It wasn’t far into 2015 that my wife and I decided we were ready to start the search for our own plot of land, a place in which we could pursue all of our permaculture fantasies, the integrated house and sprawling food forest, interconnected water catchments and abounding kitchen garden, composting toilets and off-grid energy sources. It was time to do it ourselves (and, more so, for ourselves) with a limitless reign over a piece of property.
We reached this decision early in the year. We were volunteering on farms in the Andalusia region of Spain, an beautiful area known for its spanning fields of olives, citrus and almonds. Nevertheless, we decided to return to Guatemala, a country in which we’ve lived four of the last seven years, in the spring, only this time the plan was to stay and find a home. And, towards the end of the year, looking for land in the eastern/Caribbean region of Guatemala, led us to a couple of months in Belize.
While we’ve not officially found that home yet, we’ve certainly moved closer to it, and in the process, a year of not just looking for land of our own but working the land for others, we’ve learned more and more. Our techniques are more refined. Our knowledge is deeper, expanding, more accessible and more assessable. This year of permaculture has been great for us, not just in the chance to build more gardens but also in the opportunity to practice and share more. Looking back, it’s hard to feel disappointed.
The Spain Span
First, we stayed at a home outside of Granada, helping a guy who just happened to buy a piece of property with a couple dozen olive trees, as well as several almond trees and grapevines, some citrus and various other things. At this spot, we assisted with the olive harvest and pruning of trees thereafter. While Tom, our host, was in no way into permaculture, we still managed to walk away with some new knowledge. He grew enough olives each year (on about two dozen trees) to supply more than enough olive oil for his house, as well as enough grapes to keep himself in homemade wine.
The next stop was in the town of Orgiva, staying with a British-Indian grandmother, who amazingly had one of the most advanced permaculture systems we’d seen. She had tons of established, bearing trees: pomegranate, fig, almond, walnut, orange, mandarin, grapefruit, lemon, and olives. She also had established greens and herbs growing wild in little patches around the property. She was pruning trees for firewood (it was much colder than we expected), running little short-term apartments with her extra space, and living a modestly sustainable existence. The amazing part was that it was getting to a point where volunteers were going to keep the whole thing going. She’d slowed down, her husband passed, but she was still finding a way. And, boy, she could cook.
Lastly, we went to yet another person—Trevor—who was not into permaculture but was very excited about getting green, and he loved us milling about in his property, coming up with kooky ideas. We rearranged his raised bed gardens, which seemed out of place in a desert environment, with different designs—hugelkultur, magic circle, rock mulch, sheet mulch, and vertical composting. We put in swales to capture water on the property when it did rain, putting plenty of fruit trees around the catchment. We built an herb spiral and played with the low spots, where rain collected, as well as redirected gray water from the volunteer sink, fixed a vermiculture set-up and built a cob-rocket pizza oven. Our projects became the hit of the tiny expat community of Alozaina, and we were welcomed with amazing hospitality.
To Guatemala with Gusto
Neither Emma nor I have ever done something quite so adult as buying land, and so it was with a little trepidation and a lot of excitement that we arrive in Guatemala in March. Luckily for us, we always have a home (and work) there at a guesthouse called Earth Lodge, where I get to follow the owner Drew around and learn more about building and organic avocado farming. We also inevitably get back to our teaching roots and find ourselves working at an NGO, Las Manos de Christine, in the village school of El Hato and/or at a school (Oxford Bilingual Montessori School) in the nearby city of Antigua. In fact, all of these things had been arranged before we arrived.
At Earth Lodge, Drew and Bri (the other owner) were excited to hear of our adventures in Central and South America, as well as Spain, and they obligingly gave us a little plot of land on the property to do some demonstration gardens. At Las Manos, we got to revisit some of our old students and cover some of their English classes, as well as feel like we were still part of the project (It’s a rural educational support program we helped to start back in 2010). At Oxford, we were given the helm of three-month Green Camp program at which we would be leading kids through the design and construction of yet another demonstration garden to supply food for the school cafeteria. Lots of work but lots of fun.
Of course, the big reason we’d come back to Guatemala was to find our own plot of land upon which to roost. That part proved more difficult than expected. The saving grace of it all was that our friends and employers enabled us to cut our teeth with the new (for us) process of land-hunting. Over the six months we were there, we were able to really refine and define all the things we were looking for in a piece of land. We got to practice looking and imagining the possibilities (and limitations) of different places. We also got to see the possibilities and limitations of our modest budget. Ultimately, we learned that Guatemala, despite our deep connection with the expats, locals and land there, sat a little too outside the boundaries of what we wanted and could do.
Bolting to Belize
So, we went next door. We had been to northern part of Belize many years ago, and we’d had a great time there, exploring the jungles and caves around the San Ignacio and snorkeling with rays near Caye Caulker. Back then, we’d never made it south, where tourism is much more infrequent. Fortunately, we made some great new friendships with a couple named Danni and Donald. Not only were they looking to do the same sort of settling that we were, but they had connections in southern Belize and invited us along to check things out. We, too, fell for the place. It was covered in jungles, crisscrossed with crisp and clear streams, wrought with wildlife, near enough to our friends in Guatemala, very Caribbean, and just the right amount of undeveloped.
We set up a new work-stay arrangement with a guesthouse/cacao farm in the Maya Mountains, a place called The Farm Inn, and moved our land search. Firstly, the farm was absolutely stunning, with a small farmyard of free-running turkeys, ducks and chickens, as well as some well-established food forest elements, beautiful streams with trails through the jungle, and a Mayan ruin onsite. Owner/operator Kevin liked what we had to say about permaculture, and he gave us a spot to do some demonstration gardening. So, once again, we got more practice designing and implementing the techniques we’ve learned. He loved what we were doing—no-dig beds, mulching, and using what was already there. In fact, he’s welcomed us back in the new year to do more.
As for the land hunt, we had a lot more success. Our budget proved adequate to get a piece of land three or four times the size (6-plus hectares) we’d hoped for. The countryside is lush with vegetation, and streams abounded. There are hills and slopes. Animals, including jaguars, which can wreak havoc with farm animals, roam the area freely. The indigenous community is thriving and reaching back to old ways of living, creating tiny (incidentally eco-) villages all over the place. People are amazingly friendly, connections and compatriots come easily (even with the infamously grumpy Kevin), and by December, we knew we’d found the place we’d like to be. We even believe we’ve found the exact spot we’d like to buy.
Closing the Year in California
It’s fun to come home (my first holiday with my mama in over a decade) with so much to celebrate and share. We learned a great deal in 2015. Our permaculture skills have expanded into fermentation, into new gardening techniques, and into community building. We feel like we’ve learned so much about looking at a piece of property and thinking of what it might be through cultivation and how it might remain through conservation. We are really hopeful of what new permaculture adventures the coming year might have in store.
And, looking back on 2015 has really made me want to share what is possible in a year, and hopefully for those out there, like us, like Donald and Danni, it will help to inspire, invigorate, and open up the coming year with completely realistic and fun possibilities in permaculture. It’s a remarkable thing to have the year gone fill us with hope for the year to come, and we hope many others are feeling the same.