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You know you’ve arrived at a good place when you want to be part of everything around you. In the morning, when Ingo assigns chores, every task appeals to me. It’s a good feeling to know that no matter what I’m working on, it’ll be stimulating. The only disappointment is that I can’t be in several places at once. I’m glad Ellen and I don’t have any plans or commitments after this place – we can drink deep of the opportunity until we have our fill.

When we left on this trip, we agreed we wanted to be someplace where Ellen could do veterinary volunteer work, where I could taste and try cooking good local food, where Ellen could research medicinal herbs, where we were in a supportive place with a friendly local community, and where we could meet people from a variety of backgrounds and cultures. This farm has all of those things. Everyone there, from the baby to the farmers to the volunteers, speaks at least two and usually three languages. Everybody has some skill to offer, which is enthusiastically shared with the others. We are thriving here.

Just the list of projects to work on sounds fun – building a cob oven, constructing a greenhouse and nursery for newborn chicks, sheering the sheep, seeding logs with mushrooms, making a snail farm to raise escargot, clearing a field to plant blackberries and coffee, lining a pond with concrete to hold water to raise tilapia, and designing and building a barbecue area. We are also welcome to think of other projects and enlist other people to work on them. Ellen, for example, blamed the goat’s abscessed foot on the mud in the goat yard, so she dug trenches around the yard to drain the water.

While Ellen is working on mostly animal projects, I’ve really enjoyed working in the kitchen. I adore cooking for large groups, and nobody seems to mind if I take charge of organizing dinner every night. Sometimes I think I’ll let somebody else have a chance to manage the kitchen, but when nobody has stepped up to the plate at five o’clock, and it’s raining and cold, and most of the volunteers are still out working and will want something warm in their belly when chores are over, I end up cooking anyway. I’ve had the chance to try out a new fruit, babaco, which is in the papaya family, looks like an overgrown starfruit, and is very sour. It makes a delicious cake, by the way.

Overall, though, the best part of the farm is the atmosphere. All the volunteers are around our age, in their late twenties mostly. They all know how to work hard, and enjoy doing so. The family, too, are down-to-earth and no-nonsense, with big dreams and the organizational skills to bring their ideas to fruition. Unexpected events and changes of plan are taken in stride by all of us, and we have enough people to solve any problem. Ingo, the farmer, goes over lists of activities and projects every morning at breakfast, and again at dinner, matching skills and interests with tasks on his lists, but as the day progresses, we all feel free to join somebody else’s crew if they look like they need assistance, or reach out for a helping hand on our own project if that’s what’s required. Ingo refuses to call the atmosphere a community – that’s too “hippy” for him – but it’s all the community I need. I think we’ll stay awhile.


Ellen and I are finding our experience growing up on a farm being used to advantage here. This farm is isolated, without phone or power, and vet services are few and far between here. When an animal is sick, they treat it as best they can, and if that isn’t sufficient, the animal will have to suffer until it recovers. When Ingo hears that Ellen has veterinary experience, even if she doesn’t have the education yet to complement her enthusiasm and volunteer work, he immediately begins a laundry list of animals that he’d like her to look at. The cow just had a calf three days ago, and has mastitis in one quarter. He lost a goat to mastitis a couple of years ago, and he’s still heartbroken about it, so he’d like Ellen to pay special attention to treating the cow. Also, one of the llamas has a hole in his cheek, and one of the goats is limping badly, so Ingo would like the two of us to check them out and tell him what Ellen can do for them. Consequently, Ellen and I get almost all the animal chores in the morning, assisted by Ingo’s stepdaughter Emily who wants to watch.

First, we let the goats out to graze, checking on one of the does, Erica, who is the one with an injured back leg. Ellen’s brought a knife to trim her hooves, which we hope will help, but finds an abcess high up in the foot. She lances it and will return later with iodine and gauze to clean it out. In the meantime, she treats the doe’s other injuries – a cut teat gets a disinfectant spray applied to it, and an open wound that looks like a scratch or bug bite gone bad gets the same treatment. The goat is heavily pregnant, due any day now, and Ingo wants Ellen to give her stitches to close the wound on the teat before the kids are born and re-injure it by nursing, but it’s been too long since the injury happened to sew it closed properly. Instead, we decide Ellen will use medical-grade crazy glue to keep the cut sealed. Before we move on to treat the cow, we check the doe for signs of giving birth in the next 24 hours. Ellen determines she’s close, but not quite ready yet.

