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By the beginning of July, our journey was close to an end, so Ellen and I started to make our way to Lima. Of course, we wanted to go the slow way, so after getting off the riverboat in Yurimaguas, we planned to hitchhike our way through the mountains for a week or so until we ran out of time and had to hightail it down the coast to Lima. Ellen’s flight was scheduled for the 16th of July, and I was looking for a job starting around the same time. To my surprise, a couple of hours of internet time rewarded me with four job offers in my inbox, and on very short notice I accepted one of them and booked myself a ticket to Taiwan, leaving on the 9th of July. Suddenly, our leisurely trip through the mountains was about to acquire a note of urgency.

We started our travels with a couple of excellent free rides, ending up dropped off in a valley right on the border between the jungle and the mountains. The fields nearby looked a little swampy for camping in, but an abandoned-looking dormitory had several open rooms that looked quiet, and even the locked rooms were visibly empty when we peeked in the windows. Ellen and I set up our sleeping mats and got down to relaxing in the hot afternoon sun. About an hour later, though, the owner showed up and discovered us, and naturally invited we intruders to join his family for dinner and stay at their house. We were originally unenthusiastic about the suggestion, but as he was insistent and we were squatting on his property, we agreed. His place turned out to be a sweet setup indeed.

It turns out our host was running a camp for workers at the nearby Stevia farm, and had an empty dormitory/storeroom for us to sleep in, and plenty of food to share. We sat with him for an hour shelling peas, and chatted about the area and our travels. After dinner, he invited us into the family home to watch TV before bed. I was wiped out, and would have gladly refused, as I still wasn’t sleeping well at nights due to tweaking my back a few weeks earlier, but I’m glad we joined him. Not because we watched anything interesting, nor had any conversation, but upon seeing his house we were able to recognize that the family wasn’t at all short of money and we had no reason to feel guilty for accepting his hospitality. The leather couches and big-screen TV in his living room assured us that we weren’t taking advantage of someone who couldn’t afford to be generous. When we left the next morning, not only did they feed us breakfast, but they also packed us a lunch to go and pressed a twenty into Ellen’s hands (worth about $8).

The next day’s ride was just as nice. A trucker who was driving through to Chiclayo on the coast, our driver was full of interesting conversation. He stopped to buy us lunch, pulled over for a scenic lookout he thought we’d like to see, and spent the time playing ridiculous music (Backstreet Boys? Really?) rather than harassing us about our life choices as Peruvians are wont to do. We got off on the road to Chachapoyas, intending to go through that town and Cajamarca on the way to Lima.

At least the road to Chachapoyas was beautiful, because it sure didn't advance us in our trip!

At least the road to Chachapoyas was beautiful, because it sure didn’t advance us in our trip!

Sadly, life had other plans for us. Upon getting halfway to Chachapoyas, we found out that the mountain road to Cajamarca was closed for repairs, and we had to double back and take the coastal route from Chiclayo to Lima after all. That delayed us most of a day, and we ended up stuck in the mountain town of Baguas, where no truck drivers seemed to be passing by on the same highway that had been so busy the day before. Finally, Ellen checked with a local bus company and got us tickets on an overnight bus to Chiclayo, from which city we intended to hitchhike to Lima. After a full night on the bus, though, a cheap ride on another bus line direct to Lima seemed easier, and so our last travel day ended up being 23 hours of bus time. We arrived at our couchsurfing host’s home around 9pm and were grateful for the welcome – and for bed!

I had two days in Lima before my flight, so Ellen and I set about exploring the city. We wandered around downtown seeing the sights, and came to recognize that we were ready for our trip to be over. We were done with admiring the architecture, uninterested in the hustle and bustle of the city, and unable to pay for any of the tourist sites. We still enjoyed exploring the markets, and I managed to buy myself a pair of shoes and a blouse for when I started working in Taiwan. I felt a bit silly that we stopped for lunch in Lima’s Chinatown the day before I got on a plane to Taiwan, but the food absolutely satisfied a craving.

