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Santa Rosa de Cabal is famous in Colombia for its hot springs, or termales. After helping give English-speaking hostel guests directions to the hot springs all week, Ellen and I decided to spend our day off exploring them for ourselves. There are three hot springs to choose from, and the most popular is the luxurious and most distant San Vicente resort, complete with adventure tours and massage packages to tempt just about anybody. At about $20 (US) per person to get in, it’s not an unreasonable price, although since it’s not on a public bus route, it costs independent travellers about twice that to hire a jeep to get out there. Since one hostel employee per day can get a ticket to accompany groups of our guests free of charge, Ellen and I decided to leave the San Vicente hot springs for another day.

Nice way to spend a day off

Nice way to spend a day off

The other two hot springs are on a public bus route, dropping the transportation cost from $15 to $40 per person to $1.50 round trip. Right next door to each other on opposite sides of a hill are Termales Hotel and Termales Balneario. Since Balneario is slightly cheaper and has more thermal pools, we decided to visit that one for our first hot springs experience in Colombia. Having given tourism advice all week, we knew that Balneario pumps its hot water into man-made pools, which reportedly weren’t as nice as the natural hot pools at the more posh San Vicente. Based on that description, I was expecting some kind of indoor or fenced-in area, like a combination of a spa and a public swimming pool.

When the bus dropped us off at Balneario, I was pleasantly surprised to see a stream meandering down the hillside as if it were descending stairs, with a natural pond on each level. Of course, the resort had landscaped extensively with flowering shrubs, cobblestone pathways, and little wooden bridges leading you toward the proper hot springs. The attractive stream was cold water, which tumbled down the mountain from a picturesque waterfall, which overlooked the resort proper and had a small swimming pond at its base where you could stand in a cave with the waterfall splashing around you. This was Ellen’s favourite part of the resort.

View of the waterfall as you enter the resort

View of the waterfall and stream as you enter the resort

The hot pools for swimming were, as advertised, man-made, of course. They were mostly kept at about 40 degrees Celsius, perfect for me and just slightly warmer than Ellen prefers. There were four of the pools around the resort, each with cold water splashing out of a pipe on one side, and hot water from a mushroom-like fountain in the centre, so you could inch your way closer to the steaming hot middle, and then retreat to the cooler edges when you got too hot. When you’re feeling brave, you can shake things up by dunking your head under the cold water pipe or taking a dip under the waterfall.

Cold water comes in on the left, hot water from the mushroom-like fountain in the centre

Cold water comes in from the pipe on the left, hot water from the mushroom-like fountain in the centre

Other than swimming, the hot springs didn’t have too much to offer, on a quiet Tuesday in January at least. Their publicity materials in the hostel mention expeditions, rappelling down the waterfall, and “canyoning”, but there was no sign of any such activities when we got there. We walked along a path up the hill for a bit, which offered a nice view but petered out after a couple of hundred meters. Another more tempting path into the forest had a no-entry sign across it. Clearly, when the hot springs are busier, there are more activities – there were three empty greenhouses full of shelves and a sign labelling them a craft market, plus several booths that might have served food or been starting points for expeditions. In the late afternoon, women wandered the poolsides offering massages and mud facials, as well.

View of the resort from the hillside

View of the resort from the hillside

I was surprised to find we spent eight hours at the hot springs and weren’t bored at all. We amused ourselves by watching people, like the cute couple singing along to tango music together, or the children leaping through the cold water shower into the hot water pool below. Employees wandered around checking the temperature of the pools and adjusting the flow of cold water, which resulted in a hilarious moment when the cold water suddenly turned on right onto the head of a man innocently standing near the pipe. Overall, we spent eight hours and $32 for an excellent day off. I don’t think I would want to spend all my days off exploring the hot springs and comparing the three resorts, but it was a very nice way to spend one day off.

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Ellen and I are at a hostel in Santa Rosa, where we’ve agreed to volunteer for three weeks. We’re one week into our stint, and so far it’s relaxing but slightly bizarre. We’re having fun but not really doing much of anything.

