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Ellen and I are on the road again, and I’ve come to a realization: we are terrible at travelling in cities. The two of us just don’t know what to do when we’re in any place larger than a town.

The city that prompted this self-reflection is the one we’re in right now: Cuenca, Ecuador. Internationally recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cuenca features gorgeous stone architecture nestled amongst the mountains of the highlands. The historical centre contains dozens of churches with stunningly handcarved wooden doors and bell towers that sparkle in the sunlight. A river rushes through town, and its banks are lined with stone pathways and willows. The city is everything a traveller could want – and Ellen and I don’t have the faintest idea what to do with ourselves. Luckily, we had lined up a place to stay with a French-Canadian couple through couchsurfing, and had the benefit of local residents’ advice to help us figure out what to see.

Our couchsurfing hosts recommended we check out one of the city’s many markets, so our first stop was a huge warehouse not too far from our hosts’ home. We were up too late for the livestock trading, but there were still half a dozen vendors at the market entrance selling poultry, puppies, rabbits, and guinea pigs. Inside the bustling building was a maze of stands and stalls displaying all manner of foodstuffs, housewares, clothing, and restaurant equipment. We came to the market hungry, but had to do several laps of the food stands before we felt ready to decide on something to eat – there were just so many options. I’d hoped to eat something typical of the region, like cuy (barbecued guinea pig), but most of the charcoal grills weren’t up and running yet, so we settled on breakfast at a crowded stall at the market entrance. We didn’t know what half the dishes were and had no clue what to order, but the lady at the stand dished us up some stewed pork skin, potatoes in sauce, rice, corn, and egg for the reasonable price of $1.25 each. Satisfied, we wandered the market one last time to get supplies for the next couple of days’ meals before moving on to the downtown core for some sightseeing.

Market breakfast - inexpensive and tasty!

Market breakfast – inexpensive and tasty!

Our hosts had mentioned a river walk from the market to the centre of town, so Ellen and I meandered along the north side of the waterfront. After a few recent days of rain, the babbling brook was a rushing torrent, but we still couldn’t hear it over the traffic on the road either side of the riverfront green space. At several places, the trail forced us to cross the busy streets without the benefit of crosswalks or signals, dodging buses and taxis as we sprinted across the roundabouts. We felt relieved to reach the stone walls of the historical centre and leave the riverside behind.

The town of Cuenca, once we finally reached it, was lovely indeed. We admired the churches, took photos of the prettily painted buildings, and sat in the park to watch the birds hop between the trees. There were a handful of tourists, but not very many compared to some other cities in South America, and the town had the vibe of an artsy community rather than just a tourist destination on the Inca trail. One of the bars in town was advertising poetry nights, and several portrait photographers were set up with old-fashioned cameras in the main park, waiting for couples and families to pass by. Our Canadian hosts had marked the local microbrewery on our map (knowing our passion for good beer), so after an hour of wandering town we headed over to the taphouse to sample a local brew. Unfortunately, they weren’t open yet, and wouldn’t be for several hours.

A few pretty buildings in Cuenca's centro historico

A few pretty buildings in Cuenca’s centro historico

Graffiti in Cuenca - "Without poetry there is no city"

Graffiti in Cuenca – “Without poetry there is no city”

This was the point at which I realized we suck at passing time in cities. We had seen the churches. We had sat in the parks. We had done our shopping. What more could we possibly do? The city was full of people, all going about their business and doing things. What on earth was everybody doing? We were trying to conserve money, but indulged in a fifty-cent coffee for the chance to sit in the tiny Colombian coffee shop and play cribbage for an hour or two. We went back to the park and watched people while discussing the lifestyle here versus at home. We looked at the recommended walking tours listed on the tourist map, and got ourselves slightly lost trying to follow the directions. We found a jewelry market which was not particularly interesting to us, although we stopped to admire some cute stud earrings that were out of our price range. We eventually made our way to the craft and textiles market featured on the tourist map, but again the items were overpriced and very similar to those we’d seen in every craft market from Costa Rica on south. That didn’t stop us browsing, but we were very aware that we were only looking at the handicrafts because we had more time to kill before the brewpub opened.