Ellen shows another volunteer, Tomomi, how to milk the cow

Ellen shows another volunteer, Tomomi, how to milk the cow

We move on to the cow and calf. The first challenge is to catch the cow. We both fiddle with our rope until we manage to tie a passable knot to go around her horns. We try to approach her gently without startling her, but she’s protective of her newborn calf, and leads us on a chase around the field. Finally, we get her cornered and she lets us get close enough to slip the rope around her horns. I lead her toward a tree and tie her there so Ellen can begin to treat her. Ina, the cow, has mastitis in one quarter, so we milk out that part of the udder and put medication into the teat to treat the infection. She also has a wound on her belly, so we spray that as well. Finally, we can untie her and let her back to her calf, who was completely unconcerned by the brief separation, unlike the mother.

The calf, not too bothered by being separated from Mommy while she's being milked and treated.

The calf, not too bothered by being separated from Mommy while she’s being milked and treated.

The llama is left for another day, and two other volunteers come with Ellen to wrestle the llama to the ground and hold him down while Ellen performs surgery on his cheek. She originally thought the injury was a thorn that had pierced the cheek and caused an abcess, but when she got out a scalpel and cut into it, she decided it was more likely an abcessed tooth. She removes most of the infection and disinfects the wound, but the llama won’t let her come near him again, so she can’t give him anything for the pain. He’ll have to live with it.

Ellen is absolutely enjoying the feeling of being helpful, and having her skills appreciated. Ingo mentioned that he has a neighbour who wishes he could tell if his cows are pregnant, so Ellen will likely be asked to travel around and do minor veterinary tasks for a handful of neighbours as well. Since that’s the kind of thing she’d like to do as a career after vet school, this is a perfect place to be.

On Friday and Saturday, we went into the jungle to make a small clearing and harvest some wood for construction projects on the farm. I was surprised how much I enjoyed working in the jungle, swinging a machete and hauling logs.
We started the day by climbing a steep path into the jungle, carrying machetes and water bottles. One volunteer stayed behind with the eleven- and thirteen-year-old daughters of the farmer, to prepare lunch and hike it up the mountain in backpacks later in the day. When I reach the clearing where we’ll be working, Ingo points me in a direction and asks me to clear the brush and small trees in that area.

Within a few minutes, I’m getting the hang of swinging a machete, and I begin having fun with it. I experiment with cutting down invasive saplings in one stroke. When that proves doable, I switch to my other hand and perfect the strokes left-handed.

When my side of the clearing has been extended as far as the line Ingo named, I move over to where some of the other volunteers are hacking down brush. I’ve lost some of my steam, and let myself get distracted by a tree of orange fruits somebody else has cut down. It looks like chontadura, a fruit we’ve eaten before, so I pick a couple and cut one in half to seee the inside. Now it resembles a lulo, and I take my treasures to ask Ingo whether they’re edible. He isn’t sure, so off I go to ask one of the locals wielding a chainsaw. Jose tastes one and declares “No, no, no!” I guess I can’t pick fruit, so I wander back to where everyone else is working.

Jose and his son have cut some of the felled trees into three-meter logs, and Ingo wants them stacked upright by the path, leaning against a tree. I help haul one of them to the path, where I spot the three girls hauling lunch up the hill in backpacks. We all sit down for a satisfying meal of rice, beans, and salad. Hunger is the best sauce – the lunch was bland but we ate it with gusto.
In the afternoon, a few people hike away to find water from the river nearby, but get lost and return empty-handed. In the meantime, we try two ineffective ways of stacking logs before we find one that works. We make a pile of twenty logs, after which I’m exhausted. Some of the others go back to clearing land with machetes, while I take Ingo up on his offer to go back to the house early and take care of the animals and dinner.

The next morning, I’m dreading the climb back up the mountain. Today we’re hauling the logs along the steep muddy path down the hill back to the farm. Ingo suggests each log will only need two volunteers with ropes to drag it back. I remember needing four to move them through the clearing to the pile yesterday. I envision logs slipping from our grasp and tumbling down the hill, taking volunteers out on the way down.

This is the driveway, not the forest path - imagine a trail twice as steep and about 14 inches wide.

This is the driveway, not the forest path – imagine a trail twice as steep and about 14 inches wide.

I take my time on morning chores, and remember to put bug spray on my face and neck before climbing the hill. Yesterday I was bitten viciously in the clearing. Finally, I can delay no longer, and I have to¬† climb the hill. I offer to lead the way for Marie, a new volunteer who arrived unexpectedly in a taxi yesterday during evening chores. We get halfway up the hill before we realize we haven’t brought any ropes. We were specifically told at breakfast to make sure each person had a rope for pulling the logs. Marie offers to turn back, but she doesn’t know where the ropes are kept. I volunteer to go back down the hill for both our ropes.