Our main job is to answer the phone and let people in when the hostel owner and administrator aren’t around. They are usually here, though, so the job isn’t particularly difficult or demanding. We are also supposed to make sure the cleaning lady is cleaning (yep, she is), feed the hen (she prefers to eat corn from our hands, rather than peck it off the ground), and do occasional odd jobs like making a sign in English or buying a bar of soap from the store. Most of the time, Ellen and I play card games and hang out. I can’t see that the hostel gets any benefit from our presence, other than to make the place look busier than it really is.

Cleopatra, queen of the hostel

Cleopatra, queen of the hostel

From our perspective, the experience is slightly more advantageous. We get a free place to stay, discounts on local tourist attractions, and a chance to practice Spanish and cooking Colombian food. We have almost endless hours of free time, and an opportunity to research the next leg of our journey. Life is pretty good here.

Discount on entrance to the hotsprings? Yes please!

Discount on entrance to the hot springs? Yes please!

I don’t imagine that Ellen and I will want to volunteer at hostels for a large proportion of our travel, but it’s a nice way to take a rest from more intensive farm or conservation work and get some touristy stuff in without breaking the bank.

You don’t consider, most days, how much consumerism affects you. I like to think of myself as less of a consumer and buyer than most people, but the lure of buying things is always there. Living out of a backpack makes me more aware of it, though, because the space and weight restriction prevents my acting on the urge to buy. So, rather than buying anything, I will regale you with stories of things I have so far resisted buying.

First and foremost is a hammock. In my first week in Latin America, I slept in a hammock, and it was wonderful. They’re also comfortable for napping, chatting, blogging, and reading, and I would love to own one. I haven’t finished exploring Latin America yet, but I am confident in stating that every tourist stall from Mexico to Argentina has at least a dozen hammocks in different colours, styles, and weaves. Sadly, I am already carrying a tent as my mobile sleeping arrangement, and tents are more practical. They provide protection in all weather, keep mosquitoes away, keep your belongings away from prying eyes, and don’t require sturdy trees or beams from the ceiling to set up. A tent is a much better option than a hammock, but that won’t stop me drooling over hammocks whenever I see them in shops.

Pure comfort right there, baby!

Pure comfort right there, baby!

A digital SLR camera comes in a close second in terms of temptation. Ellen and I are travelling with two cameras – my cellphone and a five-year-old point-and-shoot Canon digital camera. The battery charger on the Canon has died, so we briefly discussed replacing it before discovering that universal battery chargers are about $2, so the camera lives on. Still, whenever we take pictures, we comment on how a camera with more options would allow us to improve our photography. We could adjust the focus to exactly where we want it, something I’ve been playing with when taking pictures of flowers with a cityscape background. With a true photographer’s camera, we might have a chance to capture scenery or sunset shots that more closely resemble the beauty we see. For me, the digital SLR will remain a pipe dream, unless Ellen decides to splurge.

Sure, it LOOKS pretty, but this isn't half as nice as it could be.

Sure, it LOOKS pretty, but this isn’t half as nice as it could be.

Finally, there are all the little things that tempt me to spend money I don’t have on things I don’t need. I have five outfits, for example, and only one of them keeps me warm enough on a cool evening. I absolutely don’t need to look at pretty summer dresses. (I have not yet been tempted by a long-sleeve shirt or a sweater. This is frustrating, as that’s what I’d allow myself to buy if I found one.) I don’t look at the jewelry (much to the disappointment of street vendors everywhere) but lovely handmade woven purses catch my eye again and again. I already own a purse (and it’s handwoven) so I really don’t need another one, but I can’t help but look. I have two pairs of glasses with me, but both have broken and been repaired repeatedly, and both fall off my face if I make sudden movements. I could replace them, but I can still see just fine through them.

Usually, Ellen and I are travelling mostly in the countryside, so we don’t get many chances to be tempted to buy things. In Costa Rica, we had to walk twenty minutes to buy a beer, which was the only thing there was to buy in the village. When we did make our way into towns, we had lists of things that had worn out and needed replacing or repairing. This month, though, Ellen and I are right smack-dab in the middle of town. We’re trying to keep our purchases limited to groceries, but the temptation to buy things we don’t need is always with us. Luckily, the weight of my backpack and my reluctance to lug it around with yet more stuff in it keeps the temptation at the back, rather than the front of my mind.

