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Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas Day

I’m back home from school, and I have wonderful opportunities to rock the permaculture and spend some quality time in the pool.

I’ve been taking advantage of a microclimate, right beneath a ledge on the south-facing edge of one of the fields at camp.  I’m building the soil, Hugelkultur style, with rotted wood, shavings, and horse manure.  On top will go some sort of nitrogen-source (likely in the spring), topsoil, and while it’ll be SUPER acidic, the soil should be good for blueberries.  Stone wall in front of it.  No need for lifting with all of this work.

Swimming a lot!  Shooting, shooting, and running as well.  We’ll see about the fencing.

Christmas was wonderful; got to see everyone.  Water bottles and slippers off of the Clymb for family.  Built a cold-frame for my Mum.

Sometimes the simplest presents are the greatest…  I’m now the (very content) owner of a Carhartt vest, new work gloves and new wool socks, more seeds, a dehydrator, a book on wildlife/woodland gardens, a pair of new clippers, and a marine raincoat.  My family knows me well.

Building a chicken coop/tractor as well, slowly but surely.

Went for a run just before it got dark.  Found a trailhead right across the road from the camp driveway.  Beautiful trails.  The poison-ivy covered stone wall always deterred me in the summer from venturing that way.  New places to explore!

Tonight, the moon is bright as can be.  I’m going to go work on my stone wall for a while before retiring to my current book, “The four season harvest.”  It’s talking about how to grow your own food, year-round, with the seasons, without a heated greenhouse.  I’ve dabbled in such things, but I’ve always come back to the heated greenhouse.

I love stone walls.  More to come.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Eco-Aldea Velatropa

Eco-Aldea Velatropa

          In an abandoned, unfinished pavilion, next to the University of Buenos Aires, lies Ecoaldea Velatropa.  Velatropa is a community of earthy-folk that recycle, re-use, and live off of what the city throws away.  Some might call them homeless, but where they live is indeed a home.  It has more character than many a house in our unconscious first world.

            I found out about the troop a week prior to the end of my semester.  I was bummed that I had spent five months missing Slade (the co-op I live in at home) while there were great people living right near by.  Better late than never, I suppose.  I biked over, introduced myself, and offered a hand in exchange for hanging out with them.  They were happy to meet me, even though they get a lot of visitors that come and go.

            The community’s goal is to lead a zero-impact lifestyle.  In Vermont, we strive to reduce and reuse, but this is by far the most impressive manifestation of such an ideology.  It’s inspiring.  It’s magnificent.

            This whole journey is best described through pictures.  I’ll elaborate on the photos, but you have to see to believe. 

            I’ll start with a map of the location:
I've labeled "Home," "Di Tella," and "Velatropa."  The Eco-community is in the north of the city, on the water, on the edge of a the city's protected wetlands.

After the troop slowly blocked off vehicle access, vegetation slowly returned to the once-industrialized lot.  Even in the strangest of soils, crops still grow.  Two photos from 2000 and 2012:

The reserve surrounding the area is now lined with paths and dwellings of the people that live there.

One of the most impressive homes:

A Colombian lives there with his girlfriend.  The fort is only accessible by rope.  Better than a lock on your door, eh?  It’s supported by the branches and suspended from two thick ropes that stretch between two other trees.  Not a good fort if you're a sleepwalker.

Many of the other homes and buildings are made of plastic bricks, and mud.  Glass and glass bottles are incorporated into the walls to let light in.  Many are nearly ten-years old, and still standing strong.  Maintenance is required, but with neither snow nor hurricanes, and a very mild climate, there isn’t much to worry about.

These are different types of “bricks” that are used to make walls:

Outside the main cooking area and community-library and living space, which you can see at the beginning of the video, Fé showed off his home-made recumbent bike.  The pedals were too short for my legs, but it was nonetheless impressive.

Inside the kitchen were several stoves and an oven made out of a metal barrel and clay.

