We met Rebeca the same night as Pablo, at Red Monkey, the only vegan vegetarian restaurant in La Paz. Rebeca was behind the bar mixing unusual cocktails that combine typically Bolivian ingredients like huacataya and locoto with fresh juices and of course, alcohol. When I turned up at Red Monkey for my first day volunteering in the kitchen Rebeca showed me around their food production garden, which is her baby and love. As we talked it became clear to me that she was feeling overwhelmed as the only person working in the garden, so I suggested I come one day a week to help out. It wasn’t a completely selfless offer, I have to admit. As much as I was loving our indoor apartment garden, I was missing gardening outdoors and craving sharing that experience with someone too… and so it started, our weekly gardening day together that grew into involving the rest of the Red Monkey staff. These days spent with Rebeca were so healing for me – full of gratitude as I had my hands in the earth, the sun on my back, nurturing seedlings, learning together, starting their worm farm, building compost bays and new garden beds, harvesting, mulching (something I’ve completely converted Rebeca to!), good conversations, sharing lunch and of course, being present. There’s nothing like nature to bring me back to the present moment. After a tough first year in La Paz, meeting Rebeca, sharing her garden and developing our friendship brought me so much peace. When I leave Bolivia I’ll re-read this post whenever I need to bring that feeling of peace back.
What’s your involvement with Red Monkey?
Red Monkey is a project that Pablo and I had discussed and dreamt about for a few years before it started. He got the opportunity to bring it to life, so I couldn’t resist the urge to come and work with him. It was something I truly believed in that would bring much joy to my life. My main role has been to start the organic garden and help out in all the other areas that are not directly kitchen work, but are very necessary for a restaurant to run. I also created the green bar, which incorporates everything I love about a good cocktail whilst following the vision and philosophy of the restaurant – which is to have healthy, fresh, unadulterated ingredients mixed in a delicious way.
How did you set up this garden and what were some of the challenges and successes with being at altitude, etc.?
Well, I was fairly new to gardening when I started. All I had was passion and some short experiences in organic gardens. I knew beforehand that it was going to be a tough endeavour because La Paz has a very unique climate. It’s not just the really high altitude here that’s unusual, but also a very temperamental climate where the temperature changes within a day can be crazy! You get more climate variation within a day than you do between summer and winter. So, that brings special challenges and not many plants can successfully thrive – for example I get a lot of plants bolting from shock so I’m thinking about ways I can stabilise temperature, through mulching or a green house for example. Also, it was a challenge to create a healthy ecosystem because initially it was a bare piece of land with just rocks. We had to remove 2 feet of rock throughout the whole area and bring in soil. Now, to keep the soil going we compost all the kitchen scraps, bringing them back to the earth, which has actually been more soil production than we need so we are looking at ways to use that up in other places. From the very beginning, throughout the design of this whole project, it was important for us to include as many closed loops as possible – reuse our waste, put our energy into continuously becoming wasteless. Compost is a big part of it but it has been a challenge also. For example, we wanted brown paper towels in the bathrooms so we could put them in the compost to add carbon, which can be the hardest part to find for the compost since as a restaurant we have mostly nitrogen waste through the food scraps – but it’s impossible to find brown paper towels here, but we are still looking.
On the other hand, I think that because of the altitude and harsh weather there aren’t that many pests to worry about which makes the organic part easier. I have realised that potatoes are incredibly successful here – you basically don’t have to do anything. I have also learnt that the native crops are the best to grow – they are very well adapted. However, some foreign crops like kale also do wonderfully here and have been continuously feeding us from the beginning. Another good part of not really having seasons, just the wet and dry seasons, is that so far, for the most part, we have been able to grow everything all year round. The only difference is that in the rainy season we don’t water.
I know you were in the US studying for some time and your experiences there have inspired you… can you talk about that?
