Hawaii has been on my travel bucket list for as long as I can remember…active volcanoes, spinner dolphins and insane stargazing being some of the many reasons why!
But it’s notoriously expensive to travel in Hawaii, so I didn’t really consider it when I was first planning my year of yoga travels. I just assumed it would eat up too much of my budget.
That was until an opportunity cropped up to do a work trade at a yoga retreat centre on the Big Island. I applied for the role of yoga instructor in exchange for free accommodation and within a month I had switched up my plans and was on my way!
I’ve split this post into two sections: the first is a review of the retreat centre I worked at and the second is my personal experience of living like a local as a work trader (spoiler: IT WAS AMAZING!)
The Kirpal Meditation and Ecological Centre (KMEC)
I spent my time on the Big Island working at the Kirpal Meditation and Ecological Centre (KMEC) as a yoga teacher. This is my honest review of the centre from the perspective of both a guest and a work-trader 🙂
This lovely little retreat centre is on the Big Island of Hawaii in an area called Pahoa. Since this side of the island is in the shadow of the volcano (Kilauea) it tends to be the more rainy/cloudy side, but as a result it is so lush and rugged it feels like you’re in the Jungle Book.
The volcano is very active, which has also put people off developing the land here. There was a big eruption in 2014 which threatened to enter the town of Pahoa, but so far it’s still standing.
In fact, the volcano was erupting a steady flow of lava into the sea during my stay, we went to go and look at the surface flow and poke it with sticks (and do handstands on it!).
Another great thing about being on this side of the island is the clear night skies. Lack of building developments = no light pollution = amazing stargazing! When wandering back to my cabin at night I would look up at the stars and feel so grateful for the opportunity to be staying there. I could even see the stars from my bed some nights.
If you’re staying at KMEC as a guest you’ll want to rent a car. Although hitchhiking is very common here, a lot of the tourist sites are best to visit very early in the morning (or very late at night) and you can’t rely on hitching a ride in the dark. KMEC is also in quite a remote location, which makes hitching slightly more difficult.
There are about 10 log cabins for guests spaced out over the property. They are basic but if you’re a fan of adventure and being at one with nature then you will love them! You’ll fall asleep at night to the croaks of the coqui frogs and the sound of the ocean in the distance. It’s truly magical.
Some of the cabins have en-suite bathrooms, otherwise there are three bathrooms shared between guests.
The cheapest cabin is about $50 for a twin room with a shared bathroom and towels/ linen provided.
The work trade volunteers at KMEC cook breakfast and dinner in the community kitchen, which guests can choose to have at an extra cost ($10 for breakfast, $16 for dinner). Everything is vegan, gluten-free and organic. And even though my time in Hawaii made me realise that I don’t want to eat vegan anymore, that had absolutely nothing to do with KMEC’s delicious food!
Breakfast isn’t really anything to write home about and is a bit overpriced in my opinion. It was a buffet of coffee/tea, a selection of gluten-free cereals, a basic fruit salad and then from time to time a special fruit like rollinia or lillikoi. The home made granola was pretty good, but if I were a guest I would just buy a bag of oats and some fruit and make my own breakfasts.
The dinners, however – another story! We had a chef staying with us who is now interning at some ridiculously fancy restaurant in New York – she was so talented and everything she made was to die for. Some sample meals we had:
- Vegan tacos and chilli
- Buffalo tofu
- Jackfruit BBQ “pulled pork”
- Quinoa crust pizza
She even made us healthy vegan desserts like choco-avocado mousse and key lime pie. I have so many recipes from her I can’t wait to try at home!
The communal dining area is under a big gazebo fitted with fairy lights. I spent many a happy evening sitting here with the other volunteers and guests, laughing and joking under those beautiful, twinkling lights!
The property is off-the-grid meaning everything runs off solar power, propane or a backup generator. A rainwater catchment system provides filtered water for everything – showers, taps, washing machines. During spells of dry weather this meant we ran out of water a couple of times and had to call in reinforcements to fill up the water tanks!
The grounds are filled with various fruit-bearing trees like oranges, limes, bananas, and some more obscure ones like rollinia, eggfruits and lillikoi, even avocado trees. Some of my time was spent harvesting them for our meals, which I really enjoyed! Any food or garden waste is made into compost that we used to fertilise the gardens.
The experience of living at KMEC has made me so much more conscious of sustainability and I’m fully committed to implementing lots of the tricks I have learnt once I’m back in civilisation. One of the habits I’m sure you’ll all want to hear about is selective loo flushing to save water. As a guide from KMEC: “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown flush it down!”
Yoga and meditation
Guests staying at KMEC can attend morning yoga classes in the lovely yoga hale for $10, taught either by yours truly or the other resident yoga teacher. I taught Ashtanga and Yin yoga on alternating days to make sure there was a style to suit everyone. Comparing my old commute to morning yoga classes in London (45 mins on a crowded tube) to my commute at KMEC: a stroll through the trees, just as the sun was rising over the sea…I felt so so blessed everyday to be able to practise and teach here! The view from the shala in the morning wasn’t bad either:
At the bottom of the gardens you’ll find a Balinese meditation pavilion, the pride and joy of Len, the owner of the property. The parts were all flown in from Bali and blessed by some sort of Guru. There’s a mini library in there, mostly the teachings of Master Kirpal Singh, the meditation guru after whom the centre was named.
