This is the first entry in a two part long-form travel essay. Imagine walking down the sidewalk on a dark street and glancing through a window in a lit house. For an instant, you see into a world that is normally hidden from view. Similarly, this essay is a glimpse into my experiences of two different days in two different places during 2.5 months traveling and working throughout South Africa. Enjoy!
Part One: Baardskeerdersbos, Western Cape, South Africa
The sun must already be up. It is bright, albeit only as bright as the one window’s frame will allow. The ubiquitous turtle doves are already belting out their distinctive “woohoo hoohoo hoohoo”. It is cool, almost cold, as I arise from bed, adding a sense of urgency to finding yesterday’s long-sleeve shirt. The pounding of last night’s music has evaporated, yet the rhythm insists on clinging to the inside of my skull. How does music get stuck in my head so easily? It wasn’t even music meant for me – the adjacent farm’s workers had blown their wages on booze and drugs and launched into the serious business of raging off into the night. I could feel the low, bass-laden beats, and their whoops rang out clear. Part of me envied their exuberance, but most of me was simply annoyed. No matter. I open the door of the rough-hewn wooden shed where I’ve slept and let in the morning.
Let me pause a moment. I am in the tiny town of Bardskeerdersbos, South Africa. It consists of one pub and one grocery-liquor-gas store. Add together a smattering of artists, transient workers, several farms, a new ‘tar’ road, and you’ve got a sense of the place. My traveling partner – let’s call her “V” – and I traveled here by bus, arriving a week ago. We began west and haltingly traveled east, stopping for a few days here and there. There was the vibrant, urban center of Cape Town, followed by bike riding and wine drinking in Stellenbosch. The stunningly beautiful whale-watching center of Hermanus marked a temporary end to our nomadism. We’ve come to live with a South African family – Sue, Jan, and their son Max – for two weeks. We’re here to help build their home and to lend a hand around the farm. This arrangement affords us a sense of stability and security in a country that struggles with both. This temporary refuge comes a complete with fresh meals, a bed in a wooden shed without electricity or water, and the joy of waking to the turtle doves. It is elegantly simple.
It is early morning; my favorite time of the day. I fix myself a small cup of coffee and sit down. Instead of mindlessly scrolling through my phone, I write in my journal and take in the horizon. The green plastic chair beneath me starts cold, but it warms as do I with each sip of coffee. It is a slow, very human pace. I certainly can connect, but both the internet and electricity are limited. Nobody has walked up the hill and turned the solar panels that power the refrigerator, a handful of lights, and cell phones. The idea of a limit re-frames my thinking. Without endless cheap electricity at my disposal, I think about when to charge my phone. I use it more sparingly and to actually communicate. I am less connected to the outer world, but more in tune with the world around me. I notice more of what is happening around me. I still get bored and want to distract myself, but more often I am aware of this neediness – this addiction to my phone – and don’t indulge it. The need passes. I take another sip of coffee. I write.
Today we are to start on the walls of the straw-bale home. We spent last week pouring concrete for the floor. V was responsible for filling the buckets – one of cement, four of sand, four of gravel. My job was to carry, lift, and pour each in turn into the mixer, adding water to get the ‘perfect’ consistency; too watery and the concrete is weak and liable to cracks, but too dry and it is too firm to shape properly. Lift, carry, empty, observe. How is the moisture? The ‘jenny’ rumbles on from behind the pile of straw bales, powering the cement mixer in its endless quest of looping productivity. The ingredients will eventually transform into concrete. I hold similar hopes for my journal recordings; eventually the pieces of this experience will add up to a coherent whole. But alas, this batch is done; the concrete is perfectly mixed and ready to become a new floor. Let me quickly write down this pearl of wisdom, before my coffee gets cold and it is time for breakfast.
These ideas, these experiences, my life… it all comes so quickly. I want them to last. I don’t want to forget and I don’t want to be forgotten. I must write this all down. Part of me wants to record my genius into concrete, securing my legacy for the future… but I quickly become self-conscious and worry if I even mixed the concrete correctly. So, I jot down a few hurried sentences and let my stomach pull me on towards breakfast. Surely the combination of milk, granola, and fresh figs will last me at least until lunch. That’s future enough for now. Plus, we’re starting on the straw-bales today and I am impatient to begin.
