You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Stories’ tag.

After a day or two couchsurfing in Trujillo, Ellen and I were ready to leave this noisy city on the coast and go back into the mountains. Fernando, our host, convinced us to stay a few days longer so he could take us fishing on Wednesday. Little did we know what we were getting ourselves into.

The plan was that our host would get everything ready for the fishing expedition, while Ellen and I were only responsible for our tents. We’d ride in a little boat to an island, where we’d camp, fish, have a bonfire, cook outdoors, and drink plenty of beers. We were leaving after Fernando finished teaching on Wednesday, and getting back before his afternoon class on Thursday. Or at least, that was the plan as Fernando described it the day before.

The beach by the pier at sunset

The beach by the pier at sunset

On Wednesday afternoon, we gathered our camping gear and hopped into a taxi to the oceanside, where we were to catch a boat to the island. We arrived at the pier just as the sun was setting. The surf was rough, the pier was almost deserted, and the few locals hanging around kept trying to dissuade us from going out. The town drunk was also there, bellowing at us and at the boats in the harbour, whose captains were not going anywhere near the pier with the seas in this condition. A man in a rowboat finally pulled up to the pier, and Fernando convinced him to take us to the big port a few piers down the beach.

I was totally confused about what was going on – when Fernando told me before that we were catching a boat to an island, I had assumed there were actually boats around. Silly me. Climbing into a rowboat in rough seas in the dark with all my camping gear was not what I had pictured at all. I was getting more and more frustrated with Fernando, who isn’t the brightest bulb in the house and whose plans for the trip, it was becoming apparent, were nonexistent. As the sailor was rowing us to the port, he kept asking us if we were sure this was a good idea, because it seemed dangerous to him, and did we really trust this guy we were with? I trusted Fernando not to assault us, but had no confidence that he wouldn’t lead us into a ridiculously stupid situation, putting our gear and probably also our lives in danger.

Fernando, oblivious to the sailor’s comments and our discomfort, kept asking me and Ellen to go talk to the security guards at the port when we arrived, so we could get permission for our trip. He was completely unable to understand that since Ellen and I had no idea what our trip was, what we were doing, where we were going, or how we would get there, our ability to ask for permission to do it was severely hindered. Finally, our rowboat pulled up to the port’s pier, and we climbed the precarious ladder out of the waves. Here, we discovered that the “island” was actually the private beach in the port’s back yard, only accessible on foot by walking through their property.

We finally got to our campsite around 7:30 at night. Fernando chose a spot that was still wet from recent waves, and Ellen and I had to insist for quite some time before he acknowledged that further from the rising tide might make more sense. While I was setting up my tent, Fernando dumped his gear onto the ground and looked at Ellen expectantly. Clearly, he had never set up his own tent before, but decided that since Ellen knew stuff about camping she’d know how to set it up. Luckily, it had only three poles and wasn’t too difficult to figure out, although Ellen spent most of the time cursing at Fernando, who kept moving the tent poles that Ellen had carefully placed.

Once everyone’s tents were up, Fernando declared it too dangerous to go fishing at night, so better to start a campfire and drink instead. He had brought charcoal and paper, and asked us to search the expanse of sand for driftwood. In the ten-minute walk from the port, there hadn’t been a single twig on the ground; Trujillo is a desert, completely devoid of trees. Ellen and I declined to fetch wood, and suggested we save the charcoal for the morning’s cooking fire rather than try to start it in the high winds at night.

We got down to drinking. This was moderately more successful than fishing – Fernando had brought three beers each, plus a bottle of wine – although the conversation left something to be desired. Our host was completely incapable of carrying on a conversation in either English or Spanish. He’d ask a question and interrupt our response, or answer it himself before giving us a chance. He’d lose interest in stories after two sentences (whether he was doing the listening or the telling) and mentally wander off to some kind of no-man’s-land.

Within a few minutes of starting drinking, Fernando declared his intentions to conquer me, romantically. He was 44, I was 32, and we were both teachers. What more could we want? Clearly, we were made for each other. We could live in his apartment in Trujillo. (I hate his apartment in Trujillo – the bathroom is shared with his bar, and is everything you could expect of a bar bathroom in a third-world country. The apartment has no view in any direction thanks to billboards in front of its windows, but lets in all the sounds of traffic from the main street, in a place where every car honks at every pedestrian every two seconds. His apartment is the last thing that would tempt me.) When I said no, he turned to Ellen to ask her advice (“Forget it!”) and the already awkward and stilted conversation over not nearly enough beer became very repetitive very quickly. Fernando couldn’t imagine why anybody would turn him down. I went to bed as soon as the alcohol was finished.

