I spent almost seven weeks at my second Workaway at Kadagaya Project in Junin over the end of February 2016 to almost mid-April, in the breathtaking high jungles of Peru and I’m convinced I’m going back there for a good few months if not half a year on my return to Peru. As I’ve had no shortage of comments telling me how all-over-the-place my rambling blog posts are, I’ve tried to be a bit more organised here.
KADAGAYA HOUSE LOOKS LIKE A GIANT SHIP.
Kadagaya is a house in the jungle with no walls to the ceiling, only maya milimetrica.
Kadagaya has five rooms separated by curtains made from flour bags on ropes of string.
The bathroom soap sits in coconut husks at Kadagaya, the cups hang on cactus skeletons, and there are paintings of mandalas and suns and pineapples on the ceiling, murals of the universe and planet Earth without the borders on the walls. The candles are red, and the food housed in mosquito net boxes.
There’s a colourful blackboard that has mad scientist chalk-drawings of vortexes and to-do lists harking to dead and escaped chickens, messages from volunteers and geeky calculations.
We use soap nuts for washing dishes and the laundry at Kadagaya.
Kadagaya is a house in the jungle with squat toilets, cold outside showers on cobbled stone floors with a hosepipe, an internet tower and a washing machine.
The mosquitos at the Kadagaya toilets destroy your ankles when you go for a good dump, which you will, given it’s almost all vegetables here. I’ve never seen the friendly fly-eating toilet bat, but I’ve heard enough screams in the middle of the night to know it’s there, lurking in the second cubicle, ready to rear up from the hole and go for a right flutter between one’s legs. I don’t go to the second cubicle though.
There are no dining chairs at Kadagaya for the wobbly wooden tables; only stools to put on top of stools and giant blue food buckets that double up as seats with a couple of cushions on top.
We hang coconuts to dry up on the ceiling and aji amarillo from the strings. There’s the lotus star that casts its shadow onto the projector screen above the blackboard and always reminds me of the permaculture flower.
Sometimes, there are fireflies inside. You only notice them when the lights go out.
The goats and chickens died one by one at Kadagaya. I’m convinced the dogs are to blame for at least some of the latter disappearances, although we still jest and tease and argue about that one.
Kadagaya has no windows – just an inside-outside air flow from its mosquito-net walls taut between wooden posts and board – but it does have curtains. These are plastic sheets you pull up and down with a string/pulley style system from the inside, but are actually plastered on the outside.
At Kadagaya, you can go for weeks without ever seeing your face in the mirror. There weren’t any, for a long time. The crappy little one the boys use to shave with is usually hiding somewhere and after a while, you don’t particularly care, anyway.
Kadagaya has a hammock, an oil press and seed grinder, bright ceiling paintings, some friendly fly-eating spiders and the odd cockroach infestation.
The forks and spoons and knives live in little bamboo trunk holders.
There’s a goat house, a woodfire earth oven, and a workshop with an attic to sleep in at Kadagaya.
Kadagaya is a place you get to in a hair-raising 1 hour ride standing in the back of a pickup truck, holding on for dear life as it hurtles through winding jungle river/mountain roads, torn between marveling at the majestic wilderness and ducking to avoid getting whacked in the face by tree branches, creepers and vines cloaking the bumpy roads, thinking I’m so goddamm lucky to see this.
You can sit for hours by the river at Kadagaya and watch the river flow past, flow through you, and lose yourself till dusk.
Kadagaya doesn’t just look like a giant ship – it feels like one too. In fact, after swinging in the hammock for a few hours every night, I can still feel the rocking motion when I close my eyes and am convinced I am being lulled to sleep by the side-to-side sway of a ship at sea.
Maybe that’s what journeying off into the unknown feels like, though.
There’s so much I’ll never forget.
