The late afternoon sun was strong as I clambered across the gleaming white peaks of the kitchen hut roof, paintbrush in hand. It already looked like I was standing on top of a giant meringue, and things were only going to get whiter.
Two coats down and I was starting on a third when I realised my paint stash was seriously depleted. I inched closer to the roof’s edge. Jumping down six feet to the ground didn’t seem like the most tempting prospect – particularly when I knew how thin said edge was.
Lucky, then, that Michael’s head appeared. He was on a break in the kitchen, along with the rest of the group of Brazilian builders that we’d spent all morning cooking for.
“Ahh, una pregunta!” I exclaimed. “¿Me puedes ayudar con esto?”
Despite his lack of Spanish and my lack of Portuguese, there’s nothing like a bit of gesturing to understand when someone needs help. Once he’d passed me a freshly refilled paint tub, I looked at the sun’s position; just barely peeking over the mountain ridge.
“It must be 4pm,” I said to myself. “Only two hours of daylight left!”
And with that, I headed back across my meringue roof and started slapping paint down again with renewed relish.
Working for free in the Brazilian jungle
Surprisingly enough, painting roofs is not a regular pastime for me. Or even an alternative career move. But out of all the tasks I’d been set since arriving at Terra Maya, I was enjoying my latest job the most.
In the last few weeks, I’d discovered that I wasn’t strong enough to carry more than a few papayas and a bag of cement in my backpack half an hour up a mountain; that my hammering and nailing and wood cutting skills weren’t quite up to par; and I couldn’t do that much impact to any patch of ground with a heavy metal shovel, no matter how much I sweated.
But I digress. What exactly was I doing on the side of a mountain, painting roofs in the middle of the Brazilian jungle anyway?
Well. This story centres around my cousin.
Milli (on the right, in the tartan) is a passionate musician, a yoga teacher by trade, and a free spirit at heart. I didn’t see her much when we were younger – mainly just at Christmases, Easters and the occasional family gathering. She was always cool though; one year sporting dreadlocks, another a musician boyfriend, and always with a desire to go travelling.
There’s a gap of about five years between us – meaning that I was aged an impressionable thirteen when she headed off on her first ’round the world’ adventure after finishing school. I was already totally in awe of my cousin, and when our family heard that Milli had fallen head over heels in love with India, and was spending the majority of her year there instead? Well, she was even cooler.
Her travels in India planted a seed in my mind around that time, and I eventually found myself there five years later – also in the same places Milli had frequented many times over. We were supposed to connect in Punjab when I was helping to organise a music event, but things never quite worked out.
And then, a few months ago, I received an email. My cousin was now living in the mountains a few hours away from Rio de Janeiro; seeing as we didn’t manage to meet in Asia, how about we try for South America instead?
So last month (thanks to some flights from Skyscanner), I flew into Rio and caught a bus straight out again to a tiny town named Casimiro, on the hunt for my elusive cousin.
An unlikely introduction to Brazil
To be totally truthful, I didn’t really know where I was going. Milli had told me she was building some kind of community retreat up in the mountains with her partner, Norberto, and a handful of enthusiastic volunteers. Together, they were camping in tents, constructing huts and eco-toilets, and living off the land in harmony.
Sounds doable, right?
But I was still pretty nervous – and not just because the sudden lack of spoken Spanish in Brazil had thrown me off. While being ‘cousins’ means something akin to a sibling relationship for many people, for me it’s been nothing of the sort. The family tie has never been tested much with me and Milli, and I didn’t really know her that well before I spotted her from across the Casimiro bus station.
“There you are!” She cried, pulling me into a hug. “The others didn’t see you when they looked around earlier.”
I turned to see ‘the others’; a tall German guy approaching us, a Dutch girl stepping lightly behind him, an English guy waving from further back. Alexander, Bibi and Joss; three volunteers, Milli’s friends, and my companions for the next two weeks.
We rode towards Terra Maya in the back of a rickety old pick up truck in the rain, six cartons of eggs balanced precariously in my lap, and eventually stopped in a jungle clearing. Everyone else donned waterproof gear, shouldered gas canisters or crates of food, and set off into the jungle. I struggled with the weight of my backpack and felt the rain seeping into my leggings.
What exactly had I got myself into?
A clearing in the jungle: arriving at Terra Maya
Twenty minutes of struggling uphill through the jungle in the pouring rain, all my possessions bumping damply around on my anorak-covered back, was my first impression of my cousin’s new home.
The pathway was narrow, steep, slick with mud and awkward rocks; I was out of breath within the first few minutes, and dripping with a mix of sweat and rain by the time we finally reached Terra Maya’s small kitchen hut.
Still dripping as I was introduced to Milli’s partner, Norberto, and shown briefly around the mountainside before darkness properly fell. Still damp as I clambered into someone’s else’s vacated tent, because the ground was too saturated to pitch my own.
But just before I fell into a light sleep – too preoccupied with the jungle noises around me to settle – I vowed internally that I would make the best of every situation I was faced with at Terra Maya. Accepting everything positive about the tent-living, jungle-loving lifestyle, and dealing with each cockroach, rainfall and sweaty hike back up the mountain, one by one.
Because after so long living the city lifestyle, with all its cleanliness, warmth, connectivity and ease, I got the impression that my life in Terra Maya was going to be just the opposite.
