After the rain come sunshine & hard work

After the rain come sunshine & hard work

You might have heard it – we had quite a wet and foggy winter. Which meant that despite our best efforts, work wasn’t really progressing well… For every day we were out and about making things happen, there were at least two or three days when our (clay) soil was too compacted, the weather too rainy or just too plain cold to do what we had planned.

However, that all changed in the middle of February… Since almost ten days we have volunteers staying with us and neighbours helping us out, and things are going so fast that it makes my heart leap with joy. We have about two more weeks of work in front of us, and then it’s time to clean up and get everything ready for our first bed & breakfast guests to arrive; we’ve already got a few bookings between March and October and we’re very much looking forward to it.
In the mean time, I thought I’d share a few pictures of what’s going on here…

At the back of the house

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Last year, a lot of earth was dumped at the back of the house. Nothing much grows there at the moment and it gets muddy all the time – so we’re doing some landscaping…
First, we poured a 1m60 border of concrete along the back wall. Not only can this serve as a base for a recycling unit, a wood storage, gas storage, gardening / working station and chicken coop – it’s also much easier to walk on when the weather isn’t perfect.
The wood storage was built in one day by our volunteers Laura & Pietz – and the day after, they tackled the recycling tower (done in just a few hours!) and now they’re working on stone stairs towards the solar system shed.
Our friend Katrien is working at a brand new (and super fancy) chicken coop, with the help of our Belgian volunteer Brecht. It started out as a coop, then became a chicken house, the idea of building a castle came and went and now it looks like it’s going to be a chicken cathedral. Guess we’ll have to call our next rooster “Cardinal”.
In the next few weeks hopefully we’ll be able to continue on the chicken coop, finish the stone stairs and maybe start on preparing the back yard and setting up fencing for the chicken run. It’s going to be bigger than before!

Around the house

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You might have seen that we’ve been working on a terrace wall in front of / around the house since May (2016). I’m very proud to announce that it’s almost done now; it only needs some finishing touches, and it does need to be filled with a lot more soil. Which should happen on Wednesday, with the help of our friend George. Once the soil is in place, we’ll add on manure, planting soil and mulch – and we’ll be all ready to start sowing and planting! I’m very much looking forward to that part.

The side entrance to the guest rooms has been tiled (thank you Dan!), and Axel has been doing a few repairs and improvements to the guest balconies. As we speak, Axel and Brecht have started on the front yard; we’ve been discussing the design for weeks and hope it will be both convenient for me to work in, and beautiful to look at. We’re loosening the earth first, but we’re building raised beds on top of it anyway. The garden beds will be filled with herbs and edible flowers (or just vegetables with beautiful blossoms), and maybe some berry bushes.

The vegetable garden

The vegetable garden is a work in progress – but work is progressing, for once. After the last two seasons, we decided on building hexagonal raised beds – only time will tell if this is the right decision, but so far we think it’s going to look fabulous. The idea is to make a few raised beds every now and then, so in the end it will be all raised beds – and paths in between. So far the fig, kaki, plum and two apple trees have gotten their own raised beds – so we can plant a “guild” of other plants around them. We also bought all the accessories for a watering system… now only to install it before the heath of summer.

This year, we’ve sown the seeds for the vegetables inside… in the living room… Axel made me an extra big table that will hold four of those big polystyrene seed trays. I’ve got plenty of seedlings now: corn, tomato, kale, cabbage, onions, lettuce, more tomato and cauliflower… more to be sown next week. And soon we’ll have to plant out a few of them at least. So much to look forward to!

The chickens

Ah, the chickens… there’s highs and lows there.

First, there’s the incubating. I did a lot of that; I had an incubator with our own eggs + one of Kurkum Farm hatch in January, four little brown-layers-with-feathered-feet (chicks of Fatima & Ramon) and one little peeping Tom are now hopping around happily, they’re about four weeks old now.
After this, I borrowed our friends Dan & Mell’s big incubator and put in another batch – this time it contained our own eggs, Dan & Mell’s Brahma eggs, some eggs from Kurkum Farm and some eggs from Tierruca (the place we’re buying our alpacas at). There were 25 eggs in total… However, due to several different reasons, only 7 hatched. It’s a pretty diverse little group of Brahma, bantam and feathered-feet-layers though, and I hope they’ll be everything I’m hoping for.
At this moment, I’ve got seven Silver Brahma eggs in my small incubator (due around the 11th of March), and 15 more Brahma eggs + a few of our own in the big incubator (due about 5 days later). Fingers crossed for a bunch of healthy and happy chicks!

