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I thought, when I left home, that on this trip I might gain awareness of local issues in Latin America, big important issues like poverty, hunger, environmentalism, conservation, inequality, and access to education. Since I’ve been here, I’ve heard a few people’s opinions on those topics, but not as many as I’d imagined. Locals don’t air that kind of dirty laundry to travellers, even volunteers who are in the region for as long as a year and looking for ways to contribute. I’ve found, however, that my time abroad has given me a different type of awareness, one that I wasn’t looking for but have been glad I’ve found nonetheless.

Travelling, especially volunteering, has given me a consciousness of my surroundings and myself. I observe details that escaped my notice in the past. My senses are more in tune with the world. I’ve never considered myself a detail-oriented person, and I admit that when reading I’ll skip over the paragraphs of sensory description in my search for the story line. I rapidly lose interest in any book that starts with “The sky was that particular shade of blue that one only sees on a hot July morning, a hazy kind of blue, reminiscent of wildflowers…” On this trip, though, I’ve begun to notice those kind of details myself. The quality of light, the patterns of the clouds, and the shades of green in the hills are catching my eye as they never did before.

Hot tub at sunset

Hot tub at sunset

Here at the farm, with no internet, electronic devices, cars, machinery, or other distractions, I’m finding myself being aware of what’s around me. I notice the flock of 40 parrots overhead, squawking loudly. I see the tiny flatworm in the woodpile, and the leaf covered with dozens of caterpillars. I smell the flowers, and hear the frogs. Part of my newfound awareness comes from having so many animals depending on us here. I’ve always got an ear open for sounds of distress from the livestock. The piglets have been let out of their pen and are harnessed and tied to stakes around the property; I find myself listening for unusual squeals in case the young pigs break loose or start choking themselves on their ropes. Another part of my mind is keeping track of where the goats are, and whether the babies have been left behind by their mothers. Near the house, I keep my eye open for escaped baby chicks, who have sometimes been able to squeeze underneath the chicken wire to go exploring. If they get too close to a pig, they’ll probably be eaten for lunch.

I’m not only aware of the animals, but also paying attention to myself. My body and its rhythms are much more obvious to me when I’m so free of distractions. If I’m not feeling a hundred percent healthy, I can generally identify the source of the problem and the reason for it. The cures on the farm are simple: more rest or less, more water, less food, more food, or different food. Just by being aware of myself, I can keep track of how my diet and sleeping patterns affect my health.

The most pleasant side effect of my newfound awareness is my appreciation for my surroundings. I recognize the trees that smell nicest in the evenings. I know the rain is coming the instant before the storm starts: I heard the raindrops hit the trees nearby before they reached me. I see the tiny yellow frog as I’m walking in the grass, and I can stop to admire it. Ellen and I are constantly calling to each other: “Look at this spider!” “Stop! Come see this worm!” We might be working a little slower, but we’re happier as we do it. It’s a nice way to be.

A flatworm we found in the wood pile

A flatworm we found in the wood pile

Look at the tarantula on the ceiling! (Not necessarily the same one I found in my boot the other day. Now I check my boots every time I put them on!)

Look at the tarantula on the ceiling! (Not necessarily the same one I found in my boot the other day. Now I check my boots every time I put them on!)

 

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Death is a natural part of life, but that doesn’t mean we have to like it when it happens. Last week was a difficult one for Ingo and the farm. The oldest dog, Kira, slipped and fell under the wheel of the car as Ingo was returning home on Sunday afternoon. She died instantly, and Ingo was heartbroken. I heard about it when I got back Monday, and was glad I’d taken the time to throw sticks for her a few times the day before she died. She was old, and Ellen and I are glad she died painlessly, quickly, and without suffering.

That wasn’t the end of the farm’s unlucky week. Two days later, the donkey died mysteriously – the neighbours told Ingo it might be a snake bite, but we saw no evidence of that. We just went down the hill in the morning to do chores, and the donkey was lying there, dead. I wonder if it was a heart attack, but she was a young donkey, and we have no way of knowing what killed her. Ellen could have dissected her, but we decided just to say a few words and bury her. You’d think two deaths in a week would be enough, but of course bad luck comes in threes.

Last Saturday, as I was taking Ingo and Genny’s daughter for a walk, we noticed that Anise, the final goat due to have kids, had two little feet sticking out of her back end. We rushed, as fast as I could convince a two-year-old to hurry, to tell the others so they could also watch the goat give birth. The other three does had had four buck kids between them, and Ingo had threatened that if this one came out with a penis, he would push it back in there himself. Luckily for Anise, Ingo had returned to the house when she gave birth to the farm’s fifth male baby of the week, a handsome brown boy we named Jackson. After giving Anise a few minutes to rest, we helped her and the baby up the steep driveway to the makeshift nursery.