Candlelight dinner when solar power ran out. Glowworms and fireflies inside and outside. Brushing my teeth under starry skies crystal clear. Swimming in the river, jumping in after hard day’s work at vortex splattered in mud. Swinging in the hammock. Making pizza in woodfire oven. My hair smelling like fire after the bonfire, singing with a guitar, singing Champs Elysées over and over, singing Let Her Go, apple pie. Watching documentaries and long philosophical discussions. Kumare, Religuluos. The books I read – Vegetarian Myth, Gabriel Method, Nourishing Traditions, REVOLUTION by Russell Brand, the Moneyless Man, the sudden revelations I had. Busting open 10 coconuts in 1 day and drinking the water. The hours and hours spent shoveling sand and digging clay, collecting dry leaves, scooping out coconuts, macheting, tearing egg cartons, going to Miricharo and back, making soup for dinner, talking with Julie, playing with baby Pachy and taking him for long walks to cool him down and get him to sleep. Partner stretching and impromptu yoga/acrobatics.
I’ll never forget the insects and animals I saw – the reverse ladybug, the black and yellow spiders in bathroom, the fireflies, crazy grasshoppers, armadillo, zamaño, toucans, the vultures that circled me one dark day I was out in the open collecting leaves, the snake that popped out of the vortex outlet canal we were clearing after heavy rain caused erosion and a landslide, cicadas shrill and high in the afternoon, the rain birds – gallinetas, orange butterflies, bright purple butterflies, parrots chattering in the tall trees close to the house.
And there were the craziest plants and fungi. There’s the mimosa plant, which shudders and closes its leaves when you brush it, the orange, yellow, white, clear, brown mushrooms, the tall skinny palms (chungo), too many ferns and tall grass, turmeric plant growing wild with its flowers and a full wasp infestation, wild ginger, banana trees off the path bursting with fruit. If you try to get to them, you fall clean into a traphole of tallgrass.
I never saw the cacao or climbed up for its fruit, but I’m saving that for next time. I know there’ll be a next time.
So…what is Kadagaya Project?
Kadayaga Project is an experimental holistic community in its early stages of creation on 5 hectares of land in high altitude jungle (1000m) in central Peru, reasonably close to the Andes. The land was previously coffee at the top of hill, banana plantations on the middle of hill, and avocado further down – but now you can also find cacao plants, turmeric, ginger and various mushrooms growing wild in places. The ecosystem currently is forest towards the top with some frustrating rogue allelopathic ferns where the main house, workshop, bathrooms and driveway are, tall grass, ferns and a smattering of tall palms on the slope to the river and denser forest nearer the river.
Currently, the project is just a couple of dreamers, designers and doers, Julie and Vladimir, who gave up their sciencey, technical lives in Denmark to battle mosquitos, get their hands dirty and put their designs into practice and have been inviting volunteers from all over the world to help them with the project. They’ve gone from camping in the mud to having a wonderful communal house with paintings, a washing machine and an internet tower in just two years and are in the process of building a mini-hydro-electric vortex to generate electricity, diverting a wee channel of the river for powering their future community. Julie and Vladimir bought the land a couple of years ago to create their dream community of approximately 40 residents, inspired by the resource-based economy and especially Jacques Fresco’s Venus Based Project, alongside permaculture and various other threads of holistic design for the future.
There are four ‘rooms’ for volunteers – about 60 or so have been there at the time of writing – and a larger space for Julie, Vlad and the cutest baby in the world, Pachacutec (‘The One Who Will Save the World’) in the communal house.
I was a bit nervous before arriving that it would be a very heady, technical (technocratic/techno-utopian) sort of place but was pleasantly surprised to find they were all very human, by which I mean feeling, loving and caring folk with a sense of humour, although I’m sure Vladi would argue AI or a robot is capable of all these things as well. Shhh, I’m getting to that one! And I was amazed to discover their interest in social permaculture, alternative education, non-violent communication, storytelling, a genius collection of music and all the art plastered over the walls – testament to the creative and daring vibe of the place.
I was also uneasy about the food, and excited to realise Kadagaya had no fridge so ate a lot of fresh veggies and fruit.
Lastly, I was nervous about sleep as I am a light sleeper and it was going to be a communal house with up to five or six other people and a newborn baby! However, thankfully there was no one who snored – I was absolutely ready to jump in the workshop attic or a tent if there had been – and the baby was quiet as a mouse; we only suffered one night of the poor pup howling the house down like he was being dismembered by a psychopathic jaguar with a taste for slow murder only to realise he just needed to let out One Big Fart and all was well. Phew!
What did I do?
Helped at the hydro-electric vortex
- Made a wall of rocks around the water pump (and later removed the whole wall).
