Occasionally, Ellen and I wonder if we’re spending too much time in one place. We are, after all, on a Latin American adventure, and yet we’ve spent over one-third of our vacation at this farm here in Ecuador. This led me to start an inventory of skills or concepts I’ve learned here.

The largest category of skills I’ve had a chance to develop on this farm have been construction-related. Since the farm is just starting out, there are lots of outbuildings to build and existing structures to expand. Ellen and I have been involved in every stage of construction. We’ve cleared land, felled trees, split bamboo, dug foundation trenches, hauled stones and sand, set posts, built frames, put up roofs, painted, and repaired buildings. We’ve evened the land out, laid a concrete pad, leveled it, brushed it smooth, and kept its surfaces damp while it dried. Then we yelled at the dogs and cats for jumping on the fresh concrete, repaired the scratches and footprints, and re-smoothed the surface. We’ve built greenhouses, drying houses, benches for beehives, chicken houses and barns. Before I came here, I had a feel for the concepts of building, from reading books on construction and from watching building shows on TV, but now I know construction from experience. It’s a different kind of understanding altogether. I can tell by look and feel whether the cement I’m mixing is the right texture and has enough water in it. I’ve never learned that kind of skill from a book.

The new beehives, on the hand-crafted bench.

The new beehives, on the hand-crafted bench.

Despite being a good cook at home, I’ve also learned a lot from spending time in the kitchen here. Cooking here is much more of a challenge than at home because of the availability of ingredients. I have my recipes from home here with me, but they’re completely unreasonable here. My cake recipes, for example, call for half a dozen eggs plus two yolks and a cup of butter in one cake. Here, I cannot justify using any butter or more than three eggs for a cake – we just don’t have the resources. (When the young chickens start laying, we’ll be able to use as many eggs as we like, though.) I’ve learned to cook more by feeling, which I’d heard was difficult with cakes. Just as with the cement, I can tell from texture whether the batter is right. With other dishes, too, I’m getting the feel for how to cook Latin American food. I understand the ingredients and I’m learning how they work together to make the flavours of the foods I love here.

I’m also adjusting my ideas about working with others. When I’m doing projects alongside other volunteers, sometimes I have to let them struggle to do things without stepping in to help. It’s important to let inexperienced people try, and succeed, on their own rather than to do the work myself. Most of the volunteers are much younger than me – between 18 and 23 – and have never done this kind of work before. I’m also working with the family’s daughters, who are 13, 11, and 2, and who are very interested in learning and working alongside the volunteers. I have to let go of my ideas of doing a perfect job, in order to make the project educational and enjoyable for everyone. Even Laia, the two-year-old, gets to have her turn to use a paintbrush or a trowel. I’m much more aware of giving everyone a chance to try, although the work goes more slowly and isn’t done exactly the way I’d do it.

The two year old gets to feed the animals too! (Especially the baby lamb, of course!)

The two year old gets to feed the animals too! (Especially the baby lamb, of course!)

Even with all the things I’m doing and learning, I still have dozens of ideas for things to learn next. Every skill I learn opens the door to other projects for which I’ll need to learn something else. It’s a reminder of how learning is a lifelong journey, and there’ll never be enough time to do everything. Even staying in one place, I feel as if every day is a step in the right direction.

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