I would like to take a moment to tell you about this nursery. Originally designed as a greenhouse, we built the structure with our own hands. We cut the trees in the clearing, hauled the logs down the hill, dug holes for them, cemented them in, cut and split bamboo to support the roof, put the plastic onto the roof, attached chicken wire to the posts to make walls, and then reinforced it with stronger wire mesh to ensure the goats couldn’t get out. It’s warm and dry, and can house the baby chicks on one side and the mother goats with newborn babies on the other. The babies stay up their with their mothers until they’re walking strongly and nursing regularly on their own, and then we put them back down with the other goats in the regular goat pen.

Over the course of a few days, Jackson figured out how to nurse, and his mother caught on to the idea that this was her baby and she should care for it. On Tuesday, Jackson and Anise rejoined the herd. On Wednesday morning, sometime before breakfast, Anise caught her head in the fence and died.

The dog’s death was upsetting, a sad end for a loyal member of the family. When the donkey died, we were puzzled and sad. The goat’s death, though, seemed to infuriate Ingo. How dare three animals die in one week? The most urgent matter, after burying the goat, was deciding what to do with Jackson, her four-day-old kid. Ingo didn’t want to sell him, because nobody buys newborn kids at the auction here. Ellen, Genny and I were willing to slaughter the baby goat for meat, but Ingo was sick of death and didn’t want another one on his hands. The other milking mothers weren’t producing enough milk to feed Jackson, so Ingo brought milk powder and a baby bottle home from town and Jackson became a house goat.

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After a week of so much death, Jackson is bringing life back into the household. The little goat, the colour of dark-roasted coffee, cheerfully skips along behind us as we do our chores. He joins the dogs on their jaunts around the farm, bounces through the fields and along the paths to check out the pigs, and nibbles our fingers and clothes as we sit at the dinner table. Climb into a hammock and Jackson will clambour in, too, and snuggle into your lap as you sip a cup of coffee after lunch. The little boy is constantly underfoot in the kitchen, where he makes a comfortable home under the oven. Whenever I’m baking a batch of bread, I have to block off the goat’s access to the oven, or the little terror will emerge five minutes later, panting and stinking of singed hair. I think to myself, as I do every day, that it’s a good thing he’s cute.

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This farm is full of life, really. The young chicks, who could fit in the palm of the two-year-old’s hand a few weeks ago, look almost like full-grown chickens now. They come running, flapping awkwardly, whenever I walk toward the greenhouse, watching me like a hundred miniature velociraptors, evaluating whether I’m carrying food. Whenever I stand at the edge of the cliff, I see the calf and foal playing in the field below, the other four goat kids prancing and gallavanting along the cliff’s base, and the horses, cow, and sheep grazing contentedly in the grass. Birds soar overhead, chirping loudly. Some of them are vultures – Jacob, the neighbour’s dog, has dug up the goat’s body again, and the birds are looking for a meal. As long as there is life, there is death, but the vultures remind me that the opposite is also true. For the fourth time this week, I take a shovel and re-bury the goat. The vultures perch in a palm tree overhead and watch me cover the goat’s corpse with sand, then roof tiles, then more sand. Finally, I am satisfied that the goat can rest in peace, and the vultures seem to agree. They take wing and fly majestically away.

Ecuador, being on the equator, has only two seasons: wet and dry. We are at the tail end of wet season now, which means that we have been enjoying rainstorms on a daily basis. I thought I had seen rain before, from Vancouver’s endless grey drizzle to Asia’s typhoons. I was wrong.
Storms in Ecuador are fabulous. They start with the rumble of far-off thunder. It cracks like a whip, and then echoes across the valley in deep crashing waves. The sound elicits images of mountainsides collapsing, tumbling into the rivers below. The volume is so high that sleep would be impossible; we have no choice but to enjoy the thrill of the storm. Quite often, the storms occur in the afternoon, when we’re working on the hillsides, and we grin at each other as it’s too loud to talk.
The lightning doesn’t appear as often as the thunder, as the hills are high and the storms often take place miles away. Even during the day, though, the sky can be lit up with flashes of electricity moving between earth and clouds. I sometimes count the seconds between the flash of lightning and the thunder that follows, often getting to fifteen or twenty before being almost deafened by the crash that eventually comes. At night, during a storm, we don’t need a flashlight to move around outside – the lightning comes often enough and lights the sky well enough to see the world around us clearly.
The most impressive part of the rainy season and its endless storms would be the rain itself. Great sheets of it slam into the sides of the house, seeping into the walls and blowing through the windows. The pitter-patter of rain on the roof quickly turns to a roar, and all of us here on the farm run to move or cover things that should be dry. The chickens huddle under the huge leaves in the garden, the goats run home from the fields to hide in their pen, and the horses and sheep take shelter in the lean-to by the pond. Escaping the rain seems like wasted effort, though – eventually everything on the farm is damp, as the rain relentlessly pursues us and finds its way into all dry places.
Luckily, for now at least, the storms limit themselves to the afternoons and evenings. Every day after breakfast, our sodden clothes get hung out to dry in the morning sun, which bakes them in a brief, intense period of heat and clear skies. By lunchtime, the clothes on our backs have steamed themselves dry, the chickens and pigs are panting for refills of their water bowls, and we’re eagerly waiting for rain to drop the temperature and chase the biting flies away. And so, after greeting the morning sun with smiles, we are equally enthusiastic at the start of the afternoon’s storms. And at night, freshly showered and in our mostly-dry evening clothes, we have animated conversations over the hammering of the rain on the roof, before turning in to bed to rest and look forward to tomorrow’s sun and storms.

