Life’s changing: we are settling in Australia

Posted on 12 August 2014 | 4 responses

Jean and I are lucky we found each other. We have so much love that sometimes I wonder how it could possibly last. In November we’ll be counting 6 years of a surprising and beautiful journey together. I still remember the day we met. My heart fluttered and my knees nearly gave way. I had never been one  of those girls so the feelings surprised me. I convinced myself that none of it was real and it was all in my head so I spent the remaining weekend of that meditation course avoiding him. Little did I know that he had just changed the course of my life. This wonderfully supportive, kind, intelligent, patient man has filled me with a deep, committed love I didn’t know was possible. He encouraged me to leave a career that felt unfulfilling and compromising of my values. He has always believed in me.

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Wherever we are, we find joy in our shared life together. Our values and love grow through experiences, travel and self development. Jean is gifted with positivity that shines even through lack of sleep, stretched finances and stressful moments. He has a love and confidence in life that inspires and intrigues me. On the contrary, I feel I am often fighting internal battles about my appearance, money, future and relationships. I wish I wasn’t like this. I try to accept. I practice gratitude. I remind myself to observe. I try to stop the self judgment. I know I’m not unique – so many of you feel the same way and it seems to be the human condition. I’m happy I learn and grow. There’s always room to improve.

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Lately we’ve been searching for roots. After living in Bolivia and so many years moving, we are both aching to invest our ideas, creativity and energy into a special place we can be connected to for a long time. This is such an exciting change for us but a worrying one too. After staying with friends and family for a few months we have found ourselves in the Northern Rivers area of New South Wales in Australia. We are looking for somewhere to rent, to put our things, to make our home while we search for land to fulfil a project, a life goal and connection in this special place. In between phone calls, house visits and research we explore. We wander sun drenched beaches, the winterly winds hardly cold to us at all. Our eyes drink in the wide landscapes of rolling hills stretching out to white beaches and bright blue ocean. Our hearts connect to the street music, small towns and like minded people in the region. Today we were so excited to see a pod of dolphins playing in the waves alongside surfers… then, an eagle glided by with a fish wriggling in its claws. “I love this country!” Jean exclaimed. We are finding our place, I thought. I need to be patient.

Then my mind starts wondering about what I will do here. What can I offer? How can I make a living? Jean reminds me to be confident in life and lists my qualities and skills. I wish I believed in them as much as he does. I want to grow food, connect with nature and people, create, share, teach, learn, photograph, paint, ferment…

…and so our life changes again… thank you for joining our journey and stay tuned for this next chapter in our lives…

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Photos thanks to Elaine Santana.


 

Galápagos Islands: remarkable yet preoccupying

Posted on 25 July 2014 | 1 response

We enjoyed last Christmas on the Galapagos Islands, giving ourselves the soulful gift of connecting with nature. We felt incredibly blessed to be in such a unique place on this remarkable planet of ours as animals approached us unguarded, unafraid of humans and as curious about us as we were of them. We wondered at the unique giant tortoises, tame sea lions and abundant bird life.

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Our visit was bitter sweet though, as we noticed the effects of tourism and the swell in population on the islands. We wondered if we should really be there, contributing in that way. Locals profess that tourism funds conservation and research but I couldn’t help feel that there would be greater conservation if we didn’t go there at all. My heart felt burdened as I contemplated the magnitude of destruction humans have unleashed on this planet, even in protected areas like this.

People flock to these islands because they view them as largely untouched… how ironic…

I couldn’t ignore the quiet sadness chaperoning our happiness, our highs and our fun during our visit. All of our wonderful experiences were thanks to tourism (after all, that’s the only way to even get there) but all of the extinctions and destruction are also related to humans and tourism. Weren’t we contributing to this problem simply by visiting?

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Tourism is relatively recent there and already the impact has been massive. The Galápagos became a national park in 1959 and tourism started in the 1960s. In 1959 approximately 1 000 to 2 000 people called the islands their home but by 1972 a census in the archipelago recorded a population of 3 488. By the 1980s this number had risen to more than 15 000 people and in 2010 there were 25 124 people in the Galápagos. Now, I’ve read that they estimate the population at 40 000! In the sixties, there were approximately 1 000 tourists per year and by 2001 there were approximately 80 000 visitors. Since 2007 tourist numbers have stagnated at around 170 000 annually because of the global financial crisis. If pre-crisis growth rates had continued, there were fears that number could have reached 300 000 tourists.

