A day in the country life…

Trying to be a campesino

My blog hasn’t really caught up with my personal life and some imminent changes afoot, which I will blog about soon.. But this piece has been floating around a little while and captures some of my experience of living in the “campo” (countryside) in a format I used to describe life in La Paz a few years ago.

6.30am-ish: Blurred sounds and light filter diffused into the room and my consciousness. I squeeze up against Juliette’s slumbering back, limbs entangling to extract some heat against the early chill of the morning. Outside the door, I hear the scratching of one of our three dogs. I fall back to sleep.

7.20am: There is a knock on the bedroom door. I know instantly that it is our neighbour, Irineo. I grab some trousers and open the door, patting the heads of the three dogs we have somehow come to inherit as they enthusiastically jump up and I try to dodge their muddy paws. Our bedroom leads straight onto an outside first floor balcony which connect the two other rooms that we use of the house: the kitchen and the toilet.

Irineo’s face wrinkles into a laugh when he sees my sleep-crumpled face: “Look!” he points at the sun. “The sun is already there in the sky.”  I mumble, “Yes, but you know I am flojo (lazy).” He invites us to his daughter’s fifteenth birthday (a big occasion in Bolivia) on Sunday. I offer to be padrino of the cake (godfather), a tradition here where neighbours help each other pay for the costs of special occasions. As he heads off quickly to pick up cargo from the Pil milk factory, I reflect on how much easier it is to get to know neighbours in the countryside.

.40am:  As Juliette starts preparing some porridge and heating up some slightly-putrifying dog food (we have no fridge so things go off quickly), I take a couple of buckets and a large water container down to the only tap in the courtyard below. I have started to appreciate the importance of water since living here as we have to carry all the water upstairs for cooking and to manually flush the toilet. You also appreciate the power of the sun to meet needs: I leave a few jars of water on a tiled roof (where the sun will kill any bugs) and fill a solar shower bag so Juliette can have a shower later. I decide that I can probably manage another day with a tap-rinse.

8am: I sit on the steps of the balcony eating breakfast and watching two chickens doing what looks like a funky dance trying to scratch up seeds from the dust-brown courtyard below. The sun is already getting hot. The balcony we live off lies on the first floor of a house that below us is in a definite state of disrepair. Half of it is made of adobe which is slowly returning to the earth from which it came. We have thought about buying it since we moved in, in order to make it worth investing money so it is more liveable. But the owner never seems that keen – she doesn’t even seem that bothered about rent – so we live on in slight limbo-land between dreams of ecological-style house-improvement and the frustrations of over-rustic living.

8.40am: Whilst Juliette does her yoga, I take a bowl of washing down to the tap below. It is a bit of a balancing act, sitting by the tap washing dishes, shifting them from bowl to bowl and without getting mud on them. It is one of Juliette’s main peeves. I promise myself to find time to get a sink today that we can install that will at least lift us out of the mud that becomes all encompassing in the rainy season. 

9.10am Earlier than usual, I get on my rusty tank of an Indian steel bike and head off to the office. The route takes me up a muddy lane under an arch of eucalyptus trees, past fields of maize and wheat, and along sandy paths lined with adobe houses interspersed with the occasional luxurious house owned by rich Cochabambinos (who usually come out just for weekends). Campesinos harvesting flowers greet me, cows heading for pastures occasionally block my route. Eventually the mud turns to cobbles, then asphalt and soon I am dodging folk as I head through the small but bustling town of Tiquipaya.

I swing past the bike shop (which I visit to repair my bike all too regularly) and park outside a small house where I have my office. It used to be a hairdresser’s, so it has slightly more sinks then is normal. Yawar, who looks like an Andean version of French anti-globalisation farmer Jose Bove is hard at work on my computer. He greets me and enthusiastically tells me about a cultural event he organised in a small community nearby. Yawar somehow survives on a mixture of anarchist booklets production, dreams, paintings and books, admiration for Andean cultures and lots of chicha (home-brewed maize drink). He has been a perfect companion for sharing the office, fitting in around my timetable (especially my late starts) to support his work for what he calls “recovering the fire of our memory” and “living freely.” He has also created most of the furniture in the room out of thrown-away wooden crates.

11.20am I skype-call my boss and now friend, Oscar based in Amsterdam who as ever is over-working. I even once contacted him at almost midnight (5am in Europe) and got an instant response. We discuss frustrations at slow progress on redoing the TNI website. He agrees to my proposal to write a piece on Bolivia’s new constitution for TNI’s New Politics programme. I am extremely lucky to have a job that not only is flexible and limited in hours but touches on issues that concern Bolivia and interest me. The only thing I miss is the physical presence of a team – the energy that you get discussing ideas and joking with colleagues – which not even skype can replace.

1.10pm Juliette knocks at the window. She has made some lunch which includes beans and spinach from the garden. We head to the pretty square (something almost every Bolivian small town seems to have) to eat the lunch. On the way we bump into Don Nacho, the owner of the office, who cuts glass during the week and hair during the weekends. With experience I can tell you he fortunately doesn’t get the two confused. In the square, Juliette tells me about her attempts to get compost for the garden. She popped into neighbour Don Benjamin’s house, an eccentric middle class Bolivian full of income-raising community projects that never come off. He blames the laziness of campesinos. From what I have seen it is more the ability of campesinos to live happily on what they have got and not seeing much point in doing unnecessary extra work. He offers though to take his truck the following day to help Juliette get some compost from the municipal composteria (composting site).

