converted a anemic garden bed along the rear of the house into a collection of stone-ringed medicinal herb beds, including the healthful culinary herbs we already grow in the herb spiral, as well as some very useful native plants that one of our volunteers—Thanks, Patrick!—spotted for us. The conversion is complete, but the project has much more to be done. Nevertheless, the idea seems to be working well, useful plants are growing, and the area is much more attractive to look at. (Additionally, we spruced up the companion bed on the normal yard side of the house so that it all matches. Still like things to be pretty.)

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4. Getting Raw in the Kitchen: Our new friend and former volunteer, Patrick, took raw to an extreme we’ve not yet reached. He more or less ate only foraged mangoes and cucumbers, which we’ve produced in abundance, the whole time he was here. Though we are not quite this raw, we have begun to accomplish some major raw culinary feats: carrot cake, almost all of our pasta sauces (why eat them hot when they could be so much healthier?), lots of salad variations from our native leaves, and loads of dehydrated mango (still). We are officially trying to make 50% of our meals raw food (Check out the documentary Food Matters), and we can really taste the difference. Fresh stuff tastes better than cooked.

5. The Communal Hugel Monster: We’ve become quite the fans of hugelkultur, burying logs and woody debris under soil so that it feeds plants while decomposing, and we already have two in the garden gully. This month we added another up in our communal garden project. Even better, it was created using a massive compost heap that we put together on our very first day as volunteers at Glenavon back in January. The compost heap was half broken down, with great clumps of rich soil as will as already rotting longs. It created a massive hugelkultur heap in the corner of the communal garden, which should make for some great growing this fall.

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6. Possibly Panama’s First Cornhole Boards: Cornhole is a favorite pastime from our days in Guatemala. Using some of my carpentry skills learned under the tutelage of Drew, one of Earth Lodge’s owner/operators, I was able to throw together a set of cornhole boards with scrap wood one Saturday morning. Then, Emma and Grace, one of our volunteers, painted them up nicely, in the likeness of the Panamanian flag, as well as hand-sewed regulation-sized matching cornhole bags made out of jeans. I’m proud to say that I stay remain undefeated on our boards. And, I recommend making your own.

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7. Dream-Catcher Tree: When we volunteered in Colombia this past spring, we noticed that Felipe, the owner of La Juanita Finca Verde, had hung a bunch of homemade dream catchers in a tree off his front porch. We decided to steal the idea. Now, we have an avocado tree donning dream-catchers made by us and some of our volunteers. Gives off a nice vibe and has inspired much more dangling art. We’ve got a few vertical gardens going now and a mobile that Emma just whipped up one afternoon. Amazing how something like that provides personality to a spot.

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8. The Terraced Garden Beds: We are dealing with quite a lot of steep hillside here at Glenavon on the Lake. The garden gully is actually a gully. In other words, in our eyes, there’s a lot of land that’s a little harder to grow stuff on. Inspired by the idea of swales (a water catching system for gardens), our most recent volunteer, Rob, and I built a six-tiered terrace with three garden beds interspersed with three water-catching systems. It looks big time and, with a good sunny face on the hill, should be great for creating some produce very soon.

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9. Trees in the Food Forest: It was a momentous occasion when we finally put some trees in our food forest. We’ve been operating on magic banana and plantain circles, expanding our jungle that way, and it looks great. (Two volunteers, Gemma and Anna, likened it to Jurassic Park, complete with humming the theme tune every day.) Anyhow, we’ve worked since April to condition the forest floor. Layer it with organic matter so that it becomes soft and nutrient-rich rather than baked clay. It seems to be working. We now have a few inches of nice compost top to plant it. So, we’ve taken some trees—grapefruit, avocado, star fruit, coconut, and lime (soon lemon and mango)— Emma started and planted them in the forest. More papaya are on the well as well. Should be a tremendous food source.