At long last, four o’clock rolled around and Cuenca’s only microbrewery opened its doors. Ellen and I were almost the first clients in the door of the pub. There were only five beers on the menu (along with a variety of mixed drinks like Irish Car Bombs and Stout with Chocolate), and two of them were stouts (which Ellen and I aren’t that fond of), so we decided to taste the blond, the red, and the amber ales. We didn’t need to worry too much about blowing our budget – half a liter of beer was $2.25. Despite our being the only customers in the pub, it took the waitress a good ten minutes to pull the pints and bring us our drinks.

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I had ordered the La Compañia Extra Golden Beer, while Ellen sampled the Misionera Irish Red Beer. Both were much nicer than the standard pilsner which is sold everywhere in Ecuador, but slightly disappointing as far as craft brewed beer is concerned. I thought the beer lacked something in its flavour, but couldn’t define the problem. Ellen, who is much more knowledgeable about brewing than me, pointed out that both beers had problems with the balance between malt and hops. She found they were too high in protein, giving them a slight issue in taste and a cloudy look. Ellen’s red beer was a bit too sweet, while my blond ale was bitter but was lacking body. Despite the drinks not being perfect artisan beer, they were more than satisfying, especially after the plain pilsners we’d been drinking on the farm. We couldn’t get any beer to take with us, but enjoyed every drop we drank in the comfortable and cozy pub before walking home in the setting sun.

Mmm! Craft beer!

Mmm! Craft beer!

Today, Ellen and I are leaving Cuenca to go south again, stopping in Loja tonight where we’ve arranged another couchsurfing experience before hitting the Peruvian border tomorrow. One day in the charming city of Cuenca was enough for us. As we think about it, we’re going to avoid staying in cities as we go through Peru. On the road, we’ve derived much of our pleasure from watching the farms as we pass – seeing how the houses are constructed, what crops grow in the region, and what livestock the locals are raising. As we continue on our journey into Peru, we’re going to try to ask farmers if we can camp in their fields, rather than spending our nights in crowded cities. It’s not that we dislike cities, we’re just not very good at finding things to do in them.

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It’s been almost half a year since Ellen and I left for Latin America with little money in our pockets and no plans to speak of. We had ideas and vague intentions, but nothing concrete. As our trip has progressed, we’ve regularly felt grateful that we had themes to focus on rather than plans to stick to. Now, as Ellen is spending a few weeks in Canada getting her future sorted out, I figured I’d spend some time looking back on our vacation to see what we’ve done and what more I’d like to do. I’m not making a bucket list – I read an article that eloquently lays out reasons to avoid those – but I’m examining the themes of our travels over the past months and into the future.

  1. Working with Wildlife – We left home with this idea featuring prominently in our minds, but it hasn’t materialized yet. There are plenty of wildlife rescue places in Latin America, but most require volunteers to make a hefty donation to the centre in exchange for the opportunity to work with monkeys, snakes, turtles, or wildcats. Ellen might choose to pursue this further, but my budget has relegated this idea to the back burner for me.
  2. Beer – Every travel article I’ve read says there’s no good beer to speak of in Latin America. Ellen and I set out to prove them wrong by finding microbreweries and artisan beer on our trip. This focus of our travel has had mixed results. We didn’t search extensively in Costa Rica or Panama, but instead drank what the locals drank. We had more success once we hit South America. We found an excellent craft brewery in Medellin, Colombia, and were able to sample local beer from Bogota as well. In Ecuador, there’s good local beer to be found on tap in Canoa, and I also had the pleasure of buying the first two bottles of ginger beer brewed in Mindo. This week I’m couchsurfing at the home of an American who distributes the craft beers from Canoa, and who has asked me to help him close a couple of deals while I’m in Quito. I hope this will allow me to sample their India Pale Ale, which is my favourite type of beer and which I have sorely missed in Latin America. Ellen and I have also played with brewing our own beer at the farm here in Ecuador, as well as making traditional fruit alcohols in Costa Rica, Colombia, and Ecuador. I look forward to continuing to explore our passion for good beer as the trip carries on!
  3. Food – I absolutely love the food here. Ellen and I have enthusiastically embraced local ingredients and experimented with imitating Latin American dishes and incorporating the new fruits and vegetables into foods we like from home. I haven’t done as much exploration of the South American food culture as I’d like – I think I’d need to be living and working here so I could systematically make sure I’ve tried everything – but Ellen and I are eating fresh, local foods every day, so I would call this a rewarding focus of our trip.
  4. Writing – When I started my blog, I hoped to write almost every day. I wanted my blog to record my journey, capture my reactions to new experiences, and keep my friends and family informed of my movements. Beyond that, I also wanted my blog to serve as a portfolio of my writing style, an avenue for self-improvement through daily writing practice, and a venue to expand my contacts and open doors to a potential career in the writing or publishing industry. I haven’t written quite as much as I hoped, and spending time out of internet service has limited my ability to be actively promoting my blog and interacting with readers. However, I’m enjoying the project immensely, and Ellen appreciates being able to keep her network of friends informed without having to use the internet herself.
  5. Sketching and Painting – I haven’t been doing as much artwork as I’d hoped on my journey, but neither have I abandoned the hobby. I’ve been pleased to be able to improve my skills at sketching especially – I’m finding a style of my own that I like, and enjoying the process of drawing as well as the results. Painting I’ve found less rewarding, so I’m focusing more on my work with markers on paper. Maybe when I’m more settled in one place, I’ll experiment with the Asian black and white watercolour style that I’d like to someday emulate.

