When you open yourself, you create space ~Breathe into this space.”
– Marisela Vera, Yoga Instructor, Raices y Brasos
I found out about Raices y Brasos from Fabiola’s friends my first night in San Jose. After downing a bottle of second rate Polish Vodka at Fabi’s with Sylvia, a Colombian girl and Vivian Washington (AKA the Mooch), we headed to Marinero Borracho (Drunken Sailor), a taco shop a few doors down, for the weekly dance party. While meeting members of the town’s eclectic young arts crowd, I mentioned that I wanted to do volunteer work. People kept telling me about great opportunities in and around San Jose. One guy told me he had been helping a gringo ex-pat build a yoga center out of natural materials. Someone else told me about an organic farm where they lived for free while helping tend the crops. Then I met Jose, who I had messaged on Couchsurfing. Although I didn’t recognize him at first, I recollected reading his profile when he told me about living in a wellness center where they held all kinds of yoga, breath and meditation classes. It wasn’t until the next day when I tracked down Peter Domecq that I realized all these operations fell under the auspices of Raices y Brasos.
Fabiola told me that if I wanted to volunteer than Pedro was the person I should talk to. I found him without struggle the next day at his yoga studio. Tanned, wiry, with medium length, platinum blond hair, Pedro was extremely affable and when I said I wanted to volunteer, he had all kinds of time for me. We sat in the newly opened organic restaurant on the bottom level of the center for 2 hours and discussed all facets of the operation. Peter or ‘Pedro’ was from Vermont. I thought I had seen the name Domecq on alcohol bottles around Baja and asked Peter if there was a link. In fact the original Pedro Domecq was Peter’s grandfather. He had been a very wealthy and influential businessman in Central Mexico, a celebrated philanthropist and patron of the arts. Peter had grown up spending summers visiting his grandfather in Mexico and speaks Spanish like a native. He moved to San Jose del Cabo in his late-20’s to look after one of the family businesses, developing beach front property to the northeast of the town. Peter told me he had stumbled upon the center property which was a large private house and immediately envisioned a yoga studio. The owner was very motivated to sell so Peter decided to take a chance and purchased the land; probably close to 2-1/2 acres. In renovating the center, Peter had utilized natural building techniques which have become a passion for him.
After the studio had been up and running for a couple years and wanting to further experiment with sustainable building practices, Pedro decided to procure another plot of land to start an organic living laboratory. He rented a 7 acre plot in an arroyo just a 5 minute drive from Raices and started La Semilla (The Seed.) La Semilla is in its third year and a lot of work has been done by previous volunteers to create a self-sustainable community. Volunteers can live on the farm for free in exchange for their labour and participation in day to day operations. (In addition, volunteers were able to attend unlimited yoga classes for free and could enjoy half off organic meals at the restaurant!) At the time I was there, there were 7 travelers living on the farm. There are some partially built palapa structures to provide housing and shade, an outdoor community kitchen with a sink, propane powered stove and cobb oven, a solar shower, compost toilet and a large water well with solar pump. Pedro tries to use mostly natural materials in building the structures. His vision is that everything should be impermanent so if and when they give up the lease on the land, there will have been a minimal footprint on the land. With the exception of the large concrete well, everything can be fairly easily deconstructed with minimal inorganic waste to take away.
At present, there has been 1.4 acres of land cultivated yielding many types of organic fruits, vegetables and grains. The majority of the crop land is communal and the harvested food is to feed the volunteers, sell at the Mercado Organic held every weekend, and now to furnish produce for the organic restaurant. From farm to plate seems to be brewing as a popular concept in many countries recently. There are also plots which are rented out to local people in the community who want a place to grow food for their families. Pedro hires two local men full time to look after La Semilla’s food production and supervise the volunteers. Ernesto is a hard-working, do-anything farmer, builder and handyman. Angel is a bilingual botanist who previously studied under a well-known permaculture teacher from the area and is zealous about maintaining organic principles and permaculture ideologies. During my tenure on the farm, I would usually work in the garden with Ernesto and Angel in the mornings, clearing land, preparing crop beds, planting and harvesting and then participate in the construction activities in the afternoons.
One of the major projects I worked on was the construction of an earth bag Temazcal. A temazcal is a traditional pre-hispanic sweat lodge used for indigenous ceremonies. The lodge that we built would be large enough to hold 25 people sitting in a circle against the outside walls surrounding a fire pit in the center. The earth bag method of construction was developed by an organization called Cal-Earth located in the Mojave Desert. Originally developed for NASA in 1984 to build simple shelters on the Moon and Mars, earth bag technology has since been taken on by the UN to provide inexpensive basic housing for the world’s homeless population. Cal-Earth has undertaken symposiums on sandbag housing in Australia, New Zealand, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Iran, India, Mexico, Chile, Siberia, Tibet, South Africa, and throughout the United States.
Here is an excerpt from the Cal Earth website: Housing has become out of reach of the world’s poor and disaster stricken as local buildings use more imported and manufactured materials. The current global need for housing includes some 20-40 million refugees and displaced persons in the world and several hundred million people who live in close-to-disaster housing and slums with no access to basic necessities. According to the United Nations’ Human Settlement Programme, it is projected that at least 1.9 billion additional urban dwellers will be added to the urban population in the next two decades in a context of already widespread inequity and poverty—both in developing and developed nations. The UNHSP equated this to having to complete 96,150 housing units per day, or 4,000 per hour, for the next 25 years—not to mention the infrastructure that must be built—to accommodate this population growth.
It was fascinating to see how simple and accessible these shelters are to build. They can be built using unskilled labour (and as none of us had ever built one before, we certainly qualified.) The only building materials required are inexpensive rolls of polypropylene sandbags, barbed wire, sand, and clay. We started by filling 6-8 ft long bags with sand forming a circle. Two strands of criss-crossing barbed wire are placed between the courses of sandbags to provide traction as the walls are built higher. This prevents the sandbags from rolling off one another. Once we had the sandbags up to a height of around 4 feet, we used a cobb mixture of clay, sand and straw to coat the inside and outside of the walls providing structural stability and a more uniform surface. We built a door opening by placing triangular sandbags around a 3 foot diameter wire spool and friction fitting them into an archway. These bags were filled with a high sand content cobb mixture to limit the weight but provide some curing to create rigidity in the archway. After 3 days we popped out the spool and the bags making the archway didn’t budge. I had seen pictures on the Cal Earth website of people sitting on or piling half a dozen sand bags atop the arch to show how strong it was. Although we didn’t try this test, as a formwork carpenter, I was impressed at how robust it was. Although it is possible to complete the roof in an igloo fashion it was decided that it would be safer (owing to our inexperience) and easier to use Carrizo (Phragmites australis) a reed similar to bamboo which is widely found in tropical regions and was dominate at the farm. Palm fronds would be affixed to the Caririzo frame to make a Palapa roof, the traditional and still widespread roofing system used throughout the dry Mexican climate. Although extremely labour intensive, the earth bag structure is an amazingly cost effective and sustainable building method. The thermal mass design creates a comfortable living space even in the world’s harshest climates without the need for power-generated heating and cooling.