Work Exchange at Keela Yoga Farm
I’ve spent a good amount of time at Keela Yoga Farm over the past couple of years, first arriving as a total stranger in 2017 for six weeks and then returning as a friend in 2018 for three months. Half of that three months in 2018 was spent doing a natural building internship (focused specifically on working on their awesome new community building) and the rest of my time was spent starting to paint a mural of a map of their land and also attempting to construct a compost toilet.
I’ve already written about the natural building internship side of things, so this post is about the rest of my time at Keela, including the long overdue summary of the first time I volunteered with them in 2017. Actually, this post is doubly long overdue as I finished volunteering with them in October 2018… but better late than never! Right?
Back in 2017 I was living between Kigali and Kampala working on maps and websites, but I was certain that I wanted to move to Portugal once I felt ready to leave Africa. At that point I still wasn’t sure whether I was going to be a city or country type so I decided to spend a month in Porto to get a feel for city life there before heading to Keela Yoga Farm for my second month in the countryside. I really loved Porto and still do, but after just a couple of weeks, I felt quite anxious to get out of the city and to get my hands dirty with some building and farming work. So I guess I had my answer.
My vague plan at the time was to buy a piece of land and build a house so I was eager to work with others doing something similar. Over my years of backpacking around the world on a budget I’d done a bunch of work exchanges through Workaway and Help Exchange, so I wasn’t a stranger to swapping some hard work for three meals a day and a place to live. I hadn’t done it in awhile and I know it can be tricky finding a place that works well for both parties, but Keela Yoga Farm seemed like a great fit. The yoga aspect scared me (I thought it was mandatory… thankfully, it was not) but helping them set up the early stages of their project was super interesting to me. Plus they’d spent almost a year travelling around Portugal doing work exchanges and taking courses which was exactly what I wanted to do. I ended up reading through their entire website in one sitting and was inspired by their journey so far. I was happy to discover that they accept volunteers so I got in touch and suddenly I was due to arrive in August 2017 for a stint on their farm.
Since I’m writing this almost 1.5 years later and my memory is mostly crap, I’ll keep this part short. When I arrived in August 2017, my intention was to stay for a month but I ended up sticking around for six weeks since I was having such a great time and learning so much every day. I really hit it off with Kimberly and Laurence, I got to help out on a natural building workshop with Barbara from Mount of Oaks (and got to participate in the course for free), I learned a whole bunch of new things, I laughed a lot, I met some great people, and I really loved the building work I was able to do while I was there.
Once the natural building course course was over and new volunteers came in, Laurence asked if I could teach the new arrivals some of what I learned so we could all push on together to complete the straw bale building. I’m certainly no expert in carpentry or natural building but I did my best to pass on a bit of what I learned and the straw bales slowly went up and stayed up (so far). I like showing people how to do something that they’ve never done before and natural building is such a great way to feel empowered. To quote Barbara: ‘it’s not rocket science’ and as the building process unfolds, you can see people’s confidence build. A lot of people, myself included, will start out feeling intimidated, but once everyone gets into the swing of things, straw bales are a very fun and forgiving (and itchy) way to build.
Anytime you live as part of a community there will be some challenges and, in my experience, it’s always interesting! My first time at Keela in 2017 started off with a, shall we say, difficult volunteer. He’s impossible to explain and not a horrible person, but he put everyone on edge and it was a weird group dynamic for the first couple of weeks before he was asked to leave. It really is amazing how one person can throw things off so much and how quickly everyone else settled in and relaxed after he left. And, to this day, I still can’t put my finger on what it was about him that set everyone off! It really was fascinating, though.
Overall, I’ve always really enjoyed figuring out the dynamics of a group, community living, and learning from and working together with others, though it can be challenging at times. But for those times when people aren’t feeling particularly social, the land at Keela is large enough to be able to find space to do your own thing. More often than not, though, I was happy to be part of the group… perhaps too happy and the wine was usually flowing freely most nights! I’ve met interesting people each time I’ve spent time at Keela and it’s nice to be surrounded by others who are into pursuing a more simple way of life.
