Friday, 28 February 2014

Itaipu: une central hidroeléctrica con beneficios temporales y costos permanentes


Represa de Itaipu, vista de encima

El inicio

Al centro de visitas de Itaipu, donde pasan 400 visitantes al dia, un video explica de que se trata la visita.
 La voz en el video dice, con tono alegre: "La palabra 'Itaipu' fue escogida en honor a las comunidades indigenas que vivian cerca del rio Parana antes de la construccion de la represa.  Habia una pequeña isla en medio del rio, y cuando el agua la chocaba, hacia un sonido.  Asi que 'Ita' significa 'piedra', y 'Ipu' significa 'que suena'.". 
"Desafortunadamente", continua diciendo, "Estas comunidades indígenas tuvieron que emigrar cuando empezaron los trabajos de la represa.".
La voz sigue alegre.
"Claro que hubo quejas", dice Andrea quien trabaja en el centro de visitas, "pero como era tiempo de dictadura, sus reclamos eran en vano".

Los Saltos de Guaira desaparecidos - foto de la página web de
Cecilia Hauff Colcombetz
Según un estudio de la universidad Innsbruck, al iniciar la construcción de la represa, las expropiaciones afectaron  42 400 Brasileños, 25 000 Paraguayos, 800 km2 de tierras agrarias y 600 km2 de tierras forestales.
Quizás lo mas asombroso es que al llenar el embalse de la represa en 1982, se inundaron los Saltos del Guaira.  Estas cataratas, según la ecóloga Glenn Ross Switkes, eran las cataratas mas grandes del mundo antes de su desaparición.





Como funcionan las represas?

En una represa, las aspas de las turbinas hidráulicas se mueven por la fuerza del agua, tal fuerza se transmite su energía a un generador, donde se transforma en energía eléctrica.
De acuerdo a la revista Ojo Científico, las represas producen 24% de toda la energía eléctrica del planeta.  
La cantidad de energía producida por las represas anualmente es equivalente a 3600 millones de barriles de petróleo.
"La represa de Itaipu responde a casi lo 100% de la demanda energética de todo el Paraguay, y al 25% de la demanda Brasileña", refiere Andrea.

En 1995 la represa de Itaipú formó parte de una lista de las Siete Maravillas del Mundo Moderno, que elaboró la revista americana Popular Mechanics.
Durante el tour turístico, el guía explica que la represa genera
 una energía "limpia y renovable"

Una energía limpia y renovable? 
Durante el tour turístico, el guía insiste varias veces que la central hidroeléctrica produce una "energía limpia y renovable".  
Sin embargo, no cabe duda de que las represas producen una cantidad importante de gases invernaderos, a veces mayor que la cantidad producida por centrales eléctricas funcionando con combustibles fósiles (New Scientist Print Edition, 24 de febrero de 2005).

De hecho, al llenar el embalse, las plantas inundadas se pudren en el fondo, creando metano que está liberado al aire cuando el agua pasa por las turbinas. El efecto del metano sobre el calentamiento de la tierra es 21 veces mas fuerte que el efecto del dióxido de carbono.
Al presentarle a Andrea estos datos, ella responde: "Es verdad, no es una energía limpia. Pero Itaipu Binancional  [que también controla los tours turísticos] tiene una política, y nosotros debemos seguirla.". 
"Por lo menos, como compensación, crearon siete áreas silvestres protegidas alrededor del embalse".
Que alivio...
El guía precisa durante el tour:  "Según los ingenieros, la represa tiene una esperanza de vida de 200 a 250 años".  
Sera una energía renovable por 200 años.

"Puede ser menos", dice Andrea. "Cada año, el nivel del sedimento en el embalse aumenta...  también, el nivel del agua en el Paraná puede bajar.". 
Costos agrarios y sociológicos

Los Saltos de Guaira desapareciendo poco a poco - foto de la pagina de Cecilia Hauff Colcombet


Otro efecto que tiene la represa sobre el medio ambiente, y que afecta directamente la agricultura, es el cambio del micro-clima.
De hecho, el agua poco móvil en el embalse absorbe la radiación solar y, al evaporarse, libera una humedad caliente en su alrededor.
De acuerdo a los agricultores, la temperatura en las tierras alrededor del embalse ha subido de 4 grados desde 1984, año que fue llenado el embalse.  También notaron una baja de 30% de la producción de soya desde el mismo año.
En 2003, mil agricultores sometieron un pleito contra Itaipu Binacional para obtener una compensación por sus perdidas. No hubo resultados hasta el día de hoy. 

