by Francisco G. Gómez
I was up by 6:30 am as the vibrant sunshine from an incredibly beautiful blue sky was peeping in through the curtains. As I rolled back the sliding doors, the balmy winds from the Atlantic swept across my face and the salty mist entered my nostrils; I was in Puerto Rico, “La isla del encanto (The Enchanted Island).” Nicky was due to arrive in Isla verde around seven from her accommodations in El Condado to pick me up for our journey to Plenitud1 on the other side of the island. We had a quick breakfast of tostadas criollas (creole toast) and café con léche (milk) at my favorite morning eatery, “Las Canarias” in Isla Verde, and by 7:30 we set out for Las Marías2 in the central highlands on the west side of the island. We travelled a distance of approximately 83 miles in 2.5 hours. The Autopista (high speed motorway), just outside the San Juan area, runs along the northern coast of Puerto Rico to the city of Arecibo where you can pick up route 129 to the hills of Las Marías.
Leaving the severely congested area of the capital, we quickly rode into the gorgeous coastal mountains of the island. Along the way you can see the veritably untouched areas of hilly landscape on the left side of the highway sadly juxtaposed to the developing industrial monoculture farm concerns that are sparse on the right side, a short distance from the coast. The coastal farmlands look to be very large, but the whole island of Puerto Rico is only 100 miles long by 35 miles wide, so these tracts of land look larger than what they really are. Limited farmland is also evident in that the island imports roughly 85% of its food, probably much more by now, according to former agricultural secretary Javier Rivera Aquino. He states that agricultural production has seen a 20% decline since 2003, Rivera says this came about because of high labor and energy costs as well as increased prices in fertilizers.3
As we entered the city limits of Arecibo and got on route 129, we were finally heading into the western highlands towards Las Marías. We knew we were in farm country because all along the way up 129 we began to see veggie stands everywhere. With a few exceptions, It’s not illegal to set up roadside stands on motorways, or anywhere else for that matter, in Puerto Rico. The authorities understand their citizens’ economic needs. They figure that people’s entrepreneurial endeavors help Puerto Ricans as well as the economy. Island people aren’t scrutinized and regulated to death as we are here in the states.
Finally, we arrived at the entrance to the city of Las Marías around 10 am. It only took another 15 minutes to get our bearing until we made our way up hill arriving at the Plenitude compound situated on “La Finca Tres Amigos, (Three Amigos Farm)” an incredibly beautiful and spiritual place! We parked our car and approached the communal house; audible sounds of music and singing echoed through the air. We were immediately greeted by Paula Paolí Garrido and Jariksa “Kari” Valle, two of the lovely ladies at Plenitude. I found out later that the singing was being done by an elusive character called “abuelo (Grandpa),” who also turns out to be the fellow who cooked up an incredible vegetarian lunch for us with the assistance of Kari.
We quickly made our introductions, and before we knew it, we were on a tour of the compound and farm. For only being an area of three cuerdas (3 acres equivalent) the diversity of plants and animals was amazing, and it all contrasted with a pinch of land preservation. Paula and Kari explained the different flowers and plants they were growing, bio construction like dam systems, earth bag and adobe houses they built and were building, the chicken run, the old refrigerator compost heaps, the burlap covered outhouses they constructed and a few other remarkable things they practice, like rainwater management, organic gardening and aroma therapy, and the list goes on. I couldn’t help but think to my self how much these bright and innovative young people were living what most eco/green minded individuals in a city environment could only imagine, and might even wish for.
The whole landscape was teeming with life. Age old ways of conventional growing, complimented with the now popular methods of “Permaculture,” made for a wonderful combination of doing things sustainably. One of the edibles being grown this way was café. Interestingly enough, it doesn’t get any better than growing your own cup of Joe. The bean is totally free of pesticides and other artificial growing mediums, and the flavor is exquisite. The Western Central Highlands of Puerto Rico are known for their world class coffee. Also impressive plantings are things like papaya, plantains, avocados and a whole host of other goodies being grown in this fashion at Plenitud. What’s fascinating about all of this, we were to find out a bit later, is the fact that the 3 cuerdas of Plenitud are dedicated to nothing more than a pilot initiative to teach people that come to visit from many parts of the world how things are grown in a sustainable and renewable way. We also learned that the non profit organization is in the process of acquiring 12 cuerdas more of an adjoining finca, thereby expanding their operations on a greater level.
As we arrived back at the communal house, we were greeted by Owen C. Ingley, Director of Plenitud. We sat down at the table, and Kari and Paula served us a delicious dish of a potato mash with veggies and eggs, and we entered into deep conversation about Plenitud, its creation and ongoing endeavors. Please see and listen to a segment of the interview below. This footage will be part of a documentary Raíces will be editing and producing very shortly in the coming months called “Simple Living High Thinking”; the title was coined by Paula.
As our visit came to a close and we said our good byes, I began to understand what the eco word “slow” means. In a global experience where there never seems to be enough time to do what we want to do, where our food and environment are contaminated by heartless evil agribusiness, where clean drinkable water is becoming scarce and will soon be more expensive than gold, where government controls and regulations are becoming over bearing and tyrannical, where our souls have sold out to the almighty dollar and where war seems to be more profitable and easier to accept than peace, Plenitude is finding a way to address all these maladies in a very slow way, and then some!
Plenitude is not for the faint of heart. Going back to an easier and more efficient way of doing things has its difficulties. Mixing the latter with modern technology and limited financial resources is a testament to Plenitud’s tenacity, perseverance and intelligent design in living and the reverence these incredibly dedicated people demonstrate in protecting Mother Earth and her resources.
If you’re ever in Puerto Rico, Plenitud is a must experience. You will find a group of caring, loving and knowledgeable individuals there who give a whole new meaning to the words ecology, growing and the methods of slow living.