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Stories

A Student’s Perspective on the Cob Oven Workshop at The Hof

Llupa, Peru. 7/Sep/13 – 8/Sep/13

By the bearded bicyclists of “A Trip South”

www.atripsouth.com

Yellow mud is caked on my legs and arms as local Quechua women and bearded gringos alike stomp, dance and mix, with hands and feet, preparing material for the construction of a cob oven. The contrast between the modern clothes of the visiting American students and the traditional bright orange, blue and pink sweaters, long dark skirts and full brown hats of the Quechua women creates an atmosphere that borders on hilarity. Despite language barriers and stark differences in cultural perspective, the course flows forward seamlessly. Through the instruction of our English speaking natural building teacher, ironically named “Whitey”, we start at the task of creating suitable mud.

 

At first there is a slight awkwardness in the air with the reserved Quechua women hesitant to join in with our band of forward and sarcastic travelers. However, mixing what would later become the “oven mud” proves to be the perfect ice-breaker. Gringos are paired off with locals, and portions of clay, sand and water are emptied onto large black tarps. With one corner of the tarp in my hand and the other in my partner Santa’s, we pull the tarp over itself, rolling the material inside. We open the tarp again to reveal the partial mix, and then we begin to dance. Twirling and stepping my white bare feet in rhythm with Santa’s black shoes we begin to laugh and grin. The mud squeezes up between my toes and massages the pads of my feet. Spinning around to the tune in my mind I take in the rolling and hills and steep ice-covered peaks that surround us. Everyone’s guards come down and to my surprise the normally shy and almost stoic women let loose laughing, thoroughly enjoying our play in the mud.

 

After sufficient materials have been prepared we again turn to Whitey to lead us to the next step. He lectures clear and concisely, pausing for the lively translator Julia to convert his words to Spanish, before moving onto the next subject. Each token of guidance is supported by the vital “Whys?”: Why is the insulation so thick? Why are we using a 50/50 mixture as opposed to the 70/30? Why are these techniques superior to traditional Adobe styles? And while I first saw only looks of mild curiosity in the funny methods of the white man, I now begin to see faces of genuine interest in both the locals and foreigners. Up from the oven’s base of large rocks climbs a wall of cob, from the successive slaps and molding of the many circling hands. Wheelbarrows full of more material are routinely pushed up from the lower field to the building site. Without directly assigning duties the class shares the jobs; mixing, building, measuring and drawing. Each person takes turns moving the different clay mixes through their hands. Fingers squeeze out ribbons of mud then form and drop small balls to test for quality. Soon, under the guidance of Whitey, we can all recognize the desired consistencies. And with our new-found knowledge, production increases. Gobs of cob are laid down on the growing walls. Thumbs push the cob down, stitching the mud and straw into the layers below. Eventually the oven begins to take a definite shape. Packing around a form of sand we build a dome that will someday house baking bread and sizzling pizza.

 

Contrary to the eye-catching colors and patterns worn by the Quechua women, a new student Emilio stands out with his plain clothes, sharp brown hat and inquisitive dark eyes. I observe him as he picks up the tape measure to span various dimensions of the oven; watching his mind analyze the design. Striking up a conversation as we wash our hands in the cold stream before lunch, I ask Emilio about his enthusiasm for the course. He admits that he is interested in the project but also professes the fact that his culture has little use for ovens. I explain that although the goal of this course is to build an oven, the techniques of building can be directly applied to constructing anything; a home, a school, etc. Instantly his eyes light up.

 

I am not so sure that we solved any grand world problems this weekend. But, we were able to share a few stories and laughs with a group of people who look out at the world from behind completely different eyes. And for that I am grateful. Huge thanks to the wonderful people at The Hof for putting this on and attempting to unite different cultures in a learning environment.

How we Built the Compost Toilets

By George and Jenny, Volunteers in 2013

 We had the pleasure of constructing a two-bay composting toilet using locally sourced and recycled materials. With a pair of 5-gallon buckets and plastic toilet seats, we used 2 meter long rough timbers, sticks, chicken wire, and recycled plastics to form the frame and walls. A recycled wooden bathroom door and frame became one classy entrance; metal bucket handle a toilet paper holder; and an old wooden crate a wire-lung overhead storage area. The toilets are also equipped with a wine bottle candle holder, and an exterior mint garden.

 

In the process of construction, we had to overcome some obstacles. One was that the structure was built into the side of a hill with large rocks and immovable boulders in the soil. This meant that one corner of the frame could not be embedded in soil and had to hang from, rather than support, the rest of the structure. We were able to make the walls out of recycled plastic bags, reinforced with a sticks and chicken-wire frame to lend strength to the structure. Another issue was ease of access for exchanging barrels once they’re full, as the barrels are sunk into the ground. We decided to make a side access on the outside of the structure, so retrieval would be a knee-bend instead of a back bend. This side access also made it easier to make late-stage additions to the underside of the thrones, such as splash guards composed of tailored recycled soda bottles.