According to the guidebooks, Ecuador has a bad rap for environmental issues. Hillsides are deforested, rainforest is exploited, and natural habitats for animals are destroyed by money-hungry corporations. My experience here, though, seems to show that somebody cares about the environment, which is a nice thing to see. Everywhere Ellen and I have been in Ecuador has been plastered with billboards and signs urging the population to protect the land. Unlike in Canada, where the government seems to encourage raping the land to make money, it’s refreshing to see that Ecuador’s politicians are at least paying lip service to environmental protection.

“Water is Life.” So say the signs through the mountains discouraging locals from pouring waste in the rivers and streams. In Colombia the waterways were common dumping grounds for garbage. People just chucked their trash wherever they happened to be at the time. Colombia still has guerrillas in the mountains, and the government is focused on fighting insurgents rather than caring for the land. Here in Ecuador, the government would like to remind you that life is safer now, and consequently the people should make the effort to care for their country a little, too.

"No to Indiscriminate Fishing" - A sign in a village near a river.

“No to Indiscriminate Fishing” – A sign in a village near a river.

“We are the Generation of the Revolution.” I saw this tagline everywhere, from the coast to the mountains and in all the towns and cities between. It featured on billboards throughout the country, letting Ecuadorians know how much better they have it than in the past, and what improvements they can make for their children. Quality education, safe roads, living with dignity, access to health care – all these things are new for Ecuador, and the government doesn’t want anyone to forget it.

It may all be propaganda, political posturing, and empty words, but it’s heartening to see the signs around the country that somebody cares enough to keep this place beautiful. Protect the water. Don’t overfish the rivers or seas. Save the old-growth trees. Use resources wisely. Give your children a country that’s cleaner and safer than the one your parents left you. These are messages I wish Canadian politicians would endorse and share with the country’s people. Maybe one day, these values will be so ingrained in global culture that the billboards will be quaint and unnecessary. I hope my children’s generation will roll their eyes at the signs and wonder why anybody would need to be reminded of the obvious. But for now, when I see the signs, I’ll smile.

Ellen and I love mushrooms, and when Ingo wanted a dozen logs seeded to grow the edible fungus, our hands were among the first to fly in the air to volunteer. We’ve barely eaten any mushrooms in Latin America, so Ingo’s plan to set up a series of logs growing oyster mushrooms for the table and for sale sounded good to us. I’ve hunted for mushrooms in the wild before, but never seen how they’re grown in a small scale, sustainable way. Luckily, I didn’t have to wait long to find out.

The first step in the process was to collect logs to use as a growing medium. You can buy mushroom kits pre-seeded in mesh bags of wood chips, but long-term it’s cheaper to use fresh-cut logs. Ingo cautioned us that deadwood can be contaminated by other fungus, whereas he wanted logs from live trees so he was sure the oyster mushrooms would take.

Hauling our mushroom logs to the house

Hauling our mushroom logs to the house

Science break! The mushroom organism lives in wood or in the ground, and the visible parts that we know as mushrooms are its version of fruit. Often, one large mushroom will spread over a huge area, popping up sporadically or in patterns depending on where its food is abundant. The underside of each mushroom that blossoms from the soil holds spores, which spread by wind or water and allow the mushroom to reproduce itself, like seeds. One could grow mushrooms by gathering spores and spreading them to the place where you want mushrooms to grow. The other way to breed mushrooms is to take a piece of the underground bit, the mycelium, and transfer it to a new growth medium. The first way is complicated, while the second can be undertaken by any enterprising mushroom lover.

A day or two earlier, a couple of volunteers had taken the chainsaw and cut logs into 1.5 meter sections for mushrooms. Ingo had them cut softwood, because it takes less time for the mycelium to penetrate the wood. The mushrooms take a few months to start producing from softwood, and can take years for hardwood. The logs we cut were from the lowest elevation of the farm, the beach, and we had to carry them up the steep slopes to the main house, where Ingo cut slits into them with a chainsaw.

