Staying in Sodwana

20:39, Nov. 25, 2012
Sodwana Bay, Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa

So much life happening, all kinds of things big and small. I stepped out of New York and into a rural beach community in eastern South Africa called Sodwana. I’ve begun writing this blog ten times, but I was trying too hard to summarize a month in one place. This aspect, that I haven’t been “traveling” in the usual sense, but rather living in one place, or more accurately in one big scenario, is the biggest thing for me.

Since my arrival at the airport, I’ve been practically adopted by my host Ronell, and her family, friends, her world really.

Introducing my hosts, Ronell and Felix. I make a peace-offering of a seashell for him to suck on. (Mmm salty feels good on sore gums.)

The only other time I’ve stayed put for a month was at the World Rainbow Gathering in Argentina two years ago, a chapter amongst the best of my life for so many reasons, and I wonder why I haven’t rooted-down more often. In both cases I feel like I started a little life somewhere else, complete with family, friends, work, and a lasting connection to the place. Everyone I’ve met here is local, or at least South African, and by each I’m asked How I ended-up here?

How did I end up here?

After over a year without spending any significant time on a farm, staying as a Wwoofer at an organic family farm-stay was my first desire. Dirt, plants, animals, organic lifestyle, permaculture, the intimacy of family life, local culture… this is the antonymous universe to life in my home city. Sure, we’ve got all those things back home, but it wouldn’t be traveling if it wasn’t different in every respect.

Situated in on the edge of a natural reserve, at the end of a dark dirt track, way out in the middle of a sparsely developed rural wilderness, it’s far far from home. We’re off-grid too, generating power by wind, pumping water from a bore hole, and eating much food from a huge garden that encompasses this plot, the main house nestled with a low-profile into the hill.

Ronell is serious about permaculture, so it’s been serious fun learning all about her impressive setup and systems, not to mention it’s so hooked-up. We’re living comfortably, with good plumbing and flush-toilet (in addition to an outdoor composting one), solar-hot water, wind-generated electricity, refrigeration, washing machine, and even air-conditioning (brilliant engineering). It’s pretty sweet. I’ve even got my own cottage of local trash. And it’s all so beautifully conceived and tweaked to be as sustainable, environmentally friendly, recycled and abundant as possible.

Air conditioning. A fan in the terrace draws outside air underground, where it cools on the way to being piping into the house through vents in the floor. Ingenious!

So what do I do here? I’m a happy helper. I’ve spent my days with Ronell learning and helping to run this homestead and ambitious garden. Gradually, I’m tending to it and harvesting food daily with increasing confidence. Half the day is spent sharing chores, meal preparation, doing handyman projects, computer projects (including making a slick funding-proposal for her NGO), and most shockingly: learning to occupy a 10-month-old baby. Can you imagine me a manny? (Thankfully, I was never asked to change any nappies :) And the kicker: for a majority of this time the husband Charley has been away guide birding expeditions in Madagascar and spotting cheetahs in Kruger National Park. I wouldn’t say he’s had all the fun tho!

Upon Charley’s homecoming, much celebration and feasting was our natural response. After 2 weeks without him, I don’t know how we made it.

Besides all of this, I’ve been graciously hooked-up as a guest. Back in Joburg, I was fetched by Ronell’s sister at the airport and driven an hour away to their parents house in Balfour, and spent a half-week there with the family. We ate together, they showed me around the garden, her mom drove us on scenic backroads and told me much of the local history, and we visited her workplace, where she teaches English to black kids. (It sounded funny to me first time too — the racial landscape is indeed interesting.) As soft a landing one could hope for, as I was jet-lagged and still exhausted with a spiritual hangover; I felt like I had to steamroll my way out of NY this time, and i luckily escaped hurricane Sandy by 2 days!

My first stop: relaxing on the veranda at Ronell’s parents’ beautiful and rustic hand-built home.
Her Dad builds homes, including the one in Sodwana. He’s very handy, and well-known for his ingenuity.

Ronell’s Mom taking us out for a spin around rural Balfour. She’s a fountain of knowledge, and a great oral historian.
The Felt holds many tales. Their family owned and sold many of these farms in earlier times.

