Blog : Sustainability

We’re home! Nesting in Malta and getting back to healthy routines.

We’re home! Nesting in Malta and getting back to healthy routines.

I must say it feels good to be home. Not quite what I was expecting.

I lived through the last month or so in Oregon with frequent pop-ups of intense longing to stay on the road mixed in with feelings of dread attached to the prospect of going back to ‘real life’ in Malta. The idea of seeing very much missed friends and family helped make going back home a little more liveable but it was nowhere near enough to tip the balance.

Coming back home in stages helped a lot. We did this epic journey from Medford to Portland to Boston, spent the day in Boston, flew from Boston to Iceland overnight (missing many hours to the time difference), spent another full day in Iceland (which was entirely awesome) and then hopped over to the UK where we spent around a week and a half zooming madly between friends and family and making up for lost sleep.

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The big themes at Sustainable Brands San Diego.

The big themes at Sustainable Brands San Diego.

Sustainable Brands San Diego

As part of ongoing personal and professional interest in sustainability, Gayle and I volunteered at the Sustainable Brands conference in San Diego from the 2nd to the 5th of June. With close to 200 speakers and workshop facilitators, the subject matter covered was both diverse and far-reaching, however I felt that certain themes had particular lasting power. The following is a short round-up of these themes together with a mention for the people putting them forward (who I would strongly suggest checking out).

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Brand activism. Videos that put advertising to good use.

Let’s face it, advertising does not have a reputation for being the most noble of industries. Although sometimes highly entertaining and dare I say informative, advertising can easily be accused of fuelling consumerism, bending the truth to fit an agenda and manipulating the young and easily influenced. Done consciously, advertising can also, however, be a powerful tool for education, an agent of change and a wake-up call for anyone whose heart it touches.

The following videos are ones I came across during the recent Sustainable Brands conference in San Diego. Made for highly diverse companies, campaigns and end goals, all of them succeed in raising awareness around their chosen issue whilst tugging at heart strings and building brand equity in the process.

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A big yes for the yes people. Jackson County successfully bans GMOs.

A big yes for the yes people. Jackson County successfully bans GMOs.

It was my absolute pleasure to be part of the jubilant crowd celebrating the passing of Measure 15-119 to ban (a list of) GM crops from being cultivated in Jackson County. I fully admire the building and execution of this campaign (which you can read more about here) and its absolute success was a fitting conclusion to the effort.

Volunteers, farmers, community members really rallied together to send out a clear, factual, positive message and the people listened. With a 66% majority for accepting the measure, Our Family Farms Coalition and Jackson County really showed how sheer will and good organisation can win against big corporations throwing a lot of money at the cause (like $1million). Community really is key.

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Protect Family Farms – Finally a clear, positive, factual GMO campaign.

Protect Family Farms – Finally a clear, positive, factual GMO campaign.

Vote YES. Protect Family Farms.
A plea for a YES instead of a no. Protect Family Farms goes for a positive spin to the issue.

GMO campaigns are delicate. Protesters and campaigners against GMOs are usually passionate, loud and not always presenting the most trust-inducing image for observers, becoming sitting ducks for labels like “conspiracy theorists”, “anti-establishment” or just “a waste of everyone’s time”.

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The office is looking a little different these days…

The office is looking a little different these days…

Please excuse the skipping of a couple of episodes in this travel series but I thought I’d come up to speed first and then fill in the gaps (which would be the Adelaide and Hawaii sections) rather than keep running on delayed action.

With Hawaii ending up mostly an exploration-filled three weeks of very much alternative tourism, I’m currently living on a community close to Ashland, Oregon in the US. Being here is a world of difference from what I’ve experienced over the last few months, partly because I have never lived in community, partly because this feels a little more like work (yet not quite the usual) and partly because I’m in the US with all the culture shock associated to it.

My accent is apparently exotic, most people have no idea where Malta is (pronouncing that in American might possibly help, still trying to master that) and getting around within town needs a car let alone getting there in the first place. Culture differences aside, being here is an absolutely enriching, eye-opening experience.

So far the first two weeks (that was fast!) been about settling into this beautiful space overlooked by the snowy Dutchman’s Peak (I’ve not yet explored this mountain but this guy has), immersing ourselves into community life and the shared responsibilities that brings with it, getting used to our new living space and also getting our heads around the more formal voluntary work we’re doing here, which is is helping this community put together their vision, values and objectives and eventually translating those into a brand identity and marketing collateral but more on that later.

