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If you’re going to spend a few weeks or a month volunteering at Villas Mastatal or a similar family farm in Latin America, there are several things you might need to know.


First off, you don’t really need to speak Spanish coming into the experience. It helps, of course, but you can get by with very limited Spanish if you’re comfortable using gestures and just not really understanding everything or saying everything you might want to say. I’d bring a notebook for writing down words and sentences as you learn them, and a phrasebook or dictionary. We’re using Lonely Planet’s Latin American Phrasebook, and although it’s wonderful for times when we’re actually backpacking, we prefer to use dictionaries to practice with as we’re volunteering on the farm. You’ll definitely want to bring bug spray, a mosquito net, and some kind of itch relief cream or gel. I also wish I’d brought a bunch of anti-allergy tablets or antihistamines, since there’s no way to buy any near the farm. If you have severe allergies, you’ll want to bring an EpiPen, as the nearest hospital is two hours away. When you’re working, you’ll need work gloves (about a dollar at any general store) and boots, although the farm has a few spares lying around.


Here's a good reason to bring bug spray!

The most important thing to bring is a positive attitude and an open mind. The work here on the farm is hard, and there’s lots of it, but there is also a lot of time to rest and do other things. I’m up at 5:30, about half an hour earlier than everyone else, so I can do my chores before cooking breakfast with Raquel, the farmer’s wife. Then we work from about 8am to lunchtime, and the afternoon is reserved for fun projects like mosaics, building chairs, making glasses from old bottles, planting a garden for the butterflies, or visiting one of the many waterfalls in the area. Be prepared to work hard, but be open to new experiences every day.


New experiences involving food are our favourite kind!

I asked our host, Javier, why he has volunteers on the farm when the locals know the land and techniques so much better. The answer is that he loves teaching people how his people live, and learning from them how things are done in their countries. Every Wednesday, he tries to organize a “talent class” where one volunteer teaches the rest something unique, be it yoga or how to build stools for the card table in the dormitory. Clara, a German girl who arrived this week, asked Javier what was the most important thing to know before coming to the farm. His reply? La vida es linda. Life is beautiful. And that’s all you need to know.


This cow expects you to come volunteer.


Oh, the insects here. Buzzing and creeping and crawling and biting, you can never escape them. They are really something else. Ellen and I have agreed to keep a positive attitude about our trip; after all, we chose to give up our homes and jobs and leave friends and family behind to take it. I don’t want our blog to become a bitch-fest about the different and unexpected things we find on this trip. However, I would like to make a few observations about the insects here.


Not sure what kind of spider this is, but I like its mandibles of death.

Mosquitoes are supposed to be the big worry here – malaria isn’t so common in this neck of the woods, but according to a mural in the bathroom of the restaurant near the bus station in the nearest town two hours away, dengue fever is an issue. However, we haven’t been bitten too often by the mosquitoes. They buzz around our heads occasionally, and I have about a dozen bites, but they don’t bother me too much. The biting flies, however, make my legs swell up and barely fit in my socks and boots. Each bite causes a red lump with about a five to seven centimeter radius (that’s two to three inches for you Yankees), and my calves and thighs have been bitten extensively. Note to future travellers – bring hardcore anti-allergy pills. Afterbite doesn’t cut it. The ants, too, like to take a chunk out of you when they get the chance. I accidentally reached my hand into an ants’ nest while I was making mulch, and about 35 ants climbed up my arm and left red, swollen, blistery bites all along my forearm. The big ants don’t seem to be as vicious, although another volunteer told us about being bitten by a bullet ant in the jungle and not being able to walk for a few days. But the insects, as irritating as my skin finds them, are also fascinating. I saw a beautiful orange and blue flying insect this morning, and an iridescent gold and green beetle yesterday. Ellen and I are sure to point out interesting spiders to each other, and we love finding rows of ants marching to and fro across the footpaths – as long as they aren’t climbing our legs.


Check out the zig-zaggy web!

Yes, if you like observing insects, Costa Rica has all kinds of neat things to show you. Just don’t expect your skin to be unblemished while you’re here.

