Work away in Wales

I’m sitting in the guest caravan for workawayers with my feet up as if I were on holiday, but I’m definitely not. I’ve got a slice of Wales to contend with, right in front of me, out the splattered and dust covered windows. London will get its due mentions soon enough; it’s easy to let go of the chaos, the crowds, the traffic, and the unsuccessful attempts to find gluten free fish and chips. For this reason, once A. and I parted – she to Liverpool Station for a train to the airport, and I to Paddington Station for a train to Carmarthen – the silence of the train coach and the green hills and meadows we were rolling past were the perfect balm. Once the train passed the border, the station signs appeared in Welsh first then English from the top down. I soon saw this every where. On candy wrappers, lists of ingredients on wrappers and food, street signs, bill boards, and newspapers. The train reached Carmarthen in the mid day sunshine. Getting my bearings and the balance right for the backpack hoisted onto my back like onto Greek peasant’s donkey, I walked across the street to where I noticed a bus stop, and from where I was hoping I would catch the magical bus that would take me to the enchanted farm. I asked a man sitting and waiting for a bus when I could expect the bus to Drefach Felindre, my instructed stop. I was aware of the danger of phonetically pronouncing words as they would be pronounced in American English – not that I would be earmarked as a foreigner – but that in my totally mispronouncing them I would be directed to a different town, region, or country altogether. But alas, the kind man said he was waiting for the same, and that we just missed the 12:30, and the next one arrived only at 1:30. He said it’s the bus that goes to Cardigan, where he’s going, and the stop is along the way. Ah, perfect, I thought. It’s actually working, whatever needs working to get me to a destination with scant directions and unmapped coordinates. Then remembering my indoctrination with Seattle city busses, I asked him if he knew whether the bus needs exact change, and how much it might be. He thought maybe 2 or 3 pounds, but he didn’t know about exact change. I didn’t have that much in exact change, so with an hour to spare and still with home on back, went across the street again and on over to the little snack store in the train station, where I had a lovely chat with the store keeper. I think she was entranced by my huge backpack, and even more excited about learning I was from the states. I got the feeling she didn’t see too many of my kind out in these parts. After a careful, lengthy study of her snack rack and the bubbly drinks in her fridge, I finally selected a fruit and nut bar. “Ah, you found something, then!” She laughed, and in due course, I satisfied a sweet tooth and the correct change predicament. There was nothing left to do but taste a Welsh nut bar and stand in, finally, a warm sun, and observe the goings on around me. One young woman came up to me and asked me if the T1 bus came by here. “I’d love to help you,” I said, “but as you can probably tell, I’m a foreigner, and I’m the wrong person to ask. But there’s a really nice man in there (I nodded to the bus shelter) who would probably know.” She smiled and went to ask him. I was wondering how many people have trouble deciphering the bus schedules. A few minutes later, I had my answer: a lot of them. A woman who looked like she shouldn’t have been running came sprinting down the street to a taxi parked across the street and urgently asked him if he was free. Her mother, and she pointed down the way from which she had just exhausted her last breath, needed to get to the center of town. I couldn’t hear their exchange, but she returned to her mother, informing her and everyone else on the street that he’s not going that way and then veered left to ask some people who were just getting into their car. Still no luck. The taxi sped off with a couple who came out of the station in a daze – there must be a universal expression saved for the truly bewildered and for the “first-timers” the minute they open the doors to a new world beyond, as well as a universal attire for holidayers. It seems to be always a sunglasses/straw hat combo, heels and capris (for women) and sunglasses/pullover draped across the back, kakis and loafers (for men). Before long, the sprinter’s mother came slowly past me, and asked if this bus (Apparently the one I was waiting for) would take her into the center of the city. “I’m sorry, I really don’t know.” She looked at me a little strangely, and then I realized my accent must have really thrown her. “Huh,” She said, unperturbed nevertheless, “All I want is to get to the center. How hard can that be?” She hobbled further on, at which point another taxi pulled up, and she went over to him to ask about getting her to the city center. She called to her daughter, who was busy procuring a ride further up the street. “I’ve got one! He can take us to the center!” She yelled. Her daughter yelled back, “I’ve got one too! Which one should we take?” It was like a half time show for bus riders waiting in between busses. They finally settled on the taxi the mother secured, and in they went, sped off to the two-minute drive into the center. Carmarthen is truly a very small city, which became obvious when I was finally on the bus.

