(5/2/14 – 5/8/14)
My first experience using work-away has been fascinating, constructing a house made of bamboo (guadua) with a German man (Micah), a Slovenian woman (Taya), and a Colombian teacher (“Don” Aly). Work-away is a website that connects travelers to locals in need of help with their projects; usually farming, building, hostels, foundations, or teaching opportunities. The exchange is typically three or four hours of work per day for a place to sleep and one or two free meals a day. Other perks for me include learning new skills from experts and having the opportunity to hang out with groups of like-minded people for days or weeks at a time.
It’s difficult to coordinate arrival times and lengths of stay while traveling, especially by bike; my situation and current desires are always changing. I don’t want to have to commit to anything for too long now, I only want to flow with the current tide that is pulling me, but work-away seems to demand some commitments. Some work-away hosts reply to emails quickly and immediately share their location and contact information to facilitate conversations, others communicate sporadically and bogart their location and phone number until they are absolutely sure they want you there. I have been baffled by the difficulty of finding a place to work… for free no less.
Two jobs in the Colombia’s cafeteria zone fell through for me, after weeks of communication. I called up Micah (who had given me his phone number and general location in our opening email) to let him know that I wanted to work with him. Immediately he told me I was more than welcome for however long I wanted to stay; I knew this was a good match. The job is to build a family home on land donated for an educational eco-foundation. Several families will build bamboo homes here over the next few years, and the families will teach locals and children from the city about building these guadua homes, farming, and other ecological topics. For now, the work is on the first home; Micah’s home. I turned my bike north and headed for his land. Micah is kind, respectful, open-minded, an adventurer, and all around a joy to be around and to learn from.
The valley where I am working is La Florida, forty minutes from two sizable cities (Armenia and Pereira), yet a world away from the hustle. In my month and a half in Colombia I haven’t seen a more picturesque or tranquil setting. After making my final ascent and getting my first view of the little city below, I started laughing as a result of the beauty of the valley; the little boy licking an ice cream cone in the middle of the street added to the scene. This is the first place in Colombia where I have used the phrase; “I could really live here”.
The rain falls incessantly in this valley (as I understand it, this is the rainy season), providing soothing afternoons in the hammock for writing, reading, chatting, or sipping coffee. The clouds sit peacefully in the trees of the mountainside only a few hundred meters away, they rarely leave. The fertility of this area is astonishing; everything is green… and purple and yellow and red and orange. Plantains, bananas, beans, tomatoes, tomatoes de arbol (tomatoes of trees), cilantro, onions, and many other fruits and vegetables grow in mass here; a perfect setting for a family and a plentiful farm.
In the mornings Taya and I wake around 6 or 7 in our small bamboo house just adjacent to the larger house currently being constructed. After a breakfast of plantains and coffee, or arepas and coffee, or cheese and coffee, or coffee and coffee we relax for a bit longer. At some point we wander over to the magnificent two story guadua house, to meet Don Aly, to get our instructions for the day.
Once I start working, it’s hard for me to stop; I always want to finish whatever I start, and I always start too many things at once. We began by nailing esterilla, or “unrolled” bamboo to the primary structure of the building to form the foundation of the sand/mud/cement walls. After nailing the esterilla to other pieces of bamboo, wire is wrapped around and stretched between each nail, before completely hammering the nail in; this secures the esterilla. This process resulted in a feeling of satisfaction as the walls take shape; it also resulted in some awkwardly placed blisters on my hands.
The house is made of 90% bamboo, but there are other materials as well. Another job was to add a steel understructure to the floor, holding all of the boards in place to prevent shifting and creaking. Drilling 40 holes through the steel took hours and hours; I’m not sure if I was using the wrong tools or if the steel was using steroids. We framed windows with bamboo, began filling space between the floor boards with a glue/sawdust mixture, used a trowel to put a cement mixture to form the walls over the previously placed esterilla, and in the mean time worked on turning over soil for a new garden.
My favorite job of all, was moving 100 pound bags of sand up and down slippery slopes in a wheelbarrow during the pouring rain. We began the process before the rain started, but continued as the rain began to fall lightly. Soon the steep driveway and unfinished paths to the house were as slippery as plastic covered in oil. The only way to move the bags was working together to move the wheelbarrow at the same time; one, two, THREE , one, two.. wait wait… one, two, THREE!! I fell three or four times, covered in mud, I couldn’t stop laughing. Finally we finished the job.
In the afternoons Taya and I pass the time watching the rain, studying Spanish verbs, talking, laughing, cooking, and finally eating. We sleep around 8 or 9 to prepare for another day of adventure.
The whole situation here is amazing to me. The house is gorgeous and unique and best of all, very cheap to build; less than $5,000. The land here can also be bought at a low cost (2 acres for less than $8,000). The experience of helping to build a home is powerful and uplifting, and I can only imagine the experience of building your own home, with your own hands, of your own design, and with your own mind. Micah took classes to learn to build the house, then designed the house, created the plans, and is now seeing it realized. Micah and his beautiful family, a Colombian wife and two young kids, are creating a life here in this paradise for next to nothing, by standards of the western world. Life here will be cheap with free food from their own farm, no rent, cheap water (filtered rain water), and reasonable electricity costs. The freedom and tranquility here are unrivaled by any other place I have seen.
Hey… I could do this too. I’m intrigued, and I will not forget this experience or the things I have learned here. It’s impossible to know how each experience will shape your life, but I would not be at all surprised if I end up on the side of some majestic mountain somewhere in a hand crafted (Mateo crafted) two story bamboo house. Certainly there will be a farm, and hopefully happy little kids and a beautiful and adventurous wife to enjoy it all with me.