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10. Discovered Discovery: One obstacle we’ve been dealing with for three months is that we had nowhere to buy any seeds. So, we were growing only what we could get from clippings or our kitchen scraps (you can grow a lot of food from the seeds in your kitchen scraps or bags of food you buy) or scavenged (such as birdseed—sunflowers—to grow actual sunflowers). However, we recently helped out a neighbor, taking her somewhere to get some soil, and she introduced us to a store called Discovery, in Panama City. There we were able to get some new stuff to try: dill, chamomile, mustard greens, collard greens, chard, arugula, catnip, spring onion, cilantro, garden beans, chives, and marjoram. We’ve got new seedlings growing all over the place.

At three months, perhaps the most inspiring thing is that ideas don’t seem to be dwindling but rather expanding, morphing into new additions and fine-tuning, sort of coloring in the lines we’ve already created. I find it hard not to walk the property daily to brainstorm what more can happen, and Emma is ever coming up with cool ideas, like the bean tipis that she and Rob put in the front food forest. To be completely honest, I sometimes ventured over to the “yard” section of the property with some permaculture thoughts as well. After a while, it just becomes impossible to look at an empty space without planning out what could happen there.

Posted by jonathonengels 16:38 Archived in Panama Tagged trees food travel farm living backpacking environment expat permaculture Comments (0)

Permaculture? Panama? Can Two Vagabond Gardeners Have It All

Adventures in Permaculture

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Setting out in early November, our goal was to travel from Guatemala to Patagonia in roughly six months, arriving about yesterday and flying to lounge/work in the French countryside for the summer. We were to do this on the cheap by extreme budget traveling (dorm rooms and minimal bar tabs) and volunteering our way through Central and South America. Our trip went off course at our first stop in Nicaragua.

Since then, we’ve worked with a schedule-be-damned sort of attitude, often reminding ourselves that the whole point—though it was never the whole point—was to take what opportunities came our way. Somehow, we’ve managed to have a lot come our way. We managed the volunteer program in Nicaragua that first month, which turned into two months. We came to Glenavon on the Lake in Panama for two weeks or more, stayed six and have returned for six more months.

And, it is from here, just north of the Panama Canal, on property kissing Lake Gatun, that I write the latest in our permaculture adventure.

Why We Stopped

While the initial thought of lingering in Panama caused us some concern: We were yet again putting off our travels in South America (we’ve at least been to Colombia and Ecuador now) to hang around in Central America more. I mean we’ve been to every country here, some of them multiple times now, and the whole point of coming way back in 2008 was to make to South America. Nevertheless, good opportunity is good opportunity.

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We volunteered at Glenavon on the Lake in January and February then, at the end of our stay, were offered positions that would keep us here for six more months. We were to use our imaginations to funk up the place (painting, art, and so on), introduce a jungle-y garden project, and kickstart a volunteering program. In essence, we were given the chance to do what we want to do: grow our own fun in some distant land and invite people to come partake with us.

So, in order for the deal to pass mustard, we insisted on actually making it to South America first, traveling for two months before we returned. We got back on the 15th of April. And, while this would seem like the time to settle in, to become the next retirees (unfortunately, it’s still a little early), the last month have been nothing of the sort. In the end, the real draw of staying in Panama was that we’re able to experiment with all this stuff we’d “like to do some day”.

Today is the day, so we haven’t paused at all. We’ve been running around Glenavon like Jesus Lizards on the lake (yes, we have them here). The projects just keep multiplying, mutating into grander endeavors, and exciting us all over again.

Or Have We Stopped?

The point I’m getting at is that stopping doesn’t necessarily mean an adventure is over or even stalled. In fact, we’ve been dying to do what we are doing, which ironically is some of the hardest, hottest work I’ve ever been privy to. The crux of this here blog entry is to introduce you to some of the happenings thus far in our permaculture adventure in Panama.

The Spiral Herb Garden

The idea came from a farm we worked at in Colombia. There was a cool little permaculture set-up just outside the kitchen door, a bed that spiraled around and was loaded with an assortment of tasty goodies. While at La Juanita Finca Verde, we also read loads of permaculture material and got some other ideas for how to build ours in Panama.

