The end of the big T

Tanya cycling through India

T is for Thailand, but it is also for Tropics. As our time here in Thailand end, so does our trip. For the past 10 months we have spent all of our time in the tropic, from the northern Thailand, northern Vietnam and middle of India. We have also been in the far south, in Singapore nearly straddling the equator. We have seen the season (hot, hotter and wet), and although hot season was hot when we arrived, it is now cold. Hotter is still hot and wet is wet. Torrential downpours have caused small streams to fill paths, make roads more like river instead of roads, and have transformed the landscape from yellow to bright green. The lethargic hot weather makes any task difficult.

Learning at the PDC

Taking our PDC in Malaysia during the hot season was tough, I remember laying on the cement trying to cool down. I also remember working on Grassroots farm during this hot period, hoping for rain just to keep cool. I also remember when it would get cold at night in Hampie and Dalat, having to wear a sweater and a toque (who knew?)

New tastes, Durian, the King of Fruit

We both embarked on this trip in hopes to see something different, and experience something different. Riding a bicycle through India was a great way to achieve this goal. We also wanted to get inspired, thanks to places like Sadhana forest and the Panya project we are inspired. But also to our PDC teachers and everyone else we have met along the way. We have learned so much on this trip. We have learned:

  • How to build with mud

  • How to make kimchi

  • How to make wine

  • How to live in a community

    Learning about biodynamics

  • The best way to find ones way around rural India

  • How to grow food

  • How to cook without a cook book

  • How to cook for a hundred people

  • How to make various Biodynamic perperations

It was damn cold in Dalat

I know there is so much more as well. I never thought that I could get sick of traveling, and although I’m not sick of traveling, I am ready to come home. There is so much I want to try, there is so much I want to do and I’m looking forward to doing it.

SE Asia is full of culture and history

I want to thank all the loyal readers of this blog, we appreciate you dedication and patients. The last couple of months have been pretty inactive (in terms of blog posts). Since the beginning of this trip there has been more then 16,000 views on grannygear, which is pretty amazing, so we thank you all for your support. For those that we met on the road, maybe one day our paths will cross and we can catch up. For the rest of you back home, we are looking forward to meeting up people we haven’t seen in about a year and just chillin. See you soon.

Odd jobs at Panya

Hand made Bougainville Bongophone

Panya has been a great learning environment because of the variety. Along with all that I have learned, I have also discovered that I enjoy working with wood. After watching the movie Coconut Revolution, Sam and I got the crazy idea to build and Bougainville Bongophone. It sounds complex, but it isn’t. All you need is some bamboo. You cut everyone to a different length and you get a great (and kind cartoony) sound. Sam and I worked on this project for three days, mostly cutting and chiseling. This is the parts that I enjoyed, I now want to make a Cajon when I get back home. We learned a tough lesson though, when trying to make something out of bamboo, make sure it is dried (yellow not green). When it dries, it tends to crack, which is what happened to us, and as such, our instrument no longer works.

you hit this side with some flip flops to make the noise

If one remember from a few posts ago, we got the idea of making a tree nursery, which required us to level some land…by hand. Leveling by hand took some time (and energy), but it was good.

Kelly and Sam discussing where we should shave down to make the site level


Tanya and Sam moving sand and gravel

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After that we had to move 6m3 of gravel and sand (once again by hand). The piles of material were all placed around the leveled area evenly. The next step was to make a well in the middle of the pile.

Some of the piles, ready for cement and water


Smoothing (you can use bamboo or pvc piping)

In the well cement and water was mixed with the surrounding material to make a mix and then we spread the mix out evenly. You repeat this a few more times and you have a super easy flat surface. This mix was ultra wet so it would self level, and the goal was to make all with a piece of bamboo (that didn’t work out for us). In the end the concrete dried, and although it isn’t super posh, it is pretty nice (considering it was done in 2 hours with 7 people that have never done it before). The next step is to put up wall and a roof and we got ourselves a weed free nursery.

Kelly working on some finishing

Kelly working on some finishing

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First of four levels that will makes up the walls

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Trip to Pae, unaware of the demise of Dam (the dog)

On a less possitive note, one of the dogs dies while we were on holiday. Panya being permaculture, we thought the best way to remember Dam (the dead dog) was to put her into a 18 day compost pile. There is a video of this happening.[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qY4pRB0vr4M]

One of the most important things I learned at Panya was how easy it is to do things. Things I always thought a professional needed to do, one can do oneself. Just do it. You want a nursery, build it; you want a musical instrument, build it; you want hoot water, build a solar water heater, you want a solar bread oven, build it.

Posted from Ban Pao, Chiang Mai, Thailand
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Natural Building Internship at Panya

The last month at Panya has been spent participating in a Natural Building Internship.  I went into it with a bit of trepidation, having never build or to have wanted to build anything in my life (I don’t even assemble Ikea stuff), and Kelly was intrigued and wondering how natural building could actually work.  The project was to redesign and rebuild the Sala which is the community space where we eat and relax.

