I want to take this space to share some of my story, which spans 2 years and 5 months traveling overseas. There is a lot to share, and I struggled in writing this as I was unsure if it was all worth sharing.
If you only have a couple of minutes maybe come back and read this later (or just move on with your life if you aren’t interested). This is by no means a complete recounting of my travels, which would be a long story indeed. What I want to share with you are a few of the significant events that have affected me the most, have encouraged me to grow, and to more fully step into this person that is Caleb (Jellyfish) Gruber.
To make things more clear, I want to start from the beginning. Before I left on my travels, I was spinning my wheels in a mildly fulfilling career as an environmental engineer. It was actually quite an interesting job, with a focus on cleaning up pollution in soils and groundwater. I took comfort in the knowledge that the work I was doing was protecting humans and the environment. But I was still working for a corporation whose primary motivation was profit, and who limited personal progress according to a structured corporate system. After following this “career path” for more than three years, I was left feeling creatively uninspired and lacking excitement for the future. And more significantly, I felt that I wasn’t truly following my dreams or my passion, nor was I living up to my fullest potential. I would spend hours at work (secretly) browsing the internet for different jobs, alternative lifestyles, and for bits of spiritual wisdom. I was greatly interested in contributing to a more sustainable society in my own way. Outwardly I was happy, but inside I was frustrated and agitated.
Unsatisfied with my situation, I eventually put in my resignation and bought a one-way plane ticket to New Zealand. My plan was to stay in NZ for 6 months, time enough to clear my head and get a fresh perspective on my life, then come back home and start something else. Little did I know that I would be away from home for nearly 2 and a half years, visit 7 countries, and have many life enriching experiences.
Something truly special happened to me while I was in New Zealand. I began to let go of my past and to open to the new possibilities that were around me. I began to see opportunities for growth everywhere, it was simply a matter of tuning into it. After deciding to attend a 2 week long Earthship building workshop near Dunedin on the South Island, it was as if a whole new world of options appeared before me. I understood immediately that I could use my time abroad as a way to learn new skills and to walk a new path of self-development. After the workshop finished, I begin looking for every opportunity to learn more about natural building and to learn more about self-sufficient living.
I had heard from a friend about an intentional community called Riverside Community that took WWOOFers (volunteers). Riverside is New Zealand’s oldest intentional community; they have existed since the 1940s and produce most of their own food within their community. While I was volunteering there I met a German permaculturist named Kai. He was a very intelligent man with a passion for the environment, and who challenged many of my ideas about how we should approach sustainable living. Kai also had a plan to build a sustainable kitchen at the community hostel, but didn’t have time to start the project on his own. I told him I was up for the challenge, and together we organized an entire building effort (with the help of many other WWOOFers) that included two earthen walls, a kitchen counter, a washing area, a new garden area and a worm farm. I learned a great deal from that project, and I was introduced to permaculture in the process.
While we were working on the project, I discovered two more exciting opportunities. One was another Earthship building workshop on the Coromandel Peninsula, which I signed up for immediately, and another was from a friend I had made during the last Earthship workshop. My friend sent me a message saying that the Koanga Institute, the premier Heritage seed saver of New Zealand, was looking for someone to participate in a work exchange in which the participant would work full time in the garden for 3 weeks, and in exchange would be given a Permaculture Design Course free of charge (they normally cost around $1500).
Well, up until I came to Riverside I had hardly ever set foot in a garden, and I had only just heard of permaculture since coming to New Zealand. I figured they would be looking for someone with garden experience or someone who was interested in setting up a homestead – they definitely would not be interested in a backpacking tourist with no experience. Plus we were still in the middle of our project at Riverside, so I was uncertain if it would be right for me to leave. But I figured that there was nothing to lose really, and sometimes opportunity presents itself only once, so I went ahead and applied anyway. A few weeks later I received an email from Koanga – they had accepted me for the work exchange. With a mixture of guilt and excitement, I said good bye to my friends at Riverside and left them to complete the kitchen project without me.