    A sketch that I'm particularly pleased with

    A sketch that I’m particularly pleased with

  6. Sustainability – I didn’t set out to learn what Latin America could teach me about conservation of resources, but it seems this lesson found me on its own. Everywhere I look, I’m struck by how the locals are doing things in ways that don’t create nearly as much waste as we would at home. Latin America still has pollution problems, waste management issues and a lack of recycling centres, but unnecessary packaging and wasteful lifestyles aren’t as endemic here. North Americans and Europeans are more aware of pollution as an issue, but Latin Americans seem more pragmatic about their consumption of resources.
  7. Natural Building – This new focus for my travels has surprised me. I’ve never been interested in architecture, but discovering how different natural resources like bamboo, straw, and clay can be put together to make comfortable houses that look and feel better than modern materials like concrete and drywall has been a rewarding pursuit. The more I see, the more excited about the subject I become. I am inspired to learn different natural building methods so I can eventually build a home myself. This has opened up all sorts of avenues of discovery to explore – I’m hoping to refresh my knowledge of electricity and wiring (my least favourite topic in high school physics) and learn about drainage and plumbing so I can understand how to construct a home from start to finish.

    An addition to the farmhouse that I helped work on.

    An addition to the farmhouse that I helped work on.

  8. Education – I had taken a hiatus from teaching when I started this trip – I felt disillusioned and tired of the whole industry. Taking a step back from my teaching career seems to have renewed my passion for learning, though. I’m excited about education again, brimming with ideas about teaching, learning, schooling, and exploring the world. I need more time to put my philosophy into words and understand how to apply it to my life, but the first steps are forming. I hope to incorporate these lessons into wherever my career takes me.

Travelling with a focus instead of definite plans has led me in exciting directions. Not only have I explored the themes I set out with, but I’ve discovered new passions on this trip. I still have no idea what my future holds or where I’ll be in six months, but at least I know what paths I might be interested in following.

Ellen and I have spent five weeks in coffee country, so it’s time we told you a little about the coffee here. Verdict: it’s good.

The hills surrounding Pereira and Santa Rosa are dotted with coffee trees, which are mostly kept less than 6 feet (2 meters) tall, so they’re manageable and so they can grow in the shade of banana trees. The trees on our cousin’s land were tiny (being only a year or two old) but their branches drooped with green coffee berries. When the berries turn red, they’re picked and fermented – our cousin’s husband does this in a bathtub-sized concrete basin under the cabin. Once the beans have fermented, they are placed on huge metal trays to dry in the sun. The coffee can be sold after it has dried, when it’s known as green coffee. Our cousin likes to keep a supply of green coffee to roast over an open fire just before you make it – she swears by it! We didn’t actually try any coffee made like that, though – the coffee we have had here has been pretty familiar tasting.

Green coffee beans on a tree at my cousin's place

Green coffee beans on a tree at my cousin’s place

One excellent way to drink coffee is to get it from one of the many mobile vendors in Colombian towns. Wandering coffee vendors cruise city streets with urns and flasks of coffee. This is usually ridiculously sweet, as they make the coffee with agua panela – boiled sugarcane juice. A typical Colombian housewife makes coffee the same way – using sugarcane juice as the liquid in the coffee. She’ll get up at the crack of dawn to get a pot of agua panela boiling, and that’s used as the base for all kinds of drinks for the rest of the day. For a few cents, though, you get a hot cup of sweet coffee, if you can catch the vendor as he passes by.

Stopping for a quick drink - refreshing!