The adult chickens have been on rotating pastures since the beginning of the new year, with the help of an electric fence (which is super easy to move) and the chickshaw (moveable chicken coop). I love this setup, and am definitely going to write a review on the chickshaw soon… we’ve had it almost a year now. The chickens seem to love it as well; they’re safely inside the fence, and they get a new bit of land to scratch up and explore every few weeks. What’s not to like? They’re getting lots of kitchen scraps, 99% organic food and of course bugs and weeds from out there. Our eggs are now bright orange and very, very tasty.
On the bad news side, there’s something wrong with Tita. She’s been in quarantine for a week now, but we can’t seem to figure out what her problem is… she’s not really weak, but has trouble walking (or flying) straight and falls over at times. She’s getting some supplements and we still have some hope left… not much though, as she doesn’t seem to be getting better (not getting worse either, but she’s not fit enough to join the rest in the run). Fingers crossed for her!
Last but not least, we’ve said goodbye to our very beautiful but very useless Brahma rooster Ramon a few days ago now, I’m writing a separate post about this (and about the uses and uselessness of roosters). Tito is now head honcho but he’s not sure how to handle that – he’s always been a bit insecure and being left with two older hens (Fatima and Ramona) doesn’t do much for his self-esteem… as long as he behaves, he can stay though – or until one of the little chicks steps up and becomes big boss. We still have several months before that.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this small update – it’s so nice to get feedback and hear how so many of you are following our adventures here in Spain. There will be many more to follow!

7 reasons to host volunteers

The internet seems to be full of it: how to travel on a budget, stories of people who left their job to go travelling, or why work exchange is the best way to travel. I thought I’d shed a light on the other side of it: why hosting volunteers to get things done?

1. It’s cheaper than paying somebody to do the work

This is why we got into it in the first place: we had so much work to do, so little time, and such a small budget. When we first put up our profile on Workaway, it almost sounded like a joke: who would want to come and camp in the middle of nowhere, and help us do hard work for no pay? Turns out… quite a few people.

However – in a way, our volunteers do get paid, just not with money. We provide them with accommodation and 3 meals a day, we take them with us to ferias and social gatherings, we drive them to rivers and hiking trails sometimes, and (what many volunteers find most interesting of all) we take them along in our adventure – they get to witness what it is to migrate to Spain, start a permaculture project and live off the grid. Most volunteers leave our place with newly acquired skills: from drywalling to tiling, from pruning almond trees to preserving olives, from building a chicken coop to making a solar shower.

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Jabba & Jinx are helping Marcella & Eric to build a terrace wall

2. It’s a way to travel without ever leaving your home

In the 10 months we’ve been doing this, we’ve hosted people from around the world: from New-Zealand to Canada, from Scandinavia to Malaysia. No African volunteers so far though; feel free to apply if you’re reading this 🙂

Most of our volunteers tell us all about where they’re from; they can paint a picture of daily life in upstate New York, Singapore or Dominican Republic – sometimes to the point that we really want to go there (see 7). Often, they’ve already been travelling for a while; we enjoyed hearing all about the adventures of our favourite Malaysian girl in a yak farm in Mongolia, our Scottish Whovian in Madrid, or how a German girl met her big love at a summer camp in Canada…

3. It’s a bit like an anthropological study

Most of our volunteers seem to be quite interested in the world – we can have lengthy conversations about educational systems, politics, ethical challenges, healthy food,… We notice how certain of our ideas and assumptions are very eurocentric – sometimes we’re baffled over other people’s everyday habits. What’s polite in one country is just weird for some; what one considers funny, is just plain rude for others. Communication is key; when asked about an unusual habit, people will gladly tell them wether it’s something they learned from their mother, something everything does in their homeland or they just do weird stuff sometimes. So far, all of our guests have proved very willing to adapt to the rules and habits of the house though.

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Yuan Ni’s memorable Malaysian meal

4. It’s a great way to learn something (like a language)

Until recently, we had 2 native Spanish speakers staying here – although we’d speak English with them most of the time, we did ask them for help with Spanish grammar, learned a few new expressions (that’s de puta madre!) and generally benefitted from hearing them speak Spanish all day long.

We’ve had a few volunteers whose previous volunteering experiences included teaching children a language (and babysitting them at the same time) – some volunteering websites are basically unofficial au pair sites. One couple told us about a host where their only task was to speak English; the family would cook for them, clean their rooms and show them around the city – all they had to do, was have conversations in English with them.

