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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!

I will never be clean again. Or dry.

Today we hauled logs down the hill in the rain. There was an absolute downpour, but we’d already said we were hauling logs, and somebody had brought the horse to help in the steep bits, so we did it anyway.
It was a sea of mud. In places the mud was deeper than our boots, and in other places it was a slick mess that sent us sliding this way and that. The rain was so heavy I didn’t bother wearing a jacket – I knew I’d be soaked through in minutes. Sure enough, before I was halfway up the hill my boots were full of water. By the time I was at the top, I was coated from head to toe in mud and soaked to the skin.

The clearing was an absolute disaster. When I’d left on Saturday, the felled trees were cut into three-meter lengths and stacked by the trail head. By the time we got back today, various trees had been cut down willy-nilly and lay in every direction, including across the path down the mountain. The horse couldn’t climb the steepest part, so we were dragging the logs by hand from the clearing to the base of the steepest cliff.

We slipped. We slid. We fumbled. We stumbled. We dragged those darned logs through mud ten inches deep, falling up hills and tumbling down them. Eventually, we tossed them over the side of the almost impassable cliff to where the horse would take them up the steep part and leave them for us on the other side.

The team with the horse, going back for another log in the rain.

The team with the horse, going back for another log in the rain.

After we’d moved eight logs, the team working with the horse told us to stop hauling logs from the clearing and move the ones they’d dropped off halfway down the path. The trail was all downhill from that point, so we were able to take advantage of the mud rather than getting bogged down in it. One person with a rope could run down the side of the path, pulling the log through the mud behind them. My log zoomed and careened down the hill like one of those log and water rides at an amusement park.

When we had moved the logs to the bottom of the hill, we were wet, muddy, and all smiles. We didn’t even bother taking our clothes off to shower – the volunteers took turns hosing each other off with cold water, grinning all the while. It was as if we had all regressed to our two-year-old selves, splashing in mud puddles in our boots and loving it. Sometimes working in the rain isn’t that bad after all!

Got mud?

Got mud?

Don't worry, Ellen! The hot shower is coming right up!

Don’t worry, Ellen! The hot shower is coming right up!

Rinsing off the worst of the mud in the rain.

Rinsing off the worst of the mud in the rain.

Ellen and I are finding our experience growing up on a farm being used to advantage here. This farm is isolated, without phone or power, and vet services are few and far between here. When an animal is sick, they treat it as best they can, and if that isn’t sufficient, the animal will have to suffer until it recovers. When Ingo hears that Ellen has veterinary experience, even if she doesn’t have the education yet to complement her enthusiasm and volunteer work, he immediately begins a laundry list of animals that he’d like her to look at. The cow just had a calf three days ago, and has mastitis in one quarter. He lost a goat to mastitis a couple of years ago, and he’s still heartbroken about it, so he’d like Ellen to pay special attention to treating the cow. Also, one of the llamas has a hole in his cheek, and one of the goats is limping badly, so Ingo would like the two of us to check them out and tell him what Ellen can do for them. Consequently, Ellen and I get almost all the animal chores in the morning, assisted by Ingo’s stepdaughter Emily who wants to watch.

First, we let the goats out to graze, checking on one of the does, Erica, who is the one with an injured back leg. Ellen’s brought a knife to trim her hooves, which we hope will help, but finds an abcess high up in the foot. She lances it and will return later with iodine and gauze to clean it out. In the meantime, she treats the doe’s other injuries – a cut teat gets a disinfectant spray applied to it, and an open wound that looks like a scratch or bug bite gone bad gets the same treatment. The goat is heavily pregnant, due any day now, and Ingo wants Ellen to give her stitches to close the wound on the teat before the kids are born and re-injure it by nursing, but it’s been too long since the injury happened to sew it closed properly. Instead, we decide Ellen will use medical-grade crazy glue to keep the cut sealed. Before we move on to treat the cow, we check the doe for signs of giving birth in the next 24 hours. Ellen determines she’s close, but not quite ready yet.