Live bait, which Fernando later released since we didn't do any fishing

Live bait, which Fernando later released since we didn’t do any fishing

In the morning, I slept through Fernando’s failed attempt to catch any fish. Since he hadn’t brought any food besides buns, as soon as I woke up Fernando was too hungry to fish anymore and we needed to go back to town. In daylight, the beach was isolated and pretty, with wide expanses of open sand and several flocks of shorebirds. We hiked off the beach, walked through the port, and caught a bus back to Fernando’s apartment. Ellen and I went out for breakfast, rather than having to cook in Fernando’s kitchen with him there, and over my papaya juice and egg sandwich, I made a mental note: people who seem like idiots in the city probably won’t improve much on a fishing trip, either. At least we had an adventure out of the experience, and one more tale to tell.


Peruvian people are ridiculously generous and pleasant. From the moment we entered the country on Friday, everyone we’ve met has been unfailingly helpful and nice. Even the driver of the collectivo (a private truck or car that serves as a taxi or bus service in rural areas) that drove us to the border refused our payment. We hadn’t planned to enter Peru that day, but since we’d arrived hours ahead of schedule, we went through the almost-deserted crossing and instantly got a ride to the tiny town of Suyo, twenty minutes from the border. After an hour of watching nothing but taxis and collectivos pass by, we headed into the village to find a place to camp. Although the town policemen were more than willing to let us set up our tents in the main square (“Our town is safe!”), Ellen left me guarding our bags while she searched for a quieter place to camp. On a side street by the river was an empty lot, where a sweet neighbour insisted Ellen and I make ourselves at home. She and her friend came outside with brooms to sweep the sandy ground clean before we put our tents there. Once we were camped, they invited us into the house to watch TV with them. Honestly, we were tired and would have gone to bed right away (although it was only six) but we thought we should accept her hospitality rather than be rude, so in we went. She was clearly poor: the house had a dirt floor, the outdoor kitchen had a wood-burning stove made from bricks, the yard was fenced with twigs (decorated with laundry hanging out to dry) and her garbage was swept out the side door into the very same lot where Ellen and I had set up our tents. However, she lived well enough to have electricity and a small television, and to feed the many neighbours who dropped by. Over the course of the evening, half a dozen people came over to say hello, watch TV, and eat her homemade tamales, which she insisted on sharing with us as well. Ellen and I felt guilty for accepting food she probably couldn’t afford (especially since we weren’t able to withdraw any Peruvian money to leave for her), but we didn’t have any polite way to refuse when everybody else was also eating. We were eventually able to excuse ourselves and retire to our beds for the night, exhausted after our day of travel. I slept like a log, but Ellen was disturbed by wandering bands of pigs rooting through the scraps left over from dinner, which had been discarded a few meters away from our tents. At least the policemen were honest in their promise that the town was safe – although we had pigs, dogs, and donkeys ambling past our tents all night, we and our belongings were perfectly safe. The next morning, we headed out early to try to catch the morning traffic from Ecuador into Peru. Luck was with us again, as a beaten up old car stopped, with three men inside. They were only going a few miles up the road, they said, but could take us to the next town. Of course, their trunk wouldn’t unlock, and the key broke in the ignition, so they hotwired the car as Ellen and I sat pinned under our bags in the back seat. At last we were on the road, chatting animatedly with our driver, Nestor. When he heard we were heading south, he was delighted. “I’m driving to Chiclayo this morning, in an hour or so. I just need to return this car to my friend, pick up my jeep from the shop, and eat breakfast. Want to join me?” We accepted with pleasure. Nestor turned out to be ridiculously generous. He worked in international business and threw money around like candy at a parade. When his jeep wasn’t ready, he hired a collectivo and paid our fares for us. From the next town, he insisted on buying us lunch and continuing our journey together by bus, on his dime. He had offered us a ride to Chiclayo, damn it, and he was going to make sure we got there! (Also, he took a liking to Ellen, so he wanted to keep spending time with us as long as he could.) Ellen and I felt a mixture of gratitude and discomfort at his generosity – we got a lot of insight into local food and culture from Nestor as he and his friend showed us around, but we didn’t feel free to explore the city on our own terms.

We were sure things wouldn’t go as smoothly as we set off on our own once more, but again the Peruvian people impressed us with their kindness. Both our rides of the afternoon stopped to buy us a beer, and the second one dropped us off right at our couchsurfing host’s doorstep. Our host here, Fernando, welcomed us into his home with open arms, sharing food and beer with us. I felt grateful for his hospitality, but I can hardly say I’m surprised. In our two days in Peru, I’ve come to expect nothing less from a Peruvian.


Peruvian beer, Cristal. Also, Ellen has a cup for a hand.