What we really wanted to try was cuy, the Peruvian mountain specialty of fried guinea pig, which we’d never had the chance to try while we were in the mountains. Of course, it’s not traditional on the coast where Lima is located, so it took a fair amount of effort to track down a restaurant that served it. It took an internet search and careful cross-checking against a map to locate a tourist restaurant near us, and the day of my flight we went out at lunchtime to seek out the elusive dish. Our efforts were rewarded, though, and the tender meat reminded me of a cross between duck and rabbit, and certainly didn’t bring to mind a household pet.

The little cuy's head on Ellen's plate. I'd heard they were creepy to look at, but we weren't bothered.

The little cuy’s head on Ellen’s plate. I’d heard they were creepy to look at, but we weren’t bothered.

I finally got to try cuy!

I finally got to try cuy!

Soon enough it was time to go. From our couchsurfing host’s house, it was a quick one-sol ($0.30) transport bus ride to the airport. Speedy it was, easy it wasn’t. Luggage is forbidden on transports in Lima, so I was squished into my seat with my bag on my back. The bus driver swerved sharply between lanes, floored it without warning, and screeched to a halt at random intervals, launching me into the laps of the passengers facing me every couple of minutes. I’d have apologized to them, but the locals without bags were equally uncomfortable and crashed into strangers just as much as I did, so I assumed it was par for the course. The woman next to me spent half the ride shrieking at the driver to slow down. When I got to the airport, four hours early for check-in, my flight had been cancelled and my itinerary changed. Thankfully, I was bumped up to an earlier flight, and was still leaving that night. As I watched my bag roll away behind the check-in desk, I smiled. My trip was over. Or so I thought.

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Even after almost three months staying on this farm in the cloud forest of Ecuador, we are still undertaking new projects and doing new things every week. Over the past month, one of the neatest has been establishing colonies of honeybees on the farm.

Ingo has wanted to have his own bees for months, and last month when he went to Quito, he finally picked up a starter set of beehives and a population of bees. The local bees here are the same so-called “killer bees” that hit the American press a few years ago – Africanized honeybees – but the ones on the farm don’t seem aggressive at all. Sure, they’ll sting you if you open the hive without protection (bee suits and a smoker), but we can actually sit two meters away from the hives and watch them for hours, and they hardly even approach us. The bees are fascinating to watch as they buzz around, zipping out of the hives in pursuit of flowers, and returning heavily laden with pollen.

A quiet moment at the beehive - only a few bees leaving from the doorway. Sometimes there'll be fifty buzzing around waiting to get in or out!

A quiet moment at the beehive – only a few bees leaving from the doorway. Sometimes there’ll be fifty buzzing around waiting to get in or out!

Over the last month, Ingo has gone from one hive with one population to six hives, some stacked high with extra trays to support honeycombs full of larvae and honey. By the end of the year, he hopes to have ten hives pollinating the farm’s crops and producing honey to eat, sell, and make into mead. I get the feeling I’ll have to come back to see how the project is going – my visa expires next week, so I won’t have the chance to taste the farm’s first batch of honey. I’m sure it’ll be delicious, though!

The  first two beehives nestled amongst the young coffee plants on the cliff's edge.

The first two beehives nestled amongst the young coffee plants on the cliff’s edge.

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 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!

On this farm in rural Ecuador, they raise a variety of animals for milk, meat, and work. Once a week, an animal is slaughtered for the table, and that’s all the meat we eat. There is no refrigerator here, or way of preserving and storing food other than dry goods, so food has an immediacy here that’s lacking in places with more modern amenities. What we slaughter, we must consume before it spoils.

Ellen killing chickens for last week's dinner

Ellen killing chickens for last week’s dinner

Usually, Saturday is the day to kill and prepare meat, but this weekend Ingo and his family are spending the weekend in Quito. Instead of killing one of our own animals, on Thursday Ingo returns from town with a three-day-old calf in the back of his jeep. The calf is scared and hungry, trembling and sucking on the fingers of anyone close enough to reach. Ellen prepares a pot of warm milk from powder and gently encourages it to drink from her hands. Many of the volunteers seem upset that such a cute animal will be Friday’s dinner. It’s alright to kill a pig or a chicken, with small beady eyes and no soft fur to cuddle, but cows look adorable, especially three-day-old calves with wobbly legs and big brown eyes.

