Amongst a growing cohort of people I meet on the road there is increasing passion and drive to build ‘alternative’ communities far from the clutches of today’s society. The fuel for such decision reflects the disillusionment many of us face everyday in matters regarding the protection of our environment, along with those that inhabit it. In a world of seemingly increasing turbulence it is no wonder many dream of pursuing simpler lives, living harmoniously off the land and in conjunction with practises in permaculture. But what is it that aids people’s decisions to chase such existences?
Although many will admit to entertaining ideas of living off-grid, very few people are prepared to sell all their possessions and leave a life, friends and family behind in order to create what they believe in. So what does it boil down to, if anything? Is it the recognition that you do not fit into society that allows for your removal from it? Or is it the constant and jarring juxtaposition of confirming to a system you do not support that ultimately forces you to escape?
Natalie is one such person who has chosen to leave it all behind in order to build her dream of a holistic and healing space, where knowledge and ideas are shared and community is nurtured and not neglected. She has left a life that straddled both Los Angeles and France to live deep in the Colombian interior.
Her hostel, Mystic Banana (MB), is located high on the hills that overlook Armenia way in the distance. The strewn brick and bamboo outhouses lie in the thicket of jungle that entangles the property. Nestled in the far right corner of the plot, beside the newly hung hammocks, is a medium sized and golden pineapple. It stands proud and alone with dulcet sweet scents emanating from its ripe body.
Allegedly planted over four years ago, today marks the historic day in which she intends to pick it from the soil. Not only does it coincide with our arrival, it is also the first pineapple to flourish and it is the first time she has had all nine visitor beds full at MB. The symbolism is hard to ignore. We stare at the fruits of her labour marvelling at the hard work, grit and determination that brought the project to this moment in time.
A huddle of travellers and volunteers congregate around the fruit and sing in its honour. Punctuated with flashes from the cameras Natalie plucks the fruit from its stock to a chorus of claps and cheers. It, like all things grown here, shall be eaten over the course of the next coming days.
An important aspect of community living is through shared tasks and responsibilities. It is through this that the project and group crystallise and evolve together, as one. Permitting periods of self-assessment and consequent readjustment fertile ground is created to form new ideas and solidify existing goals. And with such a rich and diverse influx of travellers from various continents, cultures and background there is no shortage of innovative twists and sparks of ingenuity that rise to the top.
In the evening we take turns to prepare community dinners for the group. The kitchen is a hive of activity with a throng of chopping, peeling and washing delegated to all those present. Our arrival has also intersected a bustling patch of pumpkins that have begun to ripen, meaning that almost every meal we are treated to a myriad of pumpkin dishes masked in an assortment of guises. As we are working physically on the land our appetites are usually ravenous come dinner time so there is little to question the routine ingestion of pumpkin.
There is an abundance of tasks to be worked on here at MB as various projects and ideas orbit the space. Nick and I have been placed with the task of revamping the jungle bathroom. The worktop counter must be finished first before securing a sink into place and completing the plumbing work.
The task starts to rapidly inflate, then bloat. Suddenly there is a direction for building several new walls, concreting stone slabs into place and constructing a mammoth 5x5m roof that will balance precariously three metres in the air. Then there are metres of guttering needed to circumnavigate the roof and a rudimentary drainage system that will later be cut into the earth that traces the perimeter of the bathroom.
I pinch the saw between soft digits and nod diligently to the incoming instructions; each fresh wave of information dislodging me further and further from the task at hand. My eyes squint high and to the left as if seeking guidance from an invisible effigy that knows better, yet it looks like I will have to follow Nick’s advice on this one.
Confrontation of ideas and ideals can cause friction and it is important to untangle from the ego otherwise you will find yourself dragged into perpetual proxy wars. It can at times feel easier to be truculent when things do not workout but in reality it is like adding kerosene to the situations, fires rapidly burn any opportunities for early reconciliation.
Natalie seems incandescent that we have built temporary stairs at the rear of the property. During an uncharacteristically wet afternoon, whilst the others were in town, the construction work at hand was temporarily put on hold. With the rains saturating the soil it had created helter-skelter mud cute where was once a reasonable, if not steep, mud path. As we would later be carrying down a bizarre and weighty shopping list (including 90kg of dog food and 5 rolls of zinc roofing, sharp enough to cut through diamond) it felt like a practical measure and one that would increase the safety of the operation.
She stands silent though her impatience and anger are difficult to ignore. Suffering from Tourette’s her face twitches and spasms with increasing vigour. Unable to take the idea that we not only spent an hour pointlessly carving out stairs into the soil, but also to her annoyance is hard to bear. Instead of being transient to the attacks I retort back. My ego flickers mercifully and I feel the anger rise and swell within, as it breaks nothing can be heard but my own fierce response.
I retreat to the shower and only in the darkness of the unfinished jungle bathroom with the cold water against my spine am I free of this egoic interruption. Later the opportunity for reconciliation presents its self and we are all much more aware and calm to provide solutions rather than feverously go in circles.
At MB the order of the status quo is being reshuffled and now there is light to create a system not based solely on monetary exchange. The monetary value of an object is gradually being replaced by trade and work hours with the hope that monetary cost will soon altogether disappear and in its place an honorary system of exchange supported. Take for example the raw cocoa we use each morning on our oats and fruits. The time taken for cocoa to be pick, dried and refined is approximately 16hours. In this way the value of something is not derived by its price, rather by the energy invested into changing its state. This way we have interactions based on skilled sets and information that can be passed on and shared amongst the group. Natalie has been efficient in helping bolster a system where the flow of conversations and ideas, from different people and cultures, in one holistic melting pot, eventually learn and create together.
Mystic Banana is amongst the many important and inspiring spaces that utilises basic, yet often forgotten principles. It as a place where community and family extend to encapsulate a nearly self-sufficient farm, implementing rudimentary permaculture practises and operating close to zero waste. Things are encouraging, and although far from perfect, it like many others, offers salvation and hope for those who want to grow, change and adapt together on the fringes of today’s system.