The gardens need to be near the kitchen so that you can quickly grab whatever you need while you are cooking. The herb spiral specializes in offering and needs to offer different types of sun exposure, thus little micro-climates, for a variety of herbs to grow. And, we wanted ours to look kickass.

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Early in the week, I’d made a raised garden bed near the kitchen, filling a space that had once been cluttered with garbage cans and the debris that somehow didn’t make it in them. For the border, I made a wall with some flat stones the property owner, Alan, had bought for a rainy day. It turned out pretty nice. So, next thing I know, I was building a towering spiral (about a three or four feet high) for our herbs.

It was my first really inspiring project since we got back. It’s a perfect location, right between the house kitchen and the volunteer kitchen, where everyone can use it easily. It makes for a beautiful piece to look at while sitting in the communal space outside. It put a massive stack of otherwise unspoken for stones to good use. And, we are now growing three or four types of basil, lemongrass, mint, oregano, culantro (a cousin of cilantro) and anise in it. The plants are doing great.

More Crop Circles

Just before we left Panama in February, we built a magic banana circle. Basically, the formula is to dig a big hole, a circle with about a six-foot diameter and about three feet deep), and pile the soil all around the edges. The hole gets filled with organic material to produce compost, and plants—not just bananas but also plants that pair well with them—are put around the edges to enjoy the loose soil and feed of the compost.

Our banana circle, which also has sweet potatoes and yucca growing in it, did splendidly while we were gone. Since we’ve been back, I’ve added two new circles—a plantain circle and a papaya circle—to what has been deemed our food forest. And, this past weekend, a volunteer named Matt and I created another mini plantain circle outside the front of our fence, a little go at guerilla gardening (this circle is for the neighbors to take from).

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We have at least two more circles coming soon, and perhaps a couple more in the distance future. We are considering coconut trees, moringa trees, and a mixed fruit circle as different possibilities.

Hugelkultur

It sounds a bit guttural, maybe a little fancy, but I’d been dying to make a big hugelkultur bed since February as well. Hugelkultur is a wicked idea that involves covering big pieces of wood, like tree stumps or tree trunks, with a few inches of soil and letting the decomposition of the wood feed the bed for years to come. When we’d left, there were already loads of half-rotten post and chunks of old wood around, so Emma and I had made grand plans.

Much to our chagrin, when we returned, several more trees had been chopped down “for the view” and “for the garden”. Doing my best to make plants out of trees, I set about utilizing as much of the wood as possible. First, I made a massive v-shaped hugel-wall, about three or four feet high and now covered with melon, pumpkin and squash plants that will soon have it sporting fruit.

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Next, Matt and I got to work on another hugelkultur project, an inspiration for much ballyhoo and tomfoolery with my posh English accent. We built a Victorian stumpery, a massive garden mound that with soil piled onto tree trunks, stumps, and leaves. Ours rises from about ankle-height to waist-height and has stump stepping stones across it, as well as a high stump back wall. Looks very cool and should be wildly fertile.

The adventures are set to continue. Each new project feels like a new destination, a new experience for what has turned into a much longer trip than we anticipated. We’ve got loads more space to fill and lots of ideas, most of them quite funky, of how to do it. Not only that, but within a couple of weeks of advertising for volunteers, we’ve managed to book ourselves full for the next three months. We are actually having to turn volunteers away now. And…and…and I would be remiss not to mention all the…

Awesome Work Emma Has Done.

• We’ve returned just in time for mango season and harvest about two bags a day, roughly 50 mangoes for the tree next to our greenhouse. Emma has become a mango master, dehydrating them, cooking up jams, spinning out chutneys, and creating delicious frozen treats.
• AKA, Little Miss Green Thumb has managed to start up seedlings for about a half-dozen kinds of beans, melons, pumpkins, squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, spinach, and peppers. And, she has done cuttings with all of those herbs and various other stuff around the property.
• Together, we transformed what was a filthy construction site into a cool communal area, complete with a semi-outdoor kitchen, ping-pong table, potions and powder workstation, and seating area. Emma also came up with some awesome chalk job lists to plan out or next steps for all to see.