I have been feeling a bit negative of late, and it’s hard to put my finger on why. I can assume part of the issue is culture shock. I don’t speak the language as well as I’d like, and things that I feel should be simple are not. These are the sort of frustrations that lead to culture shock, but it’s the first time I’ve noticed the symptoms in myself, and I find the process alarming.

Culture shock is a funny word for the feeling, though. I’m not stunned at the differences between Colombia and Canada. I’m more inexplicably irritable at things that normally wouldn’t bother me. An older guest at the hostel wanders around telling lame out-of-context jokes to people who barely understand English and asks me to translate, and then follows me around the hostel complaining endlessly about the work ethic in Latin America. Normally I could ignore him, but at the moment I can’t get away from him fast enough, and it’s a challenge to be civil. This isn’t like me.

I love learning languages, and Spanish should be a simple one to learn because it’s not too unlike French. Although I feel satisfaction at what I’ve achieved so far, I get unreasonably annoyed at things like irregular verbs. Rather than patiently asking someone who is regaling me with rapid-fire instructions in Spanish to slow down, I have a short fuse and snap at them. I can tell this isn’t the way to go about things, and yet it’s the head space I’m in right now.

As expected in a foreign country, things don’t work the way I would organize them if I were in charge. The beer fridge in the hostel isn’t plugged in during daylight hours in order to conserve power, which means that whenever I want to buy a nice cold beer, the only ones available are warm. The hostel prohibits consumption of outside alcohol, so we have to go out to a bar if we want a simple beer for refreshment. I think reading books in Spanish would be a good way to improve my language skills, and yet this town doesn’t seem to have a bookstore. We found a second-hand bookstore in Cartago, but at $10 for a dog-eared paperback and most of the selection being classic literature (my least favourite kind), I didn’t buy anything. These are minor frustrations that shouldn’t irritate me as much as they do.

I’m sure it’s not all culture shock, either. I have a cold which is draining my energy, without which I might be able to fight off the mood swings. I wonder, though, whether part of the problem is that I’m just older and grumpier than when I last travelled. Surely thirty-two isn’t old, but I may have lost some of the enthusiasm of youth. Loud music hurts my eardrums and I’d rather be sitting in a small group chatting than going out at all hours of the night. Is that a factor of my age, or just a preference? I’ve never enjoyed having a television on when I’m in a communal space, and when I’m trying to learn a language it drives me to infuriated distraction.

Rather than complaining about culture shock, I’m going to try to do something about it. I’m going to see if I can order a book I’d like to read in Spanish online and have it delivered to the hostel. Today I bought a few nice ingredients and I’m going to play around with making something delicious in the kitchen. I might go sit down at the park with a notebook or sketchbook and see what inspiration hits me. On Tuesday, Ellen and I are taking a day off volunteering and spending the day at a hotsprings near here. And I’m buckling down and studying more Spanish grammar so I don’t feel tempted to drop the f-bomb every time I can’t remember how to say something in past tense.

I think the biggest help, though, will be acknowledging that I’m feeling this way and that it’s normal and allowed. Culture shock is expected. Most people who travel for extended periods experience it. When I went through this in Korea, I took many more naps and did a few more touristy things to rediscover the joy of being abroad. Most of the time, I’m having the time of my life. And the time when I don’t? This too shall pass, and I’ll probably miss it when I’m gone.

Last night I dreamt that Ellen and I were visiting an Amazonian village. Our host had laid in a stock of cherry-flavoured soft drinks for us, in glass bottles (as all soft drinks are sold here). When we asked if she could provide some other beverage rather than pop (least of all artificial cherry flavour, which will always taste like cough syrup to me) the only other drink she could reluctantly provide was hot chocolate. Later that evening, we went to the communal village kitchen, and the only food was a variety of different McDonald’s hamburgers, still wrapped in paper, laid out on a silver tray. Coyotes and wolves would come in from the jungle and scavenge from the kitchen, stealing paper-wrapped burgers. The animals would take the burgers to the edge of the village and, to the amusement of the local children, delicately unwrap the burgers with their teeth before eating them. When dinner time rolled around and we didn’t have enough burgers left for everybody, the children were less amused.