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The Galápagos Islands are remote and isolated, which allowed the ecosystems there to evolve over millions of years in a unique way. Many factors have interrupted these ecosystems drastically.  Now, there are a plethora of environmental problems plaguing the islands, some stemming from the pressures of world climate changes such as El Niño, others arising from commercial fishing, and overpopulation, and many resulting from the introduction of species by humans dating back to the 1800s… not to mention the grounding of the oil tanker Jessica in 2001 and the subsequent oil spill.

Humans have accidentally or willingly introduced plants and animals, such as feral goats, cats, and cattle, which have become the main threat to Galápagos. Quick to reproduce and with no natural predators, these alien species have decimated the habitats of native species. The native animals, lacking natural predators on the islands, are defenseless to introduced predators.  There are over 700 introduced plant species today. There are only 500 native and endemic species. This difference is creating a major problem for the islands and the natural species that inhabit them.

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There is also pressure on the natural resources and conservation problems that motor yachts and trash bring. Over fishing or illegal fishing has become a large issue. When migrants do not find work in tourism, they often find jobs in the fishing industry. The sea cucumber and sharks of the Galápagos have become alarming targets, both popular in Asian markets for their aphrodisiac or medicinal qualities.

However, some problems started way before the 60s, back when humans found out about these abundant islands. In 1793 the islands started being used as a base for the whalers operating in the Pacific Ocean. Whalers and maritime fur traders killed and captured thousands of the Galápagos tortoises to extract their fat and this hunting was responsible for greatly diminishing, and in some cases eliminating, certain species. Along with whalers came the fur-seal hunters, who brought the population of this animal close to extinction. Then, in 1820 the whaleship  Globe discovered sperm whales in the area which led to taking more than 2000 barrels of sperm whale oil and the news of the discovery back to the US. In turn there was an influx of whaleships to exploit the new whaling ground and the Galapagos Islands became a frequent stop for the whalers.

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It was surprising to us that “aside from the azure waters and nearby unspoilt white beaches, little distinguishes Puerto Ayora, where two-thirds of the islands’ 26,000 people live, from the mainland’s many grim towns of concrete and corrugated tin roofs”. According to this article, “many people on the Galapagos are locked in their own Darwinian struggle for a share of the dollars that tourism has brought in. Allegations of corruption and drug smuggling add to the small-town cauldron of jealous competition. Despite the estimated annual influx of $150m from tourism into the Galápagos economy, poverty remains a serious problem. A 2010 government study found that 31% of residents are poor, measured according to how well their basic needs are met. Galápagos also has above-average rates of domestic violence for Ecuador. More than 40% of the adult population have had only basic or no schooling at all, though literacy rates are higher than on the mainland. While Ecuador gets positive marks for the conservation effort, many locals feel hemmed in. They experience freedom of movement when they visit relatives on the mainland. At home, residents are restricted to the 3% of the islands not officially part of the national park, and prices for trips are too high for them to visit the same spots that tourists rave about. Mr Delgado believes this reduces their appreciation for conservation.”

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These were certainly our feelings as we counted in the new year on the Galápagos. We weren’t in the partying mood. Brimming with love and appreciation for nature and all that we were experiencing was enough of a celebration. We wandered around briefly – curious about the amount of litter and glitz that felt so alien and toxic in this natural sanctuary. We didn’t want to give our attention to the loud music and fireworks that we imagined frightening all the non-human beings tucked out of site. We didn’t want to gawk at the large plastic beer cups being thrown to the ground, that we’d later see in the ocean. We didn’t want to judge people staggering from too much alcohol. We just couldn’t imagine seeing in the new year in such a way in a place that deserves our respect, our light touch, clarity and peace.

We are not judging those for partying (although I am for littering!), it’s just that the way things are done on the islands don’t always seem to correlate with what we went there to experience: nature. I’m not just talking about the new year party. That example just made it clear. The way the tours are done, the shops, the streets, the way inhabitants on the islands live… I guess I had imagined that the sort of people who would live there would be passionate about that environment and be nature lovers but the truth is that many are simply there to make a living. Again, I’m not judging them… please don’t mistake my intention here as I’m just sharing with you how it is. I do think education is needed though.

