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I am constantly surprised, here in Latin America, at how little goes to waste compared to life at home. Prices seem cheap here, but a day’s wage doesn’t go very far, and so people consume exactly what they need and no more. Some people find it hard to adapt to the idea, but I appreciate the change in attitude to waste products.

One example is packaging. At home, when you buy eggs, they might come in a plastic or paper carton, with a full-colour printed label, destined for the trash. Here, eggs are bought by the flat, and when the eggs are gone, the paper flat is used as a seed starting tray, before being composted and returned to the earth. Individually wrapped convenience foods for snacking on the go are also much less common – more often, you’ll see men and women with baskets of fresh-cooked empanadas or steamed corn selling their wares to consumers in a hurry. Nobody seems worried about germs, or the bogeyman poisoning their food – people just buy their food and eat it. Maybe on a continent where the big issues include guerrillas and drug wars, perfectly sanitized and sealed food products are nobody’s top concern. No matter the reason, it’s refreshing to be able to buy a snack on the street without having to throw away three layers of plastic to get at it.

Almost nothing goes to waste on the farm, either. The groceries are bought and brought home in wooden boxes, which are used to store food in the kitchen. Broken ones are taken apart, split into pieces, and repurposed as labels for rows in the garden. When we finish a bottle of cooking oil, the plastic bottle can be used as a plant pot, a weight to hold down the greenhouse roof, or a container for screws, natural bug repellent, or kindling for the fire. Larger empty bottles, if they can’t be reused or exchanged for full ones, are split in half to use as animal feeders. Even little things, like pieces of wire or bent nails, are straightened and put aside for smaller uses. Jam jars, beer bottles, and animal feed bags are returned to the stores that sold them so none are wasted. The family even brings in extra glass jars to the local butter maker, so we don’t have unnecessary plastic containers.

Every activity I do, I’m pleasantly surprised at how little waste I can produce. I get up in the morning, and use the washroom. It’s a composting toilet, so the toilet paper, and its packaging and cardboard roll, all get composted. There is no sewage. The toothbrush, toothpaste, and soap came in plastic which is unfortunately thrown away, but most of the food for breakfast was bought in bulk and stored in reusable containers. The dishes are washed with a biodegradeable soap, which goes through the grey water system and doesn’t harm the plants or the earth. Our projects around the farm produce no waste at all – the cement bags are used as fire starter for the hot tub, and building materials are used repeatedly until they’ve rotted into the earth.

One of the hammocks breaks when I’m sitting in it – the goat has chewed a hole in the side and it tears when he jumps on me. The hammock is put in the free clothing bin, where it is promptly claimed for patches to repair people’s torn jeans and work shirts. People abandon their spare clothing here regularly, and new volunteers are constantly finding they need different clothes for work than they’d packed. Ellen and I have abandoned a few summer dresses and exchanged them for pants and long sleeved shirts. We’re tempted to leave our spare shoes behind as well – shoes are heavy to carry – because we know nothing here goes to waste. Someone will come along who needs an extra pair.

The destructive little culprit, sleeping in the hammock like he owns the place.

The destructive little culprit, sleeping in the hammock like he owns the place.

At home, I never thought much about garbage. I put something in a black plastic bag on the side of the street, and somebody takes it away. I never have to see it or think about it again. Here, things are much more visible. There’s no reason to put stuff in a landfill when it can be reborn as something useful. With little access to materials, you’d better make sure you don’t throw anything away that might come in handy later. Quite often when we go into town, the items we were looking for aren’t available, and won’t be brought in for several weeks. When that happens, we’re grateful for the things we saved to reuse later. It’s a lesson that we would do well to learn in North America as well. With too many resources at our fingertips, we value none of them. Here, where buying something to solve your problems is a luxury and a last resort, every last drop of use is squeezed out of every item we own. I hope I can remember that lesson when I leave Latin America, and pass it on to others.


You don’t consider, most days, how much consumerism affects you. I like to think of myself as less of a consumer and buyer than most people, but the lure of buying things is always there. Living out of a backpack makes me more aware of it, though, because the space and weight restriction prevents my acting on the urge to buy. So, rather than buying anything, I will regale you with stories of things I have so far resisted buying.

