Vivero Cumbre, A Community Garden in the Center of Santiago

Easy Going Means Easy Travel

It was a wonky feeling getting on the plane without any great intention or months of planning. Traveling over 5,000 miles to go and visit some friends somehow seemed frivolous. I softly reminded myself that if I want to continue to be a free spirit then sometimes I have to just leap; to let the process lead the way and tust.

Before leaving a friend texted me “ the universe wants you to succeed”. She intended this text to be for the GRE that I might as well of failed. And for the upcoming trip to Nicaragua, that fell through. With this awareness, I chose to embrace that the universe does want me to succeed. But perhaps the conspiracy is not to support me in following the conventional path, a lesson I have learned many times over.

My arrival to Santiago was the smoothest of all international travels. The California lady sitting next to me was the ideal companion for the 9.5 hours red-eye flight. Irma and I connected on water issues, ate dinner, and peacefully snoozed through the night. She insisted on sharing her taxi and paying the driver to take me to my friend’s house. Easy peezy compared to the planned route of public transport.

Gardening Meets Eatable Landscape

With the application of permaculture principals, trail and error, and a lot of the love, the garden was thriving. Being a “slave to the plants’, as Nico described it, surly had paid off. Food was growing on every terrace. The gentle pulling back of leaves revealed giant zapallo cholito(native squash). Berries, eatable flowers, corn, carrots, potatoes, several varieties of tomatoes, and much more. In only 3 years time he and volunteers in the community had transformed an unruly hillside into a productive place for people to come and find nourishment—for the body and the soul.   

Exposing school children to process of cultivating the landscape had proven not only to be an agricultural lesson; it was a lesson of connecting to that which we come from, Nature. Nico told of the ways city dwellers and students had found serenity here at the garden. In the midst of concrete construction and traffic, people could come to this park and sink their hands into the soil. 

Worm Compost Extraordinaire

This vermaculture systems is one of the healthiest and productive ones I have seen. The design embraces the principal that we should capture and utilize as much energy in a system as possible, which means in the case of compost means creation of rich humus. According to Nico and his mentor, Felix Brunatto, aerobic fermentation produces a greater yield than anaerobic fermentation. In other words, maintaining an environment that is rich with oxygen and therefore conducive for worm habitat is more efficient and effective than the traditional compacted and heat producing compost pile.

In the more traditional compost pile there are two additional products (aside from humus) are methane gas and heat. Now, if you are like me, you can see what the production of methane isn’t great but what’s wrong with heat? Well, nothing is inherently wrong with heat. It is simply that it is energy that is escaping the system that could be utilized. So then how can that energy be used? Worms!

The concept is that if you maintain an cool, oxygen and organic rich environment for Eisenia Foetida Andrei (California Red Worms) then your have higher production of humus. It is pertinent to comprehend that the worms transform the organic matter into humus, which is nutrient rich soil.  Another plus to this system is that you can put any organic matter here. The worms don’t care if it is a citrus, meat, or dairy. They transform it all. And I can say with confidence that this well maintained vermaculture systems is odor free. 

A Work In Progress

Nico has also been incorporating biofilters and natural building techniques into this space. You can see the collection of plastic bottles ready for a building project and an example of a rain catchment that is built with them as well. He has stopped using the biofilter until, as he put it, “it can be done properly”. The thing with biofilter is that they are sensitive and need to be regularly maintained. I have a lot of respect for folks who hold off on projects until they are really ready to do them well. In the photos here you can see the currently non-functioning one that has the potential to function with some modifications.

And alas, as we left Vivero Cumbre I was assured that indeed this was going to be a rich adventure in to the world of Chilean permaculture, social and environmental movements, and a time to learn. 

A Rock Lovers Dream, Karangsambung, Java

The Javanese train stopped at the  Kebumen station and I waved goodbye to my new friend, a recent graduate who coincidentally completed his fieldwork at the location I was trying to find—the most geologically diverse region in the world. The blazing sun warranted a ride to the main street where I settled for a hotel that cost the equivalent of $15 a night. Within the hour and against the warning of it ‘being rainy season’ I was on a motorcycle and off to the research station called Lipi.  Yes, it did rain most of the way but my determination for the rocks outweighed the discomfort of wet clothes.