Vale la pena?

El guía explica que con la cantidad de piedras que fueron desplazadas para
la construcción de la represa, se podría construir una carretera de Itaipu a
Nueva York
¿A pesar de los costos ecológicos, agrarios, sociológicos y financieros (el proyecto costo 15 000 millones de euros en total, y el Paraguay sigue hasta hoy en deuda con los bancos internacionales), son los beneficios bastante importantes para que valga la pena aquella represa?


"Por un lado, si.", dice Andrea. "Nosotros en Paraguay necesitamos esta electricidad para el desarrollo del país, y ademas sirve para pagar la deuda que tenemos con los bancos".
"Y por el otro lado...?", le pregunto.
"Bueno, ya sabes", responde Andrea con una sonrisa triste.

Para mi, la energía de las centrales hidroeléctricas simbolizan un paso por adelante, con otro por atrás. Las represas pueden reemplazar 3600 millones de barriles de petroleo al año, pero también pueden producir mas gases invernaderos que las centrales eléctricas funcionando con combustibles fósiles.
No es una energía limpia, esto es cierto. 
 Si, puede ser renovable, pero solamente por dos o tres generaciones.
Entrada controlada a la represa de Itaipu


No digo que la construcción de la represa de Itaipu fue mala cosa, o que se debería impedir a todo costo la construcción de represas en otras partes del mundo.  Pero si digo que en el futuro, se deberá evaluar mas concientemente los costos (ecológicos, pero también económicos, agrarios, y sociales) contra los beneficios de una nueva represa; y ver si hay una alternativa en el caso que los costos exceden los beneficios.

Sobre un blog tratando del tema de energía, leí una entrada que decía:  "Que irónico que las energías mas limpias son las que siempre han sido aquí: la energía solar y la energía eólica".
Vaya ironía....

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Buenos Aires: A City of Artists

On a Tuesday evening, Porteños enjoy a glass of wine while watching couples refine their tango steps

Leaving from the South of Peru, a logical plan would have been to start by the North of Argentina, stop by wine-country Mendoza, to visit the birthplace of Che Guevara in Cordoba, to finally arrive in Buenos Aires, where I expected my stay to be of about two weeks.

But my illogical instinct told me to go straight to Buenos Aires - where I ended up staying five weeks.
After having visited parts of the US, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina and Brazil, Buenos Aires was certainly the best part of my trip. I hope the reasons that brought me -and got me to stay- in the Argentinian capital will incite you to one day visit it for yourself.
Every Monday night, Cafe Vinilo offers tango lessons, followed by
a free show of Argentinian folklore music

In Buenos Aires, art is incredibly valued and accessible to all.  On any day of the week at any time of the year, one is sure to find a quality concert, dance show, play, or tango lesson at very modest prices, if not for free.
I was in my element.

During the day, fully-equipped bands will use the sidewalk as a stage, attracting dozens -or hundreds- of passersby, who eventually allow their bodies to sway to the rhythm of the music.

Tourist-oriented tango in the neighbourhood of
La Boca


 In the evening, guitarists opt for the metro as a music venue, and select popular Argentinian songs in the hope of inciting metro riders to sing-a-along.


 One Friday night, I witnessed to my great surprise an entire metro car of people singing along to every song the fired up musician -armed only with a guitar- was leading, barely pausing between the songs. Another time, a 20-year old break-danced on the wavering floor of the metro car... where else does this happen?






It's true!  People do dance tango in the street. At night time, entire streets are closed up to cars; projectors are set up, wooden boards are placed on the pavement, folklore music is played through loud speakers, and couples enthusiastically walk onto the improvised dance floor, followed by the amused looks of those sat at surrounding patios tables.