Ellen shows another volunteer, Tomomi, how to milk the cow

Ellen shows another volunteer, Tomomi, how to milk the cow

We move on to the cow and calf. The first challenge is to catch the cow. We both fiddle with our rope until we manage to tie a passable knot to go around her horns. We try to approach her gently without startling her, but she’s protective of her newborn calf, and leads us on a chase around the field. Finally, we get her cornered and she lets us get close enough to slip the rope around her horns. I lead her toward a tree and tie her there so Ellen can begin to treat her. Ina, the cow, has mastitis in one quarter, so we milk out that part of the udder and put medication into the teat to treat the infection. She also has a wound on her belly, so we spray that as well. Finally, we can untie her and let her back to her calf, who was completely unconcerned by the brief separation, unlike the mother.

The calf, not too bothered by being separated from Mommy while she's being milked and treated.

The calf, not too bothered by being separated from Mommy while she’s being milked and treated.

The llama is left for another day, and two other volunteers come with Ellen to wrestle the llama to the ground and hold him down while Ellen performs surgery on his cheek. She originally thought the injury was a thorn that had pierced the cheek and caused an abcess, but when she got out a scalpel and cut into it, she decided it was more likely an abcessed tooth. She removes most of the infection and disinfects the wound, but the llama won’t let her come near him again, so she can’t give him anything for the pain. He’ll have to live with it.

Ellen is absolutely enjoying the feeling of being helpful, and having her skills appreciated. Ingo mentioned that he has a neighbour who wishes he could tell if his cows are pregnant, so Ellen will likely be asked to travel around and do minor veterinary tasks for a handful of neighbours as well. Since that’s the kind of thing she’d like to do as a career after vet school, this is a perfect place to be.

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!

Santa Rosa de Cabal is famous in Colombia for its hot springs, or termales. After helping give English-speaking hostel guests directions to the hot springs all week, Ellen and I decided to spend our day off exploring them for ourselves. There are three hot springs to choose from, and the most popular is the luxurious and most distant San Vicente resort, complete with adventure tours and massage packages to tempt just about anybody. At about $20 (US) per person to get in, it’s not an unreasonable price, although since it’s not on a public bus route, it costs independent travellers about twice that to hire a jeep to get out there. Since one hostel employee per day can get a ticket to accompany groups of our guests free of charge, Ellen and I decided to leave the San Vicente hot springs for another day.

Nice way to spend a day off

Nice way to spend a day off

The other two hot springs are on a public bus route, dropping the transportation cost from $15 to $40 per person to $1.50 round trip. Right next door to each other on opposite sides of a hill are Termales Hotel and Termales Balneario. Since Balneario is slightly cheaper and has more thermal pools, we decided to visit that one for our first hot springs experience in Colombia. Having given tourism advice all week, we knew that Balneario pumps its hot water into man-made pools, which reportedly weren’t as nice as the natural hot pools at the more posh San Vicente. Based on that description, I was expecting some kind of indoor or fenced-in area, like a combination of a spa and a public swimming pool.

When the bus dropped us off at Balneario, I was pleasantly surprised to see a stream meandering down the hillside as if it were descending stairs, with a natural pond on each level. Of course, the resort had landscaped extensively with flowering shrubs, cobblestone pathways, and little wooden bridges leading you toward the proper hot springs. The attractive stream was cold water, which tumbled down the mountain from a picturesque waterfall, which overlooked the resort proper and had a small swimming pond at its base where you could stand in a cave with the waterfall splashing around you. This was Ellen’s favourite part of the resort.

View of the waterfall as you enter the resort

View of the waterfall and stream as you enter the resort

The hot pools for swimming were, as advertised, man-made, of course. They were mostly kept at about 40 degrees Celsius, perfect for me and just slightly warmer than Ellen prefers. There were four of the pools around the resort, each with cold water splashing out of a pipe on one side, and hot water from a mushroom-like fountain in the centre, so you could inch your way closer to the steaming hot middle, and then retreat to the cooler edges when you got too hot. When you’re feeling brave, you can shake things up by dunking your head under the cold water pipe or taking a dip under the waterfall.