Defry, the young Lipi geologist and English-speaking student agreed to take me to the sites. And this is when the real adventure begins. Imagine, you are in the warm rain, on a motorbike and you stop to see the landscape that lays ahead. To the left is an ancient subduction zone and to the right are sedimentary mountains.  The juxtaposition is significant because a subduction zone is the site where the crust of the Earth is literally being pulled back into the mantel and next to it are layers of sediment compacting over millions of years. Now, all are mostly covered by lush green rice fields. 

Further down the road and about a mile hike along a stream, great awe-inspiring rocks await. The beauty of the divergent boundary is enough to make you giggle and in this moment the rain on the rocks only enhances the depth of the story. WATCH THE VIDEO TO SEE AND LEARN about pillow lava and seafloor spreading.

By a stroke of luck, the hotel worker’s childhood friend is a local stone lover and philosopher. As it turns out, Ravie and I are cut of the same cloth. His father is a talented artist and Ravie himself is a person with vision and sense of science. The living room of his house displays fossils and stones that rival any modest museum collection. I marveled at his collection and absorbed the excitement of his team at having an American showing interest in their region. We smoked clove cigarettes, drank coffee, and laughed as we connected over the love of stones. All the while I kept hearing a faint ringing sound in the background and finally asked.

That sound was a stone being made into a gem: the basic grinder, water, stone, and intuition of the craftsman coming together to show off the beauty of Earth. Beaming with humble pride Ravie asks me to stay in Kebumen one more night to see more sights. In my oh-so-tired state I agreed to consider it. It was one of the best decisions of my life.

The following day was filled with amazing learning. After a breakfast of fish and rice we (myself, the hotel worker, Raive, and his team) caravanned up to the mountains of Karangsambung. Passing Lipi and the some of the same sites Defry and I visited a day earlier. This time we explored as teachers of geoscience not as scientists. Our first stop was the magnetic serpentine: To met Ravie and learn about this rare rock please WATCH THIS VIDEO ABOVE. 

Even more artistically impressive than pillow lava or serpentine was the folded oceanic crust. Look at that layering! What you are seeing is ancient ocean sediment, which is red due to the high iron content in the ocean of millions of years ago. Then imagine that due to the subduction, the oceanic crust literally begins to fold. This is the evidence of the subduction of the Indo-Australian Plate beneath the Asian plate from 120 million years ago. I invite you to take a deep breath and be reminded of the power of plate tectonics. 

We stopped a few more places and those spots but I want to fast forward to the last place we visited. The place where all these rocks come together—the river. Called the Luk Ulu (meaning the Street of the Dragon), this river cuts through the Karangsumbung region and brings the diversity of rocks into one place. Along the riverbank rounded stones of every type imaginable can be found. This is where Ravie and his team sometimes visit to hunt for valuable stones that they can then polish and sell. CHECK OUT THE VIDEO TO LEARN MORE 

Ravie and his teams' passion for geology and public awareness of the beautiful planet reminded me of my own desire to live a life of teaching. Beyond his wisdom, the people of Kebumen taught me a great deal about this landscape and life. Each person I met was kind. Full of smiles and honored to have me as a visitor. The day of this adventure was also Ravie's sons 5th birthday. With grace the child offered me his cupcake and then put on a shadow puppet show. The night was full of magic. We ended it with a trip to a lot of land down the road where they go to meditate-no language needed. But, I did learn a word I shall never forget – Kapanane, in essence it means that with your intention and the mystery of the universes, things will happen when they are to happen. Sometimes Kapanane requires patients and openness to possibility - may it be so. 

 

Kawah Ijen, Java

When I walked in the door from the streets of Banyuwangi, l met the friendly faced middle-aged man named Yacob. We sat down to discuss the next days transport to Kawah Ijen. After a while I asked “how much”.  I had read it was good to bargain for 40,000 – 60,000 IRD for both ways and I was offered to go for 200,000 by others in town. He responded to me “It is an hour there and an hour back. I speak English and I will wait for you. How much do you think it is worth?”  Thinking about his honest question I gave him an honest answer “150,000". He agreed.