Rain-water was collected from the roof for dishes:

Plates and silverware:

Pots and pans:

Inside the main building were beanbag chairs and a selection of books, along with art supplies and jewelry that some of the members sell at the artisan fairs.

            Fruit and vegetable stores in Buenos Aires buy more produce than they can sell.  Losing money from spoiled food represents a smaller loss than losing customers from not having what they want.  The members of Velatropa collect “expired” yet edible fruits and vegetables with spots.  With 20 people living in the troop, the turnover of the food is relatively quick.

            What truly isn't edible is composted and used as fertilizer in the gardens.

I visited in mid-winter, so the gardens weren’t flourishing with veggies, but in the spring, summer and fall they grow a decent amount of produce. 

This is a sun-dryer, drying ginkgo and other tea leaves:

The black charcoal at the bottom heats up the rest of the system.


Bathrooms.  They have an outhouse, or “dry-toilet.”  Solid waste is composted.

“Poop here, pee outside.”

Recycling is a huge part of what Velatropa does.  Everything is re-used.

“Recycling!  Nothing is trash!  It becomes trash when you throw it away!”

“Paper”   “Clean and dry cardboard”


Obviously, bicycles are where it’s at.  This photo was taken in the early morning when I went to visit again, but the previous day the rack was full.

Recycling route with the times that stores dispose of what they can’t sell:

Like at Slade, chores are organized and divvied up between everyone:

If you see a chore/task, it’s yours.

 It's a snake!

I helped them out for the day.  We ironed two plastic tarps together to make a covering for the greenhouse.

 Buenos Aires has no public recycling program.  Trash is brought to landfills, and left to pollute the water table.  What does get recycled is picked up by "cartoneros."  The unemployed travel around with large carts and pick up plastic, glass, metal, wood, and cardboard.  They bring their loads to private recycling companies and exchange it for cash.  They also live off of what the city discards, but in a much more roundabout way.

Only on the surface could Velatropa be considered a group of cartoneros.  Over 15 years, they've built a community where knowledge, chores, and companionship are shared consciously and sustainably.  The idea that people would choose to live like this is completely foreign to some.  To me, it makes perfect sense.  I'm far from being a communist.  However, on a small scale, communities thrive and carry on so much better than those who fend for themselves in poverty.  Planned economies are absurd, but depending on and helping your fellow man is something that should be much more common in western civilization.  In other cultures, perhaps Mexico, living in larger units is more accepted, but in the United States we dwell on the idea everyone should own their own large, single-family home, buy everything they need from one store, and forget about what they discard as if a garbage truck were a magical vehicle that solved with the first-world's waste epidemic.  Communities like Velatropa are at the far end of the spectrum in terms of sustainable living, but they make us stop and think.  Are we living it right?  

Do I, one person have an impact on the rest of society and our beautiful blue planet?  Can I change something if I don't like it?  Will I make a difference?


1 week after Buenos Aires

More posts coming soon...

Part I: Nature not in Buenos Aires

I’m sitting at a campground in Errol, New Hampshire, less than a week after landing in Boston.  This was originally written with a pencil and a notepad.  I do NOT miss my laptop.  After seeing some friends, spending  time with family, and eating some much-missed Mexican food, I headed into Maine’s north woods.  I took a new route to the mouth of the Rapid River, through some logging roads and across a nearly untouched, surrounded by DENSE forests, serene, difficult to access, pond.  I left one of my two kayaks at the top of the river, and then headed back down through the logging roads to the take-out.  It was complicated…take my word for it.

I fell asleep to the sound of whitewater, knowing that I was more likely to get robbed by a moose than by a human. 

Today I spent about eight hours on the river (whitewater kayaking, if you didn’t already get that).  I hadn’t paddled a boat for about eleven months, but it all came back pretty quickly.

            Last year after coming back from Madrid, I drove up to Vermont to go hiking with my friend Gretchen.  Even though cities are great and everything, after spending too much time in concrete jungles, I get wilderness deficit disorder.  I didn’t make that disorder up.  It’s totally real.  I think.  Go and read my Uruguay post.  I sort-of explain it there, but in short, humans do best when they’re surrounded by green, moving, non man-made environments.  When we stray from such places, we become less satisfied with our lives.

