Returning home

I’ve been home in Adelaide a couple weeks now, re-acclimatising to Keep Left, long hours of daylight, and the strange sound of the Australian accent.  I’m planning to spend the next few weeks writing, back-dating this blog, filling in all the stories I wasn’t bothered to write while I was travelling, because there were to many other interesting things to do. The San Andreas Fault might even turn into a zine…

Connecting flights

On my way home, I am going to Vancouver for three days to visit my sister.  I’ve booked a flight from Cancun, which goes via Chicago.  Leaving Cancun at midday, and arriving in Vancouver 9:30pm.

The flight is delayed by an hour and a half due to a tropical downpour.  An hour of this time is spent sitting on the plane.  Everyone’s lugguage is soaked through while being loaded on to the plane.

Half an hour into the flight, the captain makes an announcement.  “It seems that the toilets aren’t working.  Amidst all the chaos that caused the delay in Cancun, the toilets were not serviced.  We can’t continue a six hour flight without toilets, so I’ll pull over just ahead in New Orleans and get them fixed.”  This is not an exact quote, because, being American, he managed to say all this without ever using the word toilet.

I’m thinking this would cause a further delay, and quite likely cause me to miss my flight to Vancouver tonight, but since there’s nothing I can do about it, I see no point in getting worried or upset.  I’ve never been to New Orleans.  A close up view from an aeroplane window could be really interesting.

A few minutes later there is another announcement.  “Although the toilets don’t work all that well, they do kinda work, so we’ve decided not to stop in New Orleans, and continue through to Chicago.”  This is met with applause and cheers.  The announcement continues: “ However I would suggest you refrain from drinking too much water until you arrive in Chicago.”

Upon landing, “Welcome to Chicago.  The weather is clear skies and eight degrees.”  Eight.  I don’t know my Fahrenheit scale well enough to translate this, but it is well below freezing.  I look it up.  Minus 15°C.  I’ve never experienced such cold, and I won’t be experiencing it now.  I wonder if there are people sleeping out tonight, or people who don’t have heating.  Do people freeze to death here?

I’ll have 45 minutes between this flight arriving and my next flight leaving.  This should be plenty of time to walk from one gate to another.

I am wrong.  It’s more complicated than that.

As I get off the plane, I am given an express connection card, effectively a permit to jump to the front of queues, and told to hurry.

I walk quickly along the corridors, and come to a checkpoint.  I go to the “express connection” counter.

“Your customs card please.”

“I don’t have one.  I’m not entering the US.  I’m transferring to an international flight.”

“You still need to fill in the form.”  He gives me the card, and I tick a few boxes.  My fingerprints, all ten of them, are recorded, and my photograph taken.  These will be kept by US border security for all eternity.

“I see that you were recently in the United States for three months.  What were you doing here?”

In my mind I reply in an exasperated voice, “You don’t need to interrogate me, I’m not entering your country, and have no desire to do so.”

Out loud I say politely “I rode a bicycle down the west coast.”  Although not entirely true, it sounds a lot more purposeful and complete than any other answer I might give.  Customs officers like easily-explained reasons for travel, and I’ve learnt by now to always have one on hand.

I have ticked the right boxes, and answered the exam questions correctly.  I am allowed to pass.

I collect my luggage,and run with my backpack along another corridor, and it’s not clear where I need to go next.  I ask someone in a uniform.  “ Take the train, get off at the thirs stop.”  I run in the direction he points, go up an escalator, and onto a train platform.  As the train pulls in, I get a brief sense of the temperature outside, and am immediately inside the warm train.  Did that man say first stop or third stop?  I’m not sure.  The first stop passes before I can see any way to find out which stop I need.  If I get off at the wrong stop and need to take another train, I will miss my connection for sure.  At the second stop I see a sign listing the stations.  It isn’t entirely clear, but the third stop is likely the one I need.  I get off and run along another corridor.  There are a few others running.  Its quite fun.

Now I’m in a hall with check in counters.  I ask another uniformed person where to go, and he directs me to the security checkpoint.  I jump the queue to put my bags and shoes on the conveyor to be screened.  Everyone must remove their shoes.

I am then directed “This way please.”

“No.  I’m not going in there.”  Thankfully I’ve been through this process before, so know what I’m being asked to do, and what my options are.

I am being directed into an X-ray machine.  It is now common practice to x-ray all passengers before they board.  Both the health affects of being subjected to radiation, and being made to stand with hands raised above the head as if its an armed hold-up, lead me to choose the “opt-out”.  I am surprised that so many people submit to this treatment.  Quite possibly they don’t know what is happening.  I don’t see any signs or hear anything informing people of the x-ray process, but I am in too much of a rush to notice.  At my previous experience of US airport security, in San Jose, the only information was a recorded message “please let staff know if you do not wish to be x-rayed”, which would be easy to miss if your attention was elsewhere.

The alternative to the x-ray is to have a woman run her hands over every part of my body.  Only my face, my nipples and the soles of my feet are not touched.  She even puts her fingers through the belt loops of my trousers.

At the same time, I see my backpack on a table beside me.  All the contents are being removed.  Why does my bag need to be searched?  I’m not taking it on board, I’m going to check it in.  Then I realise that in my rush, I ran straight past the check-in counter.  I could take the backpack on board with me, but that would involve thinking about which of the contents would be considered a security risk, finding them in the backpack, and giving them up.  It seems easier and quicker to check it in.  While I’m thinking this, I hear an announcement from a speaker.  There is so much noise and activity around me that I don’t catch the exact words, but its something like “Kim Hill, this is your absolutely last chance to board your flight to Vancouver.”