On Friday, Ellen and I had dealings with three different law enforcement officers in Ecuador and Peru, and I’m pleased to report that they didn’t live up to their bad reputations. Our first incident came as we were hitchhiking out of Loja, Ecuador, in the morning. We were riding in the back of someone’s pickup when we were stopped at a police roadblock. The officer barked out “carrying passengers in prohibited spaces!” and had the driver pull over and stand on the side of the road to be ticketed. Ellen and I looked guiltily at each other as our very kind driver reassured us that we really hadn’t inconvenienced him that much. While he was waiting for his ticket, another cop wandered over to the truck to chat with us. The jovial officer wanted to know all about our trip and was asking us all sorts of questions, when our driver came back to let us know that the severe cop had ordered us out of the truck. Our cheerful friend was scandalized. “Why?! For riding in the back of a truck? But it’s not like we’re in the city, or anything!” With a wave of his hand, he dismissed the other officer’s objections, cancelled the ticket, and sent us on our way. Ellen and I grinned and laughed about it for the next twenty kilometers at least.

Although we’d planned to spend the night in Ecuador, our good luck with rides continued and we ended up crossing the border to Peru in the mid-afternoon. Here we had our second run-in with the authorities, as I had to get my exit stamp despite overstaying my Ecuadorian visa by eleven days. The immigration officer wasn’t impressed with my excuse: “I was waiting for my sister. I’m very sorry.” However, he didn’t make any serious attempts to solicit a bribe. After asking me several times why I stayed a hundred and one days instead of ninety, he started mumbling things about detaining me. Luckily, Ellen and I knew that the border authorities don’t actually have the right to fine or detain people for overstaying their visa. I answered all his questions with a simple, “I’m sorry I overstayed. I guess I need to leave Ecuador now. Can you stamp my passport?” After a few minutes of grumbling and pretending he couldn’t process my papers, he finally gave me my exit stamp and we were on our way, without even a mention of a fine or bribe.

Once Ellen and I had entered Peru, it took us mere moments to get a ride to the next town, Suyo. From there, though, no cars were going onward and it was getting on for late afternoon, so we decided to ask around in the village for a place to camp for free. A couple of local women suggested the stadium, so Ellen and I thought we’d check with the town’s cops before setting up our tents in a public place. We found a pair of uniformed town security officers in the main square, and once again South American law officers surprised me. When I asked them where we could safely camp, they seemed shocked. “Of course you can camp in this town’s public spaces! It’s safe here. Nobody will bother you!” They invited us to camp right in the main square, if we so desired. That seemed a little too public for us, so Ellen found an abandoned lot next to the house of a friendly woman, and we camped there instead. As the cops assured us, nobody bothered us or paid any attention to our stuff. So far, we’re very impressed with Latin American law enforcement!

Edited to add: After I wrote this but before publishing, someone riding in the car with us tried to steal valuables from my backpack. He got my flashlight, phone charger and cord, and one of my knives, before the person sitting next to him told our companions as the thief was getting out of the car. Our friend instantly punched the thief in the face and grabbed my flashlight and phone charger back, but didn’t realize the knife and cord were mine. Consequently, I can’t upload pictures from my phone until I replace the cord. We’re not too upset, though – it was the first theft we’ve had in six months of travelling, and nothing of great value was taken.

When I wrote last week about nobody wanting to read my bitchy posts about the annoying volunteers, it seems I was wrong. I stand corrected. With no further ado, let me present the irritating habits and attitudes of volunteers we were glad to see the backs of.

  1. Taking orders as suggestions – A lot of people seem to think that when someone explains how to accomplish a task, that’s only an idea for one way to achieve it, rather than the instructions for how they want it done. One volunteer, for example, decided that throwing wet cement at the side of the pond was more effective than smoothing it on with a trowel. Three-quarters of the cement ended up on the floor of the pond, where it dried, hardened, and filled with water before the walls were finished. Now, before we can complete the project, we have to wait for dry season to evaporate the water, unless we’re willing to stand waist-deep in the pond while mixing and applying cement to the walls. This could have been avoided by following instructions.
  2. Disagreeing with or contradicting everyone – Engaging in conversations with other volunteers is normal. Having differences of opinions is also standard in human interactions. Contradicting every statement that your companions make is just freaking annoying. One girl who was here last week was terrible for that. She asked if I wanted to go to Macchu Picchu, and then argued with me when I said I didn’t plan on doing it this trip. She wanted to know if I wanted children, and then tried to change my mind when I said not yet. If I said it was eleven o’clock, she argued it was noon. Another volunteer tried to argue with me about whether education is a valid major – he insisted it was impossible to get a Master’s of Education, WHICH I HAVE. This got irritating fast.
  3. Using resources unwisely – Some volunteers use up every vegetable in the kitchen to make a salad or sauce, leaving nothing for future meals. If we have one tiny jar of honey, you don’t get to put two tablespoons of it in your coffee – use sugar instead. You don’t need fifteen tomatoes to make sauce for one pizza. Nor should it take three hours to make lunch – time is a resource, too.
  4. Wasting time – Many volunteers seem completely unable to stick with a project for longer than fifteen-minute intervals. The guy Ingo asked to leave last week was terrible for that. I was landscaping the pool with him, and five minutes in, he complained about his tool and returned to the house to exchange it. He returned twenty minutes later, only to wander away a moment later to brush his teeth. Half an hour after that, he half-heartedly hoed a bit of earth before needing to pee against a tree. Then he thought the pigs needed water. Then he wanted to check out the plants in the greenhouse. Then he stopped to chat with another volunteer. In a four-hour stretch, I landscaped two-thirds of the pool area, and he did about two square meters.