When Ronell was done with all her city stuff (so conveniently timed with my arrival), she and I, along with baby Felix, doggie Cressida, and my luggage, smushed into the littlest car, and took a 9-hour road trip to her home in Sodwana. We even tried to drive through the nearby Game Park at sunset en route so I could see my first big game (= amazing animals), but a flooded road made us turn back.

And here in Sodwana, I’ve been well-socialized into the friendly community, met everyone (numerous times; it’s a small place), attended dinners and brais (bbq). Heck, this morning i was washing dishes after a party they had in the local coffee shop last night! It was full-on, with dancing, bonfire, a band, led by the school principal on guitar — but it felt more like a family affair, or a big byob house party, only the whole village was there.

Ronell and I regularly went on outings and joyrides (to relax baby), wildlife-spotting missions (ongoing, at all times really), to the beach, and nearby Lake Sibaya, where I saw wild hippos for the first time. We’ve since had one visit us at the homestead, grunting at us from just outside my cottage!

Another part of Lake Sibaya
Across this Indian Ocean is… India of course!

For the last four days I’ve been on my own. The family had to go away and I had the opportunity to stay and house-sit, which I happily jumped-on. It’s like vacation, getting even sweeter with time because Sodwana just gets better, I’m set-up in Ronell’s gorgeous world, and I feel at Home. And my duties got a lot easier; they even took the dog! I’ll be onto the next adventure after this week on my own (which is sort of not true, as I’m never really alone, as I’ve been hanging out witth the neighbors of Hippo Haven almost every day, who also coincidentally happen to be the other awesome Wwoof family I contacted back in the States to be my first stop in South Africa! And so it goes, when you plan to Stay in Sodwana.

Early to bed, early to rise. I often see the sun rising around 4:30AM.

Spooky Things

21:11, Nov. 6, 2012
Sodwana Bay, Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa

Today’s approximate proximities of the local wildlife to me:

2 swarms of African killer bees. (2 smoke fires later, we drove them away.)
2 Hippopatamuses charged us. (only bypassing us by 2 car lengths.)
1 scorpion. (1 foot from my foot, 1 step away from my chapel bush cottage.)
1 beautiful brown owl. (perched 1 meter away from the 4×4.)
20 centimeter millipede. (20 centimeters from my bed.)

As is my usual style to go on about pretty and extraordinary things, I feel it would be more fun tonight to write about spooky things.

I’m staying in a remarkable little cottage on the edge of the property here at the permaculture homestead I’m volunteering at. It’s a stand-alone, medium-sized room, built in the form of a little chapel, comprised exclusively of recycled plastic bottle ‘bricks’, and covered in a smooth concrete finish, painted all-white on the inside.

The Chapel, where I sleep (at sunrise.)

Next to me is an similarly sized, but differently-shaped dwelling, the ‘Green Haus’. Here, a Zulu couple is taking refuge from their own homestead, where ‘little men’ have overrun and deemed it unfit for their living. It’s round, inspired by the traditional Zulu mud and thatch-roofed huts, but made instead of quick and inexpensive green metal. Its inhabitants, Sibongile and Mfanseni are having some domestic issues: yesterday she chased him with a garden hoe clear across the neighborhood, to another homestead, or so he told my host, Ronell. We got a clarification later in the afternoon, directly ‘from the horses mouth’ so-to-speak, as she confessed to a neighbor she was trying to kill him.

I haven’t seen either of them since shortly after the incident, although eerily-enough, for the last two nights, the door of the Green Haus has been left ajar, lights-on, all night. It’s only 5 meters away, but I haven’t been bold enough to go pop my head in to see if everything’s alright. (Honestly, I don’t think I could handle it if it wasn’t.) Ronell found in both cases that nobody was home.

I’ve had mixed feelings about this room since I first stepped-foot inside. It looked a bit, shall we say: abandoned. Bedding and rugs heaped in piles, a lot of dirt and sand collected, a line of five red candles in holders alongside the bed (ritual?) News of Sibongile’s dwindling mental health had reached me long before I entered the space she occupied most recently and during the last episode, which spanned the month prior to my arrival. It _all resonated. I promptly dashed-open the curtains and windows, collected the linens to wash, swept the space tidy, and moved-in. It’s cozy and quite charming.

