How do you write about a place that’s magical? Do you keep things to yourself that you’ve experienced? Do you share this place with others, or keep it guarded for fear of its potential misuse or abuse?
I don’t really know why I haven’t, till now, written about my time at the small, 1 hectare farm of Maria and Rudolfo in San Jose de Palle Viejo. It could be due to some of my questions above, or my very busy, transitory nature between volunteering and traveling to other farms, or a bit of both. One thing I’m certain of is we’ve done a lot on the farm together and writing about it all seems like a daunting task.
But, all that being said, Rudolfo and Maria are just too wonderful not to share with the world, so, welcome to la Casa de Corazones Jóvenes Eternos.
For any of you who follow my cycling blog, Pedalong, I’ve written about how I was introduced to the farm and its wonderful owners. I won’t go into details here about it, but it suffices to say, nada es casual.
As with any of my arrivals at new farms, the overwhelming sensations of newness, uncertainty and unfamiliarity clamor for my attention. This is amplified due to this being an unexpected and unplanned detour. I’m also in a awkward position as to what I “am” on the farm. Am I guest, a volunteer, a consultant? I’m still of the mindset/expectation that I’ll leave in a few days to continue riding to Pucallpa and don’t know how much to invest myself.
The brick and concrete farmhouse is fairly comfortable. I’ve got a bed, but it’s in a two-room section of the house with no doors separating me from Maria and her son, Jean Pierre, who both sleep in the main room. I’m excited to have a full-size bed (my previous nights were on a cot, about a foot shorter than I, in the corner of an un-used, baroque-styled sitting room with everything covered in plastic). My room is attached to the bathroom which also lacks a door. Like most toilets in Peru, the toilet paper is thrown in the trash instead of being flushed. The smell is a bit rough, the lack of privacy is something to get accustomed to, and the continual gurgling of a faulty tank flapper makes sleeping slightly difficult, but I manage with my travel earplugs that continue to be an amazing investment.
Waking up at 06:00 seems early and normal to me, but I had noticed, between a few tosses and turns in bed, that Rudolfo, also known as Maestro, was walking around and seemed to start work at 05:00. After my low-key mornings at Fundo Dshati, my body isn’t accustomed to waking before the sun begins its morning glow in the sky, but Rudolfo’s movements instill guilt in me for being warm and blanketed in bed. Sufficiently filled with lazy shame, I get up, get dressed and head out to find Maestro.
I catch Rudolfo zipping about. He greets me with a beautiful smile and exuberant energy that makes me feel even more shame for being a sleepyhead. Maestro wants to get my opinion on the farm, his practices, why some plants are dying, etc. I chuckle to myself because I’m still at the nascent stages of learning agriculture/permaculture, let alone being able to dole out off-the-cuff advice in Spanish. But, I need a tour of the farm to learn how I can help and offer help where I can.
The principal products they’re trying to grow are avocado and cherimoya. I’ll assume you know what the former is, but the latter is a fruit, Annona cherimola, that is sweet and delicious, some places know it as custard apple. Both fruits are widely cultivated in the valleys surrounding Chosica. Rolling up to a sickly avocado tree Maestro asks me why it’s sad and losing its leaves. I try to use my limited observational skills and assume it’s a lack of consistent moisture for the roots. The ground underneath the trees is very dry, with little to no mulch covering the roots. He says they get “bastante (sufficient)” water and thinks that’s not the case. We’ve reached a dead end in our diagnosis because neither of us have experience cultivating avocados. This is the first, of many, research tasks that gets noted in my brain.
Continuing the tour, Rudolfo gives me a brief history of the land. It was once a productive farm owned by a husband and wife until a record landslide (huayco) in ‘83 that hurled house-sized boulders down the stream valley destroying the original farm house leaving only the foundation and stubs for walls. A new farm house (the current one) was constructed lower down on the property. As the parents aged and were unable to tend the land, it fell abandoned because their children wanted nothing to do with farming. With neglect it became a basurero (trash dump) for the locals. The first two years, Rudolfo tells me, were purely clean up operations to remove or bury the shoes, broken glass and other detritus of civilization before any real farming work could begin. Underneath the line of tuna/prickly pear cactus is a 1.5m hole running the entire length of the wall filled with mountains of garbage. The wheelbarrow’s tire was patched over 60 times as he pushed it across the shard filled landscape.