I spent the next five weeks at Koanga working in the seed garden and learning about permaculture. They did not have any accommadation for me, so I stayed in my tent, which had already kept me comfortable in many places throughout New Zealand. It was the middle of summer besides, so I really didn’t mind. The folk at Koanga have a very keen interest on nutrition and diet, and I learned many interesting things about the food we eat and how it affects us – such as the fallacies and myths that surround cholesterol, saturated fats, sugars and starches – myths that are perpetuated by the food and agricultural mega-corporations as a means of making profit. I learned about how mankind has degraded the Earth’s soils through industrial agriculture, and how the modern food system is one of the root causes environmental destruction. We were taught about how our modern diet has manifested all sorts of new diseases and illnesses that never used to plague the indigenous people, who existed freely and happily upon the unspoiled lands. All of this information began to paint a clear picture in my mind of how far humanity has truly separated itself from nature. The experience touched me deeply, and I began to feel how important it was to carry this knowledge on with me.
When my permaculture course finished, my time in New Zealand was nearing its end, but I still had 3 weeks of Earthship building to do. I packed up my tent and hitchiked my way up to the Coromandel (hitchhiking in New Zealand had become somewhat of a custom at this point), where I immediately set my tent up again (yes it really was my home for a long time). It was a great joy to join the work crew and other workshop members, who had already been working hard on the Earthship for 4 weeks. I knew a few of them from the Earthship build on the South Island, so it was a bit like returning to a family, but now with many new members. A typical work day at the site included packing recycled tires full of dirt with a sledge hammer, building a wall from mudbricks, learning how to use new power tools, stomping on clay and sand, throwing mud at a wall, and eating tasty meals prepared by the site chef. All of this while being surrounded by towering mountain peaks and lush rain forest – I could have stayed there forever. Thank you Rosa for inspiring so many of us and teaching us the skills to live sustainably!
By now I was becoming addicted to this lifestyle of travelling, learning, and working with my body. Someone mentioned to me about an Earthbag workshop happening in a few weeks in Victoria, Australia. Well the timing couldn’t have been any more convient, because my visa in New Zealand was about to expire. At this point I was considering returning home, but something inside of me was telling me that it wasn’t the right time – I still had more to learn. Because I had been doing a lot of volunteering and not that much moving around, I still had a good amount of money in my savings, so I decided what the heck, lets go to the land of Oz.
I booked myself in for one week of Earthbagging, and flew to Melbourne. I was coming in at the end of this workshop, which had already been going on for one month. Everybody had already become close friends, and at first I felt a bit like an outsider. But this family welcomed me with open hearts, and soon I was right in line with them passing mudbricks in the chain gang and kissing them on the cheek. I went to that workshop expecting to learn about Earthbagging, which I did to some extent, but what happened instead was something quite different. I saw how this group of friends looked out for one another, how they made everything fun, where the priority was to not to work hard and fast, but to take time and learn. I saw how they encouraged honesty in each other, nurtured each other, shared their thoughts and feelings openly, and how they valued each others opinions. Being around this group of people gave me the feeling that I could just be myself, and that I would be accepted without judgement. I joined the workshop expecting to build a house, but instead I built a family.
I went on to live with that family for the next 6 months, taking up residence in a broken down van at Agari Farm. Here I spent most of my days helping setup a new market garden, working on the Earthbag dome, constructing things, taking fire baths, shoveling loads of composted horse poo, planting trees, reading, hiking on the hillside, playing the ukulele, or simply doing nothing at all. It was a stress free life, in which we supported each other and lived communaly. I was invited to participate in what was called a “men’s circle”, which included about 10 men from around the greater community. Men of all different ages – 80s, 50s, 30s, 20s…Each time we met, we would have a particular topic or focus as chosen by the host. Several of these meetings affected me profoundly. Never before had I exposed such deep layers of myself to strangers, and it was made even more potent by the fact that several of these men were my elders. There were times at Agari where we had many visitors, and times when I was the only one on the farm. During workshops the farm was a bustle of work and action. Other times it was just a few of us, looking after the chooks and keeping the energy cycling. Sending out heaps of love and gratitude now to Dani, Jesse, Campbell, Steph, Johnny, Carla, Sian, and Adam and all the rest of the family for all that they shared with me at Agari Farm.
In my final week before I left Agari, I participated in a week long Eco-village Design Education workshop at the farm. Agari is not officially an intentional community yet, but they are considering the next steps to take and this workshop was a sort of training on how to setup a functional and healthy community. This workshop brought together all of our closest family members, and all of the people who I had became connected with over the past 6 months. It was a workshop not only about eco-village design, but also about how to live comfortably with a large group of people. We learned how to resolve conflicts, how to communicate affectively, and most importantly, how to honor and respect ourselves and our fellow brothers and sisters. It was during this workshop that I became deeply emotional…I had truly found a place where I could live simply, be myself, and be happy. A huge part of me wanted to stay as long as I could, and maybe even call this place a new home. But there was still a voice inside of me that said, no, you have much more to see and do.