The next step was the tricky part: inoculating the logs with the mycelium without contaminating them. Ingo informed us that the mushrooms wouldn’t fruit if more than one kind of fungus was growing in the log, so we all had to get cleaned up and boil the tools to avoid cross-contamination. (Ellen and I wonder just how crucial this is – there were certainly surface fungi on the outside of the logs, and we touched enough of that to risk infecting the log with the wrong fungus.)

Hard at work inoculating logs with mycelium

Hard at work inoculating logs with mycelium

The actual process was easy. We stuffed the cracks in the logs with mycelium, filled the last centimeter with wood shavings (boiled and allowed to cool, to ensure cleanliness), and coated the shavings with melted wax to seal the mycelium inside the log. We were careful not to accidentally fill the log with two different batches of mycelium, and cautiously avoided pouring melting wax directly onto the mycelium, which might kill it. The process was rife with opportunities to make dirty jokes and innuendo-filled comments about helping each other stuff or wax our cracks, which Ellen and I enjoyed immensely.

Can I wax your crack?

Can I wax your crack?

Last of all, we needed to hang the logs somewhere cool and shady, where they could sit unmolested for anywhere from six months to a year. Once the mycelium has penetrated the logs and consumed most of the wood, it will send out its fruit, mushrooms, to pass its spores on to fresh wood. Our logs will produce mushrooms for a few months until the wood has been entirely consumed. Ingo has logs hanging from trees like overgrown wind chimes in several groves on his property.

I wish Ellen and I could be here when the mushrooms are ready to harvest – one of the disadvantages of spending only a few weeks in each place is that we rarely get to taste the fruits of our labours. Now that we’ve learned how to grow mushrooms, though, I think we’ll try to find ways to inoculate logs and grow mushrooms of our own at home. Even if it’s just a small branch or bag of sawdust on a city balcony, I’m sure I can make room to grow mushrooms somewhere. They’re just too good not to try!

A couple of weeks ago, Ellen and I hitchhiked to the beach in Canoa and back to the farm. Our rides on the way home stood in stark contrast to the amiable drivers who ferried us to the beach resort town at the beginning of the weekend. If you’ve ever considered picking up a hitchhiker or two, especially a backpacker or tourist on vacation, let me pass along some advice on the topic!

On Route Planning:
Do: Ask where they’re going and offer advice or suggestions on local activities, foods, and attractions. One friendly truck driver actually pulled over to let us sample local fruits from a roadside stand. We love talking about local food and culture, so meeting someone with knowledge of the area is always a plus.
Don’t: Try to demand that the hitchhiker change their plans to accompany you instead, or insist that the road you’re planning on taking, miles out of the way, is just as good for them as the route they’ve named. One couple who drove us home from the beach took us hundreds of kilometers in the wrong direction and informed us that it would be fine for us. This kind of helpfulness is not appreciated by weary travellers hoping to get to their destination in time to get dinner and a hostel room.

Delicious local fruit bought for us as a snack by a friendly truck driver

Delicious local fruit bought for us as a snack by a friendly truck driver

On Conversation Topics:
Do: Start a friendly conversation about their travels or careers, and your country and culture. Pick a topic that you’ll be comfortable discussing for awhile, especially if you’re taking them a long way.
Don’t: Interrogate them about their life choices while rapidly speaking in local slang, refusing to allow them to change the subject. (Why aren’t you married yet? Don’t you like men? Aren’t you getting old? Don’t you want children? Would you object to dating an Ecuadorian man? I know a few men who might like to marry you. Can I introduce you?)

On Stopping for a Meal:
Do: Offer to buy them a meal or snack, if the mood strikes you. I’ve shared many a hot meal with travelling companions, and been able to call them a friend by the end of the meal. There’s something special about breaking bread with people that brings them closer. Ellen and I have fond memories of the awkward rides that became much more animated when we opened a box of cookies or other snacks.
Don’t: Repeatedly ask them to go out to dinner with you, date you, or justify their refusal to do so, announcing that you’ve fallen madly in love with them in the half hour you’ve spent together. Seriously. This happened.

On Keeping in Touch:
Do: Offer to exchange contact information if you’ve hit it off. You never know, the hitchhiker may be passing through town again sometime.
Don’t: Beg to know when you can see them again, repeatedly asking them for an address where you can drop in to see them unannounced. This is creepy.

On Parting Ways:
Do: Let them exit the car where they ask to be dropped, letting them off safely on the side of the road. Most hitchhikers have looked at a road map and have planned their route.
Don’t: Refuse to stop to let them out because of the weather or because you don’t know if they’ll get another ride promptly enough. This is not cool. If I want to get out, it’s probably because I have to go this way, in which case taking me elsewhere doesn’t help. The other reason I ask to be let out of the car is because you’re creeping me out or disturbing me, in which case refusing to let me get out of the car only makes it worse.

Much more comfy than a cramped bus seat!

Much more comfy than a cramped bus seat!