One thing in particular struck me as odd about my dream: I’ve never seen anybody eating fast food hamburgers in Colombia. We had a gourmet buffalo burger in Medellin (which was delicious, by the way), and we walked past a Hard Rock Cafe selling burgers in Cartagena, but the golden arches are conspicuous by their absence here. In our month in Colombia, we haven’t seen one fast food outlet that we recognized from home, with the exception of a McDonald’s cafe selling ice cream in a food court.

That’s not to say Colombians don’t eat anything unhealthy or on the run. Fried chicken restaurants seem to be everywhere, and a variety of juice bars and pizza places also claim to sell hamburgers, although we’ve never seen any evidence that anybody orders them. The go-to on-the-run food seems to be arepas – thick corn tortillas, cooked over hot coals on a street-side barbecue, served buttered and topped with cheese. Rather than taking them wrapped to go, though, most Colombians eat them at the street stand. In fact, whenever we’ve stopped for a bit to eat, the street vendor insists on seating us on a nearby park bench and chatting with us until we’ve finished eating or drinking before allowing us to pay.

Here volunteering at the hostel, though, Ellen and I are avoiding eating out. As volunteers, we don’t have to pay for accommodation, but food is one of those expenses that can add up. Many times when travelling, though, I’ve found it cheaper to eat out than to try to cook for myself when I don’t know the region. Cooking for myself, I often spend a lot of money buying the ingredients I recognize and know how to use, when the cheapest food is what the locals eat. After a month in Colombia, though, Ellen and I feel fairly confident trying our hands at cooking local food. Now, with three weeks ahead of us here to cook for ourselves with free access to a kitchen, we’re looking forward to playing around with local ingredients and flavours.

One of the fruit and vegetable stalls at the market in Santa Rosa

One of the fruit and vegetable stalls at the market in Santa Rosa

Yesterday I went to the market and wandered around aimlessly looking at fruit and vegetable displays for awhile. When every vegetable stall looks the same, it’s hard to decide where to shop! A friendly husband and wife team of vendors greeted me cheerfully and called me over to their stall to show me their wares. Not only did I get all the ingredients for a simple meal of beans and rice that Ellen and I had agreed on, but they also recommended several fruits for making juice. They were enthusiastically explaining how to prepare the different fruits and vegetables, and I’m sure they would have gladly kept me there half the afternoon discussing Colombian food, but I was hungry and wanted to get back to the hostel to make lunch.

Our first day’s experiment cooking Colombian food for ourselves was, in my opinion, a success. We made ourselves beans, rice, salsa, and fried bananas for a late lunch. (Despite what we read on the internet, fresh beans take more than 45 minutes to cook. Ours took closer to three hours.) The resulting meal wasn’t a full Colombian almuerzo lunch, which usually includes juice, soup, rice, beans, meat, plantains, and salad, but it was certainly sufficient for us. Later in the evening, Ellen took some of the unidentified fruit from the market (guava, we believe) and made it into a fruit smoothie with bananas and milk. I’m sure future experiments will taste even better!

One of my goals for this trip was to get an idea of what typical Latin American food is like. Now that we’ve eaten lots of it, the next logical step is to try to make it ourselves. Over the next few weeks, Ellen and I are going to play around with local ingredients and traditional Colombian dishes. Who knows what amazing things we might learn? And hopefully my next food dream is about something a little more Colombian than burgers.

After a few days with spotty internet access, I’m back! Ellen and I left the yoga farm early, after only a week, and have started to volunteer at a hostel in Santa Rosa de Cabal instead. We had an almost-constant feeling of discomfort at the yoga farm, which we couldn’t escape without leaving. We had many good experiences there, but we were getting snippy and having a hard time being patient. For Ellen, the biggest irritation was the constant sound of cicadas – a high-pitched buzzing that feels like a knife being driven through the ears into the brain, and which was audible from absolutely everywhere in the house or outside thanks to the open-concept design of the building. Poor Ellen had to put wads of toilet paper in her ears to muffle the buzz of the cicadas and still ended up staying in our room fairly often. For me, the non-stop chanting was fraying my nerves – apparently being able to hold a tune is not a prerequisite for producing entire albums of krishna music. I understand that Indian music uses a different set of notes, but some of the chanters were entirely tone-deaf, and simply chose a starting note and wandered off wherever their voice took them in the course of the mantra. The music was played loudly enough that you could hear it anywhere on the farm.

