What is Permaculture?

So what is the ‘perma’ in ‘permacyclists’ for? Permanent? Permafrost?”

A question we hear fairly often actually.

And then, when we reply, “No, Permaculture!” there is another small silence, this one a little awkward as if they’re trying to figure out just what language we just spoke. Was that Eskimo?

And then eventually when it’s clear we were speaking English (or French or Spanish or KiSwahili or Cibemba or…) comes the inevitable question: “What the hell is that?” Which honestly is a little frustrating since now it’s our turn to look confused: we’re never quite sure how to answer. It’s just not that easy to give a concise definition of permaculture without completely befuddling the person who’s asked.

So today, for those of you who want to know just what permaculture is without having to pick apart our usually incomprehensible ramblings, we have a special update to try and explain some of it, with photos and references even so you don’t have to take our word for any of it.

For those of you who prefer the usual travel updates, fear not, they’ll be back in two weeks with a summary of our time in Mexico.

And of course don’t forget to check the “projects” section, updated regularly with videos and descriptions of all the good news on the environment that you can handle.

Puerto Vallarta, the first stage of our trip in Mexico, led to us practicing permaculture in a very concrete way and that’s how we’ll lay out this little explanation. Vallarta is a beach town full of resorts and tourists that is generally about as far from permaculture as you can get.

We weren’t there for the beaches though: since our time in Africa the idea of intentionally sitting in the sun has lost all appeal to both of us. Rather, we were there to WWOOF for four weeks with Ana and Krystal, who run a delivery organic grocery network in town and who work to convince the farmers in the surroundings to take the organic plunge (we’ll have more about them in a few weeks in our projects section).

Behind their house, Ana and Krystal have a small experimental garden where they test varieties of fruits and vegetables they hope to eventually commercialize. The problem though is that Ana and Krystal work so much that they don’t have all the time they would like to work in the garden – just where permaculture, “lazy-man’s agriculture” comes into the picture.

So during the first few days, after a short talk, Ana and Krystal were game to let us try and apply some of the permaculture principles in their garden to try and make it as productive as possible in such a small space.

We started with some time drawing all over a plan of the garden trying to anticipate the changes we wanted to make. This is the “design” that permaculture is so often associated with and it can take a lot longer than ours did – but fortunately Ana and Krystal knew what they wanted and how to make their land work.

And then on to that most useful of garden projects: a compost pile.

Compost heaps are so great because they let you “make” quality soil with very little technology or time. All you need are two compartments where you pile up organic matter from the kitchen and garden (keeping a balance between the two). Once one compartment is full, let it sit while you fill up the other, stirring, waiting or even watering it depending on the climate and the time of year. If it’s working, the interior of the pile will get smoking hot. When it’s done, it can be spread out in the garden.

It’s obviously possible to build composts that are more beautiful and more expensive than this one, but reusing and recycling are always priorities in permaculture and we used the materials available on-site. And besides – if you’re going to be piling your garbage somewhere, just how pretty does it need to be?

The next step was to address the always essential question of water. In the tropics just as much as desert regions, it’s important to be able to recover rainwater and to be ready for the natural peaks and valleys of the year’s precipitation.

There are tons of ways to do this without spending much money. For our part, we stuck to croissants and swales…

Croissants are just a built-up barrier downhill from a tree in the shape of a… wait for it… croissant! (Yes, we learned permaculture in Francophone Europe) The idea is that the flow of water is slowed by the croissant long enough to sink into the soil rather than just running along the surface. This way as much water as possible actually goes to the tree and any other plants you put in around its base (this is a great spot for a guild – see below). In the left-hand photo, there’s heaps of organic matter aded to the soil which serves to protect it from drying out when the sun returns, and of course which decomposes itself in time, contributing to the health of the soil (and avoiding the need for the compost pile we talked about above…).

A swale is a ditch dug along a contour line so that it is on level the whole way across. Rather than funneling water away like a drainage ditch would, it stops the water and lets it soak into the soil (where hopefully there are plants waiting to drink it up). The photo here is of our half-dug swale from Kenya. There is no limit to how many swales you can put on a given bit of land, and if you plant on the downhill side you can make sure you’re using that infiltrated water to grow things and that you’re doing everything to fight erosion. In a few years, the plants’ roots infiltrate enough to take the place of the swale. It’s easy, it’s cheap, and check out this video to see just how effective it can be: Greening the Desert.

Once the question of water is solved, it’s time to decide where will be planted. One way to do it is to decide where the pathways are going to go – and then you just plant everywhere else!

In Vallarta, we started by putting clearer edges on the existing pathways with bricks – the material that was available, almost anything else could do. And then we laid out new beds with the “double-dig” method, which we had learned back in Malawi and which is no one’s favorite way to prepare a bed since just as the name implies it entails a lot of digging. It’s a great way to get through hardpan clay soils though and that was what we were working with here.

Generally with beds, the idea is to maximize the space available for planting, which means breaking away from the image of the square and rectangle garden – spirals, water-drops, circles, H’s, keyholes, amoebas – all are more efficient uses of space than a straight line. This also falls under the heading of “learn from nature” – there are no straight lines in the natural world, only in the man-made one.

Here the beds were dug, covered with a layer of cardboard (which eventually decays but which serves as a weed barrier for a time), powdered with agricultural lime, and then recovered with straw, compost, and the soil we’d just dug up. We then planted them with peanuts: a legume, which means among other things that it has a symbiotic relationship with a bacteria that takes nitrogen from the air and fixes it into the soil to make them a sort of natural, work-free fertilizer. We then covered the beds with a layer of straw for mulch (again, the material that was available).