Really, I feel as if this advice shouldn’t have to be given. Ellen and I hitchhike because we usually find it more pleasant than taking a bus. We aren’t restricted to schedules, we get to take the scenic route, we have a larger choice of destinations, including those off the beaten path, we tend to meet more people and have better conversations, and we usually have better leg room and a more comfortable ride in private cars. However, I think after our experience the other week, we won’t be accepting rides from lonely Ecuadorian truck drivers again anytime soon.

 

On Ingo and Genny’s farm, there’s no internet or phone, and very little electricity. Consequently, when you want to visit them, it can be a challenge to get there. Luckily, Ingo has a standing reservation at Pauly’s restaurant in the town of Mindo, at noon on Mondays and Thursdays. Would-be volunteers just e-mail a week ahead of time, and then show up for lunch at Pauly’s. When any of us needs a day off, we ride in with Ingo in the morning and hang around town for the two hours or so before he meets the next crew of volunteers at Pauly’s for lunch at noon. With e-mail, facebook, skype, and my blog, not to mention any shopping or errands I have to do, I never seem to have enough time.

Luckily, Sunday night this week, Ingo had to drive his stepdaughters back to Mindo to catch a bus to Quito. I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to spend 24 hours in Mindo by myself – a whole day with internet access, plugs that regularly emitted power, and time to write or sketch without feeling as if I should be doing chores. I could get my fill of modern conveniences and catch a ride back in with Ingo on Monday with the new volunteers. When I mentioned my idea to Ingo, he did me one better. If I went into Mindo on Sunday, I could save him a trip to town by meeting the new volunteers at Pauly’s on Monday and bringing them home to the farm by taxi. And so it was that I found myself in Mindo, on my own with nothing to do for 24 hours.

I hadn’t spent much time in Mindo before. It’s a tiny town which barely merits a mention in the Lonely Planet guide, where it’s named in passing as a hotspot for birdwatching. The village consists of a main drag lined with shops and offices selling guided bird, butterfly, and adventure tours, a handful of family-run restaurants selling traditional Ecuadorian fare along with pizza, and a few side streets with moderately cheap accommodation alongside the locals’ homes.

Other than my usual Monday morning internet fix, my experiences in Mindo have been pretty terrible. Ellen and I spent one night here, two weeks ago on our way home from the beach. It was pissing with rain when we got in, after dark. The bank machines in Los Bancos, the nearest other town, hadn’t worked, so we had $8.50 for two people for dinner, accommodation, and breakfast before Ingo would meet us at noon. The ATM in Mindo was equally uncooperative, so we had a miserable and hungry night camping in a deep puddle outside La Casa de Cecilia hostel, against the proprietress’s better judgment, because it was all we could afford with change left over to share a breakfast between us. Ellen’s tarp dripped water onto my tent, which I was too grumpy and tired to move, so halfway through the night I relocated my sleeping bag to a marginally less flooded concrete pad under a dodgy-looking half-constructed tin roof, which afforded me a colder but drier night’s sleep. When the washroom proved to have no toilet paper in it in the morning, I stormed behind the unattended reception desk and helped myself to a roll. I was not impressed with anything in Mindo that night, least of all La Casa de Cecilia.

This time around, I figured I’d avoid Cecilia’s and look for a place to stay without all the negative associations. I left it too late, though, as I was skyping with my parents and catching up on the news of the world, and found myself searching for accommodations as night was falling along with a misty rain. When two other hostels proved well outside of my price range, and I was rapidly getting chilled from being dressed inappropriately while the local washing lady laundered every article of clothing I owned, La Casa de Cecilia seemed the logical choice. With a $20 bill in my pocket, my experience was much more pleasant than our last. For seven dollars, I had a private room on a balcony overlooking the garden. The comfy-looking bed had only a mosquito net between it and the great outdoors, yet was nestled under the eaves of the hostel roof. The bed was soft, the blankets warm, and I fell asleep to the roar of the river, the chirping of insects, and the croaking of frogs. All was not perfect, as the gentle patter of raindrops on the roof turned into the thundering rush of torrential rain hammering on the metal roofing and woke me up in the night, but my dry bed was a great improvement over the less-than-waterproof tent I slept in last time.

View from my tiny balcony room

View from my tiny balcony room

Overall, I didn’t do much of anything for my night on the town. I wrote a few blog posts, read several other people’s updates that I’d missed in the past few weeks, indulged in pizza and beer for dinner, and gave myself a movie night in my hostel room. It was a thoroughly enjoyable waste of time, which was exactly what I needed. And in a couple of hours, I’ll head back to the farm to play with the baby goats, see if Ellen and Ingo need help brewing beer, and find out what construction or planting projects I can get my hands on this week. I’m still having fun here, so it looks like we’ll be here for a few weeks more.

One regular source of amusement at the farm is the canine contingent of the family. Nominally, the family has three dogs, but the neighbour’s dog, Jacob, makes himself at home here more often than not as well.