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Whilst on the islands we read David Suzuki’s A Lifetime of Ideas. I think the following excerpt from his book is an apt summary of our experience too:

Homo sapiens is a truly global animal. Our adaptability, made possible by the inventiveness of our brain, has enabled us to occupy every continent. There is nowhere on Earth that we haven’t been. And we have invaded that hallowed biological laboratory that shaped Darwin’s thinking. Once remote hiding places for pirates, the Galápagos Islands are magical jewels attracting hordes of ecotourists.

The name Galápagos conjures up other words— HMS Beagle, Charles Darwin, finches, evolution. To a biologist, a visit to these fabled islands is a pilgrimage to the source of the inspiration for the great unifying concept in the life sciences. The remote equatorial archipelago, long protected from human habitation by its isolation, was an evolutionary laboratory seemingly made just for the observant scientist. Today, the islands are an Ecuadorian national park that allows the privileged visitor to take a trip back through time.

On arrival, my first impressions were of the animals that are present in awesome profusion—the iguanas, frigate birds, boobies, sea lions, flamingos, and tortoises. Birds, reptiles, and marine mammals, often in astonishing numbers, share overlapping territory, with remarkably little overt aggression. The most emotional part of the Galápagos experience for me was the animals’ complete lack of fear of humans. It was profoundly humbling to be ignored as a nonthreatening part of the surroundings. Based on what we have done to creatures elsewhere on Earth, Galápagos animals should flee from us in terror. I am deeply grateful that they don’t.

My second reaction was that the planet has grown so small that we can’t escape the evidence and impact of our species. It’s not just the bits of plastic and other human-created debris to be seen on every beach; ecotourism itself is the main force that shapes the fate of the flora and fauna here. Two airports allow jets to bring in a torrent of tourists, who support the islands’ human communities as well as the Ecuadorian government. As I watched the oil slick from bilge water being pumped from our small boat, I couldn’t help thinking that even the most enlightened tourists have an effect. And although ecosystems are resilient, there are limits.

When the second airport was built a few years ago, the ceiling on tourists was raised from 25 000 to 40 000 a year. The village of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island is exploding with unlimited immigration of Ecuadorians, and the impact of the 5 500 settlers is apparent everywhere. Continued growth of the island population will inexorably put greater pressure on the island ecosystems, and human and nonhuman needs will inevitably conflict.

The basic problem is that our ignorance is simply too vast to allow “management” of complex communities of organisms. The best approach is to be very conservative and tightly control the most destructive element in the islands, namely, us. History suggests that’s not likely.

Over tens of millennia of isolation, each island of the Galápagos was an evolutionary opportunity. New species arrived as part of the flotsam and jetsam that blow and wash onto any ocean islands. Most have disappeared; only a few survived. But like North and South America and Australia over the past five centuries, the Galápagos Islands in recent time have been radically altered both deliberately and accidentally by a succession of pirates, whalers, and settlers.

The famous giant tortoises, a source of fresh meat for ocean voyagers, were carted off by the tens of thousands, extinguishing them from some islands. Introduced plants such as elephant grass, guyaba, and wild cucumber have altered the species mix on some islands. Insects such as wasps and fire ants have taken hold and have become major pests for people, while the black-billed ani, a bird introduced to eat ticks and insect parasites on cattle, has become a major competitor with the endemic birds. But the real disasters have been the mammals such as cats, burros, goats, pigs, rats, and dogs. The government has instituted “control” programs to reduce or eradicate goats and cats by poison, traps, and hunting, but the logistical problems are enormous and each has its associated negative side.

The Charles Darwin Station on Santa Cruz Island supports research and has a breeding program to increase numbers of threatened animals such as tortoises for release back into the wild. But again, human perceptions and priorities based on limited knowledge are being imposed on the islands.

So although a visit to the Galápagos is a sublime experience, it does not provide an escape from the reality of the global ecocrisis. Yet sharing space that is home for other species is spiritually uplifting, filling us with awe, reverence, and indeed, love. These emotional connections could be the beginning of a new attitude that might eventually change the way we live on Earth.