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• Inspired by the cashew trees growing next door, Emma discovered that not only can we get cashew nuts from them (a rather hair-raising, semi-dangerous procedure), but we can also get some pretty sweet juice from the apple and use the “flesh” for an actual meat substitute. BBQ cashew fruit is really delish.
• Plants, plants, plants. What were once barren gardens and landscapes are now clutter with all kinds of plants, all about two to three weeks old. We’ve got some new pineapples on the go, jalapeños showing, and some seriously rejuvenated tomato plants. Stuff is growing everywhere.
• She’s started her first mural. A cool 1960s landscape in the communal area. Photos coming soon.

Posted by jonathonengels 14:28 Archived in Panama Tagged food travel farm living backpacking environment expat permaculture Comments (3)

10 Things I Dug About La Juanita Finca Verde

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Last month, Emma and I took a tiny bus out of Bogota, changed to another tiny bus at a place called La Playa (it was not a beach but rather a convenience store just before a highway turnoff), and got off at a lakeside restaurant, Los Pinos (“the pines”). From there, our directions were to “go back twenty meters and take the dirt road on the right.” It was the first farm we’d come to: La Juanita Finca Verde, a few kilometers outside the town of Guatavita, which most Colombians I’d talked to hadn’t heard of.

With a tiny hand-painted sign hanging on the fence, it did not look like a center for international exchange but rather the abode of a reclusive green-thumb, off-the-grid and content to stay there. But, Felipe is nothing of the sort, and La Juanita was a surprisingly bustling center of cultural exchange. There were so many things I fell for almost instantly:

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1. Gardens

La Juanita is what I imagine farms of the future to be like (and maybe what the farms of the past were). It’s a small holding, about four acres, with a humble but comfortable country house in the center. The gardens sort of grow out of the lawn, a thick carpet of grass suddenly giving way to a mishmash of produce that, at once, seems as abundant as anything I’ve ever seen and also somewhat untended. The plants spiral around on mounds of dirt, half of the vegetation left to flower. The beds are covered in dense blankets of straw that, when pushed back, usually reveals tufts of salad leaves. There are greenhouses stuffed with plant-life. Permaculture.

Not to mention there is a super cool biodome, as well as another greenhouse made from an building, complete with a garden bathroom.

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2. The Kitchen

The kitchen looks like something from J.K. Rowling’s imagination. Plants festoon the rafters: Tobacco drying here, ears of corn hanging, an entire aloe vera plant suspended, tiny bunches of flowers turned upside down and bound with string, edible potions cluttering every shelf, a spread of vegetables and bowls of beans on the table. A keg of home-brewed beer sits next to the fridge. Giant jars of kombucha ferment in the darkened corners next to an eclectic collection of rudimentary tools: a grinder, dinged-up canteens, a big brass dinner bell, and an array of baskets.

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3. The Food

Something rings so true about walking out in the backyard and grabbing the fixings for your salad. Fresh, nutritious, and flavorful—we ate from the garden everyday, often every meal. Besides that, there was always a massive bounty of local produce: pumpkins, peas, squashes, and beans. Quinoa is native to this area of Colombia and no stranger to La Juanita pots. A numerous collection of herbs are steeped for interesting teas.

Then, there was the “evil bean”. On Emma’s and my first cooking showcase, we took a bit of what appeared to be your garden-variety white bean. It was not. Bitter as an old man in a dirty diaper, it ruined a pot of otherwise delicious legumes. We tried to salvage it. We change the water—bitter. We hand-plucked all of the offending beans—bitter. We attempted rinsing and rinsing—bitter. Covering with spices—nope. We even tried smushing it into burgers. Eventually, the whole bean stew was composted, and I whipped up some curried lentils.

