Saturday, January 06, 2007

This Low Tech Life

A few weeks ago, on the second day of construction of a small house where we will soon harvest honey, one of the beekeepers I work with here asked a complicated question. “So do people build houses like this in the U.S.?” I get questions like that pretty often, and I usually have to scratch my head a bit to answer them. I looked around our construction site. Salome made fine adjustments to one of the log cornerposts with an axe, while Gabriel and a couple other fellows raised a beam across the other two corners we had planted in holes dug with the point of a machete. The rest of the crew industriously cut canes of green overo bush to the right length to weave into walls. Do people build houses like this in the U.S.? In National Geographic specials on T.V., in Alaska they might! My answer came out as a somewhat garbled translation into Spanish. Words fail me in English when I try to convey the differences between life in this slice of the Peruvian campo and life back in the U.S., and my Spanish is only slowly building up to the job of describing them. I will probably do a bad job of conveying this in English as well. Have patience.

The purpose of the honey house is to provide a safe and relatively sterile environment to harvest and pack honey from the thirty hives currently run by the association of beekeepers I work with. Every member also keeps at least that many hives on his or her own, but these hives and the honey house, the harvest equipment, and the 3km radius around the hives all meet the specifications for certified organic honey. Along with production from several other associations of beekeepers we hope to start exporting, possibly to the U.S., Japan, or the European Union. This is a fairly twenty first century enterprise. But the tools we use to accomplish all of this seems very nineteenth century, or perhaps earlier. Besides the axes and machetes that I have mentioned, the other tools we used to build included one shovel, a three and a half meter measuring tape, which was a little short for a three by four meter structure, a string to mark lines with, and another string with a weight on it as a level. I’m happy to report that the master builders knew the Pythagorean theorem as well as my carpenter brother in law, and it works for making square corners just as well as it did when they built the pyramids. The frame and roof beams of this little house are built of rough cut trunks of algarrobo trees and bamboo, and the walls are curtains of woven canes plastered with a mixture of mud and sawdust. Fans of Tudor architecture will recognize the technique of half timbering, a good way to stretch scarce or expensive lumber. Everything we used at the site, including water to mix the mud plaster and cement for the floor, had to get hauled in on burro cart.

Another question I get frequently is “Do you have many burro carts in the U.S.?” Well maybe, I think, way out in the campo of the U.S. But then the image comes to mind of the advertisement for the Los Angeles County Fair touting the original four by four, our friend the burro. At various times, usually when the only car we owned among us was an absolute broken down old beater, my brother and our brother in law would joke about how we confidently could jump into out Thunder Chariot in the morning and roar off on whatever errand we needed to pursue. We noted how our rusting heaps of barely functioning machinery marked us as lords of earthly creation, infinitely more privileged than the majority of the world’s population. I think upon this often, as I sit on the donkey cart on the way to the well to get the hundred and fifty or so liters of water we run through about every day and a half. I note how privileged I am to live with a family that owns both donkey and cart, and lives only two kilometers from the well with the diesel driven pump.

A little side note on access to water: That hundred and fifty odd liters that our family of six goes through is huge water consumption. People who have no cart for their burro can only use as much as the burro can carry in giant saddlebags, usually two or for a big strong burro, four big jugs, about twenty liters each. I had a good chance to note just how much less water that means when the tire on our burro cart completely died. It had been flat for two weeks, but the cart still ran, painfully slowly, through the soft sandy soil here, and no one seemed to be in a rush to fix it. Then the wheel just stopped moving. To complicate matters more, the motorist in charge of the diesel pump took New Years day off, and then a couple more after. I can’t blame him, as the pump runs constantly and loudly to keep water flowing to the lime and mango orchards, and he never gets a break. But when the pump doesn’t run, we have to fall back on the hand cranked wells, and the closest one gives slightly saline water. We have been borrowing the use of a friend’s burro and on some days we can use brother Gabriel’s cart, so we get by okay, but it underlines the lack of access everyone here faces. When the rainy season comes the well will shut down more often, as you don’t need to pump water to an orchard that is getting irrigated by the rain. Water flows in what are now dry river beds, but this carries run off from the surrounding countryside, where almost no one has a latrine. We are planting the idea of harvesting rainwater from roofs. In one rainstorm we set out buckets and washtubs under the eaves and collected about twenty gallons.

Between the burro carts, the free ranging livestock wandering everywhere, the immense value of the few hand operated wells, the occasional neighbor riding by on a horse, or the kerosene lamps and candles we use for lighting many nights, the campo feels at times very much like an old western movie. Late at night the silence is only broken by the occasional dog barking, rooster crowing, or donkey braying. Then there are the nights when our host family decides to burn some gas in the generator they own, and we watch T.V. from Lima or badly pirated DVD copies of kung fu movies from the seventies. Some nights I hear cumbia music echoing through the night and lights on the horizon coming from a place far out in the campo where electricity only comes from a generator. It’s a little strange, but someone is having some fun. That’s how life is out in the campo


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