How to survive till the rest of the world sorts itself out (I)

How to survive till the rest of the world sorts itself out (I)

CAGAYAN DE ORO—As a kid growing up in the Philippines in the 1980s, I was vaguely conscious of government exhortations on belt tightening due to an ongoing economic crisis. Then I learned about inflation and constantly worried over the cost of goods rising in perpetuity. Would my generation be able to afford anything in the future? How to in hell would that work out for everyone?

Now that things are coming full circle regarding our history, I’m glad that between then and now I have stumbled upon the answer. For sure, a collective activism is imperative for systemic change to take place. Which is why we need to show up and be counted on things that matter, on issues that are important. But also, on a personal note, as Michael Jackson and Mahatma Gandhi kept telling us, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

So out of necessity and an absolute certainty that I have cracked the code that will get at the root of my childhood anxiety from growing up under Philippine-style martial law, with its austere measures for the people on one hand and raiding-of-the-coffers-by-the-powers-that-be on the other, I have made it my personal lifestyle choice to live sustainably, to tread lightly upon a ravaged Earth, to DIY my way around thingsand, if possible, to remove this unstable economic factor called money from my equation of eating well, of living a happy life, of an enjoyment of the world, and as a creative, towards the simple practice of an aesthetic of the everyday.  

I’ve learned to be an anti-consumerist, eco-friendly practitioner of sustainable living in a quiet, nonperformative way: through urban kitchen gardening, cooking from scratch, and other life hacks that will help keep us afloat till the world sorts itself out. We also need to help with that, by the way. 

Related: How to survive… (II): Setting up an urban kitchen garden, How To Survive…(III) Recipes to fortify us for the coming days

Creating a micro climate zone

Moving back to Cagayan de Oro after eight years in Baguio was a big adjustment for me and my children. But it felt like the right time to reconnect with this particular family tree, especially during my mother’s sickness and eventual demise (may the Buddha bless her reincarnated soul).

The most obvious physical adjustment was the change in climate. Our first order of business was, therefore, creating a micro climate zone.

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The original windows with potted plants to keep the heat away.  This picture was taken during a visit, when my siblings and I were still planning our respective moves back into the family home in what I call the “Save the Carmen House Movement.” —PHOTOS BY KELLY RAMOS

Before he died in 2004, my brother converted a bodega into his pad. It was going to be my space. It was a good space, but it had small windows and relied heavily on air-conditioning. As a single parent with two dependents and no other means of support but my regular income, I would not be able to afford the power bill. So I asked my siblings that the space be opened up with wider windows before I moved in in February 2020 (yes, a month before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic).

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Wider windows. This is an early photo of the first days of my permanent move into the family home. 
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Photo is circa 2020. View from the outside, with plants. Interestingly, you can multiply these plants by repotting. It’s a necessity; otherwise, their roots would crowd their old pots over time.
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Curtains, more plants. My children who grew up in Baguio are not accustomed to the heat of the lowlands. Still, they prefer natural ventilation to indoor cooling systems. The youngest claims that being in an air-conditioned room makes her feel sad.

In the early days in our new space, we quickly discovered where the sun hit hardest in the hottest part of the day. We needed more than potted plants to solve this particular problem. 

Indoor view of mid-afternoon in the hottest part of our room, with camote vines providing partial shade. Lay your hand on this wall and you will feel the heat radiating off the concrete surface until early evening.
Outside is the unfinished wall with the original hollow blocks exposed. There used to be a tool shed here, now demolished. To keep the heat away, I decided to make a skin of natural clay, using materials that were available.

Building a clay wall

During our 8-year stay in Baguio, I got reacquainted with my old college friend, beer buddy, and swim partner: Joni Balao. She was married to a Croatian-German, Zelimir Strugar. Together they built a clay house in the mountains of Benguet. From them I learned the principles of clay house building, which I used to create my micro-climate zone for heat insulation.

As it turns out, the soil around the house is composed of clay that appeared to have little organic matter mixed into itthe perfect material. The next step was to find the proper clay-sand ratio by mixing separate batches and applying these to the wall with the corresponding ratios indicated. It takes a few days as you wait and check for the batch that creates less cracks.     

I found my perfect ratio and began to build my clay wall. The materials are water, clay from the surrounding area, sand from a previous construction, and organic fiber to account for shrinkage as the clay mixture dries.
Slow progress. I am the crazy “tita” of the family that is doing something strange with mud and sand in the corner of the yard.
This was at the start of the quarantine period in 2020 when we were not allowed at the office for two months. I brought work folders home and sporadically inputted my museum’s object documentation register into an Excel file. Working on the clay wall kept me sane.   
Slow but sure progress in the low-impact way to keep cool in the tropics. I did it in two months under lockdown. Sometimes work began at night when sleep eluded the worried mind.
As we finished the clay wall, we started planning our kitchen garden. It had the double purpose of creating the micro-climate zone and providing food for the kitchen. A friend of my sister’s, Connie Yap Reynolds, gave us sacks of soil and rice hull with chicken manure from her own farm, as well as tomato seedlings. It’s nice to have friends.  
Very rough raised planters for tomatoes and a wire trellis with the clay wall as backdrop. My first batch of vegetables: okra, sili, squash, tomato. In the background are more seedlings.
When the camote vines became overgrown, we tried blue ternate (or butterfly pea) as window shade. Blue ternate is a very aesthetic edible flower. With it you can turn rice blue. You can make a blue tea that transforms into violet right before your eyes when kalamansi is added. It is one of my favorite things to watch in the world.

NEXT: The kitchen garden

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