Book lovers will not want to leave.
With 200 bookstores, 70 libraries, and scores of kiosks, it is no wonder that Buenos Aires was inaugurated as the World Book Capital of 2011 by UNESCO.  Here, demand is so high that certain downtown libraries stay open all night... it is difficult to tell whether the placement of small coffee counters inside these libraries are a cause or a consequence of the extended hours.




(As a side note, tourists should try to avoid libraries located right in the middle of downtown - the books there will be two or three times the price of books in libraries just a bit further away.)

One should be aware that a cup of coffee at Cafe Tortoni includes the price of
the place itself - it is not cheap.
It is common knowledge that Buenos Aires has attracted important writers, artists and intellectuals for various centuries now.  There are 73 bares notables throughout the city - these are coffee shops/bars that hold 50-250 years of existence, and have been the setting of important cultural or historic activities.

The most famous is Cafe Tortoni, inaugurated in 1858, where the hundreds of portraits hung on the walls are proof that famous figures such as Jorge Luis Borges, Carlos Gardel, and even Albert Einstein have once sat at these tables.

Thin crust, wood oven-baked pizza with mozarela, sun-dried
tomatoes, and arugula - irresistible.

The excellent food of Buenos Aires encompasses a mix of Italian, Spanish and French culinary influences. Pizzas, empanadas (salted pastries stuffed with meat or cheese), and coffee with medialunas (small croissants) are the food of choice of Porteños (such are labeled the residents of Buenos Aires) - and they are all fantastic. Pizzerias and bakeries are actually on every. Single. Corner.
Outdoor seating is found everywhere, and nearly every cafe exhibits a deal of the like: "Coffee and 3 medialunas for 25 pesos (5$)".



Coffee with medialunas
Parks, tall trees, and plazas abound within the city.
At a short distance from downtown, a 360-acre ecological reserve offers a wonderful getaway from the concrete of the city. It has a river, a bike path, and a surprisingly large area of tall grass. It is free to the public, and open all night when there is full moon.

Buenos Aires is a city so big that Porteños themselves often ask each other for directions, which they exchange without the slightest sign of annoyance.

It is a city of music and books, of coffee and cigarettes, of pizza and wine.

This is Buenos Aires ; and it holds every right to its widely spread reputation.







Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Peru: It's not Just About Machu Picchu!

Colourful houses in the center of Lima 

I had the amazing fortune of spending an entire month in Peru, traveling by bus through five cities:  Lima, Huacachina, Ayacucho, Cusco, and Arequipa. Many who travel to Peru are convinced that Machu Picchu will be the highlight of their trip- and as magnificent as it was, it was definitely not my highlight.  Peru's numerous and diverse landscapes, its food, and its people were, in my eyes, its most memorable aspects.


  • Extraordinary Landscapes
The sand dunes in Huacachina, near Ica,  are the most majestic landscape I
have yet seen.
Peru has everything: ocean, jungle, mountains, sand dunes. If you have the chance to go to Huacachina, get up very early in the morning to watch the sun rise over the dunes...at that moment, the only things moving are yourself and the clouds in the sky. What I couldn't help but think there and then is that if Nature is so beautiful and tranquil, it is so to inspire us to be the same, but as humans. 
An oasis is situated at a 2km's descent into the
Colca Canyon

From Cabanaconday (160 km from Arequipa), one can hike down the Colca Canyon, which is the deepest in the world (twice as deep as the Grand Canyon) at 4000 m in depth. There is an oasis at the bottom where one can spend the night for 15 soles (about 5$), eat at one of the few restaurants, hang out in the hamacs, or swim in the pool. A tourist's paradise.

