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!

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