- Learnt to make concrete and switched between bringing concrete from the casita to the vortex, shoveling piles of sand into a bigger pile for the mixer, and ferrying bucketfuls of water between the inlet channel and the mixer – laid down the first 5cm of vortex concrete, then the next 30cm, then the floor of the rest of the inlet channel – and lifted moved the fucking massive $1400 orange concrete mixer in the process!
- Threw rocks down into the vortex then learnt to make a concrete-and-big-rock wall for the sides to stop further erosion.
- Passed down big iron bars from the top of the vortex to the bottom and helped measure them and lay them out in a criss-cross pattern inside – a frustrating task when they got all muddled up!
- Spent hours in emergency erosion rescue operations with boots deeply squelched in the mud – sometimes stuck entirely – shoveling spade-fuls of fallen earth into a wheelbarrow and tossing rocks out.
- Spread concrete all over the vortex floor also with a vibrator, learnt how to get the water pump going.
Owing to Julie and Vlad’s description of how utterly backbreaking the vortex work would be on their Workaway page, I didn’t expect to spend much time here – nor be particularly of much use – and so was surprised to end up here about two weeks (and on and off in the third week), and stunned that despite it being Bloody Hard Work, I actually really enjoyed it! I loved the beautiful scenery on the way down to the river each day, working like a maniac and jumping in the river after, trudging back up the hill in a completely torn work shirt and my underwear. I preferred the days when we would work solidly from morning till lunchtime or afterwards with no pauses, no workers as I felt like I was really engaged and present as opposed to when it was mostly measuring/heady work or work with a lot of downtime, when I didn’t feel so useful.
Knowing what I know about ecology, the impact of damming rivers and the dark side of renewables, I was extremely nervous when I heard Julie and Vlad were planning a hydroelectric vortex. Actually, scratch that, I was a little horrified. But actually going down and seeing that it was, rather, a very small part of the forested banks of the river that had been re-purposed to divert the water in an inlet channel, have it pass through a circular big hole and pass back out to via the outlet (or overflow) channel, depending on water levels relieved my worries immediately – I could see it was too small to have significant ecosystem impact.
I was also surprised to find I had a sense of vague detachment from the work in the early days, a sort of sense of well, this isn’t actually MY project and MY life so I don’t have to worry so much, not in the sense of not wanting to work as hard or not giving a damn, but in the sense of not being so moved when shit did hit the fan, when the vortex walls collapsed into the central hole and destroyed three days of work and we spent two days shoveling it all out…there was a sense of playfulness here, no room to worry or be upset or horrified, which I think is characteristic of many volunteers who come for short periods of time – there isn’t time to really feel like you are part of it all – also my concerns about shorter term ‘voluntourism’. There’s always a sense of I can leave anytime, that these are not my people, not my problems in those shorter stints. I remember a day where the collapse had been particularly huge after a night of solid rain and arriving to find Vladimir in complete silence crouching on the upper side of the vortex in shock, just staring at the wreckage and it all suddenly became very real then, very personal. This was our floor we had spent hours cleaning, making concrete to put over, laying bars down on. This was our shit hitting the fan.
I also had a sense of ‘volunteer ghosts’ while I was there, a realisation that everything I was seeing, every luxury we had – being indoors, a washing machine, toilets, showers, the path to the river – was a result of past volunteers’ work and that we too were creating something that we would possibly never experience the fruits of, which made me even more grateful to the past volunteers who had been here before me and made me want to give even more for the joy and quality of life of those to come. So it was a bit like living in ghost time – future and past – with an enormous sense of cross-temporal interconnectedness and the love that resulted from it.
In the time I was here, the vortex went from being a big muddy hole in the ground to a stunning structure complete with walls, proper channels and is almost at the stage of getting some blades to go in – huge progress with the help of other volunteers more enthusiastic and useful than myself to keep working down there – and despite the setbacks and fast progress, it looks like this may take up the bulk of the year still. But it’ll be so worth having the power for lights, internet, blender, workshop machines and research!
