Be here now: welcome to the wonderful world of Rhiannon.
It’s interesting to watch how your concept of a bike tour evolves as you travel. A trip that began as a fairly focused, 18 month bike ride from Alaska to Patagonia has evolved into what we hope by the end will have become a meandering three year adventure – in which what we do off the bike has become almost as important and stimulating as what we do on it.
We quickly discovered that going slowly was our preferred way to travel by bike – riding slow with our eyes open, rather than fast with our heads down. By avoiding the direct routes wherever we can, and opting for the zig-zagging, minor roads, we have given ourselves more opportunities to discover the details of the places we travel through – and most importantly to meet just some of the the people who live there.
Yet doubling the time frame for our trip has not only given us the luxury of going slowly when we are on the bike, but has also opened up the possibilities of actually stopping. Of extracting ourselves from the often introspective, destination-oriented world of bike touring, and opening our eyes to other things that interest us. The past month we have spent at the Rhiannon Community in Ecuador is testament to the fact that – for us at least – this stop-start approach seems to be the perfect bike touring combination.
It would be impossible to do a long bike trip without gaining an increased sense of awe at the power and beauty of the natural world, and at the same time a creeping sense of despair at the rate at which man is destroying it. Moving slowly on a bike through rural areas, camping and living a relatively low-impact, minimal existence makes you think long and hard about our connection with the land, and the natural resources we take for granted. For a long time we had been keen to learn more about sustainability in practice, and working as a volunteer on an organic farm seemed like the perfect low-cost way to do it.
We chose Rhiannon because as novices it seemed to offer a good taster of the broad range of things we were interested in: not just organic farming, but also sustainable construction, community living, yoga, meditation and good vegetarian food – all with a sprinkling of Ecuadorian new age hippy thrown in for good measure. It’s run by Helen and Nicky, an English couple who fell in love with the view from a farmhouse perched on a ridge north of Quito – and decided it would be be the perfect place to start their own sustainable community. Over the past five years, they have transformed what was a piece of over-farmed, arid semi-desert into a thriving community with a family of between 10 and 20 ever-changing volunteers at its heart.
Our experience at Rhiannon turned out to be everything we had hoped for: challenging, rewarding, frustrating and hilarious, often all the the same time. We spent an inordinate amount of time up to our elbows in donkey poo. We learned how to massage each other’s legs after a hard day on the bike. Sarah pulled off a headstand in yoga and I almost touched my toes. We discovered that you can make a pretty good chocolate mousse just with an avocado and a bar of chocolate. We helped design and build a swinging bed, then slept on it and felt seasick. We discovered that for South Africans “flapjacks” are actually pancakes. We watched how waste – from our own pee to glass wine bottles – can nearly always be turned into something useful. In an exaggerated display of Englishness, we said “lovely” and “super” far more than is really necessary. We ate our beloved Marmite for the first time in nearly two years. We almost fainted in a temascal “sweat lodge” ceremony. Oh, and we got parasites. Again.
If hippy means living as sustainably as possible, connected to the land and in a supportive, family community, then I for one came away a convert.
6am. Up early to take in the early morning views. Perched high on a ridge near the village of Malchingui, Rhiannon has a stunning, ever-changing 360 degree panorama...
...where mountains and volcanoes loom beyond the tipis and yoga platforms. On a clear day you can see 17 volcanoes from here...
...and as always, my gaze is drawn back to the perfect cone of Cotopaxi - here mirrored by the roof of the Gnome Dome, one of Rhiannon's growing cluster of adobe houses.
6.45am. Breakfast Bell. Life at Rhiannon revolves around two things: the bell, which means that food is ready...
...and the rota boards, which set out your day's work. As well as the five hours work a day, as a volunteer you are also responsible for cooking one of the three meals each day. The food at Rhiannon was so good, we decided it warrants its own separate blog post.
You're never far from music at Rhiannon. Here Joel - a bass guitarist from the US - and Elizabeth - a yoga teacher from Jamaica - squeeze in a morning session over their breakfast tea.
7am. Take on the breakfast challenge: trying to get food into the mouth of Helen and Nicky's daughter Satya faster than she is able to throw it onto the floor. On most days, it's a losing battle.
7.45am. Pull on the wellies for morning chores - including feeding the chickens and dogs, taking the donkeys out to graze, cleaning the house and watering the gardens.
For me, early morning means compost making. Rhinannon's compost recipe is a perfect example of the farm's philosophy in action, where "waste" is turned into something useful. Take leftover organic material from the kitchen, throw in a few handfuls of donkey poo, combine with ash from the fire, and bind together with yesterday's pee collected from the toilets. Cover with plastic sheeting to marinate in the sun, turn daily and bingo - within two weeks you have rich, homemade compost.