Daily life at Terra Maya
Every morning I awoke at 7am, in my condensation-filled tent, and fought my way through fresh spider webs in slightly damp flip-flops to the hut nearest to the campsite.
What was once the only kitchen has now fallen a little into disarray, used mainly now as the storage space for volunteers possessions.
After two nights with most of my belongings inside my cheap tent, I realised I should keep everything somewhere slightly drier – so all my bags were in here, parked on a bench.
Thanks to Norberto’s impeccable building skills, I showered in a little rocky cubicle, hot water courtesy of a gas canister someone carried up the mountain, and averted my gaze from the very dead, very dangly, averagely large spider underneath the boiler.
And every morning, this is what I walked up towards; through a little English vegetable garden, under the gaze of stoically silent mountains on either side, the cool air still laying a thin fog across the kitchen hut roof.
There, I hung up my bag of various clothing layers in preparation for the day’s changing temperatures, ruffled Marita the dog’s ears, carved myself a slice of fresh bread and made myself scrambled eggs.
Breakfast over, everyone set to their various tasks. At least twice a week, a large quantity of food is brought from town, so those days involved a lot of fetching and carrying up the mountainside.
But I often ended up on cooking duty, when I realised I could make a lot more impact when cutting vegetables than I could attempting to do most kinds of lifting and carrying. I also enjoyed it more – which was essentially half the point.
We had to cook quickly, though; every morning a flurry of Brazilian builders would suddenly appear, pouring into the kitchen in a whirlwind of energy and masculinity, all roaring laughter, plates clattering and bodies thronging the tiny kitchen.
The afternoons usually involved more work – like digging a rain trench, collecting dried cow dung for compost, helping Milli or Norberto with something building related, or painting the roof. And when darkness fell, punctually, at 6pm we donned head-torches and dined on bowls of food scooped out of various pots and pans littering the hob.
By 8pm, people were yawning, stretching, and making their way down the hill towards the tents, myself included. Although my tent, hurriedly bought in Bogotá at Felipe’s suggestion, had come without a tarp – so I spent my nights living under a further piece of heavy duty plastic, weighted down with stones, in my own little clearing in a portion of the jungle.
The difficulties of living on the land
My time at Terra Maya was the complete antithesis to my last few months of travel – because guess what? Turns out that living in the jungle is no joke. I know I can be dramatic at the best of times, but there were a number of things I found very difficult to handle.
No electricity meant no internet, no iPod, and no charging of my camera batteries. Living in a tent meant never feeling clean; constantly prying fresh dirt from my fingernails and learning to accept that my legs would be covered in paint for at least the next week.
And the bugs were always ready to screw with me. Brushing my teeth in the pitch black darkness with only a head torch, tired, aching and filthy, but still needing to hold my wash-bag tightly closed for fear another cockroach would make a home in it – not to mention knowing there was a nest of super aggressive Brazilian bees above my head – sometimes threatened to tip me over the edge.
It sounds stupid now, but the jungle and its accompanying, ever-present dangers constantly remind you how vulnerable and unimportant you actually are in the grand scheme of things.
And that realisation can really do some strange things to you.
So why is Terra Maya such a special place?
The oddest thing is that, after a while, the Brazilian jungle began to get under my skin. In the best way possible.
I was tasked with baking bread for the first time in my life – and it actually worked. I learned how to cook, daily, for at least fifteen people; all of it vegetarian, a surprising amount of it delicious.
I watched the Brazilian builders work like supermen, and the other volunteers throw themselves into projects – and every time I spoke Spanish, the builders replied slowly enough in Portuguese for us both to get a handle on the conversation. It was a level of patience and consideration that isn’t really that common – which made me all the more appreciative.
I wrote almost constantly in my notebook – a never ending stream of thought that got me truly back in touch with using pen and paper. After the first few days, I didn’t even feel like having no internet access was a hardship: I simply got on with it.
That lack of internet also meant we entertained ourselves in other ways; roasting peanuts on the fire and mixing them with honey, salt and curry powder for our very own honey-roasted peanuts. And in depth conversations that took us unintentionally late into the night, toes toasting in front of the burning wood, as the fireflies circled outside.
One of these nights, I turned away from a particularly interesting conversation to see Milli, standing outside the kitchen, under the open sky. I went out to join her; looking upwards together at the tiny pinpricks that covered every inch of the vast expanse above us.
“I’ve chosen a pretty good place to spend the rest of my life, haven’t I?” She said, as I put my arm around her.
Something I don’t think I’ve had the chance to do many times in my life.
Could I handle the back to basics life forever?
I’ve never really known my cousin. I’m still not sure how much I know her now. But I do know that spending two weeks with her in an environment that she suggested has meant our relationship beginning on her terms, in her lifestyle.
So no, I don’t love the lifestyle of living in the jungle, open and vulnerable to the elements, and I’m quite certain I could never do it for the long term.
But I do love Milli, and I’m immensely proud of her clear passion for what she’s setting out to do. Literally building her own life with a group of people she loves around her to help bring the place to life.
And its because of that reason that I’ll go back to Terra Maya, again and again over the years, to watch her land and her life develop. She’s created something beautiful, and I feel so lucky that I’ve been able to play a tiny part in it.
Even if it’s just from adding a few coats of paint on a meringue shaped roof.