Helped with permaculture food forest planning and design
This was more my area of interest, so I found myself easily working more than the supposed max 5 hours a day, 5 days a week here – I was much more excited to get up early, work outside all day, morning and afternoon and sometimes even early evening for the wee projects I did make happen. I was fairly sure I had zero experience and a lot of enthusiasm to start with but was pleasantly surprised to discover it was complex but not rocket science.
- Hot Compost 1 (a ‘learning experience’ i.e. a great failure) – used for new worm farm (given that I hauled out the old worm farm soil for putting in pots for fruit trees), plus banana circle plants.
- Compost house – spent two days amassing wood and knocking it together with fishnets to make a structure that everything wouldn’t fall down in.
- Hot Compost 2 – attempting to make 1 ton of compost in 18 days! 15 x 50kg bags of dry leaves, 200kg of sheep manure, over 1000L of water, and so far 10 hours of turning later with temperatures overshooting the 65 deg C mark constantly, I’m practically chewing my nails off here in anticipation to see if it all worked out!
- Banana circle – dug out a 1m depth by 2m diameter hole in clay soils over 4 days, planting banana babies along the rim alongside turmeric, lemongrass, sweet potato and ginger, filling the hole with organic matter and digging a swale for irrigating the circle.
- Kitchen garden – cleared space, weeded, turned soil, put 3 layers of mulch including leaves and egg cartons then covered it with a black tarp…I’m very excited about the raised inverted table-garden bed for culinary and medicinal herbs that is coming up here!
- Cleared ferns around the path, the sign and the two gates, as well as around the front garden bed and a little behind the dog’s sleeping area with a machete.
- Documenting progress – I went into geeky scientific heaven here, writing almost 30,000 words all up in Banana Circle Notes, Food Forest Research Notes and Planning, Hot Compost Diaries and How-To Guide, a Master To-Do List and 65 South America Permaculture Places with 13 places to list Kadagaya…including reading over 100 resources and articles to put all this together and make it happen. I also totally geeked out over Excel documentation of progress and planning, listing 130 plants and 60 seeds in the master food forest plan, and became obsessed with a colour-coded system for our observational data on hot compost and fruit circle diaries (I hope some keen statistician reading this someday will inform me how to better visualise, analyse and use this data to characterise progress…)
This was definitely falling-in-love phase with Kadagaya. I came to adore wearing work clothes, pottering around in gumboots with a machete and a giant sack slung over my back. The photos say a lot but if anyone’s interested in re-creating the banana circle and hot compost, they can message me for more details as I now have oodles of notes floating around. I felt like I came with almost zero experience and left with a whole heap more confidence for doing my own thing in the future – it was great to have the luxury of the space to focus on my own projects and have the chance to work at it with the help of Julie and the other volunteers.
- Cleaned entire kitchen top to bottom in a mad frenzy one day.
- Collected ferns and wood for various fires so that we could pop the charcoal down the toilet (slowly amassing an army of flies that destroy your butt cheeks and ankles in just a few rounds of pooping).
- Busted open 20 coconuts, cleaned out a drying mesh, scooped out flesh and chopped it fine, dried for a few days to make coconut oil (only 10 were good though).
- Strung up a hammock!
- Cleaned outdoor area in front of bathrooms several times
- Cuddled and entertained a very cute baby while Julie was busy working or cooking or eating (and only successfully twice managed to get the little boy to sleep in a long forest walk!)
- Ran three sessions of 3-4 hours each Non Violent Communication Workshops, making materials in the process such as my classic empathy poker cards.
- Went for various shops in Miricharo. The road is just beautiful to the village:
- Passed over some helpful books and resources to Julie and Vlad on alternative education, holistic healthcare, economics, complexity, play, and infinite games.
- Did lots of partner stretching and fixed anyone’s pelvic alignment who asked 🙂
A day in the life…
There was no typical day! Breakfast was at 8-9am usually, besides Sundays where we often had it 9-10am, lunch was anywhere from 12:30-2pm, and dinner anywhere from 6:30-8:30pm. We usually worked in between, cleaned, made food, did various tasks, took siestas in afternoons and relaxed or watched documentaries or had long discussions in the evening. I could get used to this.
What did I eat / learn to make?
