Monday, October 17, 2011

In Treehouses and Cottages

The house was described to me as a trailer standing up on one end. It would turn out to be a rather apt description, but while on the phone in Ottawa, talking to the man who would become my landlord in Yellowknife, it was hard to conceptualize. I moved North thinking of that place as a possibility in my housing search, but when it soon became apparent that a) there were almost zero vacancies to be found in Yellowknife in September of 2010; and b) that the location, design and size of the house were perfect, we moved into the standing up trailer and called it home for the next twelve months.

It was a quirky place, with a bright blue exterior and three levels stretching into the Northern sky. The first level had the bathroom, closet, wardrobe and water tank, which was in its own room off the bathroom. The tank was necessary, as above-ground water lines in that part of Yellowknife mean that in the colder months water gets delivered by truck semi-weekly and pumped directly into each residence. Heading up the steep, ladder/stairs hybrid would take you to the main level, with a living area and a kitchen that was small but had room enough for a full sized fridge and oven, along with plenty of cupboard space and just enough counter top. Up another nine steps/rungs, and you would be in the sleeping loft. On that level, I could just barely stand up at the top of the stairs against the front of the house, before the roof sloped sharply towards the back wall where it met with the floor. On perfect winter nights I could see the northern lights out my bedside window, while in summer, the midnight twilight snaked its way past the curtains and made for a disorienting presence while the leaves of birch trees obscured the view out the second and third floor windows. The landlords' part of the house, which was connected to ours via a deck out a back door on the second level, backed onto Ragged Ass Road.

It sat across the street from the edge of Great Slave Lake, and came with landlords and neighbours who embodied a generosity of spirit that is rare even for a tight knit community like Yellowknife. In a word it was perfect. We were spoiled in that tall, skinny home that I nicknamed The Treehouse, and it made for a tough place to say goodbye to with the knowledge that finding a similarly ideal spot in South Africa might be a challenge.

Yellowknife has since given way to my new home of Stellenbosch. "Stellie" is a multi-faceted small city, with two of those facets - wine money and university students from affluent families - making for much higher rent than I had anticipated or budgeted for. Despite two weeks of house-hunting that was assertive bordering on all-consuming, we were still living in a hostel without any solid leads when a friend of a friend of a friend suggested we take a look at her friends' place in the community of Jamestown, 6.5km from downtown Stellenbosch.

Jamestown is a curious community that sits off one of the main autoroutes that crisscrosses this part of the Western Cape. Immediately upon turning off the highway, one is greeted by a gas station, BMW dealership, gated community and small, indoor shopping mall. Hardly the stuff of the African immersion that I came here seeking. But immediately upon passing these roadside commercial sentries, a very organic community presents itself.

The gated community sits on the left hand side of Jamestown's main road - Weber's Valley Road - and is the first thing one sees when turning off the highway. One step further into Jamestown - and almost spooning with the gated community - is an informal settlement, or what one might call a shanty town, for lack of a better term. Here, shacks cobbled of wood, brick and scrap metal cascade down the hill from Jamestown's main road, but their patchwork appearance does not paint a fair picture of the permanence and resilience of either the structures themselves or the neighbourhood which they comprise. It is a small settlement, only stretching about two city blocks down from the road and one across, but is a centre of activity throughout the day.

Continuing on past the informal settlement, Weber's Valley Road stretches for another kilometer. On the right hand side, a half dozen equally spaced roads rise abruptly uphill and connect with secondary roads to form the small, irregular grid of residential streets where most of Jamestown lives. Single family homes abound. On the left hand side of the main road, individual families own plots of land rolling downhill towards a modest river. Most of them have crops planted in fields that, size-wise, fall somewhere between "Canadian backyard" and "small farm." There are a few very basic convenience stores on either side of the main road in town, where you can buy individual cigarettes, kerosene lamps and the usual assortment of empty calories and toothpaste. The last convenience store before the end of the road features a dusty pool table and two aging arcade games that are many years older than most of the children who pump them full of coins. It also sells hot, handmade vegetarian samosas for R2.50 apiece (around thirty five cents, Canadian). Aside from the three convenience stores there is no other commerce once you get past the shopping mall, which feels like a world away once you are safely out of its shadow. Near as I can tell, its primary clientele isn't Jamestown locals, anyway. Mountains, modest in stature but harsh and jagged in appearance, keep the community hemmed in on multiple sides and cast shadows of their own.

Just before Weber's Valley Road peters out into unpaved private drives, there is a modern looking white house on the left hand side. Like the others on that side of the road, the land unrolls lazily from the road, making its way downhill toward the tree-lined banks of the river, with large gardens dominating the yard. Unlike many of the others, however, this one has a small cottage in the backyard. The cottage is the rental property we were brought out to look at by a friend's friend friend after two weeks in the hostel, and it has since become the home that I am writing from tonight.

The cottage is small. Tiny, really, nestled where the land levels out before reaching to the river. There is a single room for living, sleeping, cooking and eating, plus a bathroom. No shower, but an old-fashioned claw-foot tub with a shower wand does the trick nicely. On workday mornings I kneel next to the tub while leaning over the side and hosing down my brown mop, although every so often I'm up early enough for a full bath. The main room has a small wood stove in the corner, which we have needed on a few of the cooler spring nights. Those nights are becoming fewer and farther between, however, as the African summer and its merciless heat (from what I've been told) fast approaches.

There is plenty of outdoor living space that serves as a functional part of our one-room estate. Brick patios extend the living room out dutch doors front and back, with the front patio guarded from the sun by ground-to-overhanging-roof bamboo shades. Out back, an old-fashioned half-sized kitchen table under the overhang serves as my breakfast nook, as I crunch on cereal and watch the morning sun on the mountains. A small, old portable fire pit - for cooking or ambiance - sits on the bricks, while a hurricane lantern dangles from the wooden beams. Given how small our place is, the outdoor living areas are crucial. Indeed, without them we likely would have passed on the place.

The landlords have supplied some furnishings - kitchenwares and a few tables and chairs in a meticulous-but-retro aesthetic - but we are still trying to find others. There was no fridge when we moved in, but we were immediately able to find a waist-high fridge/freezer combo. It's just big enough for the two of us, so long as we are willing to head to the grocery store a couple of times a week. It should keep us eating fresh, which is a good thing, and we have already made friends at the Saturday farmers' market nearby.

We are still without a bed, and will likely need a futon or sleeper couch because of space issues. Meantime, we are roughing it on our camping mats on the floor. One of the first nights we were here, I awoke to a rather chilly cottage at 4:30 in the morning. I rose from my sleeping mat to crouch by the wood stove, stoking the fire and coaxing its warmth out to the four corners of my new abode. Sleeping on a concrete floor and stoking the wood fire in the pre-dawn darkness on a workday...this lawyer business sure is fancy.

There is wildlife aplenty, both au natural and domesticated. The landlords have four cats and three ducks that wander the property at will, and helmeted guinea fowl and Egyptian geese spend lazy afternoons snacking in the gardens. Otters have been known to come up from the river and prowl around at night, which is why there are three ducks when there used to be four. A spotted eagle owl sleeps in one of our bigger trees by day and makes the fields his grocery store by night. Our noisiest neighbour is a rooster belonging to the family next door, who every morning has me contemplating an end to my vegetarian ways.

We have been in the cottage for two weeks now, and despite a few crucial missing pieces of furniture - a bed and a dresser, most notably - are feeling nicely settled. It's 10:30 on a Sunday night now. The crickets are providing their own brand of white noise and the owl sang us his haunting tune a few minutes ago as we stepped outside to bring in hand washed clothes off the line. For now, this is home.

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