It's a pretty cute calf to eat for dinner!

It’s a pretty cute calf to eat for dinner!

On Friday morning, half of us watch or participate in the calf’s slaughter, while the others want to be as far away as possible. One girl in particular is horrified that the muscles still move after death, as she’s convinced the calf is still alive. As this is happening, Ingo’s two-year-old daughter is watching, on and off. Her mother explains that the calf has been killed, and that we will eat the meat for dinner. The explanation is simple and matter-of-fact, and I’m impressed at the respect for life present in the cow’s death. The baby walks up to the calf, touches its back, and says solemnly, “goodbye, cow” in Spanish.

After Ingo has cut its throat and the blood has drained out, the calf is hung from a fruit tree to be butchered. I find myself reminded of the song “The Hanging Tree” from the Hunger Games series. The calf is hanging by its feet, and Ingo starts on the job of skinning it. Greg, a lifelong vegetarian, helps. His rationale for participating is that this cow lived a life free of cruelty, free of contaminants from industrial farming, and would be killed by someone anyway. Farmers have little use for male calves. Here, we know the calf lived and died with kindness and respect.

Most of us have blood on our hands, literally, by the time the calf is skinned and butchered. Greg and his girlfriend take the skin and prepare it for tanning. I take the meat to the kitchen to cut into smaller pieces for cooking. The internal organs and meat from the belly we fry up right away for lunch. Many of the volunteers have never tasted liver, heart, or lungs. One volunteer, the girl who was so upset before, refuses to taste the veal, and says she is strongly considering becoming vegetarian. Greg, the vegetarian, tries a little of everything. Organ meat isn’t my favourite, but the veal is good.

Another volunteer helping prepare the skin for tanning. The humidity ruined it before we could finish the job.

Another volunteer helping prepare the skin for tanning. The humidity ruined it before we could finish the job.

As the day wears on, I come to realize just how much meat is on a tiny calf. Ingo wants me to roast the two hind legs for dinner, but I can’t possibly fit that much in the oven. I have to use a saw to remove the lower part of the legs, which go into a pot to make stock for Saturday’s lunch. I prepare two roasts for Friday’s dinner, which take turns in the oven, and leave half the organ meat, one leg, and a side of ribs for Saturday night and Sunday. Ingo sets the other leg and ribs aside to take to Quito.

The roasts are amazingly tender, but too much for all of us to eat, especially after a lunch of nothing but meat and bread. The leftovers go into Saturday’s soup, but by this point many volunteers are unused to so much rich food, so not all of us want any meat in the soup. On Saturday after lunch, the last thing I want is more meat, but I’m not sure how much longer it will last without refrigeration. I put the side of ribs on to braise all afternoon, while the backbone and leg go into the stewpot for Sunday’s lunch. I am tempted to feed the organ meat to the dogs, but another volunteer convinces me to save some to make liver and onions for breakfast.

Gathered around the table, enjoying our food and conversation

Gathered around the table, enjoying our food and conversation

The braised ribs for Saturday’s dinner are amazing, cooked on a bed of pumpkin and potato. They melt in my mouth and fall apart on my fork, and some volunteers pile their plates with second and third helpings. I’m content with one serving – I’ve eaten a lot of veal in the past two days. After dinner I turn off the stock and leave it to cool before I can strain it. An over-eager dish washer pours the stock down the drain. I am not disappointed. On Sunday morning, I pick at the liver and onions and am grateful for the salad and eggs served alongside it. I sneak my last piece of liver back into the pan, where another volunteer eager snags it.

This is the first time I’ve experienced the reality of eating a whole cow over the course of 48 hours. It was good to see the process, participate in it, and consider how best to prepare the meat so none went to waste. I’m grateful for the chance to do it, and for my comfort level in the kitchen, turning visible pieces of calf into cooked meals of veal.