There were three of us boarding the 460 to Cardigan, and luckily a young man in front of me was going to Drefach Felindre as well, so I got to hear how it’s really pronounced and know how much it cost: 4.5 pounds. It was also reassuring to know that I would be getting off at the right place if I just followed him off the bus. The bus moved into gears, winding around little streets and up hills and past farms and fields and then to another little town, a little bus stop, no announcements, and then on around a roundabout, the Welsh names on the signs no help for an orientation. A quick aside: in most cities across the globe, city names will invariably look and sound the same, with slight variations. Not so in Welsh. For example, the Welsh city Newport is called Casnewydd; Bridgend is called Pen-y-bont. The small villages between towns were the only ones that didn’t have an English language equivalent beneath them. So on we went, and the first disorientation and slight cause for panic was that the bus went north from Carmarthen instead of south, which was what Google maps indicated for me before I left. Along the way I must have acknowledged that there were many Drefachs in Wales, and also many Penboyrs, the small rural community where the Farm is located. All I knew was that I was on the right bus, and heading to a town I knew I should be in. After about 45 minutes, though, I decided to ask the same man I had asked before whether we were anywhere near Drefach, and he said he really didn’t know, but that the other fellow was going there, and he was still on the bus. But maybe I should ask the driver? Yes, he thought I should.

I balanced my way forward to the driver. “Can you tell me when we will stop in Drefach Felindre?” “Whats that?” I reformulated the pronunciation in my mind that I overheard earlier from the other passenger whose intended stop was my own. And tried again. “Drayfach (sounding the ch like the soft, aspirated, light gargle greek letter X, or chee) Felindre” “Say that again?” I was hoping the engine of the bus was the cause of this man’s hearing, and not my accent, and so again, I said a little louder, for all the passengers to hear, “Drayfach Felindre!” “Drewfach Felundra? It’s right up here! It’s coming up.” We finally both agreed that what we had pronounced was indeed the same place. After I sat down again, another young man came up to me and made sure that I understood that it was the next stop. So I felt well enough taken care of. By the time we reached “the next one” at least three people pressed the bus stop buzzer form benefit, and I hoisted my backpack and disembarked, along with that other fellow, who wasn’t as loaded down as I was, but who nevertheless had a different accent of some sort. I asked him which way was south, and he pointed in the general direction; my google maps did the same, and so off I went, trailing him by about 50 yards and wondering if we were not heading to the same place. The walking was easy enough despite the 16 kilos on my back and I was glad that the sun was still high in the sky should this destination prove to be either longer than I anticipated or nonexistent altogether.

The afternoon sun and unpredicatably warm weather made the trek actually enjoyable. From the bus station to the farm is about a 1.8 miles walk, and every now and then I checked gps to confirm I was yet traceable. Soon though, the signal became weaker, so I could no longer rely on its accuracy nor on its lifeline to the world out there. I put the phone away and just kept walking. Eventually, I came across a gentle looking, silver- haired woman sitting on her porch of on one of the few cottages that lined the densely forested, paved road. She was handling yarn, probably weaving it into a rug or some such. “Hello!” I called. She returned the greeting. “I’m headed to the Permafrost Culture Farm. Do you know where that is?” “Oh yes, I do. But oh dear. You’ve come too far. You need to go back, past those bungalows down there, and make a right up a sharp hill. Then you’ll be right there. Or, you could keep going this way, and then around, either way. It’s behind, us, over a hill. Either way, it’s still aways off.” I decided to heed her former instructions; she seemed to believe in them more. Off I went, retracing my steps, now becoming a little bit frustrated at the casual directions I received from the hosts in their email. About ten minutes of walking later, a car pulled up, and a man asked where I was heading, as he’s seen me now twice going in two different directions. I said hopefully, “I’m going to the Permafrost Culture Farm.” He said shaking his head, “You’re going the wrong way. It’s back that way,” and pointed in the direction I had come from before I met the old lady. I looked forlornly down the road I had just come from. “Oh dear,” I said, starting to mimic the locals. He said, “Get in, I’ll take you there.” I put my stuff in the back, and got in. I was relieved that someone had a car and could actually get me to a place that actually exists, and who knew where they were going. “Why did you turn around?” He asked. “Well,” I said,  “I was going in that direction, but then I passed an old lady weaving on her porch and she told me to go back this way.” “Oh that was my wife spinning. Well, I’ll take you back this way. I love to make her mad.” So off we went, and passed his wife, who glanced up from her wheel, and soon enough, he dropped me off by the red phone box and gave me firm directions. Take this little dirt path all the way, straight up. There will be a driveway to your left. Don’t take that. That’s a neighbor’s place. Go all the way straight up, follow that path straight.” I kept the word “straight” in my head, as this seemed very important to him, that I find the place. “At the end, take a left. And then you’re right there.” Well, hallelujah. I climbed up the rocky path, justified in my decision not to have taken the roller suitcase. It was steep enough without the ruts and rocks and roots. The farm’s directions said to stay on this path for about 200 yards. I calculated 4 football fields, not that I had ever run any, and figured it would be another 15 minutes, give or take, in this grade. I still kept going on the promise that there would be an end point to this journey, and that this path, through these deciduous woods, was the way there. It curved around eventually, but despite it no longer being straight, kept on it, as there was no where else to go. Finally, I came to the end of straight, and a left and right option. I think he said left, but left lead to a gated pasture, so I went right, and there, around the bend, was the sign “Permafrostculture Farm. Leash your dogs.” I was relieved and utterly grateful to have made it. I followed around hedges, passed an old barn and around to a brick walk way, which I took to be the one to the main house.