Mulch is again learning from nature: bare soil almost never occurs naturally. In a forest, in a grassland, anywhere where the natural world lives without human interference, the soil is covered by decomposing leaves, by grasses, or by other plants. Just look at what happens to an untended bit of city sidewalk if you leave it alone: how long before grass starts sprouting up to cover it? Less time than you might think.

Oh, and don’t forget to mark out pathways through the beds so you never have to walk on planted soil!

Since Ana and Krystal do a lot of cooking as part of their delivery service, an herb garden is an important bit of their yard, and it is also a good example of how permaculture principles can be applied. An herb spiral is a more efficient, more diverse way of planting a garden and it can be built in two hours with locally available materials. Since the planting space is sloped, a spiral has greater surface area than if it were flat, and then the spiral shape creates a series of microclimates that let you plant a wider variety of species (the north side gets less sun, the south more, and the bricks and stones of the structure hold the heat or cold longer). You can even vary the type of soil as you go up the circle and add another level of specificity to your garden.

Our hostesses also wanted an area to build a huge fire for their sweat-lodge. Before, the only barrier between the plants and the fire was a bit of iron sheeting that would get so hot that it was really barely a barrier at all. We decided instead to replace it with a cob wall, which would keep the heat all on the fire side of things and let them plant right up to the edge of the space.

And of course the nicest thing about cob is that it’s made from things readily available in or just near any garden: clay subsoil, sand, straw, and a little water.

It’s worth it to make a few tests to be sure the soil is right and to get the mix down pat – just vary the mix for each test and then let them sit outside and dry. When they’re dry, bang ‘em up and see if they’re strong enough. The strongest mix wins!

Then mix them well…

With the base laid out of old bricks, you just pile on the cob, making sure to not put too much on at once (or it will squish down) and to let each level dry out a bit before putting on the next. Just keep going on up until you reach the height you want, and feel free to sculpt and mold any shapes you want. Just google “cob wall” if you want inspiration – or better still, check out our friend Eva’s beautiful work over at Fire Speaking to see about building cob ovens, rocket stoves, and barrel ovens.

In Vallarta, the wall was very simple, and with the rainy season we didn’t have time to finish it. We explained the technique though, it’s simple enough that it can be finished easily.

And voila, after 4 weeks of working, the basis of a working permaculture garden was set up, with space used as efficiently as possible to make it as efficient as possible.

Here again, as in nature, no planting monocultures in straight lines, instead laying beds out in guilds or just tossing seeds. Guilds are groups of plants which work together symbiotically and can let you maximize the space used.


So yeah, that’s the idea, and there is no reason you can’t do the same in your own garden! Whether it’s an herb spiral near the kitchen door or a small patch of tomatoes and basil, it’s an easy way to make life a bit more delicious and to do a little for the planet, cutting down on food miles, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers!

For more information on permaculture or on any of the specific bits mentioned here, just click on the links in the text or check out the “resources” section where we mention some interesting books and links. And of course, don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any comments or questions.

Permaculturally yours,

-Anna and Dave

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USA to Mexico

Photos available here

And check out our new flashy video here!

When we set out to travel overland from New York to Rio, I definitely worried about some things – drug cartels in Mexico, right-wing extremists in Colombia, Dengue and Malaria in the Amazon…

Maybe all that will still happen, but what I realize now that that list was incomplete without two simple words: Amtrak and Greyhound.

The United States public transportation system sucks.  It really sucks.  It really really sucks.  I also think it’s probably racist and elitist, but that’s a whole other rant, and it’s possible I’m still too bitter about the experience over the past month to be unbiased.

Example:  Our train was 4 hours late arriving in DC from New York – a city 4 hours away!

One of our Greyhound drivers backed into a 20-story building (It jumped right in front of me, officer!).

I could go on and on…  This country has a lot to learn in terms of mass transit – not a good sign if we think of all that peak oil and climate change have coming down the pipeline for us.  Six dollar a gallon gas is going to be rough in a country that can’t keep to a simple bus timetable.  And yet how can we give up our cars if the only long-distance alternative is a type of medieval torture?

Which is not to belabor the point, but it’s just strange from a country which regularly calls itself the “richest nation in the world.”  If we’re so rich, then why are we incapable of selling bus tickets that correspond to actual seats so that boarding isn’t a mad rush like the Running of the Bulls?  Tanzania can manage that, why can’t we?

But I digress.

We left DC on Amtrak, destination New Orleans.  Once we finally got going it was actually a nice enough trip, very quiet and relaxed and comfortable.  If you have the time, I highly recommend it.  If you have the time.

Along the way, we passed through areas of Alabama that had just been hit by a tornado.  It was dusk, and the train was full, and must have tilted over to one side for a stretch because everyone was leaning and gawking out the left windows – for about five minutes we passed a town that simply didn’t exist anymore.  As far as the eye could see, there was just rubble and flattened houses and crumpled stores and toppled trees.

A fitting entrance to New Orleans.

Any book about climate change will include a bit about New Orleans, and so setting out to learn about people trying to fight climate change, and having read our fair share of books about climate change lately, we were curious to see what the city had in store.  Six years ago a lot of it looked like that town in Alabama – but today?