Cold water comes in on the left, hot water from the mushroom-like fountain in the centre

Cold water comes in from the pipe on the left, hot water from the mushroom-like fountain in the centre

Other than swimming, the hot springs didn’t have too much to offer, on a quiet Tuesday in January at least. Their publicity materials in the hostel mention expeditions, rappelling down the waterfall, and “canyoning”, but there was no sign of any such activities when we got there. We walked along a path up the hill for a bit, which offered a nice view but petered out after a couple of hundred meters. Another more tempting path into the forest had a no-entry sign across it. Clearly, when the hot springs are busier, there are more activities – there were three empty greenhouses full of shelves and a sign labelling them a craft market, plus several booths that might have served food or been starting points for expeditions. In the late afternoon, women wandered the poolsides offering massages and mud facials, as well.

View of the resort from the hillside

View of the resort from the hillside

I was surprised to find we spent eight hours at the hot springs and weren’t bored at all. We amused ourselves by watching people, like the cute couple singing along to tango music together, or the children leaping through the cold water shower into the hot water pool below. Employees wandered around checking the temperature of the pools and adjusting the flow of cold water, which resulted in a hilarious moment when the cold water suddenly turned on right onto the head of a man innocently standing near the pipe. Overall, we spent eight hours and $32 for an excellent day off. I don’t think I would want to spend all my days off exploring the hot springs and comparing the three resorts, but it was a very nice way to spend one day off.

Everywhere I go, I am constantly amazed by what other people are doing with their lives, especially those who have made similar choices to mine. One volunteer at the yoga farm moved back in with her mother for a year in order to save money to travel the world. The volunteer coordinator at the farm in Costa Rica spends six months of every year working in the United States and six months volunteering. I haven’t met someone who funds their travels through writing yet, but you can bet that when I do I’ll be picking their brain for advice and contacts! I really enjoy finding out how others keep themselves grounded while travelling. With all your routines out the window, it’s easy to lose track of days, forget about life goals, and fall out of touch with yourself when you’re on the road. Having a project helps. One girl in Costa Rica was compiling people’s stories about being female travellers. A couple on the farm had given themselves the task of learning something new every day, and recording what it was. They also had a rule that they had to play at least one chess game per day. For my own project, I try to write every day. I want to get into the habit of observing what’s going on around me and recording it to share with others. I don’t want the act of writing it down to interfere with the experience of travel, so I try to remember and leave the writing until later. I often go around with a running commentary of what I’m doing buzzing through my head, until I have a chance to jot it down in my notebook. The ideas in my notebook are fleshed out into proper articles or blog entries. I don’t post everything I write to my blog, but I do post enough that people at home know where I am and what I’m working on.

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Need to work on perspective, but not a bad sketch

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I’m also keeping a sketchbook of my travels. This I work on much less than my writing, but enough that you can get a feel for the places I’ve been based on the drawings. I have a few paintings of greenery and mountains from the farm in Costa Rica, sketches of palm trees, boats, and water from Panama, and sketches and paintings of buildings from Cartagena. Today I painted a mural of lotus flowers on the wall of the yoga farm – six months ago I wouldn’t have felt confident painting a mural, and on this trip I’ve done two, as well as some furniture.

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Yoga farm mural

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One of the benches I built and painted in Costa Rica

My projects give me something to work on during the quiet moments of my trip. When the weather is hot and I’m tempted to take a nap, I can write or sketch instead and still feel rested. Both pursuits fill the need to record my wonder at what I see, and allow me to share those feelings with people at home. I’m envious of other people’s projects, and wish I could have the time to do everything I’m doing and that, too, but I’m happy with what I’m achieving while I’m away. I feel comfortable writing, sketching, and painting, and my confidence in those grows every day. I try new things, like yoga and capoeira, and speak better Spanish every week. I may be wandering the world, but I don’t feel aimless.

Ellen and I are currently volunteering at an “eco yoga farm” in central Colombia. Included in our stay here is a daily yoga class. I had done a couple of yoga classes in Canada, but nothing serious, and Ellen had never done yoga before arriving here. I assumed the yoga here would be some hokey new age business, especially as our host told us we were “oxygenating our chakras” through the exercise. To our surprise, the afternoon yoga class is a surefire way to lift our spirits each day.

