We cruise down the endless stretch of road, passing rows and rows of pine trees. We were told these were turned into paper and wood for constructions and the like. We were excited about this volunteer work, as building tree houses have always been a childhood dream and with Brazil under our belts we are feeling confident with our construction skills. We are dropped off the bus in baking heat. Dry and arid landscape abound. Instructions given are to ask someone around the bus stop to direct us to Belga Charca. There is one shack within 200m walk, so we ask the boy, who in turn looks very confused and shakes his head. We start heading down the road with not even this direction to muster from the instructions we have been given. as this is where the next area of habitation is seen. Sweating profusely, we are suddenly passed by 2 guys on push bikes with motors. Instantly this is not a usual thing in Argentina and indeed the guys swing around and look European. They are 2 of 3 French guys we were told about- Aymeric and Tony who who are working at the chacra. What luck, especially as they told us we were going the wrong way, would guide us and had only left the farm this point in 2.5 weeks! As we were 4 days late this was a massive coincidence.
We walk 1 km with them and they head back to town, while we continue down a dirt road to the house. A beautiful farm house in the middle of loads of land. We see the tree house with whirring and grinding of high performance power tools. Reaching the door we are greeted by the full family who line up to introduce themselves individually. Axelle, Charlie, Archibald, Arsen, Merlin, Philleas. Quite a few names to remember! We are made at home immediately as we take in our new home for a month. With 3 French guys here as well the place is going to be mad, as is instantly apparent. Little quiet here we think! Either way we are not bothered by anticipation or expectations as we have learnt that these only lead to disappointment and frustration. The philosophy for success is an open mind and helpful, proactive heart. Sounds cheesy but it is true. We watch with interest as the new situation we find ourselves unfolds.
Taken to our rooms we had been bought new beds and sheets, the house had just been refurbished with the local pine, so we were now living luxuriously! We arrived in time for lunch and a delicious spread was brought out, which was going to be the standard of living for the next month. Good quality bread and cheese, coke, salad, hams and salami. We were asked if we needed anything and I requested beer and real coffee, which was then put on the list. A definite upgrade to what we have been eating and the lifestyle we have when on the road. Lunch was a hive of activity and chat in French, but with a definite effort to speak English for their new guests. Everyone was pretty good at speaking English, but it was suddenly a bit crazy that now we were surrounded by French speakers!
We ask after lunch what we should do to start work and various options are available, but no real plans seems to be in place. Ultimately we can find something that needs to be done and do it. The fence needs painting and fixing, so we get started on that to do something in the first instance and get us going. Eric, the head of the household who Laura was communicating with was in Buenos Aires and would be back in a few days. We would wait for him to get further instructions. Work at the Chacras (farm), was never really hard however, people would start work at around 9am, but this was flexible depending on when breakfast was finished and then finish for 2 – 3 hours over lunch, when a siesta was enjoyed and then work would finish at around 6pm when dinner was ready. A lot of the time it was extremely hot and so a mid afternoon break was needed.
We expected to be here to build tree houses but soon learnt the reality. They had 4 local builders building the first tree house without plans. These guys were professional builders armed with circular saws, performance drills and a supply of whatever they needed would be provided for them. It certainly wasn’t a case of natural wood bound together with twine in a tree. We were looking at a 3 bedroom house in the tree suspended from Eucalyptus, with a terrace, window at bed height, running water and electricity in the rooms, a TV in front of the bed, separate shower area etc. This was a house in the trees and not a tree house!
When Eric arrived back we were sitting out on the unfinished restaurant decking drinking a beer and we were told that they didn’t need workers, as the Argentinians could do more than we could, better and much cheaper than it cost to pay for our food alone. It was more interesting for them just to have western people around the kids and the house, to share stories and develop understandings of different people. An interesting take on volunteering, but I can see his point with regards to the kids, all who ranged from 3 – 18 years of age, fairly evenly spread. It would have been good to have English speakers there as well as to be able to interact with 3 french guys all who have a playful kid side to them. Otherwise they would be isolated in the middle of nowhere in Argentina. But then is that not why you choose that lifestyle? or is that a move to alleviate guilt that they have removed their kids from their natural environment and they are trying to recreate that in some part? Either way we don’t judge on the choices, it is just interesting and another experience of volunteering that we would never have expected. I guess it was a little disappointing on the work front as arguably we were elaborate child entertainers and that the physical work we did had little value to them, but again so be it. We remembered the stark fact that we do not have to be there. After this we chose to continue being there. People also spoke enough English for us to have full conversations and debates which made things fairly easy for us and it also gave me an opportunity to develop my French somewhat, even though this certainly wasn’t the original aim of being here. So really life for this month was an easy time.