You know you’ve arrived at a good place when you want to be part of everything around you. In the morning, when Ingo assigns chores, every task appeals to me. It’s a good feeling to know that no matter what I’m working on, it’ll be stimulating. The only disappointment is that I can’t be in several places at once. I’m glad Ellen and I don’t have any plans or commitments after this place – we can drink deep of the opportunity until we have our fill.

When we left on this trip, we agreed we wanted to be someplace where Ellen could do veterinary volunteer work, where I could taste and try cooking good local food, where Ellen could research medicinal herbs, where we were in a supportive place with a friendly local community, and where we could meet people from a variety of backgrounds and cultures. This farm has all of those things. Everyone there, from the baby to the farmers to the volunteers, speaks at least two and usually three languages. Everybody has some skill to offer, which is enthusiastically shared with the others. We are thriving here.

Just the list of projects to work on sounds fun – building a cob oven, constructing a greenhouse and nursery for newborn chicks, sheering the sheep, seeding logs with mushrooms, making a snail farm to raise escargot, clearing a field to plant blackberries and coffee, lining a pond with concrete to hold water to raise tilapia, and designing and building a barbecue area. We are also welcome to think of other projects and enlist other people to work on them. Ellen, for example, blamed the goat’s abscessed foot on the mud in the goat yard, so she dug trenches around the yard to drain the water.

While Ellen is working on mostly animal projects, I’ve really enjoyed working in the kitchen. I adore cooking for large groups, and nobody seems to mind if I take charge of organizing dinner every night. Sometimes I think I’ll let somebody else have a chance to manage the kitchen, but when nobody has stepped up to the plate at five o’clock, and it’s raining and cold, and most of the volunteers are still out working and will want something warm in their belly when chores are over, I end up cooking anyway. I’ve had the chance to try out a new fruit, babaco, which is in the papaya family, looks like an overgrown starfruit, and is very sour. It makes a delicious cake, by the way.

Overall, though, the best part of the farm is the atmosphere. All the volunteers are around our age, in their late twenties mostly. They all know how to work hard, and enjoy doing so. The family, too, are down-to-earth and no-nonsense, with big dreams and the organizational skills to bring their ideas to fruition. Unexpected events and changes of plan are taken in stride by all of us, and we have enough people to solve any problem. Ingo, the farmer, goes over lists of activities and projects every morning at breakfast, and again at dinner, matching skills and interests with tasks on his lists, but as the day progresses, we all feel free to join somebody else’s crew if they look like they need assistance, or reach out for a helping hand on our own project if that’s what’s required. Ingo refuses to call the atmosphere a community – that’s too “hippy” for him – but it’s all the community I need. I think we’ll stay awhile.

Since we spent a week at the yoga farm, Ellen and I have been discussing our values. The people on the farm practiced Bhakti yoga, and Ellen read a couple of their religious books to get a feeling for what they were about. (I was reading an excellent book on examining religious claims using the scientific method – maybe not the best headspace to be in when visiting a religious commune.) The Cole’s Notes version of our host’s beliefs is that you are going to be reincarnated, and the objective is to get to nirvana, which you do by devoting your existence to the spiritual, rather than the material world. If you screw up this life by focusing too much on material pleasures, you will be demoted to a lower form of life, like an animal, which can’t think about God and therefore will have a much more difficult time getting to nirvana. Devoting your life to spiritual pursuits means not harming or causing the death of animals, not eating meat, not consuming intoxicants like alcohol or coffee, and not having sex, among other things. The food you eat is made as an offering to Krishna, not for your own satisfaction. I asked our host what had led to her setting up her Krishna community, and she said she had been lost and looking for the meaning of life, and had met a monk whose ideas made sense to her, and she became a devotee of Krishna.