First, we select a bale from the pile. The twine must hold it in a roughly rectangular shape or we must retie it. It must be dry. We don’t want moisture, mold, or rot in the wall. Each bale is laid down like a brick, overlapping with the bales above and below, to create a thick, strong wall. But first, each bale must be ‘cobbed’; we press wet clay into opposite sides of the bale using our hands and a stick. Sue shows us how. We dig clay out of the ground and mix it with water in an old bathtub. Like concrete, it cannot be too watery or too dry. Tirelessly, we take turns ‘dancing’ in the bathtub; our bare feet rise and fall, breaking apart the clay and pressing it between our toes. Last night’s beat comes back to mind. Our pounding feet transform the clay into a beautiful golden slurry, as if we are alchemists converting worthless metals into gold. We cob each bale and lift it into the wall. The slurry-infused bales dry in place forming a solid contiguous wall, strong enough to withstand the coming winter rains and winds. We fall into a rhythm – select, cob, lift, place, repeat. Ever so slowly, the wall creeps upwards toward the roof.
Overhead, the metal roof will serve double duty; first as protection from the elements and second as a surface to gather rainwater. Steel beams support the roof; Jan and Sue erected the roof on their own. Thankfully, I didn’t have to do what Jan did – straddle a beam 15 feet high while gusts of wind swirled and tugged at him. Winter winds regularly reach 20-30 m.p.h. It must have been precarious. No wonder Jan dreams of having a wind generator to help power the house. The tenacity, grit, and commitment needed to grind out a dream from the dry, red African soil is contrasted by the rewards and abundance of the self-sufficient dream.
Beyond the reach of boards and CEOs, free from the servitude of loans, and sitting outside the electrical grid, one is able to entertain what it means to be self-sufficient, if only for a small patch of our beautiful planet. It is a compelling life, full of hard questions of why and how and when and why again. It is easier, safer, and simpler to avoid these questions in the first place. This family, it seems to me, is looking at life head-on and living the hard questions. I, for one, fear failure. What if I screw it up? It’s easier to conform. It’s simpler to not ask questions. It is comfortable to fall back into the same habits, the same vices, the same ol’ same ol’. But then again… when has the easy way ever been the best way?
How about you? Do you ever simply stop, notice, and ask questions? Do you wonder what someone else thinks or feels? What are the hopes and dreams of a small bush? Does that bird like the taste of its dinner? Do I want to drive into work? Am I actually doing anything meaningful with my life? What am I feeling right now? Must I feel this way or do I because I think I should or because my parents taught me to feel this way? Is that spider poisonous? Why does almost everyone despise snakes? Do other people wonder these things? Why do all suburban homes look the same? Do I want to trade my life for money to buy a nice house and car? I could go on, but this is why my journal exists. At the center of all of this is one of life’s central questions: Why do I exist?
I wonder if I am I having some sort of existential crisis, a form of early-onset midlife crisis. It does me no good to ask these questions; it only makes me wonder if I’m crazy. Nobody else seems to ask or care. Maybe I exist right now to help this family in this town with this housing project. It is as good an answer as any, yet I’m not wed to it. There is some value in keeping the question open, in not solidifying my answer into concrete. Try as I might, past experience suggests that most of what I think I know is not actually true. But the world in front of me is as real as it gets, as best I can tell. The wall is several bales higher; Sue, Jan, and Max are one day closer to move-in day. The setting sun; my tired body – this is my experience, lest I fail to notice them. It does feel good to work hard and to contribute to something larger than myself. I do feel alive.
Who knows how I’ll feel tomorrow or next week, but I’m content as I return my head to the pillow. Another successful day in the books. Despite my best efforts, the pounding beat wiggles back into my psyche. I hope they – whoever ‘they’ are – are not partying tonight. I want to sleep. It is out of my control – out of any one person’s control. The place is alive and self-willed. And, thankfully, it hasn’t yet fully come under the purview of the boards and committees of the world. Life doesn’t exist to chase comfort, control, and security, I don’t think. But maybe it will seem different tomorrow…