“That’s me.  They’re calling me over the speaker.  That’s my flight leaving now.”  I say this to the man searching my backpack, having been released from the body search.  I was hardly aware of it, with so much else going on.  “You don’t need to search my backpack, I’m going to check it in.”

“If you want to check it in, you’re going to have to go back through the security checkpoint.”

I repack by bag, and carry it, and my shoes, to the check in counter.

There is no queue at the counter.  I am told “you can’t check your bag in now, its too late.  That flight is leaving right now.”

“No! I want to get on that flight.”  After all I’ve been through to get here, I don’t want to miss the flight by a few seconds.  “ I don’t mind if my bag doesn’t come with me and arrives tomorrow, but I really want to get to Vancouver tonight.”

“You need to travel with your bags for international flights.  I can call through and ask for the plane to be held for you, and you’ll have to take your backpack on with you.”

The woman from the check-in counter walks with me to the security checkpoint.  I take out the sunscreen, mosquito repellent and the jar of hand-made chocolate that Federico gave me as a present. All liquids are considered a security risk, and not allowed on board aircraft.  My water bottle needs to be emptied.  She is unsure whether the chocolate constitutes a risk, as it is solid, not liquid.  I leave behind the sunscreen and mosquito repellent, and at the last minute grab the chocolate and put it back in my bag.  Surprisingly the bag passes screening without needing to be searched.  I don’t need to be body-searched again.  The helpful lady points me to the left, and calls out “good luck!”

I sprint in the direction she pointed, in my socks as I don’t have time to put my shoes on.  I don’t know which gate my flight leaves from, and expect that because boarding has closed, it won’t show up on the display screens.  I run past a few gates that are unattended, until I come to one where there are staff I can ask.  They direct me back the way I came.  I needed to go right from the security checkpoint.  I sprint in my socks to the gate.  It is deserted, apart from two ladies who enquire “Kim Hill?”

“Yes!  I made it!”  I shout and cheer, and thank them profusely for holding the plane for me.

I run down the corridor to a plane full of waiting people, and start pouring out the story of what has just happened to the man seated next to me.  He says “Relax.  You made it.  You can relax now.”  Although it is probably a request to shut up and leave him alone, I appreciate his saying this and make an effort to calm myself.  The last hour has been quite an adventure, and I really appreciate the help that all the airport staff have given me to make it possible to be here now.

In the in-flight magazine, I read an article about new computer technologies.  It includes this quote from a technology developer:  “A generation from now, children won’t know the difference between that which is a computer, and that which isn’t.”  As well as being grammatically awful, I think this prediction is highly unlikely.  It seems more likely that children will see the abandoned or reappropriated aeroplanes and airports, and find it hard to believe that they were ever in common use.  In the same way that we who have grown up in modern civilization would see stone tools, and not comprehend that people actually used them.  That there ever existed a world where people could take off to the other side of the world with so little effort, and relatively little money.  Where sunscreen and mosquito repellent threatened national security, and national security threatened everyone.

If I tell this story of my connecting flight to children a generation from now, it will sound fantastical, impossible.  I can hardly believe it myself.  That I can afford to fly across the world, on an income that by Australian standards is well below the poverty level.  That I can be in a tropical downpour and three hours later I’m in the coldest winter.  That anyone who enters an airport is suspected of terrorism.  That although a plane gives passengers the most amazing view of the world, most people don’t bother to look out the window.  And that it is all considered so normal.

Neighbourhood Book Exchange

On a street corner in a suburban neighbourhood in East Vancouver.  Children’s books on the lower shelf, others on the upper two shelves.  One side is a pin board for neighbourhood notices, the other is a chalkboard. Around the door is written “Got a book that you don’t need?  Leave it here for others to read, consider it a neighbourly deed.”

On the post: “Feel free to take a book or donate a book.  Please do not leave boxes of books here.  There is a charity book donation box at…  If you notice any problems with this book box please contact… ”

While I am looking at the books, a child and his mother walk by.  The boy runs over to the book box.  “Mum, I want to get a book!”  His mum persuades him not to get one now and carry it around all day, but get one on the way home.

El Jardin

The main house at El Jardin

“El Jardin Medicine Farm Project at Palenque.  A sacred place of sharing and living in tune with nature.  A paradise of gardening in this unique jungle climate, spiritual practices, creative tasks and tastes (tropical fruit smoothies, homemade chocolate and bread from the clay oven).  Cabins, hammocks and camping available.  Communal kitchen.  Love and light.”  Some complicated directions follow, which include a vague map of the paths to take when walking for half an hour through jungle.

I see the poster at a hostel in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas.  I’ll be going through Palenque to get to Guatemala. I resolve to visit El Jardin.  My travels in Mexico so far have been in cities, staying in hostels, doing tourist things and wondering what I am doing here.  El Jardin sounds like just what I have been looking for: a place far from any city, where I can contribute and learn about local ecology and culture, and meet interesting people.

I try phoning a few times, but never get a dial tone, only a recorded message.  I don’t understand the Spanish, but I’m guessing it’s something like “this number has been disconnected.”  This has strangely little effect on my resolve to visit to place.

Palenque is a ruined Mayan city, a popular tourist attraction.  The Palenque village is six kilometres from the ruins, and along the road between the two, a number of hotels, campsites and restaurants are secluded in the jungle.

On a shuttle bus from Palenque village towards the ruins, the man behind me asks where I am going.

“I’m going camping at El Jardin,” I reply.

“El Jardin?  I don’t know it.”  I’m guessing he is a local, and familiar with the area.  He seems surprised to hear of a campsite that he doesn’t know about.  “What’s the name of the person who runs it?”

I remember seeing the name Martin on El Jardin’s website, and offer the name.

“Martin?  Yes, I think I know the place.  You might have some trouble getting there at the moment.  It’s through the national park, and there is a military checkpoint on the way.  They might not let you through.”

