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The Mud Castle

by Rob Scher / Images by Leon Grobbelaar / 22.11.2012

This had been the plan from the start. Get to South America, survive as long as we can off our meager savings, then find work. As we stood, sand fleas feasting on our raw ankles, mixing a combination of mud and straw on a building site in rural Ecuador, I battled to find anyone to blame.

“Here’s an Italian couple that need help building a ‘cob-house’ in Ecuador.” Andy offers, as he peruses the volunteer tourism site. Since my days as a young Jew growing up in the ‘burbs of Joburg, I’ve harboured a deep desire. A desire to fight the trappings of a commerce degree, the futility of academia, seeking a level of fulfillment that to a young boy watching on as overall-clad men placed brick upon mortar (we were renovating our kitchen), seemed only to come from a day of honest construction. Lacking in fine motor coordination and an aversion to physical exertion, I naturally fostered this ambition amidst stabbing skepticism from friends and family. With my blue-collar dreams within reach, my reply to Andy was emphatic. “Let’s go build a motherfucking cob-house.”

“Hand me a fatty. And three rocks.” I’m laying horizontally on a cement roof, sun beating down on my pale exposed drumsticklegs, that previous sentence unfortunately does not contain one drug reference. We’re plugging thick bamboo rafters with cob-balls and rocks to stop anything nesting and potentially causing the thick cement roof to collapse.

What is cob? Essentially it’s the same stuff you’ll see most houses in the Transkei made of – mud and straw. Take the basic premise of environmentally conscious building practice, apply all the Western trappings, and you’ll be somewhere close to what we’re doing on a roof, plugging bamboo, with mud.

Our hosts are the epitome of well intentioned. With a dream of living a fully environmentally ‘sustainable’ life off the grid, they sought cob as an alternative. We arrive late into the construction, the roof already up, and only a few interior cob-walls left to make, and general finishes to finish. The progress is impressive. Using almost solely cob, bamboo and only in the most necessary cases the natural opponent to earthvibe building projects – cement – the construction is beginning to resemble something of a house.

Francesco likes curved lines. In fact, the entire house, all three storeys of it, barely contain one straight line. “There are no straight lines in nature, it’s unnatural to live in a square house.” Francesco elucidates on his building philosophy. Andy and Leon bite their tongues. As architects, the house is a daily affront to their sensibilities. I receive the running commentary.

Precariously placing a final cob-ball, I fear the worst.
“Looks like you got some major ooging going on.” Andy jabs, pointing out the breadloaf of a wall that I’ve managed to create. Syntactically correct, ‘ooging’ is the accepted term for a wall sagging under the weight of too much fresh cob.
“Ag poes, waar’s die fokken bekisting.” Leon fumes as his wall starts displaying early signs of oog. Despite the scale of the project, our Italian earth warriors have avoided every extra building expense in the interests of saving the environment, meaning: hand-built walls, no formwork.

Our cobbing progresses painfully slowly. Centimeter by centimeter we work, halting for the day as soon as there’s ooging, which usually equates to about 30cm. It explains the length of the project and we develop newfound sympathy for our Ecuadorian building crew who are pretty tired of building essentially a giant mud castle for these gringos. Whilst nobly intentioned, saving on all the extra wood required for construction, it would be a lot easier if the house were your typical one-bedroom cob house. Instead, the Italians have us building a fucking eco-villa. As the architects reason, “If your house wants to be a house, let it be a house.”

My people are not cut out for this work. A week in, scabbed hands and a newfound hatred towards hoes (the wooden handled variety), I’m ready to remove my blue collar. With so much pseudo-hippie sentiment constantly shoved in your face back in Cape Town, I can appreciate Francesco and Cecilia’s genuine effort. Painfully sticking to their convictions, perhaps they’ve actually got it right. If only getting ‘it right’ didn’t have to be such a goddamn pain in the ass.

You can follow Rob’s adventures in voluntourism and beyond here.

*All images © Leon Grobbelaar.

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