Travelling South America (or learning how to live, and the wonders of cob)

I know, I know… I’ve been out of action for a while. My last post before this one appears to have been October. Shameful.

I’ve been in South America for six months, and while internet access is actually very good in most places, I needed some time out – to reflect, regroup, to travel and generally to just “be”. Some of my time was spent moving around, discovering the landscapes and cultures of Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia, but I also spent time learning new skills on hands-on projects. They gave me some of my best moments during the whole trip.

I was able to do this thanks to a website called Workaway. If you haven’t heard of it before, I highly recommend checking it out – “hosts” post projects on the website that they need help with, and “workawayers” can help out in return for bed and board. Some projects charge a very small amount, to help cover food, but the general idea is that it’s a direct exchange. Workawayers pay about £22 for a year’s membership, and you can apply to as many projects as you want, all over the world.

Because I’m very interested in living more sustainably on a day-to-day basis, I naturally gravitated towards projects that might help me get some skills in this area. I ended up on a permaculture farm (La Manzana) just outside Buenos Aires in Argentina, a nature reserve that grows its own food (Aldea Luna) in northern Argentina, and a coastal project in Peru (Jihuay), that was using natural materials to build accommodation for workers and guests. It did me good, working outdoors, my hands covered in soil and mud, with people from around the world. There was something very therapeutic about it. No way of living is perfect, and the projects certainly had their challenges to contend with, but it gave me an insight into another way of life. Far removed from the daily rush of the London commute.

I’d had a little bit of experience in the gardening side of things, having taken a City & Guilds Level 1 in Gardening while in London and occasionally helping out in community gardens. But I’d never built with natural materials before, and I found it incredible how much could be made from something so simple. We were building with the nature around us – making cob. Cob is a mixture of clay, sand, straw and cow dung (or the juice from a cactus, in the case of Jihuay, where we were surrounded by desert). To make it, we mixed the ingredients together on a tarpaulin on the ground, then stamped on it, danced in it, and folded it over like a massive mud cake. Then we slapped it on the walls. Depending on who you work with, the proportions and the technique is slightly different, but the benefits are the same: it’s environmentally friendly, long lasting, cheap, and provides excellent insulation. It’s also possible to make some very beautiful houses (see this Pinterest board for some cob inspiration).

I’m not sure where I’ll be taking my learning, because I need to earn a bit of money again before I can decide next steps, but I’d like to use cob at some point in the future. But I’d like to promote learning opportunities in this area, so if you have a sustainable building learning project you’d like me to put on this website, let me know.