“I started by cutting, cooking, dehydrating and making flour out of breadfruit, then burned my hands and face with ghost pepper residue as I cleaned out the dehydrator. Once recovered from that trauma, I helped construct a new solar panel roof and almost fell to my death from an unstable ladder. The next day I pulled weeds until my back was bent double and then, with the help of my ‘A team’ friends, had to lower a half-ton trapeze 15’ over the side of a deck. Later, while feeding the chickens and gathering eggs, I split my sides laughing when I saw Graham hastily sit on the golf cart seat—squishing a fresh poop pile, as well as a misplaced egg.” Far from being discouraged this brave intern not only stayed a full two months but returned four more times over subsequent years. I guess she decided her pain and suffering was all worthwhile and just added to the stories to be shared with friends and family back home. Such was the crazy, life changing experience of a Bellyacres intern.
From the early 1990’s until 2014 they came in increasing numbers. Described as interns, work-traders and sometimes WWOOFers, they lived at Bellyacres, some for a few weeks, some for a couple of months and some for years. Without them, many of our ecovillage community dreams would never have been realised. Their youthful energy, stories, music, love, laughter, and talents created many happy memories and have enriched many lives especially my own. I am forever grateful for their contributions especially during the formative years of S.P.A.C.E. providing the bulk of our workforce and saving my back and body from a total breakdown.
Who were these people and what kind of diversity did we embrace during my time at Bellyacres? I’m proud to say that our community included people from a wide range of cultural and religious backgrounds, a rainbow of racial colours and sexual orientations, single mothers, single fathers, pregnant women, families with kids—some as many as six, teenagers, and grandparents. We mixed up daughters of ambassadors with sons of undocumented immigrants. We lived with christians, atheists, agnostics, jews, muslims, buddhists and unitarian universalists, spiritualists, gurus, gromlins, and geeks. There was an amazing mix of shared skills with world-class jugglers, circus acrobats, aerialists, buskers, bakers, drum masters, flute makers, chopstick makers, guitar masters, university professors, singers, dancers, and tantric sexuality coaches.
Our very first work exchanger was Hat Man, a visiting juggler. In 1991, I set him up with a jungalow and access to our kitchen and put him to work. The bulldozer had completed basic clearing at the time but, since our land was formed by a’a lava, it was just a layer of uneven, broken rocks. Our first challenge was to flatten it and get some grass growing before the weed trees and vines reclaimed it and made it jungle again. Week after week, Hat Man cruised the land throwing thousands of small rocks into piles, making it possible for me to later spread cinders and start our first grass growing experimentation.
The daily rock throwing exercise was not only great practice for Hat Man’s employment as a juggling teacher for my HICCUP circus, but also projected him into a later career as an entertainer on cruise ships and a frequent visitor to Hawai’i. His lava clearing experience made him determined to never have to do hard labor again. His stay with us opened me up to the possibility of recruiting other willing workers to help with the sustainable living model that I was creating.
Since we rarely had the funds to hire land maintenance workers at Bellyacres I signed us up to a few websites to recruit volunteers, put the word out locally and also had our members send us people. Our internship program expanded very successfully and we had many happy campers returning more than once. I researched the best practices and our guests gave us such rave reviews that eventually I was receiving 8-10 work exchange enquiries each week. By 2010, I had to remove us from the WWOOF website because I was overwhelmed dealing with enquiries and the recruitment process.
For our interns their stay at Bellyacres was often like being on an alien planet. Living in a tropical rainforest and being away from home or college was a first for many of them and it introduced them to totally new, often strange, experiences. They slept in our isolated rustic jungalows, situated along winding trails, deep in the dense jungle. The cabins were quaint in the daytime but access after sundown required a flashlight and a brave heart. Dimly lit with oil lamps they were shared with an assortment of creepy crawly creatures that made wild noises through the night. Our customised accommodations built with bamboo, local tropical woods and screen windows, featured raised beds, squeaky mattresses, a makeshift table, and a funky chair. They housed individuals, couples, or triads, depending on personal taste and lifestyle choices.
Our communal kitchen was the social hub for all our interns and we had some really fun times together. They were super creative with games and activities to replace the T.V. culture they left behind. We asked everyone to participate in a group food plan and share food purchasing, cooking, and clean up. It worked well until we started getting more and more people with food fetishes and got overwhelmed catering to designer diets. Vegetarianism was ok, but beyond that we needed people to be flexible and try to love the foods we grew like papayas, avocados, bananas, coconuts, breadfruit, oranges, limes, etc.