            Not to say that I couldn’t find trees and green things in Argentina, I just really like the biome I grew up in.  While I can’t ever get too much deciduous forest, I can certainly get too little.  After dodging taxis for five months, I’m now happy to be dodging potholes and rocks, and bombing down whitewater.

Part II: Nature in Buenos Aires

            While Buenos Aires can’t compete with the Maine wilderness, it’s certainly not bad on the nature front.  Depending on where you live, the Bosques of Palermo (parks in the north of the city) can get you a decent chlorophyll fix.  Running inside the golf course at night was also pretty nice, but after getting chased out by a guy on a bike (felt like Casino Royale), I limited my inside-the-barbed-wire-fence running.  Barbed wire does its job pretty well, both for keeping people out and keeping people in.

            Along with the Ecological Reserve on the southwest side of Buenos Aires, the city’s parks aren’t bad.  I ran 800 miles in them (that isn’t an exaggeration), all on soft surfaces.  If you’re reading this, and you’re still not sold on the naturaleza of the city, read my “Eco-aldea Velatropa” post.  Even if you’re not that into trees, it’s still WILD.  I promise you.  Go read it.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The freedom of two wheels, two legs, and two lungs; using your own body to get you places.

       In Massachusetts, I live in the suburbs. In Vermont, I live in a small city. Buenos Aires is an enormous city. These three places are listed in order of increasing convenience in regard to human-powered transportation in comparison to public or private carbon-fueled transportation.
       If I were to take the Subte (metro) to the IES center, it would take me ten minutes to walk to the train station, 25 minutes to ride the train to the center, and ten more minutes to arrive at IES on foot. I would be underground for most of the time, crammed into a train-car, and out of the dynamic city streets that crisscross Argentina’s capital. Arriving by colectivo (bus) takes around 45 minutes as well, and you have to deal with traffic and stoplights. Boring. Taxis cost a fortune, and you have to deal with traffic. Not fun.
       It takes 25 minutes to bike from my apartment to the IES center if I take my sweet time. 18 minutes if I get lucky with the lights and hustle a bit. It’s 4.32 miles…not that far. I also burn more calories (more food I get to eat), and get to see the city from a whole different perspective. I’m neither a car nor a pedestrian. I can run red lights (always look both ways before running a red light), hop up onto sidewalks, squeeze between cars and buses, and stop and start whenever I need to.
       I’ve been told that I’m out of my mind for biking in Buenos Aires. That’s totally not the case. I do seem to tolerate a higher level of uncertainty than most, but that’s only what it looks like on the surface. I don’t just hop on a bike and start meandering down the street. I cycle at home, and I biked throughout Madrid every day last spring. If you didn’t know how to drive, would driving be dangerous? If you didn’t know how to ski, would bombing down a black diamond be dangerous? Yes! Absolutely! The same goes for cycling. Even though I’m surrounded by big metal objects and very hard pavement as opposed to being inside a big metal object or moving on top of snow, it’s all about reacting quickly, avoiding bad situations, and assuming that no one is ever going to adhere to the traffic laws (are there any traffic laws?). You don’t have to be faster than the cars; you just have to accelerate quicker than they do, and understand that the lines on the road and traffic lights mean oh so very little.
       Until recently, I hadn’t fallen at all. This past week, avoiding a pedestrian who decided to walk into the middle of the road, I swerved, went flying, and ate some pavement. The problem is that people don’t look for bikes, and at that they’re easier to miss. Luckily, I just have a bit of road rash on my arms, legs, and back, and was indeed wearing a helmet.
       The last time I rode in a car, bus, or train was about a month ago. I can get everywhere I need to go with my own human-power, and I’m not contributing to the pollution that Buenos Aires donates to good ol’ mother earth. It bewilders me that people drive such short distances, or at that, drive to the gym to run on the treadmill or ride a stationary bike.
       Something interesting about Buenos Aires and most other parts of South America is that property rights are poorly defined. What do I mean be that? People steal stuff. People steal everything, bikes included. When you ride somewhere, you either take your bike inside, or leave it at a parking garage for 1 peso or so ($.20 US) per hour. I use a ~10 lb kryptonite chain to deter hoodlums, gang members, and the like.
       For something that’s such an important part of my life, I didn’t want to skimp on quality, and have a pedal fall off while I’m bombing down an avenue. I spent a good amount of money on a nice mountain bike, but things down here hold their value much better than they do in the states; I’ll be selling it before I head back to Vermont.
       I have a bit more than a month left down here. Though navigating the streets has gotten easier, I can’t let myself get comfortable with it. When you drop your guard, that’s when things go wrong. My parents don’t want me coming home in body bag. That would put a damper on things. Though riding with traffic is exhilarating, getting hit by a bus is not; whenever I can, I stick to the bike paths. Just because I can ride with traffic, doesn’t mean that I should. It only takes one more awful driver that I don’t see to really ruin my semester. That being said, a bike provides freedom, and freedom is what we like most.
       Buses and trains have set routes, taxis are expensive, and walking takes forever. Having a bicycle lifts those travel restrictions, and for me is the difference between walking normally and essentially being on crutches. Time is always of the essence (cliché, I know), and as the world spins madly on (yep, Weepies), looking up and becoming a part of what’s going on around you can turn into one of life’s great but simple pleasures.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Classes in Buenos Aires etc.