There are so many things that we just take for granted in Canada, and coming out here to live as part of a farming family in Costa Rica really puts that into perspective.

For example, we don’t have any hot water on the farm. The water that comes out of the tap is cold, and that’s just the way it is. If you’re the first person to shower, you’ll get about three seconds of sun-warmed water from the pipe, and then you have a cold shower. Funnily enough, I am ridiculously grateful for that cold shower. It has to be brief, because we conserve water, but that short splash of cold water feels amazing after a hard day’s work. One of the other volunteers brought a sponge, and I thought, “Wow, what luxury! I didn’t think of bringing that!”

Ellen and I each have two outfits here on the farm. We wear one of them for farm work and keep the other outfit relatively clean for our afternoon post-shower adventures. We have a few other items of clothing – I keep one dress as pyjamas – but they mostly stay in our backpacks. I loving living this simply and paring down my life into basic pleasures like changing into my clean dress for the afternoon.

Another basic source of much pleasure is food. The family does buy some staples, but much of the food we eat is grown on the farm. This means that if the bananas aren’t ripe, we’re not eating bananas. If sweet potatoes are ripe, then sweet potatoes are what’s for dinner. It’s a great way to live! There are ripe oranges falling off the trees, so Ellen and I made orange juice and experimented with making orange wine. I think we appreciate the food so much more because it’s in season and we’ve worked to grow it and waited to harvest it.

Consider meat, as well. In Canada, when
we’re planning dinner, we pick our meat, and then choose a starch to go along with it, and then a vegetable side dish. Here, if there’s any meat in a meal at all, it’s more of an afterthought. The dinner planning process consists of deciding how to serve the rice, how to serve the beans, and what to serve alongside them based on what foods we have available. I don’t miss the meat in the meals here, but I do enjoy the tiny taste of it I get every once in a while.

Living here reminds us to appreciate all the little pleasures in life. I take the time to watch butterflies visit the flowers and see the birds perching on the fences. We stop to look at the worms in the garden and the ants crossing the path. The bathroom has a composting toilet with a view of the cow pasture and mountains, with hummingbirds darting past and toads hopping by.

And every day, Ellen and I look at each other and say, “What an amazing place. I’m glad we’re here.”


I’d love to invite many of my friends to join me on this trip, bit I have to admit not everyone would enjoy it. I don’t think this would be a good travelling style for you if you’re the type of person who wants complete control over your environment. The world here is just too big to put in the human definition of order.

Take the idea of a clean house, for example. Every culture wants their houses to be clean, but that doesn’t mean we all do it the same. In Japan, people are horrified that North Americans wear shoes in their houses. Here in Costa Rica, if you were OCD about cleanliness at home, you’d probably freak out a little. Clean houses still have ants marching through them, and spider webs in the rafters. Your work clothes, just out of the washing machine, are still stained the same reddish-brown colour as the earth at your feet.


Dirty feet in the garfen

Or if you’re squicked out about bugs, you’re not going to be delighted by Latin America. The place is just teeming with creepy crawlies. There are colourful beetles and flies of all sizes. Various species of ants march off in their different directions, and will gladly march right up your feet if you’re in their way. Mosquitos, which are a serious concern because they pass on diseases like Malaria and Dengue Fever, seem like the least of your worries compared to the ants and spiders and flies everywhere.
I was originally convinced I would try to follow the medical advice for travellers, as provided in those little government handbooks. You know, don’t approach stray dogs, always drink bottled water, avoid this or that kind of food. We gave up on that stuff in the first week. Ellen was petting a dog on the street in Puerto Viejo, and when I started to suggest she shouldn’t, the dog jumped up, tail wagging, and licked my tongue inside my open mouth. After that, well, it seems like a bit of a moot point. We’ll still try to keep ourselves healthy, but we’re not going to force the issue.

And then, if you have any concerns at all about wanting to maintain your beauty and look after your body, well, this may not be the lifestyle choice for you. Volunteering on this farm, I’ve put my body through its fair share of bumps and scrapes, even being careful with my healing wrist. I have a grapefruit-sized bruise on my butt, with accompanying wound, from slipping down a slope when the stairs gave out after a rainstorm. I have twelve swollen red ant bites on my right forearm from gathering leaves to mulch and discovering an ant colony just a moment too late. And after a day of hard work, you get a nice cold shower, kept brief to conserve water. No manicures or massages on this kind of vacation!