First and foremost is a hammock. In my first week in Latin America, I slept in a hammock, and it was wonderful. They’re also comfortable for napping, chatting, blogging, and reading, and I would love to own one. I haven’t finished exploring Latin America yet, but I am confident in stating that every tourist stall from Mexico to Argentina has at least a dozen hammocks in different colours, styles, and weaves. Sadly, I am already carrying a tent as my mobile sleeping arrangement, and tents are more practical. They provide protection in all weather, keep mosquitoes away, keep your belongings away from prying eyes, and don’t require sturdy trees or beams from the ceiling to set up. A tent is a much better option than a hammock, but that won’t stop me drooling over hammocks whenever I see them in shops.

Pure comfort right there, baby!

Pure comfort right there, baby!

A digital SLR camera comes in a close second in terms of temptation. Ellen and I are travelling with two cameras – my cellphone and a five-year-old point-and-shoot Canon digital camera. The battery charger on the Canon has died, so we briefly discussed replacing it before discovering that universal battery chargers are about $2, so the camera lives on. Still, whenever we take pictures, we comment on how a camera with more options would allow us to improve our photography. We could adjust the focus to exactly where we want it, something I’ve been playing with when taking pictures of flowers with a cityscape background. With a true photographer’s camera, we might have a chance to capture scenery or sunset shots that more closely resemble the beauty we see. For me, the digital SLR will remain a pipe dream, unless Ellen decides to splurge.

Sure, it LOOKS pretty, but this isn't half as nice as it could be.

Sure, it LOOKS pretty, but this isn’t half as nice as it could be.

Finally, there are all the little things that tempt me to spend money I don’t have on things I don’t need. I have five outfits, for example, and only one of them keeps me warm enough on a cool evening. I absolutely don’t need to look at pretty summer dresses. (I have not yet been tempted by a long-sleeve shirt or a sweater. This is frustrating, as that’s what I’d allow myself to buy if I found one.) I don’t look at the jewelry (much to the disappointment of street vendors everywhere) but lovely handmade woven purses catch my eye again and again. I already own a purse (and it’s handwoven) so I really don’t need another one, but I can’t help but look. I have two pairs of glasses with me, but both have broken and been repaired repeatedly, and both fall off my face if I make sudden movements. I could replace them, but I can still see just fine through them.

Usually, Ellen and I are travelling mostly in the countryside, so we don’t get many chances to be tempted to buy things. In Costa Rica, we had to walk twenty minutes to buy a beer, which was the only thing there was to buy in the village. When we did make our way into towns, we had lists of things that had worn out and needed replacing or repairing. This month, though, Ellen and I are right smack-dab in the middle of town. We’re trying to keep our purchases limited to groceries, but the temptation to buy things we don’t need is always with us. Luckily, the weight of my backpack and my reluctance to lug it around with yet more stuff in it keeps the temptation at the back, rather than the front of my mind.

And I feel fine. Or at least, I think I do. This post was pre-written before we left Panama City. We should be back to civilization tomorrow, unless the world ended today.

Here in Costa Rica, unlike in Canada, labour is cheap and natural materials are abundant. That means that when you want something, it’s easier to make it than to buy it, and people show a great deal of pride in their workmanship. Everybody, it seems, is adept at design and construction. It’s a creatively satisfying way of living.


Make your own toilet seat? Why not?

All the buildings on the farm here appear to have been built by hand. The nails, screws, and pieces of roofing were bought, but the wood and bamboo came from the woods and jungle surrounding the farm. Javier, on his farm tour, points out which trees he planted for wood, which ones repel insects, and which attract scarlet macaws. In my first week here, I helped sand and varnish a cabana for guests, which now provides a more private option for couples volunteering on the farm. I assume the millwork on the wood was done elsewhere, but the cabin was designed and built by hand with local materials.


The cabana

Every morning, we meet to plan the day’s projects in a structure called the rancho, which is an open building made from insect-repellent wood. From its pillars hang hammocks, but when the volunteers outnumber the hammocks, many people end up standing. One of last week’s projects was to build, sand, paint, and varnish stools and benches to provide seating in the rancho. Where in Canada one would run out to Ikea and buy an eight-dollar plastic stool or folding chair, here it makes more sense to create one yourself. Almost all the volunteers have enjoyed the opportunity to try their hands at measuring, sawing, sanding, or painting these stools, whereas a stool at home would probably just be a place to park one’s rear while participating in the morning meeting.