Much of our frustration at the yoga farm could be attributed to a lack of public spaces. There was really no place to go where we could be comfortable, especially if we wanted to socialize with the other volunteers. There was a sitting area that sat two to three people, but it also featured speakers playing chanting music straight into our ears, and frequent mosquito swarms, which we weren’t supposed to kill because the krishna religion respects all life. The dining room table seated six and was farther from the speakers, but you couldn’t hear yourself think from the cicadas buzzing, and you still ended up spotted with mosquito bites. There was a bench that seated two by the river, where the wind occasionally blew hard enough to keep the mosquitoes away, but the cicadas were even more deafening. The most comfortable place to be was in our own beds, under our mosquito nets, with the curtains drawn against the buzzing of cicadas coming in through the screen windows. We felt quite antisocial if we spent most of our free time in bed, though.

Despite the difficulty finding places to sit down and relax, Ellen and I did have some very pleasant experiences at the yoga farm. Sunday was particularly enjoyable. Several people were visiting the farm from other towns for the weekend, so it began to take on a bit of the community feeling we were missing. To accommodate the larger group, a circle of chairs was set up by the river bank and we had breakfast under the trees. The conversation was still stilted and awkward, but at least we were attempting to socialize. Later I was able to read a good book by the riverbank and have a nice chat with one of the other volunteers.

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Sunday afternoon we paddled up the river for a picnic and a short walk in one of the sugarcane fields on the opposite bank. Here too, there was constant noise – the sound of water pumps irrigating the crops, and the never-ending chanting emanating from the cellphone of the teenaged krishna devotee who was with us. We saw a variety of water birds on the banks, which I tried to photograph with our host’s camera with limited success. On the way back, we passed half the village splashing around in the water, so four of the local boys hopped in our canoe to join us for a swim in the river by the yoga farm, where a steep cliff on the bank made an excellent diving platform. Cannonballs seemed to be a popular type of dive among the local boys.

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In the evening, our host brought out a krishna board game to play with us and the local kids. It was like a cross between snakes and ladders and the game of Life. As you go around the circular board, you earn virtue tokens which allow you to move to the next level of consciousness, with the goal being to pass through all four levels to reach nirvana. Some squares on the game board give you karma cards, which describe a sin or virtue according to krishna values, and gain or lose you virtue points or levels of consciousness, depending on the importance of the concept. The cards were in Spanish, so we were able to learn more about the belief system while improving our Spanish vocabulary. It was an enjoyable way to pass the evening.

On Monday, Ellen and I left the yoga farm. We had received an e-mail inviting us to volunteer at a hostel in Santa Rosa de Cabal, about an hour away from the yoga farm. We had originally planned to arrive on Monday, but the owner sent a message saying Tuesday would be better. Ellen and I agreed that we needed to leave Monday as planned, so we spent an enjoyable day hanging out in the town of Cartago before arriving in Santa Rosa on Tuesday.

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Cartago is the town with the beautiful public park full of iguanas and coffee vendors that I wrote about a few weeks ago. We arrived in the morning on Monday, and had no difficulty finding an inexpensive hotel room near the park. We spent much of the day sitting in the park sipping coffee or beer, and watching the iguanas making displays of dominance at each other or at people who got too close. We also spotted some small monkeys swinging around in the trees, so I spent a pleasant hour taking pictures of them, with a few locals giving them candy to help me get better shots. We bumped into someone we knew in the park, a relative we’d met at our cousin’s house, which was a surprise as well. She’s our cousin’s husband’s sister-in-law’s aunt – practically family, right? Close enough to buy her a coffee, anyway.