If the sorts of things you’ve read here aren’t your cup of tea, travelling independently through Latin America may not be for you. You might prefer a nice all-inclusive resort where they make sure you have hot showers and clean rooms, massages and fresh drinking water. But here I just feel more connected to the Latin American lifestyle. The bugs and plants and people are that much closer to me, and I can meet them and know their names, rather than just taking their pictures. Oh, I still want to hang out for a week at a resort with organized adventure tours and a swim-up bar at some point in the future, but for now, this dirty, grimy, exhausting side of travel has won my heart.

One of the things that amazes me about Costa Rica is just the amount of life everywhere, and how fiercely it grows. Things grow everywhere. Plants that would be grasses at home are practically trees here. Mosses grow on trees at home, but here mosses grow on vines which climb up trees growing out of other trees. Every square inch here is just teeming with life!


You wouldn't believe it, but this is a fence.

Take fence posts, for example. In BC, we use treated wood for building fences. Here, fences are alive! Apparently, they take trees that are edible to cows and cut off the upper branches that are out of reach. These branches are plunked into the ground where they take root and grow. Along the sides of country roads and highways alike, the fences are lush and green.


See the shoots ready to become new shrubs?

Here on the farm we’re volunteering at, the farmer has pointed out places where he wants us to plant vegetables or flowers. The instructions for planting are just astounding to me. Just break the top off the spinach plant and put the stalk in the ground, and it’ll grow a new plant. See where this flower is growing shoots? Just cut the flower and pop it into the dirt, and a new bush will grow. I swear, plants don’t grow like this in Canada. And they’re everywhere! Anywhere I look there’s bananas or pineapples or oranges or potatoes. Life just won’t be stopped here.


So much food growing here all the time!

It’s not just the plants, either. Birds and butterflies and ants and dogs and cows and monkeys – all alive, eating, surviving, thriving in this mass of life that is Costa Rica. One of the farm’s dogs used to be a stray. He wandered into town along the highway, intimidating larger dogs and fighting to stay alive. He hung out in town for a while, but killed somebody’s chickens and was slated to be killed when our host farmer decided to adopt him. He’s just another example of how determined things are to survive here. I’m sure Costa Rica has its share of death and disaster, but right now I’m blown away by its share of life and abundance.

This farm is absolutely wonderful. There are more things that I love about it than I could ever really explain in words, and pictures will only give you a hint of how amazing this place is. I suppose the best way to describe what I’m feeling is to compare it to what I wrote years and years ago on Facebook for my “About Me” section: “I’m waiting for the day when I can put everything I need into one bag on my back, hit the road, and escape society. We’ll build a community somewhere far away in the woods, where we grow what we need, trade for what we can’t grow, and spend the evenings making music and laughing around the fire.” I feel as if I have actually achieved this goal that I created for myself more than five years ago. Ok, we haven’t sat around a fire yet, and we haven’t replaced money with traded goods, but other than that, this is precisely what I wanted to find.


Hot peppers and papayas growing outside our dormitory

The sense of community is something that has been the most important thing I have been seeking. This place certainly has it. We arrived by bus on Sunday evening a week ago, getting off in the dark on the side of the road and hoping that the farm was indeed at the top of the hill as the bus driver and a helpful American passenger assured us it was. When we got to the top of the hill, we were greeted by a table of seven volunteers, six of them from the United States (the term “American” is much frowned upon in Central America, since they consider all North, Central, and South Americans to be American) who were speaking in rapid Spanish. I immediately felt a wave of relief mixed with anxiety. These volunteers were serious about learning Spanish, so it was certainly the perfect place to immerse ourselves, but we could barely string a sentence together between the two of us. Over the course of a few days, we’ve been steadily expanding our vocabulary with incessant “¿Como se dice ___?” and “¿Que significa ___?” questions.

