Desert Days – Life on an Eco Kibbutz

It isn’t always easy living simply but at Kibbutz Lotan in the Negev Desert in the south of Israel, the kibbutzniks and the Eco Volunteers who live amongst them are giving it their best shot.

If there’s anywhere in the world where the ethics of Care for People, Care for the Earth and all life and Fair Share should be put to most urgent use, it’s in this harsh desert environment in arguably the most politically complex region on the planet.

Driving through the arid Arava Valley, where daily evaporation exceeds annual rainfall, one can only imagine the challenges that must arise from trying to survive, sustainably or otherwise, in such unforgiving conditions. However in 1983, the same year as the term Ecotourism was popularised, the founding members of Kibbutz Lotan decided to do just that.

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Like every decision one makes in Israel, that of where to establish an egalitarian collective community was a political one. In keeping with the ethics which they still uphold to this day, the founders chose an area which is not contested in the ongoing land grab that defines the Arab-Israeli conflict.

And what they’ve learned through developing this prototype model for sustainable living has much to teach us all.

Upon our arrival at Lotan my friend and I were shown to the Ecotourism suite that would accommodate us for the night, and were surprised to see that we had our very own en suite bathroom, complete with shower and (dual) flushing toilet, and that there was an air-conditioning unit attached to the wall. So far, so not-very-eco-friendly…

We’d arrived late in the afternoon and our formal tour was not due to take place until the next morning, so we welcomed the invitation to take an independent look around some of the 143 acres that comprise the kibbutz. And it didn’t take long for some of the eco-puzzle pieces to start falling into place.

Walking through the grassed areas and seeing the carefully tended flowering plants that decorate the many community spaces around Lotan, it was very easy to forget that we were in the desert. Within a few minutes, though, after wandering happily past a White Gum that, as ever, brought back thoughts of my native Australia, we caught a glimpse of the sustainable homes that have become the hallmark of this eco community.

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My friend and I soon got chatting with a friendly-looking passerby, who introduced himself as Shilo and explained that he did his Green Apprenticeship at Lotan in November and has stayed on as an Eco Volunteer ever since.

During our impromptu tour around the area known within the community as the Bustan, (Orchard in Hebrew), Shilo explained that the kibbutz, while built on ideals of cooperation and equality, was not always an eco village; its original houses were conventional concrete structures, and its inhabitants’ main focus was on democratic Jewish renewal.

However, in their efforts to live according to the Jewish principle of Tikun Olam, which involves an ongoing process of transforming the world into an ever more perfect state, the group found that they were accumulating a significant wealth of knowledge which they could impart to other people who were interested in living more sustainably. So it was in the mid-1990s that the eco experience at Lotan began in earnest, and the community, now affiliated with the Global Ecovillage Network, has since gone from strength to strength.

Evidence of Lotan’s determination to reduce, reuse, rethink and recycle can be seen all over the kibbutz, perhaps most outstandingly in the Bustan, whose natural, sustainable geodesic domes were constructed by students on the Green Apprenticeship programme over a two-year period which began in 2005.

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(Thanks to Kibbutz Lotan for this photo.)

The domes are constructed from a series of interlocking irrigation pipes in hexagons and pentagons, insulated with straw bales and covered with three coats of mud, a construction method which stands up to rigorous testing for fire and earthquake resistance.

The domes are constructed from a series of interlocking irrigation pipes in hexagons and pentagons, insulated with straw bales and covered with three coats of mud, a construction method which stands up to rigorous testing for fire and earthquake resistance.

In the winter, the domes are passively heated by the desert sun, and the heat absorbed by their walls and floors stays within the structure during the often cold nights, meaning that no additional heating is required. And because the windows are carefully placed for the most effective ventilation, the air-conditioning units are only switched on for very brief periods during the long hot summers, when temperatures often reach 45°C during the day and stay at around 30°C overnight. In an ongoing experiment in which the Eco Volunteers measure daily temperatures inside the domes and carefully monitor the use of mechanical heating/cooling systems, the domes have been proven to use one fifth of the energy being consumed by the conventionally built concrete kibbutz dwellings in the winter, and just one eighth in the summer.