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Yesterday afternoon we took the short bus ride to Pereira and from there to Santa Rosa where we easily found our hostel. Finding the host was not quite so easy – he showed up a good four hours after we arrived. In the meantime we wandered back to the pleasant tango bar we’d visited with our cousin, and chatted to people in the hostel common room. Unlike our experience at the yoga farm, we instantly felt comfortable here. Our host, when he arrived, turned out to be a cheerful man from Bogota who took us and a family of guests out on the town until the wee hours of the morning and treated us more as welcome guests or long-lost family than working volunteers. I assume someone will show us what we’re meant to be doing and how we can help today, because barely a whisper has been said on the topic since we arrived. We feel predisposed to like the work, though, which is absolutely a good sign.

Everywhere I go, I am constantly amazed by what other people are doing with their lives, especially those who have made similar choices to mine. One volunteer at the yoga farm moved back in with her mother for a year in order to save money to travel the world. The volunteer coordinator at the farm in Costa Rica spends six months of every year working in the United States and six months volunteering. I haven’t met someone who funds their travels through writing yet, but you can bet that when I do I’ll be picking their brain for advice and contacts! I really enjoy finding out how others keep themselves grounded while travelling. With all your routines out the window, it’s easy to lose track of days, forget about life goals, and fall out of touch with yourself when you’re on the road. Having a project helps. One girl in Costa Rica was compiling people’s stories about being female travellers. A couple on the farm had given themselves the task of learning something new every day, and recording what it was. They also had a rule that they had to play at least one chess game per day. For my own project, I try to write every day. I want to get into the habit of observing what’s going on around me and recording it to share with others. I don’t want the act of writing it down to interfere with the experience of travel, so I try to remember and leave the writing until later. I often go around with a running commentary of what I’m doing buzzing through my head, until I have a chance to jot it down in my notebook. The ideas in my notebook are fleshed out into proper articles or blog entries. I don’t post everything I write to my blog, but I do post enough that people at home know where I am and what I’m working on.

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Need to work on perspective, but not a bad sketch

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I’m also keeping a sketchbook of my travels. This I work on much less than my writing, but enough that you can get a feel for the places I’ve been based on the drawings. I have a few paintings of greenery and mountains from the farm in Costa Rica, sketches of palm trees, boats, and water from Panama, and sketches and paintings of buildings from Cartagena. Today I painted a mural of lotus flowers on the wall of the yoga farm – six months ago I wouldn’t have felt confident painting a mural, and on this trip I’ve done two, as well as some furniture.

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Yoga farm mural

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One of the benches I built and painted in Costa Rica

My projects give me something to work on during the quiet moments of my trip. When the weather is hot and I’m tempted to take a nap, I can write or sketch instead and still feel rested. Both pursuits fill the need to record my wonder at what I see, and allow me to share those feelings with people at home. I’m envious of other people’s projects, and wish I could have the time to do everything I’m doing and that, too, but I’m happy with what I’m achieving while I’m away. I feel comfortable writing, sketching, and painting, and my confidence in those grows every day. I try new things, like yoga and capoeira, and speak better Spanish every week. I may be wandering the world, but I don’t feel aimless.

Ellen and I are currently volunteering at an “eco yoga farm” in central Colombia. Included in our stay here is a daily yoga class. I had done a couple of yoga classes in Canada, but nothing serious, and Ellen had never done yoga before arriving here. I assumed the yoga here would be some hokey new age business, especially as our host told us we were “oxygenating our chakras” through the exercise. To our surprise, the afternoon yoga class is a surefire way to lift our spirits each day.

There are four of us students, all guests on the farm, none of us convinced of the lifestyle here. We face our instructor, spread out on mats on the stone floor. Cloth wall hangings embroidered with beads and sequins depict Indian gods and goddesses with monkeys, elephants, and mice at their feet. A computer plays background music of pan pipes, quiet chanting, and gurgling water sounds, which are hard to distinguish from the constant high-pitched buzz of cicadas, chirping of birds, rushing of the river, and rustling of leaves in the wind coming in through the open windows of the yoga room.

Our classes are simple, mostly low-key stretches held for a few moments and released, over and over, until our muscles are relaxed and our joints loosened. We are told to keep our eyes closed, but as the instructions are murmured in gentle Spanish, we peek at the teacher to make sure we haven’t missed anything. Most of the time, though, our eyelids droop as we hold the stretches. It’s calming and peaceful in the yoga room, and a soft warm breeze blows through the room as we exercise.