           Last Spring in Madrid, I took IES area-study courses.  To make up for the challenge that the language barrier presented us with, the content wasn’t always very in-depth.  In one course, entitled, “Spanish Language Usage for Business,” my friend Laura and I frequently found ourselves hitting our heads against the wall to escape the mundane busy-work and mind-numbing class dynamic. On the other side of the spectrum, “Latin American Literature” was interesting, stimulating, and incredibly relevant.  The class gave me a great appreciation for Hispanic literature, and literature in general.  The professor truly cared about what he was teaching, and my writing improved greatly with his help.
            This semester, in order to fulfill UVM’s International Business requirements, I’m taking three business courses at Universidad Torcuato di Tella.  UTDT has a small-school dynamic, with amiable professors who defy the Argentine-university stereotype.  They’re reachable, respond to emails and any and all questions, and make a visible effort to involve students in the course material.
            Each of the UTDT courses is worth 4 credits; the same is true for my IES Spanish course. 
            Business Organization Theory is taught by Daniel Serrot, a former Shell employee and managerial consultant.  He’s personable and the course reflects his professional experience.  Classes, texts, and readings are all given in Spanish.  Very little flies over my head.  Weekly group projects take up a good amount of time, but apply directly to the class content.
            Marketing Management has been interesting.  I had been reading the online, supplemental material, which was considerably more convoluted that the in-class lectures.  Soon before the exam, I found out that it was legitimately supplemental material, and would not be on the test.  I finished the 2-hour exam in 30 minutes.  Group sessions in Marketing consist of market research for a “Tool-kit for women.”  Of all the possible inventions, they had to assign us that.  It’s certainly not unreasonable, but it’s not a grand ol’ time by any means.  At least the lectures are always good.
            Jacqueline Pels teaches “Emerging Topics in Marketing.”  I couldn’t have asked for a better class.  Catering to the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid, service dominant logic, and network marketing are several topics we’ve encountered.  A group of Argentines and I are working on a social-network marketing campaign for Sony Argentina.  I’ve proved to be surprisingly useful given my overuse of facebook and YouTube.  I was complimented on my Flickr research, and re-wrote the survey questions after they were deemed “useless and far too broad.”  I apparently understand what people want and pay attention to in terms of advertisements and brand fan-pages.  Whenever I take a written exam, I hardly ever feel as if I’ve written enough, regardless of whether I end up with a 95 or a 75.  After keeping up with the material all semester long, I wrote everything I needed to say in a timely manner, and finished on time.
            From what I’ve written here, it may seem like my classes are easy.  Not so.  Now that I’m taking business courses with titles that don’t contain “accounting,” I immerse myself in my studies and I like it. 
I ran 80 miles during exam week, finishing my aerobic base-phase with a 16-mile long-run and 542 miles in 10 weeks.  With two and a half more years of school left, I’m finally learning how to manage my time.  Living by myself helps, however lonely it may be.  I may not be getting the full cultural-experience that I would find via going out more often, but life is full of tradeoffs.
When I say tradeoffs, I don’t mean sacrifices.  However hard it is to run, swim, listen to NPR while I cook, study, and sleep, I like it.  Is it what I should be doing while I’m in Buenos Aires?  To be honest, it’s working out pretty well.  I’m not skimping on experiencing the world around me, and I’ve been thinking so much more than ever before…about everything, really.
I’ve found a strong correlation between running and good grades.  The more I run, the better I perform in school.  A solid athletic schedule helps me manage my time.  The hard part about training for Pentathlon, however, is that I’m never finished.  It’s like life, perhaps (deep thought, eh?).
“You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.”