A military checkpoint?  To get to a campsite?  I hadn’t anticipated this, it wasn’t mentioned on the poster or website.  Surely someone walking to a campsite would be allowed to pass?

As he gets off the bus, he adds “Tell them you are visiting Martin.  Good luck.”

The following stop is mine.  As I step out of the bus, I am already standing in front of a soldier.  I had expected to walk a way before coming to the checkpoint.  I am glad to have not had time to prepare for this, to get myself nervous about the encounter.  I’ve never come across a military checkpoint before.

“Hello,” I say to the soldier.  “ I am going camping at El Jardin.”


Can I come through?”


I try the suggestion of my friend from the shuttle bus.

“Do you know Martin?  I am going to visit Martin.”

“Don’t know him.”  And then “Martin doesn’t have permission for tourism, for having people stay.”

I’m not sure whether to believe this, especially given the claim only moments ago not to know him.  However, I’m clearly not going to get through, so I turn back.

In hindsight, attempting to go to a place that involves walking for half an hour through the jungle, with vague directions, when it is close to dark, and I don’t even know if the place exists, or if anyone will be there, really, it’s not the most thought-through idea I’ve ever had.

There are numerous hotels, campsites and cabins along the road I’ve just come along, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find a place to stay.  I walk past one that looks too up-market for my taste and needs, and at the next campsite I am put off by the presence of a large tour bus.  The third place doesn’t display a name, just a sandwich board by the road proclaiming “we have cabins”.  Through the trees I see a sign saying “youth hostel” which for some reason makes me feel comfortable about choosing this site.  I book in to a dormitory, which turns out to be not a dormitory, but a cabin with a palm-thatched roof and flyscreen walls.  There are two single beds, and I have the room to myself.  The whole establishment is nothing more than six cabins, surrounded by jungle.

I’m feeling the need to talk to someone about what has just happened at the checkpoint, to process my thoughts, to make sense of it all.  I say hello to a couple walking past from another cabin.  They return the hello and continue on their way.  I guess these are not the people I need to talk to right now.

I ask at the reception desk where I can get dinner.  There is a restaurant directly across the road, one ten minutes walk to the left, and another ten minutes walk to the right.  I turn to the right.  The decision is arbitrary.

I decide that if there is someone eating alone, I will approach them and ask if they would like some company.  I wouldn’t usually do this, but the need to talk to someone right now has overruled my reserved nature.

The restaurant is outdoors.  A stream runs along one side, and the jungle is all around.  The air is hot and humid.  At each of two tables there is a woman sitting alone.  I walk past the first woman, and approach the second.  Again, the decision is arbitrary.

She is reading a book.

I say “Excuse me, are you here alone?  Would you like some company?”  She looks up, and seems taken aback by the question, and unsure how to respond.

“I don’t want to impose.  If you prefer to eat alone…”

“No.  Please.  Sit down.”  She closes the book.

Her name is Tina, and she is from Germany.  She has also arrived today from San Cristobal.

I tell her my story of what happened at the checkpoint, and she is surprised when I mention El Jardin.

“El Jardin?  You are going to El Jardin?  I also want to go there, and I was turned back at the checkpoint too.  I am surprised that you have heard of this place, and want to go there.  Not many people know of it.”

She has been to El Jardin before, and is returning.  She tells me that the checkpoint at the national park entrance is open all day until 4pm, after which it is closed to everyone.  She is staying in a cabin tonight, and will walk to El Jardin in the morning.

She lets me know what to expect there, and is concerned that I might find the situation challenging.  “They are hippies, spiritual people, there is a lot of chanting, you might find them odd.”  I assure her that I have lived in a lot of hippy communes before, and not likely to be scared off by a bit of singing.

“It’s quite basic, you have to get water out of the well, there is a composting toilet, no electricity, no walls on the cabins, and they use ash to wash the dishes, because they don’t want to use chemicals.”  I’ve never heard of anyone washing dishes with ash, but it sounds like a good idea.  As to the rest, it doesn’t sound much different from many of the places I’ve lived.

“There are about 10 people there most of the time, and a few campers coming and going, but not a lot.  There aren’t many travellers who are sufficiently interested in El Jardin to make the effort to get there.”

She asks what I think of the hype around the Mayan calendar and 2012.  She seems genuinely interested to know my thoughts, rather than just making conversation.  We are in the heartland of the Mayans, where people still live the traditions of thousands of years, and it is two days until the new year, so the question is particularly relevant.  “I’ve never given the idea much attention, but the last few months, the world has been changing at an ever-increasing pace.  I can’t see it continuing like that for much longer.  Right now, it seems almost inevitable that something cataclysmic will happen before the end of the year.”

She asks about my spirituality.  “I don’t think of myself as spiritual, I don’t follow any tradition.  But I definitely feel guided.  Like there’s something outside of me that always tells me what I need to do, so I never need to make decisions, I just know.  Like tonight, I came to this restaurant, when I could have gone to any.  I spoke to you rather than someone else, and you’re exactly the person I need to talk to right now.”

We arrange to meet in the morning to walk to El Jardin.

Beautiful Things

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The main square in the city of San Cristobal de las Casas, in Chiapas, Mexico, holds an artisans market.

The market is full of beautiful things.  So many.  I get lost in it all.  Every stall, every item, more beautiful than the last.  I am overwhelmed by the beauty.  How can this many beautiful things exist in one place?  I feel sorry for the rest of the world, that it does not have these beautiful things.  I want to take all these things with me, take them out into the world, and share them with everyone.

I’ve never had any interest in things before, never felt the desire to Have, but these things are so shiny, so colourful, so glowing with beauty that they call me to touch them and take them.