There are four of us students, all guests on the farm, none of us convinced of the lifestyle here. We face our instructor, spread out on mats on the stone floor. Cloth wall hangings embroidered with beads and sequins depict Indian gods and goddesses with monkeys, elephants, and mice at their feet. A computer plays background music of pan pipes, quiet chanting, and gurgling water sounds, which are hard to distinguish from the constant high-pitched buzz of cicadas, chirping of birds, rushing of the river, and rustling of leaves in the wind coming in through the open windows of the yoga room.

Our classes are simple, mostly low-key stretches held for a few moments and released, over and over, until our muscles are relaxed and our joints loosened. We are told to keep our eyes closed, but as the instructions are murmured in gentle Spanish, we peek at the teacher to make sure we haven’t missed anything. Most of the time, though, our eyelids droop as we hold the stretches. It’s calming and peaceful in the yoga room, and a soft warm breeze blows through the room as we exercise.

Every now and again, I spare a glance into the library next door, where a group of teenaged boys is doing homework. They are the local remedial school students, too old to study at their grade level in public school. They’ve asked to borrow my laptop to do research on the internet while I’m doing yoga. I trust they wouldn’t wander off with it, but I look their way once in a while just in case.

Our last pose is lying on our backs, with our eyes closed, thinking positive and relaxing thoughts. The instructor opens a bottle of fragrant oil and begins to massage my face, hands, arms, shoulders, and feet. I keep my eyes closed as she finishes massaging me and moves on to Ellen. I sneak a glance at her and we exchange grins. We may not be totally satisfied with our experience at the yoga farm, but we are still able to appreciate the good parts.

Suddenly I am fighting the urge to sneeze. Ellen clearly recognizes the tell-tale signs in me, because I hear her reacting to my movements. I manage to hold in the sneeze, but my body launches itself halfway off the mat in the struggle to stay silent. I peek at Ellen and her chest is shaking as she holds back a fit of giggles. We compose ourselves and continue to focus on silent relaxation.

At the end of class, over a snack of fruit pudding, I reflect on our decision to leave here after only a week rather than the two we’d originally planned. We have skills and knowledge to offer that would benefit the community, but the place lacks the climate for a free exchange of thoughts, and the joy of sharing ideas and creating solutions together is missing. Besides when she teaches the yoga class, we barely interact with our host. She doesn’t take meals with us most of the time, and she usually works on different projects than we do during the day. The yoga is amazing, and people would pay more than what we contribute for our food just for the opportunity to learn yoga in a place like this, but it isn’t enough for us. I had hoped this would be the kind of sustainable community we were looking for, but it seems we haven’t found it yet.

This week Ellen and I have been doing less touristy things and spending more time with locals, which has been a pleasant change of pace from the usual activities of travel. At this time of year in Colombia, students are still on a break from school, and so most people are able to take time off to travel, too. Our cousins have had a variety of visitors from around Colombia staying at their farm, and we’ve had the chance to join them in exploring the area as the locals do. Ellen and I actually split up for this, with me joining one group of friends in the theatre and martial arts industries, and Ellen spending her time with another. I can’t speak for Ellen’s adventure, but mine was most enjoyable! We started off meeting friends for lunch, at which we had a traditional almuerzo. Almuerzo is Spanish for lunch, but in a restaurant in Colombia it means a set meal cheaper than ordering off the menu. This is essentially what we were eating in Cartagena every day – soup, rice, beans, and some kind of fish or meat. The waitress rattles off a list of proteins being served that day, and you name your meat of choice. The side dishes are just whatever’s on offer that day, and the meal is preceded by soup. I chose barbecued meat (Carne Asado) and got a large portion of grilled pork, served with rice, a cabbage and cilantro salad, beans, grilled banana, and a piece of yucca, along with a glass of iced tea. After lunch and a stop at the kumis stand for my cousin’s favourite fermented milk drink, we wandered through a market before driving to the town square of a different town to meet another friend. We headed over to a coffee-shop/bar that the locals frequent, a two-story building full of a variety of rooms of comfortable chairs and couches, spilling out onto balconies overlooking the main street below. At 3pm on a Friday, the place had plenty of seating available without feeling empty, and pleasant music played over the speakers loudly enough to set the mood without making conversation impossible. Although my cousin assured me their espresso was wonderful, I paid more attention to the beer menu, which offered 29 brews ranging from the ubiquitous local mass-produced Poker Beer to imports from a dozen different countries. To my delight, they also sold artisanal beers from two Colombian microbreweries – 3 Cordilleros, from Medellin, and BBC – Bogota Brewing Company. I had BBC’s pleasant and mildly hoppy pale ale, while the others tried their porter and amber ale. Bogota Brewing’s bottles featured the slogan “The biggest little brewery in Colombia” which gives me hope that microbreweries are in fact scattered around the country much more than my preliminary research into South American microbrews indicated. Sufficiently refreshed, we made our way to a theatre run by friends of my cousins, where there was to be a concert performed by a local group of musicians. My cousin was apprehensive, never having heard the band before, but the pair of musicians was amazing. The lead guitarist switched between a twelve-string acoustic, a six-string acoustic, and an electric guitar, and also lent his baritone voice to the lead vocals when he wasn’t playing the flute. The bassist also played the six-string acoustic and the electric guitar as necessary to back up the lead, and occasionally added a tenor harmony to the songs. They called themselves a folk-rock duo, and I left the theatre thoroughly impressed with the calibre of folk rock in Colombia.