    New grass and flowers around the hot tub - the results of all my hard work landscaping, and little of his!

    New grass and flowers around the hot tub – the results of all my hard work landscaping, and little of his!

  5. Not listening to people – This same volunteer who was asked to leave didn’t listen to a word anybody said. This didn’t stop him from complaining that people didn’t explain the projects adequately. When Ellen was supposed to teach him how to butcher a chicken, he wandered off halfway through her explanation of what to do, because he wanted a bowl of oatmeal.
  6. Eating more than one’s share – Some people will look at a cake cut into ten pieces and take three for themselves, when there are nine of us. I don’t understand how anybody can think that’s reasonable.
  7. Refusing to do normal tasks – When you’re sharing a household, even as a volunteer, sometimes you have to do dishes. This is fair and reasonable. You also have to do your share of cooking, and you have to keep the place tidy, and take the compost out. Just because you’ve worked today doesn’t mean you’re exempt from household chores.
  8. Borrowing stuff without asking – I understand that most travellers can’t bring everything they’ll need with them in their bags. Here at the farm, Ingo and Genny have rubber boots for volunteers to use. I offered to take one volunteer to the shed to choose a pair of boots, and he said, “No thanks, I tried on Ingo’s hiking boots and they fit me fine, so I’ll just wear them.” I can’t believe anybody would borrow somebody’s shoes without asking.
  9. Generally lacking common sense – Leaving stuff all over the table, thumping through the house when the baby is sleeping, eating from common dishes with one’s fingers, forgetting to put the plug in the hot tub after being told three times in two languages, leaving medicines in reach of the baby… some people just don’t think before they do things.

Ninety percent of the volunteers that come to the farm are awesome. They work hard, they’re enthusiastic, they smile and chat animatedly at the dinner table, and they’re generally a pleasure to be around. Once in a while, though, the farm gets a really annoying volunteer. In the past few weeks, there have been several. I try to keep a positive attitude, but constant low-level irritation led me to be pretty bitchy recently. Luckily, an infusion of good energy and friendly conversation has helped me get over it. Here’s hoping I don’t have to write another grumpy post for a while!

For several weeks, Ingo has been suggesting that we visit an animal market one of these Saturdays. Finally, last week, we decided to load up the car with some of the chickens and see what price we could get for them. The hens had long since stopped laying eggs, so bright and early Saturday morning we caught about thirty of them and put them in two cages on the top of the car. While we were at it, we captured six of the geese, who had also stopped laying, taking a moment to flip them over to check what gender they were. (Girl… girl… girl… boy… boy… another girl. Ah, to heck with it, we’ll sell them as three breeding pairs, with luck nobody will notice.) We also brought two of the piglets, saving the two friendliest to raise to adulthood and reserving the perpetually nervous redheaded piglet for Sunday dinner. Ellen and I also caught the violent and aggressive ram, marched him backward toward the car, hogtied him, and threw him in the trunk. Revenge was ours! Finally, with two pigs and a ram in the back, three cages of poultry on the roof, and the car full of people, we headed out to the market in San Pedro Maldonado.

My first thought upon arriving at the market was that I should have brought my camera. In front of us was a row of trucks, checking in at the gate. On our right was a sea of cattle, horses, and mules. I was a little concerned not to see any chickens, geese, pigs, or sheep at the market, but the man handing out vendor tickets pointed us in the right direction for the small animal area. A mass of people blocked our way – women in traditional clothes with baskets of eggs and honey, families trailing calves on leashes behind them, and hundreds of salty old farmers inspecting livestock and chattering animatedly amongst themselves. Ellen hopped out of the car and cleared the way for Ingo, who isn’t the sort of person to let a crowd stop him from driving exactly where he wants to go. We found a space to park the jeep and hopped out to start selling. As the crowd swarmed around the car to see what we’d brought, I realized I was glad we hadn’t brought our cameras after all.