Oaxaca Ethnobotanical Garden

teosinte grass – the plant that corn was bred from

I took a tour of the Ethnobotanical Garden, to learn about all the local plants and their traditional uses.  Here’s some of my notes.

There are 16 indigenous ethnic groups in Oaxaca.  The region has a great diversity of flowering plants.  All the plants in the garden originate from the state of Oaxaca.  Corn, beans and squash were domesticated here.  The first domesticated plant was squash.  Some seeds traced to 8000BC were found near Mitla, archeobotanists can tell by morphological changes in the seed that it is a domesticated plant.  It was at this same time that plants were first domesticated in the Euphrates.  In the years 8000BC – 1500BC gradually more plants were domesticated.  In 1500BC the first villages appeared.  This reads like a primary school research project essay.

Rosita de Cacao – little rose flower.  It’s not cacao.  The flower is used in a traditional drink called tehate, which is made from maize, cacao, the toasted ground seeds of mamey fruit, and the rosita flower.  Dried powdered tehate stores well and is easily portable.

Five species of peppers were domesticated, three in South America and two in Mexico. Chilli peppers are high in vitamin C, they clear the sinuses and release endorphins.  To the Aztecs, peppers are magic, and ward off evil and disease.  They are also a preservative, and for this reason have been adopted worldwide.  An active ingredient capseisin blocks pain signals to the brain, and is used in pharmaceuticals.  It is also analgesic, it encourages blood to flow to the surface.

Tomatoes were domesticated in Mexico, but were considered poisonous in the rest of the world.

Maiz creollo is the locally cultivated corn.  The first domesticated corn was found to be in 4250BC. Teosinte is the grass that corn was developed from.  It is a multi-stemmed plant, with many seed pods, and doesn’t look like a promising food plant.  Grasses are mutable, and it was a mutation that led to domestication.  In 7000BC the domestication process began, and by 4250BC the domesticated plant was dependent on humans.

The earliest evidence of plant domestication was found in the mountains of Oaxaca.  Once domesticated, these plants spread quickly to other regions.

chapote or kapok tree

To the local indigenous people, trees are sacred, representing the gods and the universe.

A tree known as chapote or kapok is especially sacred, and represents the connection between upper and lower worlds.  The Mixtec creation story tells of people originating from trees.  The tree was stabbed with an arrow by a god, who split the tree open and people sprang out.  A carved bone found in a tomb at Monte Alban shows a picture of a tree birth.

This tree is not used for timber, as it is sacred.  The seed pod contains a fibre, which is used as a stuffing material.  It was used for lifejackets until a synthetic alternative was developed.  The fibre is still used in Africa as insulation.

flowering deciduous tree

Some drylands trees are deciduous so as not to lose moisture in the dry season.  They flower in the dry season, then the seed falls and is ready to germinate in the rainy season.

Agave plants (called maguey) are used as fibre, and become important throughout the world in the 1700s as it was used to make shipping ropes.  The fibre was also used for bags, hammocks, sandals and fishnets.

Fermented maguey juice is called pulque, and is similar to beer. It was used in rituals by priests and nobles to honour the gods, and also as a tonic for elderly and sick people.  Pulque disappeared from use for a long time, and is now making a comeback.


Opuntia (prickly pear) fruits and pads are eaten, and the cochineal bug that feeds on the plant was used as a red dye.  In 1774 hundreds of tonnes of cochineal were exported to Spain.  The building of Oaxaca was funded by the trade in cochineal.  In 1870 a synthetic dye was created, and by 1914 cochineal was no longer used.  Changing the pH of a cochineal dye manipulates the colour, so by adding lemon juice or soda, a range of colours from yellow to purple can be created.

opuntia / prickly pear

Fragments of a letter to a friend

I’ve been by myself the last couple days, and spent most of it reading anarchist newspapers about Occupy, so I’m full of thoughts and words and feelings that need to come out.  Thanks for being on the other end of it.

I’m housesitting in Berkeley for the last few days, staying with a woman who is really into transition stuff, and frustrated that other people don’t understand it and aren’t as enthusiastic and committed to it as she is.  And really happy to have me here to understand what she’s on about, share the enthusiasm and help out.  So last Saturday I joined her for the local transition group’s strategy retreat, which was a bit of a shambles, it seemed that everyone else there just saw transition as another environmental group out to convince “people” to have shorter showers, recycle, and ride bikes.  And yet they had an unleashing several months ago, Richard Heinberg was there even.  A couple days ago I helped prepare and present a class on transition to a group of theology students, they are studying the state of the world, the class is called “apocalypse now”.