For the moment though, here’s a roundup of what we’ve been up to around here:

Dutchman's peak
Our not so ordinary meditation and breakfast view with Dutchman’s snowy peak in the distance.
Easter egg dying with Ocean, a little 8 year old who is wise well beyond her years.
Easter egg dyeing with Ocean, a little 8 year old who is wise well beyond her years.
Our not so humble abode: The White House (no Obamas in sight though)
Our not so humble abode: The White House (no Obamas in sight though)
Gayle, her adopted and colour coordinated skateboard and Isis, the temporary White House companion
Gayle, her adopted and colour coordinated skateboard and Isis, the temporary White House companion
Chèvre and fresh bread at the farmers' market. The US has not been diet-friendly so far.
Chèvre and fresh bread at the farmers’ market. The US has not been diet-friendly so far.
More farmers' market fun, this time with Ryan and Eden, two of the founders of the community we're staying on.
More farmers’ market fun, this time with Ryan and Eden, two of the founders of the community we’re staying on.
The front of the common building which houses a dangerously yummy bakery and common areas.
The front of the common building which houses a dangerously yummy bakery and common areas.
Don't feed the Murphs :)
Don’t feed the Murphs 🙂

 

 

Graeme Little’s place on French Island

One of many koalas on French Island. Boasting anlarge population of healthy gum trees, the island hosts a large population of koalas which thrives on abundant food and no predators.
One of many koalas on French Island. Boasting anlarge population of healthy gum trees, the island hosts a large population of koalas which thrives on abundant food and no predators.

Living off the grid, new friends, tons of info and a hard look at my own effects on surroundings

Sitting in the shade after my Cricket For Dummies crash-course, I can just about understand what’s happening with the bowling and running and how one actually scores points in cricket. Which is great since most of French Island is playing or watching, including our host, Graeme Little.

Cricket players and supporters towards the end of Saturday's match. The Franchise lost by a little at the end.
Cricket players and supporters towards the end of Saturday’s match. The Frenchies lost by a little at the end. I was lucky enough to join several events which brought the small island community together and it’s great to see amazingly diverse people socialise together at cricket matches, bbqs, drinks on a Thursday night or a swim at the pier. It was really amusing for me to realise that every car in the street, everyone we met on the island bus tour, everyone who came to Graeme’s community meeting / bbq / tennis final watching were people I had already met during the course of a week.
the cricket club bar ladies
The lovely bar girls of the cricket club bar. They made the sandwiches and scones and cakes, made tea for everyone and tended the bar during post match drink time.

French Island is a very particular place. About 27000 acres in area with just over a hundred inhabitants, the island feels a lot more remote than it actually is (a 2 hour train and ferry journey from central Melbourne gets you here).

I’m here on my first workaway post (workaway.info) having thought it would be an interesting place to experience living off the grid and being as self-sustaining as possible. Being here really got me thinking about the things we usually take fore-granted:

No electricity grid, power comes from solar energy or wind energy with fuel-powered generators as backup. Graeme’s place has a little power monitor which allows you to see the load real time and how much power the solar panels are producing. I’ve been here for almost a week and we’ve only had to rely on the generator during short periods of really high load when we’re watering and filling tanks at the same time.

No reliable services, roads get graded twice a year and even then that’s sketchy, the ferry depends on the weather and gets cancelled often, the barge operates between tide times. One general store which stocks a random collection of items including food, fishing tackle, hardware and beautiful handmade soap, candles, cards and honey all from local produce.

No water supply, rainwater is collected religiously and used for drinking, washing and watering. It’s free and pure and tastes amazing. Why on earth would you not make use of it?

The barge which depends on high tide to be able to get out of or on French Island, one of the many headaches locals have to contend with.
The barge which depends on high tide to be able to get out of or on French Island, one of the many headaches locals have to contend with.

Graeme, our host is a highly interesting character. An ex-entrepreneur and venture capitalist, he came on the island to start a health retreat but found that one needs to adjust to the French Island pace of doing things once here, as nothing is straightforward or simple and you need to work with the resources available. Coming from a completely different world to this, Graeme has a completely different approach to most and tends to do things a little more analytically than one is accustomed to, which I found refreshing.