Farmers four deep pressed against us as we unloaded the chickens from the car. We didn’t even have the chance to get the cages off the roof before they were peppering us with questions – How old? Are they laying? Could he lift one to weigh it? What breed? What price? Would we accept four dollars each? It was impossible to answer everybody and still get the animals out of the car and on display in our market space. I decided to ignore the crowds and handle the feed bags with the two piglets inside. The pigs were on harnesses, but I wasn’t sure I could stop the mass of people from distracting me and making off with them, so I left them in the bags and let people poke and prod them from there. Within three minutes, I had buyers willing to pay Ingo’s prices, and we entered hot negotiations over whether the price included the harness. Less than ten minutes after entering the market gates, the pigs were sold – it occurred to me to hope that nobody was using the market to launder fake currency, because in this chaotic atmosphere we’d never have the chance to notice.

We sold the animals almost as fast as we could unload them from the car. The geese we sold in pairs, and Ingo held them out for the crowd to see as he sexed them. Ellen and I chuckled to ourselves – no matter what gender Ingo declared, the people nearest him confirmed and loudly proclaimed as truth to whoever wanted to buy the pair of geese. The three pairs were placed in feed bags and carried off by their new owners as fast as Ingo could count the money coming in. Next to go were the chickens – we dropped the price to $9 a pair, and the birds sold faster than we could count them. We had to turn away customers, and some people were begging to be allowed to drive to the farm to buy more. I imagined them descending on the farm like locusts, devouring everything they could find. Ingo did his best to dissuade them.

The last animal to be sold was the ram. We had dumped him unceremoniously onto the ground in front of the car, and nobody had paid attention to the bound sheep at their feet as they bought up the birds and pigs. Once the bustle had died down a bit, though, we untied him and let him stand, and the crowd came back to inspect him. Ingo’s asking price was too high, and the farmers counteroffered and mumbled amongst themselves about the ram’s true value. Ingo insisted we hold firm, and wandered off to look at bulls while Ellen and I watched the ram, and his stepdaughters fetched coffee and snacks. We got a dozen offers of a hundred dollars, but Ingo had already dropped the price from $180 to $140 and we weren’t to go any lower. The girls came back with coffee in elegant porcelain cups with saucers, and we sipped our coffee while the farmers bickered over the ram’s price. When Ingo came back, he joined in the haggling and soon sold the ram for $100. The last animal had been sold less than half an hour after we’d driven into the market.

Ingo was totally delighted with his first market experience as a vendor. Even after we’d sold everything, customers kept approaching to ask if they could place orders for the next time we came. Visions of dollar signs danced in his head as Ingo tried to figure out what he could sell next week. The buyers didn’t limit themselves to livestock, either – Ingo got an offer on his jeep, as well. A cattle farmer would gladly trade thirty young bulls for it. Lucky for us, Ingo didn’t have alternative transportation or space for thirty bulls, or we’d have been walking home. As it was, we drove off with money in our pockets, smiles on our faces, and the roof of the car stacked high with empty bird cages.

This rooster will be the next to go - he keeps eating my seedlings in the greenhouse!

This rooster will be the next to go – he keeps eating my seedlings in the greenhouse!

If Hollywood is to be believed, whenever a woman travels to a tropical destination, she becomes embroiled in a love affair with a dark, seductive local man with an exotic name and a thick accent. My mother, only half-jokingly, asked me not to fall in love with anybody on this trip, lest I set up house with him here and refuse to ever live in Canada again. I hate to disabuse anybody of the stereotype, but I am not taking on any hot young lovers here. On the contrary, I am struggling to prevent myself from strangling the local men when they make their clumsy, overly-aggressive advances.

I knew before I left home that Latin American machismo would mean I would be exposed to wolf whistles and heavy-handed pick-up attempts. I had even considered wearing a fake wedding ring to dissuade persistent unwanted attention, as I had sometimes resorted to in Asia. I decided against it, but I find myself regretting that decision. I am getting pretty tired of the local men’s dogged insistence that I should fall madly in love with them. I hate to say it, but it just isn’t going to happen.

Last week, for example, I hired a taxi to take me back to the farm after my day in town. The driver started out by regaling me with the history of the town and its tourism industry, which made for a mildly entertaining story to pass the hour-long ride. Unfortunately, my attention to the conversation backfired, when the driver decided my interest extended to the contents of his pants. Suddenly the topic veered from birdwatching to how he’d like me to spend the night with him. I politely declined, and changed the subject back to birds. He offered to take me camping in the jungle overnight to show me the local wildlife, including the wildest life I could imagine, nudge nudge, wink wink, if you know what I mean. I refused even more firmly, and asked him to stop talking about this.