By the time I reach the top of the trail, rope in hand, I’m exhausted. I’m a little cheered to see that one log everyone else avoided taking due to its large size is the one I noticed was unusually light. We rope it up and start hauling, and I’m pleasantly surprised at how easily the log follows us. It reminds me of leading a pig on a leash – it moves only reluctantly and sometimes knocks us over, but generally goes where we want it.

Within a few minutes, we’ve caught up with Ellen and Sebastian struggling to carry their log up a steep part of the path. Their log must weigh twice what ours does, so Marie and I join them in pulling their log through the difficult section. When we’re done, they help us move our log through the same area for a moment before realizing we’ll have no problem doing it on our own. Left to our own devices, Marie and I fumble, stumble, and slide our way back to the farm with our log.

When we finish, once again I’m exhausted. While others are assigned to building projects before lunch, I’m grateful to be given the task of tree planting, which is slightly less arduous. At long last, lunchtime rolls around and we eat fabulous potato fritters with salad. Ellen’s crew spent the morning killing and plucking chickens, and after lunch my job is to turn them stew for dinner. With two helpers, I finish up with almost two hours to go, and have time to make a couple of cakes for dessert. Three more people show up while I’m cooking, but the two local workmen go home early, so our head count for dinner is nineteen. We don’t have enough bowls, so I eat my stew from a tin mug.

All day, while we’ve been working, Ingo has been stoking the fire for the wood-fueled hot tub. After dinner, it’s warm enough to get in. I’m almost reluctant to get in because I’m warm and dry in the kitchen, but I’m glad I do. The hot tub eases my sore muscles and I feel incredible. I didn’t think I’d be able to stay up late today, but I manage to turn in after nine – that’s late in farm time!

We wake up around 6:30 or 7am to Ingo’s cheerful “Good morning, Mindo!” I roll out of my mattress on the floor, duck out of my mosquito net, and dress myself in my filthiest clothes. There’s no point in wearing anything else on this farm in the cloud forest of Ecuador. As I dress, I am careful to cover every square inch of skin besides my hands and face. The mosquitoes here aren’t as bad as the biting flies, which attack us silently, leaving little red dots all over our skin if we’re lucky, or swollen pink lumps on anyone who has a bad reaction.

After putting in my contacts, I descend the creaky wooden staircase and head outside to the breakfast table. I’m one of the first up, so I check that water’s on the stove for coffee, tea, and avena (oatmeal). Within a few minutes, all fifteen of us are up, groggy and looking for our stimulant of choice. The cow has mastitis, so I take my coffee black for now.

Within a few minutes, we’re fed and caffeinated, and it’s time for morning chores before the real work begins. Ellen and I are taking care of the cows and goats – Ingo, the farmer, is taking advantage of Ellen’s veterinary experience and both of our comfort with animals to have us treat their injuries. People in remote places usually can’t get veterinary care for their animals, so there’s plenty of odd jobs for Ellen to do.

Piglets to feed!

Piglets to feed!

After about an hour working with the animals, Ellen and I are finally able to return to the house, where everybody’s about to climb the mountain into the jungle to work in the woods. Ingo has hired a couple of locals to cut down a few trees for lumber for some building projects, so we need to make a clearing to work in. I pick a sharp-looking machete, fill my bottle of water, and start climbing the path up the hill. I keep falling behind the person in front of me, but catching up as the lead hiker stops to widen the path with his machete.

We reach the top of the hill after what seems like a long climb. There’s already a clearing between the trees, so we spread out to trim the regrowth of brush and to expand the clearing where Ingo shows us. I pick a spot far away from most of the other volunteers and spend most of the morning clearing bushes and small trees. In the afternoon, we stack three-meter sections of log that the local workers cut down. I am grateful when Ingo suggests the girls return to the house to care for the animals and prepare dinner. A few girls decline the offer and continue working in the woods, but I am eager to do something less physical.

It takes about half an hour to organize ourselves for the trek back to the house. First, we have to make sure all the machetes and lunch dishes are accounted for and we haven’t left the other volunteers with more equipment than they can carry back. The return hike down the hill seems much less arduous than on the way up, and in no time we’re at the farm again. Ellen and I check on the goat again – still no sign of giving birth – and try to milk the cow, but her calf has kept her udder empty enough to wait for later. Our afternoon chores are a repetition of the morning’s animal work, and Ellen takes over the feeding of the animals while I return to the house to begin preparing dinner.