Except that the door handle is broken (falls off) and the lock can’t be engaged from the outside. So I can lock myself-in, but not out. And being so close to the edge of the land, [to the little men in my head] it doesn’t feel 100% safe. And I hear noises outside. Could be dogs? Tonight it sounded as if dirt was being thrown at my big bay window. Or could be bugs buzzing into the glass. (Very likely.) Swarms of bugs.

We really did have to fend off swarms of African killer bees yesterday, and today. But that’s another story.

Just after I locked myself in tonight, a buzzing at the door startled me. From beneath it a beetle buzzed and entered, (unsolicited, mind you.) The next moment, a giant millipede just trotted under behind him. And one more, something we can all relate to: inch-and-three-quarter roach (just big enough to be too-big) scurried from somewhere near my bed to the other side of the room, and I didn’t even get up from my typing to chase her. I suppose these _are the other native inhabitants. (Shiiit, I didn’t kill the scorpion I found outside my door this morning either.)

Really, I’m just the new guy here, and I’m getting used to all this new stuff. For every thing I’ve mentioned that one might find questionable, I’ve got three more I could wax lyrical about. But this was the spooky blog.

Speaking of spooky, I heard a big phantom swallowed-up Halloween this year?

Getting Balanced in Bolivia

Thurs 1/20/11, 0:57am
Samaipata, Bolivia

Part 1: Back to Nature

For a week riddled with heinous digestive complications, I’m walking my bike away [up and down crazy beautiful hills] with a lot of amazing experience under my belt.

First, just being out in the campo (country) feeds my soul like nothing else. It’s been too long, and even though every town I’ve been in is surrounded by plenty of natural wonders to explore and trekking opportunities galore, a grand day out is not the same as living in it.

My campsite for the week: high on a hillside in a lush green valley, midway up a series of six gurgling waterfalls, with an ever-changing panoramic view – does pachamama (mother nature) never run out of stunning manifestations? The clouds alone can paint a million pictures, hide the dozens of nearby peaks, or shroud them in a saturnine mist, and fashion every sunset and sunrise (worth getting up for!) A clear view of the 16th century Incan fort El Fuerte, dwarfed in magnitude and encompassed by the sublime form of a woman with child, our mother pachamama, carved not into a mountain, but the mountain carved into her. Those industrious Incas!

sunrise 5:48am
Pachamama & child

Most days were lovingly punctuated by extraordinary weather: deafening thunder crashes out of nowhere – at this altitude you can be drenched in the sunlight of a clear blue sky but suddenly visited by a storm (or sound of it) just over a nearby hill. It’s most fun when it’s ambient but not actually storming down: the other night amid my intense dreaming I was sure someone was outside my tent wiggling a giant saw! By day or night, nearby lightning storms last for hours. Samaipata (and more accurately where I was, Alta Florida, in the hills nearby) is playground of the gods, pure magic.

You can’t help but feel, in this perfectly wild paradise, that you came second to the world of plants and animals. At first glimpse it’s endless green, but just look a bit closer and there is a mind-boggling variety of plants and trees, many of them ridiculously spikey. I learned last week on a guided trek, a bit higher in the cloud forests, that the oldest plant species didn’t have these defense mechanisms as there were no animals to threaten them, so relatively, I suppose, they might not predate animal, (but they most definitely predate man).

But more sensationally, I love the bugs. I swear the same grasshoppers would visit my tent each morning, waiting for me to unzip my portal so they could hop-in. Furry caterpillars, long centipedes, poisonous millipedes (3-times more venomous than a scorpion), arm-length snakes and big hairy tarantulas, 3-inch black wasps, tiny but arresting black widow spiders (yep I found one while sowing), neon-glow worms, shiny blue/yellow/red and black bees.. it’s an everyday Animal Planet. And they have a black and white pig named Billie, who snorts all day, squeals like crazy at sunset, and always lets me pet him.

Fighting the urge to fly

Thursday, Apr. 8, 2010. 00:08 AM
Carterton, New Zealand

Feeling of contentment. I’m at the home of my friend Rowan, Wwoofing with her mother Anne, who’s a doctor in the final two weeks of her 28 year practice at the medical center here in Carterton. Downsizing rather than retiring, she will still tend to her hospital duties, yet she will have more time to devote to other pursuits. Rowan’s dad is off diving in Fiordland, so unfortunately I won’t meet him this time ’round, which incidentally leaves me here on my own during the days. They don’t actually take many Wwoofers due to their busy schedules (he’s a doctor too), but they did recently have two English boys, their first time away from home, who wouldn’t leave for two and half months! They acquired the nicknames Sam and Froto.