I woke up 2 minutes before my 12:36 am alarm. Dressed, placed my now fully charger camera into my already prepared daypack and headed for the lobby. Yacob was waiting for me and we soon departed on the motorbike. It was odd how many people were also up so early in this port side city and then it occurred to me that these people were still out for the evening.

The further we climbed into the mountains the colder it got. Fortunately Yacob had a blanket under the seat. We stopped so that I could wrap myself with the extra layer and then turned up the last steep road to the foot of the volcano. At the trailhead we took a moment to have a much needed cup of coffee and I bought a wool hat.

The moon shone bright enough through the clouds to light the barren trail to the rim. After an hour of climbing, I reached the rim, where a hubbub of tourists and miners aguishly filed through the gate toward the only path down. The rocky foot way into the crater began with the first reminded that this was a volcano- the smoke. The sulfuric gasses surrendered only to the wind and when the wind blew our direction an all-encompassing cloud of toxic gas engulfed all your senses. Even with the 5 surgical masks and a buff over my face it was a challenge not to gasp and cough. As for the eyes, there was little to protect them except for the bodies natural defense of tears that were immediately saturated with sulfur and burnt the face. Nevertheless, the line of people slowly moved forward only to stop for a miner that was carrying a load of yellow rock up from the crater’s depths.

The frantic energy produced by the 20 or so people scurrying around to see the famous ‘blue flames’ was abrupt. Realizing the only way to ‘get the shot’ was to join the cluster of flashing cameras, I nudged my way toward the vent. As soon as possible I removed myself and began to explore.

In From of the Vents

In From of the Vents

The tight crutch of the squeaking sulfur beneath my feet was the first thing I truly paid attention to. I walked over the landscape with an acute awareness that years of studying geology promotes. Imagining the mantel/crust interactions was my favorite story to play though my mind. Looking around at layers of igneous rock fueled my imagination of past eruptions; richness of the inner part of Earth coming to the surface.

And then cam the dawn. Like a highly orchestrated overture in theater production the picture seeking tourists left the scene, the crater fell silent, and the light beams began to illuminate the interior. The lake came into full view and its color reviled the blue flames. With mystical trepidation I climbed up onto a large green rock and wrapped Yacob’s blanket around me. Warm and a safe distance from the gas, I pulled down my masks and breathed in the rawness of Kawah Ijen. 

It was after this that I asked another traveler to record the below video. Enjoy. 

The Green School, Bali

The Bridge I crossed over to arrive at the green school

The Bridge I crossed over to arrive at the green school

Like a grand Disneyland display of architecture and sustainability the magical campus pulsates with a lively passion for imagination. But unlike the creation of a pretend land, this place is a reality for the 410 students who learn and grow at the most sustainable school on the planet - the Green School

After a series of events prevented me from carrying out my plan to climb Mt. Batur for sunrise, I decided to make my day all about education. I booked a tour to visit a school that was brought to my attention by an American woman whom I met in the Singapore airport. I referred to the few notes I jotted down from the conversation about Sue’s PhD in education leadership, living in Bali, and the description of the school her 16 year-old daughter was attending. At the time it all sounded too good to be true and today I would find out for myself.

               the best Taxi driver you could have in ubud, bali. 

               the best Taxi driver you could have in ubud, bali. 

I spoke to several taxi drivers and eventually went back to the first one. He had the most trusting eyes and an honest disposition. Dewa ended up being a wonderful friend and helped me out several times in the following days. But that is another story. Back to the School. 

Upon arrival I immediately knew something was special when there were parents, students, and staff all around laughing and talking as though it was a holiday celebration. After signing in, paying the 120,000 IRD (about $11.00), and receiving the temporary tour pass necklace and ear phone I felt slightly part of their community - even if it was for only for a few hours.

Irma, our lovely gentle spirited tour guide walked us though the campus. One of the first stops was a brilliant example of how to infuse conservation with education. They are working to rehabilitate, repopulate and reintroduce endangered birds into the wild. Students learn about the impacts of environmental degradation such as deforestation right along with how to protect the natural environment and nurture a diverse ecosystem.