I do a quick mental headcount and realize there are eighteen of us for dinner. As I start putting a plan together for preparing it, I am soon overwhelmed with offers to help. One person is washing potatoes, another is chopping onions, one more volunteer is picking cabbage in the greenhouse, another is putting water on to boil, and still more people want to help. Eventually, I get everyone organized and the meal falls into place. We have to push two tables together to make room for everyone to sit, and still we’re packed around the dining table like sardines.

Over dinner, Ingo suggests a game of “rose and thorn” – naming one good thing that happened today, which is the rose, and a negative event as the thorn. We go around the table in turn, and I’m one of the first. I can’t think of a thorn. The day was difficult, but satisfying, and I’ve surprised myself by doing more physical work that I thought I’d be able to.

After dinner, a few people play a game of dice, but I’m so tired I crawl into bed early. I’m not sure, but I think it might be before eight o’clock. I sleep soundly. Tomorrow will be another tough but rewarding day.

One of the projects that Ellen and I embarked on in Colombia, while we had access to a market and had full use of a kitchen, was to try as many new kinds of fruit as possible. All through Latin America, fruit juices and smoothies are served with meals and as snacks or refreshments, so of course Ellen and I had to try our hands at making them ourselves.

A market stall in Popayan

A market stall in Popayan

It’s a fun but intimidating experience to walk into a market and buy something you’ve never tried before. Luckily, Ellen and I had a vendor at the market who took us under his wing, showing us all kinds of new fruits and explaining how to prepare them. We often had trouble understanding the names as he pronounced them, so when we got home we’d have to google them to see what we were having for lunch.

Grocery store fruits are more expensive and lower quality, but they have labels so we can learn the names.

Grocery store fruits are more expensive and lower quality, but they have labels so we can learn the names.

As far as adventures go, this was a rewarding one! I don’t think there was one fruit or juice we didn’t like, and we must have tried a dozen kinds. Guayabana, lulo, tomato de arbol, maracuya (passionfruit), araza, mango, guava, papaya… not only did we learn how to prepare them, but we also learned how to pick out ripe ones. I had never liked papayas before, as I found they were too sweet and had a funny, bitter aftertaste like bile. However, papayas didn’t get an exception to the “try everything” rule, so I picked out a small, just ripe one and it was incredible! I think I bought three before we made juice from one, because Ellen and I kept eating them.

Mmm, papaya! The smaller ones taste better to me, and have no seeds

Mmm, papaya! The smaller ones taste better to me, and have no seeds

Making juice in a blender - I think this is araza.

Making juice in a blender – I think this is araza.

Now that Ellen and I are in Ecuador, I look forward to finding out if there are new fruits here that we haven’t tried yet. Already, on the side of the road, we’ve seen sandia (watermelon) as well as large, round, green fruits growing on the trunks of trees, which we couldn’t identify for sure and which we’ve never seen sold. I think they might actually be a vine fruit, like a melon, which have grown up trees. A second possibility is an overgrown aguacate (avocado, but much larger and waterier, rather than creamy like avocado at home) but I’m not convinced. Certainly, according to our friendly army officer guide, Ecuador has many foods to try including morcilla (blood sausage, which we tried in Colombia but he assures us is superior in Ecuardor), cuy (I think that’s a kind of guinea pig), and ceviche (fresh seafood “cooked” in lemon juice, which we’ve had in Costa Rica and Colombia as well). If the local food is anything like what we’ve eaten in Latin America so far, I’m sure we’ll love it.

Ellen and I can't resist the fresh fruits

Ellen and I can’t resist the fresh fruits

A market stand in Santa Rosa

A market stand in Santa Rosa

Ellen and I left Popayan on Tuesday, and stopped for the night in Ipiales, on the Colombian side of the Colombian-Ecuadorian border. We stayed at a large but inexpensive hotel near the bus station, and had planned to go straight to the border to catch a bus to Quito first thing in the morning.

View from the bus window - I have a lot of pictures like these! My camera really can't capture mountains well.

View from the bus window – I have a lot of pictures like these! My camera really can’t capture mountains well.

Over breakfast, Ellen noticed a cute guy at the next table, dining with a friend our age and an older woman. The woman, who turned out to be his mother, noticed Ellen checking out her son, and struck up a conversation. Apparently Ipiales is famous for a church built over a river, and the boys were going there this morning. We should really see it, too. The three travellers from our hostel in Popayan sitting across the room had already told us we shouldn’t miss the church, so we decided we might as well check it out.

Ellen, Julian, and me on the path to the church. Joey was behind the camera.

Ellen, Julian, and me on the path to the church. Joey was behind the camera.