We read many profiles of volunteers who are looking for a new host; many of them list teaching language as one of their skills – one guy even offered to teach us ancient Japanese writing. There are many other things to learn from our volunteers: from cooking skills and traditional recipes (we often ask our volunteers to cook us their favourite meal) to basic woodworking – most volunteers don’t only put a stamp on our finca, they also leave their mark on our skillset.

5. It’s all on your own terms

As a host, you get to set the rules of engagement: you decide what kind of work needs to be done, the working hours (some volunteering websites set limits), what kind of accommodation and food your volunteers will get, how much interaction there could be with them. The basic information goes into your profile page and from then on, it’s a matter of wait and see if people would like to do what you’re asking them to do, in the conditions you’re offering.

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Sarah and Ciaran building our mobile chicken coop

It’s good to have somebody to help you out with what needs to be done, so you can focus on what’s important now

This is our main reason for hosting volunteers: we’re in the middle of finishing our house, setting up a bed & breakfast, starting a permaculture farm and have several projects we’d like to tackle in the next few months. There are tons of smaller tasks that take up a lot of time: grouting after the tiling (= filling up the joints between the tiles with special product) – mulching, watering and weeding after I have planted vegetables and fruit trees – or collect stones so Axel can build a wall with them. While we were preparing for a big party here, one volunteer took it upon herself to keep the household running: she would cook and clean while we were showing our guests around, running errants or set up the party site. Needless to say, she was a lifesaver.

It’s useful to prepare your own travels

That we decided to settle in Spain for now and have resigned ourselves to care for our farm instead of going on holiday, doesn’t mean we’re not planning to travel again, ever; we recently realised that if we decided to pack our suitcases again, there are so many places we’d like to go to already, and so many people we could visit on the way. Many volunteers have offered to show us around their home town, the baseball stadion they’ve been working at or the national park they’ve hiked in so many times. So many destinations, so little time…

Conclusion…

Interested? Check out www.workaway.info or www.helpx.net.

Of course there are downsides as well – you do get a total stranger to come and stay with you. Communication is important; the best advice we ever got was to sit down on the first night and talk about rules and expectations. What can they eat / drink / use any time, and what items need to be cleared with you first? What are the working hours and tasks? If you have children or pets, it’s also a good idea to discuss what they’re allowed (or not allowed) to do.

But most important… if you have decided to host volunteers (or you’re already doing it): enjoy. Be aware that every single one of them will leave a stamp on your life / your house / your property / your children (depending on what their task is!) – but you will also be able to touch their lives in so many ways.

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Astrid, Sigrid and Bex working in the forest garden (after it had been neglected for weeks)

A day in the life

2016-01-28 19.36.56Days like yesterday are the best. The sun was shining, people were working hard, and I feel like we are finally getting the hang of dealing with all the different things we’re doing here (at the same time). It does help that one of our workaway-volunteers left us on Tuesday; we had 4 people staying here, which meant that I usually had to stay home all day (or Axel had to drive around like a madman) as only 5 people will fit in the car. We also changed our daily routine a bit – we now have an easy lunch (bread / leftovers / whatever), and we ask a different volunteer to cook for the whole group each day. Two days ago we had a very nice vegetarian dish (with squash and avocado) made by Darren from the US, and last night Yuan Ni from Malaysia made us something delicious and semi-Malaysian (adapted with foodstuffs we were actually able to find here iin Spain, most of them imported from Thailand).

This week, so many things are happening, and we’ve reached a few milestones.

2016-01-28 15.30.25 constrOn Thursday, Axel & a friend started tiling the floor. We’ve chosen one kind of tiles for the whole floor (including the kitchen / living room, our own bedroom, office & bathroom, both guestrooms and the guests’ breakfast room). It looks like wood, but it’s actually a tile – nice and cool to walk on in summer. After only 2 working days, the first lines have been set; going from our private bathroom on the one side to the far end of the living room. I love it so far!

I’ve also been spending some time in the greenhouse, planting seeds and preparing a few things for spring. We had many vegetables from our garden last year already – this year I’m going for more diversity… and also some extra crops for the animals.

2016-01-27 12.17.47 meSince Thursday as well, JP (our trees expert from Cretas) is pruning the olives. There’s just too many of them for Axel to do them all, so we called in the troops; he gets help from the workawayers to tow away whatever he cuts off – and that’s a lot! We’re getting goats to stay with us for a while today (just to try them out and see how we like keeping goats), hopefully they will like to nibble on the fresh cuttings…

In the mean time, Ciaran is making us stairs. It all started with stairs between the house and the “baranco” (our “dry river”, where we’re starting a forest garden), and now he’s tackled the stairs to the outdoor bathroom… It’s going to be beautiful (and convenient as well).