The next major stop along the tour really sealed the deal for me. They have a mud pit!  The philosophy of the school includes physical development and since they are in Bali and embrace some cultural traditions, they teach all students how to mud dance and mud wrestle. My heart leapt when I imagined students preparing to preform during challenge week (their version of exam week) for all the school. 

Along the path and down to the middle school area the intentionally open and part-of-nature design of each classroom was apparent. Most of the students where headed home but a few girls had stayed late to tell us of their recent project. With confidence and enthusiasm they explained their plan to rid Bali of plastic. Already they have spoken to the governor and have taken steps to turn their vision into a reality. I asked how this all came about and they responded with an explanation that they were learning of role models in the world. They thought, “why wait until we are old, lets do something now.”  With the support of their teachers and the Green School community they are indeed doing something now. 

The tour contained many more facets of their program. One of their goals is to be completely off-the-gird while also providing clean energy to the neighboring village. While they currently have solar power they also (with the help of a French company) built an innovative hydroelectric system using a method call the vortex. And the students helped to build the dam! They grow food, use banana leaf plates, compost and then use the compost to help build-up topsoil for growing more food. There are staff members who help with this but the students are involved every step along the way. 

All of these amazing manifestations of dreamy theory were divine but there was something deeper that sparked my passion for this place. A familiar philosophy, one near and dear to my heart, of living a balanced and four-fold way of life. My mom has said it best when she described that besides giving me love, putting a roof over my head and food in my belly, Camp Miniwanca was the best thing she and my dad ever provided for me. I could hardly disagree.

The foundational philosophy I learned at Miniwanca has profoundly shaped my life. For 15 summers I immersed myself in striving to be my own self at my very best all the time, even when I was doing things far outside of my comfort zone. These spats of concentrated mindfulness of  practicing balanced living (mental, physical, social, and spiritual) and development of leadership skills have in many ways made me the person I am today.  And here, in Bali, I find a school that advocates and practices a way of education that is perfectly aligned with these ideals.

Imagine if this model could continue to spread?  How can we be part of this revolution of positive and powerful education? Beaming with energy from the tour I decided to purchase some fresh juice and veggies form the farm stand and a T-shirt from the school store. A friendly face, which turned out to be Sal the math teacher, asked how I was and answering honestly I responded, “fantastic!” 

Patara Elephant Experience

"When you approach your elephant you must not show fear", instructs the elephant expert. Easy for him to say as a person who has a relationship with the massive animal. "Then you can say Ja Ja Ja!!",  the mahout continues.  At this, the elephant returns his hello with a trumpeted expression coming from her long trunk. “To praise the elephant say dee,dee and tap it on the trunk and below the eyes.”  Next, to make friends with the elephant you must feed it. Tell the elephant that you have food by saying “baan, baan”.  The elephant opens its mouth and the mahout places a 30cm long stalk of raw sugar under its trunk and lets the elephant take it. “Do not toss the food at an elephant, it does not like that.  Now, you come and demonstrate.”  The mahout points at my Uncle Max who stand, picks up the basket full of sugar cane and bananas and walks toward Ma Quan – his pregnant elephant for the day. See the video of their first meeting. 

The morning was shaping up well but it wasn’t until the mahout started teaching us how to tell the age, health, and gender of an elephant by investigating the dung that I knew we had come to the right place. Chiang Mia is historically known for its elephants and thus its recent tourist elephant riding experiences. However, a large portion of the places practice methods that are not good for the creatures. For example, using chains, not allowing the elephants enough space and freedom to develop their own social structure, placing the wooden seats on the back, or using a bull-hook.  I did not want to end up in a situation where my money supported anything that was bad for the elephants and thanks to a good deal of online research we decided on Patara Elephant Farm. Good call. 

Before we ever mounted our elephant for the day we performed a health check, (included dung inspection) and cleaning of the elephant. Did you know that the only place an elephant sweats is their toenails?  And you can tell how they slept by looking at the skin? They alternate sleeping on each side during the night and only sleep about 6 hours. The rest of the time they are concerned with eating  - a lot of foliage and fruit. The bathing is important for maintaining hygiene and preventing skin infections. Finally, after a fabulous lunch and putting on proper mahout clothing it was time to learn how to get onto the elephant.