When I got back to the hotel reception, the two guys, who introduced themselves as Joey and Julian, had arranged for a driver to take them to the church in a private car for a quarter of the price of a taxi, and offered to take us, too. The four of us piled into the car, a beat-up old thing that probably had seen better days sometime before I was born. The driver took us to a dirty alley, where he stopped to gas up. From a nearby house emerged a woman with a pop bottle and a funnel, as well as a small boy about two years old. While the woman was filling the gas tank, the boy proceeded to chew on the hood of the car, much to our amusement. When he finished biting the car, he peed in a pile of sand near the door of the house and wandered off. Our driver got back in the car and drove about 50 meters.

This time, he stopped and got out of the car to trade places with another man, Fabio, who was going to borrow the car and drive us to the church. Fabio clearly wasn’t used to driving stick – the car sputtered and shook as he struggled with the gears. After half a kilometer, the car alarm turned on and the engine switched off. Fabio got increasingly flustered as he fiddled with buttons and repeatedly turned the key, trying to get the car going. Eventually he managed to reach the car’s original driver by phone and discovered the alarm cut-off, hidden under the emergency brake. We limped along the rest of the way to the church, with the alarm going off periodically and Fabio shutting it off.

First view of the church

First view of the church

The church was incredible, and well worth the change in plans. We had a great time chatting and laughing with Joey and Julian while taking pictures of the amazing scenery. The church was a Gothic giant, on huge pillars over a canyon. Imagine a European cathedral, built into the kind of scenery you’d see in the Rocky Mountains – that was this church. The two guys were Colombians who were on an extended vacation, like us, trying to see most of South America. Joey was telling me he wasn’t planning on going home anytime soon, but was trying to find a nice place to stay for a while and write. Hmm… who else do I know like that? Joey kept trying to convince me that Ellen and I could join them for the rest of their sightseeing for the day, and then go dancing in Quito that evening. While we’d have loved to, Ellen and I had made plans to get picked up for our next volunteer assignment the following morning, so we really couldn’t take a day out of our trip to spend with the guys.

This vertical panorama of the church can't quite capture its proportions

This vertical panorama of the church can’t quite capture its proportions

The church from the front

The church from the front

A statue of an angel pouring water - I wonder if it's holy water?

A statue of an angel pouring water – I wonder if it’s holy water?

The church in its natural environment, with Joey on the left and Ellen and Julian on the right.

The church in its natural environment, with Joey on the left and Ellen and Julian on the right.

After an hour or so at the church, we caught a taxi together back to the hotel, so Ellen and I could check out and the boys could make arrangements to visit a cemetary they’d heard was beautiful. On our way to the hotel, our taxi was pulled over in a police checkpoint. Joey, Julian, and the driver were told to get out of the car – Ellen and I got out, too. The police frisked the guys and took their IDs to inspect. Ellen and I got out our passports, but the cops told us they didn’t need to see them. While the police were calling in the driver’s license numbers to check for arrest warrants, Julian chatted them up about places to see in the area and various places in Colombia. When we were finally allowed to leave, we thanked the police, and then laughed as we drove out of sight – they frisked us and we thanked them?

Finally, Ellen and I got back to the hotel, grabbed our bags, and headed to the border. The crossing was much easier and faster than we’d been warned about, and it took us less than ten minutes to exit Colombia, enter Ecuador, and catch a taxi to the bus terminal. The bus to Quito was a quarter of the price we’d pay for a similar ride in Colombia, and the empanadas sold by the vendor on the bus were still piping hot – much better than expected! As the bus pulled away from the border town toward Quito, two men with speakers got on and proceeded to rap to the passengers for tips. They even composed a verse about us, two travelling girls with short hair, which earned them a donation from Ellen.

Goodbye, Colombia!

Goodbye, Colombia!

The scenery on the road to Quito was gorgeous – round hills covered in a patchwork of rich green fields, lined with trees and dotted with cows, pigs, and chickens. We drove past jagged rocky peaks and beautiful rock formations, and through clouds and thunderstorms as well. When we got to Quito, the driver dropped us off on the side of the road and pointed in the direction for the bus to Mindo, our destination for the day.

There we were, standing in the rain with our bags, on the side of a busy street in a city we didn’t know. We weren’t sure when or how often the bus would pass, and we hadn’t eaten anything. We decided to look for a hotel and figure out buses to Mindo in the morning. Unfortunately, the first taxi driver who pulled over told us there wasn’t a hotel for miles. Ellen and I weren’t quite sure what to do next.

