Our house (non xobo) is in the middle of Yarinacocha, the indigenous area of Pucallpa. It is home to Alianza Arkana and our creative, enthusiastic and driven volunteers. My name is Michael and for the past months I have been the caretaker of this beautiful urban permaculture site under the title of ‘Maestro de Casa’. Bekanwe (welcome), please, let me show you around!
Our site measures approximately 50 by 20 meters, hosting three buildings:
Casa Major, the main house, a one story wooden building with a small attic space, containing our office space, 2 showers, three volunteer quarters and a very spacious communal living area, which includes the kitchen.
Casa Blanca, a white painted concrete two story structure, creating room for a tool workshop, another 3 volunteer quarters, a dorm room and a multi-functional space, where we have meetings, Shipibo language lessons, teach students, hold workshops and organize movie nights.
Casita, a small one story wooden shack with two additional volunteer rooms.
In total we can comfortably host 12 people (8 in private rooms, 4 in dorm room). We even had as many as 15 people living with us in the past few months, including two children, Christian and Nolee.
Our sizable garden is host to a wide variety and large number of plants and trees, ranging from fruit (banana, papaya, carambola (star fruit), pineapple, orange, caimito) to a impressive diversity of medicinal plants. There are two banana circles in the garden, which act as a natural and sustainable treatment for our grey water, one equipped with a bathing platform. In order to conserve water, we don’t use standard flushing toilets, that literally flush water down the drain. Instead we have two dry composting toilets that take care of our human waste. Sawdust takes care of a proficient decomposition process, leaving us after a couple of months with a rich dark nutritious soil. Since in the decomposition process the temperature of the soon to be compost rises significantly (up to 55 degrees Celsius or higher), all human pathogens die off in a matter of weeks.
A lot has been happening since I took up the responsibility as Maestro de Casa. Even though we are part of the relatively big city of Pucallpa, we are in the jungle here. This means we are exposed to heat and lots of heavy (!!!) rain. Under these conditions, it is paramount to have your property in order, or it will degrade super fast. There has been a lot of deferred maintenance, leading to all sorts of problems. Let me paint you a picture by sharing a few of the larger projects that we have done over the last months.
1. Roof in the main house
Last year we changed the plating on the roof of the main house. The old calaminas (roof plates) had started corroding up to the point that we had water coming in at multiple places. We decided in the end to replace them with new plastic roof plates. Although plastic may in first instance not be seen as a very ecological sound solution (we strive for making ecologically aware choices), in the long run they provide for a more durable solution in these heavy conditions. An additional advantage is that we can now collect the rain water, without having possible contaminants from the otherwise metal roof plates. Currently we use the water for bathing and washing clothes; we still have to determine whether the water can safely be used as drinking water, possibly with the addition of a filter.
2. Electric wiring
Loose live wires, dangerously degraded connections and old wires with plastic bags wrapped around them for electrical insulation, all of that under a leaky roof. I am not sure how much of an expert you are on electrical wiring, but I hope you get the sense that this is not in the least a safe situation. Add to that the fact that the main house is entirely build out of wood, and you can imagine that this situation can easily lead to a catastrophic event. By the way, this way of working with respect to electrical systems is very Peruvian. Long term vision is generally not one of the strengths of the culture here when it comes to construction. Building here is done in a more problem solving Magyver-style mode: you use what you have and if it works today it is all fine. The beauty of this lifestyle is that people are very creative and adaptable. The downside is that a lot of construction turns into a continuous high maintenance project.
In order to create a safer and more reliable electric system, we decided to replace the main wires running accross the house and secure them in electrical tubing. I brought special electrical clamps for making secure connections from Europe and mounted boxes in the places where wires would connect to the main line.
Our kitchen was in desperate need of some love. We had already cleaned it up and organized it more, but it needed more structural work. The sink was old and dirty and the wooden structure holding it in place was degraded by prolonged exposure to water, making it an ideal home for cockroaches. Initiated by the generous donation of a new sink and faucet by one of our researchers Nicholas, we decided to take the project head-on and create a new kitchen counter. Now we have a spacious counter with a double sink. Instead of using the sink and tap for doing dishes, we implemented a two-tub washing system, one for cleaning, one for rinsing, in order to safe water.
4. Roof of Casita
One big problem that reared its head frequently over the last year is the degradation and consequent leaking of the roof of the Casita. Generally in dry season we don’t have much to worry about (go figure!), but when the rainy season started, the water came gushing in. Initially we tried to patch the holes in the calaminas, but new holes kept showing up each day, as part of the calaminas were totally corroded. Due to the construction of the roof, a shallow slanted single roof, a lot of organic debris was collecting on the roof, leading to an accelerated degradation of the plating.