Handmade stools

Mario, the grandfather here on the farm, is especially talented at repairing tools. He can make a perfect replica of a storebought shovel handle out of a more durable wood, down to carving the original brand name and logo down the side. (Try as he might, Nick, the volunteer coordinator, cannot induce Mario to carve his own name into the shovel handle on the repaired tools.) Mario also built a sugarcane press by hand out of wood. This nifty contraption has two people turning the handles to crush the mature sugarcanes, while a third feeds sugarcane into the machine, and a fourth makes sure the cane juice pours into the bucket below. Mario designed the machine and carved each piece of wood to fit perfectly, so that the canes are crushed between the smooth logs of the press.


Feeding sugarcane into the press

Even beverages are more commonly made than bought. Ellen and I indulge in a few beers a week carried up the hill from the pub in the village, but the family usually drinks homebrewed alcohol. Ellen and I experimented with making chicha, the local moonshine, out of orange juice, which we hand-squeezed, mixed with cane syrup, and left in a bottle in the shade for two weeks. Every day, we shook it and let the air out as it fermented. Traditionally, chicha is made from corn or pineapple, but since there are an abundance of oranges at the moment, we decided to give orange chicha a shot. Since we’re leaving this week, we tasted it last night, although the local chicha takes about a month to brew. It needed more sugar, but it was certainly drinkable and pleasant.


The remains of the orange chicha

We have definitely enjoyed being here for almost a month. Since we’ve been here, in addition to the projects above, we’ve built a trough for the pig, set up a library in one of the dorms, built a roof over the hydroponic garden, planted a flower garden to attract butterflies and hummingbirds, and terraced several hills for planting. Ellen designed and built an orange picker out of a canvas sack on a long stick, with a sharp piece of plastic to help pull the orange off the branch. I assembled eight stools and painted four of them, and sanded and varnished a table. Ellen and I will leave at the end of the week, and I’m excited to imagine what new projects our next volunteering stint will have in store for us.

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

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


My work outfit with nifty matching leggings

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


Bra pre-repairal

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

It’s a wonderful feeling to know that if I won a million dollars today, I wouldn’t actually change my plans. Both my travel plans and my future plans would pretty much stay the same. Details would change, I’m sure – I might eat at a better restaurant or take the more expensive tour, but my goals and way of travelling would be consistent with what I’m doing now. At the moment, I want to experience a fairly typical Latin American lifestyle. With or without money, I think a good way to achieve that is to stay with a family and volunteer, as we’re doing now. Admittedly, this farm is set up for international volunteers, but we’re eating Costa Rican style and learning how people in this part of the world live. A sudden influx of cash wouldn’t really change anything in that respect.


This baby would be replaced with a digital SLR and a waterproof camera, though!

Over the next few months, Ellen and I don’t really have plans. We intend to visit our cousin Daisy in Colombia at some point before March, but other than that our itinerary is open. We are a bit torn about whether to go north or south – every country in Latin America holds such appeal that we’re having trouble deciding. If we had a million dollars, we could make decisions a bit more easily, perhaps, because we would know that we’d be able to afford to fly back if we changed our minds. But on the whole, we’d still be travelling overland and by boat because we enjoy going slowly and watching the land pass us by rather than arriving out of context in a new destination. My long term plans, too, are fairly open. I’d like to make a career out of writing over the next few years, especially travel food writing and a few children’s books. Even with enough money to not need to work, I would still want a career for my own feelings of happiness and self-worth. If I had a million dollars, I’d be able to go ahead and write some of my book ideas without worrying about whether they’d be publishable when I’m finished. So overall, a change in my financial circumstances wouldn’t make enough of a difference in my life to matter. Maybe that’s why I don’t feel the need to worry about where I’ll live when this trip is over. I’m keeping my eye out for someplace that feels like home, and keeping my ears open for opportunities that might suit me. We’ll see where I end up. Wherever it is, I won’t need the money in my bank account to feel like a million dollars.

