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.

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