Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A Week at Camp Walden

         For the past two summers I have taken a week out of my regularly scheduled programming to spend a week in a little cabin that sits on four beautiful acres belonging to Filipe. The little cabin makes our farmhouse feel like something out Better Homes and Gardens by comparison. The slate roof has some gaps that allow for wonderful summer star gazing, but which mean that I have sleep inside a tent on the floor, just in case it rains and to keep out the creepy-crawlies. With no electricity and running water it’s truly ‘off the grid.’ I'm not sure if it's really a Thoreau expereince or if it's more Kerouac- think Big Sur, since I always bring a couple bottles of wine to enjoy during the quiet evenings while I read by candlelight. Since we visit only a few times a year when I get there I have my work cut out for me. The land is terraced and in the past year we have begun planting hazelnut trees along the terraces, but within a matter of months the blackberry brambles climb out from along the borders, the ferns pop their fiddle heads out from the grass and by mid summer a major week of weed-whacking is well in order!

I Heart my New Weed-Whacker
     I spend several hours in the early morning with the weed whacker, tearing through thorny vines, grass taller than myself and ferns that seem almost prehistoric in their massiveness. It’s slow work and by midday the heat combined with all the protective wear required, makes working impossible and that means it’s time to head to the river for a refreshing swim. Of course, in order to get to the river which is about a mile from the property, I have to pass the best restaurant in the nearby village, although that’s not saying much since I think it might be the only one. That said, for seven Euros I can get a steak, rice, salad, a carafe of wine and a little coffee to finish it off. Considering I can’t really cook in the cabin and after all the hard work I think I’d pay twice that for a good protein boost! At the cabin I stick to fruit for breakfast and sardines and crackers or a tuna fish sandwich for dinner. On the property we have a water mine, which is like well except that rather than going vertically into the ground it comes horizontally out of the hillside. The water  that comes out is clear, very cold and the perfect refreshment in the heat- at least as cold as water from a fridge would be.

At the cabin- wine grapes creeping up the wall on the right.
      The heat remains unbearable until after four, then I am able to work until at least 9:30, but during the afternoons, with no other distractions, I read. This week alone I finish three books, Mary Kay Anderews’ Spring Fever, Into the Beautiful North and Middlesex. It’s hard to describe the peace that comes from going several days without speaking to anyone (except daily check-ins with Filipe of course,) with projects but without any schedule besides my own internal clock. No screens, no sounds, the phone turned off to preserve battery. I also cannot emphasize enough how much I value the opportunities that I have to do things alone. I have a wealth of wonderful memories in my life, but the ones that stand out the most to me always seem to be the times I did something slightly scary by myself. The solo road-trips, the camping and the traveling alone. The old people in the village are forever asking me if I’m okay out there, if I’m scared, how can I live without electricity? What I find most intriguing is that younger people get it- they can see the value in getting away from everything comfortable, but the old people who remember a time before the village had electricity and sewage find my ‘vacation’ shocking. Plus I'm using a fairly powerful machine which I have been told several times is 'men's work.'
Filipe planting a tangerine tree!
      I have to say, that at times all the nature can get to be too much for me. One morning in particular before I had the wisdom to put the tent up and was sleeping on an inflatable mattress on the floor, I woke up very early. Looking around at the slate tiles between the wooden beams I noted a bit of orange peeking out between two sheets of overlapping slate. I pondered it a moment and decided it must be dried leaf. I drifted back to sleep and woke about an hour later to see that the spot of orange had moved and was now several feet from where I had first seen it. Upon closer inspection my fears were confirmed, there was indeed a large snake wedged between the tiles soaking up the morning sun on the hot roof. ‘Okay,’ I told myself, ‘He was here first, he's up there and he's not bothering you. This is what it’s all about, living in tune with nature.’ So I quickly left the house and spent the morning weed-whacking. When I returned around lunch, mercifully, he was gone and I was pleased at my calm and reasonable reaction. I fixed myself a sandwich and then lay down to read and nap. There’s really nothing like napping in the quiet countryside with so little insulating you from the world. One can hear the cicadas chirping, children playing in the nearby village, church bells on the quarter hour, birds of all kinds and even a slippery thumping in the rafter above…My eyes shot open to see the snake had crawled out from somewhere, slipped on the narrow cross beam and was now hanging head first from the beam above my head. Two of it’s four feet of length dangled downed, it’s head turned up looking me dead in the eye only feet away. I screamed like little girl which of course, caused the snake to hiss and draw open its mouth in fear. I literally sprang from the bed and was out of the house in milliseconds. From the safety of doorway, I peered in at the creature now curled up on the beam. I called Filipe at work, there are no poisonous snakes in Northern Portugal he informed me, though this brought me little comfort. The snake stayed through the evening. I lit a fire in my grill in the corner below where he was perched and he left for a while, but by nightfall, after I was done cooking and the fire died down, he was back.
Smoking out the snake
     I put up my tent, and crawled inside. For the next week I saw him daily. I screamed oaccaionally and then we adjusted to eachother. Filipe’s sister told me that snakes are sign of transition. Perhaps she was right because on no subsequent visit have I seen the snake, and no one else has ever seen him either. I get teased that it was vision but I guess he was there only that one time. Maybe there was a reason?