Luckily, we were approached by a guy in uniform, Homero, who had overheard us being turned away by the taxi driver and had heard us mention Mindo. He was an army officer who was driving in the direction of Mindo himself, and would be glad to give us a ride. We looked at each other and agreed he seemed trustworthy, so after a quick bit to eat from a street vendor we hopped in his car and got a free ride to Mindo. Along the way, he told us about traditional foods in Ecuador, pointed out the equator (half a kilometer after we’d passed it – oops!), and described a few points of interest and parks along the way. As we got to Mindo, it was raining hard and he wasn’t sure if there was a hotel in our price range, so we continued to the next town and he booked us a room in an inexpensive hotel on the main drag.

After a long day on the road, we were able to rest our heads on the soft pillows and go to sleep, with dreams of more adventures to start the next day. Life on the road is good!

Ellen and I are not much for museums. We’re more interested in current culture than in relics from previous ones, so usually we stay off the tourist trail of museums full of historical displays. However, in Popayan, we made an exception for the natural history museum that we spotted as we were wandering through the white city. It was closed on Sunday, but we returned Monday afternoon to explore in the brief window between the museum reopening after a lunch break and my dentist appointment.

Entrance to the museum was a steal at about $1.75 each, which included a guide. The museum was more of a university, with lots of small rooms off a main corridor – I half expected to see people in lab coats wandering down the halls. The lights were on motion sensors, so the entire museum was dark until someone entered, and we were almost the only people exploring it. The layout was much more geared toward education than entertainment – each room was labelled with the relevant branch of study, like geology, paleontology, or entomology. Our guide didn’t say much of anything, but she pointed us in the direction of a new room whenever we finished looking at one.

Hard to see stones in the dark

Hard to see stones in the dark

While we were exploring the crystals and stones in the geology room, the lights went out around us. At first we thought we hadn’t been moving enough, but it soon turned out there was a power failure, probably due to the thunderstorm going on outside. Luckily, after a ten-minute break in the hallway, the lights came back on and we were able to continue exploring. We saw precious stones in their natural form, as well as a variety of rocks and gems from around South America. In the attached paleontology room, we oohed and ahhed over tiny fossils of shells, huge mastadon teeth, and a rare fossilized mushroom.

Stuffed snake attacking a warthog? This is our kind of museum!

Stuffed snake attacking a warthog? This is our kind of museum!

By far the most impressive part of the museum was the stuffed specimens of birds, reptiles, and mammals on the second floor. We laughed at the mammals in awkward poses, marvelled at how life-like the snakes and lizards looked, and admired the birds, especially birds of prey displayed with smaller birds or rabbits in their talons. From there, we were pointed to the insects, which weren’t stuffed but were equally impressive specimens, from tiny butterflies to huge beetles. I’m sure we could have spent hours in the room, if we hadn’t wanted to see more of the museum before my dentist appointment.

Birds of prey eating a rabbit

Birds of prey eating a rabbit

The last room was historical artifacts, mostly pottery, found in the local area. We glanced briefly at the pots, and agreed this room wasn’t for us. Overall, we spent a pleasant afternoon at the natural history museum, and were able to examine all sorts of animals and insects that we had spotted in Latin America but hadn’t been able to photograph or see up close. The labels were all in Spanish, but occasionally an English common name was given. Luckily, we don’t mind reading in Spanish and figuring out what things mean. I’m glad we took the time to visit a museum. Who knows, we may do it again sometime!

Glass-winged damsel fly

Glass-winged damsel fly

On Monday, I had the dubious pleasure of testing out Colombia’s dental care industry. I had broken a tooth and it was hurting, so we extended our stay in Popayan by a few days so I could get it taken care of. The hostel recommended two dentists, so first thing Monday morning I presented myself at the office of the first one.

Immediately upon entry, I was impressed. The receptionist greeted me with a bright, genuine smile and asked what the problem was. She gave me a prescription for an X-ray and carefully described how to get to the radiology clinic. Eight dollars and ten minutes later, X-ray in hand, I was back in the dentist’s office waiting to see the dentist.

Within a few moments of meeting the dentist herself, though, she managed to completely negate the positive first impression given by the receptionist. The dentist glanced at the X-ray, grunted, and told me she’d fix it. She said it’d take eight days and cost 800,000 Colombian Pesos – about $500. When I asked her to explain the procedure, she became aggressive and started yelling at me. “We’re the best in town, it’s a lifetime guarantee, I know my job! You listen to me!” and so on. She lost my business right then and there.

I took back my X-rays and went to the second dentist. This experience was almost completely the reverse of the first. When I rang the bell of the locked office, the receptionist greeted me with “what do you want?” rather than a friendly smile and a “how can I help you?” I explained the problem and she sat me down. After twenty minutes of waiting, the dentist sat me in her chair and had a look. She clucked, murmured, and hummed to herself as she checked out my tooth and examined the X-ray. Afterward, she asked me about how it had happened, how much pain I was in, and how much time I had planned to spend in Popayan for treatment.