Palm trees and flowers abound in the oasis at the bottom of the
Colca Canyon














 In Ayacucho (between Ica and Cusco), there is not a whole lot to do, but it is aesthetically pleasing, has many great restaurants (in particular the Via Via restaurant, where you can eat a truly delicious lunch for 9 soles, or about 3$), and is the subject of a very interesting history (it has been the center of bloody conflict between the Inca and the Huari; between the Spanish and the Inca; between Patriots and Loyalists; and finally, between the Sendero Luminoso marxist terrorists and government forces in the 1980s).
View of the cathedral and Plaza de Armas from the Via Via restaurant in Ayacucho
As for Machu Picchu, yes it is absolutely worth it -it is hard to imagine that I had debated going or not. I tend to avoid very touristy places, and it could not be more so, but for good reason. I will spare you the pain of posting yet another picture of the Inca ruins, but I must share one of the hike in the jungle on the way to Machu Picchu, which I enjoyed as much as the abandoned city itself.
The view one can enjoy on the way up to Machu Picchu
Exquisite food

The food in Peru is absolutely delicious. Among the typical meals one should try are:  rocoto relleno (stuffed pepper with beef), caldo de gallina (chicken soup with egg and vegetables), pastel de papa (a sort of "cake" made of potatoes, cream and cheese), ceviche (raw fish with lime, olive oil, coriander, served with corn and sweet potato), cuy (fried guinea pig -actually quite savoury, and very nutritive), and lomo saltado (sautéed beef with onions and peppers).  For drinks, try chicha de jora (a purple, corn-based beer), the famous pisco sour, and my favourite, emoliente:  a warm drink served on the street, which contains a wide array of medicinal plants (toasted barley, flax seeds, plantain leaf, dried grass, etc.). I'm almost certain that the emoliente saved me from getting sick a few times. 
Cuy (fried guinea pig)
Ceviche
















Rocoto relleno at the front, lomo saltado at the back, and
chicha de jora


A woman is preparing emoliente in Cabanaconday




Golden People

I found Peruvians to be an extremely generous people, curious to learn about other cultures through their interactions with tourists, caring of their families, and very laid-back. The best way to meet those kind and inspiring people, in my opinion, is through couch surfing. I easily found a place to stay in Ayacucho, Cusco, and Arequipa, thanks to my beautiful hosts Juan, Hermogenes, and Anibal.
Ricardo and I, at the house of Hermogenes in Cusco

 Please allow me to share one of countless illustrations of their kindness. Not long ago, I took a two-day bus from the South of Peru to Buenos Aires. All I had for money was my debit card. We crossed the Chilean border without problem, but crossing the Argentinian border was a different story. I take the blame, I had not checked beforehand the requirements, and found out at the border control that Canadians had to pay a reciprocity fee of $75....which could only be paid online with a credit card. They would not accept cash or my debit card, so the bus driver so generously lent me his credit card. After two long hours (the Internet was not working for a while), I finally succeeded in paying the fee.  The other passengers were so understanding, and barely complained about the extra two hours I added to their trip.

Petty theft

Though rumors abound of petty theft in Peru  (and surely, it does occur -a few friends of mine did have some items stolen), I never got robbed.  Keep your bag closed and close at hand, be aware of false bills, and nothing should happen to you.  
I was unaware, at the time, that this taxi driver would steal a small amount from me.

The only time I did get robbed was when I gave a 50 soles bill to the taxi driver to pay for a 5 soles ride, and he gave me back (supposedly) 45 soles in coins!  Of course, I counted them later to find out there were  only 35 soles.  But hey, 10 soles ($4) is nothing. 

Peru is an extraordinary country to visit. You will have a great trip there, regardless of whether you speak the language or not.  But if you do speak Spanish, you will discover the most beautiful part of Peru: the generosity and warmheartedness of its people. 

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Meet Hermogenes, the host of 620 couch surfers in 547 days.

Hermogenes, 34, surrounded by his two boys Ricardo and Sebastián, and by their friend Alysa.

I arrived in Cusco, Peru around 7 pm, after a 22-hour bus ride.
Exhausted, I didn’t bother to barter the price for the taxi ride. I paid the ten soles requested by the taxi driver, even though my couch surfing host had told me beforehand to pay a maximum of six soles (“For six soles”, the driver told me, “I can drive you to the Plaza de Armas. But then you’ll have to walk ten blocks. It’s up to you.”).
I arrived at the given address, surprised to have the door opened to me by two very young-looking boys. The eldest, who appeared to be about eight years old, interrogated me in Spanish.
-Who are you looking for?
-Hum, Hermogenes?
-OK yes this is the place, please come in. Sorry about the mess, we just moved in a few days ago.