As he shows me the upper lot and the baby cherimoya orchard he’s started, he also tells me of the various hired workers that’ve been on the land. “All of them were drunks and some were thieves,” he shares. It’s obvious he’s had a tough time working the farm by the stories I hear. Mounds of giant rocks stacked and backfilled with smaller rocks dot the landscape. He tells me all of them were strewn about the land and mostly moved to the piles by himself. Comfort has definitely not been Rudolfo’s companion here.
We finish the tour and sit under a molle tree flanked by a pomegranate bush, and he asks, “So, what are your suggestions?” I, again, laugh inside my head but keep a straight face and try to incorporate all of what he’s shown me about the farm. They’re working from an organic framework, but lack of any apparent holistic system for retaining water, using polycultures or other sustainable management techniques. I’m a bit overwhelmed at the amount of things needing fixing or reorganizing, but try to piece together a rough opinion of what needs to happen to start. I share my preliminary daunting list of tasks, and feel just as overwhelmed as Rudolfo looks when I finish.
Before we can fall deeper into our emotions of futility and despair, Maria calls us to breakfast. This schedule is also something I’m not used to, eating after working. At the other farms we always have breakfast first and then get to work, but Rudolfo likes to work from 05:00 till 09:00 or as late as 10:00 and then eat. But, in reality, if he had his way, and didn’t have the (s)motherly affection of Maria, he’d never eat and rarely rest. The man is a machine, or a highly tuned human, I’ve yet to really know.
Jean Pierre, referred to as JP, joins us at the small, plastic table in the outdoor kitchen as Maria serves us breakfast. I was told my first day that JP has some mental disabilities and is more like a large child than 27-year-old adult. I had asked Maestro on the tour if JP helps out on the farm and learned that he does the opposite. At first, Maestro tried to incorporate JP in the mountain of farm work to be done, but he’d either work excruciatingly slow or not work at all. He also would hide, bury or destroy tools. To top that off, he’d uproot plants that Rudolfo had planted, or undo other work, like replacing rocks cleaned up, and replace them all around the farm. This behavior made me appreciate even more the immensity of work Rudolfo has had to endure to bring the farm up to any semblance of a functioning order.
Breakfast consumed, I return to my “room” to study and meditate on how long I’ll stay at the farm. I had promised Limber of RECOVER Peru that I’d be there in a week or so, and felt obligated to fulfill my promise. But, I also feel a certain amount of pressure from my father to return to the states for Christmas, thus making any time in Pucallpa short and truncated. Realizing that my time would be best spent in one location for the month-and-a-half I had till my departure, I decide to stay on the farm to help, learn and give Rudolfo the support he desperately needs.
Not wanting to seem weak, lazy or incapable of lending a strong hand, I set my alarm for 04:45 to be up and ready to work with Rudolfo. It’s easier than yesterday, but still is a shock to the system. The chill of condensed valley air helps shake me awake. With my head lamp lit, I ask Maestro what he wants to tackle this morning and he tells me we need to harvest food for the cuyes (guinea pigs). We harvest camote (sweet potato) stems and leaves from the upper cherimoya section. The cuyes live in a heavy wire and thin concrete paneled box at the far end of the outdoor kitchen/patio. It’s a horrible placement for a variety of reasons, but the worst is that the cuy crap and urine just falls on the floor and requires daily cleaning by Maria and gets tracked all over the place. I mentally note the lost energy in the setup and vow that one day, soon, we’ll move it to a more appropriate location
Rudolfo says he wants to get more chickens, but we need to construct a safe place for them. Currently there are two chickens, a thin gallo appropriately called “Flaco” and another, huge chicken that we think is a female, but later, on my second stay on the farm in 2012, realize that it’s a male chicken… ¡jaja!
As usual, my consumer developed mind starts thinking, “Well, we’ll need to buy chicken wire to pen them, nails to…” but Rudolfo helps to break my consumption paradigm and gets me to look at my surroundings for ways of building naturally. He points out the giant stand of carrizo (giant reed), a tall grass with a long, fairly strong stem that can be used as a bastard bamboo. It’s not strong enough or durable enough to rely on for weight bearing structures without significant reinforcement and becomes brittle over time, but for constructing a chicken coop barrier it’s perfect.
