“I thought that we would have some clay and build a small house and that we would not do anything else.”
I like that Raju remembers his first impression of what it would mean to build an oven; “a small house.” I had made a very small model of a cob oven when I arrived to test the clay and it was totally meaningless to everyone, including the volunteers in terms of its form. For most of the kids and staff, the word “oven” was no explanation because few knew what an oven is or does let alone had seen one. As for western volunteers and Indians alike, “cob” building was new to most.
Gen La admitted that he didn’t know what he’d signed up for when I arrived but thankfully, that didn’t stop him from arranging for everything I needed throughout the process. Starting with commissioning Master stone mason DorjeeBai to build the base for the oven- the most beautiful part- to locating clay from different sources, sending the Amalas to my rescue on several occasions, allowing the kids to spend school time helping, giving me free reign over tools and materials available on campus to jumping in himself now and again. The whole community pitched at one point or other with the little ones carting clay, sand and stones, the older ones helping with actual building and the staff and volunteers popped by when they could to lend a hand with whatever I was doing at the moment. The whole process was truly and characteristically, a community effort. For most, enthusiasm waxed and waned with my lurching progress but Raju stuck it out with me the whole way so it’s appropriate that he should have his own eloquent say about it.
Cob is a mixture of clay, sand, soil and any available material to give the mixture tensile strength. Typically, in the states we use straw but here I used the wood shavings the community carpenters made from planing the trusses for the new staff housing. As Raju explained, an oven is made in 3 layers, each of some variation in proportions of the ingredients. The biggest challenge for me is accurately analyzing the clay content of the local soil. I’d rate myself a C-in this at Jhamtse. Raju seems to have gleaned the most important aspects of cob construction: design (dome is key here), sequence and measure, measure, measure; it’s just like baking in that regard.
I had some set-backs along the way which everyone but I took in stride. When the ceiling of the internal, that’s to say “oven” layer collapsed, I, too wondered if we would really have an oven. My thanks to Vasudha for not only pitching in at every stage but for being my sentinel for the first few hours that I lay on my back, half my body in the oven, fixing the ceiling in dim light and dread of the whole thing caving in on me. I always had moral support and chai to push me through. Love to Sonu, my sweet chai walla.
When I couldn’t futz any further and my AP permit was coming to an end, I finally fired ‘er up and to my profound if jittery relief, we had cookies for all by night fall. I’ll leave that event to Raju. I would liked to have made pizza; it’s a kind of mystical nectar from the west that all the kids have heard about and seen on movies but never tasted. I didn’t have time on this visit but I will be back and I’ll be packing oregano.
Despite all it’s flaws in the making, GenLa totally seized on what the oven represents: the potential inherent in stuff that’s just lying around and the beauty of natural building. We sourced strawbales while I was there. If and when the community can launch construction of a guesthouse of all natural and found materials, I’ll do my best to be part of it. Until then I’ll think of Jhamtse Gatsal with great fondness and wish them quality cookies forever more.