What the sala looked like before we started and now

We started with building a proper office where people could set up laptops and which will house the hundreds of books available (I helped make the bookshelves).  We use mud bricks that are made in the dry season.  They are made of a mix of clay, sand, and rice husks.  The we use a fresh mud mix of the same materials as the mortar.  For this mud mix we dug a huge hole in the ground and every day about 5 people get to stomp around in the mud adding clay and rice husks to get the right consistency.  It amazing how fast walls come together, and what’s great is you can shave down the bricks easily so you can make all kinds of interesting shapes.

We also built some arched walls, columns, benches, and stairs.  There is still lots of finishing work to be done.  I really enjoyed doing things like plastering the walls and painting (we use paint made from water, tapioca flour, and natural color), but when it comes to doing things like taking out the support beams without the roof collapsing I tried to stay far away.  A great learning experience overall!

Posted from Ban Pao, Chiang Mai, Thailand
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The Panya Project

Grass, some cut, some not

Somewhere north of Chaing Mai, lost in the complex networks of roads, back roads, canals and rice paddies there is a place called the Panya Project. The Panya Project started about 3 years ago, it is about 10 acres of 5 year old mango plantation. Over the past three years, this mono-culture plantation has been transformed into a small community in which people come here to spend some time, plant some veggies, harvest some fruit and have a good time.

After the grass has been cut

The main part of the mango plantation is about to undergo a major transformation though. That is where Tanya and I fit in. We are long term volunteers, here to help plant thousand of trees in amongst the mango trees. We are turning this difficult to maintain one fruit crop into a multicrop forest of food. Instead of one season in which you can harvest fruit, fruit will be available all year. Two swales and a dam (or a reservoir, the Aussies like to call them dams), are on site to help keep this place green in the dry times of the year (however it is not currently working perfectly yet).

The sunseting from our mud brick hut

Moving into our place at Panya

Baby trees (aka seedlings), waiting to be planted out in the food forest

The rainy season is a time for plants to grow. In the past 1.5 months grass and vine have taken over the site. The job over the past week has been preparing the site so that we can plant some trees. This has involved cutting grass with a brush cutter, pulling vines off of trees, weeding the veggie gardens, maintaining the nursery and much more. It is amazing the transformation that has taken place, now the plantation looks like a well maintained orchard, but at several man days of work already put in (and it would have to be done every three weeks), finding a new system to use this land would be best. The food forest should be able to maintain itself much better then the mono-culture that is there now.

Posted from Ban Pao, Chiang Mai, Thailand
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Grassroot Organic Farm

Over the past week or so Tanya and I have been WWOOFing at Grassroot organic farm in Penang. WWOOFing stands for Willing Workers On Organic Farms, or the more updated name of World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. WWOOFing is great, you spend somewhere between 5-12 hours a day helping out someone on their organic farm. In return for your labour, you get a place to sleep, food to eat and of course, an unforgeable experience. I can hear the skeptics now saying how this is not a great way to travel, but after seeing the sights for the better part of a year, having some meaningful work and local connection to the people and land is very enjoyable.

Cath, Tanya, Sook Hwa, Meishy and Kelly

Grassroots Organic Farm main product is Durian. Durian is a spiky fruit about the size of a cantaloupe. It has the strong smell of rotting organic matter, and has a taste that some people love and others hate. Personally I love it, but a lot of people hate it (some hotels have big signs that say “No Durian Allowed”). If you go to Wikipedia you will find that some people describe the odor as pig shit, or sewage. It isn’t that bad, and if Tanya or I ever smell it again, it will instantly remind us of the last 3 weeks. The texture is similar to that of avocado and the taste is like nothing else.

Cleaning durian before selling it

Smelling durain to see if it is ripe, yummy yummy durian

Apart from the Durian, Grassroots Organic Farm has a lot of Bananas, a few Rambutans, and a handful of other tree producing fruits. Our days were mostly filled with us: cleaning durian, mulching bananas, gathering organic waste from the local market, feeding the chickens rotting durians, planting NFTs (nitrogen fixing trees), watering NFTs, mulching NFTs and building a rainwater capturing system. It was a lot of fun, and we were glad we could help Meishy and Sook Hwa out on their farm.

Picking up the unused organic matter from the market

The goods from the market

Pollarding a tree, with a tiny saw, it took a while

Cath and Kelly Mulching away

Kelly installing the rain water capture system, the supervisors in the foreground

Posted from Bayan Lepas, Penang, Malaysia
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Banana Circle

A Banana Bunch

A banana circle is a great way to grow bananas, or any other tree/herb (bananas are actually a herb) that require a lot of water. So if you don’t like bananas, you could plant papaya or willow (which is great for mulch). At the PDC we learnt how to make one and while working at a farm here on Penang, another one was being constructed, so I took some pictures.

First of all, why would someone want a banana circle? There are many benefits, this is a great way to get rid of kitchen scraps or other organic wastes. In the tropics, it is amazing how fast organic material can break down here. That organic matter will be then utilized by the bananas. Typically there are banana clumps of three or four. In banana clumps, you have to mulch each clump, but with a banana circle you can essentially cut you mulching work in half (a banana circle will have 7 or 8 bananas).