It was fun to be around the kids and to have a completely different experience. Sometimes it was a bit too hectic, with constant pestering, but overall we had a lot of fun and things were not a problem at all. The scenery was beautiful, storms rolled in during the afternoons, one day striking a tree on a nearby hill and creating smoke to rise from it. Many hours were spent looking out from the decking on deck chairs admiring the view, watching the clouds swirling in with the rain bands clearly visible on the horizon. Beautiful rainbows in an intense orange glow provided by the sunset provided magical moments and sunsets to die for. The family owned 6 cows and a horse, all of which were free to roam around the land with no specific purpose but to be. You could be sat down in the usual 35C heat and watch the horses and cows running across the open land. This certainly was a special place and the family were intent on turning into their special place. We understood why they left everything in Belgium and put it into making a resort here. Although we felt a lot of the ideas were over kill, in terms of changing the place too much might perhaps detract from the natural beauty, but we realise that these things are all in the execution.
After a few days we realised that due to the number of helpers all contributing to the building effort in different ways that the tools you needed were never where you needed them and often frustration would result from trying to find one, then realising you needed another to do this and find that the power to use that tool was not available. Work was slow and often unproductive, but after a week we had finally painted a fence and replaced some of the fencing with new pieces. After this I embark on building a gate, which would ultimately take me the next 3 weeks, along with other jobs created when I could not go further with the gate due to lack of tools or materials. Again this is part of the learning curve, to be able to adapt to situations without getting irritated by them and being able to enjoy things for what they were. A crucial understanding in life that we are developing more and more.
Work was one part of our time in El Arbol. The pool was great and led to refreshing swims afternoon after a working session during the sun. A lot of time was spent playing in the pool with the guys who were all collectively a great family. Playing in the pool was a past time for all. One day after dinner Eric challenged everyone to jump in at the same time. We were all dressed, but it was “last one in the pool is a loser” thing and everyone piled in, straight after eating and after a few drinks. Good fun. Water fights would regularly break out and with a family of all boys, meant Axelle and Laura were the only girls. Lots of boy fights would break out and so we were all brought back to childhood again.
Soon we reached the time of carnival! We thought we had missed it by leaving Brazil, but by being near the boarder of Brazil (it was just less than 15 miles away) San Javier had a huge Brazilian influence, including the speaking of “Portunol”, the local language mix of Portugese and Spanish. This included carnival, which we were so excited by. It is a highlight of the year here as well as in Brazil. Obviously it is smaller however as the town is small, but it only costs 10 pesos (1.5 pounds) and we didn’t have to pay a huge amount for the accommodation (it was free in fact), which we would have done in Brazil. This was the low cost option for carnival that was ideal for us. For the occasion I go shopping for cocktail ingredients. Usually the tipple is just a few beers of an evening, no heavy drinking, but this is carnival!
So we go to town, which is a quaint affair. Around 10,000 people live in San Javier. The houses are a clean, simple modern design. They are all well kept, tidy lawns and they have everything they need in terms of services. The banks run out of cash, but they have a great ice cream shop and well stocked supermarkets. The only thing you cannot really buy here is a good Argentine wine, as it all goes to Europe. This means that good Argentine wine attracts European prices even here where it is made. This makes it prohibitively expensive for the locals and means they end up drinking cheap acidic wine.
That evening we hit the cocktails and take full advantage of the 3 lime trees that grow on the Chacra. Taking a bottle of wine and rum cocktail to town was perhaps a bad idea. A blow out ensued and left us all staggering around not really paying attention to the carnival. The rains started and so the carnival was cut short, people start running and we missed a lift home, I run into a truck and bounce off it. We end up walking home alone as everyone had scattered, but get horrendously lost. A police car picks us up and gives us a lift to the top of the road. Somehow I have lost my prize flip flops from India and as we are dropped off at the top of the driveway- 1 km long in the pitch black the road is treacherously slippery and it takes us 40 minutes to an hour to make it back, falling over every 5- 10 minutes. Bruised and cut all over, with feet giving way from sharp rocks that sent intolerably sharp pain through the veil of alcohol.
We made it to bed eventually, covered in mud and awoke feeling terrible. Unfortunately stories travel fast in San Javier and already people knew of the drunk English guy that looked like Jesus staggering all over the place and being picked up by the police (the reason was not important, just the occurrence). Not a good look. So best behaviours were needed from then on, but to be fair it was carnival and the lesson was that in such a small place everyone behaves themselves, including the young guys since your reputation lasts here and will have a negative impact on your future securing trust or a wife at a later date. The carnival was on for another 4 days over 2 weeks luckily, so the following week we went again for the finale to actually see what was going on this time. The French guys titillated by the girls went the day before hand, but we knew that it was literally the same each time and so 7 hours of carnival 2 days in a row is too much. Seeing the same girls and dancers and listening to the same music.The above video is a snippet of Idir’s 89 minute video on carnival
The great thing about carnival here was that you are always in the front or second row. We could cross the barriers and take photos of the dancers 1 meter away and have pictures with them happily. We watched them before they set off down the road that had been closed for the carnival parade.
