Picture this: It’s Saturday, on a rural farm in Ecuador. You spent most of the day putting posts in the ground to support climbing plants, in a clearing in the jungle, halfway up the mountain above the farm. As the afternoon wears on, you trudge through the driving rain to feed the animals and do chores. You notice a horse is missing. You are exhausted and getting chilled from your wet clothes – raincoats offer little protection here – so you’ll go looking for it tomorrow.

You turn back to the house, where a side of veal ribs is braising in the oven for dinner. You can’t resist peeking in the pot, and are rewarded with the enticing aroma and sight of tender meat falling off the bone. Reluctantly, you slide the dish back into the oven in the outdoor kitchen. Your clothes smell of earth and sweat and horses, so you’d better get cleaned up before dinner.

As you step into the outdoor shower, you consider whether to wash your clothes by standing in them under the tap, but decide they’ll do for another day’s work in the mud before you wash them. You peel them off and hang them on the wooden hooks on the shower wall. As you turn on the water, you sigh and give silent thanks for the hot water provided by a propane-powered heater. Most farms don’t have this luxury. In fact, you haven’t had a hot shower like this anyplace else in Latin America so far. You allow yourself a long moment under the steaming water before you get to scrubbing every inch of your filthy body, aching from another day of hard work.

A few minutes later, clean, dry, and in relatively fresh clothes, you sit in a hammock and relax for a bit before dinner. Someone else is making a salad, but most of the other volunteers are washing their clothes by hand or waiting in line for the shower. One of the huge, floppy Great Dane puppies joins you in the hammock, his oversized feet hanging over the sides. Birds are chirping, but you can’t see them in the dense foliage. A pair of hummingbirds flits from a nearby tree to the feeder by the house. One is green and red, and the other a more unusual blue and white. You watch them dart about and bicker over the feeder for awhile.

Turns out dogs like hammocks, with or without laps to lie in.

Turns out dogs like hammocks, with or without laps to lie in.

Suddenly, the birds are startled away. Seven piglets go running by. They’re supposed to be rooting up the grass in the field near momma’s pen, but they’ve discovered the outdoor kitchen with its bowls of dog food, and there’s no keeping them away for long. You can’t help but smile at them – two black ones with fat piglet jowls, three pink piggies with black splotches, one red pig with tiny black dalmatian spots, and one red-and-black patched piglet. Someone puts his boots on and chases all seven piglets back to their mother’s pen.

Piglets contemplating which way to go next

Piglets contemplating which way to go next

Now it’s getting dark, so it’s time to start serving dinner. The farmer and his family have gone to Quito for the weekend to run errands and buy supplies, so there are only nine volunteers around the table. It feels positively empty. Plates of hot, steaming ribs, potatoes, pumpkin, and beans are passed around. Someone opens a bottle of wine, another volunteer pours hot ginger tea, and a third lights a candle. A solar panel provides power for electric lights, but candlelight seems more natural and doesn’t risk draining the battery.

After dinner, others want to digest for an hour or so, but you’re eager for the hot tub. It’s only used once or twice a week, and you’ve been adding wood to the fire to heat it all afternoon, so you plan to make the most of it. You cross a muddy field, rinse your feet off, and dip a cautious toe in the water. You had worried it would be too cold, but it’s almost too hot to bear. Luckily, it’s just the top surface that’s overheated, and a bit of splashing cools the pool. You slide into the hot tub and stretch out. Perfect.

The moon is hidden behind clouds, but the sky is light enough to see clearly. The world around you is monochrome: black trees, dark shadows of mountains, and pale grey clouds at eye level in the river valley below the mountain. A dark shape passes overhead. You can barely identify it as a bat. In the bushes and trees near the pool, fireflies twinkle their lights on and off. You’re only a hundred meters from the house and the other volunteers, but it feels like another world.

This place looks magical when the clouds roll in.

This place looks magical when the clouds roll in.

The only sounds are of natural things – crickets and the roar of the river. You close your eyes to listen better. You can hear frogs croaking, insects buzzing, the rustle of leaves in the trees. The fire heating the tub is crackling, and the water lapping against the burn barrel hisses and spits. You hear a small splash and the sound of swimming, and open one eye. A toad has joined you in the hot tub. You move back, startled, as the toad swims toward the fire barrel and promptly expires, sinking into the unseen depths of the pool.

As you are wondering what to do about the dead toad in the hot tub with you, the other volunteers come over to join you. They bring candles and beer, one of them fishes out the dead toad, and soon the pool is lively and full of chatter. You soak in the hot water, cold beer in hand, and smile. This is a nice way to spend a Saturday night.

Perfect.

Perfect.

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