This is when the conversation turned from annoying pick-up attempt to persistence bordering on the unreal. The driver started saying I was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. I told him to can it, and besides there are plenty of pretty women around town. He replied that none were like me, and I told him to forget about it and find a woman who actually wanted a relationship, rather than one who clearly didn’t. He started trying to convince me that I did want a relationship. Didn’t I want a hot, romantic fling in the jungles of Ecuador? (No, and certainly not with a 45-year-old taxi driver who was almost certainly married.) Wouldn’t I like to have a good time? (No, I was having a much nicer time when I wasn’t being harassed by horny local men.) My refusal of his every advance did nothing to dissuade him from spending the entire remainder of the hour-long drive pestering me to sleep with him.

When I eventually got back to the farm and told the story, reactions and suggestions varied. Ingo, the seven-foot-tall German farmer, said I should have repeatedly told the driver to shut up, getting ruder each time, and then refused to pay him upon getting out of the vehicle. Genny, his wife, who is an Ecuadorian woman and has had similar experiences with the men here, said that there was little I could have done, but that the driver had been inappropriate and that she’d lodge a complaint against him. Ingo offered to stand over her shoulder as she confronted him, baring his new shotgun. One of the other volunteers suggested that I pretend to be a lesbian, or married, and keep up the charade the entire time I was in Latin America. I don’t imagine that would deter the offenders, though, and I don’t see why I should have to live a lie to avoid repeated unwelcome advances on a regular basis.

Overall, I have no idea whether there’s anything I can do differently to discourage the persistent attentions of random men. I carry a knife in my purse, in case any of them thinks of going further than trying to pursuade me, but pulling a weapon on someone who is more annoying than threatening would probably only escalate the situation. On the bright side, though, at least I can assure my mother that I’m unlikely to fall in love with anybody in the near future, unless men in other South American countries show a different kind of machismo than what I’ve seen in Colombia and Ecuador so far.

After almost a week away, Jacob the dog came back. We woke up to his smiling face first thing Sunday morning, but this time he’d worn out his welcome. As we were doing morning chores, we found that sure enough, the dog had disinterred the remains of the dead goat again, and the donkey to boot. I felt as if we were in a black and white comedy movie – I could imagine us as inept criminal characters, scurrying to bury our victim, while the film plays faster than life and the jangle of banjos accompanies our bumbling plight. With the cops on our tails, we hide the body, trying to cover up the evidence of our crime, only to have the dog dig it up, time and again. If I weren’t so frustrated by the situation, I’d be laughing.

Last week, when we repeatedly buried the goat, it was still recognizably Jackson’s mother. This time, the body was something else entirely. Her face and legs were mostly gone. The smell was awful. We needed to put the goat to rest once and for all, but how? There was no way to move her body to a new site, and her final resting place, at the bottom of a deep hole and buried in sand, was obviously inadequate. To make matters worse, the donkey who’d died the day before her was buried in the same place, and the dog had found them both. After a quick pow-wow, we decided on a strategy. We’d bury her deep in sand, lay strong wire mesh fencing overtop, and weight it down with rocks to keep Jacob from getting under or around it. Ellen covered the goat and donkey with a thick layer of sand, while I went with another volunteer, Sami, to fetch the two heavy six-meter lengths of fencing.

Sami is a nice guy, but painfully slow at everything he does. I decided that rather than walking the weighty building material at a snail’s pace down the driveway to the animal field, we should tie it up into a cylinder, then roll it down the hill. It took a bit of time to explain the plan to Sami, but soon we got the fencing tied to my satisfaction and we were ready to roll. Sami took the wheel first. He pushed it a meter, stopped it, and adjusted the direction. He let it roll a moment, stopped it, adjusted again. Soon it had been five minutes and we’d gone less than ten meters. I was getting irritated.

I took the roll of mesh off Sami’s hands and pulled it toward myself, while running backwards. The material rolled a solid fifteen meters before I stopped it. I aimed it further down the driveway and gave it another good start, and caught it again after fifteen meters. Sami tried again. He let it roll about two meters before stopping to adjust its direction again. I called to him (okay, maybe I yelled at him) to let it roll faster. He looked at me, then gave the fence roll a giant shove, which sent it careening down the cliff off the side of the driveway. It raced toward the horses, who bolted in panic in the direction of the deep open hole and Ellen. Images of my sister trampled, being crushed under a fallen horse, and the horses breaking their legs as they lept across the open pit, into the fish pond, or off one of the many cliffs, flashed through my mind as the roll of fencing sped toward the animals. I finally let out the breath I hadn’t known I was holding when the roll stopped when it hit the fence. Sami grinned at me. “I was curious.”