I’m feeling really emotional and overwhelmed about Occupy, to be in the middle of a revolution is intense.  Everyone is talking about it all the time, everyone supports it, it’s on the front page of nearly every newspaper nearly every day.  It really is 99%.  It’s not like SOS, or Confest, or Loophole, where are group of people are creating an autonomous space for themselves in between everything else.  It’s so REAL, everyone is involved, and creating a world that works for everyone, themselves, out of nothing, by talking to each other in a park.  And no-one can be excluded for having different views, cos everyone is the 99%.  It’s challenging and beautiful and inspiring and it just keeps growing.  How long have we all been talking about a revolution, but it’s only been into our imaginations, and suddenly it has burst into the real world when no-one was expecting it.  It’s so sad that people’s lives and the earth have been treated so badly that it has come to this, and at the same time immensely heartening that everyone can pull together, and not just be against what we don’t want, but create for ourselves what we do want.  The world is falling apart and coming together all at once.
Last Saturday I joined a rally in Oakland, a two-month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, and to move the camp to a new site after being kicked out of the previous camp.  There were thousands of people.  The new  camp was removed the next morning.
I was in San Francisco yesterday, surprised to see that their camp is still there.  I met a real beatnik there.  I don’t even know what that is.
I went to Critical Mass in San Francisco last night, which wasn’t worth the effort at all.  I’ve turned down a few options, and arranged my travels, just for this Mass.  There were a lot less people there than usual, usually it’s thousands, and fills several blocks.  It seemed like people were there because it’s part of their routine, there wasn’t anything especially fun.  I guess I was tired and overwhelmed and maybe a bit sick too, and it was an overcast day, which affected my experience.  The last one in October was Halloween, nearly everyone in fancy dress, that would have been good to go to.
It went for nearly two hours, I didn’t notice until near the end that there was hardly anyone left, people had been dropping off along the way.  Going through the tunnels was fun though, bright lights and lots of shouting to get echoes.
This journey feels epic in the original sense of the word, as soon as I get home I want to sit at a keyboard and write it all out.  I’m having so much fun that I want to keep on like this forever, travelling America, meeting amazing people and riding my bike around.
I’m going to Mexico on Tuesday, meeting my friend Alejandro in Mexico City.  I’ve never met this guy, but got an email to come hang out, visit the community gardens he started, help run some permaculture, transition, and free living workshops, and share ideas.  Anyone who signs off an email to someone they’ve never met with “love and anarchy” instantly becomes my friend.  It’s good to have a friend to go to, cos I don’t know anything about Mexico really, and don’t know anyone else there.  Alfonso is away in Sweden the whole time I’ll be in Mexico. I’ll start at a language school in Oaxaca next week.

I rode over the Golden Gate bridge yesterday, there was a sign part way along saying “emergency phone and crisis counselling” and I cried that I’m living in a world where a bridge needs a crisis counselling phone.  If your life has been so fucked up that you feel you need to end it on a bridge, press the red button and talk to a stranger.  Who will probably send someone to “negotiate” to take you away and have you locked up.  Then I noticed that the phone wasn’t functioning, which made me cry even more.  It’s making me cry now just thinking about it.
I walked around Oakland a couple days ago, where every little space that could possibly be slept in had someone asleep there, even people were sleeping out in the open in parks.  This city has had a lot of Occupy action, a general strike and day of action two weeks ago shut down the port, the largest port on the west coast.
I don’t feel like I need to send this now, just need to get it all down, but since I’ve written might as well send it.
xx abrazo

Albany Bulb

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[somehow I lost all my photos from Albany, so these are pictures I found online]

Off the coast of Albany, on the east side of San Francisco Bay, there is a peninsula called The Bulb.  This landform is entirely man-made, and came into existence as a landfill site for building rubble.  Soil has filled the gaps, and Australian acacias dominate the landscape.  This piece of land has escaped colonisation from the city that surrounds the bay.  The land is not managed, or settled, or developed.  As it consists of concrete blocks, rebar and acacia trees, it is of little value to the economy.

The Bulb has become a sanctuary for those who live outside the economy.

The village consists of tents, handmade timber structures, chunks of rubble rearranged to form shelters, and hybrids of all three.  Somewhere among it all is a library.  The villagers get around on a network of tracks, and haul water in with a bicycle and trailer.  Wheelie bins and strollers are used to carry goods in and out.  The villagers look out for each other.

There are unlikely artworks all around.  The rubble and trash that form the land get unearthed, reshaped, painted, and evolved into ever-changing creations.

A few years ago, a documentary film was made about the people who live here, and attempts made to evict them.  It’s called Bums’ Paradise.

Taco Tuesday at the Garden Valley pub

Last night was Taco Tuesday at R&R bar at Garden Valley, a town so small that there isn’t much more than the pub.

I go in with Sera and David.  The ceiling is covered with graffitied one-dollar bills.  The barman greets us, and pulls out a couple large hunting knives from behind the bar to let us know not to make any trouble.  He asks someone for a flashlight, and is seen leaving by the back door with a flashlight as big as he is.  He comes back in with a doorbell in the shape of a breast.  He serves our drinks and pulls out a large pack of cards, and shows us a few card tricks.  We meet a local, who demonstrates bullriding on his barstool, and knocks a picture off the wall in the process.  The barman reprimands him: “Now look here, gravity isn’t just a good idea, it’s a LAW!”

He then pulls out a couple Chinese wire puzzles from behind the bar, and offers a free drink to any of us who can separate the pieces and put them back together.

Karaoke is going on behind us, some of it so good I mistake it for the recorded version, and some is terrible.  It’s all country music.

Someone leaves the door open when they exit.  The barman pulls a baseball bat out from under the bar, and leans over to slam the door closed with the bat.

More wire puzzles come out from under the bar.

The barman gets a toy plastic electric guitar from somewhere, and changes the batteries.  It doesn’t work.  Another identical toy guitar appears, still in its box.  David cuts it out of the box with one of the large hunting knives.  He swaps the batteries from one guitar to the other.  The barman sprays graphite on the battery points.  This one doesn’t work either.

A tough-looking guy with a big beard gives Sera some tips on solving the Chinese puzzles.

When we go to leave, an old lady suddenly appears from the kitchen and says “What? You’re leaving before cake?”

I find the whole evening incredibly amusing, and wonder if all bars are like this.  I haven’t been out to a bar in quite a while.

Everyone is keen to meet new people here, and seems to enjoy each others company.  It occurs to me that a pub is a great place for building community in an informal setting, and for people travelling through to meet locals.

It hasn’t occurred to me before, but a pub is a great place for building community in an informal way

What’s been happening?

Some highlights of the journey for the last couple of months.