The place wasn’t messy, but it was small. I scanned the single room: one double bed, one bunk bed, one table, two chairs, and a two-feet wide gas stove (although it also contained an oven, the latter was out-of-use because a rat had found refuge there once, and had unfortunately been cooked while the oven was heating up, the eight-year old had confided. So there’s lots of bacteria in there now, he concluded).
Hermogenes's home: a single room with two beds, a table, a gas oven, and a
 non-functional refrigerator
Sebastián was eight years old, and Ricardo was three. Both were clearly used to travelers crashing at their place for a night or two.
“Here is your mattress”, said Sebastián while taking out a thin blue camping mat. “Sorry there are stains on it.  It’s because lots of other people slept on it. My Dad should be coming home soon from work. If you’re thirsty, we have water already boiled”.
Wow, I thought. I can’t wait to meet the man who raised these unusually well-behaved children.

Hermogenes arrived around 8:30 pm. While cooking some dinner, he explained to me their living situation.
“We actually just moved into this place three days ago. We used to live down the street, in a much bigger place. Then, I could host many couch surfers at a time. Three, four, even five.  Here, I can only take one or two”.
I was apparently standing face to the male version of Mother Theresa.
“You see”, he continued, “The rent at the other place was $200 per month. Here, it’s only $50. This way, I can send Sebastián to private school.”.
The cost of sending him to private school is 250 soles ($92) per month. But this expense lags far behind the expenditures for food, at 900 soles ($330) per month.
Sebastián, 8, and Ricardo, 3, enjoy some chocolate-covered peanuts-
rarily figuring on the grovery shopping list

And yet, despite this modest way of living, Hermogenes hosted 620 couch surfers over the last year-and-a-half.
Founded in 2004, the website Couchsurfing provides a platform for its members to either “surf” on couches in the city they are traveling to, or to receive “surfers” in their home for a few nights.  In 2012, the website counted 3.6 million members. One year later, this number had reached 6 million, connecting members in 100 000 different cities worldwide.  A system of references (positive, negative, or neutral) allows members to gauge the reliability of the surfer they will potentially host, or of the host whose couch they may surf on.
With 146 positive references on Hermogenes’s account (not all surfers left references), I had nothing to fear as a single woman surfing at a man’s house.
The only obligation a Couchsurfing host is bound by upon acceptance of a surfer is to provide him or her with a couch to surf on.  Nonetheless, Hermogenes always outdoes this criteria, offering a key to his guests for them to have unlimited access to the house, as well as sharing breakfast, and even sometimes dinner with them.

The motivating force behind his active participation in Couchsurfing is based on the desire to learn about and to build a connection with other people, says Hermogenes: “I do it for the friendships.  For the sake of sharing. I learn many things thanks to my guests: which types of people are most appreciative of what you give them, which ones need more commodities, etc.”.
One of the many plazas in the city of Cusco, where Hermogenes lives.

Hermogenes currently works in the administrative branch of a tourism agency; but this was not always the case, he tells me:  “The kids’mother and I used to own a hotel in the historic center. We both spent over $22 000 to buy and renovate it. I was quite invested in it. I spent sleepless nights driving to the airport at night to attract potential clients to our hotel. When the mother and I separated, I left her the hotel so that she would have a source of revenue. We got back together a year later. I was expecting to resume managing the hotel with her, but she had sold it without telling me. I had to start again at zero. ”.  His facial expression was devoid of any trace of rancor. It only revealed a sense of knowledge that had been gained the hard way.

Hermogenes blows on a small fire in a ceramic bowl, in
preparation for a ceremony of the reading of coca leaves.
Proud of his Inca roots, Hermogenes considers himself a mystic.
Despite this unfortunate experience, Hermogenes still hopes to build another hotel in the future, near the new international airport in Cusco that will be built in the coming years.  

Another dream of his is to one day become the mayor of Chinchero, his home town. “I think I have good chances. I am the only person from my town who has attended a private university.”. 
Ultimately, Hermogenes’s aspirations reach beyond this: “The truth is, I would eventually like to participate in the National Congress of Peru. But all of this is down the road. I have two boys to look after for the next few years.”.