The other volunteers have been absolutely wonderful, and I know it will be much harder now that every single one of them has moved on, leaving Hannah and I with the family, who speaks only Spanish and the odd English word or two, and an intern, Nick, who has worked here each winter for three years. His Spanish is an intriguing blend of Spanish words pronounced with a distinct American lilt and English words pronounced with a slight Spanish accent. For example, the sweet potatoes grown here are called “comotes”, which he happily pronounces the way we would pronounce “coyotes”: something like camodees. His total lack of concern about knowing the correct verb tense, pronunciation, or even the correct word itself has made me more confident in speaking without worrying about what it sounds like, but I will miss the lessons in grammar and translation that the other volunteers provided. My Spanish is coming along quite nicely, despite my tendency to use German grammar, and I can’t wait until the new volunteers arrive so that I can have a conversation partner who is further along in learning than Hannah or I, since I need to look up most words that I want to say. I find it difficult to understand Javier, who is the incredibly friendly host who jokes and teases with ease, but doesn’t slow down much for the volunteers whose Spanish is rustier than the others. His wife, Raquel, is also really kind and an amazing cook, but I find her rather shy and I never know quite what to say to break the ice.

Anyways, back to the sense of community and the farm itself. We spent the last week working hard in the mornings on various projects and then relaxing in the afternoons and checking out the local waterfalls and national park. We cook in a community kitchen and decide what to make based on the leftovers and the fresh fruit and vegetables that we grow here on the terraced hillsides. What I’ve loved about sharing this experience with other volunteers is the support we’ve all had and given in the process of learning Spanish. The dictionaries that are always on the tables are constantly being perused by the volunteers, and we discuss the words we find or how to conjugate them in various tenses. Everyone has a journal-type notebook that they write in regularly with memories of the farm, useful words that they learned, contact information of other volunteers, doodles and sketches, and even glued in pressed butterflies, leaves, and flowers. My own journal has been much more neglected, but I’ve been filling the back pages with words, phrases, and verb tenses, and I’ve even attempted to translate the entries that I’ve already made into Spanish. I gave up on that when I realized that it was probably ending up like the essays written by Hannah’s students who wrote the entire thing in Korean and translated them word-for-word into English using google translate – not really the best way to learn how to use a language.

I think the type of people you find doing this type of volunteering will always be the kind who want to experience a community, to share ideas and skills, and to maintain a positive atmosphere. I’m glad that the people we’ve met so far have also inspired me to continue exploring my spirituality and maintaining a Zen-like state of being happy to be alive and experiencing each moment. In any case, with Hannah keeping the world up-to-date on Facebook and the blog, I feel quite comfortable to take a long break from the online world, now that I’ve finished my application to vet school. I will likely keep doing the odd blog entry or post on Facebook, but I find that I don’t really want to be perusing the internet when there is so much here that I have yet to discover and so many words that I need to look up and write down. So if you’re feeling abandoned without updates, just know that I think of all my friends in Canada and around the world often, that I wish you could all come here to experience this with me, and that I will send you a postcard or a letter if you gave me your address via email or Facebook. I can’t promise when or from where, but I will keep in touch eventually.

It’s been just about three weeks since Ellen and I got to Costa Rica, and I’d like to amend my opinion of Puerto Viejo, as described here and countered by Ellen here. I’ve come to the conclusion that although I wasn’t convinced at the time, Puerto Viejo was the right place to start our trip.

Ellen and I knew before we began our trip that we wanted to volunteer on farms in Costa Rica. We had agreed from the start that we’d get a feel for the country and make our money last longer by staying with farming families rather than living as tourists. Now that we’re doing exactly that, I’m grateful that we took two weeks at the start of the trip to relax and see friends rather than jumping straight into it.

Whenever I go to a country in which the main language isn’t English, I find myself exhausted at first, trying to understand. Even though I want to live life to the fullest, I need to sleep in late and head to bed early until I adapt to the effort of operating in a foreign country. I really appreciate Ellen’s suggestion to spend a week in Puerto Viejo doing exactly that – napping in hammocks, waking up late, crashing by 9pm… It helped me throw off the frustration I was dealing with in Canada and get accustomed to life in Costa Rica. The volunteer work we’re doing isn’t that strenuous, but it might have been a lot to deal with on day one.


