Jeroen, 24 years old. Together with Bart he is the initiator of Meraki Algarve, with Vegan Hills as their home base. We spoke to Bart and Jeroen last October in Portugal about their adventures, ideals and future plans about building a sustainable life. At the moment Jeroen is in Africa for 6 months and Bart is busy developing the land.

Different world view

For a long time I had no clue what I wanted. I studied Economics simply because I didn’t know what else to do. I was good at studying; it’s relatively easy for me to read, analyse and summarise various perspectives in order to turn it into a coherent story. At a certain point during my studies I started reading lots of books about the neuroplasticity of the brain, nutrition, quantum physics etc. This changed my world view. I started questioning the way we are living our lives. During my Master in Business Development and Entrepreneurship my interest in sustainability and social entrepreneurship was sparked, which finally resulted in me writing a thesis on all of these topics combined. I researched in what way the knowledge and information one has, influences his/her day to day behaviour.

Back to nature

In 2015 I finished my Master’s and in the summer I worked at a surfcamp. Afterwards I was planning on working as a snowboard instructor for the winter and getting my off track snowboard teacher diploma, another passion of mine. I had also saved up to travel through South America. At the same time Bart, a good friend of mine, was traveling through Portugal and asked me to come over. In the end I went to Portugal. Together we traveled through the South of Portugal for a month and realised – and this is where it all starts – that Portugal’s wilderness and beautiful climate make for the perfect place to start something for ourselves. To create a space where you can live a pleasant life but also facilitate others and let them experience a different (more sustainable) way of living, back to nature. So we stayed.

Setbacks

As our ideas started to take form, we dealt with some setbacks. We met a guy who was in a challenging situation so we helped him setting up a business idea he had. After this we had the opportunity to buy a piece of land from him. But a few weeks later we found out it was all a scam and we had lost around 30 thousand euro’s. This of course changed everything. In the meantime we had already spent a couple of months in Portugal and realised that there are a lot of like-minded people living here. Of course there are also a few people here that are trying to escape society, but mostly it are people setting up projects with similar ideas about how we can live in a more sustainable way. This made us still feel connected to Portugal, despite of what had happened.

Bart needed to go to Belgium for work during the summer, but I didn’t really have a plan. Well, originally the plan was to travel through South America after Portugal, but I had just lost all my savings so this wasn’t an option. So I had the choice: what to do? Luckily I have my degree and experience, which has always given me the confidence that I’ll always be able to find a job. But the only motive for finding a job was a financial one; I would rather have a few extra thousand euro’s to fall back on than hit the zero. Still, going back to Holland for a job felt hollow and empty. Normally, an economics student finishes his or her degree and starts looking for an internship. Which organisation you work for doesn’t really matter, as long as you can do the internship, put this on your cv and start working. The larger organisations where money, oil etc. play an important role are good for the economy but often don’t take the wellbeing of the people and the planet into account. For me there is no intrinsic motivation to work for such a company. You do what is expected of you, you conform to certain norms and values, but it doesn’t reflect your own worldview.

A new opportunity

Despite the different turn of events, I chose to stay in Portugal, to see what would happen. Even though it wasn’t the most logical step, it still felt like the right decision. For me it was strange; to be in a situation with so little financial back up. Luckily my parents get me and are able to support me in the minimal way necessary. Even though our first piece of land fell through, a new opportunity soon presented itself; Vegan Hills.

Vegan Hills covers 100 hectares on the West coast of Portugal where various people will live together, each on their self chosen piece of land. The aim at Vegan Hills is to live ethically and sustainably. The first people, like Bart and Jeroen, have started living there and are building their own (off grid) house.

Vegan Hills

Bart and me decided to join the project and invested our remaining money. It’s a complex and exciting process, with 30-35 households coming together, each having their own vision of how the project should take form. There are still elements that make for an uncertain situation, but I decided to let go and see what happens. Bart always says; “instead of taking  distance you can also just go for it and make something out of it.” Besides, it is a case of learning by doing. You can read books on permaculture, but you learn most from visiting projects in the area and planning your own project. How do you set up a solar system? How do you make a wind turbine? How do you ensure you have enough water on your land? That is my strategy now; to learn more about this, which is giving me a lot of satisfaction. I know being outside in nature and working with my hands is something that suits me.

Patience

There were also times when I thought “what the fuck am I doing?” For instance when I was renovating a rusty old campervan while I had no experience fixing cars. It was just me with this crappy van in Portugal on a temporary spot, without running water or electricity. But if you look at the whole situation and it still feels right, this gives a renewed sense of trust. I knew I needed to have patience for our plans to crystallise. And if things didn’t work out, then that was ok too. But quitting because of that one fear that takes hold of you, isn’t the way.

What would help us at the moment? Half a million on our bank account to develop the land would be quite welcome! We want to build guest houses from natural materials, dig a lake and start with reforestation. The knowledge, tools and support to realise Meraki are already on hand, but the financial situation is the main issue now.

natural building permaculture

With Meraki Algarve, Bart and Jeroen will be offering holidays at their piece of land. Holidays with a combination of relaxation, nature, sports, inspiring eco projects and practical experience. Bart and Jeroen strive to create a self-sufficient way of living and to share this with others who are ready for a new perspective.

Society

I don’t think that being in Portugal means we’re no longer part of society. We’re still just as much involved and want to create change from the inside out. That’s why I think it’s so important that you are doing these interviews with At Your Own Pace; mapping out all of these different ways of living. This can build trust and show others that our society isn’t as bad as it may seem. You don’t need to distance yourself from society, because you can’t, we are all living together on this planet. But you can change your lifestyle in order to create a positive impact.

Energy

Energy entails everything. What has always fascinated me are the statements of the world’s greatest thinkers, such as Einstein or Tesla, who dare to claim that everything is energy and that our whole perceived reality consists of energy and frequencies. Energy can turn on a lamp but can also move you to action. It works as a perfect system where if you make decisions based on your rational mind or fear, the universe will tell you “that’s fine, but don’t expect me to give you energy”. But if you make a decision more aligned with yourself, the universe will respond differently and it will tell you “go do it, I’ll give you energy!”

Soon we will post part II, in which Bart will be talking about his story…

Follow Jeroen and Bart on instagram / facebook or go to to their website