Leaving Agari was difficult for me, saying goodbye to family is always hard, but it was good for me to step back out into the world with a fresh mind. And it was actually at this point that I realized I felt quite full and adequately nourished in a spiritual sense. I no longer felt like I needed to pursue every opportunity that came around- but rather that I needed to relax and allow everything I had experienced to settle in – to give myself time to just be.
And so I forgot for a while about gardening and about building, and resumed being a normal backpacker. I went to Burning Seed festival (Aussie version of Burning Man), had an amazing and thrilling time, and met two lovely Aussie gals who drove me all the way to Adelaide along the Great Ocean Road (thank you Candice and Jade for that ride and for letting me stay with you for a while!). Then I hitchhiked to the heart of the Australian Outback, a two day journey by car through a blasted wasteland of dried up trees and shrubs. I visited the natural wonders of King’s Canyon and Ayer’s Rock (Uluru), where I also met a new travel mate Yuka Kitano.
As I was now beginning to run low on money and needed to work, I hatched a plan to get a job fruit picking in Tasmania. Yuka was pretty keen on the idea as well, so together we hitchhiked from Alice Springs to Melbourne and then flew to Tassie, where we spent the next three beautiful months thinning apples and picking cherries. Tasmania is a stunning island to say the least, and I was grateful to get a chance to explore it a bit. Here I made yet another wonderful family of friends and shared in many cool experiences, including learning how to spin fire, partying in the “bush doofs”, and living the dream at Fractangular Music Festival. Chad Cox, Zoona Jen, Jamie Atkinson, Libby Bakonyi I also was so INCREDIBLY blessed to meet my new travel companion, the beautiful and lovely Diana Tea-Tree. Both of us shared the desire to travel in Asia, and neither of us wanted to do it alone, so it was simply a matter of deciding if we wanted to spend the next few months together. Luckily we turned out to be pretty compatible.
We began our journey in Bali, Indonesia. This is a very popular toursist destination for Australians and Europeans alike, and I could see why. The island was lush and green, covered in mountains, and every road you drove down was decorated with shrines and ornaments. We spent one week here driving around on the scooter and soaking up the scenery and culture.
After Bali we went to the Solar Eclipse Music Festival on the funky shaped island of Sulawesi. This festival was so special and unique, not only because there was a solar eclipse, but also because of the location. The local population had never seen anything like this festival, and they were both happy and shocked to see how Western people like to “party”, with massive stages, loud music, and lots and lots of beer. Eclipse Festival was truly an international experience, bringing people together from across the globe in celebration of stellar alignment and in the human spirit.
After the festival, I organized a volunteering opportunity through thePOOSH.org.We spent 12 hours in a minivan and 10 hours on a ferry to get to Lia Beach Bamboo Eco-Resort on the Togean Islands, where we met the owner, a remarkable French woman named Marian. She explained to us that one of the biggest problems on the islands, and truly in all of South East Asia, is the rubbish and plastic waste that is strewn everywhere, and constantly washes up on the white sandy beaches. We had witnesed the Indonesians on the ferry eatting their lunches and then casually tossing the plastic containers into the sea, and we had seen the endless amounts of plastic that littered the roadsides. In our week of volunteering we picked up plastic from the beaches, cleaned it and stuffed it into a bean bag chair, and also made bottle bricks (by stuffing as much plastic as you can fit into a plastic bottle, compacting it with a stick until its as hard as a brick). We also learned some building tricks with bamboo, and got to know some local Indonesians. Marian took us to snorkel in one of the only JELLYFISH LAKES in the entire world. Somehow the lake has remained unpolluted by the locals, and hopefully it will remain that way with the help of people like Marian.
The rest of our trip in Indonesia we spent on Lombok Island and Gili Air, hanging out on the beach, learning to surfing (we stood up on our boards after only one try!), and snorkeling.
