Construction at Camp Altiplano: An Account

Camp Altiplano Volunteer Experience
December 14, 2017
Listening to Our Members
March 26, 2018

Construction at Camp Altiplano: An Account

It’s six in the morning. I woke up to the sound of the wind slamming the bathroom door. The window doesn’t close, so with heavy wind the door becomes its plaything. My first thought on waking up is the yurt that we bought second hand from the main Spanish yurt company. We figured that if it’s cheaper to buy a second hand yurt than to build it ourselves, then we save both money and time. They advertised a high quality product, and we figured that as yurts originate from an area with harsh conditions, it would be ideal. It would have been nice if it had worked out that way…

What we got instead was a yurt put together from different ones. The wall lattice was weak and worn out, and bending inwards too much. The roof struts were fairly weak and some were broken even though they were unused. The shape of their endings was irregular and so were the holes in the crown ring they were supposed to fit into. We had to carve them one by one during the assembly process. The inward bending of the wall made it so that the surface area of the yurt was less than the surface area of the platform that I built for it, and that made it so that there’s a ledge that catches rainwater and feeds it into the yurt. The canvas cover was made with an overlap, and this is why it’s worrying me this morning. The overlap catches the wind and turns the yurt into a kite. It inflates and looks like it would like to take off and go flying. I would not bet on it surviving a storm. We’ll have to build a new wall, strap down the yurt with rope and metal bars that we knock into the ground, and build windbreaks. Then I think it will be fine.

Yesterday Stach and I started construction on an outdoor kitchen roof. The main structure will be with old poles that were recycled from the roof of an old pig farm, donated by Alfonso, the landowner. It’s nice to be able to use recycled materials, and it would be nice and cheap if we were able to do everything with recycled materials. A fact of life out here however, one that I’ve been getting used to, is how little stuff there is around. In the northern countries there’s so much being built and renovated and rebuilt, that there’s a wealth of used materials around for those who know how to look and who see the value in it. This area, however, is a desert in more ways than one. So many things that are easy to find up north because they get discarded, cost time and effort and money out here. The more time you spend looking, the more the whole building process is slowed down, and this whilst we’re under time pressure, have a massive amount of work ahead of us, and too few hands to do it. And of course to get more hands we have to build the accommodation to house them! Sometimes we get lucky, like with the poles, and the better we learn to communicate with people who understand better how things work around here, the easier things get. In this Alfonso has been a bit of a bridge.

Today we’ll be digging holes for the poles. They have to be pretty deep. This means I’ll be lying on the ground with my arm in as deep as it’ll go, all the while eating the dust that the wind throws at my face. It’s a strange sensation to come into the house after a day in the wind, the sudden stillness…

Jon and Jo will be working on the roundhouse. This is the one building we’re absolutely sure there’s no issues with building regulations. It’s on the site of a ruin, which allows you to build something up again. The main structure will be with the same old poles as the outdoor kitchen. The old stone wall was a lot weaker than we thought at first, so we had to take down a fair bit. We wanted to start building up again already in January, but harsh conditions impeded our progress. In this case the frost. If you want to work with lime mortar or cement, the frost messes with the curing process, because the water expands when it freezes and makes everything weaker. We need to make concrete footings for two of the structural poles because of the soil level differences, and we need to build the wall back up to a certain height to help support some of the other poles. None of this could happen as long as there was too much frost. So we’ve been waiting for some warmer nights and they are finally here. No choice but to go out into the wind and eat lime powder all day.

The second yurt platform has been built. A yurt structure was built by a previous volunteer and later got badly damaged in a storm. I remade all the broken parts over the Christmas period and I’ve been working on the crown ring, the door and the door frame, in between the other work. With some of it I could enlist the help of others. Now all the parts are ready apart from the covering.

We spent a long time trying to find canvas. We’d like to be able to make the coverings ourselves, but we have not been able to find canvas in big sizes. We don’t have a sewing machine. We have no one who could operate it if we had one, and we don’t actually have the space for this kind of work at the moment. Water proofing it would be a separate matter. The story is similar for the other layers, such as liner and insulation. We found a guy who makes yurt covers to size, but we’re in a weak asking position and he has no competition, so now we’re waiting. We ordered the canvas before Christmas and he said it would take him a month. It’s now almost March and we’re still waiting as things were complicated by a miscommunication. The way he makes the canvas means there’s a need for another layer that is made by someone he works with. We didn’t understand the need for this, so we didn’t order it. As a result, even though the canvas is now technically finished, you cannot actually put up the yurt without this pyjama layer that ties everything together. If everything had fallen into place, the third yurt would now be close to being able to go up. As things stand, however, the second yurt might be up in a month, the third a couple of months after.