Stopping for a quick drink – refreshing!

For a better quality drink of coffee, the coffee jeeps are the way to go. Many of them roast their own coffee beans on-site, and they’re still an inexpensive way to get your caffeine fix. Found at the edges of plazas and parks, coffee jeeps make espresso-based coffee drinks, with names that tourists can understand. You can get your americano, cappuccino, and cafe con leche here, as well as a few other variations on espresso. Tinto is a cross between espresso and americano, and pintado is a latte with slightly higher coffee content. Each coffee jeep seems to have its own variation on coffee with a shot of alcohol in it, as well.

If you want a place to sit down, away from the crowds and with more ambiance, coffee shops and cafes abound in Colombia. You may not see a Starbucks, but you won’t have to go without your fix no matter where you look. Coffee shops are on every street corner, and they’re not the only place to buy a cup. You’ll find espresso drinks in bars, bakeries, and many restaurants as well. Even at the fanciest places, you’re not likely to pay more than three dollars for a hot cappuccino. Don’t expect American sizes, though – at most of the places we’ve seen, coffee comes in one size, and it’s about 175ml (6 fluid ounces).

Coffee in Santa Rosa

Coffee in Santa Rosa

As Ellen and I were preparing to leave Santa Rosa, we decided to enjoy all our favourite Colombian drinks one last time. We stopped at a coffee shop, where I tried a drink called “Perfecto Amor”, which turned out to be a cappuccino with some kind of flavour shot in it, which we couldn’t identify. Ellen had a cafe con leche, much cheaper and equally good. Next we went to our favourite tango bar, where we drank a local beer and enjoyed the music. The second song they played, sandwiched between two tango hits, was an Ace of Bass pop song. Ellen commented that she’d sing along, but “I don’t want to encourage this kind of music.” Finally, we headed over to our favourite Kumis stand in the market, where we sipped our fermented yogurt drink and watched a little old man sitting next to us enjoying his milk and cookies. That’s what I love about Colombia – a macho farmer from the market can drink a beer, or an espresso, or sit himself down for milk and cookies without embarrassment.

A big ol' glass of Kumis

A big ol’ glass of Kumis

Drinking a couple of microbrews in Pereira

Drinking a couple of microbrews in Pereira

Colombia. It’s a good place to be.

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.

Ellen and I love eating, so it comes as no surprise that we are loving Colombian food.

At a fruit and vegetable market in Santa Rosa, we stopped for a bottle of Kumis, a fermented milk drink that tastes a bit like carbonated yogurt. Most places sell prepackaged plastic cups of it, but this stand sold traditional glass bottles of kumis, which had been fermented along the back wall of the shop. The shopkeeper carefully selected four bottles from the fridge, scooped spoonfuls of raw sugar into the mouths of the bottles using the palm of his hand as a funnel, added some kind of brown syrup, and blended the drink by shaking the bottles with his hand over the top of it. I’m sure a Canadian health inspector would have had a fit, but the drink was delicious, with a sprinkle of cinnamon on top as a finishing touch.

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Almost every meal here is served with an arepa, a kind of thick white or yellow corn tortilla. The ones we’ve eaten at our cousin’s house have been about the shape and size of a Greek pita bread. They’re served hot and buttered after being toasted over a fire, topped with egg for breakfast or alongside a soup for dinner. In Cartagena they were stuffed with cheese and fried on a grill, like a thick pita or stuffed pancake. We saw some at a street cart in Cartago that were topped with ham and shredded cheese, and I’ve seen signs for them in restaurants stuffed with all kinds of fillings. Some, called arepa de chocolo, are light and fluffy, while others are thick and unleavened. No matter what kind, they’re delicious.

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Street food: arepa with chorizo, and various stuffed pastries

The local specialty of Santa Rosa is chorizo sausages. They’re not the hot and spicy chorizo you get in Canada, but small and more gently flavoured. They come in long links and range from tiny two-inch babies to almost foot-long monster sausages. Our cousin Daisy is vegetarian, but nonetheless serves meat occasionally, so on our first night here, for New Year’s Eve, we had tiny little chorizos cooked over a barbecue. With toasty arepas and cheese, little orange fruits that tasted like squash, and local microbrewed beer, it was quite a feast indeed!