Our next country was Vietnam, a destination we chose in haste when the airlines made us buy an ongoing flight ticket from Indonesia. He landed in Saigon and spent a few days couchsurfing with a local couple. It was nice to be away from the tourist area and to see how the locals really lived (the food is much cheaper in these areas). One thing about Saigon – I’d never seen so many scooters and motorbikes in my life. They were everywhere. So many that when crossing the streets, we were told to just simply walk across and to let the scooters drive around you. Some friends we had met on Lombok told us how they had bought a scooter in Hanoi and drove it all the way to Saigon (a journey of nearly 2000 km), and they told us about how beautiful the Vietnamese mountains were and that it was simply an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed. Having gained some confidene in scooter riding in Indonesia, we decided to buy a scooter and give it a try. We bought a “Honda Wave”, a semi-automatic motorbike with a 110cc motor, for $250 and drove it around South Vietnam for 500 km or so. We returned to Saigon to pick up Diana’s visa extension, but decided at this point that driving the whole way up to Hanoi would be too laborous and time consuming (it took us nearly 8 hours to drive just 200 km – 8 hours on scooter with two big backpacks isn’t that comfortable). Selling the “Honda Wave” turned out to be quite a challenge, because it turned out that we had actually been scammed – we didn’t actually have a “Honda Wave” at all, we had a Chinese knock-off brand called “Datsun”, with a fake sticker on the side that said “Honda Wave”. All of the motorbikes in Vietnam come with a blue registration card that says the make of the bike, and right on the card it read Datsun, not Honda. Of course we did not know anything about this when we purchased the thing, but in trying to sell it, it seemed like everyone knew. As soon as they looked at the card, they turned up their nose and walked off. It took us 4 days to sell the scooter, eventually selling it to a backpacker from Israel for $180. We took the loss, but at this point we really just happy to continue on our journey.
I’m going to make a break in the flow here and fast forward. Vietnam is an incredibly scenic country, we really loved it and the people, despite what some people say about them being inhospitable. We made stops in Da Lat, Hoi An, Phong Ngah, Hanoi, and Sapa. I would love to go back someday to explore this country more thoroughly. We ended the journey in Hanoi, and flew next to Cambodia.
In Cambodia we didn’t move around quite as much (it’s a small country anyway). We went first to the ancient city of the Khmer Empire, Angkor Wat, and the many temples around Siem Reap. These temples are incredibly awe inspiring, and its amazing to see the level of craftsmanship and detail on the many bas reliefs throughout the temples. Next we attended a week long yoga and meditation retreat called Hariharalaya. This was an absolutely rewarding experience, and served as a reminder for me of how important meditation is and how much it can help in our daily lives. I also greatly enjoyed the yoga, and have learned enough to carry on now with my own daily practice.
After the retreat, we ended up on Otres Beach near Sihanoukville completely by accident. We had booked a night bus from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, but seeing as these buses have full size beds on them, we were so comfortable that we actually slept right through our destination and ended up at the coast instead. Turned out to be alright – we ended up staying five days on Otres beach and met up with some friends from Hariharalaya. One of our friends told us about a permaculture farm in the nearby town of Kampot that took volunteers. Nice! Sometimes opportunity falls in your lap.
I wrote the owner of the farm, a German named Akoo, asking if we could come volunteer for a few days, and he accepted us graciously. Akoo has primarily focused his farm around the growing of medicinal trees and shrubs, including the moringa tree and the tulsi (holy basil) tree. We only spent four days at Om Permaculture Food Forest, but it was nice to see permaculture in action at another place and to see people carrying for the land. There was some repair work that needed to be done on earthen cob bench, so I took the opportunity to introduce Diana to a bit of natural building. Our final stop in Cambodia took us up to the jungle in the north to do some trekking and see the elephants.
The last leg of our journey (phew!) has taken us to Thailand, where we spent two weeks volunteering at Gaia School and Ashram. I first heard about Gaia School while I was in Australia. One of the facilitators of the eco-village workshop at Agari had lived at the Gaia School and told me about it. I was really excited to visit this place, because I knew that they shared many of the same values that we had at Agari, and I was eager to see how their community functioned. We arrived there by tuk-tuk in the pouring rain.
