Michael B. Keegan Traveling Fellowship
So the word sustainability does mean something
December 3, 2007
The way they tell it to us Anglos, God put the earth here for us to use, westward-ho. Like a special little playground . . . but where do you go when you've pissed in every corner of your playground? - Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams
When I arrived at the oasis in the countryside that is the GAIA ecovillage, to begin my month long course in ecovillage design, I was greeted with open arms (literally, their entry is a structure with embracing arms complete with dirty fingernails) by a loving community investing themselves daily to live in a truly sustainable manner. The small community lives and works together, consuming only what they need and leaving behind as little as possible. For some people, there is a strong spiritual aspect behind ecovillage life, but more than anything they share a fundamental respect for and understand their interconnection with the natural environment.
GAIA Association's ecovillage was started eleven years ago by a couple, Gustavo and Silvia, that still lead the community today in a suburb 120 km from the city of Buenos Aires. Over the years, the site has evolved from the almost barren ruins of an old dairy factory to a lush, wooded site interlaced with permaculture gardens, natural buildings and a diverse array of species of flora and fauna. There are about 15 permanent residents, who live almost entirely off of the land, supplemented with regional purchases when necessary. The community relies entirely on energy generated from three windmills, a photovoltaic array with a capacity of 368 watts, and solar hot water heaters to be able to cook, pump water, use electricity for lighting and occasional internet. The combination of dramatic sunsets across the fields, brilliant starry nights, the nightly performances of fireflies, and several dramatic electric storms made the place even more surreal and beautiful.
Within the course, we represented nine different nationalities (Peruvian, English, Irish, Ecuadorian, German, Argentinian, Brazilian, me and a guy born in Spain who considered himself a citizen of the world) and each person brought a unique background and passion for sustainability. The month was packed full of themes of sustainable and natural living, from social structures and community living, to natural health and eating, as well as permaculture, appropriate technologies and natural building. Silvia and Gustavo led the course, but it was a collaboration with the community and outside guests as well. The course was taught entirely in Spanish, and although one of the women from the community was translating for a few of us, during the month, I got to be almost entirely independent of the translation, and was working with a design group only in Spanish by the end of the course. It was truly exhausting to learn everything that we covered, especially in another language, but I feel much more comfortable in my language skills after that experience. We will have to see how far my ecovillage vocabulary will get me now that I am back in the city . . .
The sense of community at GAIA was really a powerful thing to witness. Everyone greets each other with hugs throughout the day and you can tell that people do really want to know how you are doing. When I got sick towards the end of my stay, I had about eight different people taking care of me, offering advice and various forms of alternative medicine, constantly concerned for my well being. The practically vegan meals are shared by everyone together, and though they use fairly basic ingredients, were often interesting and delicious . . . at times even colorful. (One night about half way through, I had dream about cooking sausage, which I took as a pretty good sign that I will not be turning vegan any time soon). Right now there are four families with children living at GAIA, but they are hoping to start a more structured education system some time down the road. For now the children learn and play in a very supportive, hands-on environment, in which practically everyone from the community participates. I even got to draw with them one day, and was given a horse drawing as a parting gift.
I believe that working with my hands is actually more relaxing and therapeutic for me than any of my attempts at meditation. I spent many hours up to my ankles and wrists in mezcla, the mud, sand and straw mix that the residents of GAIA use to construct houses. With the sun shining, a brisk breeze turning the windmills above us, and the patient guidance of our instructor Ariel, my mind was completely liberated from the storm of thoughts that usually raged when I tried meditation. One GAIA tradition was the mate construction breaks, when everyone stops, finds a spot in the shade and shares a tea that is immensely popular in and around Argentina. The construction technique used at GAIA is fairly simple. A chalk-free sand and concrete foundation of about 70 cm, reinforced with iron, is poured in an orientation that optimizes northern sun exposure and minimizes southern wind exposure (southern hemisphere). Straw bales reinforced with bamboo serve as structural support within the walls, which are filled in and coated with the mud, sand and straw mix. To deal with non-recyclable or biodegradable trash, the community fills plastic cartons from cooking oil with trash and uses them as bricks within the walls. The floors are coated with beeswax and linseed oil to make them more durable. The community experiments with various roof types, from a complex straw and bamboo thatch system that requires outside specialists to green roofs and also recycled metal with straw mix insulation. Recycled glass bottles create artistic designs with light, and reclaimed double paned windows and doors are incorporated in when possible.
In the first two days, we worked to understand our values and goals and develop a mission and vision, which inspired me to look into urban applications of ecovillage design concepts in the future. I see the ecovillage as an educational tool that if properly adapted and communicated, can create an alternative to current unsustainable living practices. We also did an exercise focusing on how and for what we would like to be remembered in 20 years, which really put this trip and my future plans into perspective. The rest of the course provided context and detailed examples to inform the process of ecovillage design. Many of our discussions really made me appreciate my parents and how they raised me. At times, it was like an AA meeting for kids that had to bring tupperwear and health food to school growing up. Now I can say thank you to my hippie parents, who were actually just recognized by our local paper for being Local Heroes of the environment, see www.independent.com. Of course, there were times when we needed to get away for ecovillage life, connect with civilization and eat terribly unhealthy foods, so there were a few excursions into Navarro and an underground chocolate smuggling business shared within the members of the course.