  • Hiking in the snow, camping in the mountains, and warming up in natural hotsprings in Idaho
  • Attending the Northwest Permaculture Convergence in St Helens, near Portland, Oregon
  • Spending a day at Occupy Eugene
  • visiting Lost Valley Education Centre and Ecovillage in Oregon
  • cycling the Oregon Coast
  • hitch-biking to Calfornia
  • spending a few days at the Campus Centre for Appropriate Technology (CCAT) at Humboldt University, Arcata.  This is a lived-in demonstration house showing appropriate technologies, on campus.  I arrived during the annual harvest festival, which involved workshops on seedsaving, kombucha, herbalism, natural dyes, there was pumpkin carving and apple bobbing, and live music.  I stayed for the weekly volunteer day, making earth-bag retaining walls and cob render, and had the chance to cut a refrigerator in half with power tools, to make a non-electrical cool box for the house.
  • Attending the California Student Sustainability Convergence in Chico, which was just like SoS in Australia.  Highlight was a lecture by Derrick Jensen.


“Hello.  I’m travelling, and I’ll be visiting your town next week.  Can I come stay at your house for a few days?”  I write an email that says not much more than this quite often, always to people I’ve never met.  It amazes me that generally the response is “Sure, I’d love to have you over.”

Couchsurfing is, in the words of a recent host, “a network of friends you haven’t met yet.”  Everywhere I travel, I have a friend to stay with.  It’s so comforting to know that there is someone expecting me at my destination, with people they want me to meet, things to show me, places to take me around town.

I’ve met the most amazing people this way.  Merely the fact that they accept requests from strangers to come stay with them makes them amazing.

I created an account for myself at, wrote a bit about myself.  I search the website for people I’d like to meet.

I get to know the places I visit in ways that I never could otherwise.

I’ve stayed in a fifth-floor apartment, a yurt, a star dome, a cabin in the woods, and plenty of spare bedrooms and couches.  I’ve sailed Puget Sound at sunset, seen the moons of Jupiter through a telescope from a Seattle rooftop, gone out to dinner at midnight, looked for northern lights, eaten salmon on the beach at the US/Canada border, attended a lantern festival in a botanic garden and ridden home in mist so dense I could barely see my hands, slid down a snow-cliff in summer, eaten gold chocolate, picked fruit, hunted for mushrooms, sat in hot-springs in the snow, and played Settlers of Catan.

The many wonderful people I’ve had the opportunity to meet and stay with so far:

Dan and Amy in Vancouver

Deb, Jose and Marion in Vancouver

Anne in Parksville

Nadine on Lasqueti Island

Rino in Tofino

Mickey, Eli and friends at Port Alberni

Justin at French Beach

Rob in Victoria

Laura and Forrest in Seattle

John and Christy in Kingston

Becky and Jack in Seattle

Jen and Kelly in Seattle

Jon and Colleen in Portland

Alec and friends in Portland

Corrina, Tony and friends in Portland

Dan and Karla in Boise

Anca in Boise

John, Lauren and friends in Eugene

Adelaide at Lost Valley, Oregon

Mary and Mark at Deadwood, Oregon

The Campus Centre for Appropriate Technology at Humboldt University in Arcata, California

The gift-giving ceremony

My two-day stay at Lost Valley Education Centre and Ecovillage ends with a lovely gathering in a tipi.  Ishmael, who has been staying in the community for a time, is leaving to go travelling and needs to unload some possessions.  Instead of donating to a thrift shop, he wants to hold a ritual, a going away party, and a giving away of some things that have personal significance, to people who would like them.  On Friday evening, around 15 people gather on the dirt floor in his tipi, which will come down the next morning.  A fire is lit in the middle, and the smoke draws directly upward, out the vents, so the space is warm but not smoky at all.

I suggest that Ishmael give each gift to the whole group, and then whoever feels moved to give it to someone else can do so.  One by one, the items are placed in the centre of the circle, and their story told.  After each one, someone gets up and puts the gift in the hands of the person they feel it is drawn to.  Others comment that this person feels right for the gift too, and the recipient often states that this is something they have been wanting.  The gifts seem to give themselves to the right people.  Everyone gets something.  When a pair of gloves is placed in the circle, I get the feeling that I could accept this as a gift and make use of it.  Within seconds it is placed in my hands.  A djembe drum is given to a young woman who seems to me an unlikely drummer, but she says she has been considering buying a drum, and wants to learn.

Once all the gifts have been given, musical instruments are brought out, and the group blends sounds to create our own music.  Those without instruments clap or sing.

I find this ceremony a lovely way to bring the community together, to distribute cherished but no longer needed possessions, and celebrate the end of a chapter in someone’s life.  Stepping outside of the tipi at the end of the evening, we look up at the stars, and back at the tipi, which is glowing from the firelight within.

Northwest Permaculture Convergence

Here’s a few random sentences from notes I took at the convergence.  They’re not connected, and they are probably of no use.  Some of them don’t even make sense to me.  Someone might read them and get inspired by something here.  Therefore I need to publish them.

This is the first ever public event (in Oregon I guess) with composting toilets.  The ‘flush’ is coffee husks, which smell sweet, not the burnt smell of coffee.
There are a lot of young people here.  There is no tea, coffee, alcohol or drugs.
Catering works by everyone bringing as much food as they would consume in a weekend, and contributing it to the shared cooking.  A kitchen co-ordinator somehow figures out a menu and co-ordinates volunteers to prepare the food.  Everyone volunteers a couple hours in the kitchen.  There are at least 200 people.

In some states farmers can’t get permission to have more than one house per 40 acre farm, as government policies are based on the model of farming with a combine harvester, one farmer per 40acres.
A house in King County has recently become the first in the county to get permission to collect rainwater for drinking.

Community herbalism: a community heals itself together, rather than a healer treating individuals.
Taste a plant and get a feel for it – is it warm, cool, sweet…? What are the sensations?

“Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable”

Transforming suburbia.  As more people get into food growing, there will be more interest in taking down fences, and sharing.  A tour de co-op, and a tour de coop.  Urban wwoofing.  Road rip – take out a driveway.  Suburban permaculture summer camp.  Set up neighbourhood groups to discuss local issues, a residents’ association.  Put out a neighbourhood newsletter.  A community emergency response team.  Front yard gardens to engage neighbours.

Once upon a time, in Eugene, Oregon, there were two families who lived next door to each other.  The fence between their houses was so high that they never saw each other, except when they happened to both be out front on the street at the same time.  This happened about once every two years, and they would say hello, and nothing more.  This went on for ten years.  One day, both families happened to be invited to the same party, got to talking, and discovered they actually liked each other.  They talked about what they could do together, and decided to take down the fence between their houses.  Now the children have twice as much yard to play in, twice as many friends, and grandma doesn’t feel so lonely at home all day.  They all lived happily ever after.  This is a true story.

An Ancient Celtic saying: “everything to do, nothing to get done”
The land misses us.
In Quaker culture there are children’s pilgrimages every quarter, for the children to learn the stories of the land.  Every child needs to be feral.
In Chinook trading language there is a word – skukum – meaning special, scary, magical and spiritual.

The US has more laws than all other countries combined.
Society is coming apart because people don’t understand what other people are doing.

Education is a factory turning humans into “good citizens”
School prepares people for college, but not for life.  College prepares people for a life in debt.
Mark Twain: “I never let my schooling get in the way of my education.”
100 years ago 6% of people graduated from college.  The figure is now 85%.
In collective grading, nobody passes until everybody passes.

Block repair.  Make a model of an intersection and ask small children what can be done to bring people together.  Let them design it.
Start a neighbourhood discussion with “what would world peace look like?”

Group tools: dynamic facilitation, wisdom councils, citizen juries, nonviolent communication (NVC), Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), Appreciative Inquiry (AI), Open Space Technology, The World Café.  Another one I’ve encountered elsewhere is Deep Democracy. I’d love to experience a meeting like are held in The Fifth Sacred Thing, where the four directions are present and speak at the meeting.  Or a Quaker meeting, where people speak when the spirit moves them to do so.

The law has been broken. It needs to be fixed.

Cycling through the streets of Portland late one evening with Tony and Corrina, we come to a red light.  Seeing no traffic coming from either direction, we ride through. Tony says something about breaking the law.  The comment enters my mind at an odd angle, and breaks off into several thoughts.

What does it mean to break the law?  Should a broken law be looked at in the same way as other things that get broken?

If something gets broken, here’s some ways to approach the situation.

  • See if the thing is faulty
  • Work out how to repair it
  • Decide whether it’s worth repairing, maybe its useless and needs to be thrown out
  • Maybe it needs to be replaced with an improved version, or something different that will serve the same purpose
  • Maybe the person who broke it doesn’t know how to use it, or doesn’t understand the purpose of the thing
  • Maybe it was being used for the wrong purpose
  • Maybe it doesn’t work for everyone
  • Don’t ask anyone else to use it while it is broken, since it clearly isn’t going to work
  • Maybe no-one had any use for it in the first place
  • Maybe the person who broke the thing did it on purpose.  They would have had a reason.  Look at their motivation, the issues that led them to do this, and help them resolve it.  Punishing the person for their action will not help them, and will not fix the broken thing.  Understanding why they did it might help other people who feel inclined to break things, and could help to improve the design of the thing, to not make people feel inclined to break it.

I reckon the legal system would work a lot better if it dedicated itself to amending broken laws, rather than punishing people who break them.

Occupy Portland: a day in the life of the revolution

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I walk into the camp at Occupy Portland and take a while wandering, getting a feel of what’s going on here.  There are lot of tents, tarps, placards, people, music, announcements and discussions.  An information desk, safety desk, first aid, health information, communications centre, radio station, childrens’ space, library, relaxation space, film screening space, community garden (which has descended into a mud-pit), composting and recycling, coffee counter, and busy kitchen.  I’m looking for the couchsurfing space, where I might meet someone called Patrick, who put a message about this on the Couchsurf Portland email list.  I don’t see any Couchsurf sign, and there are far too many people here to find Patrick by asking around.  I don’t see anyone I recognise.

I stash my sleeping bag and small backpack in the library, a quiet and comfortable-looking space.  I left most of my belongings in a locker at the bus station, bringing only things I am prepared to lose.  Looking for a way in, a place for myself in this organised chaos, I offer my services at the dishes station.  A crew of five are on washing and drying.  There is only cold water, we’re washing in crates, and standing on pallets because the ground is wet.  Everything in the kitchen is totally makeshift, it went up suddenly and is gradually being improved.  There is a constant stream of people coming in to the kitchen to offer something: cleaning supplies, a source of hot water, food, utensils.  All offers are accepted.

The camp appeared six days ago, with little or no planning beforehand.  It runs entirely on donations, volunteers and goodwill.  The kitchen feeds thousands every day.  There are no leaders or rosters, and few roles assigned.  The paths are swept daily, dishes and litter collected around the camp, toilets kept clean, trash removed, website maintained, press releases written, and all hubs managed, by people choosing to take on these tasks.  A village has come into being.

Portland attracts activists and community organisers from around the country who choose to make their life here to be part of the vibrant and progressive scene.  If any city has the skills, experience and wisdom to work together to start a revolution and keep it going, it’s Portland.

Many people who don’t fit in with mainstream society choose to make their home at the camp, which is challenging to others, but everyone is welcome and included.  There are many with strong opinions, who state these loudly, leading to arguments, and occasionally fights.  Designated camp peacekeepers are called in, rather than calling on security or police to get involved.