The way the banana circle is designed will cause the organic matter to be leached into the soil and not across the soil (as with clumps). In clumps you may have too many banana plants and as a result your bananas will be small and spread across to many banana plants, thereby creating more work for you.

A banana circle creates edge, edge is important, ask a forester where the greatest amount of diversity of plants are in a forest, and they will tell you it is on the side of the road right of way, near a stream bank or near the shore of a lake. All of these places have edge and edge create a more diverse site which can support a greater amount of diversity. The same is with a banana circle, and as such, you can grow more then just bananas.

Start by digging a hole

The first step is to dig a hole (~2m in diameter and ~1m deep). In the end the hole should look like a mini crater, the hole should be fairly concave and the sides shouldn’t be too steep.

About 2m wide and about 1m deep

The next step is to pull the dirt around the edge of the hole and make a brim or a mound around the hole.

This is a banana cutting

Now it is time to plant. Plant what you want to grow there, whether it is a banana, papaya, willow or something else.

Plant the banana in the ground, that grass looking thing to the right of the banana is lemon grass

This is where permaculture really shines. Now plant some other species, and really you can plant anything you can think of. Near the inside of the hole it will be wetter, this is where you plant something that likes the water, like taro, yam, or ginger. On the crest (where you planted the banana), plant some sweet potato and some lemon grass. Near the bottom of the slope plant some beans (which will climb up the banana trees). To add an extra benefit, place a grate in the middle of the circle and have a shower in the middle of the banana circle and all grey water from the shower will be captured and used for banana growth.

Cover the bare ground with mulch and throw anything into the middle, if you look closely you can see some sweet potato, and there is some ginger planted on the inside of the circle as well.

With the use of a banana circle, there is no need to make compost (which is a lot of work), and there is no need to burn any organic matter. It is unfortunate here, so many people will rake up leaves, twigs, kitchen waste and coconut husks into a pile an burn it. Why would someone do this when they can use this great organic matter to make food? There just isn’t any reason why someone should burn waste in the tropics (or temperate regions for that matter).

Posted from Bayan Lepas, Penang, Malaysia
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PDC (permaculture design course)

We’ve just finished our PDC at Embun Pagi and we both learned alot.  The course was two weeks long and we went from 8:30 in the morning until around 9:30 pm most nights, it was a really busy schedule!!  (note: all the pictures on this post were not taken by Kelly or Tanya, their were taken by Ruyu, who was helping to run the PDC).

To describe Permaculture in a quick sentance is somewhat difficult, but it is basically a “system of design for creating sustainable human environments”.  It is organic agriculure combined with design and ecology.  (I can almost hear my parents laughing now because as a child when we used to visit my grandparents farms I would always say how I could never live or work on a farm!).  The course is a combination of lecture, hands-on expereience, and a big design projects.  There were about 15 students in the class, from either Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, Canada (us!), and the instructors who we met in India are from USA/France.  We’ve met some great people in the course!

Here are some of the topics that were covered in the course:  site design, design methods, pattern understanding, climate factors, water (ie. greywater systmes, water catchment/harvesting), trees, soils, natural building, earthworks, aquaculture, transition towns, urban permaculture, etc.  We did some interesting hands-on, such as building a vermicompost (yes, worms!).  We are looking forward to using some of the info we learned when we are volunteering in Thailand.

Posted from Rawang, Selangor, Malaysia
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New plans

As I write this e-mail I am reminded of the summer. Mainly because of the beer I am drinking (I have only had 3 beers in the last 1.5months) and The Black Keys playing on my ipod (those who know of the past summer will understand why this is essiantial summer music). The temp here is some around +30 which makes it feel like summer.

The real reason why I am writing this post is tell you guys about something new. We have changed Plans, it is official now. We have purchased a ticket to Singapore and we will being going to Malaysia to take a PDC (Permaculture Design Course). Which is a two week course in which you learn all about permaculture and become certified. Then in the middle of July we will head to Thailand (near Chang Mang) to volunteer on a permaculture farm/garden.  From the time we take our PDC (until the end of April) to the time we are to spend at the permaculture course we will tour around SE Asia, or do some volunteering.

It is pretty neat, changing our plans like this, but it isn’t without it sacrifices. We will have to send out bicycles home. We also won’t be able to see Petra, Egypt, Israel (a new addition to our plans thanks to the friends we met at Sadhana) and Europe. However we will see SE Asia and we will save money (I hear that it is good to have money in a recession). The last couple of months have been a growth period for us both. We have realized that traveling can be rewarding (in more then just pictures) and that a chance to learn something is better then a chance not to learn something. As we head to the unknown, we look forward to the new experiences in the future.

So far Mysore has been a lot of fun and been great. We have been slack at posting lately but that is mainly due to a really slow internet connection and the fact we have not been doing a lot. This is an update and there is some more post comming in the next few days that provide you with some good reading (I hope).

Posted from Mysore, Karnataka, India
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