2016-01-28 15.28.00 constrYesterday was what Yuan Ni called “late Christmas”; the stones were supposed to be delivered just after Christmas, but got delayed just a tiny bit – today, truckloads of stones were dropped all around the house. Monday is the day they will start finishing the outside of the house with them. The delay probably won’t hurt us much; the windows will probably be installed in time for us to start moving houses according to plan… Let’s certainly hope so!

We also ordered part of the bathrooms last night, and chose the rest of the bathrooms and the kitchen… only a matter of waiting for presopuestos (quotations) now.

2016-01-28 13.03.42 meLast but not least, our chicken egg incubator is “on lockdown”; this means that we have closed off the incubator, and nothing else gets in or out until we get chicks in 2 days. We’re planning on getting a next batch in right after this one; hopefully this will give us a decent amount of little chickens. We love eating fresh eggs and sharing them with guests and volunteers and baking stuff with them. It seems that all 4 chickens are laying now (since a day or 2) – but in the last few weeks, we only had 2 chickens “working” (not even every day, as it was winter and days were short, which naturally leads to a decline in egg production). With an average of 4-5 people in the house that was just not enough. Any way, more chickens is the answer! For somebody with an irrational fear of chickens. I think I’ve come a long way – still too scared to face Sanchez-the-rooster-who-feels-my-fear without some kind of shield, but turning into a chicken nut anyway. We have bought everything necessary to build the chicken coop of our dreams (a chickshaw) and I even volunteered as a virtual chicken ninja (really, I have no idea what I signed up for but it sounded so good) for the people at Abundant Permaculture. Nope, no time to get bored!

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While I was writing this, the sun has come up… so it’s time to get up, get out, and start a whole new day. So many things to do, so much fun doing them!

Work away!

A few months (possibly a year) ago, our friend K. introduced us to a wonderful concept: Workaway. Many people like to travel the world (or Europe, or just Spain), and travelling is an expensive hobby; however there are several websites where travellers can choose between a myriad of places to stay -each with their own unique culture, cuisine and surroundings- and stay there without spending a cent. There’s a catch, of course: there is a price to pay. But the currency is not money… it’s work.

This summer, we took a leap: we made a profile on workaway.info, and then we waited. We didn’t wait long; we soon got e-mails from people interested in coming to stay at our finca (even though camping is the only option atm) in exchange for hard labour on the farm. The first elected few arrived at Mas del Encanto in the middle of August; M. and S. from New Zealand took a leap as well.

M&S

M&S

The experience exceeded all expectations; M&S turned out to be friendly and fun, easy to talk to, and quick to pick up new tricks. Ok, after sleeping in a tent for 2 weeks I guess they were probably looking forward to a real bed (although you can do worse than a nice inflatable mattress), and since the fridge and food supply is in the maset (which is basically our bedroom as well) there was not much room for privacy, and maybe eating marinated zucchini slices every single day might have made everybody feel like a zucchini (a tiny bit), but on the other hand my vegetable patch looks like a dedicated gardener has been working on it for months (after they went through it, I could actually find more zucchini! And melons, pumpkins and corn as well). S. dedicated herself to cutting olive sprouts, M. dug in the water pipes to the bathroom, and there was even some stone gathering and shed building.

Temporary dwelling

Temporary dwelling

But all that working was just the mornings; the afternoons were spent swimming, relaxing in the shade, hiking, reading, picking fruit, and relaxing a bit more… at night, there were even a few attempts to going out, and many beers, and conversations about travelling and politics and the world in general. But mostly there was eating zucchini. And one afternoon tasting melons…

We left M&S at Tortosa station, on their way to Valencia and the Tomatina. And plans to walk El Camino after that. And Italy, and Denmark, and more exotic places… We wished them all the luck, and are hoping they’ll come back to see the finca in a few years – when we’ve planted even more, the fruit trees have grown, and we’re kind of settled…

Harvest: blackberries & figs

Harvest: blackberries & figs

In a few days now, we’ll be welcoming F. (kind of Canadian) and A. (basically German) who will try to teach us all about cooking vegetarian with local and seasonal produce (a challenge in a region where the main local produce is meat), and we’re hoping they’ll help us plant some new fruit trees and build a chicken coop. Or maybe prepare the veggie garden for fall & winter, build stairs between terraces, dig swales? There are so many plans, so little time… but hopefully many more “workaways” who’ll come and broaden our world, while helping us to lessen the pile of work (and eating our zucchini, of course).

Zucchini

Zucchini