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4. The Pizza Oven

Another great food-themed delight was the pizza/bread oven. Built from cob (I’ll be doing one of these soon myself), Felipe, Emma, and I teamed up to provide the final touches: a door, a clay doorjamb, and stopper for the chimney. Then, we got to cook in it. The first pizzas came on our anniversary, a tradition, and though cheeseless, they were pretty rocking. We made lots of herb breads in it and had a beer-riddled pizza party one Sunday evening. I’m fairly certain every outdoors-y place should have one of these.

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5. Low-Waste Effort

In addition to composting everything, a lot via a super cool worm farm, trash at La Juanita has various avenues. There is a plan for glass bottles to be incorporated into outdoor shower walls. Plastic bottles, which rarely make it on site, are filled with plastic wrappers to create bottle bricks for later construction projects. Of course, all plant trimmings and grass clippings are fed back to the earth. Even the low amount of energy used is conserved by only turning on the water heater when a shower is up-coming. All in all, in a month there, with at least three people (up to about seven) staying there, we probably produce one normal trash bag of waste. And, La Juanita is a B&B with paying guests. I like that the lack of waste is so significant as to garner praise.

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6. The Dogs

There are two permanent canine residents at La Juanita, the reserved and nap-happy Camaneche (No one knows what the name means. He arrived with it.) and a snappy puppy, Rebeka, who has super soft fur, a voracious appetite, and a quick trigger on the old bark. Additionally, we had two guests/former residents, Baruk and Chepe. They are gigantic Rhodesian Ridgebacks, bred to be built like female lions, yet these two were gentle as ever and more or less occupied two armchairs for a week and a half. Then, there was black dog and little black dog, two impossibly excited specimens that would appear every few days from out of nowhere. It was a great place to get a little puppy love.

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7. The Open-Door

For a house, you might be convinced it’s a coffee shop. La Juanita has ever-revolving slew of guests in an out, old friends stopping through, and neighbors popping up for dinner (something that’s not always wonderful when you’ve just about finished cooking). Nevertheless, it has that feeling of youth and energy associated with university life but also manages to be occupied by adults with a little more sense, which makes for a high stimulate, intellectual environment where you learn cool stuff inadvertently. Plus, you make a lot of friends, and when you are for sure heading back Colombia…

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8. The Tipi

Yes, a tipi (or teepee) is an odd fixture to find in Colombia, but Felipe had it shipped down from Oregon and set it up on a great plateau in the property. We got to take the whole thing down and put it back up, which was an interesting and knuckle-busting (for some of us—me) process. Chaja (our new Dutch counterpart and fellow volunteer), Emma, and I stayed in the tipi for nearly the entire last week we were there. Every night, we’d stock up a fire in the center of it and share hot tea from a thermos or a bottle wine. What can one say about sleeping in a tipi—It’s awesome.

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9. The Books

The coffee table in the living room La Juanita is scattered with fantastically interesting reading material, covering such topics as do-it-yourself plumbing to permaculture to medicinal herbs. Emma and I simply sawed through books in a first couple of weeks, soaking up all we could before moving on to another handy topic to bring back to Panama with us: How to ferment our own pickles and pineapple wine, how to build keyhole permaculture beds, which herbs to grow for a beautiful and beneficial garden, and on it went. Probably the thing we most took from the library was the need to have a worthwhile library wherever we end up.

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10. TEDx

TEDx are unofficial Ted Talks that are broadcasted all over the world in live events. Felipe uses La Juanita as one of the satellites that host the events. We had a fantastic time the TEDx Manhattan event, which was all about “Changing the Way We Eat”. The event included a pot-luck lunch, fantastic lectures, and a very multi-cultural congregation of people getting together to both have a great time and simultaneously engage in something important. I’ve resisted TED stuff for a long time now, but La Juanita managed to convert me with one easy Sunday afternoon.