It’s hard to say as a tourist.  We didn’t have the sense of traveling in a war zone, but there were still a surprising number of shuttered and blown-out buildings, even right in the heart of downtown – but maybe that’s more a sign of the mortgage crisis than anything else?

We arrived at just about the same time as the Mississippi flood that had so damaged Memphis, and our last night in town we met up with some friends along its swollen banks where a line of police tape kept the crowds back.  The Army Corps of Engineers had let out most of the water by then to protect the city they didn’t protect six years ago, and if our friends hadn’t told us this was the big flood, we might not even have noticed.

But still, that’s the thing about New Orleans now, it puts hurricanes in your mind, you can’t help but think about Katrina when you’re there.  We did realize quite soon that the French Quarter wasn’t for us (picture Bruges, but run by Larry Flynt), which freed us up for the real highlight: the coffee shops.  They have some great coffee shops in that town, at least one of which even claims to have fresh H&H bagels.  Who knows, maybe so?

Still, it was all very familiar in the end for me.  Even if New Orleans is like no other place in the US, it’s still a place in the US, and after sixteen months in Africa I just didn’t really feel like we were traveling anymore, it was all like being home. Everyone speaks my language, everyone has the same cultural references.  Which is not to say that we didn’t make our usual share of faux pas – including Anna eliciting peals of laughter from a crowd of Texans when she asked if we could “walk to the grocery store” from where we were.

“Honey, this is Texas, I drive to get my mail,” was one response.  Amen!

Though actually, if anything, on the environmental front, it was a mixed month.  On the up-side, we met some amazing organizations that are doing some really great things, even in the heart of oil country.  There were the folks at Transition Houston, who were unbelievably kind and welcoming as we learned how to film and interview for the first time.  They are working to make Houston, the capital of the global oil industry, where people drive to get their mail, a resilient, sustainable, oil-free community.  Yikes!

Then there was Lester from Food, Shelter, Water, who took time off work to drive us out to his land and show us around his self-sufficient homestead in the heart of Austin.  He has spent $100,000 of his own money in legal fees just to have the right to live off the grid where he does.

And finally, the whole gang at Houston Access to Urban Sustainability (HAUS), who were an avalanche of kindness, and to whom we owe a huge debt.  They are running the first green housing co-op in all of Houston (the 4th largest city in the US), and are doing it with such energy and joy that you know they will be successful.  And hey, who cares if you drive to get your mail when your car runs on vegetable oil recovered from the Chinese take-out place down the block?

We’ll have more on all of those organizations in the coming weeks as we put together and post our first videos.

And really, we could go on and on listing all the people we have met over the past month who became good friends – Anna even declared Texas, “America’s best kept secret.”

I hesitate though.  I was in the middle of listing the up-sides on the environmental front, and some of those wonderful people have nothing to do with the environment, a fair number of them work for oil companies actually, and plenty of others just aren’t interested in things like climate change.

In the end though, it’s the fact that all those people who wouldn’t call themselves environmentalists were so wonderful that made us feel good about things.  We realized at some point, no doubt while laughing, that once this movement gets some momentum behind it, and once people decide that it’s really time to change, and that we’re all environmentalists, it will be an avalanche.  An avalanche of wonderful people – who can stop that?

And so now I hesitate again.  My little outline would have me list the downsides on the environmental front here, the droughts and the forest fires and the rainy season gone missing, and…

But I’m not going to.  Not this time.  Maybe next time.  Y’all know all that, you don’t need me to tell you.

Oh, and just one last thing.

We’re in Mexico now, where the bus system is fantastic!

More on that in a month.  In the meantime, enjoy the new video, don’t hesitate to pass it around, and check back in two weeks for our first full-on video update: Transition Houston.

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The US of A

Photos available here

So long since our last update, I bet y’all thought we were dead! 

No such luck, although we did come close to it.  Or no, that’s a bit overdramatic, and I shouldn’t speak for Annabelle.  But for my part, I certainly felt like I was almost dead.  It turns out I was not alone sitting in seat 15B on the flight out of Lilongwe – I was sharing the space with a few hundred thousand of my closest friends who just didn’t want me to leave Africa behind…

Schistosomiasis for some, Bhilarzia for others – a very unpleasant way to spend the first few weeks home for me!  It was a bit difficult to get through that initial re-entry period, with reunions with family and friends accompanied by a pesky lingering abdominal pain that seemed to befuddle all the doctors.

We found the right pills in the end though (Prozyquantil: 2$ in Malawi – 200$ in NYC), and I have to say, it was almost worth it for the pleasure of the doctor visits, just the sight of otherwise stoic Manhattan physicians turning white when I told them where I’d just come from. 

“You actually swam in Lake Victoria?  Are you nuts?” 

But there was nowhere else to wash ourselves!  And besides, let the record show that my schisto was not acquired on Mfangano Island, but more likely somewhere in Mozambique or even Malawi, where we didn’t swim in any fresh water but may have washed with some that was contaminated.

Otherwise, coming home after a year and a half in Africa, we weren’t quite sure what to expect.  We had missed so much – films, current events, deaths, births – would we have any place back home? 

It was a real joy to find our friends and family though, and to see that time and distance can’t break apart the strongest relationships.  Which is not to say that things haven’t changed at all – we saw friends and family who had become mothers and fathers since we last saw them, who had published books, who had changed careers, bought houses, written plays and movies and opened Tai Chi studios…  And yet invariably we managed to sit and talk as if nothing had happened and no time had gone by.  It was a real treat that made it harder to leave again – it’s nice to have people who know where you’re from and what’s important, and being far from those people is probably the hardest thing about traveling – even worse than the schistosomiasis if you can believe it. 