Every now and again, I spare a glance into the library next door, where a group of teenaged boys is doing homework. They are the local remedial school students, too old to study at their grade level in public school. They’ve asked to borrow my laptop to do research on the internet while I’m doing yoga. I trust they wouldn’t wander off with it, but I look their way once in a while just in case.

Our last pose is lying on our backs, with our eyes closed, thinking positive and relaxing thoughts. The instructor opens a bottle of fragrant oil and begins to massage my face, hands, arms, shoulders, and feet. I keep my eyes closed as she finishes massaging me and moves on to Ellen. I sneak a glance at her and we exchange grins. We may not be totally satisfied with our experience at the yoga farm, but we are still able to appreciate the good parts.

Suddenly I am fighting the urge to sneeze. Ellen clearly recognizes the tell-tale signs in me, because I hear her reacting to my movements. I manage to hold in the sneeze, but my body launches itself halfway off the mat in the struggle to stay silent. I peek at Ellen and her chest is shaking as she holds back a fit of giggles. We compose ourselves and continue to focus on silent relaxation.

At the end of class, over a snack of fruit pudding, I reflect on our decision to leave here after only a week rather than the two we’d originally planned. We have skills and knowledge to offer that would benefit the community, but the place lacks the climate for a free exchange of thoughts, and the joy of sharing ideas and creating solutions together is missing. Besides when she teaches the yoga class, we barely interact with our host. She doesn’t take meals with us most of the time, and she usually works on different projects than we do during the day. The yoga is amazing, and people would pay more than what we contribute for our food just for the opportunity to learn yoga in a place like this, but it isn’t enough for us. I had hoped this would be the kind of sustainable community we were looking for, but it seems we haven’t found it yet.

Today we took a walk around the village nearest the yoga farm where Ellen and I are staying. The people here are poor. This area of Colombia was controlled by mob cartels, and still much of the land is in the hands of a few families. The brown mountains and green fields of sugarcane in yesterday’s photo are all one person’s land, as far as the eye can see. Our host’s parents bought her land forty years ago to set up a commune, but returned to the United States instead. Besides her property, there are only three land holders in this part of the valley.

The owner of the land near the river had an unused piece of property bordering a ditch. He allowed people to build homes here, and this little village sprang up. The village is named Ditch (in Spanish, obviously), and the people who live here call themselves the ditch people. The ditch is a dirty pool of stagnant water, full of garbage. It’s a breeding ground for disease-carrying mosquitos, and probably contributes significantly to health problems in the community. The ditch water is clearly undrinkable, so the locals drink river water, which is little better.

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Homes here, like those in our cousin’s village, are made of bamboo, straw, and mud. Unlike those in our cousin’s village, many houses don’t have the final layer of plaster over the structure to protect the materials and insulate the house against drafts, damp, and insects. Every so often, the river floods and they lose everything. The people have applied for government help to move to safer houses farther from their contaminated water source, but because they don’t own their own houses, they’re ineligible for the funding. Kids here dream of moving to a town like Pereira or Cartago, where they imagine they would have better lives. Unfortunately, with job shortages, they’re as likely to be living in squalor there as here.

Our host is trying to educate the locals, encourage the children to dream of farming rather than escaping their village for the big city. Tomorrow we’re visiting the school, teaching a 90-minute lesson to the fourth and fifth grade classes. Our host wanted us to teach something about ethics, like animal welfare or recycling. She has the children collecting plastic bags and candy wrappers and using them to fill plastic bottles, which she will use as eco-bricks for building. So far she has eight.

We’ve been struggling to find ideas about what to teach. Animal welfare and vegetarianism, our host’s pet projects, seem irrelevant when the people here are struggling with drought and contaminated water supplies. I came here to learn, not to tell the locals how to live their lives. I’d have liked to share something on sustainable living, like the composting toilets we used in Costa Rica, but having only been here a few days, I have no idea what practices are already being put into action in the community, and what gaps we might seek to fill.