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Ellen and I had a lot of trouble adjusting to her community, though, because it clashes a lot with our own values. Our vacation right now focuses on exploring the material world – food, alcohol, coffee, beaches, mountains… we are seeking out sensory pleasures in new places. I can’t really think any loving god would object. Why would the world be full of such beauty, if we weren’t meant to appreciate it? Surely cooking and eating delicious food is an act of reverence, a celebration of life. The material world is frigging awesome. I, for one, am extremely glad I’m here. I don’t want to give this up. If that means I get reincarnated as an animal, so much the better! How do we know that animals don’t have spiritual awareness? If there is a god, maybe cats are meditating on god when they nap so happily all day long. I’m not convinced that becoming an animal would be a demotion at all. Even if animals only experience the material world, I’d love to know what that experience is like. I’m sure I taste pretty delicious to a mosquito – I must, because they bite me all the time!

Our second main values disagreement was about vegetarianism. (This post was inspired in part by this comic on vegetarianism, although I don’t feel as strongly as that!) I like vegetarian food, but I don’t agree that it’s wrong to eat meat. Death is part of the cycle of life, and some animals and plants must die so that others may live. It’s not always pretty, but it’s reality, at least from my perspective. I don’t think it’s kinder or more ethical to try to remove humans from that cycle. Many of the animals that we raise for food wouldn’t exist as they are today if humans didn’t breed them for their meat. These animals have roles to play in agriculture, in the production of food. The system doesn’t work without them, or their death. The soil at the yoga farm was essentially sand – dry (mostly from the drought), and stripped of nutrients. For it to become healthy again, it needed to be fertilized. Unless you add chemical fertilizers, the most common things farmers add to the soil to enrich it are manure or blood and bone meal. That’s not because farmers are cruel, but because that’s what nature intends to be added to the soil. On an unspoilt plain, herbivores leave their droppings to feed the soil, as they eat the grass or trees. Carnivores kill their prey, and the blood spills into the earth, feeding the plants. After the meat is consumed, the bones donate their calcium to the land, providing nutrients for plants that feed future generations of herbivores. If you want to take food from the earth, you need to give back to it, otherwise you will deplete it of its resources and kill the soil. I don’t know if it’s possible to do that sustainably without allowing for animals to die.

In my opinion, there is nothing cruel or immoral about having a healthy, sustainable cycle of life and death providing your food. You plant a variety of crops on a relatively small scale, and rotate the crops so that different minerals are taken from and added to the soil with each cycle. You have a couple of cows or goats for milk, and a dozen or so hens for eggs. The hens keep the bugs down and leave their nitrogen-rich poop in the fields. The goats graze the fields that are fallow, letting the fields recuperate and regain fertility before being planted again. You might let one hen raise a few chicks, to replenish the flock and provide a bit of meat for the table. The goats don’t provide milk unless they have babies, so you have a couple of kids to raise for meat, and some milk for cheese and yogurt. A pig or two would be great to have around the property, as they churn up the soil and eat roots, clearing the field for the next crop. As long as you’re rotating the crops and animals on the land, each has its role to play in the cycle of food production. Animals are vital to the sustainable farm system.

A vital part of the food cycle

A crucial part of the food cycle

I’m glad we went to the yoga farm, but I wasn’t converted to the ideals of its host’s religion. I’m going to continue to eat meat, thoughtfully and with awareness of the sacrifice that comes from the animal’s role in the cycle of food production. I’m equally aware of the effort required to tear root vegetables such as yucca from the hard earth, or to pick oranges from branches full of razor-sharp spines. That’s one of the reasons I celebrate the material pleasure of eating food. Well-cooked food, ethically grown, is one of the finer things of life on Earth, and I’m happy to be here, on the material plane, to enjoy it.