Also though, after our decision to give up the bikes and continue on down to Rio by public transportation, the question weighing on our minds as we rediscovered New York and Brussels was whether we were we were alone to feel the gravity of the situation, the looming crisis of climate change. 

At first, all around us things seemed to be going on as usual.  Manhattan luxury stores seemed just as packed as ever, there were more iPhones on the street than we had imagined possible, more and more people were telling us about their plans to fly around the world or even just across the state for short vacations.  In Brussels, friends told us of a popular backlash against environmentalism, with ads now mocking concern for the environment.  In New York, a huge network of bike paths had elicited a backlash (though what doesn’t elicit a backlash in New York), with an angry resident calling cyclists, “terrorists.” 

Personally, I started to doubt whether there was any problem: surely if we had done irreparable harm to our climate and the very survival of life on Earth was in jeopardy there would be some kind of response, right?  People wouldn’t just go on calmly with their daily lives as if nothing was wrong, right? 

So don’t worry, everything must be fine, just relax and have another cheeseburger…

And then during just an hour watching CNN we saw news coverage of unprecedented tornadoes in Missouri, of catastrophic wildfires in Texas, of a food-safety scare in California…  Not to mention the flooding in Memphis, now pending in New Orleans.  Or the hydro-fracking spill in Pennsylvania.  Or the company responsible for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill applauding itself in its annual report for its exceptional safety record in 2010.

It all felt like a scene from Eaarth, or Hot, or Six Degrees, or Storms of my Grandchildren, or any of the other books we had been reading recently about the pending climate crisis.  Things weren’t looking good…

We spent a month in New York trying to get ready for the road down to Rio, and it was while we were there that our plans changed once again.  We were talking with a friend at ATD Fourth World when we had the idea of bringing a video camera with us for our trip down to Rio.  If we wanted people to see what we saw, and to have the same sense of the changes going on in the world today, then we would have to bring them along with us – and maybe along the way we could cure our own pessimism some as well and find other people who were taking action against climate change and who might be able to show the rest of us the next steps forward. 

It isn’t like nothing is being done, we just have to find what’s out there.

So we have decided to start filming our trip, going out of our way to find as many organizations working for the environment as possible.  Hopefully we can put it all together into some kind of documentary film at the end covering the people we’ve met, with maybe a sense of what sort of actions are being taken around the world, of what ordinary people can do and what works.  All of it building up of course to the Rio summit that is still our destination: June 2012, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development.

We left New York a month ago with a video camera in hand and five billion ideas bumping around our heads.  We then spent three weeks in Asheville North Carolina learning about natural building – cob, adobe, straw-bale, timber-framing, bamboo, etc.  Forty percent of the world’s resources (and CO2 emissions) are linked to the building industry: natural building is an abundant, cheap, durable, and ecological alternative.  We built a small house, a barrel oven, a fireplace, and various other projects and met some of the most wonderful, engaged people we have met all trip as well.

Now, we are back north in Washington DC.  From here we will make the big turn to the south, heading out by train to New Orleans, then across Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona before heading down into Mexico.  We hope to visit some Transition Towns along the way over the next few weeks, and to make it to an organic farm in Puerto Vallarta by mid-June.

Our next update should come from there, where hopefully we’ll speak a little Spanish and have a bit more optimistic news to share!

As always, thank you for your support.  Your comments and e-mails are more than welcome – and for all our friends and family: we miss you dearly, thanks for welcoming us home so warmly!

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Malawi



Photos available here

As I write this, sitting on a bed in a hotel in Lilongwe, a massive thunderstorm is slowly gathering and crossing the city towards us, and the sky outside our window is a dark gray.

We have just a few days left in Africa, the continent that has been our home for the past sixteen months.  It has been a long sixteen months.  We covered 12,302km by bike, from Nairobi to Cape Town and then back up to Northern Mozambique.  If we were a little disappointed not to peddle the last stretch into Malawi, it is a small disappointment and one that we’ve all but forgotten now.  We have no regrets over anything that has happened over the past sixteen months, and the opportunity to cycle and travel on this continent is something we will never forget, that we will forever be grateful for. Continue reading

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Mozambique

Photos available here

Practical information for cyclists is available here

If we were a little relieved to be leaving South Africa, we weren’t quite ready for Mozambique…

After a quick interlude of two days to cross Swaziland (a country which merits a much longer visit than that), the border gave us a taste of what was to come.  Just across the frontier, the road goes from crisp black asphalt to a pot-holed and rutted track that probably was paved at some point…  though there isn’t much sign of it now. Continue reading

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Eastern Cape

Photos available here

Practical information for cyclists available here

Well, it has been a while since our last update, and a strange while at that, with thousands of kilometers covered, though not many of them by bike…

After our meditation course and then family visiting, we got back in the saddle outside East London.  It had been a while since we had last biked, and we were ready to get back on the road and start moving again.  Sure we’d put on a few pounds since we were last in the saddle, but we had come down from Kenya, we had been on the road for a year, we could take anything a sissy country like South Africa could throw at us for sure!

Or so we thought before we reached the Transkei…  Crossing the Kei river, we entered one of the former ‘Bantustans’ created under apartheid to serve as pseudo-independent countries for the blacks – if they were all citizens of different countries, the reasoning went, then when they came to work for the whites they would need visas and work permits and could be more easily controlled.  Only South Africa ever officially acknowledged their independence though.