Harvesting the carrizo looks straight forward, but damn me if I can’t operate a handsaw. I almost bend the blade a few times in my literal hack job, all under the watchful eye of Maestro. Ugh, I’m not enjoying the pressure, especially, when he keeps saying, “Lento, lento (slow, slow).” I end up giving up, realizing he’s much faster at cutting. This leaves me being the stacker. The grasses are very tall, reaching heights of 20-feet. Their leaves, like many grasses, contain a fine edge in one direction. Being a novice at handling this species I end up with fine, razor sharp cuts akin to paper cuts in the wedges of my hands. Every minute working with Maestro and his rapid pace creates a new teaching moment of what not to do.
After piling a sizable amount of cut carrizo, I’m tasked with removing the sharp leaves and stems to set aside for the cuyes to consume. My hands are stained black once I finish from the dusty, often bird shit tagged leaves, but I’ve got a handsome montón/pile of ready-to-install carrizo. I drag the pile down to our working site. We’ve selected the shady area under a beautiful and old avocado tree called “Mamá.” She got the name because her and another, now deceased, avocado tree called, “Papá,” were the only trees bearing fruit the first year Maria and Rudolfo lived on the land.
We start constructing the walls of the chicken coop with the thickest specimens. Driving them into excavated holes these act as posts which we then thread thinner, more flexible stalks through. The tension created will hold the wall together and will limit the unwanted exit/entrance of chickens or enemies. This, it turns out, is the first time for Rudolfo to construct anything substantial using carrizo. I admire his ‘head-first’ attitude of jumping in to use a new material and learning en route.
Repeating the process of harvesting, stripping and threading, we’re almost finished with the corral when I have yet another learning moment. I’m pushing the a stalk down with a bit of force to fit it into place when it snaps causing my hand to fall fast onto the exposed knife-like edge. I know it’s deep by the feeling of the cut and the immediate exit of blood from the wound. Not wanting to let good ink go to waste, and needing to tend to it with my emergency kit, I head to my room to paint in my sketchbook using my blood. Once satisfied with my piece, I then go about cleaning it and wrapping it up before rejoining Rudolfo to finish our project.
My time on the farm is improving. I’m waking without my alarm clock, mostly due to Flaco crowing at 03:00 through 06:00 right by my window, and my mistakes are lessening as my blisters are growing. We’ve also been having wonderful discussions over meals and after the work day is over.
Maria and Rudolfo are very much my type of people. They’ve spent a lot of time working together and have many stories they enjoy sharing. They first met at the healing lagunas of Salinas where Rudolfo was helping people heal themselves from various ailments. A few years of that was followed by almost 6-years of working at the restaurant Rosita owned called ‘Disfrute.’ Rudolfo acted as manager and never once asked to be paid. In between hectic and long work hours they dedicated years trying to protect the healing waters of Salinas from impending development of a thermoelectric station. They managed to win the first round, but the company changed names and reapplied, bribing important people in town with paltry sums of cash which they greedily accepted in exchange of them permitting the company to build.
In one of our chats, we were sharing our dream houses. Mine has always been an elevated house incorporated into a tree or a stand of trees with cargo netting loft spaces for relaxing/playing/sleeping on. Rudolfo must’ve been taking my words to heart because the next morning he tells me we’re going to build my treehouse. My? I assume he just means let’s build a tree house. Either way, I’m stoked because my more serious side would never let us build a tree house with the mountain of things we’ve got to do to improve the functionality and performance of the site. But, I use this as an opportunity to help lighten my sometimes serious mood and fall into the fun that he’s allowing to happen.
Rudolfo’s already got the site picked out for the tree house. A molle tree with four main trunks is growing alongside a rock wall separating the lower section of the farm from the upper. We get tools: rope, nails, hammer, a car jack (I know, what?) and the slightly Rick-damaged saw.
The first setup is to tension the four fanning trunks together to ensure a well formed base. We use the car jack and rope to help reign in the trees. I’m pulling with all my might and weight as we move the trunks ever closer. Finally, after struggling, we get them into a semi-rectangular form. After ropes are tied off we begin to look for palos/sticks for building the frame work.