2pm: I head back to work, doing some preparation work for a training course that I am organising on European trade, together with Fundación Solón where I worked in La Paz. I still look for excuses at least once a month to head up to work with them for a few days, usually combining it with some talks and conferences on political issues that interest me as well as experience some of the nightlife, drinks with friends, and Aymaran markets that I miss in Cochabamba. I have fortunately kept on a room in La Paz in my old flat with long-term friend Ceci so can head up anytime. Juliette works on her laptop preparing a radio programme for Free Speech Radio News. She also tries unsuccessfully to contact our landlady to see if we can persuade her to build a shower in the house.

5.35pm: We leave the office and head to a road out of Tiquipaya, where we are quickly picked up by a trufi (shared taxi). The frequency and cheapness of public transport puts any Livingstone improvements to London transport to shame. We arrive just in time for our salsa class, with the ever-smiling and super-patient Ariel who never gives up on my faltering attempts to dance.

7.10pm: We leave as the sky clings onto the last traces of rich red-orange light traced onto the horizon. I know that Juliette will be grumpy if we don’t eat soon so I suggest heading into Cochabamba. We discuss going to the cinema, but always feel put-off by its resemblance to a big US shopping mall, so instead head to eat in Kebab. It sounds like a dodgy 3am experience on Brixton Hill but instead is an atmospheric restaurant in an old colonial building that cooks very tasty kebabs. Tariq is the Iranian owner who invests the kebabs with such flavour and care. He has a strange story of trying to travel to the US via Argentina but getting stuck in Bolivia and staying. He has now been in Bolivia twenty years.

Juliette and I regret not calling someone to join us for supper, but we left it too late. One of the disadvantages of living in the countryside is it hasn’t been ideal for strengthening close friendships in Cochabamba except with a few other expats and with our campesino neighbours whose life experiences are naturally very different to ours. My closest Bolivian friends are still in La Paz.

9.35pm: We walk along to where Cochabamba’s two busiest roads meet, a bustle of people, beeping minibuses, smells of frying hamburgers and shouts of pirate-DVD sellers. We squeeze into a minibus, our legs crushed up against the seats, and within minutes are off. Swerving around other minibuses, honking at passengers risking their lives off across the road, cutting up other buses as we swerve into stop whenever and wherever a passenger wants to get out. We head out on Blanco Galindo, an ugly industrial artery lined with factories and warehouses selling every type of building materials.

10pm: We jump out at Kilometro 9.5, buy some milk in a shop and jump into a shared taxi and just as conveniently set off immediately. The buildings disperse, the dark silent presence of fields opens up on either side, and the road turns to earth. Soon we are the only ones left in the taxi as we drive through a small deserted ghost-village, Callachulpa which surprisingly constantly gets a steady stream of public transport.

10.15pm: We get dropped off and walk up a cobbled lane in semi-darkness to our house. Irineo has kindly turned on the light on the balcony of the house, guiding us home along with the barks and licks on the hand of our dog “Shnook” as we open the gate.  Everyone else around is probably already asleep, except it seems for some campesinos down in the village as I can hear the sounds of cumbia from a chicheria (bar that serves fermented maize drink) clank across the maize fields. I brush my teeth looking up at the constellations and the Southern Cross engraved onto the black sky. Shnook and the dogs have settled down into their baskets, curled tightly against the cold night. I head into bed to do the same, curling myself up against Juliette’s back, her body gently warming and soothing mine into a deep sleep.


One Comment

  1. Earl M. July 17, 2008 at 10:08 pm - Reply

    Nick and Juliette,
    Hi, it’s been awhile since we wrote. I read with some amazement of the living conditions you put up with, as it is so unecessary.
    I know you said you were lazy, but I don’t think so. A lazy person will find the easiest and simplest way to make life easier,because he rejects the idea of being inconvenienced all the time. My x has lived off grid for over 30 years, and has both a 110 volt and a 6v dc lighting system with a small photovoltaic system and a batery closet made of straw bales, as she lives at 9500 feet up. I had a place some years ago, where I dowsed in a well and dug it by hand, 15 feet deep, I would put my kids down the hole to help load buckets, till it was big enough to admit me!I used a sump pump to raise the water to the surface, where I put a 250 gallon tank with another pump to kick the water up to the house. Again, the well house was straw bales. The R.value of straw is at least 45. My son builds strawbale homes professionally and he covers them with adobe and seals them with a formula of several kinds of vegetable oils, so the mud can’t be washed away by rain.He used plastic pipe placed in the adobe floor, connected to a 30 gallon gas water heater with a 6v pump to circulate the water through the floor. The winter gas bill for heating the entire house was 25 $ per month. What I’m saying is, if you set your self up for life, you will find yourself teaching others to help themselves too, and they can form co-ops, or set up businesses to create the things they need. I visited the oldest continuously inhabited Hopi town in Arizona and I was invited into a home whose roof was made of scrub willow. It was gathered into 6″ dia. logs and bound, and laid side by side over the rafters, and covered with adobe. It was all flat black from 300 years of cooking and staying warm!
    I know many people are held in a static mode, more by lack of cash than just tradition, but amazing things can be accomplished when you want to improve things a bit. Do something nice and inspiring! You can do it!
    Hey, love you guys! ……..Earl

Leave A Comment