All of this is similar to American history of course, and having driven through Indian reservations in New Mexico and Colorado and Montana and South Dakota, I had some idea of what to expect – dispossessed native people are never resettled onto beautiful expanses of fertile land.  What I didn’t expect though was that the Transkei would be basically un-bikeable.

Not that there aren’t roads or shops or places to camp – just the endless endless hills!  There is not a stretch of five meters in the whole area that is not on some kind of slope, probably at close to 90°.  Along the coast this makes for some spectacular scenes, with waves breaking along stretches of remote beach and tidal pools mixing with the mouths of the dozens of rivers that cross the area.  Inland too we had some of the most beautiful campsites we have had all trip, a few nights with our tent pitched just on the edge of a ridge looking out over green valleys with more hills rising in every direction.

We inched our way along the first week of cycling though.  We pushed a lot, and were grateful to make it just 50km a day.  The hills combined with the summer heat left us dehydrated and fighting off heatstroke – we definitely weren’t ready for this when we left East London.  We camped at night at clinics and missions.

Every province in South Africa is like a separate country.  There was the desolate Northern Cape, the totally westernized Western Cape, and now the thoroughly African Eastern Cape: no more cattle fences lining the road, the houses were thatch-roofed homesteads, children were chasing our bikes along shouting “sweets!  sweets! sweets!” until we thought we’d go nuts.  Ahhh Africa, we’d missed it actually, and the Transkei felt like something of a homecoming.

Though this is still South Africa; elsewhere in Africa, if you stop along the side of a dirt road in a beautiful rural spot with a view over a green valley and sit to drink some water and rest your legs, passing cars will probably ignore you, or just stop to ask where you’re going or where you’re from.  Not so in South Africa.  In South Africa, passing cars stop to tell you you’re not safe.

“It’s not safe here!  What are you doing here?  This is a wild place, it’s not safe!”  was the greeting that interrupted our rest on several occasions, invariably coming from rich-looking drivers in brand new SUV’s and pickups.  We would look around ourselves after they drove off and wonder – maybe they’re right?  It sure doesn’t look dangerous though…  And that hill up ahead looks super steep…

Now, the subject of security and paranoia in South Africa could get me going on a ten page rant, and so I’ll try to be brief.  Anna and I are not total idiots.  No matter what you think of two people who quit their jobs to go live in a tent along the side of the road in Africa.  We’ve been cycling for over a year now without any problems, I’m from New York originally, Anna was a criminal lawyer in Brussels – we’re not completely naive on the subject of crime. 

And so, when we’re sitting on the side of the road in a scene so idyllic it looks like it’s cut from The Sound of Music and someone tells us we’re in danger, we just don’t see it…

We decided then to ask local people what they thought – is it dangerous here?

“Here?  No!”  They would invariably say, laughing at the idea before becoming serious and adding, “But South Africa is very dangerous, you really need to be careful everywhere else.  Here though, it’s safe.”

Again and again as if we were biking along under a bubble of safety through the Transkei, from shop-owners, from security guards, from taxi drivers or from women selling food along the side of the road: “South Africa is very dangerous – but here it’s safe.”

All the way until Coffee Bay, where we checked at the local hostel.  Asking for a quiet spot, we were directed to pitch our tent fifty meters away from the rest of the hostel, blocked from sight and sound by a stand of thick trees, on the opposite side abutting a dried out river bed with almost no barrier between us and groups of young men wandering back and forth all day trying to sell us drugs.  Camping along 125th street couldn’t have been less appealing than this spot.

Surely this, we thought, is dangerous!

“No no no,” we were told though when we asked at reception: “Here, it’s safe!”

Here it’s safe?  When we thought we were in The Sound of Music it was dangerous, but now that we’re in New Jack City it’s safe?

We moved our tent closer to the rest of the guests anyway.  So much for listening to the locals.

Anyway, suffice it to say that the more time we spend in this country, the less we understand it.

And then our cycling came to an end.  We rode out of town a few days later for what became the shortest day of our trip – 1.5 km outside town my back wheel derailed and after a spectacular slow-motion fall while climbing another vertical Transkei hill (with of course a small audience of people watching and laughing at me), we found the rear gears were wobbling on the wheel.  Nothing to it but to head to the nearest decent bike shop, in this case in Durban.  We tossed our bikes on a bus, bidding the Transkei a reluctant farewell.  It had been a beautiful stretch of riding, a whole new side of this incredibly complex country, and some of the best cycling we have had the whole trip.

It was a good time to head to Durban though – that night I started coming down with odd flu-like chills and a pounding headache.  Tick-bite fever was the diagnosis – my first mysterious African fever!  It felt like a rite of passage somehow, and we took it easy over the next few weeks as we crossed the country by bus to meet our friend Megan and then head to Lesotho to do some hiking and renew our South African visa.

Lesotho is a country which merits far more than two weeks’ visit.  The mountains are spectacular, reminding us of Mongolia or Central Asia.  The ubiquitous horses help too of course.  But ten days in the end was all we had.  With Megan shipped back to the US, we headed back to South Africa, taking minibus taxis to northern Kwa-Zulu Natal where we WOOFed for two weeks, milking cows, making cheese and butter, and launching an epic battle of wits with a band of pigs that just didn’t want to be fenced in.  The pigs won in the end, and were last seen happily eating Emu food as we left the farm to head back to Durban.