After ascertaining the problem, the dentist slowly and carefully described how my tooth was broken and what treatment was needed. She explained the time, cost, and procedure of each step, and told me that if I wanted to be in Ecuador on Thursday, I had a window of a few hours to make up my mind. She then suggested a couple of appointment times I might consider if I decided to proceed with treatment.

I went back to the hostel to consult with Ellen, check my travel insurance, and google the prices to make sure I wasn’t being taken for a ride. I also looked up everything the dentist had told me in Spanish, and discovered that what she had described was a root canal, which WebMD said was standard procedure for a broken tooth. With much trepidation, I decided to get a root canal at the nice dentist’s office.

When I went in for the root canal, the dentist was her usual friendly self. I told her I was afraid of getting dental work done, and she told me not to worry, and that I was in good hands. Her demeanor made me feel better, which is more than can be said for her office environment. My dentist’s cellphone rang non-stop, and she kept pausing the procedure to answer it. The place looked clean, but I couldn’t be sure – I heard a tool drop on the floor and get picked up, and never saw where it went. I just hoped it didn’t go back into my mouth after that. The dentist had two drills, and one of them stopped working mid-procedure. She called over an assistant, who made a phone call, and within minutes a repairman had appeared and taken it away. Later in the root canal, he turned up again and returned it to her. It went straight from the repairman’s hands to the dentist’s hands to my mouth. I couldn’t see how dirty his hands were, but I wasn’t thrilled at the thought. I hope at least the head of the drill was clean.

As for the procedure itself, well, it hurt. She injected me with anaesthetic, but I tend to need more than the usual dose to numb my nerves. Over the course of the two hours in the dentist’s chair, she anaesthetized me again and again, and within a few minutes I was in pain again. She eventually sent me home with a temporary filling, with instructions to get an X-ray and come back in the morning for the next step in the root canal.

Bright and early Tuesday morning, I was back at the dentist, not quite so afraid. I figured the worst was over, and today she was just putting in a longer-term filling to re-build the tooth. Apparently I was mistaken – when she started poking around, she found plenty of exposed nerves that needed removing, and this time I couldn’t have anaesthetic. She explained that if she numbed my mouth, she might miss a nerve and not know about it. In that case, I’d need to have the filling removed and re-do the root canal procedure.

After what felt like hours of poking and prodding places that hurt, the dentist declared the root canal finished and started to fill in and rebuild the tooth. I have no idea what reconstructing a tooth is like in Canada, but in Colombia it’s weird. She had these flexible plastic things that looked like a cross between a toothpick and a hair, and she curled them up into my broken tooth. After she’d placed two or three in there, she held her metal pick over a cigarette lighter until it was red hot, and then touched it to the inside of the tooth. I presume she was melting the stick things, to serve as a kind of glue to hold the filling in place, but I really have no idea. After she had repeated that procedure about six times, she took a tube of white paste and used her pick to put tiny amounts of it into my mouth. After two or three tiny scoops of white paste had been put into my broken tooth, she put a laser-like device into my mouth, and turned away before switching it on. The one time I dared a glance at it, it glowed blue. This she repeated, again and again, until I had a perfect-looking white tooth in place of my broken molar.

Finally, by noon on Tuesday, my root canal was done, and Ellen and I hit the road. We didn’t have time to waste, because we’d committed to being in Ecuador on Thursday morning – 16 hours away on a road that was dangerous at night. All day on the bus, my face ached and it hurt to even contemplate eating, and all I could think about was whether she’d screwed up and I’d have to get the whole procedure done over again in Ecuador. As I’m writing this on Wednesday night, it’s much less sensitive, and I can only hope that the root canal was successful and that my travel insurance will cover it. Getting dentistry done anywhere isn’t my cup of tea, and getting a root canal in Latin America is certainly something I recommend you avoid if at all possible. On the bright side, at least it was a quarter of the price of a Canadian root canal.

This week, Ellen and I are volunteering on a farm in Ecuador, which we found through Workaway. We’re in a cheap hotel ($6 per night) in a village 15km away from where we’re meeting the farmer for lunch today. The exciting thing about volunteering is you have no idea what to expect. The farm writes a description of itself, of course, but it’s very hard to be sure what you’re getting yourself into before you get there.