I lived in the US for 8 years. I went to school for 5 then worked for 3 years after that. It has been the most wonderful experience in my life. It has opened my mind incredibly and I wouldn’t be who I am if it wasn’t for that experience. Just a couple of weeks ago a friend of mine who had a similar experience told me something that is absolutely correct. He said, “I thought I had to get out of Bolivia to see the world, but really now I realise I had to get out of Bolivia to see Bolivia from the outside“. That is exactly what happened to me. I gained a fresh and new perspective on this country. I learnt to see all of our shortcomings as opportunities and I’ve come to value all of the culture and unexploited environment that we have. I used to see it as negative parts of our country. I used to think our lack of industrialisation was a bad thing and our culture was a handicap to moving forward. Now I realise they are our biggest treasures. Because of this view I used to have I decided to study Industrial Engineering, always thinking that I would come back to Bolivia and make a difference. But after working in that industry in the US experiencing the way of life it imposes on workers, environment and consumer society as a whole I have come to realise that this is not the path I’d like to see Bolivia take. I’ve seen all the destruction that comes with it… all the isolation… all the separation from nature and each other. I believe there are much better ways to accomplish the same levels of comfort and good quality of life that doesn’t have to destroy in order to gain. At least I hope there is and I’d like to help build it.
But also, one of the most beautiful things about the US that I was able to see, and perhaps because only as a foreigner you can see these things, is that this huge mainstream movement of consumerism, environment destruction, separation and isolation is creating hot spots of people who are incredibly tired of it. They are being pioneers in developing alternatives that are more holistic and more in accordance with nature. These are truly inspiring movements. I was able to meet people in communities who are doing truly amazing, progressive things and I was very inspired and became hopeful. This is why I decided to come back to Bolivia and try to help implement these things way before we implement an industrialised society.
For example, I had an experience working in the garden of this little hotel called Stanford Inn by the Sea in Mendocino, California, and I was able to learn everything I know about gardening from this beautiful, wonderful lady named Dana Ecelberger. She is a very devoted and intelligent woman who explained to me with very fresh and deep perspectives how to work with the garden. She combined very rational and scientific methods with intuition and love. I learnt from her that a garden is a living organism that you can communicate with in very different ways and you have to listen to it. She told me that the garden would always tell you what needs to be done, and you just have to listen to it – how to observe it and get in touch with it. Even though she taught me many practical and specific things her vision and connection with the earth was really the most important lesson.
Around the same time I was given a scholarship to study biointensive gardening with John Jeavons who studied and developed a method for growing much more food in a smaller area. With him I was able to learn a much more scientific, data driven way of gardening – very precise, very measured, very engineered. With both of these perspectives I gained enough tools to be able to start on my own. I’ve realised what both of them told me is true, that the only real way to learn to garden is to go and do it.
Can you tell me about Tuesdays in the garden at Red Monkey?
We’ve started a program where all the staff and volunteers come in for a couple of hours and we work on the garden. We believe that gardening is something that everyone should know – that it’s absolutely beautiful and we want to share it with everyone who is interested. We want our staff to be connected to this part of Red Monkey which is integral to the kitchen – after all, it’s the very first steps of cooking. So, we meet for a communal breakfast, then we garden for a couple of hours and it’s amazing that with 4 or 5 people you can get so much done. After those 2 hours we don’t really need to do anything else in the garden for the rest of the week. After gardening we do a yoga class together for another couple of hours so we come out incredibly refreshed and energised at the same time. Ever since we started doing it we have all felt a difference in our team dynamics, our stress levels and mostly our group love.
Sometimes you have children or school groups here… why is this important to you?
