Bhagawati writes about Uma’s unique natural living project in Spain, Zero Unlimited.
Uma’s sannyas name is one of the names of Parvati, the Hindu goddess of fertility, love and devotion, as well as of divine strength and power. And those attributes appear to be alive and well in Uma, who is deeply connected with nature and cares for our planet.
We became acquainted through a friend via e-mails and phone calls and already from the first bits of information that filtered in, I sensed a spirited story in the making.
Years ago, German-born Uma experienced a very inspiring insight while she was in Sinai during one of her many visits to the desert. She was feeling content in that empty space and nothing pulled her back to Europe. Yet suddenly she was thinking for no reason at all of furniture and started laughing. Her sannyasin friend and travel companion Sabera said, “Just image all your stuff here in the Wadi….”
“In that moment I realized I didn’t need any of it! This was the first crucial moment to put me on track.”
A former high school teacher for geography and sports, she involved herself during the eighties in circus work and founded a Circus School, channelling all her creativity into an intensive occupation with circus entertainment and circus pedagogy, combined with numerous advanced training courses at national and international level. Her idea was to enable children, teenagers and still-young-at-heart adults to learn the many ways of circus art. The school is called Windspiel (Wind Play) and every summer she tours with the resident troupe for three weeks through Germany .
Uma took sannyas in 2007 in Germany and continued to immerse herself fully in the development and activities of the school. Her dream to live an independent life close to nature with less ‘stuff’ didn’t leave her though. In 2012, she decided to build something along the lines of an Earthship in Spain, on a property close to the Costa Blanca. She was stimulated by the Earthship concept but had different visions about the construction itself. What motivated her was the sense of what she really needs to be able to live in a sustainable way and what it is that she receives from nature to support her.
The architectural concept of Earthships dates back to the 1970s and is the brainchild of architect Michael Reynolds. The main point for him was that the buildings would utilize sustainable architecture and materials indigenous to the local area, or recycled materials wherever possible. Also, the homes would rely on natural energy sources, be independent from the ‘grid’ and would be feasible for a person with no specialized construction skills to build. Eventually, Reynolds’s vision was transformed into the common U-shaped earth-filled tire homes seen today.
The property Uma had purchased was neglected land, the slopes and terraces wildly overgrown and the almond and olive trees no longer bearing fruit; a small wooden hut and a dilapidated stone house were the only buildings on the premises.
Uma was a novice in house building, in any kind of construction really. Nevertheless, she set out with her daughter and a group of young friends from her German village to start building by using mainly recycled materials. One main point was to support the land to become alive again, as it had been lying neglected for too long. It was also clear to all of them that any mistakes they made would also mean new opportunities to learn.
The first big mistake showed when they erected the three main walls for the first building against the mountain. In line with their concept to use recycled materials, they built up the walls with old car tires.
Time was never a factor in their activities. For example, it took time to collect so many car tires from local garages. Once they had a sufficient amount, the tires were filled with cardboard and soil from the building site. What was physically hard was the compressing of the earth in the tires with a sledgehammer, by hand. A stuffed tire weighs about 150 kg and hence holds its own through the weight. After the wall stands, it gets plastered.
Uma said, “What we did not know was that when car tires are used to build a wall, they must be placed slightly offset on top of each other, otherwise the wall will be tilted. And that indeed happened!” she laughed. Undeterred, they changed it without much ado.
Uma then heard about a German man who planned to build a house by using PET bottles and she was present with construction engineer Andreas Froese in 2013 when he built the first bottle house in Germany. She found out that the principle was similar; PET bottles were filled with soil, compacted and used like bricks. They are less heavy than the car tires, hence easier for female builders to move.
As Spain has no bottle deposit system, Uma launched a call on the Internet, introducing the project and asking people for their empty bottles and also cans because she thought they too could work well by fitting them into walls. She explained, “Meanwhile I have moved on to glass bottles (white and colour) and the walls built with those allows clear and coloured light to come into the building which I like very much.”
Windows and doors were found in recycling yards; the ground floor consists of compacted soil which is quite rich in clay and can be smoothened. “Word got around that I was collecting odd bits and pieces of all kinds of materials and as waste in Spain is often disposed on wild dumps or under bridges, somebody would for example call and say they found a broken Chinese vase and I would go, pick up the pieces and wall them up somewhere.”