Which is where we are now, reunited once more with our bikes.  We spent Christmas with some other travelers and on the 27th we are taking one last bus – to Swaziland this time.  From there it will be back on the bikes for real, no more public transport, and hopefully no more fevers or broken wheels.

It has been almost four months now that we have been in South Africa, and it will be bittersweet to leave.  We have met some wonderful people here and have made many new friends.  South Africans of all colors may well qualify for the friendliest people in Africa (and that is really saying something).  Not a day went by that we weren’t offered assistance, even when we didn’t need it.  And once you get into people’s homes, there is a sense of hospitality that I would guess few countries in the world can match.

At the same time though, the fear, the racism, it wears on you after a while.  While many of the people we have met really do represent the “Rainbow Nation” image of post-Apartheid South Africa, going about their lives with no concern for skin color – there is still a shocking amount of fear and hatred  in the air on both sides of the racial divide.  Just the moment when you’re sure that South Africa is the most wonderful country in the world is invariably the moment when you meet one of those people.  You’ll be walking down the street as Anna was in Durban and an old white man out for his evening walk struck up a conversation with her and in less than a minute said “I know you’re a foreigner, you think all people should have equal rights and all that.  But the African man is different you see…”  and whoosh, all that love and kindness is a distant memory.

After four months, we’ve hit our limit I think.  It has been a great time here, we can see why this is the “Beloved Country,” but we need to move on.

And we have to move on in fact.  We’ve bought our plane tickets out of Africa – now just to push on up to Malawi, where we catch a plane back to Europe on March 6th before moving on to continue our biking in South America…

We wish everyone a happy new year, and thanks as usual for all your comments and support.  Feel free to sign up for our Google Group if you’d like to get an e-mail when we post – or become a fan of our page on Facebook (just search Permacyclists) if you want the occasional little update on our progress.

Posted in Lesotho, South Africa | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

Vipassana

(A selection of photos from the past year is available here)

One year on the road! 

One year since Anna finished her job in Brussels and we pushed our shiny new bikes from her parents’ driveway to pedal to London.  One year ago we were fighting the Flemish wind and winter rains and a storm across the English channel – a far cry from the sunny South African skies that surround us now. 

It has been so much more than a year for us in terms of all we’ve experienced and learned.  It’s hard not to feel like we’ve been on the road for decades, or even for our whole lives – maybe we will start celebrating November 17th as a birthday of sorts…

We ended our first year on a bit of a different note – not cycling (we haven’t touched the bikes since the last update in fact) but instead on a ten-day silent meditation retreat. 

This may seem like something of a nonsequitor of course (weren’t we supposed to be biking back to Kenya?), but actually it is just as connected to the biking as anything else we’ve done.  We’ve been interested in learning meditation for some time now, but it was only once we started cycling that we realized just how important it could be for us.  Not that we’re not happy people – we are, we’re the happiest people we know in fact (except for Charlie, who we met in Namibia and who’s been cycling for nine years…) – but something which has surprised us maybe over the past year has been the extent to which external circumstances can only partially bring you happiness. 

You can bike and travel and learn about the world and meet all kinds of extraordinary people, but in the end: wherever you go, there you are.  And if you’re not at peace with yourself, you’ll never be at peace with your surroundings. 

This is something we really learned in the desert – day after day with no distractions your mind just goes on a loop, reviewing every bit of insecurity or stupidity that has ever passed through your life.  You start to feel like you’re biking around the inside of your own head rather than the world. 

And then add to that the fact that we may be happy biking, but that we won’t be biking forever, that someday this will all end – and then what will we do?  What will have been the point of it all if we’re miserable the moment the wheels stop turning?

After reading some about Buddhism (merci Matthieu Richard), we both felt like the time was right to learn some meditation.  Friends in Brussels had told us about Vipassana, and when we e-mailed asking for more information they responded with a link – www.dhamma.org – and the news that there is a center near Cape Town and a class at the end of October. 

Sure, why not?

I don’t think we knew what we were getting into.  I would love to say that we researched various schools of meditation and thought through our choice and evaluated the options… But no, it was just what our friends told us to do.  But that’s okay, it was the right choice for us: Vipassana is non-sectarian and non-religious, it doesn’t cost seven million dollars a day (it’s free), there’s no chanting to any deities, no rituals or rites, just observing reality as experienced by the body at the present moment.  

It sounds so simple… 

And yet, not simple at all.  Two breaths, and up, I’m off wondering whether I left the oven on, but no, I don’t have an oven, though it would be nice to have an oven, I could make quiches and casseroles, and baked ziti – when was the last time I had baked ziti, when was the last time I even heard the word ziti.  Which is a funny word for sure: ziti ziti ziti ziti… and ten minutes have gone by without paying attention to any breaths at all. 

And so on, for eleven hours a day, for ten days straight…

All in silence.  There is no talking allowed, no eye-contact, no smiles or hand signals.  This is a bit of a pain when your wife is sitting across the room from you and you’re sure she might know whether you left the oven on or not, and I’ll admit that we did make eye-contact some after the eighth day, but otherwise there was nothing… 

Though for the rest, the silence wasn’t too difficult for us actually – the cycling helped.  If you have biked across Zambia, Botswana and Namibia, you’ve experienced silence.  Even in a couple, on the road with no villages we still just roll along with no one to talk to.  And then add to that years spent working as a writer – spending my days with no colleagues but the voices in my head – and yeah, silence wasn’t too much of a shock.  Though silence for ten days and not being able to write, that was a bit harder than expected.

