The Adobe House

October 1992

" Follow the route of the crumbling stone aqueduct from the bustling city of Oaxaca and in a few miles you will come to the quiet community of San Felipe del Agua. It is on the outskirts of this community, beneath its water-giving namesake mountain, that Eric built his adobe home during his first year in Oaxaca..."

This has been a pretty major week for me in Oaxaca - two huge, long-anticipated events came to pass. I got a refrigerator and I got my dream house. Dream house and major appliance at 24 is doing pretty good.

Manos de Oaxaca headquarters, San Felipe del Aqua, 1993. The home/office building is of adobe, with a ceiling and roof of wooden beams, vigas, straw, mud, and clay tiles. The refrigerator is on the small table by the door, topped with an ola, or jug, for drinking water.

First about the refrigerator. Since coming down here 10 months ago I've been living without refrigeration. Amazingly it actually is possible. It is also a drag. For me the worst part was not being able to keep vegetables. And if I made beans I'd have to eat them all up in two days or they'd mold. I did eventually figure out how to make a "cold box" by soaking a pot in water (porous Mexican pot) emptying it and putting in veggies. The pot worked like a desert water bag to keep the inside cool. Veggies lasted three or four days this way. But ultimately, being a refrigerator bred white kid, I just couldn't take it any longer. I imported a refrigerator. They are rather expensive down here so I had the trucker buy me one in New Mexico. It cost $120 - $95 for the fridge and $25 for the bribe to get it through Mexican customs. But now it is all mine and filled with goodies like crisp lettuce and carrots and cold beans and fruit juice. And that's about all because it measures about 2 feet by two feet by two feet. Not exactly large. To big to fit in my backpack, but not by much. It is perfect, and were it much bigger it wouldn't fit into my house.

Oh, my house! The house of dreams. The true sanctuary from the crazy world. After many long months of watching things develop on Mexican time the house is finally ready to dwell in. The roof is on, the windows are in and last week they hooked up the power. The house is not complete. Unseasonal October rains have prevented the making of adobe bricks to finish off the kitchen and bathroom. So there is no kitchen or bathroom, there is no shower, no running water and no sink. But those things are but luxuries that one soon forgets they need. I have a 50-gallon drum and an old bathtub filled with water that has been pumped up from the little farm pond by the arroyo 100 yards below. The pump pulls the water up past the banana and guyabana trees, through the tall grasses and poppy orange wild flowers of a large field, below a bamboo fence to finally fill my reservoirs.

And to my old tub and drum I go to clean dishes and scrub clean my body. Last night, for example, I had the most wonderful bath in ages. Of course I have to bathe at night to be assured of the privacy of dark's curtain. Though I have no close neighbors you never know who's about on the trails perhaps curious of gringo ways. Any way, last night. I put on the big pot to boil my bath water. When it was ready I stripped down except for my sandals, threw a towel over my shoulder and dumped the water into a 5-gallon bucket. I blew out the candles and stepped outside.

The heavy smell of earth and grass filled my nostrils, the whole world was misted in and there was a light rain wetting the land. A Oaxacan November rain, cool, refreshing, it put goose bumps on my bare white ass. At the 50 gallon drum I've laid out four boards as a floor so my feet don'' get muddy. I diluted the hot water with cool until I had a good temperature and proceeded to sponge and soap and finally douse myself with wonderful steaming water, all the while feeling ;the drizzle on my nose and laughing naked under the soft glowing sky, illuminated by Oaxaca's lights somewhere down the hill. This, I thought, is a true cleaning. Hurrying back to the house, sandals off at the door, I felt clean, refreshed, invigorated and clear headed. Amen! Perhaps I won't miss a shower as much as a refrigerator.