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Bolivian Story: Alejandro Barrios

Posted on 25 June 2014 | 2 responses

I met Alejandro whilst volunteering at vegan restaurant, Red Monkey, in La Paz, Bolivia. Ale was in charge of baking the bread and making the vegan cakes. I was fascinated by making cakes without eggs, milk or butter and I knew they must be good because Ale is the happiest, most laid back person there… high on life and baked goods! Actually, Ale’s wonderful attitude to life, his joyful presence and playfulness is what kept me going back on Thursdays to help out in the kitchen. I’m so grateful for the time spent with him, exchanging, learning from him and [...] Continue Reading…

Suburban food gardening in Perth, Western Australia

Posted on 5 May 2014 | No responses

Over the past year I’ve been following a facebook group called Jetto’s Patch, a Perth edible garden on less than half an acre (1482 square meters). Admittedly, my involvement in the group has been minimal as we’ve been in Bolivia gardening in a completely different environment. I’ve quietly sat back and read posts, information and advice from people all over the world but I’ve been specifically interested in Dario and Michele, who nurture their abundant garden with passion and research.

Friends of ours in Perth have found Jetto’s an inspiring and deep resource for their own budding suburban food garden. [...] Continue Reading…

Bolivian Story: Felipe Ballon

Posted on 3 April 2014 | 2 responses

I have known Felipe Ballon since very soon after our arrival in La Paz but most of my time was spent with him in his car! Felipe is the taxi-driver hired by the NGO I used to work with, so we would frequently spend the hour long trip to/from the airport discussing Bolivia and its intriguing contradictions.  As a taxi-driver I particularly enjoyed his punctuality – even when he had to pick me up from the airport at 3 am – and as a friend I enjoyed learning from him as he shared his perspectives on Bolivian society. So, [...] Continue Reading…

Bolivian Story: Maria Calzadilla

Posted on 26 March 2014 | 1 response

One sunny day I went to a Mercadito Pop [a fair] and discovered an amazing electric blue felted hat I just had to have to protect me from the harsh sun we get here at the high altitude of La Paz. The lady designing and selling these unique hats was Maria. I noticed straight away she was a woman caring about design. You know those sort of people, right? They look effortless. They always have something ever so slightly different hanging from their ears or neck, but never too over-the-top or in-your-face. This is Maria – comfortable, unique, creative [...] Continue Reading…

Bolivian Story: Sandra

Posted on 10 March 2014 | 2 responses

Just two weeks after I arrived in Bolivia I began daily Spanish classes with Sandra. She didn’t want to be interviewed or have photos taken, which is also why I haven’t included her surname. This Bolivian Story is to tell you about why she has been such a big part of my life here.

My first year in La Paz was difficult for me. Jean was frequently travelling for work, I didn’t know anyone and most days the only other person I spoke to was Sandra, for 1 or maybe 2 hours… in Spanish.  It was exhausting. Some days I [...] Continue Reading…

Bolivian Story: Daniela Lorini

Posted on 8 March 2014 | 1 response

One day we visited the Christmas fair at the American school and discovered some unique, beautiful mirrors, paintings and coat hooks being sold by Daniela Lorini. She was there with her partner, Arnaud, selling her art works which stood out among the collection of crafts there. We started talking and before we left Dani asked for our contact details. At the time I thought she was just being polite but they were different. They remembered us and invited us over for dinner in the new year. We instantly connected.

I started hanging out at Dani’s place one day a week [...] Continue Reading…

Bolivian Story: Diane Bellomy, Artesania Sorata

Posted on 6 March 2014 | No responses

Soon after we arrived in Bolivia we met Diane Bellomy. Diane’s work was very interesting to me since she owns a Fair Trade business called Artesania Sorata, producing and selling hand dyed and handmade alpaca clothing, accessories and home wares that are generally made by women. Here in La Paz there are very few places that sell genuinely handmade, genuinely Bolivian or genuinely Fair Trade alpaca wear, despite the numerous shops in the tourist street Calle Sagarnaga claiming some of these. So, before long I started volunteering unofficially around 3-4 days a week, for around a year. During this [...] Continue Reading…

How to vermicompost: composting with worms

Posted on 4 March 2014 | No responses

We are packing. We are moving to Australia, starting all again. I find myself a little teary occasionally as I say goodbye to all our babies – our plants, bacterias and yeasts I’ve nurtured carefully over the years here in Bolivia. Kombucha SCOBYs, kefir grains, sourdough starter, worms and apple cider vinegar mothers all to be distributed to caring souls wanting to improve their health. I think about the future, starting them all again. I’ve had so much pleasure with my weekly routines – feeding the worms, watering the plants, kneading the sourdough, bottling the kombucha…

Anyway, I’m a sentimental [...] Continue Reading…

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