The oldest is Kira, a curly-haired black lab-like dog, who reminds me of the typical geriatric dog. Her joints ache, she sighs and groans in her sleep, and she’s generally napping underfoot most of the day. Occasionally, she’ll join the volunteers at their work for a few hours, tagging along for a walk to the banana field or the water source, but you can see the exertion takes its toll on her. She’s still a young dog at heart, though – she will watch you working for hours, wagging her tail and begging for you to throw a stick for her to chase. Her cataracts and aching bones don’t have the power to diminish her joy in life; I can only hope to be as happy when I’m old. Kira is sure to bring a smile to my face whenever I see her.

While Kira is only occasionally around while we’re working, Jacob is a more constant companion. This infuriates Ingo to no end, because Jacob is NOT HIS DOG and shouldn’t be here at all, let alone at our heels throughout the working day. Ingo often admonishes volunteers for being too nice and welcoming to Jacob, and reminds us regularly that we’re supposed to be mean to him. This doesn’t stop Ingo from throwing scraps of meat to the dog when we’re butchering animals, or from feeding Jacob alongside the others. Jacob is a pain, though, in that he occasionally will grab a chicken or piglet by the neck, or chase the geese around the yard. Consequently, on virtually every trip to town, Ingo loads Jacob into the back of the jeep and drives him home to the neighbour’s place. Jacob makes the 5km return journey on foot within a few hours, and by the time Ingo gets back from shopping, Jacob is waking up from a nap in the kitchen to greet him. The longest we went without Jacob was a little over a week, after one of the horses fell off a cliff and died. Jacob found the carcass and returned to the house, reeking of death and stinking to high heaven. After that incident, the neighbour kept Jacob tied up on a short leash to keep him home. This morning, though, on our way into town, Ingo dropped by the neighbour’s place and let Jacob off his leash (“It’s cruel to keep him tied up like that!”) and when the dog followed us several kilometers into town and caught up to the car, Ingo let Jacob come along for the ride. No doubt when I get back tomorrow, the dog will be napping comfortably in the kitchen, where even Ingo might admit he belongs.

My favourite dogs on the farm, though, have to be Tank and Dozer, the six-month-old Great Dane puppies. They’re huge, stumbling over their enormous feet as they flollop around the farm. Tank is the bigger of the pair of brothers, and seems to be the dominant puppy as well. He’s honey brown, lanky and gawky, with wrinkly cheeks and jowls. He’s the smarter of the young dogs, which isn’t much of an endorsement – both are as thick as two short planks, with the memory of a goldfish and the attention span of a gnat. Tank may not remember “sit” or “come” for longer than a few moments, but at least he’s figured out how to get into a hammock by himself. His ebony-coated littermate, Dozer, is thinner, more submissive, and significantly less bright than Tank. Training Dozer takes an endless repetition of “sit, sit, sit!” before he eventually puts his rear end on the ground, and moments later he’s distracted by Tank pulling on his ear and you have to start training him all over again.

Silly puppies, all floppy ears and nipping teeth

Silly puppies, all floppy ears and nipping teeth

The pair of them together are an endless tumble of floppy ears, whipping tails, and oversized feet, nipping and wrestling each other all over the farm. They’ll follow us to the top of the mountain, tripping over their own feet and faceplanting in the dark soil. Dozer sometimes forgets to follow us down the mountain again, and has to be fetched when we realize he’s been left behind again. A few of the volunteers have taken on the task of trying to train Tank and Dozer. It’s a daunting task, because the slightest distraction makes the dogs forget everything they’ve ever been taught. With close to a dozen volunteers around, plus wandering pigs, chickens, cats, and other dogs in the vicinity, there are always distractions at hand. Even in a completely silent field, Tank will run to the top of the cliff to look out and see what everyone else is doing, rather than coming when he’s called. While Tank and Dozer aren’t the swiftest to pick up on these things, the family’s two-year-old daughter is much quicker. Hand her a cookie, and she’ll march up to the nearest dog and repeat sternly, “Sit! Sit! Sit!” before sharing. She’s even been known to say it to the occasional volunteer who wants a cookie, as well. It goes to show that even volunteers on vacation are trainable. Only time will tell for the dogs.

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Ingo and Genny’s farm sits on the south-facing side of a mountain in the heart of Ecuador’s cloud forest. It occupies six levels, from the upper slope of the mountain to the river below. These six levels are used for diverse purposes to create what the family hopes will be a self-sustainable permaculture system.

Ingo and Genny's farmhouse

Ingo and Genny’s farmhouse

The main level holds the farmhouse, a large, two-story structure built of local wood harvested from the forest. Its walls are thin, one inch thick with space between the planks ranging from a sixteenth of an inch to an inch. There is very little material or hardware that Ingo brought in – most doors don’t have handles, and windows have neither glass nor shutters. The roof is corrugated metal, with the occasional plastic panel to let in light. The roof also supports a solar energy system that runs the lights and allows the family and volunteers to charge the occasional electronic device.