Despite the title of “meditation centre”, there really isn’t anything in the way of guided meditations right now! Guests are free to use the pavilion 24/7 of course, but many of them would inquire about guided sessions, which are only held a few weeks of the year when Len is around.
Life as a work trader
There are usually about 15 volunteers staying at KMEC at any one time, plus two managers who are full time employees. I was sharing a bunk bed in a teensy cabin with one other volunteer. This made me a little claustrophobic at first but actually we were rarely in our cabins apart from right before bed so I had no trouble with personal space issues! Also, it turned out I would become BFFs with my roomie Megan and we never wanted to be apart anyway.
We pretty much lived outdoors, which I LOVED. Our cabin had a screen as a window to keep bugs out (didn’t work) but apart from that you feel like you’re just living at one with nature. Even in the bathroom, when you shower or sit on the loo you’re looking out into the jungle!
The jobs you can do as a work trader at KMEC include maintenance, gardening, managing the reception, cooking, cleaning and yoga teaching. In exchange for your accommodation and free daily yoga, volunteers are asked to work 25 hours per week and pay $150 a month towards the food budget. Usually the minimum commitment is three months but some stayed less/more.
I did a mixture of yoga teaching, housekeeping, working on reception and a bit of cooking for my ohana. Once I even shadowed my bro Omair and became a “maintenance girl” for the day, learning the ropes on composting and changing the propane! One of my fave memories of all is cruising along to the dump in the van with Omair, trailer full of garbage in tow, listening to grime music.
My typical working day (5 days a week) looked something like this:
7:30 – 9: teach yoga
9 – 10: breakfast
10 – 1: housekeeping/work on reception/cook lunch
1 – 2: lunch
2 – 5: chill, yoga practice, read, go to the beach
6:30: dinner + chill!
We were also allowed to take the van on one or two excursions a week free of charge. This usually involved a trip to Uncle Roberts’ night market but once we drove out before sunrise to see the lava from Kilauea volcano flowing into the ocean. A few of us also took the van to Waipio Valley and camped there for a couple of days.
As work trades are so common in this part of Hawaii, I really felt like part of a big community, almost as if I was living like a local. The same people would pick me up when I was hitch hiking, I’d see people I knew at Uncle Robert’s night market or at Kehena beach for the drum circle on a Sunday! I loved this way of travelling compared to just staying in hostels/hotels and doing touristy things every single day. Not only was it MUCH cheaper, but we got to find out about sites and activities that tourists would never see, simply because we were with people who live on the island permanently and knew all the secrets!
Room for improvement
In the name of honest blogging, I’ll mention a couple of tiny things that could have been better. Number one is the Wifi – we had limited data so a couple of times we ran out and the Wifi speed was slower than a dial-up modem. But at the same time, we should probably all get off Instagram and enjoying the beautiful jungle so maybe this was a good thing!
Then there were a few gripes at the beginning of my stay about people being promised a certain role and then having to do more hands-on work than they expected. But to be honest, staying at a place like KMEC, these minor issues just melted away in comparison to the amazing experience of being in the Hawaiian jungle!
“Ohana means family”
Ok now for the soppy part. It’s really hard to put into words how I feel about the people I met at KMEC. I know it’s inevitable to become close with people you’re living and working with, but there was definitely something special about the crew of Feb – April 2017!
I like to think of myself as a rather jolly person, but I haven’t laughed as much as I did with my KMEC ohana in such a long time. Even though we were experiencing some of the most unique, out-of-this-world activities on a weekly basis (active lava flows, wild horses, whale watching!) it’s the smaller things that make my heart ache with joy and happiness.
Like Meg and I screaming like little girls as we chased cockroaches out of our room almost on a nightly basis. Or never being able to get the tunes from The Universal Dances of Peace out of our heads. Or hitchhiking 3 hours across the volcano with Maria and Meg crammed in the back of a truck with one STANKY dog named Bob.
I could go on forever; in fact I’m going to include a lot more about our adventures in my next blog post about the Big Island. But suffice to say it was one of the happiest times in my life so far. Big Island: you have my heart!
Teaching yoga at KMEC
I felt like this needed its own little section because of just how much I gained from my teaching experience at KMEC.
Now, I’m not one to blow my own trumpet but I really felt that I was blossoming as a teacher over my few months in Hawaii! By asking for feedback from every willing student to find what was working / not working for them I started to become even more confident and felt like I honed in on my own unique teaching style.
There’s a great shared sense of pride and joy that comes with watching students progress in their asana practice over weeks/months of teaching. I worked with my friends every day on drills to work up to more advanced postures they wanted to perfect, such as headstands or forearm stands. It’s certainly true that it’s not all about the posture, but looking back at how far your students have progressed and how hard they’ve worked is extremely rewarding. I almost felt like crying when my roomie Meg held her first headstand after working so hard on her strengthening drills every day. That feeling is multiplied by a million when your students are also your friends.
My time at KMEC was truly one of the happiest times of my life. Everyone who passes through remarks on just how special the energy is here, guests and staff alike. This side of the island has so many unique things to see and do (see my upcoming Big Island photo diary for more info on activities), and KMEC is the perfect base from which to access all of them, whilst being a unique experience in its own right!
I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to be a part of this special community and I truly mean it when I say: Big Island, I’ll be back <3
Mahalo for reading guys 🙂