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During the five-month periods in which Green Apprentices like Shilo live in the Bustan, every day sees them practically applying the knowledge they’re acquiring about alternative building, organic gardening, creative recycling, alternative energy use and community living. In the central area of the Bustan there lies, among various other communal living areas, an outdoor alternative kitchen, which features a solar oven, a parabolic oven, a taboon or earth oven, and Shilo’s favourite, the rocket oven. Sunshine is in abundant supply here in the Arava Valley, and these cooking methods maximise this ever-present resource to its best effect. And I’m happy to report that the proof was in the…cookies that Shilo offers us, which had been slow-baked at 120°C in the solar oven, using reflective insulation and sun absorption.

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The last stop on Shilo’s Whistlestop Bustan Tour allowed my friend and I to try out the latest in must-have eco white goods – the pedal-powered washing machine. Just throw in your clothes and eco-friendly washing powder, and your washing will be shiny-white by the time your workout is done.

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After we said goodbye to Shilo and continued on our way, we stumbled upon Lotan’s Collection Centre, which was built with the assistance of Israel’s Ministry for the Environment in recognition of the kibbutz’s early efforts to recycle. Lotan was established during a time when Israelis were making active attempts to forget the necessary thrift of their forebears; while war, persecution and poverty had made compulsive reusers and recyclers of those who created the state of Israel, subsequent generations have revelled in the possibility of an out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new mentality. So in a country whose inhabitants are now the second biggest creators of rubbish in the world, (relative to population size and second to the United States), the work being done by Lotan and other environmental groups is essential to future sustainability.

All of this was explained to us in greater detail the next morning, when we joined a small tour group being led by Lotan’s General Secretary, Mark Naveh, who studied ecology in Australia and sustainability education in England. As Mark walked us around the kibbutz, he explained some of the challenges involved in trying to live organically and sustainably in such an intense, extreme and challenging environment as the Negev.

Mark and his fellow kibbutzniks, he explained, are making use of all of their collective knowledge and experience in designing, building and running sustainable homes, businesses and communities. As well as the building methods and technologies mentioned earlier, the centre also has composting toilets, grey and black water purification systems, solar electricity generation and storage, and organic gardens. The kibbutz is not yet at zero waste, but has managed to reduce its general waste disposal by 70%. But the eco centre’s goal of achieving self-sufficiency using only organic methodologies is, Mark fears, some way off.

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While the community uses as little water as possible, it still relies on non-renewable groundwater to provide for its everyday needs, as the little rain that does fall tends to lead to flash-floods in unpredictable areas and therefore cannot be collected. There is no grazing land for the dairy cattle that are the economic backbone of the kibbutz, so 100% of their animal feed has to be bought in, and at this stage the centre’s organic gardens produce only a small percentage of the food required for the 200 people – kibbutzniks, renting residents and volunteers – to be found at Lotan on any given day.

The immense value of a community such as Lotan, however, is surely to be found in the efforts they are making to live as sustainably as possible, and also, perhaps most importantly, to educate the thousands of people who visit the centre each year to do the same. While my friend and I, together with an interested couple from England, were being shown around the centre, Mark’s colleague Leah Zigmond was busy teaching a group of young volunteers about organic gardening. There were also, we were told, people receiving holistic health treatments and others engaged in bird-watching, all of which enable people to enjoy themselves and their environment in a non-destructive way, as well as providing an income to allow the centre to continue its work.

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Soon before our reluctant departure from the kibbutz, while we sat sipping sweet Arabic tea in the vegetarian eco-café, Mark explained his perception of the centre’s role as being one of essential education – people must be prepared for what he expects is to come, in 15 or 20 years, when peak oil, water shortages and a possible global food crisis make localisation humanity’s only hope.

As a final question, I asked Mark if the centre was doing anything to mark Earth Day, which happened to fall on the day that I visited Lotan. “No, nothing special,” he said. “Every day here is Earth Day.”

Just the two of us – part two

(A spoken word recording of this post can be found here.)

No challenge should be faced without a little charm and a lot of style.