I really enjoyed the plans and the rationale behind the espalier garden, where fruit trees are trained to grow branches horizontally which should get them to produce more vertical fruit-bearing shoots than usual. The more controlled height also means fruit is a lot easier to pick when ready and easier to protect from birds and wind. All fruit trees are planted with accompanying plants specifically aimed at maintaining a healthy soil nutrient balance as well as keeping pests away naturally.

Graeme’s piece de resistance, comfrey, is used liberally throughout the gardens. Comfrey is a dark green leafy plant which is very quick-growing, resistant and which manages to draw out both water and nutrients from the soil very quickly and efficiently. Thanks to its unique properties comfrey does things like keep out the weeds when used as a border plant, fertilize when its leaves are applied to other plants and keep off the pests when minced down and sprayed on plants along with water. Comfrey also has medicinal properties and quickens healing of muscles and bones in both humans and animals. Truly a versatile little plant (you can read more on comfrey.com which is still under construction).

Graeme and his beloved and magic comfrey.
Graeme having some fun posing with his beloved comfrey. Comfrey is used as a border plant to keep out the weeds, to fertilise and keep the birds and insects away and fed to animals mixed in with feed. Being great at regenerating, comfrey also makes great oil (from the roots and leaves) which helps muscles and skin renew themselves at a much quicker pace than usual. Comfrey is also possibly the only plant that synthesises vitamin B12 from the soil.

Days here are varied and always interesting. The arrangement is for around 5 hours of work a day in return for accommodation (in beautiful double or triple rooms in Graeme’s gorgeous house which really has all the mod cons anyone could ever wish for) and food which we help prepare daily. Graeme very kindly stocks the house with huge quantities of fresh fruit and vegetables along with what is available in the garden and all the healthy staples possibly needed including daily fresh free-range organic eggs right from the cute chooks. Although generally a healthy eater anyway, I’ve really felt my body thrive with the great food available here which is no big surprise really. The ever-present abundant greens, herbs and garden fruit also tend to get creative juices flowing when it comes to the preparation of food and we’ve had some amazing concoctions.

In front of the living room of Graeme's beautiful house. The chicory kiln in the distance currently houses monitors for the solar panels which ate just outside it. Excess power is stored in batteries for less sunny parts of the day.
In front of the living room of Graeme’s beautiful house. The chicory kiln in the distance currently houses monitors for the solar panels which ate just outside it. Excess power is stored in batteries for less sunny parts of the day.

Work can be anything from mulching, mowing, watering, weeding, planting or picking around the garden, feeding the chickens, horses and Fleur the cat, collecting eggs, cleaning the house, cooking and more. It’s a case of doing what needs doing and making the best of available conditions. Sometimes the water’s problematic so watering’s out, sometimes rain does that for you, sometimes the impending rain forecast creates a list of urgent jobs to be done before the skies open. Routine is not really the order of the day here but there’s always plenty to lend a hand to.

Picking greens and herbs for a salad from Graeme's espalier garden. The fruit trees in the garden are all trained to grow horizontal branches which should bear more fruit and are grown with accompanying plants which help maintain soil nutrient balance and keep away pests.
Picking greens and herbs for a salad from Graeme’s espalier garden. The fruit trees in the garden are all trained to grow horizontal branches which should bear more fruit and are grown with accompanying plants which help maintain soil nutrient balance and keep away pests.
Traffic on French Island. Lois is making way for the cows during our bus tour. It's incredible to see Lois drive the bus, talk and spot wildlife all at the same time. The tour is absolutely wonderful and really gives you an authentic French Island experience.
Traffic on French Island. Lois is making way for the cows during our bus tour. It’s incredible to see Lois drive the bus, talk and spot wildlife all at the same time. The tour is absolutely wonderful and really gives you an authentic French Island experience.
Visiting the General Store (the only shop on French Island) during Lois' bus tour.
Visiting the General Store (the only shop on French Island) during Lois’ bus tour.