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We finished the evening at our two favourite bars in town, but that didn’t stop us from waking up bright and early this morning to organize a Capoeira class for the local residents of my cousin’s village. About fifteen people, mostly children, participated in the two-hour lesson held in the studio space on the farm. The instructor, my cousin’s friend from Cartagena, took us through a variety of exercises before demonstrating how they could be used in sparring. Capoeira is a combination of dance, lifestyle, and martial art. According to our instructor, it derives from dance movements created by African slaves in Brazil, who wanted to preserve their martial arts manoeuvres without appearing to be practicing fighting. Although it is performed to music, its formalities and movements reminded me much more of martial arts than dance. The focus of sparring in Capoeira is not to land a hit on the opponent, but to watch your partner and perform the counter to their attack simultaneously, so that a strike never lands. A Capoeira practitioner would probably be very good at predicting an opponent’s strategy in a real fight. I certainly hope to have the chance to practice it further. I suspect this weekend is the last one at my cousin’s place. With the number of friends coming and going, our guest cabin is prime real estate, and we’re ready to start working and volunteering again. I can’t say I’m eager to leave, though, given how welcome we’ve been made to feel, but I’m excited as usual to see what our next home will be like. We are most likely going to spend about two weeks at a self-described “yoga eco farm” which forbids intoxicants – no beer for us, I guess! However, if we want to meet people with contacts in conservation, this next stop might lead us in the right direction.

(Hannah’s Note: Ellen and I are on a boat from Panama to Colombia. To entertain you while we’re gone, we’ve written a few extra posts that are auto-posting while we’re out of internet access. We should be back on December 22nd or 23rd.)

I am absolutely exhausted. Ellen too. For some reason, the last week has been draining. Exciting, fun, positive, active, and yet still incredibly tiring.

At first I thought I was tired because my feet were sore from that day my sandals broke and I walked to the waterfall and back barefoot. Or maybe it’s because I’ve been getting up at 5am every day, although I go to bed early and have no trouble rising with the sun. I suppose it could be the vegetarian diet, some mineral or vitamin I’m not getting.

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Too beautiful a waterfall not to walk to, with or without shoes.

I think, though, it’s just from working hard. At Villas, we were only working 4 hours a day, and I took care to only do tasks that were safe for my wrist. Still, we worked in the sun in the heat of the day. Those last two weeks, as well, Ellen and I worked on projects in the afternoons rather than having our usual siestas. We painted and sewed, hiked and wrote, and busied ourselves mentally and physically when the work day was over.

We were eager to learn things as our time at the farm dwindled, so both Ellen and I volunteered to cook more often to learn new Costa Rican dishes. Ellen identified and sketched all the edible plants on the farm. We helped butcher a pig and traced its path from hoof to table. Ellen performed minor surgery on the dog and watched as Mario treated the cows for the same parasitic fly larvae.