In short, just changing the plating was not going to do it this time. Ultimately we decided to construct a new roof, un techo de dos aguas, a roof with two slanted surfaces. After the preparation of the new A-frames for the roof, we managed to get the new roof up in just two days, thanks to the skillful help of one of our Shipibo companions Pedro. Pedro is 67 (!) and part of the crew that builds ecolatrines in Shipibo communities. Regardless of his age, he would balance on the just newly build roof structure. Respect! I hope to be as strong and daring as he is when I reach that age!
5. Taller (tool workshop)
The workshop got a major makeover. The old structure for storing wood was falling apart due to a combination of poor construction and the handy work of termites. Since we were also lacking a proper space to store smaller items, we build a new structure, including shelving. As part of a minga (a minga is a communal project – more about minga’s later), Nicholas together with his visiting friend Austin did a great job at organizing the workshop by sorting through all the cachivaches that we have collected over the years.
These are just a few examples of all the work going on here. It is beautiful to see how this place is really coming together through all this work and how it is transforming into a safe, nurturing, green permaculture site that our volunteers can call home.
Here at Alianza Arkana we work and live together in community. At its heart, Alianza Arkana is a non-hierarchical organization, meaning that no one is more or less important than anyone else, no one is someone else’s boss, ánd we all have our responsibilities. That makes for a very dynamic, creative, interesting and sometimes challenging environment. It means navigating a space where a lot of things come together, personal processes and experiences, setting and respecting of boundaries, challenges related to the intercultural nature of our work. It is a confusing space sometimes. Instead of suppressing this confusion, steering clear of this challenge, we work with it. As my dear friend and co-founder of Alianza Arkana, Paul Roberts writes in his blog post:
Working in genuinely non-hierarchical organizations, such as Alianza Arkana, in which order is allowed to emerge rather than being imposed top-down, brings people face-to-face with the lived experience of organizational life at ‘the edge of chaos’. It is not comfortable at times; it is often frustrating; decisions appear to be clear and then become unclear and need to be retaken; everything is constantly under negotiation: there is no stability in terms of obvious structure.
The word minga derives from the Quechuan mink’a, which refers to a communal work in favor of the community. We use it for projects in and around the house where we all come together for a day and work on that project.
To give you an example, we recently had a minga, initiated by one of our researchers Sarah, where we constructed a so-called keyhole garden. The idea of a keyhole garden (which reflects the shape of a keyhole) is that there is a round raised garden bed with an inner circle holding compost. The compost space and outer garden bed are separated by a porous structure allowing for nutrients from the compost to seep into the neighboring soil.
We have had many mingas over the time that I have been here, from creating a new banana circle to constructing a new compost pile.
I hope you enjoyed this introduction to our urban permaculture site and our community. Alianza Arkana is a place where heartfelt connections are made. This definitely makes it harder to say goodbye, which is what I am about to do. I have come to realize that it is time for me to move on. Through writing this blog, I have been reflecting on my time here and what I have brought to Alianza Arkana, to see how I have contributed and how my presence has changed the community.
Due to the nature of our organization, we are constantly in a state of flux. New souls come, contribute in their own unique way and then move on again. Each person coming through Alianza Arkana leaves an imprint, each person helps the organization change and grow. Often times, we are oblivious to the changes that we naturally bring with us. They are part of our blind spot. We consider them so normal, that we don’t realize the value that they may represent to others.
In order to consciously bring attention and appreciation to our experiences with one-another, we organize informal meetings, where we offer each other honest feedback on a personal level. Up until now, these meeting have mainly taken place when people are leaving. We realize however that these sharing moments are very important in general for the functioning of the community and therefore we will be creating a time and space once a week in order to connect and share what is important to us.
For me hearing how others had experienced me and what my presence here had meant to them, brought me to tears. I had no idea that just my being here had been so profound for many people! Without going into detail, it also was an important learning moment for me, because of the constructive feedback that I received.
As I am writing this, I have only less than a week before I leave. I feel sadness for leaving, excitement for continuing my journey, grateful for all my experiences and beautiful people, a slight apprehension for the future. I feel it all and it is jakon (good, literally: live giving).
For those who are coming: bekanwe! (be welcome!), for those who are leaving: jakon kawe! (go well!)