Our fruit selection usually consisted of: golden/green pineapples, oranges, mandarins, apples, papaya, granadilla, mango, limes, coconuts, avocados, apple bananas, cooking bananas, miniature bananas; veggies included onions, garlic, ginger, tomatoes, potatoes, sweet potato, ulloco (beautiful yellow and red tuber), carrots, cauliflower, spinach, lettuce, basil, mint, green onion, celery, chilli peppers, capsicum, yucca, beetroot; grains I ate included quinoa, maize, lentils and the spot of rice or wheat in flatbreads, popcorn and a one-off of split peas; animal foods at Kadagaya were mostly an enormous quantity of eggs, with the occasional bones/liver for bone broth or pâté respectively, and the odd spot of cheese when a recipe called for it or when we felt fancy. Of course, I had my birthday there too and the food was rightly divine – although, truth be told, every mealtime felt like a true fine dining experience.
I was also very excited to use an oil press, a manual food processor and a manual seed grinder!
A list of things I ate, made for others or learnt to make is in the endnote below.
The Kadagaya experience wouldn’t have been complete without the other volunteers to work, laugh, cook, clean, stretch, watch documentaries and share stories with, and it was always very sad whenever they left. We looked forward to new volunteers arriving with much anticipation and it was always exciting to have a new person walk into the space. There was something both wonderful and saddening about being there for almost 7 weeks though – every time you made good friends with someone, they had to leave! It was not at all like Couchsurfing where they stay for a few days or so and then go off on their merry way.
So in no particular order, I want to particularly thank these human beings for lighting up the space while I was there:
Olivier and Helena – were two Belgian volunteers who helped so much around house, dishes and cooking, and with whom my food forest mini-project plans became reality very quickly! They were extremely hardworking and creative, helping me collect over a dozen sacks of dry leaves, shred an enormous pile of egg cartons and leaves, pile poop and leaves onto my epic hot compost experiment, make the cutest compost house in the world (collecting sticks and tools from river for this!), clear the land outside the main house with machetes and dig a giant hole for banana circle and swale around it, grabbing me various gardening implements from the river. They worked tirelessly despite having various back problems, dehydration and low energy levels – and also helped me practice my French!
Veronique – a smiley petite French Canadian who looks incredibly young for her age, and who introduced me to Vipassana. Veronique and I quickly became sisters with our conversations about dreams and love while making the first hot compost, preparing the land for the veggie garden and macheting and coconut oil making, She was the first person to play with baby and taught me some chords on the guitar to boot. I had Champs Elysées and Let Her Go going round and round me head for days after this wonderwoman left, thanks to dueting with her.
Ronan – an Irishman who I have to thank for being my stretch buddy after digging sand like a maniac to make concrete at the river, for his Irish humour, and for his genuine sense of supportiveness whenever we were working at the vortex. Ronan totally felt like an awesome person to have around if/when things went wrong and with myself, Veronique, Vladi and the Peruvian workers all being so small, it was good to have a ceiling-scraping football lover to save the day!
Simon, Rosa and Marion – Simon (Germany), Rosa and Marion (Austria) were the first few volunteers when I arrived. Simon just exuded this fantastic chilled out feeling, plus got everyone addicted to his gorgeous hammock, diligently buying us coconuts so many times from Pichanaki to make coconut oil. I loved that absurd ‘I give it to you ‘open’ / ‘close’’ game you taught us! Meanwhile, travelling separately to Simon, Rosa and Marion were goddesses in the kitchen and could rustle up anything from the sparsest of ingredients. I cannot thank them enough for our artistic version of Chinese whispers that had me doubled up laugh-crying in fits.
And of course, Julie and Vladimir, who are just extraordinary human beings willing to live their life on the edge of what’s possible, who are open, awake, generous beyond measure, inspiring, endlessly creative, tireless, loving, – to you, consider these series of blogs an enormous thank you – and to Pachy, the little boy who totally stole my heart!
Leaving Kadagaya was hard. I didn’t want to leave. I was attached to so many things there (not least of which, a very cute baby indeed who I came to love to bits!) – the slow lifestyle, the silence, the stillness, the jungle food, the wonderful ease of being with people who just understand, the easiness with which we connected and made things happen and worked and lived together. I had definitely found a kind of home here, and I put off leaving for about two weeks after I initially said I’d head off. I definitely felt more and more part of Kadagaya rather than merely a passing volunteer in it. I used to say what will you do about… when I asked questions about their plans for the future. But I finished in the language of we.