I guess what I’m trying to make clear is how all the things that are beyond our control make a mockery of our well intentioned plans. For instance, we had two natural builders coming in January for a couple of months. The day before they were supposed to arrive, they broke up. He went back to America. She decided to come even though her heart was broken. She quickly realized she had too many things she needed to deal with, so she left again shortly after to go to a quiet place. So instead of three builders we were back to one. By accepting them, we said no to others, and of course they were no longer available. The result is we get less done than we would have liked.

As I already illustrated, the weather is a huge factor. Wind and frost are facts of life, and even snow stopped construction for a while. The area is dry, so for the restoration, lack of rain is an issue. When it does rain however, we get a different set of problems: what looked hard as stone when dry, turns to butter in the rain. The soil is mostly clay and the camp is 5 km of dirt road from the farm, 3 km in a straight line. The wet clay sticks to the tires of the truck, so you’re drifting on the mud roads most of the distance. If it’s wet enough, the truck just sinks into the road on the roundabout that looked so compacted only a few days before, and the sticky clay on your tires means that even with 4×4 you have no traction, so it’s very easy to get stuck. If you take ten steps out of the car each shoe has gathered half a kilo of clay. I’m sure you can imagine the hassle of pushing a full wheelbarrow through this stuff, or a generator. Restoration needs every drop, but with a lot of rain or snow construction comes to a stop.

All in all I think it’s fair to say that this camp building project is a bit of a logistical nightmare. A workshop was set up with good quality tools, but it is 5km away from the building site. Some imagined that most of the work could happen in the workshop, but of course you can’t build a building in the workshop. You have to build it where it has to be.

I tried with the compost toilet. That’s a small structure, so it’s manageable to make all the parts and put them together in the camp. I think I drove back and forth around ten times before the thing was finally done. You forget one little essential tool, you drive back and forth. One part doesn’t exactly fit, you drive back and forth to re-cut it. You run out of screws, you have to drive 25 km to the closest hardware store, etc. It was quickly very clear that trying to build a camp like this would be a nightmare. It’s all about planning and anticipation. To improve the situation we got a generator so power-tools could be used in the camp, and more battery powered tools. To facilitate the work I built pallet wood working tables and sawhorses made out of the same old poles. These were also used to build a bridge over the swale, because we quickly got tired of trying to drag the generator down and over IT.

On top of all of this of course, there’s all the other work: everything to do with restoration and market gardening, getting supplies, picking people up and dropping them off, etc. All of this with one car. Everyday, obviously, we have to coordinate all the things that need to happen, and then figure out how we do it with one car. There’s no option but to compromise, so there’s always less time for all the different things than we would have liked. We’ve been trying to find a trailer to make the logistics a little more manageable, as what fits in the Santana is very limited. Now we have to get everything big delivered which costs a lot, and if they drop it off at the farm we have to get it to the camp somehow. If we rent the tractor it’s 50 € an hour, and we’re lucky if we can do a transport like that in an hour. We’ve been able to do a bit with Alfonso’s pickup. But it’s a farm car and the farm needs it more and more now as spring approaches. On top of that it broke down this week, so we can’t use it until further notice.

In conclusion I can say that we are plodding on, doing what we can. It might seem from my account that the situation is quite dire, but even though the work is hard, the atmosphere is great and we are enjoying ourselves. We have a killer team and we all love being a part of this project. Life here is pretty good, because we share the same motivations and we take care of each other. We’re all here to get the ball of ecosystem restoration rolling. There’s a lot of satisfaction in this work and in doing it together. Things don’t go as fast as some people paying attention would have liked, but I’m afraid that’s just the way it is for now. Things have their own pace and there are limits to how much we can do. I hope I have clarified a bit why that is the case, and that you have a clearer idea about what it’s like trying to do construction here with the constraints that we’re under. If that is the case then my objective in writing this is achieved. Thanks for reading.

 

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