There are three main ways but some elephants only like one or two so each person may or may not have a choice.  I used the over the trunk and up onto the head method. The elephant is incredibly agile, especially considering its size. It was a thrilling moment to tuck my feet behind the ears and ease into the contour of Suu’s neck.  One by one the heard of ~8 elephants received its human and then we were off through the jungle. 

Now, if you have ever been horse back riding you know how there is always one that always wants to take its own path and stop to eat every 5 paces. Well, that was Suu.  This 6 year old bull had an agenda of his own and I was not compelled to press him to behave differently. Besides, it was a beautiful jungle and I was happy to take my time. The proper mahout that accompanied us was not so patient. Or maybe he wanted to to take charge but in the end he used a small switch made of living bamboo and a lot of vocal commands that moved Suu along. Toward the end of the path though Suu began to flap his ears (that means he is happy) and pick up the pace. For at the end was the waterfall and that meant a bath.  Elephants love bath time and they played and rolled around gleefully - especially the young ones. 

 

We joined the elephants in the water and with a scrub brush and bucket cleaned them. It was a most amazing sensation to be in the water with these animals. After the bathing and the waterfall it was time to say good-bye. In the end it was a most exciting day and I truly felt connected to Suu. 

Ban Huey Dong Dam, A Hmong Village in Northern Laos

We rode out to the Ban Huey Dong Dam village in the back of a pick-up truck. The unusually long rainy season had caused to dirt road to erode so much that we had to park and walk down the hill, over a seasonal stream and veered right onto a smaller path. The first sign of a village was a cluster of classic bamboo with thatch roof houses; some falling down and others more sturdy. After Nzuoa spoke with his parents (who moved here to find a way of life away from the US bomb laden field further south) for a while we walked to look at the water system. They pipe fresh water down from the mountains at lie 2,400 meters away. The pressure from the journey downhill pushes the water up into two large concrete cisterns. The waters is then distributed to a central pump where people can go for collection. 

 
Cisterns

Cisterns

Water Pump

Water Pump

Next to the water station was a two-room school.  Here about 70 students come to learn basic math and reading. It was unclear how often or long these schooldays occur. As we looked around in the school and asked Nzoua questions we noticed an increasingly large group of children gathering outside. They would come up the path and if one of us westerners would look out or make a move they would squeal and retreat. At one point I walked down the path to get my backpack that was lying near the cisterns and all the children ran away as if I was chasing them. In part this tactic became a game but the nervous giggles and screaming was coming from a genuine place of caution and maybe a bit of raw fear. They were not accustomed to seeing white people like ourselves. 

We walked back through another part of the village and stopped at a house to visit a woman with an extended belly. A young lady outside of the house sat crushing rice in a mortar to give to the sick woman inside. We all stayed outside of the house while Nzoua went in to see if he could help and arrange transport to the hospital in the city. 

Remembering the good practice of physically putting yourself on the same level as children, I squatted down and tried to be as open and warm mannered to the gathering crowd of curious faces. Any sudden move or gesture to reach out only caused a screaming scattering of children. 

Digging through my backpack, showing them whatever was inside, I found a bag of unopened mixed nuts. Perfect for sharing!  I opened then bag and poured some into my hand and offered them. They ran. So I ate a few myself, gave some to the others in my group and to the few women adults at the house. This was not enough to convince the kids but the boys started pushing each other forward making lunges toward the bag of nuts I had sat on the ground. Still though, they were too scared to actually take it. My attempt to make friends was failing.

Next I pulled out my new fugi camera. Now, I had their attention. I took a few photos of the chickens and pig nearby and showed them the play back on the screen. This was of great interest and produces giggles of excitement instead of fear. I demonstrated how a photo was taken by showing how to push the button and then offered them to push it. Little boys began grabbing the hands of others and directing their friends fingers toward the camera but no volunteers – yet. Nzoua came out of the house and I asked him to pose for a picture. I snapped the shot then showed the kids. They loved it. Next was the group selfie and the sight of the instantaneous image of themselves prompted an explosion of laughter from all of us. The following minutes were filled with children taking turns pushing the button and them edging forward to look at what they captured. I turned the camera around so the photo would be of themselves and this was especially thrilling.