Ellen and I love beer. In fact, I think it’s kind of a family thing – good beer is a passion for my siblings and most of my cousins as well. We had been warned before coming here that local beer in Central and South America is low-quality at best, and most brands would be like making love in a canoe. Indeed, in Costa Rica and Panama, the beer we found was cheap and light, as beer in hot countries is generally meant to be. A thick dark brew like you’d get in Germany or England would be too heavy to drink in the heat, and its flavour would be spoiled by serving it as cold as you’d like your drinks here. However, that isn’t to say you can’t get decent beer in Latin America.

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First of all, there is much to be said for drinking what the locals drink, even if it’s not your first choice of brew. In Costa Rica, we generally sipped Imperial, a plain but refreshing beer virtually indistinguishable from the other brands available. When that got old, chicha, the local pineapple or corn homebrew, served as a pleasant change of pace. In Panama, we picked out two local brands of beer, Atlas and Balboa. We found the second one slightly darker and more flavourful, but we were drinking both warm because there was no ice to be had on the boat or on the islands nearby. We also picked up a bottle of Panamanian rum and a white liquor, neither of which we were able to drink on the boat, but which made nice mixed drinks with Colombian fruit juice when we landed in Cartagena.

In Cartagena, the local beers were Aguila and Club Colombian – Aguila is the usual plain light-flavoured beer, while Club is the slightly stronger but in no way strong variety. We preferred Club, but both were pleasantly refreshing and drinkable in the 30 to 40 degree heat. In Medellin, however, we lucked out and saw a poster for a microbrewery on the wall of the hostel.

3 Cordilleros brewery is based in Medellin, and makes five different brews, of which we tried four. The brewery wasn’t open on the Sunday before New Year’s when we were passing through, but we were able to pick up their beer in the local grocery store, Exito Supermercado. They made a nice amber ale that was flavourful without being too sweet, and surprised me by being slightly darker than the Canadian versions of this style, with a rich full mouth feel and a hint of hops that balanced out the rich malt. 3 Cordilleros’ white beer was an unfiltered beer with a nice head on it and spicy undertones, but the one bottle we shared was sadly tainted when we only had metal glasses to pour it into. As soon as I poured it, I realized that it would have been better straight from the bottle, but it always seems a shame to drink an unflitered beer without pouring it. Ellen had trouble deciding which of the two pale ales was her favourite brew from the brewery, since the American pale ale was nicely hopped with a citrusy blend of American hops, and had a lovely rich flavour for such a light-bodied beer. By far, Hannah’s favourite of theirs was their limited edition IPA, which was a very good example of the style, with the strong hoppy taste we’ve been missing in the local beers in Latin America. At about $2 a bottle from a grocery store, the beer seemed expensive compared to fifty to sixty cents apiece for the local brews, but when you consider the flavour and quality and the price you’d pay for a similar beer at home, the price was well worth it.

Last but certainly not least in the local alcohol scene, we had a bottle of Medellin rum for New Year’s Eve, which was of very good quality. The rum comes in a variety of ages (I think ours was the eight-year-old) and is available in specialty drinks stores (and probably also grocery stores – we haven’t been to one yet in Pereira). The taste was smooth and very drinkable. I’m not much of a rum afficionado, but I would certainly drink Medellin rum again.

Overall, the drink in Latin America has been very pleasant, and we have nothing to complain about yet. I certainly hope our future experiences are similar!

This week our cousins took us for a drive, and we visited three towns in Colombia’s coffee country, Santa Rosa, Cartago, and Pereira. Here’s a compendium of random thoughts and images from the trip.

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Beautiful buildings in this area

Bananas and coffee grow very well together. The farms that are growing oranges, bananas, and coffee together, like our cousin’s, are traditional and many have been deemed protected. The bananas and oranges provide shade and the coffee plants hold the topsoil onto the hill. Almost all the land here is vertical and protecting topsoil is crucial. Some gentleman farmers have been clearing the hills for cattle, which are less labour intensive, but the reduced ground cover leads to landslides, and it’s almost impossible for the land to recover its fertility once the topsoil has washed away.

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The healthier hillsides are those with crops or jungle rather than cleared ones like some of these

Bamboo is an important plant for protecting the land and topsoil – its roots stabilize the soil near rivers and on hillsides too steep to farm, and some varieties provide building materials. It’s such a vital plant that it’s a protected species, and you need a license to cut it down. Some locals say it’s bad luck to have it growing on your land, however, since it grows like a weed and you aren’t allowed to clear it. But on our cousin’s farm, a badly designed culvert sends rain and floodwaters down a slope near the house, washing away crops and topsoil and threatening the driveway, so the family is trying to encourage the bamboo to root on the slope and hold the land together.