An amazing meal, prepared and consumed with joy, from locally produced ingredients. (This one happens to be vegetarian)

An amazing meal, prepared and consumed with joy, from locally produced ingredients. (This one happens to be vegetarian)

Last night I dreamt that Ellen and I were visiting an Amazonian village. Our host had laid in a stock of cherry-flavoured soft drinks for us, in glass bottles (as all soft drinks are sold here). When we asked if she could provide some other beverage rather than pop (least of all artificial cherry flavour, which will always taste like cough syrup to me) the only other drink she could reluctantly provide was hot chocolate. Later that evening, we went to the communal village kitchen, and the only food was a variety of different McDonald’s hamburgers, still wrapped in paper, laid out on a silver tray. Coyotes and wolves would come in from the jungle and scavenge from the kitchen, stealing paper-wrapped burgers. The animals would take the burgers to the edge of the village and, to the amusement of the local children, delicately unwrap the burgers with their teeth before eating them. When dinner time rolled around and we didn’t have enough burgers left for everybody, the children were less amused.

One thing in particular struck me as odd about my dream: I’ve never seen anybody eating fast food hamburgers in Colombia. We had a gourmet buffalo burger in Medellin (which was delicious, by the way), and we walked past a Hard Rock Cafe selling burgers in Cartagena, but the golden arches are conspicuous by their absence here. In our month in Colombia, we haven’t seen one fast food outlet that we recognized from home, with the exception of a McDonald’s cafe selling ice cream in a food court.

That’s not to say Colombians don’t eat anything unhealthy or on the run. Fried chicken restaurants seem to be everywhere, and a variety of juice bars and pizza places also claim to sell hamburgers, although we’ve never seen any evidence that anybody orders them. The go-to on-the-run food seems to be arepas – thick corn tortillas, cooked over hot coals on a street-side barbecue, served buttered and topped with cheese. Rather than taking them wrapped to go, though, most Colombians eat them at the street stand. In fact, whenever we’ve stopped for a bit to eat, the street vendor insists on seating us on a nearby park bench and chatting with us until we’ve finished eating or drinking before allowing us to pay.

Here volunteering at the hostel, though, Ellen and I are avoiding eating out. As volunteers, we don’t have to pay for accommodation, but food is one of those expenses that can add up. Many times when travelling, though, I’ve found it cheaper to eat out than to try to cook for myself when I don’t know the region. Cooking for myself, I often spend a lot of money buying the ingredients I recognize and know how to use, when the cheapest food is what the locals eat. After a month in Colombia, though, Ellen and I feel fairly confident trying our hands at cooking local food. Now, with three weeks ahead of us here to cook for ourselves with free access to a kitchen, we’re looking forward to playing around with local ingredients and flavours.

One of the fruit and vegetable stalls at the market in Santa Rosa

One of the fruit and vegetable stalls at the market in Santa Rosa

Yesterday I went to the market and wandered around aimlessly looking at fruit and vegetable displays for awhile. When every vegetable stall looks the same, it’s hard to decide where to shop! A friendly husband and wife team of vendors greeted me cheerfully and called me over to their stall to show me their wares. Not only did I get all the ingredients for a simple meal of beans and rice that Ellen and I had agreed on, but they also recommended several fruits for making juice. They were enthusiastically explaining how to prepare the different fruits and vegetables, and I’m sure they would have gladly kept me there half the afternoon discussing Colombian food, but I was hungry and wanted to get back to the hostel to make lunch.

Our first day’s experiment cooking Colombian food for ourselves was, in my opinion, a success. We made ourselves beans, rice, salsa, and fried bananas for a late lunch. (Despite what we read on the internet, fresh beans take more than 45 minutes to cook. Ours took closer to three hours.) The resulting meal wasn’t a full Colombian almuerzo lunch, which usually includes juice, soup, rice, beans, meat, plantains, and salad, but it was certainly sufficient for us. Later in the evening, Ellen took some of the unidentified fruit from the market (guava, we believe) and made it into a fruit smoothie with bananas and milk. I’m sure future experiments will taste even better!

One of my goals for this trip was to get an idea of what typical Latin American food is like. Now that we’ve eaten lots of it, the next logical step is to try to make it ourselves. Over the next few weeks, Ellen and I are going to play around with local ingredients and traditional Colombian dishes. Who knows what amazing things we might learn? And hopefully my next food dream is about something a little more Colombian than burgers.

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!