Apart from the obvious pro of being able to travel with limited expenses, workawaying has plenty of other advantages. In my short time here I’ve met Nena who’s now living on French Island, Kate from the UK and Huifen from Taiwan together with an array if very diverse islanders and of course Graeme. Each person has brought their own flavour to the table with so many stories, recipes, friends who run workaway schemes nearby and different ways of doing things. We’ve had great conversations about nutrition and energy, the pharmaceutical industry and preventative medicine, political situations in our home countries, the possibility of economic collapse, the pace of island living, propensity for change and of course living sustainably, with each of us sharing opinions, experiences, theories, inspiring each other to delve deeper and perhaps go the extra mile in the name of changing things for the better. Definitely a lot of food for mind and soul here.

Personally, this first post has caused me to look at my own daily habits and their effect on surroundings. Anything I use on my hair and body gets washed into water which affects the land and sea so I’ve switched to hand made, locally-made natural soap instead of my usual shower gel. Also avoids using plastics which need to be shipped out for recycling where this is even possible. Honestly it’s been a completely painless change. The soap is not too expensive, completely skin friendly and very easy to transport making it a win-win-win situation.

Having run out of my usual staple peppermint oil I’m giving eucalyptus oil a try as a deodorant courtesy of my new friend Kate (who uses it for anything from repelling insects to antiseptic, moisturizer and bite treatment) and it really seems to be working well enough.

I still have to solve the hair conditioner situation as nothing natural or organic is available at the local store but I’m trying to use the bare minimum of the most natural I find, supplemented with lovely coconut oil which I rinse out at the end. Despite my hair being the most tangle-prone, fine version known to man, this seems to be taming my mane rather successfully.

Coconut oil has now become my moisturizer and sun screen of choice thanks to the lovely Gayle who has tried and tested many oils to find the best suited. Always make sure coconut oil is raw and cold pressed to retain all its moisturising and sun filtering properties (apparently equivalent to around SPF10).

Next up is clearing the bathroom and laundry of anything not grey-water friendly and putting up signage to make sure workaways are aware of the effects of any products they use. Thankfully the local store stocks local made, completely natural soap so alternatives are very close by.

 

From left, Kate, me, Lois and Huifen in front of the chicory kiln that belonged to Lois's family.
From left, Kate, me, Lois and Huifen in front of the chicory kiln that belonged to Lois’s family.

 

Feeding one of Lois' friendly animals just after having home made scones and jams from local fruit. Not your average tourist experience.
Feeding one of Lois’ friendly animals just after having home made scones and jams from local fruit. Not your average tourist experience.
One of many spectacular French Island sunsets, taken just after post-cricket koala spotting and unsuccessful attempts to take photos with some of the local cows (the cows ran off en masse).
One of many spectacular French Island sunsets, taken just after post-cricket koala spotting and unsuccessful attempts to take photos with some of the local cows (the cows ran off en masse).

 

 

Koh Lipe, Koh Tarutao and Koh Adang  – Thailand

Koh Lipe, Koh Tarutao and Koh Adang – Thailand

 

Longtail boats in Koh Lipe
Longtail boats in Koh Lipe, water taxies to floating jetties and nearby islands.

Koh Lipe

Our first Thai landing place brought mixed feelings. Beautiful beaches, sea gypsies on longtail boats, lush forest; juxtapositioned with a ratio of foreigners to Thai of around 10:1, severe overdevelopment around the beaches, rubbish and the feeling of being in a tourist resort. Overall I was not impressed.

Having said that, Lipe did have its heroes:

Thai beach travellers travel shop – a total life-saver from where we booked ferries, rooms, got cash (at a 5% commission, there is no ATM on the island) and asked for suggestions for quiet places where we could get away from the crowds. The lovely people there are absolutely great. And they have internet!

Pancake place at the beginning of Walking Street – this quickly became our Lipe staple since yummy pancakes, ginger tea, papaya salad, pad thai, yoghurt and muesli and a lot more pancake clearly impressed us. They have wi-fi and extremely sweet staff who were patient enough to actually make my weird request for honey, ginger and lemon pancake.

The taxi-men, boat men, ferry staff and island people who gave us lifts, took us extra bits for free, helped us find our way, fed us and sorted our issues quickly during errand visits from the wilder islands.

The Lipe rubbish situation

Koh Lipe is a clear example of what happens when a place does tourism before it plans environmental management. Piles of rubbish everywhere, a central massive waste tip and who knows where waste water is going. Although technically part of the national park, Lipe seems to have escaped the protection afforded to the other islands. Speaking to locals we found out that plastic and cans are collected and shipped off the island to be recycled while everything else goes to the central tip to be burnt. It’s good that there is some attempt at waste management, however it’s far too little to actually keep the island from being taken over by rubbish.