Indeed there it was, a little shack surrounded by garden trenches, burgeoning vegetables, wildflowers, crates, pails, garden equipment, plastic tarps, and an old green caravan-turned-shed, full of boards, bricks, and anything imaginable. I walked up to the red front door, which had a small welcome sign on it telling me to enter through here and knock on the next door. I walked into the mud room where a wild assortment of wellingtons, coats, tools, boxes, gloves, solar transmitter power boxes, and all sorts of chaotic life welcomed me to the obstacle course that was to lead to the entry way. I knocked; foot steps approached. A young girl in long, braided hair and Icelandic knitted sweater looked through the window, and without smiling or saying hello retreated, calling to her mom. Soon M. came to open the door, and broadly smiled, “You’ve found us then!” As if hers was one of many options on a snack rack, and I chose correctly. She looked about mid thirties, with the same long brown hair that now succumbed to the slight graying of later middle age. She motioned me into the one main room that was on the right side of the cottage. I took in the whole of it together, as one might when assessing a place for the first time, without allowing myself to actually look, but as we were speaking I became aware of my surroundings. This one room is obviously where everything happened. They cooked, they ate, died wool, made crafts, played the piano, preserved fruits and vegetables, dried meat, read books, colored, painted, did accounts, discussed the universe, sharpen scythes, sell scythes … all of this became evident little by little. What amazed me though was that every cubic centimeter was occupied with something, and that everything had a space, whether that space was in a drawer or not. That space may have been on the counter or on the floor. It mattered not a wee bit to anyone. Then I thought, there is no more space, so wherever it lands is where it belongs, evidently. After some tea, and formalities, M. took me to the caravan, a model from the late 70s that was now seasoned with green brush strokes of mold along its aluminum siding. Inside was a bed, a table with a wrap-around cushioned bench, a fridge and a stove. “We haven’t got any electricity or water down here yet, but there is a faint Wifi signal.” I plopped by backpack down on the bench and she showed me around the farm, the four compost toilets, the big red barn where I could make tea, the goat shed, the vegetable garden and the hay, sheep and cow fields. Then she told me to come back for dinner at 7.

For a few hours I settled in, unpacked, noticed the silence, and was struck by its benevolence. The peace was so loud it couldn’t help but be noticed, the shades of green so varied I wondered if they each hue had a separate name. The garden in front of the caravan grew wild with weeds and flowers tall and proud; what seems at first to be a derelict plot of land, is actually an ecosystem allowed to function as one in the most harmonious way possible. 

I went over for dinner at 6:55, famished, where I met the rest of the family. The father, P., appears as a blend between Johnny Appleseed and John Muir – a total product of outdoor living without a hint of civilization. Long hair, long beard, clothing made from natural plant fibers that don’t mind the dirt. More accurately, he looks like a pioneer from the 1800s. He builds nearly everything around here – sheds, outhouses, even the small house they live in. Currently, he’s working on an extension to the house that will include – get this – a bathroom! Wow. They’re really catching up with the Jones’s down aways in the valley. Their son, F, is a nine-year-old long haired, barefoot, free-roaming “unschooled” boy whose outdoor good looks had me mistake him for a girl. Their daughter, E., who I glimpsed before she darted away from the door earlier, is 12 and spends time between bites from the scooped wooden spoonfuls from her wooden bowl to her sketch pad and dried flower scrap book. All four of them had sharp, brilliant blue eyes.Dinner was scooped into wooden bowls on the counter and served by P. Tonight’s consisted of rotini pasta with vegetables – I’m not sure which, but they were green, maybe a chard or collard of some sort, and an orange vegetable, probably a squash from  their winter store. The surprise, well, no, the disappointment (not that it should have been one as I knew next to nothing about the family in front of me, who knew even less of me yet welcomed me into their home) was that there was no salt at all in the prepared food nor on the table, and unaccustomed to this omission, found very little to enjoy about it, causing me to wonder whether food consumed here was simply energy for the body and not for the splendor of a foodie’s palette, or whether he may have forgotten to add the salt, but no one said a word while everybody perfunctorily scooped and deposited, all except for E., who continued intermittently with her sketching.  After dinner there was pudding, in this case a slice of loaf cake with custard. But where salt failed dinner, sugar failed dessert, so although it looked and had all the promise of a dessert, without the sugar and my untrained tongue, I might have been eating a kitchen sponge smothered in tumeric-spiced warm goat milk. Ahh! Welsh pudding! Missing those ingredients that that make you insane for one more slice, I said my thank you’s, good nights, and returning to my caravan, snuggled in deep under the Welsh woolen blankets.

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