Hermogenes is one of the most inspiring people I have come across in my lifetime.  Through living and interacting with him for the eleven days I was surfing at his place, I gradually gained the belief that anything is possible; and that serious downfalls happen even to the best of us – but with the right attitude, they will always be overcome. 



Saturday, 9 November 2013

Huacachina: tourists love the oasis, but are unaware of the water scarcity problem in the area

From the top of a sand dune, a view of Huacachina, with the city of Ica in the background

"Does that come with asparagus?", inquires Steven, an English tourist who is spending the day in Huacachina, hoping to catch a sand buggy ride through the majestic dunes of Ica.
He is contemplating ordering the arroz chaufa, one of the few traditional Peruvian dishes available in the restaurant Desert Nights. Most gringos (the South American term for Western tourists) tend to order burgers and fries, or beer and chicken wings.

A buggy carries tourists to the top of a dune for some sand surfing

Here is the irony: according to The Guardian, a study conducted in 2010 revealed that industrial production of asparagus in Peru's Ica valley, a large portion of which is sent overseas to the English market, is depleting the area's water resources so fast that smaller farmers are finding wells running dry. 
Steven was unaware of this.

In 2012, the National Water Authority (ANA) confirmed that water shortages in the Ica region have caused major agricultural firms to move to Northern Peru.
Yet, in the midst of this dryland glows the lake of Huacachina, the only oasis in South America. 
"Huacahina was discovered in the 1900s by the Italian Angela de Peroti. She found out that the water there had medicinal properties, like curing rheumatisms and skin diseases.", says Pablo, a tour guide in Huacachina. "There was a time where there were seven lakes in the Ica region. Out of those seven, Huacachina is the only one left.", he says.


Peru water shortages causing Ica agro firms to move north
Farmers collecting water from a well (courtesy of The Guardian)
Today, hotel owners advise against swimming in the lake, due to water contamination.  Moreover, the oasis is no longer natural, having seen its level gradually decrease over the years. "Every day, tap water is pumped into the lake from that well that you see, over there." says Pablo.   
It is said that in 2008, the water level diminished by five metres in two months

Despite the two or three scattered signs asking visitors to "respect the environment", the majority of them (especially the gringos) seem to be gleefully unaware of the ecological footprint their stay in Huacachina induces.
 After having sand surfed for a few hours, tourists go have a shower in one of the eleven hostels surrounding the oasis. They brush their teeth and wash their clothes anytime they wish.

They could not appreciate this unlimited access to water without knowing that 5 km away, in the city of Ica, restrictions abound. "In certain districts, residents only have access to water four hours a day. Two in the morning, and two at night.", says Eduardo, a tourist agency owner who lives in Ica
Does this imbalance not infuriate the residents of Ica?
Some gringos at Desert Nights, where the ´menu del dia´ consists of burgers
and fries
"They are used to it. For some, these restrictions have been in place for ten years", he shrugs. 
Christopher, an English traveler, was astounded to find out about this issue. "It´s not right... but I guess they´re still making money off of us. And I don´t think our presence here affects the restrictions in Ica. They would probably still be there". After a moment´s reflection, he adds:  "But yeah, there should be more information around about this problem.". 

Matheo, who works at the hostel Desert Nights, did not wholeheartedly embrace this suggestion. "Most people here come for a day or two. 80% are gringos, and very few speak Spanish. We cannot force restrictions upon these vacationers. There is a sign on the bathroom door that says that water is a scarce resource here in the Huacachina desert.", he says. 

Despite ecological concerns, there is a consensus among the Peruvian workers in Huacachina that tourism is extremely beneficial to the region. "If there were no tourists, many people in Ica would be unemployed", says Richard, a tour guide from Ica. "The average salary for Peruvians is 700 soles a month (250$). Here, we earn between 1500 and 2000 soles.", he explains.

I definitely had mixed feelings about staying in Huacachina. The empty sand dunes early in the morning and around sunset time are what kept me there for three days (OK, the sand surfing was pretty amazing too!).  I found out about the water scarcity issue on my last day. It´s something to be aware of... 
From top left: Richard, Pablo, Eduardo and Marcos. All four work as tour guides in Huacachina.
   













Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Teepees with Internet in Shambhalabamba: a Modern Self-sustaining Community in Ecuador


The common kitchen is flanked by plantain trees on side, and mountains on the other

“This place is how life should be. There is no schedule. There is no job to buy the things that you think you need. You just have to find a balance between living, working the land, and being happy.  We all support each other in doing what we want. This place is so healing.”.

Such are the thoughts of Andrea, a 27-year-old American who has been traveling through South and Central America for two years. When she first came to Shambhalabamba along with her partner, the intention was to stay a week or two.
They will soon complete their ninth month here.
 
The community of Shambhalabamba is situated in a valley near Vilcabamba, in South-Eastern Ecuador. Three acres of land were bought here by a retired American who decided to make a self-sustaining community of it. He had a house built for himself, sustained by 40-metre-high tree trunks, and six teepees for future community residents.


Fast-forward six months.
There is now a common kitchen, an auditorium for circus practice, a studio for mixing and recording music, a small man-made lake for swimming, a pond for the fish, and fields of a wide variety of crops: bananas, oranges, sweet potatoe, quinoa, amaretto, yuca, corn, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, peas, carrots, mangos, avocados, medicinal plants, and many different herbs.

The number of residents fluctuates between 18 and 25. Andrea and her partner built a little house there, and two more families are in the process of building their own houses.
One major trait unites the people of Shambhalabamba: they all aspire to live freely, working only for themselves. There are street performers, painters, DJs, producers, artisans, and musicians. They don´t gain much – but they don´t mind living simply.  Besides, the cost for staying in Shambhalabamba is of a mere five dollars per week – the necessary to cover the cost of food that is not yet grown on the property.
 
A vegan lunch: oven-roasted eggplant with garlic and tomato sauce,
pumpkin soup, beans and peppers with rice, spinach tortilla, and salad. 
In the morning, there is ususally a ´minga´. This is a time where everyone in the community gets together to complete a major task – this could be anything from transporting heavy materials, to cleaning and sowing a field, to building a clay oven.
Lunch is served for all between 1 and 4 pm (the notion of time holds very little value here, to the subdued frustration of those who try to schedule an activity at a precise hour).
In the afternoon, people do what they want.
“Every day, you ask yourself ´what should I do? Should I draw, dance, swim, cook, play music, go to the circus workshop?”, says Fiama, a 20-year-old Argentinian  who came to Shambhalabamba along with her partner and her 1-year old baby. “This place influences upon you a desire to be creative.”.

However, more so than the daily activities, residents stress the value of the human relations pervade this community. “We are mirrors of other people. It´s thanks to these human relations that you purify yourself of many things”, says Lucio, a 37-year-old Ecuadorian who came to the community with his partner and 10-year-old daughter. Andrea agrees: “ It´s about living with an open heart, and caring for others as your own family”.  Indeed, the three toddlers in the community are entertained and cared for by nearly all the residents, children and adults alike.
A short lapse of attention and... 


But like everything else, Shambhalabamba has its faults.

 “The majority of residents here are foreigners. I have never seen a local person, and very few Ecuadorians.”, says Mitchell, a Mexican expert in permeaculture who has spent time in many different communities. “Generally speaking, there is very little interaction between eco-villages and their surrounding communities. They should be supporting the needs of these communities through initiating small-scale commerce with them, or by attending the community`s festivities, for instance.".

Upon the arrival of any resident, the community holds a private reunion to decide whether to let the newcomers stay or not. Fiama, who was given an ambiguous nod to stay, laments the process: “I wish the community was more open, more relaxed. That people here wouldn´t feel like this is their land, and only theirs to share.”.
The lake on the property, mirroring the mountains.


But despite its faults, there is no denying that the way of living in Shambhalabamba holds a minimal ecological footprint, and greatly fosters self-sustainability.
“This lifestyle is the way of the future if we are going to live in harmony and balance again in this world. This system is not going to last, so it´s very important to learn how to be self-sustainable”.