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Bonus: Felipe

Let me not skip over Felipe, a most gracious host and enthusiastic entertainer. The first time we saw him we’d been at the farm for two days already, and he appeared through the morning mist at about six a.m. He’d let us into his house without having met us. In the weeks to come, he let us more or less take over the kitchen. And, throughout our time, he shared loads of experience-rich information. He introduced us to a fantastic fleet of friends, encouraged us to meddle in his garden, and included us in all aspects of the goings-on of La Juanita Finca Verde. He became a friend, a person to come back to visit (even invited us to do so anytime), and an inspiration for how to soon begin our own permaculture projects with community outreach programs. I feel privileged, truly.

Posted by jonathonengels 11:29 Archived in Colombia Tagged food travel farm living backpacking environment expat Comments (0)

Talking Trash in the New Year

New Musings from an Old Backpacker

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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)

Composting Complexities

New Musings from an Old Backpacker

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Imagine, if you will, a world in which shit is a hot commodity, both literally and figuratively. Over there, under the jackfruit tree, there’s a big pile of imported horse turds. A few yards away, in an upturned truck-bed camper, a whole mess of pig crap—still moist—is just stewing in itself. And, what’s that behind the outhouse, just soaking up the breeze? Could it be? A massive mound of decomposed human feces, completely fling-able but not recommended.

Let’s up the ante a bit. Let’s talk garbage. If poop is profitable, why not garbage? (Incidentally, check out this article on how profitable garbage can actually be. But, first…) Let’s pile it up into heaps. Spotted melon rinds, onion skin, moldy bread, egg shells, crusty leftover—Sounds like a dandy combination, the Grinch's fantasy com true. Hell, sprinkle that with a little grass clippings, some tree trimmings, and let it rot for a year or so. Rich doesn’t even begin to describe the results.

Until about a month ago, composting was still a pretty big mystery to me. It had always seemed a never-ending pile of organic junk. I would donate my vegetable scraps to one. I would responsibly separate my garbage into neat little categories of waste, but I only half-heartedly believed my old banana peels would ever get anyone anywhere. Composting just seemed like one of those good ideas no one ever saw to the end. And, as for manure, I’d sunk my hands (and shoes) into the animal variety a time or two, but my own…that seemed a bit over the top.

But, as has been the status quo for the end of this year, the times and my opinions are a-changing. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve devoted some serious time and labor to the aid of harnessing the value of both shit and garbage. I’ve learned quite a lot about them, and I’ll be damned if these infamously smelly things don’t have me seeing roses.

Your Are Entering the Thunderbox!

Your Are Entering the Thunderbox!

Composting Toilets: Saving My Doo-Doo & My Friends Doo-Doo, Too

I know, I know. This is beyond strange. We spend a lifetime sanitizing ourselves, and now, in some circles in the weedy parts of town, it’s become fashionable to collect our own excrement. Even the excrement of others. But, there are reasons why, methods for doing so somewhat sanely, and benefits to be had from it.

Why? Flush toilets, the modern norm, are a bit a wasteful and pollutant, also the modern norm. When the contents get whisked away by—let’s be generous—your econo/enviro-tank, it often ends up really fouling up a pool of water somewhere, possibly on an eventual trip back into your water glass. In the same flush, a whole buttload (keeping the puns coming!) of nutrient rich soil steroids gets washed away. Simply put, however you feel about this shit, a dry toilet is better for the environment, as good as any energy efficient light bulb on the market.

How exactly does one save it? Several methods exist, including fairly normal-looking composting toilets for fairly normal houses. The classic poop catcher, as found on Totoco Farm and many farms like it, is called—awesomely—the Thunderbox. It’s an elevated room with two chambers below it and two matching holes in the floor. One is sealed with something similar to a manhole cover, and the other has a drop-toilet over it.

A Old Pile of Poop from Our Totocoan Predecessors

A Old Pile of Poop from Our Totocoan Predecessors

In the Thunderbox, your morning confessionals should be covered with sawdust or hay and intermingled with unprocessed kitchen and garden waste. When the hole fills, switch sides, and when it’s time to switch again, shovel the rich compost out of the first one*. Any likeness to the initial dump is long since decomposed and unrecognizable. It doesn’t even stink. What’s more, you can spread it around at the base of trees to give them a little growth spurt.