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A stand of bamboo holding soil on a hilltop

The best bamboo for building in this area is called Guadua. It’s green and feathery and grows in huge clumps of jungle that are practically impenetrable. When you cut a stalk down, tiny spiny fibres work their way into your skin, making you itch like crazy. (Ellen learned this the hard way on the farm in Costa Rica and suffered a painful rash for a few days as the spines worked their way back out of her skin.) Here, they say you should only harvest bamboo at certain times of the day or month, because the stalks fill with water and then empty again in cycles according to the moon. In Costa Rica, a natural building expert told us it’s best to drill into each segment of bamboo to drain the water and fill the core with concrete to strengthen it, but here they dry it and coat it against insects and damp instead.

Traditional local houses are made of large pieces of bamboo, with straw and mud walls, and are protected as heritage homes. Lots of locals want to tear them down and build houses that need less maintenance, though. The bamboo houses are truly beautiful, and are cool in the summer as they let air flow between the walls and the open ceilings.

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Inside wall (split bamboo) and outside wall (mud and straw plaster painted white) in our cabin

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Our cousin's farmhouse

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The bamboo structure my cousin built as a community theatre

The towns around here are mid-sized, bigger than villages, and large enough to have old stone churches dominating the main squares. Apparently the mob cartels that used to rule the area were Catholic, and the churches here (some big enough to be cathedrals) are grand stone structures with extensive wooden supports on the ceilings inside. They are prominently placed facing the town plazas, which are bustling even with half the town’s shops shut down for the new year celebrations. The main town squares in Pereira, Cartago, and Santa Rosa all look fairly similar. Huge mango trees provide shade around the outside of the plazas, while raised beds of plants and smaller trees are laid out in circles and spokes around the fountain or statue in the middle of the square. The plazas are also home to iguanas lazing on tree branches as well as pigeons scrounging for scraps and fruit bats fluttering among the mangos in the trees. Hundreds of locals sit along the garden walls, chatting and sipping coffee sold by numerous vendors nearby. Coffee is roasted right in the square, at little jeeps and carts where you can buy tiny cups of highly sweetened espresso-style cafe, chocolate, and other drinks for mere pennies. Other vendors sell balloons, toys, souvenirs, snacks, and phone calls by the minute.

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Kumis, a milk-based fermented beverage available on the street

The area here is beautiful, and Ellen and I are enjoying our stay very much. We have contacted several volunteer hosts in coffee country and are narrowing down our choices to decide how to spend our time here. Who knows where we might be or what we might be doing next.

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Another beverage available for sale in the village square for mere pennies

Beer is a passion of mine that I hope to carry with me into my career and my farm in the future.

Late in 2011 I found myself the job of my dreams… or at least the part-time job of my dreams. I was working for Paddock Wood Brewing, the local microbrewery in Saskatoon, which makes my favourite brew, 606 India Pale Ale, and was conveniently located just three blocks from my house. When applying for a job there, I wanted to spend more time working in the back, learning the ropes of brewing and bottling, but they hired me for covering shifts in the front of house, so I could only work on the bottling line every once in a while, and they didn’t need or want my help with the brewing. Other unnamed complications prevented me spending my time shadowing the brewers and constantly pestering them about how and why they make the beer the way they do. I satisfied these questions by joining the guys for drinks after work, when there was much to be learned about brewing and beer styles while the boys talked shop.

Actually, I learned the most about brewing from working on Saturdays, when home brewers had a day off their regular jobs and came in to buy malted grains, hops, yeast, and brew kits. They also asked lots of questions that I did my best to answer, and with each discussion I learned more and more about making different styles of beer, like the role of different malts in the brewing process, the flavour profile of different types of hops, the timing and temperature of different stages of the brewing process, and which yeast works best with which style and why. I started out answering most questions based on my limited knowledge and had to turn people away when they wanted specific malts or specific hops. But as I learned more, I began to look up and suggest alternative hops or malts that have a similar flavour profile and can play the same role in the brew. At parties, I found myself talking about nothing but beer, which I’m sure was tiresome for my friends, almost none of whom like beer. I talked beer for hours and hours on end, and was unbelievably happy to find myself working with others who had the same passion for brewing and tasting beers.