Ellen learns how to make drinking glasses from old bottles.

Another reason I’m glad we started in Puerto Viejo is the climate here. If we had gone directly to the farm rather than the beach, Ellen and I would have struggled to adapt to the heat of the jungle. I’m not doing anything particularly physical because of my wrist, but adjusting to the hot sun and humidity while being more actively occupied all day would have been an unpleasant struggle.


Ellen cutting sugarcane to make agua dulce

I still don’t feel any need to go back to Puerto Viejo, but I acknowledge it was the right place to go at the time and I’d be willing to spend a few days there if our journey takes us there again. I won’t necessarily recommend it to anyone, but I won’t automatically bad-mouth it when people ask me about it. If you’re looking for surfing, organized adventure tours, and an English-language bar scene, head on over to Puerto Viejo and check it out. You might find you like it after all.


Pretty much anywhere you go in Costa Rica gets you sunsets like this one.


How sweet is that? Making sugarcane juice to go with lunch.

Happy Thanksgiving to my friends from the US of A. I thought I’d share something I’m thankful for – delicious food! Trying new foods is one of the best parts of travelling, and Ellen and I have been enjoying our exposure to traditional Costa Rican fare. One of our favourites is Gallo Pinto, beans and rice served with just about everything, especially for breakfast.
This morning I made my first gallo pinto at the farm where I’m staying as a volunteer. The recipe is simple – cook separately equal parts white rice and black beans (with salt and a speck of garlic), while you fry up some onions and tomatoes. Mix the whole lot together in a frying pan, and flavour it with cilantro and salsa (a generic term for sauce – the one I used was greenish – I imagine any old sauce or salsa you like to eat would taste good). Cook for a few minutes until well-combined and then serve.
So far in Costa Rica, I’ve had gallo pinto served with cheese-covered corn tortillas, with eggs, with french fries and avocado, with bacon, with a quiche-like dish, with nachos and guacamole, and with fried bananas. It goes with pretty much everything and can be served at every meal. I have heard people complain about being sick of it, but I certainly would gladly continue to eat it every day for the rest of my trip, as I suspect I will.
I wouldn’t want you to think that’s the only thing I’m thankful for, though! I am also thankful for the warm weather, the feel of dirt between my toes (and under my fingernails, in my hair, on my clothes…), the three square inches of my legs that aren’t covered in bug bites, clothes that smell of things other than sweat, and just generally being here, doing something new and exciting.

I have travelled a lot in the past twelve years, and this trip feels a little different. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still doing a rock-bottom budget trip. I hope to spend no more than $300 to $500 a month Canadian. However, this time I’ve got a little luxury that really makes the difference for me.
Travelling with my phone was the best decision I made on this trip. When I got to Costa Rica, on the first day I bought a SIM and put it in my phone, and it has worked like a charm ever since. It cost me about $6, and two weeks later I still haven’t used up my prepaid data and airtime minutes.
I’ve been able to check Facebook and Gmail, which has been a huge luxury for me. We managed to arrange a Skype conversation with my parents, who are on vacation in England, because I happened to catch them online when I used my phone to check the time. When the immigration officer in San Jose wanted proof of our intention to leave the country, he let me show him an e-mail from our travel agent that I’d saved on my phone.
We arrived three days ago at a hostel and volunteer host farm two hours away from the nearest mid-sized town. The little village has an internet cafe but not much else, and the internet at said cafe has been down for over a month. The other volunteers had been unable to communicate with their families for weeks, and yet when I checked my phone I had both reception and internet access. It made me so thankful I’d decided to bring the phone.
To be honest, it feels as if I’m cheating a bit by being so in touch with everyone while I’m on the road, but it’s a luxury I don’t want to give up. What the heck, I’m 32. I can take what I like on my trip, and not have to justify it to anyone. And if I decide to drop off the face of the internet later, I can do that, but for the moment I’m really enjoying being in the middle of nowhere with full access to the rest of everywhere.