Sunday, August 28, 2011

Of bush knives and blisters

This past weekend we’ve been building our hous kuk (an open air kitchen) preparation for learning how to prepare meals in a village (i.e., how many ways can you prepare kaukau or sweet potato over a fire and without refrigeration?). On Thursday, the Papua New Guinean workmen demonstrated in two hours how to build a full house and table.

Jess and I soon realized that our own construction would not be quite that easy.

First, we needed to plant the two main roof supports into the ground; since our only man-made tools in building this hous kuk consisted of the tarp roof, a bush knife, an axe, and some string, we attempted to follow in the workmen’s footsteps by slamming the posts into the ground, wiggling them around, then slamming some more, until they reached a suitable depth (8-12 inches, so the rains don’t wash it away). After a good many minutes and blisters later and only about 4 inches down (later, we found out our ground was unusually hard and made of clay…), we began to see the value of community building projects :) One of the workmen in particular took pity on us, and after lifting out our hard work with a twist of one hand, helped us create a suitable foundation.

In this photo I'm much further along, working on the first counter, but you get the gist of what the whole thing looks like
Many of the pieces of wood were not the right length, and so, Jess and I fell to the task of hacking them down to size. Using the bush knife looked easy—everything seemed to split in one or two strokes, and after all, there was a massive blade, so how could we miss?

Ha. We soon named our house The Beavers.

Wood chips were scattered everywhere as we pecked away at our logs with the various cutting implements, rarely hitting in the same place twice, and barely making a dent in the hard wood despite our attempt to mimic the smooth swinging action of the workmen. But, where technique lacks, perseverance (or desperation?) can prevail, and Jess and I took turns until we had a stack of logs with gnawed off edges in the general vicinity of the same length. And now, we simply have a large pile of fire-starting woodchips!

Next we set to tying and wrapping logs together with our bundles of red and green string, often in knots more creative than even a seaman could think of. But hey—stuff is still holding!

Several of our very enthusiastic helpers!
On Saturday, a group of four or five boys, between the ages of eight and ten, came over and watched us struggle to shove our table legs into the hard-packed ground. “Yupela nogat man?” they inquired with curiosity, asking about our evident lack of husbands. Before we knew it, they had deftly smashed our table securely into the ground, began hacking apart logs to build the top (wielding their bush knives with superb accuracy), wrapped yards of string to hold everything together, and then set to building us a counter so that we could wash our fruit and dishes. They chattered away in Tok Pisin, and we attempted to communicate back (and direct the boundless energy of eight-year-olds such that they didn’t chop up everything).

Now Jess and I are adding the finishing touches to our hous kuk. We’ve decided to install a second countertop and reinforce the sink. Decorations are next on the list, and seeing as our bush-knife chopping technique is improving, we might even get a bit fancier. Extreme Home Makeover, here we come!