New recipes I learnt or saw made:
Coconut oil – see above!
Woodfire oven pizzas – wheat or potato flour with quinoa flour base, tomato, green onion, spinach, basil, capsicum, chilli sauce, sliced potato, oregano, rosemary, mozzarella topping.
Algarrobo cake, and mini pancakes – algarrobo (cousin of carob I think?) flour is naturally sweet and flour-like so doubles up as sugar, other ingredients usually include cacao powder, eggs or chia seeds, pinch of salt, sugarcane jaggery, bananas.
Cebada Tea – toasted barley grass seeds in hot water that taste like coffee!
Hot chocolate – cacao slabs with sugarcane jaggery, potato flour to thicken, pinch of salt and cinnamon, perfect for a rainy day.
Sweet Cauliflower – with caramelized onions and garlic, tomatoes and carrots.
Frittata – wannabe giant omelette that became a frittata, with mushrooms, olives, tomatoes, onions, garlic, spring onions, basil, oregano, rosemary, grated carrots, spinach.
Indian dishes I made – cauliflower, rice, lentils, potatoes.
Tomato salsa for pastas and other dishes – just about caramelized onions with garlic, tomatoes and oregano.
Beef bone broths, chicken soup and veggie soups – almost similar recipes, including bay leaves, rosemary, oregano, basil, green/spring onions, garlic, onions, pinch of turmeric, salt and curry powder as a basic base, with any vegetable such as the exploding potatoes (papas amarillas), carrots, tomatoes, giant maize, and potato flour or linseed to thicken.
Coconut beef curry – cooked onions, garlic, ginger, tomatoes, turmeric, curry powder, masala, chilli, salt with chopped beef, adding grated coconut (in place of coconut cream) to thicken at end.
Gourmet eggs in various ways – scrambled with tomato + garlic + oregano, just oregano, with onions and tomato/garlic/oregano, in egg rice-cakes with a bit of salt and sesame seeds; boiled eggs served with curry spice, coconut oil, salt; spinach-sauce with potatoes and eggs.
Chia-choc-chai pudding – water, cacao powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, chia seeds, cardamom seeds, star anise.
Cauliflower and pineapple dish for fried rice; cauliflower and caraway seeds; sweet Russian cauliflower (cauliflower, apple and potato dish).
Green papaya and coriander salad with bit of salt and lemon.
Stuffed kaiwa (stuffing cucumber / lady’s slipper) with tuna, tomato, oregano and lime. Can also add cucumber and coriander.
Fried bananas, fried potato chips (camote).
Chaufa – rice tossed with a bit of egg, spring onion, garlic, ginger, salt – magic!
Liver pate – fry garlic and cumin seeds in coconut oil, then fry chicken livers and hearts, add orange zest and juice after frying and pinch of salt. Serve with homemade flatbread.
Oats with cloves and cinnamon, served with tropical fruit salad for sweetness.
Lemongrass tea, green tea with jasmine, turmeric and ginger tea, cacao tea.
Lettuce, tomato and coriander salad – I usually shy away from putting coriander in salads but I’ve decided it’s worth it! Add salt and lemon to taste.
Spanish tortilla – eggs, potatoes, onions – we also added green onion, tomato
Locro – fry garlic and onions then add pumpkin and leave to cook, then when soft, add peas and cheese (hard salty paneer-style) at the end, add huacatay or other strongly aromatic herb.
Toasted sesame seeds – became a staple in almost all our dishes and we became quite obsessed with this after a while!
Apple pie – green cooking apples cooked in pot with cinnamon, dash coconut oil, cloves, star anise and toasted oat crumble served on side made with coconut oil, toasted sesame seeds, sugarcane jaggery (can also use maple syrup / honey here), cinnamon.
Parsley salad – parsley chopped fine with sesame seeds, pinch of salt, lemon, oodles of orange juice from a freshly squeezed orange and honey (if any).
Sweet cauliflower / carrot salad – similar recipe – chop/grate the vegetable finely, then add toasted sesame seeds, salt, pinch of oregano, and squeeze lots of lemons/limes and oranges over it. Can also add honey and olive oil.