I did, however, come to the uncomfortable realization that brewing beer is a process that is almost impossible to do sustainably. There are a few breweries in the States and around the world that aim to be as sustainable as possible, and I’d love to check out their set up to get some ideas for my own future brewery (New Belgium Brewing, Alaskan Brewing Co., and East End Brewing Co., for example) . I have some ideas about how I could do it on an ultra-small scale, even as a business, but the planning would take many years, and it still relies on having access to excessive amounts of water, large quantities of local barley that can be kilned with locally harvested wood (a part of the process I have yet to learn, but am keen to) and local hops that can give me the intense flavour I love in my beer. These things are not impossible to bring together into one place, but I may have to bend my rules and import something for the process. Many brewers and books have told me that malting grains is tricky and not worth the effort when the masters have got it perfected and will sell it so cheaply, and I’m not sure that the hops I’ve seen growing so happily in Canada are very potent. The difficulties with ingredients are one problem that can potentially be solved by trading goods and allowing for imports, but water and energy are the biggest problems in the brewing process.

After more than a year of contemplation, I’m quite sure I can cut masses of wasted water and energy by employing permaculture techniques that take advantage of the heat produced during fermentation, the heat and gas produced while composting the leftover malt that is filtered out of the wort (or from composting the manure from the pigs that eat the leftover malt), by using the hot water as an energy source after the brewing process, and by using a cyclical water system that can filter waste water naturally instead of pouring steaming hot water down the drain and using fresh cold tap-water to heat and cool the wort. This is all a rather lofty dream, but I know that it is possible, with some ingenuity. I’d like to set most of these devices up for my future farm anyways, so putting in the ultra-microbrewery will be a subsequent step in the process, once I’ve figured out how they can work with normal farm waste.

What I’m thinking is that my brewery will really just be for the family, but will produce just enough that my neighbours and friends from the community can have me brew them a keg of beer for their Christmas gathering, or a birthday party, or a wedding. I don’t want to get my name on the market as the best brewer in the world, or have my business grow to compete with the microbreweries that are rampant around Canada and the United States. I just want to bring my community together, to support local and sustainable businesses, and to support community-building events centred around real food and drink produced in the community.

For now, I continue to seek out as many local and interesting beers as I can during my travels and to learn as much about sustainable water and energy systems as I can. Cheers to gaining knew knowledge and tasting new brews!

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The new year has me thinking about how absolutely wonderful this past year has been for me.

I worked in Saskatoon’s only microbrewery and learned an unimaginable amount about brewing and beer, which has only whet my appetite for more knowledge about beers and brewing. I feel like I passed this passion and good fortune on to my former roommates by getting them involved in Paddock Wood Brewing and its recent offshoot, the Woods Alehouse (if not directly, then indirectly). I became more involved in the poetry community in Saskatoon, and even wrote and performed my first poem (which I haven’t been able to follow up with any other poems, but I’m still enamoured of the first and haven’t been inspired in the same way to write another). Again, I passed this passion on to others by introducing people who I knew would appreciate the atmosphere and beautiful words to the poetry scene in Saskatoon. Through trial (and failure) I learned and shared with others a great deal about different kinds of relationships, learned more about what I want and why, and learned (I hope) another lesson in the importance of honesty and openness in conducting relationships. I discovered that I actually do have a talent for sketching, which I had never believed of myself, through a burlesque and dance centre event shared with a person who taught me many of the lessons I had to learn about love. Now as I travel, sketching has been a way of capturing the people and places I go without relying on memory cards and batteries.

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A sketch I did on the boat in San Blas

I finished my Master’s degree this year, with a renewed appreciation for my project and the importance of my work. I killed two birds with one stone by spending the spring and summer transforming my thesis into a publication, which meant my hard work will actually contribute to the scientific community, and which also allowed me to save up enough money to travel for as long as I want. I gave away my possessions to various charity groups, and gave my most treasured possessions to the people who I knew would cherish them equally and think of me each time they used these items. I finally started the trip with my sister to Latin America that we have been dreaming of for more than a decade. I’ve learned a huge amount about sustainable farming in the tropics, about renewable energy, and cheap but effective ways to light and heat buildings with little to no energy inputs. I met other travellers who are interested in learning about farming and sustainability, about other cultures, and about local food and community development. I wrote an application to vet school that I feel exceptionally good about, because it truly reflects who I am, what I want to do with the field of veterinary medicine, and how much I have to offer the world as a vet. And I’m continuing to expand my horizons now in the New Year, looking for places where I can learn about natural remedies and medicinal plants that grow here in the tropics.