It was a beautiful experience for me to eventually make friends with the children of Ban Huey Dong Dam.

Note: Yes, I did ask permission from the adults to use the camera and take photos. 

 

Poukham Cave, Vang Viene, Laos

Vang Viene is two things: partying and karst topography. My goal was to get to the town in enough time to see some karst. And now at 4:30 pm the only way to make it happen was to resort to tourist offices. For the third time I walked into a tour outfit and asked if it was possible to do some trekking this afternoon. Finally, someone said yes. The Lao lady with perfectly manicured bangs pointed at the boy next to her and said that he could take me of his motorbike. If I really wanted to make this happed I would need to trust this guy to take me to the cave and back- on a motorbike.

The dusty road lead to the wooden bridge (a 2,000 kip fee to cross) that lead into the small village of Nathont. The road was made of a mixture of dirt, cobblestone, and the occasional plank of wood. It was a busy time of say when the children were coming back from school. Seeing 10 year olds on oversized bikes and motorbikes told me to relax and enjoy the surrounding mountains. We did eventually ride to the end of the 7km road with the only insult being that teasing the driver (Tal Oo Intuom) received from his fellow villagers. Probably because of the blond lady on the back of the motorbike who was not sitting side saddle style. 

An unexpected 10,000 kip entrance fee was the first hint that I was not were I had thought I was headed. The blue lagoon was beautiful but full of tourists deinking, swinging off rapes and hollering cheers of excitement in the cold water. The disappointed expression on my face was accurately interpreted by Tal Oo whom assured me there was a cave not far down the path. Up about 150 steep meters was the opening to an enormous orifice into the limestone mountains. The light streamed in and illuminated the golden Buddha that was laying on its side un a protective gold canopy. Ngam Lie! ('Beautiful' in Lao). 

The Italian couple behind me shortly arrived but did not stay long and did not venture past the opening. Equip with my old and failing petzel headlamp followed the warn red arrows back into the depths. Along the way there were pockets of plants that survived with the few hours of sunlight that passed by the maze of fallen rock and onto a moist, eroding wall of the cave. 

Deeper into Poukham cave was a most spectacular sight with gigantic stalactites and towering stalagmites. The calcite deposits glistened like diamonds anytime my beam past over a surface. One of Natures finest displays of sparkle. Inspired by the sense of abyss I found a comfy seat and settled into the darkness. With my light off I could keep my eyes wide open and see nothing. Ah, the nervous system relaxes into the space of reduced sensory input. 

Buddha Park

The last 10 km of the 24km journey from the bus station in Vientiane is riddled with more divots than smooth dirt road. The tuk-tuk driver capitalizes on taking a lone Westerner to Buddha Park by picking up and dripping off local Lao along the way. I don’t mind and great them with a Sabaidee as they climb into the back.

They could not make change for the 5,000 Kip entrance fee so I paid 20 Baht. People in this area easily accept US dollar, Thai Baht or Lao Kip. Upon entering the park the myriad of concrete statues are impressive. Walking around these large images the impression is that they are pretty but seem to be missing something. Nevertheless, I walked around like all the other tourists and take photos. The high noon sum makes photography difficult but not impossible.  I am especially interested in the frog eating sun statue called chanthakathath because a dear friend of mine has a spiritual connection with frogs. Most of the statues are made by one man, Bunleua Suliat of Nongkhai Province. 

Outside of the park in the Mekong River there was something that caught my eye. A dredging operation was in full force. Ah, here is a sign that I am more drawn to the juxtaposition of this supposed monument to a higher power and the real power in this region – the Great Mekong. Affirmation of my motivation of traveling sunk in. Travel to me is not so much about seeing this #1 tourist attraction in Vientiane but to seek to witness and learn of the ways of people and nature around the world. 

 

Before leaving I entered the most prominent feature in the park- the Pumpkin. Within its core are depictions of hell, Earth, and heaven. Inside, the lack of weathering on the concrete gives these images a younger and more protected feel. I climbed the narrow stairs three flights up; stopping to observe the story-like scenes on each level.  At the top you can look out of at the grand display of art. Ah but it seems so static.

