A steep spending curve
Ignorant and breaking things in Alentejo
This off grid living thing is not just a steep learning curve, but it's also a steep spending curve – especially now it’s time to start some proper building.
But before I get onto the amount of fun you can have with a jackhammer and my new-found respect for grave diggers, let me explain the spending curve – and how its inversely proportional to knowledge.
Radi (the German hippy from over the hill) popped over the other day to give me a bit of training on the strimmer and to teach me how to sharpen the chainsaw.
I had no idea chainsaws got blunt so quickly.
Actually, they don’t go blunt that quickly, unless you use them the way I do, but the good news is they’re easy to sharpen…it’s just a bit boring.
All the various tools left behind in the little solar house by the previous owner are all gradually starting to make sense.
The round file and the flat file are for the chainsaw – the round one cuts forward and makes a little inverse ski-slope of the blade, and the flat one levels off the metal bit behind…and hey presto…back in business.
With two hectares of eucalyptus trees to cut down before spring is out – and some firewood to be cut up before the weather changes too much – I think those files and I will be spending a lot of time together.
The strimmer was also working – it’s old and came with the house – but I had taken it in and got the sticky on/off switch replaced (not being able to stop a fast spinning metal blade can be inconvenient) and so I was raring to go.
You can’t use a metal blade in the summer here because of the risk of fire, but now it’s fine and they are amazing.
Radi taught me a good technique to avoid damaging the engine – constantly revving and not accelerating into cuts…so if you hit a big rock the whole thing doesn’t break.
With harness properly fastened to carry its weight, safety shoes, protective mask and ear protectors all in place, off we went tearing through our nemesis plants.
A particular place in plant hell should be reserved for silvas (bramble) with its deep roots, growing everywhere, tearing my legs on walks and spreading utterly out of control.
Then there’s the lovely smelling esteva (gum rock rose or Cistus ladanifer), but they can’t be allowed to get too tall as they get very woody and even harder to handle.
Ana has been spending hours on the hill above the house pulling hundreds of them out by hand after each rain.
And canas - a bamboo-type grass that grows 4m high…and is actually better off being attacked with a handsaw. That has gone nuts near the irrigation dam.
The canas actually make good building materials – Radi and his friend are going to come and cut some down for that purpose…but after 18 months of nobody living here before we arrived, there’s plenty to go around and we might do a similar thing.
There are also a few other species on the list (I’m saving the oxalis for the plastic wire strimmer and waiting until they get a bit taller so they can make a good green compost).
The aim was to cut through the hillside enough to at least reveal the track that leads down the valley and to reach the well – to see how much water is in it, and to start getting a grip on the wilderness.
The former owner left almost everything in the house – furniture, weird electrical devices, two jumbo fondue sets (still in the box), tools, bottles of wine (some of them drinkable), plant pots, sheets, towels…you name it.
It was great to get a head start when we arrived, but with all our stuff here now we’re whittling away what’s here…and I also keep breaking things.
The strimmer was one of the trophy-pieces we inherited: a Stihl brand – one of the best out there – and it was cutting magnificently.
I clambered up the hill and filled it up with fuel and was off again, really getting into my stride when it suddenly packed up and wouldn’t start.
Radi asked if I had used the petrol and oil mix – it’s really important apparently to add a percentage of oil to the jerry can and mix it before you top up.
I was pretty sure I had – maybe there was another issue – but he suggested I get someone to have a look at it.
Sure enough, the cylinder was badly damaged – and the main reason for that is a lack of oil in the petrol. It was the last straw for the old machine…it was done…and had to be replaced.
I’m not going to admit how costly that error was, but Ana told me that once I had done 80 hours of strimming it will start saving us money. That’s a lot of strimming.
Like the generator and the solar batteries before them, my steep learning curve, driven ever upward by a lack of knowledge, continues to cost us a lot of money.
It turns out I should have shaken the fuel to remix it – simple as that.
It’s one of those things that everyone just knows – like American 4-inch beams. They are not four inches. In fact, every wood size in America is wrong.
People just know. I now know. The math(s) that went into planning that staircase in Los Angeles was complex and time consuming and it was based on the foolish premise that 4-inch beams are 4 inches wide. They are not. People just know.
“Oh yes, you have to shake the fuel and oil mix every time, otherwise you’ll break the machine – and that’s an expensive mistake,” a friend said.
I know that now. I will never destroy another petrol strimmer again…well, not that way at least!
And finally…to the grave diggers.
Ana and I developed a huge respect for painters when we spent a week painting the 4m high stained wood ceilings of the house…and all the walls…before all our things arrived.
It was hard, hard work…and that was even after we realised it was impossibly dangerous without scaffolding.
And I can now say that the work that grave diggers put in is under-valued – especially those unlucky enough to work in clay.
I mean I’ve only ever slept on one shallow grave – I didn’t know it was a grave – it was the middle of the night with British troops in Helmand, Afghanistan and we were “getting our heads down” before joining a first-light raid on Taleban positions.
There was no moon, it was 50C+ during the day and the ground was baked hard.
I’m sure you too would have snuggled into a nice newly dug soft patch. I did…until I noticed the smell. Unmistakible aroma of earthquakes.
They certainly hadn’t done the full 6 feet.
We only had to dig 40cm (one and a half feet!) under instruction from Rui Dias who came over so we could start building an indoor/outdoor room.
Huge respect to both grave diggers and construction workers.
Digging big holes is something I can do…but clay…wow, it’s tough work. The jackhammer is great, but at 13kg it’s back-breaking.
We always planned to cover the patio, and to do it before winter so all our things out there don’t get ruined.
It’s going to involve reinforced concrete pillars and a beam…a wall, and a BBQ and outdoor kitchen area.
We’re checking out deals on glass windows and sliding doors, sandwich roofs and a bit of plumbing, a little electrical work…a DIY extension on the cheap…what could possibly go wrong?
Lots, no doubt, and I shall report back.
But for now…here’s a bonus sunset…