Walking up the driveway, the first thing we saw was a large structure with earthen mudbrick walls decorated with mosaic and relief artwork. It was beautiful. The surrounding vegetation was lush, and there were banana trees, papapya trees, and little pineapple shrubs everywhere. A wonderful place with an abundance of nurturing energy – I knew right away that this would be a good place for Diana to learn about permaculture and for me to reconnect with the lifestyle I had lived at Agari. The daily routine at the Ashram includes yoga and meditation in the morning, 4 to 5 hours volunteer work, and another meditation at sunset. They also observe the Buddha Day, which occurs on the new moon and full moon, where we meditate for one hour in the morning and partake in a fruit fast for the whole day. I found this blending of spirituality and permaculture to be deeply satisfying – I felt like I was nourishing myself and the planet in all of the right ways. Our two weeks time at the Gaia School was peaceful and inspirational, and I hope to carry that inspiration with me for a long time to come. Thank you Tom and Om for this experience.
After Gaia, we needed to extend our Thai visa, so we made a brief trip to Laos (they call it a visa run). We spent a few days in the capital city of Vientiane, and in the touristy town of Vang Vieng, taking in the staggering karst cliffs and majestic scenery. I wish we had more time to explore this country, because it seems very akin to Vietnam in its natural beauty.
Our last days we spent in Chiang Mai, and Pai, Thailand – a cute little hippie town in the mountains. What a cool place Pai is. Organic food everywhere, reggae music, cool cafes, tree houses, resorts all over the place, volunteer opportunities, waterfalls and jungles. I would love to come back here some day and get to know it better.
Eventually, my new best friend and travel-mate Diana, had to return to Germany. Diana and I spent every moment together for 4 months while traveling Asia, dealing with all of each others ups and downs, with being tired and being sick, with frustration and with grief, with joy and with excitement. I am beyond grateful for having her by my side through all of the fun and weirdness that is South East Asia. Diana – I love, appreciate, and respect you. I could not have asked for a better companion, and when I met you in Tasmania I never imagined that we would go on such a crazy and wonderful adventure together. You have truly helped me to see all that is good within myself, and helped me to realize that I am on the right path. What a rewarding experience it has been getting to know you, and I know we will see each other some day again soon. The Earth is pretty small in reality, and Germany isn’t as far away as it seems!
And now, finally, I am coming to the end of this story. My final destination in Asia was volunteering for two weeks at The Panya Project, a permaculture and natural building education center near Chiang Mai. During my travels I met numerous people who learned and volunteered at Panya – my dear friend and teacher Kai, whom I worked with at Riverside Community, my best mate Jesse Robertson, owner and steward of Agari Farm, and several of my friends in Australia. Honestly it was the idea of going to Panya Project that inspired me to travel to Asia in the first place (that and the Eclipse Festival). I spent 2 weeks volunteering in this tropical paradise, getting back into the things that I had grown accustomed to – composting, gardening, and natural building. The crew at Panya was small while I was there, but we made up a small family that enjoyed each others company. My main take away from Panya is that if you keep working at something, the fruit will come eventually.
I have spent a long time writing and editing this story, and I don’t expect many of you to have read all of it. That’s ok, as it was largely something I wanted to do for myself, to see the words appear on the screen, to know that it was all real. I’m happy to offer the story to you. I have spent a great deal of time abroad as a volunteer and exploring opportunities to learn about myself, about permaculture and about natural building. There is something about this way of life that greatly appeals to me. I feel like I have become a part of the solution to our growing world problems, and no longer part of the problem. In growing food, regenerating the soil, reducing our consumption, returning to natural patterns, nourishing our bodies and our souls, we can have a positive impact on the environment, on our communities, and on our own health. Actions we take now can create ripples that can change the world.
I’m not sure exactly how my life will unfold now that I’ve returned to Colorado. I’m blessed that my parents have a couple of acres land in Loveland that they are letting me grow some food on. I have lots of plans and thoughts of what I want to do, and I will be looking for new opportunities and teammates who are interested in delving into this adventure with me. Recently I have also been having a strong impulse to teach what I have learned, and so I have created this blog as a start but would like to give some real workshops in the future. I want to inspire others to give growing their own food a try, and if that can’t be done, than to simply live in a more abundant and conscious way. This Earth we live on is actually FULL of abundance – everywhere around us are opportunities to grow and to heal ourselves. I would like to aid in manifesting that abundance for all to share and enjoy.
And…that about it sums it up I reckon! If you have made it to the end of this, thank you so much for reading! May we all keep walking boldly forward into this wonderful gift that we call LIFE.
Love and light,
The Abundance Gnome