  • I love to picture Emma doing this. One morning when I was working at Totoco Ecolodge, she and another volunteer, Ming, pulled the short straw and had to empty the resting chamber for new use. However funny the activity was—it involved one of them actually tunneling around under the toilet while the other jammed a shovel in from the top—she says it wasn’t smelly and only gross from a psychological angle. Whatever the case, there is now a fertile pile of compost behind the old Thunderbox. I’m still working up the courage to dive in and use it.

Other Human Waste to Celebrate:

Hunks of Hot Organic Matter

Amongst our other duties here at Totoco, we took on refurbishing the composting system, which resembled the pile of ever-expanding organic junk I’d grown accustomed to. The concept was right, with a set up like a Thunderbox, one chamber in action while the other “rests”. I know this because I’ve been reading gardening and sustainability manuals, especially John Seymour’s The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency: The Classic Guide for Realists and Dreamers, which tell me so.

The problem was that the compost bins here were too big to allow the compost to rest. We were years away from filling one up. The ideal compost bin is a square yard (or meter), so we decided to divide the two existing bins into four, which worked out just about right. The next problem we ran into is that, when divided into four, we only had enough existing compost to fill one. The solution: Hot compost. Hot compost is not just a willy-nilly pile of organic mishmash slowly decomposing matter. No sir, the heaps are furnaces of fury.

Layers of Sweet, Hot Garbage

Layers of Sweet, Hot Garbage

Carefully stacked so that the contents get plenty of oxygen exposure and exponentially speed up the process, hot heap decomposition actually gets so active that one cabin—the one with the most consistent hot water—at the ecolodge gets hot water from coils of hose buried in a hot heap. Every two or three months, the heap is turned, and every five or six, it’s cleared and made again. Two of our four bins we made became hot heaps: sticks (2”), green matter like weeds and fresh leaves (4” to 6”), an inch of manure, an inch of top soil, and brown matter like dried leaves or straw (4” to 6”). Just repeat the layering until it’s full. To make a water heater, you need only coil a ½” or ¾” hose between the stacks.

And a Pile of Cold Kitchen Scraps

So, we were left with two cold bins. Cold heaps are any assemblence of organic matter: kitchen scraps, weeds, sticks, and so on (no meat or dairy). One of them, I was able to fill from what had been collected already, and the other sat empty and inviting for the new pile to begin, just like Emma’s empty Thunderbox chamber. A cold heap takes twice the time to decompose, roughly one year of resting to be ready, but can be thrown together any old way. The idea again is to rotate the bins in such a way that one’s used for fertile soil while the other is used for waste.

I found this all fascinating and exceedingly applicable for anyone with a little space, a garden, and an interest in doing good things for the earth. Composting food scraps—vegetable ends, fruit rinds, peels, and so on—cut our weekly trash more than in half (we are vegetarians) when we lived in Antigua, not to mention more than halved our use of plastic trash bags. Now, we produce even less waste, and that is a tremendous feeling, one made possible by composting both before and after digestion.

A Manageable Cube of Compost

A Manageable Cube of Compost

Sure, we traveled to Nicaragua to have this be part of our life, but it could be, in some capacity, anywhere we are. Urban composting is in no way out of the question (there are special bins available and rooftop gardening is a thing now), or in the suburbs with a quarter-acre yard—come on! Or in a fishing camp, dacha, or country hideaway. After setting it up, it’s no more work than emptying a garbage can, which we have to do anyway. Hell, even if we don’t have a garden, I’m sure someone will gladly use it in theirs.

So, actually, maybe it’s not all that complex, is it? Hell, maybe even friends, family, and other readers who made it this far could do it, too—ha! Got you. Seriously though, not a bad New Year’s resolution project.

Posted by jonathonengels 06:43 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged food travel farm living backpacking expat Comments (1)

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