In the end, we’ve decided to teach a lesson on the English names for parts of the body and follow it up with songs and games, like Simon Says and the Hokey Pokey. It’s not meaningful, and it’s not related to ethics. It’s just a fun lesson that kids will like, whether they’re from Canada, Korea, or a little village named Ditch.

I am trying to reserve judgment on this place. I had expected more people, a more bustling commune. Our host, let’s call her Mary, lives here with one other person, a local teenager from a farm down the road. My cynical side wonders if he’s here because she feeds him more than his family could, and then I feel guilty for thinking it. The “Eco Yoga Farm” here isn’t bad, it’s just… sad.
The heart of the farm is a spacious house with room and beds for about fifteen. It has a kitchen, library, yoga room, workshop, and dining room open to the outdoors. It borders the river, and they’ve set up a swimming hole near their canoe and water pump. A bench sits on the sandy bank, overlooking the greenish water below. Beyond the fields of sugarcane along the opposite bank, dusty brown hills dominate the landscape.

The river as seen from the farm

The river as seen from the farm


Even with the river, the land here is dry. The soil is grey and sandy, parched after two months of drought. Despite the proximity of the river, not nearly enough water is making it to the plants. The land is not producing enough food to support the two full-time residents on the farm. I wonder if our host comes from money, or manages to fund the farm’s expenses through teaching yoga classes in town. Somehow neither seems likely. The money must come from somewhere, though, because she spends her time volunteering at the community’s primary school, and says she feeds a variety of local children when they feel like dropping by.
I’m not exactly sure which religion Mary practices, but it takes up most of her time. There are morning prayers, offerings before meals, and hare krishna chants playing on the computer speakers for much of the day. The bulk of her religious practice, though, seems to revolve around food. She’s vegetarian, of course.
The food here, despite my misgivings, is good. One of the tenets of Mary’s religion is that food must never be eaten before it is purified through some kind of ritual prayer. This means that you can’t taste what you’re cooking to season it, or take a bite of pasta or rice to check if it’s cooked. To me, this is unimaginable. How does a food culture develop, how are dishes perfected, if one can’t adjust the flavour based on real-time information? Even with this limitation, Mary’s food tastes good.
The food is purified by taking a small serving of each dish and presenting it as an offering, saying some sort of prayer, and after enough time has elapsed, returning it to the pot. Once added back to the rest of the food, it passes on its purified properties to the entire dish, and it can be served. This need to purify food extends to the kitchen sink, where there are different sponges to use for dishes that held purified food versus those that contained unpurified foods. Around the kitchen, various signs in English and Spanish state the rules, with accompanying quotes that fail to clarify the reasoning behind the practices, to me at least. On the fridge is a sign imploring me to think about what I’m eating, with illustrations to match. A hamburger has a speech bubble saying “moo”, and a hotdog “oink”. There is also a drawing of a cardboard Chinese food container which says “woof”. This last strikes me as more ignorant than thought-provoking.
Both Ellen and I decided to push ourselves to the boundary of our comfort zones in coming here. We anticipated there would be some philosophical points we would disagree with. We figured there would be important aspects of our lives that wouldn’t be welcome here. I had hoped, however, that the farm would be a lively place full of passionate people living their dreams. I wanted to be caught up in people’s enthusiasm for the lifestyle, drawn in by the sense of purpose and community. Instead, I feel as if I’m a visitor at a commune of one.
Our host has set out to build a community here, all by herself, but doesn’t seem to be working at attracting the like-minded to join her. Our conversations with her are often awkward and stunted. Her questions of us require simple yes-or-no responses that are hard to expand on. Our philosophical differences and ignorance of her belief system make us uncomfortable asking her the things we really want to know for fear of seeming judgmental. The questions we do ask are answered vaguely, with stilted and halting conversation being the order of the day.
I feel as if passing judgment on this place after less than 24 hours is unfair, and yet I’m having a hard time keeping an open mind. I needed this place to be run by a crusader, an evangelist for healthy living, meditation, community-building, and inner peace. I’m torn between giving her more time to open up and asking to be taken to the next bus out.
(Side note – photos aren’t uploading – I’ll add some next time I can)