Sunday, 23 October 2016


Will a month's trial as a garden volunteer at a organic yoga paradise in southern Spain bear Winter fruit? Or will the reality of wet boots in a soggy rustique way of life prove one step too far?

Today is a day I've waited for since the end of summer. It's been a year of achieving some important dreams - taking my mum to New York City for her birthday, training to be a yoga teacher and finally learning how to garden in southern Spain. A trip to see a friend allowed a new connection where my excitement to learn about permaculture and ecological land management practices was met with a resounding "yes"! So I am now back at the impossibly beautiful Suryalila Retreat Centre, where I volunteered for 3 months last summer and cared for the chickens, and attempted to build a pond...

Finding time to study and learn about yoga has been a part of a hectic schedule. So this, finally, weekend has been the beacon of relaxation I've been waiting for. Seasonal torrents of rain are also encouraging me to stay put under a mountain of blankets with a flask of lemon ginger tea. Ah what bliss. Going through old photos and files is just what a soggy Sunday needs.

Where am I? About 1.5 hours from Seville, in the middle of nowhere where swathes of eager yogis come to learn more and a smattering of cityphiles and their families come for a slice of the good life. The centre has horse-riding facilities as well as a natural salt water pool and serves 3 meals a day that are fit for the King of Spain; I'm sure he wouldn't notice the lack of jamon. The majority of dishes are vegan while the cheese is sourced from local suppliers using sheep or goat's milk. There's also a juice and smoothie bar, so I know the little savings I have left will dwindle as my tastebuds go to the stratosphere.

This time I am volunteer in the horticultural team. The huerto supplies the kitchen with a small amount of produce and with the help of this newfangled team, that percentage will steadily grow. So far (I arrived on Wednesday) I've been preparing beds for kale, cabbage and more roquette. I've also been removing olive sprigs from around the base of the olive trees and making hot compost. There's also loads of faces from last year which is a fantastic welcome.

The soil here, having been battered by intensive monoculture for a while, has long since said farewell to the rich ochre earth that still supports a few oaks in the distance. Some are estimated to be more than 500 years old. Our closest village, Prado del Rey, literally translates as "pasture / meadow of the King" so if etymology is any indicator of history, that fact remains fossilised in the area's past.

This design inspired the chicken coop makeover last summer
I'm working with a great team of 5 guided by an ambitious plan to turn things around. And already the parched ground is providing the kitchens with some salad and greens, and when I visited last year, we had an abundant harvest of figs. There are citrus trees and of course olives, and to keep the place beautiful, many landscaping succulents, lilies and banana trees. There are plenty of herbs too with the parsley, coriander and basil doing well and kitchen staff embellish the Moroccan-style serving dishes with borage flowers, calendula, nasturtium leaves and rose petals. We're visiting the vivero this week and I'll be pushing for lots of aloe vera so thirst-busting "AloePops" can get on the juice bar menu.

Alongside growing, the project manager is keen to install plenty of ways to preserve the harvest, the most obvious one being solar drying. This is a really easy and quick way of preserving excess and when I used this method at Sunseed Desert Technology, the most successful eats were aubergine slices (great for rehydrating in curries and stews) and stoned fruits which were chopped up before drying. Figs can be tricky if the maggots get there first. He's not come across a hay box before so I am excited to build a simple one.

The pond in April this year
I'm on a month's trial here before I commit to an extended period. If things go well, I imagine leaving before the intense heat of late Spring kicks in. The biggest challenges for late Autumn and Winter are going to be maintaining a strong sense of personal space as so much is shared and meeting new people is addictive. I also need to be realistic in preparing for the wet, windy and cooler weather which is one skill I've never mastered hence my fleeing from UK. Temperatures stay reasonable and the Winter is short - last year, nearby Seville was still seeing 24 degrees at the end of November - but outside of the city, life is squelchier and damper. I'm hoping that when a room becomes available at the volunteer house, I can swiftly move there. Despite my dreams of wildness, I am a walls and hot showers / radiators / slippers / heated towels / wifi kind of a person.

At the moment, I share with 3 other guys in a large tent. One makes his bed every day to hotel standards which impresses me. The others move around remarkably quietly. There are compost loos and outdoor showers nearby, the more homely bathrooms inside the main building. I've learnt that I'm a fairweather outdoorsy type; this weekend the winds have been lashing around the canvas and the rain drops more than pitter-pattering all around. While reading novels about wild weather appeals, enduring the reality is less romantic. It's a far cry from camping exactly but I feel lost without hangars and a maiden for my smalls. Last month my adventuring friend tried to encourage me to loosen up my white-knucked grip on civilisation with a camping trip on the beach. That was truly tent, no camping mat. Just us with a sleeping bag against the Milky Way and concerns about being washed away alleviated by a Gin Tonic nightcap. I smiled and tried, I did.

All in all, I am excited to be following a very longheld dream of living in Spain while growing. I will finally have to get to grips with being realistic about bad weather challenges. Despite training as a Forest School Leader in the UK a few years ago, bloodcurdling screams emit from my insides in worse weather, so I'm lucky to be somewhere where the temperatures stay quite civilised. My suitcase has only allowed me to pack so much (read: shorts and evening trousers) so the rest I can borrow (or beg or steal?). As long as I remain looking reasonably civilised so as not to shock the gentle yogis, I will be happy at the end of the month.

I shot the evolution of a caper / caperberry by gathering the plant at its different stages

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