8.30am. The day's work begins in earnest. I spend much of my time working on the farm's earthbag houses, which will provide accommodation for future volunteers. First, bags are tightly packed with earth dug from beside the house, before being carefully stacked to form the structure. The hole dug to build the house is then terraced and planted, creating a kitchen garden which will help to feed the community.
Once the structure of the house is complete, it's covered inside and out by hand with a layer of adobe: a traditional mix of sand, sawdust, water, and - the secret ingredient - donkey poo, which acts as the glue to bind the mix together. The donkeys, Ursula and Freya, are a critical link in the Rhiannon chain - as long as they are pooing, everyone's happy.
Once the adobe dries, it's then sealed with a coat of paint or cactus juice, making it weatherproof for a good few years. A window made using recycled glass bottles lets in light and provides a splash of colour.
The finishing touches - Nicky decorates the "Snake Pit" in one of the larger adobe houses, where we also helped to construct a swinging double bed from old pallet boards.
And here's one they built earlier, the Hobbit House: an earthbag and adobe home, built largely from local and recycled materials - and all for just a few thousand dollars. A touch more charm and character than your average lego-brick, Persimmon estate house, don't you think? I would happily live in a Hobbit House...
After three weeks of cleaning the donkey poo from under her fingernails, Sarah spends her last week in the greenhouse, cultivating locally collected seeds to grow avocado, beetroot, onion, beans and maize. In the semi-desert climate, everything needs careful nurturing and watering, but the long term aim is for the farm to become as self sufficient in food as possible.
Trees are essential in this process, helping to retain water and provide shelter from the gusting wind. Regular weeding, mulching, a daily dose of pee from the toilets and a hug from Karrey helps them on their way.
1.30pm. With no connection to the grid, power on the farm comes from these solar panels. Hot water also comes from the sun, warmed all morning in a series of outside pipes - making this prime time for a deliciously hot shower before lunch. Used shower water is then directed through natural filters into a lagoon, from where it can be re-used to irrigate the gardens.
2.30pm. After lunch, work is done for the day and the Rhiannon playground is yours. If laziness strikes - like it often does for Azul, the most relaxed of the farm's seven dogs - then pick a book from the library...
...head for the lounge and raid the stash of local Salinas chocolate in the community shop...
...grab a blanket from the box...
...and curl up. If you're lucky, you'll be rewarded with a visit from Chachi, a cute, ever-purring ball of fur with a magnetic attraction to a warm lap. One evening, she even managed to find her way into my sleeping bag, where she slept quite happily for the night.
If you're feeling the need for some solitude and contemplation - and you're not claustrophobic - then the meditation hut might be just what you need to help empty your mind.
If you're after something more energetic, then there are plenty of options: sing along with Italian Federica...
...join in a hula hooping masterclass led by South Africans Stefan and Jaco...
...or even practice some acrobatics in the Yoga Room. Speaking of which, yoga was one of the big draws for us to Rhiannon, and we had a great introduction courtesy of several different teachers...
...including Nicky, who is here demonstrating what is supposedly the yogi "sleeping position". Not that I got anywhere near this - as a clasically inflexible and hamstrung cyclist, I'm still working on the basics - but we did come away with lots of good new stretches to counteract our cycling posture, and a desire to do much more yoga in the future.
If the smell of your own clothes is becoming overpowering, then it's probably time for a spin in the pedal-powered bicilavadora...
...and if you still have energy left, you could take Isla and Lobo - two dogs with severe attention defecit disorder - for the most unrelaxing afternoon stroll ever.
5.30pm. As the sun begins to drop, the last job of the day is to bring the donkeys in. Most days, the clouds have rolled in by now, bathing the farm in mist - but just occasionally it remains clear...
...and the sunset over the mountains is a stunner.
Occasionally there are organised evening activites, like the temascal ceremony which was one of my favourite experiences at Rhiannon. Imagine the most intense steam room ever, but inside a tiny adobe hut in the pitch black, shoulder to shoulder with twelve other people. Then bring in red hot stones which have been heated in an enormous fire, and add water. As the ceremony progresses more stones are brought in and the temperature rises, accompanied by singing and prayers. The aim is that the profuse sweating and meditation acts as a purge - and for me, emerging from the hut into the cool night after two hours was literally like being born again. Thank you Monika for leading an amazing experience.
8pm. Otherwise, evenings at Rhiannon are usually a relaxed affair around the woodburner: reading, talking, attempting to make bread or desert in the fire (requires a degree in flame control), or playing board games - Jaco and Stefan's "Beanopoly", a home-made South African version of Monopoly using beans for currency was a triumph.
The Rhiannon philosophy - Do what you love. I'm not sure I could think of a better set of principles to live by. A massive thank you to Helen, Nicky, Satya and all the other volunteers for a wonderful month of work and laughter with the Rhiannon family. We'll miss you all!