Again, my mind immediately jumps to, “Shoot, we don’t have much spare wood that’s not rotten or falling apart. Guess we’ll have to buy more.” Rudolfo, in his campesino background and todo es vale mentality, sets me straight and shows me the various trees “por gusto” around the property. He picks a tree with vicious spikes on every part. Looks at its branches and trunk. Satisfied, he starts hacking at it with the machete. I watch him quickly dismantle four palos out of the tree. He strips the skin piercing spines with the back of the machete. We’re ready to start building.
Construction goes quickly. Rudolfo teaches me how to use old electrical wire for tying branches and things together to limit out use of nails. I’m continuously impressed and inspired by his handy re-use approach. We need more palos so I’m put in task of finding and cutting more from around the farm. I find some more trees with usable branches and begin hacking away. By the time I’m done, my right hand is red and raw, some blisters are ripped open and my hands are hurting. My initiation continues, and I admire the learning I’m experiencing every day with Maestro.
But, it turns out I’m not the only one with a lesson to learn. We’re finishing a wall and Rudolfo is on the outside, slightly precarious, and hammering in palos. I don’t know how, but he slips and loses his footing, snags a branch, is suspended for a brief moment and then falls to the ground. I’m immediately worried because where he fell we had cleared carrizo. The cut stumps of carrizo are like punji sticks. To make matters worse, he is working in flip flops! I rush over to see how he is. Fortunately, nothing is broken. Unfortunately, a cut trunk sliced the bottom of his foot deep. He limps to the house and I help tend to his new learning experience.
Foot wrapped up and still eager to work, we finish framing the base structure and flooring support. We return to the handy and useful carrizo groves to build our floor decking. The process is simple. We fill in the gaps between the noodlely branches with leaves and short stems from the carrizo, and nail the stalks down to create an even surface on top of the fill. The final result is actually quite comfortable and nice looking.
With the floor complete, we tackle the walls. Again, since we’re not supporting much weight with the ceiling, we utilize carrizo. Building the walls is a bit tricky because, if not under sufficient tension or pressure, the carrizo easily slides out of place falling to the ground below. We end up reconstructing every wall about two to three times as the neighboring walls are built up and new directions of pressure are created leading to the weakening of neighboring walls. My lazy side wants to be done with a wall and not rebuild it multiple times, but the preservation pays as I end up improving my assembly and tensioning techniques which leads to a better final product.
A triangular window comes to shape on the southwestern side overlooking a dusty patch of ground below. A narrow window overlooks the dwindling carrizo patch to the west. It really starts to feel like a fun, nurturing place to spend time or a night in.
Finished with the walls, we only lack a roof. Staying in the carrizo theme we opt to top it off with carrizo poles and leaves. Rudolfo launches poles like javelins at me while I stack the roof. The roof is the easiest, fastest part of the tree house construction. I let Rudolfo climb up and layout the grass thatch I toss up to him. With the last thatch in place, we pose for a photo op with Rosita in front of the newly coined Casita de Corazones Jóvenes Eternos.
My magical appearance at Maria and Rudolfo’s farm was a wonderful, uplifting experience. We all benefited from the exchange of perspectives and culture. They helped me see the power of one’s mind in achieving your dreams, of healing one’s body and in making the impossible possible. In my turn, I lent my knowledge of sustainable systems and permaculture, my sweat, blood, and my heart.
Rudolfo and I continued perfecting areas of the farm. We rolled giant boulders onto the 5 or 6 large rock piles that he and Maria built up while clearing the land. We finished a second chicken coop out of carrizo, got the guinea pig box out of the kitchen area and into the Casa de las Pacifistas. Poco a poco, the three of us continued the never ending attempt at making the space more productive, comfortable and fun to be in. I’ll follow this post up with some shorter photo essays of these and other activities.*
After saying goodbye at the end of December, I vowed to return to visit and work with them some more (kinda had to since my I left my bicycle with the,). Three months later, I arrived in Peru at the end of March and headed out to the farm with Maria’s daughter and her partner, but I’ll leave that story for a later date.