Inside the house, most of the spaces are for sleep or storage. The house contains five bedrooms, in which three to four people apiece can sleep. A pantry stores food below the stairs, and a few shelves, chests, and tables hold books, games, and extra clothes in the main room downstairs. The room looks as if it was designed as a family living space, but it is never used for that. Instead, most of us spend our free time in the spacious outdoor cooking and eating area, gathered around the table or lounging in hammocks around the edges of the house.

At the corner of the outdoor living area is a large kitchen with a propane-powered oven and stove. There is no refrigerator, so fresh fruits and vegetables are stored in a hammock over the counter. A shelf of spices and dry goods hangs suspended from the ceiling, and open cupboards are built into the brick and mortar counters. Onions, potatoes, and other root vegetables are piled high in baskets made of wicker, kept under the counter by the deep kitchen sink. Two more sinks back onto the kitchen, used for washing plates and laundry. This side of the house has hundreds of meters of clothesline, suspended from trees to dry washing in the sun, and more from the building’s rafters to protect the damp laundry from the daily afternoon rainstorms.

Beside the laundry and kitchen is a storage area for wood and pet food, which leads to the shower and composting toilet. These are built of large bricks, with a tin roof from which a cat peers down to watch you sitting on the toilet. The composting toilet is surprisingly comfortable, consisting of a seat and platform over a bucket full of wood shavings. You use the bucket, top it with shavings from a bag next to you, and carry the bucket to the compost bin if you’ve left anything solid in it. At the compost bin, the waste is buried in leaves and the bucket rinsed and returned.

Composting toilet - height of luxury, I tell you!

Composting toilet – height of luxury, I tell you!

The shower is in the next room to the toilet, with a water heater built into the plastic showerhead. Showering can be a little unnerving, as the walls are only five feet high and give you a view of the fields behind the house as you shower. It’s worth it, though, as this is the only truly hot shower I’ve had in Latin America.

Behind the bathing area is a bamboo path through the fields to a greenhouse and the compost area. Both of these are impressive structures, the greenhouse 10m long and half as wide, and the composting system consisting of five compartments, including one for leaves. Even so, more building projects are underway; since we’ve been here, we’ve built a second greenhouse across from the first one, meant to be for tomatoes but currently serving as a nursery for chicks and baby goats.

If you leave the house by the boot rack rather than past the shower, even more outbuildings and projects catch your eye. A toolshed, attached to the house, supports a large woodpile beside it. Just beyond, a wood and bamboo frame has been erected since Ellen and I arrived, which serves as a carport. Past that, another bamboo path leads toward my favourite of Ingo’s projects, the hot tub. For this, a roughly square pool with a keyhole-shaped addition sticking out of one corner was dug by hand and lined with cement mortar. A tap diverts spring water from the mountain into the pool, and a drain returns it to the pipe leading it down the hill. The entire mass of water is heated by a fire in a steel oil drum, which has four vents to let in air and release smoke. A hot wood fire burning for six hours will heat the pool to a comfortable temperature, with adjustments being possible by turning on the cold water tap or stoking the fire with more wood. Across from the hot tub is a patch of cleared earth, destined to be a barbecue area with a pizza oven.

In the clearing between the hot tub and the greenhouse, Ingo and volunteers have planted dozens of fruit trees of all varieties. They are scattered throughout the long grass, peeking out at random intervals. If you look closely, you can also make out the backs of three pigs staked on ropes around the clearing, turning up the soil in places where Ingo plans to plant next. The fourth and largest of the pigs, Momma, is in a wire and bamboo pen which is moved every few days. Theoretically, her seven babies are with her, but more often the multicoloured piglets are rooting up Genny’s garden or raiding the dog food in the kitchen.

If you continue up the path, past the pigs and the trees, you come to a steep muddy trail up the mountain. A short scramble leads you to a wide clearing where banana trees and climbing plants grow undisturbed by the livestock. A few days ago, I planted mountain peanuts and unidentified climbing plants here (Ingo and Genny bought them and promptly forgot what they were). Several days later, we also planted the native species of blackberry vines, which were soon after crushed by a few trees falling on them, necessitating emergency repairs of the clearing. All of these planting areas are hard-won from the jungle, cleared by volunteers armed with machetes.

Past the banana field, about three times further up the trail, you will eventually reach another clearing in the dense jungle. This one is Ingo’s site for harvesting wood for building. Here in Ecuador, a land owner can cut as much wood as he can reasonably use for construction projects. This rule only applies to trees wider than a person’s thigh – smaller trees can be felled as needed. In this clearing in the past week, we cut, stacked, and hauled about 30 smaller trees, as well as planks and beams milled by chainsaw from three larger trees. This makes only a dent in the biomass of trees on the property, and Ingo assured the nature-lovers among us that even this will be replaced by the coffee and cacao he plans to plant in the clearing. Ingo’s land continues several hundred meters further up the mountain, but he hasn’t explored that far. Instead, he focuses his efforts on the lower elevations of the property.

