Last summer Francois looked up interesting projects in Portugal that we might want to visit or connect with once we landed there come Spring 2017. One caught his eye in particular, and he encouraged me to check out their website – but I kept being distracted (classic) and so the tab stayed open for months.
Earlier this year, it finally got to me to have this tab giving me the judgey eye every time I used Chrome. So I finally took a look, and Terra Alta had just started advertising a natural building workshop! Exciting, because that was on our list of skills to learn.
We signed Francois up, and Henrik (the organizer) suggested I come as a volunteer to work in the kitchen. Win.
From June 7-24, Francois participated in a three-part workshop:
We showed up not quite knowing what to expect. It turns out that Terra Alta is an oasis of peace and sustainability near Sintra (a magical valley full of unbelievable castles that used to be the summer homes of the wealthy Lisbonites back in the day), less than an hour away from the capital and a mere 20min walk from the beach.
Pedro and Rita have been there for the past eight years or so, developing their home based on permaculture principles. That means a lush vegetable garden, a home built with almost all recycled and recovered materials (Pedro is a pro at finding unused piles at construction sites and talking his way into being allowed to take them home), and the two most incredible showers you can imagine.
One shower is in an annex to the greenhouse. It has a rainforest shower above an old-school bathtub, rough tiled floor, and two corners full of banana trees that poke their heads out of the tarp that the annex is covered with (see photo on left). The hot water comes from a solar shower setup, so it takes a few minutes but given that the warmth from the greenhouse filters through, you’re never cold.
The second shower is in the middle of the garden, in a thicket of cañas (the local version of bamboo, sort of). It’s a bit drafty but the water is connected to a gas heater so you can enjoy water so hot it’s almost painful while the wind blows through the cañas. The blue sky above and the stone tiles make it a truly pleasant and unique experience (and rest assured, the cañas grow close enough that nothing can be seen from the outside).
Terra Alta has a few other stunning features: a fire circle for cozy evenings full of laughter and music, an outdoor sink with colorful cups nailed to a nearby tree that serve as toothbrush holders, a star dome natural building that serves as a classroom (and with six coveted plugs to recharge phones and laptops), and a terraced zone that serves as a campsite for participants and volunteers.
As if being in such an environment wasn’t enough, the people who were there with us made the experience truly exceptional. A cycling fanatic from Italy who was recovering from five years working in finance and is now engaged with an Earthship project in Luxemburg; two designer friends from Lebanon who decided the political situation was unacceptable and quit their corporate jobs before setting off on a mission to build natural, sustainable housing for refugees; a marine biologist who recently moved to northern Spain with his wife to rebuild a ruin and live with a minimal carbon footprint; a local entrepreneur who sold his vegetarian restaurant and construction company and was turning to natural building and bees… the list goes on.
The thing is, the group didn’t just sound fascinating on paper. They were full of energy and laughter, music and anecdotes, ideas, optimism, and a will to learn. They felt like a natural extension of us, as if we had stumbled upon long lost members of our tribe. Priceless.
The objective of the full workshop was to create a small building with three additional toilets for Terra Alta, as they were dependent on a single dry compost toilet (not counting the one next to Pedro’s house and the one by Henrik’s place, both private). During Permaculture Design Course weeks, when there are 30-some participants, that is less than ideal.
Over the few weeks we spent at Terra Alta, I learnt how to cook vegan and enjoy tofu while Francois learnt how to build a timber frame without any screws or nails. I sat in on the vermicompost toilet theory classes, learning about flush toilets where the waste goes not into a leaky septic tank (the default in Portugal, very unfortunately) but into a tank full of worms who process it and dispose of it like magic.
And while the workshop participants did a lot of the clay building, we stayed on a few extra days to volunteer so I got my hands dirty too, starting to understand how walls of straw and mud could withstand time and provide insulation across a range of hot to cold temperatures.
We are now a little wiser and more prepared for our own adventure, and looking forward to reconnecting with our new friends aka tribe members to share updates and hopefully count on extra hands when the time comes for us to put up our own timber frames and vermicompost toilets!