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The east wind

       When I arrived in Buenos Aires at the beginning of February, it was the middle of summer. Literally. A month and a half after their summer solstice, it was hot. I biked to class with my shirt in my backpack, wearing jean shorts and blue sunglasses. I came back from long-runs at 9 o’clock at night, dripping in sweat. It was awesome.
        It’s fall now. The trees are dropping their leaves, and I actually wear more than one piece of clothing when I run. Autumn welcomes fond memories of cross-country races in high school, fall crops from the farms, and Vermont’s brisk morning air that rushes into your nostrils as you greet the day.
        I’m skipping spring this year, interestingly enough. I will not experience a vernal equinox in 2012. I’ll have lived through fall three times in a row, and while I’m not complaining in the least, something is missing. I can’t plant tomatoes. For a year, the days will neither progress toward being warmer nor longer.
        When the east wind sweeps into Buenos Aires, the heavy air lifts and breathing returns as a gratifying simplicity. It’s a sea breeze without the salt air, and it’s much like New England.
        Smell, sight, and the rest of our senses are what give us our memories. Though seasons are relatively long periods of time, after twenty cycles of winter-spring-summer-fall, I’m finding myself stuck in my ways. Can you blame me?

        Studying for midterms while everyone else is cramming for finals, and finishing my base and racing 8ks while the other runners are finishing their track seasons and starting their time off detaches me from the northern hemisphere. In an age so connected via facebook, twitter, email, and what have you, being the exception gives me time to think for myself. A lot. I take what I may from the rest of society, but I process it differently than I did before. Nothing is really as it seems at first glance, and I’ve gotten a lot better at stepping back, and thinking before I start, say, or write something. Re-living autumn gives me a chance to re-live a semester, in a sense. While I experience the new, I also jump over that which comes closer to being normal…that which I would have emerged from as a completely different person.

        In August of 2012, when I start another fall semester, it will be #3, and my last as an undergraduate. Three leaves in a row I’ll have turned over. That’s a lot of leaves to turn over in eighteen months, considering that these are catalpa leaves of sorts (they’re big). At the end of these four years, I’ll feel a lot older than I did in September of 2009. Seize the day once, and there you have it. Seize the day always, and you write your future.

        People say that college flies by like an amazing summer. It most certainly does, but the speed with which it flies is completely under your control. If you fill your time with great memories, good people, and life-changing experiences, that first day of freshman year will seem a lot farther away than it would otherwise. If I were given the chance to tip off my 18-year-old self…to give him advice, I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t change a thing.

Eurus greets my door,
this autumn morning.
“On with it!” he sings.
I pay heed, but what for?

Stop to ponder and wonder but gain no moss as you roll
alone and in good company differ they do not,
for you
are but a sole part
of their existence
as they are of yours.

Slip the cracks, he tells me.
Grab my hand but let me go,
for fall we will, as one...
windswept, wild, weathered, and free.