The Bluetones

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And so, a quick recap… Four years ago, M gave me a beautiful silver bracelet to mark the day we decided to make beautiful babies together. By the time we left Israel two and a half years later, we’d had five IUIs and an IVF and as yet there was no baby in sight…

A couple of years after we’d jumped aboard the baby-making train, I realised that I’d taken my eye off the destination. I was having so many hospital visits, tests, drugs and injections that it all seemed to have become about the process rather than about what we were trying to achieve. I needed to start thinking about babies again. I was walking along Jaffa Street in Jerusalem one day when I saw, in a shop window, a miniature version of the ethnic slippers I’d been thinking about buying for myself. I bought them and arranged them on the coffee table in our East Jerusalem apartment as a reminder of what we were working towards.

Until a short while before our departure from Israel, we’d thought that our next destination was going to be Kampala, Uganda. I was thrilled at the prospect of living in Africa for the first time but a little concerned that assisted reproduction for over-privileged foreigners would be at the bottom of the list of Ugandan national priorities. Soon before we were to make the big move, however, M was offered a job in Geneva, Switzerland. And so those little sparkly orange baby shoes came with us to live in the centre of Europe, the continent which, at least in 2010, led the world in Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART). (http://phys.org/news197093421.html).

A good friend in Jerusalem had recommended her Geneva-based ART specialist to us and I was pleased to be told when I contacted him that he did not operate a waiting list; we were able to secure an appointment with him five weeks after our arrival in our new home. The doctor’s desk was decorated with beautiful lapis lazuli pyramids. I’m not really a crystal-healing kind of a girl so I won’t look for any symbolism in that, but I will allow them to at least give our doctor a name…

Dr Pyramid did not pull any punches during our first consultation. He said that at my age I had, at very best, a 10% chance of getting pregnant, and that each cycle would cost us 8,000-10,000 Swiss francs (that’s £5,500-£6,900, or US$8,900- $11,000). He also said that the HSG I’d had in Jerusalem could only detect 60% of any potential problems with my reproductive system and so suggested that I have a laparoscopy. This is a keyhole surgery in which a light source and a camera are inserted into the abdomen through the belly button to study the organs and tissues inside the abdomen and pelvis. The thought of it made my knees go queasy but we signed on the bottom line anyway and once again bought our season pass for the roller-coaster ride that is ART.

The next couple of weeks looked something like this:

October 23: During a pre-op consultation with the anaesthetist who would put me under for the laparoscopy, he put a stethoscope to my back and blithely mentioned that I have a heart disorder called mitral insufficiency. This is why I’ve spent my life staying as far away from doctors as possible. I’ve always believed my own press about being in perfect physical health but as soon as I started letting doctors anywhere near me they began to make lists of stuff that I should be concerned about.

October 25: I visited Dr Pyramid for blood tests and he said that he wanted to rule out any possibility that I’d inherited the breast cancer that had cruelly killed my mother when she was 41 years old. He made an appointment for me to have a mammogram the next day.

October 26: As I went past a construction site on the walk between the tram and the Clinique des Grangettes, I was hailed with the wolf whistles and shouting that anyone with breasts has become accustomed to. On the way back, when a mammogram and an ultrasound had confirmed that all was fine in my chest area, I wanted to whip out my X-rays and shout, “The doctor says I’ve got tremendous tits!” Sadly the construction workers all seemed to be on their lunch break.

October 29: M and I jumped on a train to Lausanne, where Dr Pyramid has his second office and where his embryologist is based. We were shown through a PowerPoint presentation of how the whole procedure works and what our various options would be if the process was unsuccessful at different stages, and given a rundown of the staggering costs that would be involved.

October 31: I checked into the hospital for the laparoscopy and was thrilled by the difference between hospital treatment in Geneva and Jerusalem. At Hadassah I’d had to walk through the hospital in a surgical gown and was expected to push my way to the front of the queue and shout louder than my sisters in infertility to get any attention from the hospital staff. In Geneva I was shown to a lovely private room with en-suite bathroom, given a menu and asked to choose the food that I’d like to eat post-operatively, plied with gorgeous drugs and wheeled down to surgery in my bed.