For some people here, the camp is an excuse to sit around and get stoned, but many more are putting in long hours to keep the camp going.

I stick my head in at the library, a makeshift yurt made from sticks bound together and covered with a tarp, and ask if I can be involved.  Two people are arranging books.  I am given a catalogue of the Dewey Decimal system, and set to work assigning numbers to the books.  I am now a librarian.  The three of us get in to discussing the books and guessing their Dewey catagories, and have some laughs in the process.  I have found my place in the camp.

The library has a stream of visitors, mostly coming to donate books.  A young girl recommends her favourite children’s books.  The collection grows.  In the last few days, this library has been visited by some of the city’s librarians, offering support.  The camp library has been recognised as an official library by the state of Oregon.

I spend the night on the floor of the library, sleeping on placards that were used in the demonstration march last week.

I am woken at 6am by shouting.  “Everyone get up.  The police are here, hundreds of them, we’re surrounded, there are lots of paddy wagons.  Come save the street.”  Not liking the sound of this, I get up and leave the park.  It turns out the police are only interested in reclaiming the street that bisects the park, which the camp has so far kept closed.  Several people are arrested, and the street is opened to traffic.  The camp in the park is safe, and will continue indefinitely.

There are news vans on each corner of the park, and reporters walk around the camp asking questions of anyone prepared to talk to them.  Business men come through in their lunch break to see what is going on.  Police officers stroll through, and take photographs of each other.  I can imagine them showing their friends: “Here’s a picture of me at the revolution.”  A tour group of young people comes through and visits the library.  The community radio station conducts interviews.

I offer to run some infoshare sessions in the library, as this is how I can best contribute my skills.  Living Without Money and Appropriate Technology workshops I have run so many times that I don’t need to prepare, and they go smoothly, with a small group at each.  Workshops give me a chance to connect with people and hear their stories.  A man who has been living homeless here for six months tells me how scared he gets sometimes, never knowing what might happen on the street.

A young woman asks me what made me want to visit the United States.  “I came to see the empire collapse,” I say.  “I never imagined it would happen like this.”

“Neither did we,” she replies.

I take a walk around the camp quite often, to take it all in.  Every time tears come to my eyes, with joy and amazement at what I’m seeing.  This is the revolution.  It’s really happening.

This is the revolution

The revolution is being televised, blogged, tweeted and live-streamed.  It’s also on the streets and In Your Face, in every city in America and many more around the world.  Now that it’s started, it can’t be stopped.  The equilibrium has shifted, momentum is building.  It has become part of our history and shared identity.  We can’t go home and forget about it now.  It has reached boiling point, and attempts to suppress it will be futile, it will spring up in another form, another place, just as hot.  This is not just a five-minute segment on the evening news.  This is REAL.  It’s here, and it’s now, and it’s all of us.

I own the sunshine

I own the sunshine.  I didn’t buy it off anyone, because no-one ever owned it before.  I just declared it to be mine, asserted my rights, gave myself legal status as the owner of the sunshine.  I can do this because I am a Corporation.

So you can’t have any of the sunshine.  I can find out if you’ve taken it, and I can make you pay.  It’s in my power as a Corporation.

What’s that you say? My sunshine is doing you harm, you don’t want it?  Your skin is red and blistered, your crops withered and dying, your animals sick from sunstroke?  What I see here is proof that you have taken my sunshine without paying for it.  I can force my way onto your property any time to gather evidence of your crimes against me.  Here is a large fine, a court order, and a jail sentence for your crime.

What’s that you say now?  This is unfair, you’ll take me to court, make me stop treating people this way?  You could try, but the judge presiding the case, he was my CEO, he’s still my biggest shareholder, and he can profit by taking my side.  There’s no chance he’ll listen to the likes of you.  He’s a great guy, that judge.  Helps me out a lot.  He can come back work for me any time.

I’ll always have more money, better lawyers, more power over the judicial system than you.  You don’t stand a chance.

The government passes laws, and elects officials, that support me, take my side, because my money gives me power over them.  This is how democracy works.  You can be part of it too, you just need to be a Corporation.

Here in Boise, Idaho, the city is directly above a source of geothermal heat, which could easily provide heating and hot water for all the buildings in the city.  No new buildings are permitted to tap in to the heat source, because the heat is owned by a Corporation that doesn’t allow this.

No-one may have a wind turbine on their property, as the right to harvest the wind is owned by a Corporation.

The water that falls from the sky and flows in the rivers and aquifers is owned by a Corporation.

Farmers who save seeds from their crops, organic and heirloom varieties that are our cultural heritage, strong plants that are suited to local conditions, resistant to disease and full of nutrients, have been sued by Monsanto.

According to Wikipedia: “The usual claim involves violation of a technology agreement that prohibits farmers from saving seed from one season’s crop to plant the next, a common farming practice.  One farmer received an eight-month prison sentence for violating a court order to destroy seeds, in addition to having to pay damages, when a Monsanto case turned into a criminal prosecution.”

Monsanto patented seeds, which are bred to be weak, to be low in nutrients, to depend on Monsanto fertilisers and pesticides to stand a chance of producing anything at all, and to produce infertile seeds, requiring farmers to continue to buy seeds, and so be completely dependent on the Monsanto Corporation to produce food.  Monsanto trespasses on the properties of farmers who save their seeds, to gather evidence of Monsanto-owned plant genes.  If evidence is found, it is because cross-pollination has infected the heirloom plants with Monsanto-created genes, against the wishes of the farmers.

A quarter-million farmers in India have committed suicide after being unable to pay debts incurred as a result of poor yields after using expensive Monsanto products.