What are you searching for, Laurent asks me as we watch the candlelight leap up and down in the wind on the dining table.
It’s his last night, and – unlike when the five other volunteers left yesterday – I am sad to see him leave. Laurent has a deep stillness, openness and easiness – we talk in French, most of the time, and it’s so easy to laugh with him about anything. We joke no end about our side of the house being a ‘refugee camp and a spaceship’ whilst the other, much more respectable tents form some kind of neat tent town on the other side, and yet, given his and mine have been the most makeshift tent-within-broken-tent structures cobbled together with masking tape and strung up and down to the skinniest of trees beside us, parked on dirt ground and tacked on with bits of string onto rocks, they’ve held up surprisingly well in the bone-chilling winds that sweep through the mountains in the night. I’ll be all alone this time tomorrow evening.
I don’t know, I say, I guess some people travel to find themselves, some to lose themselves, but I’m just being.
He grins, ruefully. He’s 29, wants to build himself a small-scale version of Fukuoka’s paradise near Toulouse in France when he returns alongside following his dream of making music and beatbox, and has been the most dedicated volunteer while I’ve been here, staying on for six weeks and helping the rest find their feet.
I pass my fingers through the flames and we sit, in easy silence, for what seems to be an age before I speak again. Just being, I say, again.
I’ve been living in a tent for a month in the Andes.
It’s 2500m, so it’s the tropical highlands, to be precise. You can grow everything here, from potatoes to papayas.
It feels like just yesterday I arrived, or perhaps a decade ago. I spend all my days in the sun, and my hands are cracked with dirt that is impossible to remove. I’ve scrubbed them everything from dry grass to concrete. Water for irrigation comes in from some Incan canals from the top of the hill, which presumably comes from the nearest mountain in turn – it’s all passive, besides the part about dancing between the various hoses on the land and lugging watering cans around to hundreds of fruit trees daily. It’s 25 hectares of paradise, so there’s a fair bit of work to be done. The place where we are is called Atacalla, although – as far as I understand – we are the only ones who live here, but maybe the man up the other side of the hill with his cows and barley fields counts too. The roar of both rivers on either side of our three plateaus is deafening, and the loudest sound as we veer to sleep.
There’s a big black dog here called Africa – a name which I chuckle about no end, especially when I think Oh now I have to go feed Africa – who is tied almost all day under a tree beside the chickens, occasionally terrorizing them poor feathered beasts, and two cats, Ratcatcher – the furriest, shnuggliest wild cat I ever saw – and Fatcat, the pickiest, skinny black cat who cries all day long for food, even when her bowl is full. I am, suddenly, reminded of the simplicity of animals – Ratcatcher is like a big fluffy teddy bear purring away in my arms; he just needs a hug, a lap to snooze in, a belly-rub or a bowl of food, and he’s happy. I wish it were that easy for us, too, and I wonder – not for the first time – why humans have to complicate things so much.
To eat, I go to the farm – there are berries, vegetables, squashes, tropical fruit, potatoes and herbs. There’s an avocado tree in the fairytale meadow valley on the left that we climb up and shake weekly, and a pashul tree up the hill on the other side of the road where we search for pashul nuts, evading cow dung and stinging nettles and trying not to get distracted by the sunsets. I love foraging, especially wild foraging – there’s something about the thrill of the unknown, the mystery, the uncertainty, that beats a supermarket for miles. It’s exciting and dangerous. True to the principles of natural farming, we disturb nature as little as possible, so I tease between spider webs, crazy bulls, wild dogs, sharp thorns and attach little blue plastic cups to pitchforks for nudging the fig tree, and gently shake the peach tree from the high perch of the ladder. It’s all kind of hilarious, really, and when I’m alone, I forage with the glee of a five-year-old playing hide and seek with fruit, giggling to myself, skipping around the nursery, jumping up and down with excitement all the colours in my fruit bowl all but punching my fist in the air in hurrah and bursting out laughing at my own makeshift egg-cup-on-a-long-stick contraptions for teasing the food down.