It would be wonderful to see sensitive islands like the Koh Tarutao islands really focus on reducing rubbish and switching to more environmentally friendly skin, laundry and household detergents. Packaging could switch to biodegradable only with incentives to reduce and reuse, cleaning agents sold on the islands could all be grey water friendly (since they end up in the sea and rivers quite rapidly) and both tourists and locals could be educated about where rubbish and detergents end up and what the impact is. Reality is that unless the islands literally clean up their act fast, tourists will quickly shift their attention elsewhere, leaving ravaged islands that are but a shadow of what they once were.

Gayle on the Koh Tarutau 'taxi'
Gayle on the Koh Tarutau ‘taxi’

Koh Tarutao

Needing a break from the tourist central that is Lipe, we hopped over to Koh Tarutao, an island about an hour and a half away by speedboat (cost 400 – 450 baht each way) and thankfully under proper national park protection. Landing on the pier we paid the National Park entry fee (200 baht for non Thais) and got into out ‘taxi’ – a cab truck with two benches and metal bars on the side which ferries people from one area of the park to the next.

Our chosen destination, Ao Molae, turned out to be wonderful. Simple beach huts metres away from the beach (600 baht a night) that included a bed with an entertaining mosquito net, a basic toilet / shower room which was reasonably clean and came complete with an interesting array of insects and other small animals and a beautiful glass topped table filled with sand and seashells from the beach. Pampering amenities also included two National Park branded towels and white sheets with a green National Park motif that makes you feel a little like you are on a scout trip somewhere. The mosquito net on the bed was an adventure in itself. It was suspended from the ceiling on a small round frame at the centre of the bed, meaning that you had to tuck in the sides underneath the mattress and stretch it all out to have some semblance of space on the bed. Getting in and out from a narrow slit, in the dark (electricity is 6pm till midnight only), trying to not let the lurking mosquitoes in was a mission, albeit a hilarious one that involved much confuddled middle of the night giggling on my part.

Equipment adventures aside, Ao Molae and Koh Tarutao were nothing short of magical. Picturesque beaches, dense forests, little islands in the distance creating picture perfect views, peace, a little restaurant serving up amazing food and the biggest smiles ever, monkeys, wild pigs, sea eagles, birds and wonderful cicada sounds that envelope the whole experience. The place is truly lush.

Home made Russian boat
A home-made Russian boat assembled in Cambodia from parts shipped all the way from Russia. The 6-person crew has sailed around Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. Since the boat cannot technically cross borders they disassemble it and bus it to the next country and put it all back together again. Fascinating stuff.

Despite our resolve to just lay on a beach and be, we obviously ended up adventuring quite a bit in an attempt to discover the island. On the second day we rented bikes (200 Baht per day) and cycled to Ban Talae Wow, around 18 km away. The trip was a physical and mental challenge (for me at least, Murphs being a lot more bike-oriented).

So firstly the bikes were OLD. Very old. Not being the most mechanically minded person ever, it took me roughly half the journey to work out how the gears worked exactly. I had last been on a mountain bike a couple of years ago in France, however the rather flat terrain did not require the use of the full range of gears and I kind of got away with some pushing of levers which seemed to do the job most of the time. This time the steep hills meant I needed all the assistance the bike could offer. Being more bike-savvy, Gayle tried to talk me through the gears. Sadly her bike was wired differently to mine so I spent ages wondering why going up gears to make hills easier was actually making them more difficult. By the end of it I just did my usual thing and pressed levers until something made sense and I seemed to master the mysteries of geardom.

Breathless hills, copious amounts of bike pushing and some deliriously fun steep downhills later we actually made it to Baan Talae Wow which was beautiful but so much more about the journey than the destination. Having worked out the gear system, the journey back was a little less of an epic mission and I could join Gayle in frequent ooing and aaing at the countless colourful butterflies fluttering next to us, the autumn leaves in spectacular shades of orange, red and brown falling gently in our path, the massive trees, the cheeky monkeys and the birdsong along the way. Seriously magical.

Beautiful forest on Koh Tarutau
Beautiful forest on Koh Tarutau
Camping gear on Koh Adang
Very much branded camping gear we used on Koh Adang.