twenty degrees to go

It is mid afternoon, and the dusty air is a balmy 29° Celsius. Last night it dropped to 4°. This same tent, so hot and dry right now, was shivering in dew last night, thousands of frozen drops beading off the fly. We shivered in our sleeping bags, beanies and hoodies on, trying to clutch at any warmth. It’s funny how we forget though. The sun rises, cold and crisp in the dew covered morning, the mist rising off the trees in the valley as they are illuminated, like the rainforest. We bask in its warmth, pause from our hammering to turn our faces to the loving shine. For some thirty glorious minutes we are rapturous, slowing as we work, shedding garments like discarded wrappers, delighted as our extremities defrost from the freezing night. Then, slowly, the balance tips. Gradually it has become hotter and hotter. We squint in the low sun now, our faces twitching in annoyance as the flies land ever faster on our skin. We forget that an hour ago we were stamping our feet and blowing at our hands, aching for the sunlight.

We work through the hot morning, speeding towards the finish line at noon. Within the first hour my shoes are filled with dark soil, my triceps burning from the heavy buckets to be carried. We smile often though, and the air is filled with happy banter. We slather each other in sunblock, unable to avoid the inherent Kiwi guilt of being in the sun too long. When you’re used to a burn time of 15 minutes, you learn to take care of your skin, even if the locals stand and laugh at your precious antics. The house is taking shape, a masterpiece of dirt and plastic. When I stand on the high plastic precipice of the main buttress I take small, careful steps, my usual sure footing marred somewhat by the three metre drop to the ground. It’s funny how we do that too, walk as though at any moment we could fall, even though the area we have to walk on is twice what we would use while walking on solid ground. Derek, the owner of the quinta, plays the harmonica during tea break. The jarring, soulful notes are soothing in the warm air. You can always tell whether someone is actually good at the harmonica by the way they hold it. They cradle it to their mouth, cupped intimately by both palms, instead of the tentative pincer grip of the experimental amateur. Derek belongs to the former group, me, the latter.

The sky is a deep, shady blue, so azure that if I stare up for too long I feel as though I could fall right into it. The trees above are shockingly green against the sky, their leaves bright, shot through with brown skeletons, as though a rain came and burned drops of their green away. We work for a few more hours through the dirt and the flies, our shoulders a dark reddish brown, despite all of the sunblock. When we are finished we retire to the shade, a cold beer held against our sweaty palms, the perfect antidote to hot work like this.

It is later now, and the cool shadows are lengthening. The temperature has some twenty degrees to drop in the next few hours. The sun will disappear behind us soon, and its rays from the opposite hill soon after. The stars will prick out suddenly from the dark sky, and we will swap our cold beers for a mug of hot tea, our fingers wrapped warm around the bright enamel, woolen beanies tugged tight down over our ears, soft armor against the biting chill.



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