Solo Traveler: Train-Wreck Moments

Arnulf Wirth, a resident of Ha’Omek’Ka who was originally from Germany, shows one of several composting bins for kitchen, farm and toilet waste. Photo by Sherry Hardage
Solo Traveler: Train-Wreck Moments


My friend Margarita was a stewardess with Delta for 20 years and an avid global traveler before she settled down in retirement.

We share an interest in the affairs of the world and have enjoyed many hours talking about our travels. I told her how a recent experience at a sustainable farm in southern Mexico had dramatically altered my thinking about life.

Travel changes us, usually for the better. It modifies our thinking about politics, religion, what people eat or shouldn’t eat, do or don’t do, and their values versus ours.Experiencing a different way of life leaves us different.

Visiting that farm made me uncomfortable. It startled me to think of my own lifestyle in the U.S. as being out of touch with nature. After all, I do the suggested “help the planet” things like recycling paper, aluminum, glass, and plastics. I don’t drive as much as I used to. Walking is healthier anyway. Organic waste from my kitchen is composted in the garden. Clothes are dried by hanging on a wooden rack or over the banisters of the spiral staircase. I don’t even own a dryer. I buy as few manufactured foods as possible, for my health’s sake as much as to keep packaging from ending up in the landfill.

But my life, our life, the life in an industrialized place, is not in tune with nature. It simply is not.

Rodrigo makes pottery from clay mined on the property. Photo by Sherry Hardage

In every country, it is possible to spend entire months without ever walking on grass or dirt. Cities are concrete gardens that sprout skyscrapers like beanstalks. Even in small towns we are so sheltered from the elements we have to look out a window to know if it’s raining.

All our food arrives by truck and even fruits and vegetables come in prepackaged Styrofoam flats. Our waste is flushed down a toilet, our leftovers get ground up by a garbage disposal, and our trash is picked up and carted off in highly specialized trucks.

We use up resources at an alarming rate, pollute the air and water, strip-mine the oceans of fish, destroy the habitats of so many animals already in danger of extinction, and we continue to add population to our planet that already has seven billion people.

At the sustainable farm in Mexico, the community consciously practices a lifestyle intimately entwined with the natural world.

The toilets are composters. Access to the toilet is up a flight of stairs to a room on a concrete pedestal. The toilet (also concrete) is designed so that waste goes down into a catchment basin along with the toilet paper. Afterwards large handfuls of sawdust are tossed on top. It’s rather crude, and a bit stinky, but nothing as disgusting as an old Forest Service outhouse.

The waste is cleaned out periodically and then processed in a composting bin with water, dirt, kitchen scraps, and lots of worms. After a long time, the compost is used on the gardens and recycled into plants, just as nature has always done.

The commune has been living this way for more than 30 years. The garden soils are deep, rich, and productive. Crops are planted with many different vegetables next to each other just as they might if nature had blown their seeds around randomly. Corn is planted in clumps, not rows, with squash vines growing around the tall stalks. Chickens in a large open pen produce plenty of eggs.

Banana plants pop up wherever they wish, so there are always bananas on the table in the communal kitchen. This kind of food production is not doable with machinery or factory farming methods. It is labor intensive.

In the industrialized world, labor is the biggest cost of any business. On the farm, people don’t labor to buy things, they labor in order to eat. There is no monetary cost to the work–it’s all part of the daily living process. And it’s a powerful incentive when people know that if they don’t do what is required, they will go hungry.

Predictably, the community has problems existing as an island in the industrial ocean. Money is needed to pay taxes and the electric bill, to buy concrete and other building materials, to pay for medical care when needed, and for clothes or material to make clothes. To get food they don’t grow on the farm, they trade with neighbors. The commune raises flowers for bees that make honey and wax for candles. Their coffee trees produce enough for export, and they rent inexpensive accommodations to travelers from around the world. Many of the community members make jewelry and ceramic dishes.

There is great demand for the composting toilets. The local indigenous people have been using outhouses (or the bushes) for years.

The community has enough money, land and resources to survive indefinitely. The property has a spring that gushes clean fresh water. The work and internal culture is organized in such a way that the people can live and work together in relative harmony.

The whole point of sustainability is to impact the environment as little as possible. Guests who stay for any length of time agree not to bring anything that creates trash onto the property. No potato chips in plastic bags, soda pop in cans, milk in plastic jugs, etc. Rather than attempt to recycle, it is simply better not to allow those products in the first place.

The farm was such a contrast to the way we live. It certainly felt like a great force overwhelmed me when I realized how thickly insulated I am from even the basic workings of nature. Margarita called that kind of realization a train-wreck moment, when thunderous realizations pile up on one another and there’s no moving forward.

So how does one move forward from such an experience?

I returned to my condo in Los Alamos with fresh eyes. It was easy to slide back into my lifestyle, but there was a new edge to it. While I would never suggest that my condo association build a composting toilet (for everyone to use!), I did become increasingly aware of how much our lifestyle is intertwined with commerce rather than nature.

The things we could do, as individuals in tune with nature, are done for us by large corporations or the government. Nature itself is “owned” by state and national governments. There are lumber, grazing, mining, and water rights dictating who gets to take natural resources.

The Clean Air and Water Acts govern how much nature can be polluted. Roads and a massive infrastructure deliver all our goods, electricity, gas, water, and food. Industrial treatment plants process the waste we create.

We are allowed to be oblivious. It’s easy to be completely oblivious. If the train-wreck moment taught me anything at all, it forced me to become aware of just how out of touch I am and that it’s time for me to change that.

Editor’s note: Sherry Hardage lives in Los Alamos and has been traveling solo in the Americas, Europe, and Asia since she retired from Honeywell in 2009. She is a photographer, writer and guide who organizes tours of Chiapas, Mexico through her website: Follow the continuing adventures at her blog: Hardage welcomes comments:

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