I enjoyed my time at Keela so much that I decided to head back there again in 2018 to help them work on a huge straw bale community building. The first six weeks were set aside for working on the building and the next six weeks were spent mostly working on a compost toilet with my friend, Sinead. She was gone for the first week, though, so I had some time to work on my own little side project of painting a mural onto the side of their shipping container. In my other life I’m a map maker and Laurence has often said he’d love for me to paint a map of his land, so I figured I’d have a crack at it! Unfortunately, I tend to opt for the go big or go home’ mentality and I probably bit of more than I could chew, in this case.
I started my mural planning with a digital image of a bird’s eye view of the land. I put it into Photoshop, manipulated it around a bit until I had a nice angle to work with, and then put a digital grid pattern over top of it. Then I used the grid to sketch the land into my notebook and then took my notebook to the container where I did the same thing to get the image accurately onto the container. Because, why paint a mural map unless it’s 100% accurate, I say! Total overkill… but that’s how I roll, apparently.
Then I walked the land taking photos and drawing pictures so that I could get an idea of the topography and the location of buildings, lakes, paths, and the areas with trees and bushes. At this point I became somewhat overwhelmed and decided to work on the logo and some other text before returning to the mural that was beginning to turn into a terrifying task. Though it was haunting my dreams, I was still really loving working on it. I haven’t picked up a paint brush in years and it was amazing to get back into doing art that exists outside of a computer screen. I did as much as I could but the mural remains incomplete… it’s waiting for Keela, round three in 2019!
Sinead returned to the farm a week later, so I cast the mural aside in order to focus on ‘Operation: Poo Hole’. We were tasked with building a long drop style composting toilet so that we would not longer have to poop into buckets and empty it into a gigantic (and somewhat scary) box o’ poop. With a long drop, we could crap into the darkness and nobody would have to think about it for a year or two while it composted.
The creation of this poo hole itself was a simple concept that we decided to complicate. Because what’s the fun in doing something the easy way? Oh the discussions that were had… worms were introduced into the idea. Eventually our design evolved to include a 30 degree slope for the poo to apparently roll down (?) and a place at the front for worms to live. Ventilation pipes were involved as well as the idea for a removable wall to be able to shovel it out. We basically researched the shit out of it (pun very much intended), complicated everything, and had a lot of fun doing it. Apparently my friend and I are both very much into composting toilets. How I find these people, I do not know.
So eventually we decided on a design and a location. The entrance to the toilet would be on a top terrace and the poop hole would be built on the terrace below. A fine plan, except we grossly underestimated the amount of stone throwing and earth moving we would have to do to make the hole. We disassembled a rock wall and tossed each rock down to the terrace below for later use in the construction. We realised a little too late that this was terrible move since we’d have to bring those rocks back up the hill to use to build the retaining walls. Oops.
After almost two weeks of hacking into the side of the terrace, we had a hole suitable for the finest of poops. We then decided that a rock wall with cement mortar would be a great way to encase the poo. Long story short, after about three weeks of hard labour in the hot sun, we basically built two poop chambers that could probably be used as a nuclear fallout bunker. Go big or go home, right? Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to get to the rest of the building besides making a timber structure that looks more like gallows than the frame for two future toilets. Again, the entire process was hilarious and I loved every moment of hauling rocks around, mixing cement, and pretending to be a stone mason.
This project also haunted my dreams but I love a challenge and, though we probably overdid it with the rock poo-bunker, it will possibly be there until the end of time and it’s good to know that we’ve built something of quality. I don’t know what this says about me, but I often think of this toilet and I look forward to finishing it off. It’s another project awaiting my return in 2019 and, while there’s no way I can finish this thing on my own, I’m excited to team up with some other volunteers to get it done and I shall look forward to my first poop into the darkness.
I’ve already gushed about how much I love Keela Yoga Farm (despite hating yoga) so I’ll leave my summary at that!
New Things I Did
- I’ve worked with concrete in the past but I’ve never used it to put up a stone wall. Though hauling the rocks around was hard work, it was a lot of fun when I’d see them slot into their perfect spot on the wall. I think most of our time was spent with my friend and I saying ‘Look at this amazing rock! Perfect fit!’ to each other. Somehow, finding that perfect rock was the best thing that could ever happen. It’s possible that we’re weirdos. I would love to learn how to make a dry stone wall and not use concrete, but it’s still great to know what’s possible with some rocks and a bag of cement.