After I woke up, Dr Pyramid came to see me and said that they’d removed a couple of spots of endometriosis, and that all was well for another attempt at IVF in December. He also said that although they were unsure why, the laparoscopy itself often seemed to increase the chance of IVF success in the round that followed. So I felt positive as I tucked into the best hospital meal in the history of hospital meals – chicory salad with walnuts and blue cheese dressing, king prawns with a cream and lemon sauce, and apple strudel and proper coffee. You get what you pay for, I guess.

November 8: M and I had an appointment with Dr Pyramid, and in one of the more surreal half hours of my life, he showed us through detailed photographs of my internal organs. The good doctor revised the drug protocol we’d used in Jerusalem and confirmed that we were good to go.

*

When M took me on a surprise birthday trip to Rome the following week, I packed all the vials, syringes and sterile wipes that I’d need to begin the new drug regime during our stay in the Eternal City. (I also packed a letter from the clinic that I could wave under the noses of the Italian authorities if they thought they’d happened upon the world’s unlikeliest international drug smuggler.) The drug that I’d start with was Cetrotide, which suppresses the body’s natural production of hormones so that its goings-on can be chemically controlled by the physician. (I tried not to think too much about the long-term effects that all these drugs might have on my body.)

I know that a lot of women hate the hormone injections associated with IVF and of course I completely understand why – stabbing yourself in the stomach with a needle full of hormones on a twice-daily basis isn’t exactly the dream. But I have to admit that, in a weird way, this is actually my favourite part of the process. While IVF has forced me to reluctantly confront the fact that I have absolutely zero control over my reproductive destiny, doing my own injections at least makes me feel as though I’m taking active steps towards achieving my dream. I’m very lucky that I don’t seem to be blighted by the terrible mood swings and weight gain that some women suffer (although M might tell a different story…). For me the weeks of hormones are a positive time during which I can live in hope that this time Lady Luck might be on our side.

It seemed, when I had the next appointment with Dr Pyramid two weeks later, that my positivity might be justified. The blood test and ultrasound revealed that all was as it should be, and Dr P prescribed a new drug that was supposed to stimulate the production of fewer but better quality eggs.

My positivity started to wane, however, when after five days of Menopur injections it became evident that there were only two eggs. Dr P doubled the dosage. But two days later he declared that despite the doubled drugs, there was now only one egg. It wasn’t worth going through the egg retrieval. So after weeks of hormone injections, the IVF cycle was cancelled. Dr P would give us an IUI instead (at our vast expense, of course) as a sort of sad consolation prize.

Meanwhile, back in my adopted homeland of the UK, Kate Middleton announced her pregnancy. In a brief moment of bitterness I wrote and submitted a letter to the Guardian’s “What I’m Really Thinking” column. The paper wrote to say that they were considering it for publication but they never printed it in the end. It’s probably just as well; I wouldn’t want to bring down the national mood. My letter read:

So Kate Middleton’s pregnant. How wonderful. Now not only will it seem that everyone in the world has babies apart from me but the whole country will be nattering about what a joy they are. Don’t talk to me about it! I already know! Otherwise I wouldn’t have spent three years and the GDP of a small country trying to have one!

People with small children tell me how much they envy my lifestyle. I can (and do) pop to Paris or Rome for weekends, I sleep when I want to and I’m not being crippled by childcare costs. “Want to swap lives?” they ask. Well, yes, I bloody well do! Superfluous sleep and weekends away are just consolation prizes; I want to be woken up at five o’clock on a Sunday morning by my child stomping on my head but that joy is being denied me so I go to Rome instead.

Some friends who know that I’ve been having fertility treatments for years try to console me by saying that you can still live a happy and fulfilled life without children. I’ll take that from friends who are childless, by choice or otherwise. But if another person utters those words while bouncing their beautiful baby on their knee I might just have to suggest that I take over the parenting of their child, then. They’d be just as happy and fulfilled without the baby, right?

Forgive me. It was a bad day.

And needless to say, the second-prize IUI didn’t work.