And so little by little the exercises got more complicated, though always based on the same idea – observing reality as experienced by the body at the present moment.  After ten days, we were allowed to talk again, and though the week had been full of doubts and frustrations and boredom, suddenly we were all overwhelmed by the feeling that we need to do it again! 

Certainly for our part, we feel like we have taken the first baby steps down a new path.  Vipassana is a valuable tool, but it is deep and complex, and I don’t think we can say after a ten day course that we really grasp where this will lead us.  There is a heap of philosophical reasoning behind all of these exercises, and I haven’t touched on it here but feel free to find books or to visit www.dhamma.org if you would like to learn more. 

I do think we feel more at peace though, if only a little, and so we are trying to continue with our daily meditations to keep that feeling alive.  And who knows, maybe if we have a good enough base in the technique our post-cycling days will be every bit as happy and satisfying as our cycling days.

We have time though – one year down, three (four?  five?  six?) to go!

Posted in South Africa | Tagged | 11 Comments

Western Cape

(Photos available here)

Leaving Cape Town wasn’t as easy as we had expected in the end.  After ten months on the road with the south-westernmost city on the continent as our goal, we couldn’t quite tear ourselves away once we got there.  After a few days of wandering, we felt right at home, and even found ourselves whispering to one another: “This looks just like New York!” 

And of course we realize that Cape Town probably doesn’t look like New York to anyone but two cyclists who have come down through Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, and the Northern Cape just to get there.  The city is different from any other we have passed through since we left London: small street-side cafes, art galleries, vintage clothing shops, tons of outdoor stores and bike shops, and all the while this huge mountain a sort of axis mundi in the middle, the city resting around its feet.

Part of traveling well is being able to feel at home wherever you are, and we are definitely getting into the swing of it.  Though of course in Cape Town this was easier because we had such great couch surfing hosts, because we got led up Table Mountain by friends we had met in Botswana, and because people we had never met before and who had no reason to be so kind to us took the time to repair all of our broken camping gear and to offer us tea and advice and even a new used cell phone. 

This country is unbelievable sometimes!

But then get on the road we did, following the southern coast past bays swarming with whales and beaches packed with penguins and along some of the most spectacular riding of the trip so far: rocky mountains looming to our left and crashing straight down into the sea to our right, with just a narrow road somehow carved out of their side.

At Cape Aghulas, we reached the southernmost point of the African continent and then finally got away from the traffic onto some dirt roads to reach the “Garden Route”  – a stretch of coast so named since it was once apparently so beautiful that it was considered a sort of Garden of Eden.

No more, however.  Pine and eucalyptus plantations have taken the place of the indigenous rain forests; only 15% of the forest cover from the 1960′s still remains.  That last bit is struggling to hold on, with fast-growing invasive species like acacia morensii crowding out the slow-growing indigenous fynbos.   Billboards at the entrance to every town tell us that there is a massive drought going on, that reservoirs are down to 12% of capacity in some cities.  With all that deforestation, is this such a surprise?

This then is the other side of the familiar western world we had found in Cape Town; “Civilization” is what we have been told to call it.  Since Zambia, passing travelers and locals alike have been using that word to describe what we would find south of them, usually with a sort of glowing admiration in their eyes: “You’ll like South Africa, it’s really civilized…”

South Africa is what Africa dreams of being.  “Modern,” “developed,” “civilized,” whatever aggrandizing term you want to apply, this is the western world in Africa.  For two cyclists of course, this is not without its upsides: we pass supermarkets daily, the tap-water is drinkable, there are nice municipal campsites where we can end our days – it’s some of the easiest riding we’ve had since our trip to the Netherlands.

At the same time though, the western world comes with its usual set of problems.  Beyond just the destruction of the garden route, we spend entire days biking through man-made deserts: over-grazed pastures, thousand-acre monocultures, ranches of homogenous cows and sheep, and everywhere signs of desert encroaching on the massive industrial farms.

The contradictions of the western system seemed written on the land and people all around us; abundance and scarcity walking hand in hand.  In a typical day we bike through at least one township, and at least one luxurious stretch of enormous country-houses.  Perhaps most telling, one-third of South Africans suffer from obesity; having escaped the trap of under-nourishment, South Africa now joins the wealthy nations in suffering from problems of over-nourishment (or really, just another form of under-nourishment).

The other day, we watched a slide show of our photos from the trip up to this point.  Looking back at all the dirt roads and villages and all the endless streams of children who chased us along all those roads and through all those villages, we were nostalgic for “Africa.”  We almost had to remind ourselves that we were still in Africa, that the road we are rolling our way slowly along runs all the way to Kasama and to Dar es Salaam and to Mfangano Island and all the places we have been to so far, all those places who wish more than anything else that they were this place.

And of course I don’t want to say that Africa doesn’t have its problems, that everything is just perfect up north, but I can’t help but wish a different future for Africa than this one – one that feeds more people without destroying the land; one where greater living standards doesn’t mean greater inequality; one over-nourishment doesn’t replace under-nourishment.

But then… Is such a future even possible? 

Though maybe I can think of all this so calmly because we’re sitting here at Wild Spirit, a hostel that is a sort of island of peace amidst all the madness.  With a serious ecological approach to preserving the land, the forests here are thriving and the people as well.  We came for just one night, expecting to move on in the morning; we were welcomed like family though, and exchanging work for food we have been here for a week.  We spend our days helping in the kitchen and pulling out those acacia morensii that are sucking up the local water and crowding out the local vegetation.  At night, we eat local vegetarian meals on the balcony with a group of people who have become friends.