Not the goat - this was the horse that fell off the cliff. You don't want to see a picture of the goat, and I didn't want to take it.

Not the goat – this was the horse that fell off the cliff. You don’t want to see a picture of the goat, and I didn’t want to take it.

A few minutes later, we had the fencing laid on top of the goat and donkey’s graves, and we started to make the burial site an impenetrable fortress. We gathered about sixty large rocks, as big as we could roll or carry, and surrounded the entire two by six meter area with stones holding the wire down. We spent two hours on the project, digging sand and hauling large stones in the heat of the ecuatorial morning, before we were satisfied with our work. I fervently hope that this animal graveyard will remain free of scavengers, and that Jackson’s mother Anise and the donkey will finally be able to rest in peace. I do not want to bury this damned animal again.

Baby goats, who know nothing about Anise's body buried only a few meters away from their pen. I hope we can keep it that way.

Baby goats, who know nothing about Anise’s body buried only a few meters away from their pen. I hope we can keep it that way.

A couple of weeks ago, Ellen and I hitchhiked to the beach in Canoa and back to the farm. Our rides on the way home stood in stark contrast to the amiable drivers who ferried us to the beach resort town at the beginning of the weekend. If you’ve ever considered picking up a hitchhiker or two, especially a backpacker or tourist on vacation, let me pass along some advice on the topic!

On Route Planning:
Do: Ask where they’re going and offer advice or suggestions on local activities, foods, and attractions. One friendly truck driver actually pulled over to let us sample local fruits from a roadside stand. We love talking about local food and culture, so meeting someone with knowledge of the area is always a plus.
Don’t: Try to demand that the hitchhiker change their plans to accompany you instead, or insist that the road you’re planning on taking, miles out of the way, is just as good for them as the route they’ve named. One couple who drove us home from the beach took us hundreds of kilometers in the wrong direction and informed us that it would be fine for us. This kind of helpfulness is not appreciated by weary travellers hoping to get to their destination in time to get dinner and a hostel room.

Delicious local fruit bought for us as a snack by a friendly truck driver

Delicious local fruit bought for us as a snack by a friendly truck driver

On Conversation Topics:
Do: Start a friendly conversation about their travels or careers, and your country and culture. Pick a topic that you’ll be comfortable discussing for awhile, especially if you’re taking them a long way.
Don’t: Interrogate them about their life choices while rapidly speaking in local slang, refusing to allow them to change the subject. (Why aren’t you married yet? Don’t you like men? Aren’t you getting old? Don’t you want children? Would you object to dating an Ecuadorian man? I know a few men who might like to marry you. Can I introduce you?)

On Stopping for a Meal:
Do: Offer to buy them a meal or snack, if the mood strikes you. I’ve shared many a hot meal with travelling companions, and been able to call them a friend by the end of the meal. There’s something special about breaking bread with people that brings them closer. Ellen and I have fond memories of the awkward rides that became much more animated when we opened a box of cookies or other snacks.
Don’t: Repeatedly ask them to go out to dinner with you, date you, or justify their refusal to do so, announcing that you’ve fallen madly in love with them in the half hour you’ve spent together. Seriously. This happened.

On Keeping in Touch:
Do: Offer to exchange contact information if you’ve hit it off. You never know, the hitchhiker may be passing through town again sometime.
Don’t: Beg to know when you can see them again, repeatedly asking them for an address where you can drop in to see them unannounced. This is creepy.

On Parting Ways:
Do: Let them exit the car where they ask to be dropped, letting them off safely on the side of the road. Most hitchhikers have looked at a road map and have planned their route.
Don’t: Refuse to stop to let them out because of the weather or because you don’t know if they’ll get another ride promptly enough. This is not cool. If I want to get out, it’s probably because I have to go this way, in which case taking me elsewhere doesn’t help. The other reason I ask to be let out of the car is because you’re creeping me out or disturbing me, in which case refusing to let me get out of the car only makes it worse.

Much more comfy than a cramped bus seat!

Much more comfy than a cramped bus seat!

Really, I feel as if this advice shouldn’t have to be given. Ellen and I hitchhike because we usually find it more pleasant than taking a bus. We aren’t restricted to schedules, we get to take the scenic route, we have a larger choice of destinations, including those off the beaten path, we tend to meet more people and have better conversations, and we usually have better leg room and a more comfortable ride in private cars. However, I think after our experience the other week, we won’t be accepting rides from lonely Ecuadorian truck drivers again anytime soon.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Piglets contemplating which way to go next

Piglets contemplating which way to go next

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

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

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

This place looks magical when the clouds roll in.