I have travelled a lot in the past twelve years, and this trip feels a little different. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still doing a rock-bottom budget trip. I hope to spend no more than $300 to $500 a month Canadian. However, this time I’ve got a little luxury that really makes the difference for me.
Travelling with my phone was the best decision I made on this trip. When I got to Costa Rica, on the first day I bought a SIM and put it in my phone, and it has worked like a charm ever since. It cost me about $6, and two weeks later I still haven’t used up my prepaid data and airtime minutes.
I’ve been able to check Facebook and Gmail, which has been a huge luxury for me. We managed to arrange a Skype conversation with my parents, who are on vacation in England, because I happened to catch them online when I used my phone to check the time. When the immigration officer in San Jose wanted proof of our intention to leave the country, he let me show him an e-mail from our travel agent that I’d saved on my phone.
We arrived three days ago at a hostel and volunteer host farm two hours away from the nearest mid-sized town. The little village has an internet cafe but not much else, and the internet at said cafe has been down for over a month. The other volunteers had been unable to communicate with their families for weeks, and yet when I checked my phone I had both reception and internet access. It made me so thankful I’d decided to bring the phone.
To be honest, it feels as if I’m cheating a bit by being so in touch with everyone while I’m on the road, but it’s a luxury I don’t want to give up. What the heck, I’m 32. I can take what I like on my trip, and not have to justify it to anyone. And if I decide to drop off the face of the internet later, I can do that, but for the moment I’m really enjoying being in the middle of nowhere with full access to the rest of everywhere.

I have finally sold my car – she was a great vehicle, and I enjoyed driving her immensely. I hope she brings great joy to her new owner. I’ll miss you, car!

My faithful and reliable car has found a new home. Wish her luck!

It’s very hard to pack for a trip when you don’t know how long you’ll be gone, where you’re going, or what you’re doing when you get there. However, I’ve decided to go off on this adventure, and so pack I must. I’m sure in a month or two or six, I’ll be able to tell you what was useful and what I got rid of, but here is what I’m taking, so far. Keep in mind that besides an outfit or two for cold weather that I’m leaving at my parents’ place, I’ve gotten rid of everything I own that isn’t coming with me.

  • Clothing: 1 pair of pants, 1 pair of shorts, 3 dresses, 2 t-shirts, 1 long sleeved shirt, 1 thin cashmere sweater, 1 light hoody, 2 pairs of leggings, 4.5 pairs of socks (I can’t bear to throw away the half-pair because it’s my favourite), 2 swimsuits, and undies for seven days. 1 thin rain jacket, 1 toque (will trade for lighter hat when I get there), 1 pair of hiking boots, 1 pair of sandals, possibly 1 pair of light runners.
  • Toiletries: toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, chapstick, prescription painkillers, feminine hygiene, Q-tips, toothpicks, hand towel, deodorant, hand cream (might not take that), spare glasses, contact lenses + solution, condoms (thanks, mum!)
  • Gear: 1-man tent, sleeping bag, silk sleeping bag liner, collapsable water bottle, 2 knives, waterproof backpack liner, wrist brace (may abandon if physiotherapist says I won’t need it), purse (will trade for day bag when I get there), flashlight (manual wind-up powered), alarm clock (although my phone might do – we’ll see), miniature hot water bottle (I like to be warm when I sleep).
  • Entertainment: phone (with e-books and music on it), earphones, solar charger, computer (for blogging, writing, and movies), computer charger (too big for solar charger), camera (for Ellen to use – I’ll use my phone for pictures), camera charger, journal/sketchbook, a pen or pencil, a few sheets of watercolour paper, a travel set of acrylic paints and brushes (but I’ll do them watercolour style), a penny whistle (that I can’t play until my wrist heals better, and may get rid of, but not yet), 5 dice for yahtzee, a travel cribbage set, a deck of cards.

It seems like such a lot of stuff, and yet it all fits into my backpack, without anything strapped to the outside except my hiking boots. And then, it doesn’t seem like so much stuff if I consider that that’s EVERYTHING I intend to own for a while. I wish I could justify a pillow, though! What would you / did you take on a grand adventure?