We move on again tomorrow though, heading back to Cape Town for a 10-day silent meditation retreat and then another family visit.  We hope you are all well, and of course we always welcome comments, questions, anything else people have on their minds…

Posted in South Africa | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Namibia

Photos available here

Practical Information for cyclists available here

The essence of the route from Windhoek to Cape Town was pretty much summed up in the first two days on the road.

The first day, we learned about water.  That night, despite having been told by several people in Windhoek that there would be “plenty of farms” along the way where we could fill up our bottles, we ran out of water.  The problem wasn’t that there were no farms, but that the farms there were were all either behind locked gates or so far from the road that cycling up to them was out of the question.  In the end, after the sun had set and before the moon, waning but still almost full then, had risen, we were saved by a group of farm workers returning home at the end of the day who showed us where there was water and where we could pitch our tent.

Water was a worry for most of the ride, and though we made an effort to always carry enough, we ran out once more later in Namibia, after a ninety kilometer stretch without even a locked gate or a distant house, and then once more on our first day in South Africa, when a sudden wind storm blew so strong we couldn’t keep our bikes on the road and had to get off and push before the sun set and the sand started blowing in our eyes.

Both times though, we were saved again by the kindness of the locals.  In the first, we happened to find a distant homestead where we could fill up our bottles; in the second, we camped without water, but the next morning were invited to stay and eat and drink to our heart’s content in Steinkopf, the center of the kingdom of Manuel, a Portuguese immigrant and businessman who has such a reputation for welcoming passing cyclists that he has been written of in several books, and that we had even heard of him all the way back in Zambia.

All of this just leads to what we learned our second day cycling out of Windhoek: that people in this part of the world are about as welcoming as any people anywhere could possibly be.  The second day was when we were finishing our lunch break on a dusty dirt road and a truck pulled up with a group of farm workers bearing a note for us: an invitation to stop at the farm down the road for a cold drink. 

Such an invitation is nothing to laugh at when cycling in the driest desert in the world.  We were on our bikes and on the road in a flash, but in the end, Joachim and Adele’s hospitality was such that no matter how fast we arrived at their place, we were hard-pressed to leave, and had to reluctantly tear ourselves away after a cold drink, dinner, a shower, a bed, and breakfast.  Two days later we were welcomed once more by friends of theirs, eventually returning to the road with a bag full of olive oil, olives, spinach, broccoli, carrots, and seven kilos of oranges.  The string of hospitality continued from there on out; with invitations every few days, we were eating well and living the good life for most of the ride down, even up to just outside Cape Town where the wonderful Fauré family invited us in for yet another good night’s sleep and even our first South African braai (picture it as a sort of BBQ on steroids).

The nights sitting and talking with our hosts, clean and warm inside, were particular treasures since the days on the road were about as hard as any we’ve yet had.  We took dirt roads most of the way, and between the corrugations and ruts and sand patches and the 40°C winter heat, there was rarely a day we didn’t end up pushing and sweating and earning every kilometer.  The recompense came at the end though, when, if not invited by a local farmer who took pity on us, we would camp along the side of the road in the crisp cool silent desert night.  The stars were almost bright enough to read by, and the traffic so light that we could have pitched our tent in the middle of the road and not had a problem. 

Though most of this changed in South Africa.  Since the night camping in the bush during the sand storm, we have been sticking to campgrounds when not invited, and doing a little couch surfing along the way as well.  All is just as well though, since our gear has been wearing down these past thousand kilometers.  We snapped a tent pole, our tent fly has developed innumerable small holes, our stove is broken, our camera lens is broken, and I burned through two pairs of sunglasses. 

Which I suppose gives the impression that we limped our way into Cape Town, but the truth is far from it.  With all the wonderful people we have met these past few weeks, we are actually enjoying ourselves as much as we ever have, and if our things are broken, our spirits are as high as ever.  Riding into town at last, cars stopping next to us at lights to ask us where we had been biking from, Table Mountain finally looming above us after so many months on the road was a real reward.  For ten months now, when people asked us where we were going, “Cape Town” was our answer, eliciting laughs or grimaces or grunts of disbelief eventually yielding to “It’s all downhill from here” (never true) and “You’re not far!”

And now here we are!

We’ve spent the past days getting our gear back in working order, which in this wonderful country has meant even more welcoming people going out of their way to help two wandering cyclists.  If there is a more friendly part of the world, then I don’t know where it is. 

This past weekend was national heritage day in South Africa, a national holiday also known as “Braai Day.”  Desmond Tutu himself, in a radio message, urged the whole nation to celebrate South Africa with a braai and we were happy to oblige. 

And now when people ask us where we’re going? 

We say: Kenya!

Posted in Namibia, South Africa | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Photo Update: Namibia

Well, it’s everyone’s favorite time- when we update our website without all the blabla that usually accompanies such occasions! Yes, it’s just photos, taken this time during the three weeks spent driving around Namibia with Anna’s father and brother. We managed to cover 4000km in three weeks (or half of the distance we had biked through 8 months), and hopefully the photos capture a fraction of the amazing things we saw.

Now we are sitting at a campground along the Orange River just on the border with South Africa. We’ll cross over tomorrow, hoping to make it at long last to the Cape of Good Hope in a few weeks’ time.

Hope all is well with you, and bonne rentrée!

Posted in Namibia | Tagged , | 1 Comment