Anyway, my house. Well, I'm actually only renting, but it feels like mine, it is an old adobe shack that is being converted, under my tutelage (that is to say, I get to say put a window here, a door there, etc.) into a living space. It is situated in about nowhere in terms of describable human landmarks and road names, though there is a rumor that this mud track (in rain) dust track (in sun) along which my house is located is called Pena del Bajio or Low Pine Road. But who cares, the postman doesn't visit out here. In terms of natural landmarks, well first of all there are, which is to say that the horror sprawl of Oaxaca hasn't climbed this hill yet. There is a great meadow, small trees and brush all about, and they are all insanely and obnoxiously in bloom now. Oaxaca in October-November seems a lot like California in spring or maybe late summer when all the wildflowers bloom.

Below the meadow, which houses one cow and a white heron (they're always together) is the small arroyo or shallow canyon from which comes my water, (Drinking water comes from elsewhere in a big glass bottle) and the arroyo is kept filled the year round by the great mountain that comprises my entire northern view called San Felipe. Today, for the rains, it is shrouded in mists, its mysteries well concealed. But many are the days when its mysteries call me more strongly than my work duties and I trade my clip board for a water bottle, my calculator for apples and peanuts, and disappear into its welcoming folds. A ten minute scramble from my door puts me well onto its slopes and in an hour I can be lost in its oak-wood forests, rich with lichens and manzanita, wandering the maze of trails that criss-cross its valleys and ridges. I often meet up with some wiry and well-weathered wood cutter coming down the hill with two donkey-loads of fire wood and a ready "buenos dias" and often a hand shake and a chat.

Just lately, I've begun to make the longer hikes up to its highest ridges. It is another world up there, unidentifiable for me with Oaxaca. There it is a natural wonderland - an old-growth temperate forest with great tall pines, erect and straight, side by side with twisted dancing ancient oaks adorned with wreaths of long draping mosses and bright bromeliads. There are ferns and succulents and century plants or agave eight feet tall and a soft loamy soil. It is an unreal world, hard to associate with the cactus and sand of the valley below, and it is a great escape.

But I am supposed to be describing my dream house - but of course that mountain at my door and at my window is a large part of it. The actual physical house is currently two small rooms, combined about the size of your living room. One room now serves as kitchen, dining, living room and the other is bedroom and offices though sometimes those definitions get blurred because I do office work in the dining room or eat a taco in the office. I chose the paint for the inside, in fact I painted the inside. It is a soft peachy color which pretty much matches the mud on my bike tires. I have wall to wall carpeting in the form of many straw mats that are traditionally used here as beds. I've tried them myself when it's been necessary to spend the night in a small village. They usually stack two or three for me 'cause I'm a gringo and deserve luxury. Three of them is not much different than an ensolite pad on granite. You can sleep all right, but wake up sore. Old peasants say there is no better way to sleep, you keep strong breath well and are right next to the earth. For me they are an excellent floor covering and almost give my house the look of an old Japanese home.

The walls are all adobe, the foot-thick soul of this house. The roof peaks at the center wall between the two rooms, it is probably 12-feet high there and 8-feet at the low end. My roof is poetry to me, all red roof tiles, well aged, supported by long pine beams and bamboo - both from within and out is is fine to behold. As added spice, the tiles are held in place with mud which occasionally falls through the bamboo onto my head. I imagine as the house ages that will become a less frequent event.

In the next few months a kitchen will appear as well as a bathroom and a covered patio. But really, as it is now it is complete for me. The road does have some traffic, but except for one car a day, it is all hoofed and makes funny sounds very much like that of goats, cows and donkeys.

So I have my dream house. I suppose to some it would be seen as a mud shack suitable only for a pig sty. It is certainly inconvenient, on the very edge of nowhere, quite a ways from town and in the rain the clay mud road is impassable. Only yesterday my bike refused to budge, its brakes and fenders being all packed with guck. I had to carry it down to the creek and throw water on it for half an hour to get the engine going again. And being by a creek and meadow and mountain, being in general isolated from concrete and asphalt, I find amazing varieties of bugs - or rather they find me. Some of the most amazing ones I've encountered are right here in the house. The other night I found a beautiful bright green praying mantis on my mosquito netting over the bed and today I saw an amazing three-inch long stick bug trying to blend into the bamboo ceiling. It wasn't working. So anyway, this place is not for everyone, thank God!


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