The lower levels of Ingo’s land are separated from the farmhouse by a cheerful red wooden gate. Pass through the small pedestrian door on the left, and you reach the driveway, at the top of a huge sandy cliff. As you descend, you are surrounded by chickens, guinea hens, and sometimes geese, eagerly anticipating food. Should you approach the bin of corn at the base of the hill, they immediately form a cyclone at your feet – always counterclockwise; we’re south of the equator, after all. On your left is a gate in a barbed wire fence, leading to a chicken house: tall, warm, and dry, with roosts on the ceiling and nesting boxes along the walls. You will never find it occupied by a hen, although the llamas, sheep, and donkey occasionally use it for shelter from the rain.

Llamas!

Llamas!

A deep, muddy yard nearby holds a goat shed, also rarely occupied by the five Nubian goats, who would much rather be out exploring. They have broken through the fences so many times that Ingo doesn’t try to keep them contained anymore. They return every evening by sunset from the neighbour’s field, so they are left to roam in peace. The horses, sheep, and cows stay closer to home, wandering the ample fenced field and occasionally venturing across the road to a slightly greener pasture at the neighbour’s places. Inside their enclosure, a variety of projects are underway. There’s a corral for training the young foal and donkey, a tiny shed to hold the thirteen sheep, and concrete troughs for water and feeding. A pond in the middle of the field is full of water and was just seeded with two thousand baby tilapia, while another is being plastered with mortar and will serve as an overflow fish pond.

A steep path leads from the animals’ field to the next level down, which is mostly swampy ground. From here, Ingo harvests logs to grow mushrooms, and the goats and cow occasionally graze the lush grasses. Stumble through the brush to the next level (Carefully! A horse lost its life here two weeks ago when it got too close to a cliff!) and you’ll reach what Ingo calls the beach, the bank of the river. So far, there are no projects here, and Ingo discourages walking here lest the goats discover it and escape in its direction.

This huge property contains so many animals, plants, and people, full of potential and ideas for projects. Ingo wants to build a snail farm for escargot, a second house for his family, and a pool for swimming lengths. For another man, I would call those pipe dreams. Here, seeing what he’s done with volunteer labour and mostly hand tools, it sounds like a plan to me!

I’m woken up this morning by a thump-thump-thump. Somebody has gotten up to use the toilet and is stomping through the house of sleeping people, wearing shoes. I’ve never understood wearing shoes in the house, and my first thoughts of the morning are grumpy. I open my eyes to see blue sky and the last dregs of what must have been a nice sunrise – wisps of pink clouds dance across the sky. Normally I would roll over to catch an extra half-hour of sleep, but this morning I’m hungry for a few minutes to myself to enjoy the peace and solitude of the morning. I get dressed and tiptoe downstairs.

As I put a pot of water on to boil for coffee, I hear an odd noise from the forest. I turn to look, and hear a crunch, creak, CRASH! I watch as a tree totters and falls, almost in slow motion, down the steep hillside, landing where only yesterday we had staked a pig by the forest’s edge to clear some land. I watch for a moment more, but nothing else moves. While the water heats, I sit myself in a hammock with my journal and enjoy the first rays of the morning sun. A dozen different types of birds are twittering, tweeting, and chirping in the bushes by the house. I catch sight of blue ones, bright yellow-and-black ones, and tiny green hummingbirds darting around. A beautiful butterfly floats by, rising higher and higher into the sky until I can’t see it anymore.

My moment of silent reverie ends almost before it began. Ingo heard the tree fall and has gotten up to investigate. I assure him all is well, but he is followed by his two-year-old daughter, Laia, who makes a beeline for me in my hammock. She has put her hands in wet paint, and shows them to me. “Sucio!” she announces. “Yes, they’re dirty,” I agree, and take her to the sink to clean them. Soon, the sounds of birds and butterflies are replaced with the bustle of a busy day – we’re driving into town this morning, and everybody needs to be ready to leave in an hour.

Ellen gets up and Laia wants us to take her to milk the goats before breakfast. Motivated by a desire for fresh milk in our coffee, we let her help us put our boots on and choose a container for the milk. Off we go to the greenhouse, which has been converted to a makeshift nursery for newborn goats and chicks. Ellen has taught Laia how to milk a goat, and the two-year-old eagerly and insistently wants to try her hand at filling her tupperware container with fresh milk. Once the goat has been milked, we spend a few extra moments admiring the baby goats and chicks before returning to the house. It may not be a serene solitary morning anymore, but dawn on the farm is pretty pleasant nonetheless.