A couple joins me at on top of this massive statue filled pumpkin and I ask if they would kindly take a photo of me. This is for my mother who is always eager to see proof that I am happy and healthy while traveling. Afterward, we stand looking out and my comment to the lady was “beautiful but doesn’t seem to have much heart”. She agreed. I said thank you and goodbye and promptly slipped. I caught myself but in was enough of a mistake to make my heart skip a beat and call my attention to the moment. Without warning the thought entered my mind “how dare you say there is no heart.”

Now I am not totally whoo whoo but I immediately apologized and reminded myself of the dangers of judgment. Who was I to say what had heart and what does not. On the way out I stopped in at the information booth and learned that the creator of this park had fallen into a cave as a child and met a hermit, Keo Ku, who became his spiritual mentor. Upon graduating as Keu Ku’s apprentice he took up concrete sculpture and this park was his way of being a devotee. In essence this was a physical manifestation of one mans spiritual journey, which was born out of his interaction with nature. 

Nourishing Oriental Plants with Blackwater

Black-water, you may think, is what you find in the estuary of Mississippi but this backwater is what comes out of your toilet. And in truth, the muck you find in an estuary and that which flows from a septic tank have a similarity - nutrients.  These nutrients are an essential component of life as we know it. Nutrients predominantly composed of nitrogen and hydrogen compounds. Farmers know of the importance of these compounds and so do environmentalist. But I believe it is a lack of knowledge that causes the general population to see the toilet water as wastewater instead of water laced with valuable resources.

At the permaculture project called Rak Tamachat they demonstrate how toilet water can be the food that prized oriental plants need to thrive. They have converted the septic system into an efficient growing machine. There are primary distinctions that set this system apart from a traditional septic system (if you don’t know about septic systems see my educational video) 1: a manual flush toilet; 2:a grave drain field intentionally cultivates profitable oriental: and 3: an overflow that feeds banana tress.

 

So lets start at the beginning – ya gotta go to the bathroom. Ya do your business and then instead of using electric energy to flush, then you dip the scoop into the large vessel of water and pour it into the toilet bowl.  You may need to do this a couple of times to get it all down. You put the lid back on the vessel and your job is done. The nutrients in the water however, have just begun...

 


 

Gravity guides the nutrient-filled water into a standard three-chambered concrete septic tank. What goes on in the septic tank is microbial magic. Anaerobic bacteria (they thrive in oxygen starved environments) will feast on the nutrients, which are in the form of what we call pee and poop. The bi-product of the anaerobic bacteria is a converted form of nutrients (nitrogen) ready to be gobbled up at the next phase of the system. After about three days it will have completed its journey through each of the chambers and then flows into a gravel filled pit.

 

Upon first glance, this gravel filled pit is cleverly disguised as a nice oriental plant garden. But beneath the surface are slightly sloping perforated pipes that guide the nutrient rich water. The aerobic bacteria (thrive in oxygen rich environments) explodes with influx of nutrients and quickly prepares the nutrients for the plants. The plants exchange the starches they produce through photosynthesis for the nutrients from the aerobic bacteria and all live happily in the mutualistic symbiotic relationship. Furthermore, the humans in this system are happy as well. Other than the low-cost of installing the system and initial purchase of the plants, the ‘wastewater’ is free to dispose of and is actually feeding plants that can then be sold at a high price in the market. I wonder how long it would take before a person could actually make a profit? 

The drawings here are from Emre Rona of Turkey, who designed and lead the building project.  

Now, hopefully you have a few questions so I will try to anticipate and answer them. Maybe you're wondering where the soil is but in this system there isn’t any soil. The gravel is the medium in which the plants grow. As long as there is sun, water, and nutrients, plants are happy.

Another good question is about overflow. What if there are a shit-ton (pun intended) of people using the toilets and the gravel pit fills up? Well, there is an overflow. It is assumed that if the water reaches the overflow area it is fairly clean and it will flow underground to a nearby pit that is surrounded by banana trees, which will gladly receive the nutrient boost. To this date the water level has not reached the overflow piped.