*

Without going into any further tedious detail, we had another round of IVF, which went right through to egg retrieval and embryo transfer, several months later. My eldest sister, who here I’ll call Luli, as our brother used to when he was a baby, had planned to come and visit us, and by coincidence her holiday ended up exactly coinciding with my surgery and our two-week wait. She was there when my bed was wheeled down to surgery (when M had had to go off to Lausanne to leave his contribution with the embryologist), and when I was wheeled back, fighting my sleepiness so that I could catch up with my beloved big sister.  She was there a few days later when we went to Lausanne for the transfer of three healthy embryos. She was there for the duration of the stressful two-week wait, as I struggled between a desire to be optimistic and a fear that again we’d be disappointed. And she flew out on the day that we received the test result to say that the IVF hadn’t worked.

One day soon after, M and I went for a walk in the hills around the beautiful nearby village of Chanaz, and I lost my Silver Bracelet.

The fact that we remained optimistic is both a testament to the human spirit and a boon to the IVF industry.

We wouldn’t give up.

To be continued…

My life is a film and I’m a bit-part player

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(Yes, yes, I know Shakespeare put it far more eloquently but I can’t help it that he got all the best lines.)

A long time ago in a relationship far, far away, an ex-boyfriend accused me of expecting my life to play out like a movie. He said (condemningly) that I require all the people that I meet to be in some way interesting, for my work to be fulfilling and afford me travel to fascinating places, and for every day to have some kind of poetry to it, even (or perhaps especially) in times of unavoidable suffering. Get real, he said. Life just isn’t like that. Well, if you’re reading this, ex-boyfriend (and you know who you are), it turns out that life kind of is.

Sometimes bits of my life end up in movies in a literal sense. After the Great Johnny Depp Experience of 2005 (is there an expiration date on stories about brief but exciting brushes against someone else’s fame?), I decided to retire from the movie extras game for good. I believe in going out with a bang, as it were, and I had to face the reality that it was all going to be downhill from there. (“A sex scene with Ryan Gosling? Pah! I wouldn’t get out of bed for that!”).

But you just never know where life is going to take you and last Sunday I found myself back in the role of an extra once again, this time at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, the home of the Large Hadron Collider.  It turned out that a guy who works for the CERN audio visual service is making a feature film and needed some people to dress as lab staff and sit in a boardroom looking fascinated while a glamorous French neurobiologist (a real one, incidentally, not just someone playing one) talked in depth about her field. It was revealed in conversations between shots and over coffee that my fellow lab staff hailed from Venezuela, Italy, Spain, Greece, Switzerland, Ireland, Latvia, the USA, India and Belgium, while I represented the UK and Australia. I don’t think my performance will be attracting the attention of the Academy (I was wearing makeup, after all, and no-one in my scene died), but it was a fun and unexpected way of spending a Sunday morning.

At other times, my life can feel like a movie just by the sheer good fortune of being in the right place at the right time. A few weeks ago, when one of my four gorgeous sisters was visiting from Australia, we decided to stop for coffee in the Haute-Savoie town of Annecy on the way back from a hair-raising morning on the Aguille du Midi. (The experience of the ascent to the highest restaurant in Europe, the imaginatively named “3842”, is one that my sister will not soon forget…).

As we walked through the streets, of the “Venice of the Alps”, it became apparent that this was no ordinary Saturday, but a carnival day. I was so mesmerised by the costumes, the music and the throngs of people on the cold and beautiful streets of the Old Town that it didn’t even occur to me to get my camera out. (Stupid, stupid girl!) As we roamed the streets in search of a favourite shoe shop where my sister was to purchase the perfect pair of European winter boots, we found ourselves marching to the beat of a different drum… Literally. Under a series of arches we finally found the drumming band, a group of about 20 enthusiastic amateurs beating their drums and stomping their feet until my sister and I felt it not just vibrating in our chests but also coursing in ridiculous rivulets down our cheeks. Easily moved to tears, my fellow Scorpio sister and me.

As I sit writing this, in the garden of the chateau my partner and I are renting in south-east France, the sun is making its slow descent behind Mount Grand Colombier, there are two birds sitting on the feeder about a metre from my seat, and the slight breeze carries both the smell of spring flowers and the sound of church bells from the nearby village. It may not be Quentin Tarantino but this is a scene from the kind of movie I’d pay to see.