This place looks magical when the clouds roll in.

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

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



Yesterday we explored Popayán, The White City. Popayán is known as the second-prettiest city in Colombia. (I’m not sure how prettiness is measured, but the guidebook can’t be wrong.) The city is fairly small, with older white buildings lining brick and cobblestone streets.

Most of the architecture in Popayan is white, hence its nickname: La Ciudad Blanca

Most of the architecture in Popayan is white, hence its nickname: La Ciudad Blanca

I meant to go out at sunrise to take pictures of the churches in the morning light against the dawn sky. Sadly, when I woke up at six, the hostel doors were locked and I couldn’t go out. Luckily the weather wasn’t cooperating anyway, and Ellen and I had shared a bottle of aguardiente and chatted with the other hostel guests in our dorm until late into the night, so I wasn’t too disappointed to go back to bed. We were woken up a few hours later by the sounds of singing. The hostel shares a wall with the cathedral in the main square, and the music carries – not a bad way to wake up!

One of the many white churches in town

One of the many white churches in town

At a reasonable hour of the late morning, Ellen and I finally emerged from the hostel, camera in hand, to explore the city. Once again, luck was against us – almost every store and coffee shop was closed because it was Sunday. We wandered across a bridge into a market, which was as different from Santa Rosa’s market as we could imagine. Where Santa Rosa’s market was clean and organized, this one was filthy. Half-chewed cow skulls littered the aisles, fought over by mangy-looking street dogs. Vegetable garbage like pea pods and mouldy fruit were tossed into the dirt on the street, where they were crushed into the puddles by passing cars. Meat stalls had cuts of raw meat unrefrigerated, with flies and wasps buzzing around. I wasn’t the least bit tempted to try any local specialties.

Not cool, Popayan! Dead cow parts and garbage being gnawed on by dogs in the street

Not cool, Popayan! Dead cow parts and garbage being gnawed on by dogs in the street

The vegetable and fruit stands sold a nice variety of fruit, but Ellen and I found we had lost our appetites, and we started to leave the market without buying anything. A little old lady grabbed my wrist as I walked past and asked if I’d buy some herbs, which led me to remember that the supermarket near the hostel doesn’t sell cilantro. That was our only purchase in the market, though, and we hastened a retreat to the cleaner streets nearer the hostel. Luckily, on our way out of that part of town, we spotted a store selling plain brown ponchos with hoods, so I finally got my warm sweater that I’ve been looking for.

One of the nicer fruit stands - the vendor said I could take a picture, but I just couldn't bring myself to buy anything.

One of the nicer fruit stands – the vendor said I could take a picture, but I just couldn’t bring myself to buy anything.

Back in the nice part of town, once again nothing was open. After exploring all other options, we entered a coffee shop that someone told us was part of a large chain. It had Starbucks-like drinks and prices, and its ambiance was like a Canadian coffee shop. We looked at each other and left again – it wasn’t what we were looking for. Instead, we crossed the street to the plaza, where we watched the birds, ate an ice cream, and spotted a stray llama grazing in the bushes.

Llama in the park! Later the owner put a saddle on it and gave rides to children.

Llama in the park! Later the owner put a saddle on it and gave rides to children.

In the afternoon, we decided to go back out on the town a second time in pursuit of opportunities for photography. The sky was dark with grey clouds, and I thought it would make good contrast against the white buildings. We headed in the direction of a small hill with a statue overlooking the town. As we started ascending the hill, a couple of fat drops of rain started to fall. There was a mass exodus of sightseers from the top of the mountain as the raindrops increased in frequency.

Run! Run away from the storm!

Run! Run away from the storm!

By the time we were at the top of the hill, we were in a torrential downpour and were the only ones in the area. I took my couple of pictures, trying to keep the camera dry. We were laughing in the rain and slipping in the mud on the way back down to take shelter in a stand of bamboo, where we bumped into a couple of vendors waiting out the storm. We were so sodden, though, that after a few minutes we abandoned our damp bamboo haven and walked through the downpour in the direction of the hostel, attracting stares from the locals huddled under the eaves of houses along the streets.

We got pretty wet, but it was fun!

We got pretty wet, but it was fun!

On a positive note, the roads and plazas were completely empty as we walked home, providing opportunities for all sorts of photos of white buildings and dark sky reflected in the wet stone streets.

We have the plaza to ourselves, with a nice view of the cathedral

We have the plaza to ourselves, with a nice view of the cathedral