A tarred road. The winding tracks and rutted lanes of the Middle World are back there now. This is civilisation. And yet, on the shoulder of a hill, still this splendid enigma. Concrete stone and rock fill, carefully graded to specific sizes, is what he offers, sold by the shovel-full – credit cards not accepted (sorry).
He carries the rocks from the slopes. Ten litre-sized. One at a time. He cracks the basalt into half-litre chunks. Then further. From the chips, calloused fingers select the sizes, tosses each onto its pile.
His hammer is crudely handled. Just a stick, chopped from a tree with a machete and wedged into the hole through the head. But countless days of hammering has made its strike true as a draughtsman’s pencil; the fingers holding the ever-smaller chips, nimble as a squirrel to avoid the deadly steel.
The head is a four pound. It lasts but a few weeks before it is worn down to a useless ball, too light to break anything. Then he has to wander off to a merchant, where a stock of four-pound heads lie in a corner. He buys one, just one more. It is his only operating expense. That, and patience. Day-long, week-long, months-long, years-long patience.
His seat is his blanket, folded a few times over a flat-surfaced rock. He sleeps somewhere close in a hollow, from where he can wake to thieves stealing his chips. There are others like him, dotted along the rises. Customers arrive in stuttering pick-ups. They buy a few shovels-full at a time. The competition is indifferently accepted, perhaps for the bit of companionship it offers.
Does he have a wife? Children? We are unable to communicate. He speaks only his native tongue.
I think, “how does a country get to the point where concrete aggregate, the basis of almost all building, becomes so scarce, and people are so poor, that they are prepared to make it with hammers, a blow at a time?” Then, “But it is not only desperation. There is something hopeful and resilient, something industrious about it too. It is a remote area. There is a need here, to serve small builders…”
Oh, this continent!