- Once we actually got out stone walls finished and built the timber frame, we had to get the structure upright. It ended up being a bit higher than expected and, since the structure had to land on specific parts of the rock wall, it was a bit scary. But we came up with a plan, grabbed all of the other volunteers, and coordinated a small team of about 10 people to get it up. It was fun to figure out a plan and then leading the group in putting it up. It’s amazing how seemingly impossible tasks can go easily when you throw a bunch of people at it.
- People just pee anywhere on the farm – it’s good for the plants, after all! But some ladies aren’t so cool with copping a squat anywhere, so a toilet was built. The problem is that when you start to have pee on plastic and metal without water to flush it away, it can get stinky. My friend and I were tasked at coming up with a solution for the women’s pee toilet that wasn’t gross. It meant that we got to play around a bit with some plumbing bits and it was sort of fun, in a disturbing sort of way.
- In 2017 at Keela Yoga Farm I was put onto Barbara’s natural building course for free. This was great but the real bonus was being given some responsibility in guiding other volunteers on the build after the course was over. I tend to shy away from leading, but actually really enjoy it and it was nice to be given this opportunity to try.
- It’s been amazing to follow along and participate in the growth of Keela over two years and, hopefully, into the future. It really is a nice thing to see a project push forward each year and to be able to play a part in that is pretty great.
- I attended the Chocalhos festival in Alpedrinha in both 2017 and 2018 and it’s awesome. I had so much fun both times and I’m already looking forward to 2019!
- I love art and have drawn and painted my whole life, but in recent years it seems like my creative side has been stuck inside computer programs. I really loved being able to bust out the paintbrush again and was happy to see that it doesn’t take so much to get back into it.
- I loved seeing Kimberly and Laurence again in 2018 after almost a year away. It’s great to be able to slot back into things as though I never left. I’ve essentially been homeless since February 2017 (which is getting very old) so when I’m able to come to a familiar place, it takes some of the pressure off. I can relax and settle in as a friend and it feels a bit more like home.
- I’ve met some wonderful people during my time at Keela… both other volunteers and people who live in the area. The friendships I’ve made here might be one of the reasons I choose this area as my future place to live. I feel really at home in this part of Portugal because of the people I’ve met. For me, finding a nice community is key and I think I’ve found that here.
- It’s sad when people leave! We had such a good group on the natural building internship in 2018 and it’s always a transition when a new group of people come. It can take me a bit of time to be open to meeting a new group of people after a previous group has left and I should work on remembering what it’s like to be the new person and on trying to be a bit more welcoming right off the bat.
- It’s also sad when I leave! Saying goodbye is always a tough thing but it’s a lot easier when I know I’ll be back soon.
- I think I need to recognise that maybe I tend to tackle a bit more than I can actually finish. I’m happy with the progress I made on the mural and the compost toilet, but it’s sort of crap to have to leave them unfinished. Laurence always seems to have volunteers allocated to upcoming tasks so new volunteers weren’t able to finish the project. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s a good lesson for me in time management and limiting expectations both of myself and from others.
- Ratchet straps are an amazing tool but I think I have ‘ratchet strap dyslexia’. I can not, for the life of me, figure those things out. One day I’ll get there.
- The women’s pee toilet was actually the worst… in a funny way, I guess. A few different solutions were tried, a few failed, and we always seemed to be on call for pee toilet repairs. I was never fully on board with the first idea and it didn’t end up working. We probably could have skipped over a bunch of work had we all sat down and planned out a solution that was likely to work rather than having a ‘lets try it and see’ attitude when none of use seemed to be 100% on board with some of the ideas.
Keela Yoga Farm is a special place for me. I have lots of great memories already and I look forward to continuing to help out both as a resident volunteer and, in the future, as a neighbour who hopefully lives somewhat close by. Kimberly and Laurence are really great about giving people a variety of tasks that allow volunteers to learn a huge amount across a range of topics. If you’re someone who’s interested in homesteading, gardening, or natural building and you have some time to volunteer, you really should put this place on your list. Bonus if you also like red wine.
Maybe I’ll see you there sometime!