What we know about the farm is this: it’s in the cloud forest in Ecuador, it’s near the town of Mindo, and it has no electricity, internet, or telephone, although it’s possible to drive into town twice a week to check messages. The family grows bananas and coffee, and has a few animals, including a donkey. They recommend we bring boots.

We are absolutely delighted to be exploring the unknown again. There are so many details we don’t know – does the family speak English? Their e-mail to us was in English, but it was a form-letter, copied and pasted, so they may just speak Spanish. What will we do all day? They say they require six hours of work a day in exchange for room and board, but we aren’t sure what kind of work it’ll be. Presumably, much of it will be garden work, but they didn’t mention a garden. They said they wanted to raise more animals, so perhaps there will be building of fences or barns, but we have no way of knowing. What I love about not knowing is that absolutely everything seems possible.

What won’t be possible, of course, is checking my blog every day, which will be a challenge for me! I still plan to write, so I’ll probably try to type three or four posts at a time, and schedule them to be published daily. Since we won’t have electricity, Ellen and I bought five Spanish paperbacks to improve our language skills and keep us entertained in lieu of reading books on my phone. I’ve got Arabian Nights and Origin of the Species translated into Spanish, and Ellen is reading Call of the Wild and a book on comparitive religions. We’ve also got a good supply of art supplies and plenty of room in our journals, so I’m sure we’ll keep ourselves entertained. Judging from the weather outside the window tonight, we’re going to need indoor amusements!

A little something to read while we don't have electricity

A little something to read while we don’t have electricity

I’ve been meaning for months to write about my perspectives on travelling, as a woman, ever since I was asked to share my insights for someone’s journal of women’s thoughts on travel. I admit, I was stumped for what to write. This week, I’ve seen several other women weigh in, because of comments left on several newspaper articles about a woman who was murdered while travelling alone in Istanbul. The truth is, my gender doesn’t really have a big impact on my travel plans. I take reasonable precautions when I travel, but I like to think I’m cautious because I’m human, not because I’m female.

Ellen and I did decide we would like to travel together, partly because we’re women and partly because we came up with the idea for this trip twelve years ago on another vacation together. When I was thinking of backing out of the trip (when my wrist was broken and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to save for the trip without a job), Ellen wanted me to come along anyway because of the woman travelling alone issue. Although she would be comfortable travelling alone, she was worried the friends she’d be visiting would try to prevent her continuing her journey alone.

An interesting note on women travelling is that, based on stories I’ve heard, men tend to run into more trouble travelling than women do. Men are more likely to get into fights abroad (as a male acquaintance of mine did in China), or drink too much in a bar and get robbed, while women are conditioned from a young age not to put themselves in those situations. A man I met on this trip was “express kidnapped” and robbed in Nicaragua – he was carrying all his travel funds and electronics on him, walking along the side of a highway, and was chatting with a local as he walked. When the local accepted a ride from a stranger, he hopped in, only to find the two were in cahoots and they pulled a weapon on him. They drove him around for a while, took his valuables, and dropped him off on a dirt road a few miles away. They were thoughtful enough to leave him a few cents for a bus back to his hostel.

The female travellers I’ve spoken to have sometimes been in situations that made them uncomfortable, but they left before anything bad happened. Ellen and I are fairly cautious when we travel, but we don’t let our gender stop us from doing things that interest us. We usually look into a bar before we enter, to check if we’re the only women in the place (in which case we won’t go in). If we’ve been told a particular bus route is dangerous, I carry my knife in my purse just in case. I’ve never had to use it except to cut fruit.

Me, a single female traveller, enjoying a beer in a bar in Pereira, Colombia

Me, a single female traveller, enjoying a beer in a bar in Pereira, Colombia

There is one activity we’d like to participate in but are waiting for male companions for – dancing. I would love to go to a club where people are dancing to salsa and latin beats. I know South Americans are famous for being amazing dancers, and I absolutely want to go dancing, but I hate being a woman in an unfamiliar club. When I was in Korea, after a few times going dancing with only female friends, I realized that I disliked the attention a single white female attracts in a club in Asia. I may find that Latin American clubs are nothing like that, but I’d rather wait until we meet a fun group of guys to check out the dancing scene. That’s more a personal preference than a big gender issue, though.

Overall, I don’t think being a woman has to have a big impact on travelling. The world is a big, open, friendly place, where people who meet you are likely to be curious and happy to see you, rather than threatening. I would encourage anyone curious, male or female, young or old, single or married, to go out and explore the world. Don’t let people tell you not to, and don’t let gender be an issue holding you back.

Ellen and me in Pereira, Colombia, at a local swimming hole

Ellen and me in Pereira, Colombia, at a local swimming hole – as safe here as at home!