Almost every day I have had to stop and give thanks for the amazing place that I find myself in, not just physically, but emotionally and mentally. Thanks to everyone who has been a part of this growth over the past year. I love you all and hope you can experience the same wonderful reflection upon your own personal development.

We woke up yesterday morning bright and early, ready to explore the city. Medellín is about 80% of the way from Cartagena to our cousin’s house in Pereira, so it was a good stopover to break up the long trip. I’m certainly glad we decided to spend a day looking around rather than leaving immediately. When we got up, the friendly hostel staff gave us a map of the town and pointed out various attractions that we might like to see. After a week wandering the downtown core of Cartagena, we were ready to do something a little quieter, so we decided to check out some of the city’s parks.

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The first park we headed to was at the top of a mountain near the city. Our metro ticket got us halfway up the mountain by cable car, and then we bought a supplemental ticket to continue the rest of the way to the park at the peak. For about $2 apiece, we enjoyed stunning views as the cable car took us over the city, up the mountain, and through a forest to the park entrance, which was included in the price of the ticket there.
The park was just where we needed to be. We were far above the bustle of the city, surrounded by greenery and the smell of pine and cedar trees. Quiet trails led off in all directions (none of them signed) and we ambled this way and that trying to follow the completely inadequate map, while taking pictures of flowers and trees along the way.

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Smaller than my pinkie fingernail!

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There were so many types of variegated flowers

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Love the colour on these berries!

Eventually we gave up on finding the trail along a stream, which kept leading us into people’s farms and backyards, and wandered the flora trail instead. This trail was marginally better marked, with occasional signposts along the path, albeit blank ones covered in graffiti.

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We had no idea which way to go from this sign. This wasn't an isolated incident - all the trail signs looked like this.

After several hours’ walk, we returned to
the park entrance, where we bought lunch at a bustling market. Our set lunch was amazing – rice and pork with a hard-boiled egg, fried bananas, potato salad, and a big slice of bacon, all wrapped up in a banana leaf. We shared one between us so we’d have room for dessert – rice pudding and local mixed berries – before heading back down the mountain to our other destination, a park in the city.

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Exactly what we wanted for lunch

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Probably tastes better than it looks - I wish I could send photos of the smells and flavours, too!

The second park was next to the planetarium in the heart of the city. If we’d spent a few days in Medellín, I’d have spent a full day there and another at the planetarium besides. (The planetarium had a Darwin exhibit I would have loved to see, even if it’d be hard to understand in Spanish.) The park was a perfect place to have a quiet day in the city. There were plenty of peaceful corners to set up a picnic. We decided to head to the butterfly garden first, as I’d wanted to see one in Costa Rica and we’d decided against it because it had been expensive. This park was entirely free, so I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity. It did not disappoint – I got to take pictures up close of a variety of species I’d seen in the wild, as well as a couple of new ones I hadn’t seen in Costa Rica.

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Monarch butterfly

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Pretty brown butterflies were everywhere.

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This one let a girl touch it!

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This one looks like an owl to deter predators. It is blue when its wings are open, but I guess my camera looked like a predator.

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Don't know what kind this was

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Blue Morphos butterfly - this was a mounted specimen but we saw tonnes in Costa Rica

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Almost transparent orange butterfly

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Amazing iridescent specimen

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Not yet hatched

After the butterflies, we began to explore the medicinal garden, but had to turn back because Ellen was getting tired.

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Luckily we didn't leave before we saw this lizard - he was huge!

She went back to the hostel while I went to the bus station to buy our tickets to Pereira for the morning. On her way to the hostel, she stopped by the grocery store to pick up a few bottles of the local microbrewery’s offerings, which were so good we drank them all as soon as I got back. We had thought about heading out to look at Christmas lights along the river, but we decided to spend a quiet evening in the hostel instead.

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Excellent local microbrew - hope local beer is available in Pereira, too!

Overall, Medellín was a delightful stop on our way to Pereira. If we have more time, I’d like to come back here – rumour has it there is good paragliding here that’s among the cheapest in South America. Certainly, the weather (cool but not cold) and the friendly people make Medellín even more pleasant, and the microbrewery’s tasty offerings are the icing on the cake. If you have the chance to visit, don’t pass it up.