Yesterday it was rainy and Anne was working till late, so I was instructed to make myself at home, with Amber the dog and Simi the cat to keep me company. It couldn’t have been a better day to play house and enjoy the simple pleasures of the beautiful country: eating chook eggs straight from the hen house, airing out my wet tent in the barn, taking a blissful shower to warm my bones, making-up my b&b room, brewing espresso, listening to records, doing my laundry, stoking the fire in the lounge, and giggling at family photos of one of my dearest New Zealand friends, called Rose by her mom…

a bit of family history... baby Rowan & bro

My only other request was to make tea (evening meal), which was a delightful opportunity! Such nice cast-iron skillets and gas stove to work with, sharp knives & voluptuous garden outside to plunder! Crimson tomatoes from the glasshouse, peas and beans, aubergine and capsicum, cucumber and whatever GIANT courgettes turn into, silverbeet and red lettuce, lemons for lemonade…

courgettes gone wild! (giant zuchini)

Anne came home and we chatted over a glass of wine, she expressed sincere thanks for a warm house and tea to come home to, we enjoyed our sup (everything curry, rice, papadum & salad), and talked till late. I was amazed that after a long day of work she’d have so much energy for me, but it turns out she’s quite prolific as well as a night-owl, so we got nicely acquainted.

Today I fed the chooks, let them out to roam, and weeded the garden and its paths. It was incredible to just slow-down and sink my fingers into soil, get dirt in my fingernails, as well as in my hair and ears. I cleared four wheel-barrows full of weeds, put them into compost, savored the peaceful quiet of the day. I chatted with the doddering old dog, mischievous puking cat, and the four comic chooks. Sun shined, clouds rolled, raindrops fell. I walked among the sheep in the paddocks (which they lease out for grazing), but otherwise was fixed on my light work, punctuated by coffee breaks with frank zappa, the bee-gees and peter frampton singing sgt. pepper’s, and lou reed on the phonograph.

Midway thru tidying (weeding) the garden. always forget to take a Before shot!

As if my day wasn’t meditative enough, Anne and I went to a proper meditation at a friend’s house in the evening, which was spectacular. Just three of us sat around the soothing hearth of a wood burner, accompanied by a ticking clock and a single fly. These could-be distractions actually put wind in my sails. I touched noses with Axl Rose, light and energy from all around the universe ripped through my third eye, I felt no numbness, deep breathing came easy, I was relaxed. At the end I asked how long we meditated for, and while it was supposedly 40 minutes, it felt like no more than 15.

Back home, we made mushroom risotto, garlic break and fresh-picked salad. We drank delicious white wine from up the road. We baked bread. We talked of culture, politics, family, friends, matrimony, music, books, art on the wall, travel, the excitement of life, free time. Free time.

A funny thing was that at bed time, after thanking her for the nice evening, she apologized for talking too much – so untrue as she never talked at me, and it was ever so interesting! After being told recently by somebody that I talk too much, and even that Americans talk too much (which I have noticed at times) and I’m embarrassed to corroborate, I think I’m back in learning mode again.

as if you didn't see this one coming... (damned cute sheepies in these parts)

Tomorrow I will finish up in the garden, borrow the ute (pickup truck), go on a tramp in the local hills, and hopefully introduce myself to another Wwoof farmer in town who sounds like a real character I’d like to know. I was going to hitch a ride to Napier on Friday morning (265km away), to catch-up with three French cyclists I crossed a ridiculously fun and challenging mountain pass with on the way here, but now I hope I’ll get caught-up here for a bit. Yet another interesting Wwoofer lives not far away too, in a straw-bale and earth home… As usual, I always find good reasons to slow down and see what gems I can stumble upon along the unhurried way. The cold weather is approaching, but I won’t let that rush me. That is what this is all about for me. I am right here.

Addendum: Here are a few snaps from my late morning tramp today, just down the road.  Things didn’t work out with the other Wwoofers (they’re all taking holiday this week, so I might as well too!  Off to hitch towards Tongariro National Park in the morning to tramp and camp under 3 volcanoes and Mt. Doom!