According to Lucio, this lifestyle is possible, though more difficult, in the city. “In the city, it´s much easier to alienate yourself from your spirit, and from that connection to the land.”.
A circus workshop in the auditorium

Mitchell is of a similar opinion: “It´s possible, but everything will be more expensive, especially all the materials that you will need to build your own house”.

Andrea has aspirations to intertwine the two. “I want to start helping people learn how to grow their own food in their apartments. To show them that it´s possible. Anyone can do it, as long as they have the right frame of mind.”.

After spending a month there, I left Shambhalabamba with a pervading feeling of hope and inspiration. Maybe I can actually live my life exactly the way I want. I can be a journalist, a musician, an economic analyst, a photographer, a mother.
Why choose? I will try it all.


Sunday, 6 October 2013

0 living expenses: living in a shack in New Orleans




Only the stairs to the front entrance of a house remain from the passage of hurricane Katrina
Sarah is the daughter of a priest. James is a professional bass player.  Chuck is studying to become a math teacher. And Tom has a master's degree in public health.
All four have been voluntarily living in temporary housing since last summer, on two lots of land bought by James for a few grands. The land is situated in the 9th Ward, the hardest-hit area by hurricane Katrina back in 2005.

The hand-made shack in the foreground, and trailer in the background
Sarah lives in a small, oval-sized trailer. Chuck and Tom alternate between a tent and a shack, which the three young men built themselves.  And James has plans to build a bigger house in the fall.

Why would four young, educated people with savings in the bank choose to live in such conditions?

"All four of us have lived in a community, and know the benefits of it", explains Chuck, 26.

I smile, remembering the moment when I first entered the shack, Chuck showing me the elevated mattress I would be sleeping on for the next two nights (I was couch surfing). As soon as we entered, Chuck frantically picked up a pair of folded jeans on the mattress, and examined the spot where there had previously been a tear:  "I love living with a woman!", he exclaimed.
I should learn how to sew, I told myself.

The shack has a bunk bed, two windows, a tiled roof, shelves, and a sofa chair
However, one thing distinguishes this community from others:  they have absolutely no living expenses.

For Chuck, avoiding these expenses is a thrill: "I think there's a sense of enjoyment when you find a way to be resourceful. It's like when you find a good deal online. It's the same thing: I find a way not to pay for rent, shoes, clothes, food. It's fun.".

Free shoes, clothes, and food are all found in one smelly, but treasure-laden place:  the dumpster.

Practicing it as a daily activity, these young adults have become experts at dumpster diving. They know which dumpster to go to for sushi on Tuesdays; for untouched pizza any day of the week at 10:05 pm after the pizza shop closes at 10:00 pm; for clean, new clothes that somehow ended up in garbage bags; and for one day-old fruits and vegetables.

A dumpster is full of strawberries,
spinach, and bananas
Chuck and Sarah enjoy still-hot pizza fresh out of the dumpster
But choosing this lifestyle is not only based on 'fun'.

Tom, in particular, is motivated by a political ideology: "Not spending money is an objective of mine. I think governments do a lot of evil, life-destroying things that I don't want to contribute to through taxes".
All four 'neighbours' are acutely aware of the environmental impact (or lack of it) that their lifestyle induces.  They collect rainwater in large cylinders, and use it for washing their clothes, bathing, and cooking.

"We don't use any electricity", says Chuck. "If everyone lived the way we did, we wouldn't need coal, gas, hydro-electric dams, etc.".
Chuck is fishing for crabs in the Industrial Canal of New Orleans

What about jobs?  Is it feasible to have one step in the professional world, and the other in the dumpster?
"Absolutely", says Chuck, who aspires to become a mathematics teacher.  "You just have to keep your professional and your personal lives separate. You have to show up to work looking good, smelling good, with a tie and a nice shirt.  Then when you get home, you take it all off. You have to live a lie".

Tom is undecided. "I don't want to contribute to comfort and technology", he says. "And if 50% of jobs contribute to that, then that's 50% I don't have access to".

I was deeply inspired by these four individuals. It takes courage to live with minimal security, with no revenue, and in contradiction to societal and familial expectations.  But they are young, smart, healthy, and in no hurry to satisfy anyone's expectations but their own.
Power to them.