In general, the impression that people at GAIA had of the United States was pretty negative, to say the least. One of the instructors in particular, targeted the US as the root of all of the problems in modern society and reveled in sharing facts and movie clips about the corruption and greed that all too often plagues our country. While I cannot argue with many of the things they said, as we have our fair share of problems right now and are unfortunately functioning as a model for developing countries around the world, the negativity and conspiracies were frustrating. I have always been disenchanted with the atmosphere of politics and the practice of focusing on the problems instead of sharing information and focusing on hope and positive change. Fortunately, the general sentiment at GAIA was very positive and focused on sharing knowledge and hard work to create a more sustainable and healthy lifestyle as an alternative.
On Thanksgiving, I was very happy to share the tradition of giving thanks for the people and experiences you have in your life, and present a positive image of life in the U.S. People responded really well to this and many people stood up after dinner with me to carry out the tradition. While it was my first turkey free thanksgiving, it was also free of distractions of holiday fuss and I was able to focus on what I really am thankful for in my life and enjoy the community at GAIA, which assured me that they were my family in Argentina and I would always be welcome back. I made wonderful friends during the month of this course, something that is hard to really do when you are traveling alone for a year. Though the intensity that comes with community life was a bit overwhelming at times, the laughter, physical connection and positive energy that people shared really had an impact on me and made me realize how much is missing from most of our daily lives in the "developed world." How often do you stop to hug someone you know and really ask them how they are doing? I was amazed at how starting your day with a hug and greeting changed the way that people interacted throughout the day.
The last weekend of the course, we went to work at an organization called Camino del Sol. This group works in a really poor, dangerous suburb of Buenos Aires with children that have been abandoned, abused or are otherwise at risk. They incorporate principles of permaculture and natural building as a tool to inspire and teach the kids. In the morning, we toured their current limited facilities and played with the kids. It was amazing how open the kids were and how all they needed was love and attention. Two little girls sat on Amanda's and my laps during lunch and their fascination with us was amazing. Then a little boy, about three years old, got into my lap and started climbing all over me, hugging me one minute and pushing himself away the next. It was really hard to experience his simultaneous need and fear of attention. We did a dance with the kids, but this little boy would not participate despite my efforts. Then finally we sang a song. We climbed up into my arms and sat completely still for the first time while we sang. Then in the afternoon we went to their new, safer site and did a design exercise using what we had been learning in the course to help them plan their future facilities.
Our lessons and experiences culminated in a final design project in which we worked in groups to design an ecovillage in its entirety. We discussed everything from social structures and economic systems to site layout, resource flows and infrastructure plans. It was a great way to put to use all that we learned. Because the course emphasized so much about communication and group dynamics, there was a lot of emphasis placed on the process, and the architect in me learned a lot about listening and designing as a team, despite my desires to focus my energy on the design product. We ended up producing a very complete ecovillage project, complete with some design details, and felt proud to present our ideas to the GAIA community.
With regards to my travels, one of the best pieces of advice I have received was from a resident of GAIA who served as a kind of mentor in natural building, as well as the more spiritual aspects of ecovillage living. He told me that you have to live in the present moment and enjoy it for what it is, not concerned about tomorrow because no matter what you do, something will happen and things will work out. It sounds so simple and I have heard similar things from friends in the past, but it is not a simple thing to live. Being the type A personality I am, I cannot help but constantly be thinking in the back of my mind what I will be doing in the days, weeks and months to come. Of course I am enjoying the experiences I have and the people I meet, but I definitely think I could still enjoy more and worry less. I tried meditation a few times with the community at GAIA, and while I cannot say that I reached any higher enlightenment or that sitting still in silence for an hour a day is now part of my daily life, the power of taking time for relaxation, awareness and reflection is amazing. I am going to try to take a few minutes every morning before I start each day of this trip to just enjoy all that I have and be prepared for the day ahead. This year is an amazing journey and it is worth taking the time to remind myself that each day is a unique gift in my life.
Saturday night I came back to civilization and I am settling back into the impersonal rush of (unsustainable, of course) city life. I am staying with my friends from Servas, Pablo and Omjai again, so at least I was welcomed back to the city with open arms and wonderful Thai food. At a dinner party last night, I met a friend of theirs who works in the Oficina de Protección Climática y Eficiencia Energética in the Buenos Aires City Government that was recently founded 5 months ago. She assured me that, from what she knows, Argentina in general is far behind the U.S. and Europe with respect to environmental awareness and concepts of sustainability, at least in cities and in terms of modern design and technologies. But she was hopeful about change for the future and did have some other ideas about the small scale ecological building movement, which seems to be manifested in projects like GAIA all around the country. Later this week, two friends from my course and I are planning to head south for two weeks to Patagonia, where I have made some contacts in natural construction, permaculture and sustainable living projects. I have also been hearing that the indigenous culture is much stronger down south and could be more interesting because of the greater extremes in terrain and climate. I am happy to have so much time in Argentina, making friends, following leads and getting to know the country and its culture.
During the holidays, I will be making my way with my friends from Ecuador towards Chile, where I have also made some very interesting contacts in architecture! While I am sad to be so far from friends at family at this time of year, I send my love and promise that I have plenty of people here that have become like family to me. I miss you all and I hope your holidays are full of love and a feeling of contentment with the present.