She also found old tiles under one of the bridges in the area and used them to lay a mosaic. She collected (and still does) the often very unique stones that lie around on her property and decorated the low wall around her vegetable garden with them, but also with snail and mussel shells, and other items she found on the beach.
In the meantime, the house took shape and has two rooms; one is used as a guest room, and the adjacent room is open to one side and functions as the seminar room for yoga, mantra singing and other related activities.
As for electricity and water she insists on the principle to use what is available. However, she also employs modern technology when it works for her and doesn’t shun modern day’s equipments. She has a small solar system for electricity and a portable modem, sufficient to use her computer to write e-mails, and send SMS with her mobile phone. For cloudy days she equipped herself with a small wind generator; usually, when there’s no sun, there’s wind. Speaking of wind, Uma recalled, “Last Spring a severe storm destroyed the generator, in addition to parts of the roof that flew off – so I had to go back to ground zero without grumbling and repair it all – I am taking every day anew, as it comes.”
A cistern supplies groundwater, but as not much information is available about the quality of Spain’s groundwater, Uma prefers to buy potable water to avoid health issues. Drinking water comes in 5 and 8 litre bottles which she paints black when they are empty. For her shower she pulls up groundwater in a bucket and fills it into those empty bottles. She then places them in the sun and when they are heated up she transfers them into a black-sprayed polystyrene box where they remain hot. Later she pours the water into a canister that has an in-built shower head, pulls it up on the tree and her shower is ready! The used water runs off into the flower beds and vegetable patches. Of course, Uma has to come up with a solution to recycle the unused water bottles…
The transformation is an ongoing labour of love.
Today several buildings dot the landscape: “The simple wooden hut (surrounded by a herb garden and rows of vegetable plots) offers sleeping places for 5-7 people and functions also as our winter quarters,” said Uma. “1 or 2 people can sleep in the covered seminar area, and the converted horse trailer functions as a secluded sleeping place for 1 person.”
And where does Uma sleep? “I don’t live in any of the buildings, I like to sleep in my caravan (which has a brick apron made of empty cans) during summer and stay outdoors as much as possible. I don’t mind cool mornings – as soon as the sun comes out, the temperature increases. And just in case, I have a small wood stove as a back-up,” she smiles.
Last but not least there’s also the kitchen (formerly a ramshackle stone house without a roof and about 200 years old), two shower buildings and two toilets which are old-fashioned outhouses with an unusual design and a great view.
Uma also cares for 21 happy chickens who supply her with eggs, and has 4 colourful bird pairs in residence.
Nothing on this property can be planned, everything grows organically, all evolves through sun and rain. As mentioned, floods and storms are occasionally destructive, and force Uma now and then to start all over again. She said, “At one such point I understood that although I found myself again at point zero, at the same time there were wide avenues open to me to be pursued. I was thus inspired to name my project Zero Unlimited, also because the land is located on the Prime Meridian (universal definition of 0-degrees longitude).”
Building with garbage and recycled items also had an effect on Uma’s inner life. She sorted out and separated what was important to her, what she perceived as garbage, the outdated movies in her head, and what was worth looking at again. Slowly some kind of order arose, within as well as on the outside.
She already had visits by the German media and curious people come to see her home – Uma’s vision is to make it available to those who want to take time out to focus on the essentials. They can meditate, be silent… If required, she will also prepare food for them in her small cooking facility.
To Uma, “this abode is a place where one can think about what one really needs, where one can come to rest and find illumination.”
Uma is ready to pass on the inner peace she feels in her recycled treasure home to those looking for tranquillity in their lives. A yoga retreat with 12 participants was just held at the end of June. Uma said, “There was a wonderful energy that gave me so much strength to work in the kitchen at 30 degrees in the shade. And then to hear mantras being chanted, which I immediately worked into the food….” Her next event is to take place in September – a 3-day Enlightenment Intensive.
She adds, “None of this would have been possible hadn’t existence sent me in a miraculous way Miguel Angel from Colombia as a helper in 2013. He is now my beloved partner, who, as a former poor coffee farmer, is familiar with the simple life and blessings (and also the dangers) of nature and supports me in every way.”
Uma has found her fulfilment, love and joy in tune with nature.
Bhagawati is a regular contributor
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