A lot of the girls also went to school with Charlie or Archibald and so the family knew the girls who were taking part. It was a different perspective to the carnival in Rio for sure. It seemed like it was an occasion for the young girls to become sexualised and perform to attract a boyfriend and to get married off the back of it. The girls here have kids at around 16- 18 and are married early. This is the accepted norm. When Laura was asked how many children she had and said none they were shocked when they heard she was 29 and looked genuinely horrified. For them life is different. For some parents it is not acceptable to have their girls to wear costumes that show off their ‘boobs and bums’, which are specifically highlighted with glitter spray, but for most it is.
The girls love it though, for them a highlight of the yearly calender. A time to show off to their friends and the boys. For us it feels a inappropriate to be looking at young women in such revealing attire, but that is carnival. The music is great also though, as well as the energy and the costumes (yes and the bums).
These guys practice for months before and we could here our barrio (small area on the outskirts of the town) drumming away from the house.
It was good to see and understand carnival from a different light. Kids ran around and sprayed each other with foam, as did the adults. Some people went a bit too far as they became annoyed at being sprayed in the face too many times. Litre beers were flowing, but this time we were less than moderate.BBQ smells spread over the street as feathers were shaking all over the place to clapping and the intoxicating, intense drumming. We left at around 3am, despite it going on until 5am satisfied we had experienced carnival and unable to stand up anymore.
The gate I had made using a massive vine from the woods was coming along, but I ended up not finishing it. Time flew by towards the end as we got into the swing of things. We realised that we needed to enjoy the place itself and not be too consumed in the work side of things. I find that difficult as I enjoy a practical project that I can do from start to finish. We asked to sleep in the tree house, but apparently there was a priority queue. Either way we were allowed as it seemed that no one was actually going to sleep there for various reasons. With no walls we dragged up our sleeping stuff and slept amongst the still trees looking out over the forest. Waking in the morning with the most intense dawn colours was amazing, warm, quiet, natural.
We also increased the number of asados we had. Using firewood as the fuel. Idir and Aymeric were both muslims and so asados required halal meat. They went off one day to collect 2 live chickens and to kill them, themselves. It was really interesting to learn the process and guidelines needed to class meat as halal. Cooking became one of Laura and I’s fortes once more and we started leaning towards kitchen support, which we enjoy and which Axelle was happy about. It meant that quite a few meal times we would take over and she would have some time for herself, which she valued. We also got to use the local ingredients and share our ideas and knowledge with Axelle who reciprocated. This also meant we ate some great food as with people to help means you can achieve slightly more complex meals without it being prohibitively difficult for one person to achieve for 11 people. Initially the ingredients we would be using are not something that the family would normally eat. Everyone tried our lentil dishes, curried butternut squash and Laura’s raw butternut squash, cumin and lime salad.
We also embarked upon a walk we had been told about to cerro monte, or the nearest hill that has a view over San Javier the Rio Uruguay and across the border into Brazil. Without flip flops or shoes I borrowed Idir’s slippers he had lent me. We had been given directions and so set off, but the directions didn’t seem familiar. It was another scorching day and the slippers started to hurt me rapidly. If only I had my amazing Indian flip flops. We headed up hill and walked for around 3 hours, the day getting hotter and hotter. We were told it would not take so long. Either way we wound our way through tobacco plantations and through tall maize plantations, looking out for the numerous deadly snakes that live in this area.
The top was a fantastic sight and despite it being very hard going and draining in the heat we eventually made the shade at the top of the hill found a tap and a lime tree to make lime water (citrus fruit increases your absorption of water).
We walked past a beautiful basic house perched on the top overlooking the forest and river. We agreed we would happily live their with the 2 dogs, lime trees vegetable garden and chickens and now have the outlook to do so. At the very top we made a fire to BBQ some meat we had been given, plus some bean burgers we had made extra for easy meals like these.
We realised it was the first day Laura and I had by ourselves which was strange, but nice to have some time alone. Before too long it was 4:20 and we had agreed to be back by 4 as we were going to cook. We arrived after hurrying back the more direct route than before, when we found out that there was a far quicker way. Oh well I say with massive blisters on my feet, it made it more of a challenge. We arrived back just in time for the evening storms to hit and relaxed again in the deck chairs with a pot of chilli cooking on the stove.
A few days before I had to leave Laura decided to come with me and start her adventure. Everyone was so supportive of our next trip, Axelle helped Laura buy a tent and gave me duck tape. We went to town to buy some waterproof trousers and so when we were leaving we had everything sorted. I had even finalised my banking problems with the house satellite internet connection, which was great. We finally had everything in order to make the next stage of our trip. It was a sad day, but we knew that everyone would forget us quicker than we would forget them. They had more people arriving and although we had tried to be as helpful as possible felt we didn’t make as big an impact as other places. This was not a negative thing we took away however, as we knew we had fond memories of El Arbol and our Belgian family hosts and had learnt a lot about things we never expected. We also knew that Axelle was glad of a break from some of the shopping duties and cooking, which was not what we set out to do, but were glad to have given to her.
We were driven to town with egg sandwiches and fresh oatmeal cookies that had been prepared by Idir, Laura and Axelle for our trip and waved off by Axelle and Aymeric as they went off to do the days chores.