We learnt so much, about farming, language, tropical food production, and in my case, the value of not buying $3 sandals for hiking. And now, for Christmas, we will take care of ourselves, which is the lesson I want to focus on learning next.

We need to make time for more sunsets in our lives.

We need to make time for more sunsets in our lives.

I’ve never had much worry about what I look like. I feel good when I’m in casual, comfortable clothes, and that’s the most important thing for me. Being on a permaculture farm in the middle of nowhere has now given me even more motivation to make my clothes as practical as possible with what little I have.

With limited resources, a limited budget, and the prospect of a 2 hour bus ride (one way) to the nearest town with clothing stores, I’ve been getting into the typical traveller mode of creating new, more functional clothing by ripping apart and reusing the clothes that I brought with me. So far, my entire wardrobe consists of about ten or twelve items, including socks and underwear. I decided within the first week of being in Costa Rica that my leggings were much more useful as shorts for wearing under a dress, so I cut them to just above the knee. One of my only regrets on this trip has been throwing away the legs instead of repurposing them, but at the time, carrying a handful of fabric with me seemed to be a waste of valuable space and weight. Now that I’m on the farm, that pair of shorts has been the one thing I wear more than any other item. I wear them every day for work in the morning, wash them in my shower if they need it, and then often wear them in the afternoon if we walk down to the waterfalls or into town. I’ve gotten around the issue of underwear limiting the time between laundry days by rotating three pairs of underwear that I wash in the afternoon shower. They dry quickly, usually before I need them the following day or so. I have one pair of socks for working, which I pull up all the way to protect my calves from the rubber boots. They only get washed once a week, but they are just dirty and that’s life. The work shirt has been the most difficult thing to figure out. I was using a tank top, but tight shirts are really not ideal for working in hot humid climates under the blazing sun, and by week two of work I was so itchy I couldn’t stand to wear it any more. Whether that was really from sweat, the tightness, or the rampant fleas from petting the dogs is not entirely clear, but I had to find another solution. I’ve been using my button-up long-sleeved shirt as a cooling overshirt for work, and I love it more than anything else, especially after dipping it into the rainbarrel, which has the advantages of cooling me by pouring cold water down my back, reducing the amount of sweat my body has to produce in order to cool itself, and masking how much sweat my body actually produces while working. I tried wearing it as my only work shirt, but that made it much more difficult to take off and dip in the rain barrel, which I like to do at least two or three times on a hot morning. So, I decided to sacrifice my back-up long-sleeved shirt as my new work shirt. The best thing about this decision is that I now have a lovely loose tank top (wife-beater really) and a really great pair of leggings that is perfect for protecting the area between my shorts and my socks, which had been severely attacked by every mosquito, blackfly, noseeum, and whatever else might have noticed the prime area of soft skin on the back of my knees. I think I look pretty classy with leggings that match my work shirt, but I’ll let you decide for yourself.

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My work outfit with nifty matching leggings

Apart from this lovely ensemble for work-days, I have two options for afternoon strolls. I can wear my sarong as a skirt with a t-shirt, or, more often than not, I just throw on my little sundress that I bought when I arrived in Costa Rica. It’s hard to imagine how I could love my clothes any more than I do, even though they are nothing special and they will likely fall apart in a pretty short amount of time given how much I wear them, but I’ve got my sewing kit with me, so I’m ready to take on any repair jobs that come my way. Already on the list is repairing the seam in my shorts which has been steadily creeping up to about mid-thigh, and my favourite sports bra that was already falling apart in Canada is now desperately in need of attention, so I’m repurposing the abandoned clothes from previous volunteers to patch the holes and find a way to keep my leg-warmer style leggings up on my legs instead of slipping down after an hour or two of work. Designing my own garter belt might be the next project, but it’s a little over my head.

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Bra pre-repairal

It’s been really nice to take a break from trying to impress anyone, to embrace the inner hippy that has always been longing to be fully out there, and to take on new projects that save me heaps of money (or at least a bus trip, meals spent in town, and a few bucks on clothing). With the plan to see how long this trip and my money will last, every penny saved could add up to weeks or months of extra travel time. Taking a hit on the fashion scale is certainly worth the opportunity to explore new life experiences later.