To use more products from our land for food and drink, I tried really hard to educate residents and interns about the uses and preparation of existing Belly-grown foods; like our roosters, breadfruit, cooking bananas, coconuts, exotic fruits, yellow guavas, mamaki tea, and kumquat liqueur. Ironically, I had great success educating many of our open minded young visitors while sadly, many of our resident members remained dedicated to a more temperate-climate diet and rarely ate the foods that loved to grow on our land.
The work we gave the interns was totally varied and changed constantly with the season, the weather, and whatever projects we had going on. There was very little routine apart from taking care of the chickens and horses. A typical work day at Bellyacres for our wonderful work exchange folks could include a huge variety of tasks. A random selection included: Cut, trim, debark, tow, and stack posts for construction, fix new handles on broken tools, weed/mulch around palm trees, repair couch cover, build new yurt door, build new stairs for Jungalow, brush and feed horses, scoop horse poop, take kitchen compost to chicken coop, feed and water worms, harvest fruit, make worm tea and spray fruit trees, sweep leaves off kitchen and workshop roofs, repair driveway potholes and gates, remove dead trees, repair bikes, spread pond weed around fruit trees, fill the kitchen water tank, redecorate a gypsy wagon and paint the roof of our S.P.A.C.E. greenhouse.
Naturally our interns deserved some good recreation time after all this work. In order for them to experience the local beach or warm ponds we built a decent fleet of working bikes. It was fairly easy to get donations of old bikes—and even purchase a few cheap deals in the neighbourhood but they invariably came with maintenance needs so I would assign our most mechanically-minded volunteer to do thorough overhauls. It worked well except when some lazy ass would just abandon a broken down machine, take another, and leave it for someone else to fix. We also had a few bikes stolen at the beach when the same idiots forgot or ignored instructions to lock them up. Overall, the bike program was a success and became an important and very sustainable transportation option over many years for our interns, renters, and even a few members.
On the land we all had a lot of good times with plenty of partying. We’d also take interns in our van to cool spots like the the champagne pond, lava caves, and the lava flow itself or on a field excursions to Volcano National Park or camping at one of our favourite beaches on the other side of the island. Hanging out with locals and going to places that tourists typically miss, deepened the interns experience while staying at Bellyacres and built our reputation as a popular destination for volunteers. A circus community in rural Hawaii has lots of appeal.
Our HICCUP circus had an extensive costume collection gathered over many years and our interns took full advantage of this opportunity to clown around. They also had access to all of our circus toys and many of them learned to juggle Their childlike exuberance explored and embraced the zany aspects of our artistic community and brought joyful moments and big beaming smiles to all of us lucky enough to be living there.
Eventually my daughter and I were having more good times with this group than with members who were living at—or passing through Bellyacres. The interns made me realise that my connection to most of my fellow members had become more related to business than sharing the fun activities of the past. Something had changed with the joyful jugglers and the party people that I used to know and, sadly, we had grown apart.
Hat Man was the first of about two hundred interns who made Bellyacres their home base for a while. Without them, our paradise would not have survived and might easily have been overtaken again by the jungle. Their hard work made it possible for Bellyacres to become a model of sustainable community development. I later came to the realisation that the input of our guest workers would be required indefinitely if we were to maintain the standards we had established. However, by 2014, our newer resident membership disagreed. I left Bellyacres and the program has since fallen apart and sadly, without interns to help, our aging resident members are no longer able to support the same sustainable goals that I pursued so passionately.
I was deeply saddened by these events, but I left with the satisfaction of knowing that, for the period of my tenure, I did my best guiding the kind of pioneering community experiment that demonstrates how to build resilience and thrive more sustainably. I also dream that hundreds of our hardworking interns, our community neighbours and the multitude of visitors who lived with us sharing this experience will hopefully, in their own ways, use the lessons learned and continue living the sustainable dream.
Many of the interns who contributed directly to Bellyacres have maintained contact with me over the years. Their compliments about their experiences often mention how Bellyacres profoundly affected them and changed their lives. These young people also influenced the history and achievements of Bellyacres and we could not have done it without them. They were our engine for many of the years when I was the driver and I’m forever grateful.
We have a really great 3 minutes video describing Bellyacres for our Interns – I highly recommend taking a peak at: https://youtu.be/eZ63I5MZIFU