It is important for us to teach kids about agriculture and about good eating habits. We believe that if we learn good habits as a kid we will carry them throughout our life, or at least know how to get to those options, and children are the most vulnerable to all the damages of poor eating habits. Also, it’s very important for us to destroy the myth that kids won’t eat vegetables because they are ugly or won’t like good food… that you have to give them a coke because they won’t like fresh juice. We believe that when kids are involved in their food habits they are sometimes much more intelligent about their food choices than adults. They can be much more sensitive towards tasting good food. Also, children are a good way to get to their parents. We’ve had some school groups come over, helping us out in the garden and cooking food with us afterwards. They’ve been incredible successes. We gave them vegan pizza with no cheese and the plates were clean! It has been a great source of inspiration for us. To see kids so involved in the garden, for me, was absolutely amazing. Initially I was worried I’d have to entertain kids for a couple of hours because these are kids who are used to being plugged into a TV or iPad and I thought they’d be as bored as hell. But they didn’t want to leave! They loved harvesting – they couldn’t believe that a plant would come out of a seed. Their amazement at the whole process was very special for me because it is an amazing process and sometimes we forget about it.
I think that this part, food and food production, are things that are mostly left out from our education system. It is a hole that we need to fill because it really is the most important thing to know in life. How to eat well and know where your food comes from is really all we need to survive so it’s amazing we are so disconnected from it. As much as we can help fill that void, we’ll do it.
I was raised a vegetarian. Both my parents are vegetarians for religious reasons and the way they brought me up was being very conscious of what we eat because in their view anything that you put in to your body affects who you are. This is why they didn’t eat meat. That has always stuck in my mind and even though I didn’t follow their religious footsteps I was very aware of food in my life. I believe food is very sacred and something that has to be respected – it is the fuel for our lives. So, seeing how people would treat it as just something that needs to be done is a source of most health problems and separation problems for people. I really want to share this seed that my parents planted in me that I was able to grow and come to see fruit.
When I moved to La Paz I couldn’t find any community food production gardens so what you are doing here is very unique. How do Bolivians react to what you are doing?
We’ve gotten an incredibly positive response and we’ve found that in the last 5 years this movement has grown a lot here. We were very scared to start because it’s very new and alternative… and society here can be very closed minded. We never thought we’d get this response and it has exceeded our expectations. I think people are starting to feel the need for better food and seeing the harsh consequences of a poor diet.
What we are doing right now is expensive and probably only affordable to the higher classes here, but we believe if these people can change their minds about food, since they are the decision makers in many areas, they can implement this in areas they have influence in. We believe this is a very good place to start. But, ideally, our goal has always been to reach the average person here and we think that might even be an easier target. The reason is because here in Bolivia there are many people who still grow their own food. Just 5 minutes out of the city you still see potato plantations and little houses surrounded by food gardens. It’s not new to most of the lower classes but it is something that has been looked down on. So in reality, it’s the middle and upper classes aspiring to have ‘progress’ who we need to catch in time, to make them value what we have here. We are doing that in an attractive way.
What are some of your other projects you are working on at the moment?
Right now I’m also working on trying to produce environmentally friendly cleaning products. I think it’s a very big source of pollution – not only pollution that gets to rivers and eventually to the ocean and land, but in a way we clean ourselves and our houses with poisons then wonder why cancer rates are so high. I believe there are very good alternatives to that. We just need to change the mindset of what clean is and change the way we go about it. Here in Bolivia, we are one of the biggest quinoa producers in the world and quinoa has incredible amounts of saponins which are being used for everything except in cleaning products. They are wonderful for cleaning because they are completely safe and non toxic. It’s a great opportunity to come up with really smart products that can improve our lives. We are researching many different native plants that are good disinfectants, have been traditionally used for cleaning and are readily available. I believe we can have really good cleaning products that smell like heaven and are 100% natural. In this research we’ve come across many plants that have lots of medicinal properties and that has inspired us to create a line of bath salts that can be relaxing, detoxing and rejuvenating – we have had really good responses so far in our trials. Along this same line we want to pursue as many projects as we can to create things that are wholesome and can teach us to have this symbiotic relationship with our planet and bodies.
What are your dreams for the future?
Well, for the future I hope to see a Bolivia that values its resources and people as much as I’ve learned to. I hope to see many, many restaurants with healthy organic food. I hope to see many people making and using all kinds of products that are environmentally responsible – that think a lot more about its effects rather than its profits. I hope we become a role model for all of our South American neighbours.