Here in Costa Rica, unlike in Canada, labour is cheap and natural materials are abundant. That means that when you want something, it’s easier to make it than to buy it, and people show a great deal of pride in their workmanship. Everybody, it seems, is adept at design and construction. It’s a creatively satisfying way of living.

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Make your own toilet seat? Why not?

All the buildings on the farm here appear to have been built by hand. The nails, screws, and pieces of roofing were bought, but the wood and bamboo came from the woods and jungle surrounding the farm. Javier, on his farm tour, points out which trees he planted for wood, which ones repel insects, and which attract scarlet macaws. In my first week here, I helped sand and varnish a cabana for guests, which now provides a more private option for couples volunteering on the farm. I assume the millwork on the wood was done elsewhere, but the cabin was designed and built by hand with local materials.

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The cabana

Every morning, we meet to plan the day’s projects in a structure called the rancho, which is an open building made from insect-repellent wood. From its pillars hang hammocks, but when the volunteers outnumber the hammocks, many people end up standing. One of last week’s projects was to build, sand, paint, and varnish stools and benches to provide seating in the rancho. Where in Canada one would run out to Ikea and buy an eight-dollar plastic stool or folding chair, here it makes more sense to create one yourself. Almost all the volunteers have enjoyed the opportunity to try their hands at measuring, sawing, sanding, or painting these stools, whereas a stool at home would probably just be a place to park one’s rear while participating in the morning meeting.

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Handmade stools

Mario, the grandfather here on the farm, is especially talented at repairing tools. He can make a perfect replica of a storebought shovel handle out of a more durable wood, down to carving the original brand name and logo down the side. (Try as he might, Nick, the volunteer coordinator, cannot induce Mario to carve his own name into the shovel handle on the repaired tools.) Mario also built a sugarcane press by hand out of wood. This nifty contraption has two people turning the handles to crush the mature sugarcanes, while a third feeds sugarcane into the machine, and a fourth makes sure the cane juice pours into the bucket below. Mario designed the machine and carved each piece of wood to fit perfectly, so that the canes are crushed between the smooth logs of the press.

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Feeding sugarcane into the press

Even beverages are more commonly made than bought. Ellen and I indulge in a few beers a week carried up the hill from the pub in the village, but the family usually drinks homebrewed alcohol. Ellen and I experimented with making chicha, the local moonshine, out of orange juice, which we hand-squeezed, mixed with cane syrup, and left in a bottle in the shade for two weeks. Every day, we shook it and let the air out as it fermented. Traditionally, chicha is made from corn or pineapple, but since there are an abundance of oranges at the moment, we decided to give orange chicha a shot. Since we’re leaving this week, we tasted it last night, although the local chicha takes about a month to brew. It needed more sugar, but it was certainly drinkable and pleasant.

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The remains of the orange chicha

We have definitely enjoyed being here for almost a month. Since we’ve been here, in addition to the projects above, we’ve built a trough for the pig, set up a library in one of the dorms, built a roof over the hydroponic garden, planted a flower garden to attract butterflies and hummingbirds, and terraced several hills for planting. Ellen designed and built an orange picker out of a canvas sack on a long stick, with a sharp piece of plastic to help pull the orange off the branch. I assembled eight stools and painted four of them, and sanded and varnished a table. Ellen and I will leave at the end of the week, and I’m excited to imagine what new projects our next volunteering stint will have in store for us.

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