It’s a wonderful feeling, being able to go outside and eat directly from the plants themselves – there wasn’t a fresher lettuce than one just picked, recently watered and still covered in dirt. The farm is truly my greengrocer, my medicine cabinet, my butcher, my yoga centre, my astronomy lab, my psychotherapist. It is my playground, my university and my body shop – the stars are cosmic television, the passage of water over the rocks my 3D cinema, the sun appearing from behind the hills in the morning my massage therapist. The cats are cuddle buddies, the two 8 L watering cans are my gym, and the moss-covered hot springs in the enchanted forest my deluxe, five-star bathroom. Straw baskets are shopping bags, chickens are kids to feed, the traffic jams are one man and his herd of cows or goats – or a man and his donkey on the narrow path up to town. Wild weeds are my florist and any grassy patch is a suitable toilet to pee in! Who doesn’t want a view of paradise while relieving themselves? Bare butt to the hills, the soil appreciates it, and nothing is wasted here. The sunsets are glorious – pink, red, oranges slashed across distant hills are like parties, the candles are our discolights, coconut husks are bowls. There are no mirrors here, so I’m forgetting what I look like – I don’t recognise myself anymore – or at least, am losing attachment of my visual identity with my psychological. There is no such thing as work and play here – it’s all life, it’s all doing what needs to be done. I play with a sad cat in the evenings, reminded, vividly, everyone needs love, everything needs love, but we forget that sometimes and live life like it’s running away from us, like it’s only close loved ones that matter.
That said, it’s not all as ‘natural’ as it sounds. We use plastic watering cans, cups and plates, wheelbarrows and handles of gardening tools as well as the reservoirs of water; there’s a gas stove, metal cutlery and pots and pans, toilet paper, hosepipes, plastic bags and tarps. In some way, it’s still all connected to the global supply chain, Big Oil and Big Business, although it seems cheerfully distinct from it – and even pokes Big Oil and Big Agriculture fun in its face.
I think initially that I will miss the other volunteers enormously, that I will miss their laughter and kitchen creations and candle light dinners, that I will miss practicing my French and having people to call on when I get stuck or don’t understand what to do. But two weeks into the stay, I’m left all alone and the subsequent volunteers have not come – characteristic of travellers in this continent – and I’m left with solitude, sunsets and silence. I realise I prefer this, prefer having the place to myself, sleeping at 6:30 or 7pm if I feel like it. I realise, one breathtaking evening as I walk back from the hot springs, that these things are truly priceless for me – you could not pay me $1 million to sleep one hour less or have a bit less silence – yet our economic system puts monetary value on these things, ‘compensates’ local and indigenous people for damage caused by highways and factories by paying them with means that are worth far less than the nature they have lost.
I realise I’ve come far from the city-smart-kid-destined-for-fame-and-success path drawn out for me, that friends from five, ten years ago would be flabbergasted to imagine why on earth the brightest kid in class just wants to mooch about in the sun all day in gumboots in the middle of nowhere. Fukuoka writes, we both think we are right, that I am in the real world and you in the dream. I have everything I need – food, water, a place to sleep, sun, silence, green things all around – and nothing I don’t need: stress, pollution, traffic, deadlines, drama, bureaucracy, computer screens, television, cars honking, parties, depression, anxiety, skyscrapers, loud music, advertising, exams, promotion, meetings, reports, billboards, rubbish, money and – dare I say it – wi fi. Granted, having no running water was hard in the beginning – washing hands, dishes and general hygiene-wise – but it is much the same with any such place I come to visit: you arrive, noting with dismay that there are things you love that are not there, but time passes and you realise that there are things you wanted that you didn’t need, and the things you needed you already have – or you just have to ask for and they will be provided. In my case, a bag of carrots and oranges was usually sufficient to brighten my day.
As I yank out a tuft of long grass between the citrus and fall flat on my bottom with the momentum, I sit staring at the valley covered in wild flowers and light. A grin sweeps across my face and I burst out laughing at the beauty of nature, chuckling about the life I left behind, thinking, I would have it no other way.
Endnote: This is the eighth and last article on my series on the One Straw Revolution -inspired farm I stayed at in the Peruvian Andes. To read the rest of my revelations and (mis)adventures, see here: