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

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

    A sketch that I'm particularly pleased with

    A sketch that I’m particularly pleased with

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

    An addition to the farmhouse that I helped work on.

    An addition to the farmhouse that I helped work on.

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

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

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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.

According to the guidebooks, Ecuador has a bad rap for environmental issues. Hillsides are deforested, rainforest is exploited, and natural habitats for animals are destroyed by money-hungry corporations. My experience here, though, seems to show that somebody cares about the environment, which is a nice thing to see. Everywhere Ellen and I have been in Ecuador has been plastered with billboards and signs urging the population to protect the land. Unlike in Canada, where the government seems to encourage raping the land to make money, it’s refreshing to see that Ecuador’s politicians are at least paying lip service to environmental protection.

“Water is Life.” So say the signs through the mountains discouraging locals from pouring waste in the rivers and streams. In Colombia the waterways were common dumping grounds for garbage. People just chucked their trash wherever they happened to be at the time. Colombia still has guerrillas in the mountains, and the government is focused on fighting insurgents rather than caring for the land. Here in Ecuador, the government would like to remind you that life is safer now, and consequently the people should make the effort to care for their country a little, too.

"No to Indiscriminate Fishing" - A sign in a village near a river.

“No to Indiscriminate Fishing” – A sign in a village near a river.

“We are the Generation of the Revolution.” I saw this tagline everywhere, from the coast to the mountains and in all the towns and cities between. It featured on billboards throughout the country, letting Ecuadorians know how much better they have it than in the past, and what improvements they can make for their children. Quality education, safe roads, living with dignity, access to health care – all these things are new for Ecuador, and the government doesn’t want anyone to forget it.

It may all be propaganda, political posturing, and empty words, but it’s heartening to see the signs around the country that somebody cares enough to keep this place beautiful. Protect the water. Don’t overfish the rivers or seas. Save the old-growth trees. Use resources wisely. Give your children a country that’s cleaner and safer than the one your parents left you. These are messages I wish Canadian politicians would endorse and share with the country’s people. Maybe one day, these values will be so ingrained in global culture that the billboards will be quaint and unnecessary. I hope my children’s generation will roll their eyes at the signs and wonder why anybody would need to be reminded of the obvious. But for now, when I see the signs, I’ll smile.

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!

Ingo and Genny’s farm sits on the south-facing side of a mountain in the heart of Ecuador’s cloud forest. It occupies six levels, from the upper slope of the mountain to the river below. These six levels are used for diverse purposes to create what the family hopes will be a self-sustainable permaculture system.

Ingo and Genny's farmhouse

Ingo and Genny’s farmhouse

The main level holds the farmhouse, a large, two-story structure built of local wood harvested from the forest. Its walls are thin, one inch thick with space between the planks ranging from a sixteenth of an inch to an inch. There is very little material or hardware that Ingo brought in – most doors don’t have handles, and windows have neither glass nor shutters. The roof is corrugated metal, with the occasional plastic panel to let in light. The roof also supports a solar energy system that runs the lights and allows the family and volunteers to charge the occasional electronic device.

Inside the house, most of the spaces are for sleep or storage. The house contains five bedrooms, in which three to four people apiece can sleep. A pantry stores food below the stairs, and a few shelves, chests, and tables hold books, games, and extra clothes in the main room downstairs. The room looks as if it was designed as a family living space, but it is never used for that. Instead, most of us spend our free time in the spacious outdoor cooking and eating area, gathered around the table or lounging in hammocks around the edges of the house.

At the corner of the outdoor living area is a large kitchen with a propane-powered oven and stove. There is no refrigerator, so fresh fruits and vegetables are stored in a hammock over the counter. A shelf of spices and dry goods hangs suspended from the ceiling, and open cupboards are built into the brick and mortar counters. Onions, potatoes, and other root vegetables are piled high in baskets made of wicker, kept under the counter by the deep kitchen sink. Two more sinks back onto the kitchen, used for washing plates and laundry. This side of the house has hundreds of meters of clothesline, suspended from trees to dry washing in the sun, and more from the building’s rafters to protect the damp laundry from the daily afternoon rainstorms.

Beside the laundry and kitchen is a storage area for wood and pet food, which leads to the shower and composting toilet. These are built of large bricks, with a tin roof from which a cat peers down to watch you sitting on the toilet. The composting toilet is surprisingly comfortable, consisting of a seat and platform over a bucket full of wood shavings. You use the bucket, top it with shavings from a bag next to you, and carry the bucket to the compost bin if you’ve left anything solid in it. At the compost bin, the waste is buried in leaves and the bucket rinsed and returned.

Composting toilet - height of luxury, I tell you!

Composting toilet – height of luxury, I tell you!

The shower is in the next room to the toilet, with a water heater built into the plastic showerhead. Showering can be a little unnerving, as the walls are only five feet high and give you a view of the fields behind the house as you shower. It’s worth it, though, as this is the only truly hot shower I’ve had in Latin America.

Behind the bathing area is a bamboo path through the fields to a greenhouse and the compost area. Both of these are impressive structures, the greenhouse 10m long and half as wide, and the composting system consisting of five compartments, including one for leaves. Even so, more building projects are underway; since we’ve been here, we’ve built a second greenhouse across from the first one, meant to be for tomatoes but currently serving as a nursery for chicks and baby goats.

If you leave the house by the boot rack rather than past the shower, even more outbuildings and projects catch your eye. A toolshed, attached to the house, supports a large woodpile beside it. Just beyond, a wood and bamboo frame has been erected since Ellen and I arrived, which serves as a carport. Past that, another bamboo path leads toward my favourite of Ingo’s projects, the hot tub. For this, a roughly square pool with a keyhole-shaped addition sticking out of one corner was dug by hand and lined with cement mortar. A tap diverts spring water from the mountain into the pool, and a drain returns it to the pipe leading it down the hill. The entire mass of water is heated by a fire in a steel oil drum, which has four vents to let in air and release smoke. A hot wood fire burning for six hours will heat the pool to a comfortable temperature, with adjustments being possible by turning on the cold water tap or stoking the fire with more wood. Across from the hot tub is a patch of cleared earth, destined to be a barbecue area with a pizza oven.

In the clearing between the hot tub and the greenhouse, Ingo and volunteers have planted dozens of fruit trees of all varieties. They are scattered throughout the long grass, peeking out at random intervals. If you look closely, you can also make out the backs of three pigs staked on ropes around the clearing, turning up the soil in places where Ingo plans to plant next. The fourth and largest of the pigs, Momma, is in a wire and bamboo pen which is moved every few days. Theoretically, her seven babies are with her, but more often the multicoloured piglets are rooting up Genny’s garden or raiding the dog food in the kitchen.

If you continue up the path, past the pigs and the trees, you come to a steep muddy trail up the mountain. A short scramble leads you to a wide clearing where banana trees and climbing plants grow undisturbed by the livestock. A few days ago, I planted mountain peanuts and unidentified climbing plants here (Ingo and Genny bought them and promptly forgot what they were). Several days later, we also planted the native species of blackberry vines, which were soon after crushed by a few trees falling on them, necessitating emergency repairs of the clearing. All of these planting areas are hard-won from the jungle, cleared by volunteers armed with machetes.

Past the banana field, about three times further up the trail, you will eventually reach another clearing in the dense jungle. This one is Ingo’s site for harvesting wood for building. Here in Ecuador, a land owner can cut as much wood as he can reasonably use for construction projects. This rule only applies to trees wider than a person’s thigh – smaller trees can be felled as needed. In this clearing in the past week, we cut, stacked, and hauled about 30 smaller trees, as well as planks and beams milled by chainsaw from three larger trees. This makes only a dent in the biomass of trees on the property, and Ingo assured the nature-lovers among us that even this will be replaced by the coffee and cacao he plans to plant in the clearing. Ingo’s land continues several hundred meters further up the mountain, but he hasn’t explored that far. Instead, he focuses his efforts on the lower elevations of the property.

The lower levels of Ingo’s land are separated from the farmhouse by a cheerful red wooden gate. Pass through the small pedestrian door on the left, and you reach the driveway, at the top of a huge sandy cliff. As you descend, you are surrounded by chickens, guinea hens, and sometimes geese, eagerly anticipating food. Should you approach the bin of corn at the base of the hill, they immediately form a cyclone at your feet – always counterclockwise; we’re south of the equator, after all. On your left is a gate in a barbed wire fence, leading to a chicken house: tall, warm, and dry, with roosts on the ceiling and nesting boxes along the walls. You will never find it occupied by a hen, although the llamas, sheep, and donkey occasionally use it for shelter from the rain.

Llamas!

Llamas!

A deep, muddy yard nearby holds a goat shed, also rarely occupied by the five Nubian goats, who would much rather be out exploring. They have broken through the fences so many times that Ingo doesn’t try to keep them contained anymore. They return every evening by sunset from the neighbour’s field, so they are left to roam in peace. The horses, sheep, and cows stay closer to home, wandering the ample fenced field and occasionally venturing across the road to a slightly greener pasture at the neighbour’s places. Inside their enclosure, a variety of projects are underway. There’s a corral for training the young foal and donkey, a tiny shed to hold the thirteen sheep, and concrete troughs for water and feeding. A pond in the middle of the field is full of water and was just seeded with two thousand baby tilapia, while another is being plastered with mortar and will serve as an overflow fish pond.

A steep path leads from the animals’ field to the next level down, which is mostly swampy ground. From here, Ingo harvests logs to grow mushrooms, and the goats and cow occasionally graze the lush grasses. Stumble through the brush to the next level (Carefully! A horse lost its life here two weeks ago when it got too close to a cliff!) and you’ll reach what Ingo calls the beach, the bank of the river. So far, there are no projects here, and Ingo discourages walking here lest the goats discover it and escape in its direction.

This huge property contains so many animals, plants, and people, full of potential and ideas for projects. Ingo wants to build a snail farm for escargot, a second house for his family, and a pool for swimming lengths. For another man, I would call those pipe dreams. Here, seeing what he’s done with volunteer labour and mostly hand tools, it sounds like a plan to me!

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.

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)

I am trying to reserve judgment on this place. I had expected more people, a more bustling commune. Our host, let’s call her Mary, lives here with one other person, a local teenager from a farm down the road. My cynical side wonders if he’s here because she feeds him more than his family could, and then I feel guilty for thinking it. The “Eco Yoga Farm” here isn’t bad, it’s just… sad.
The heart of the farm is a spacious house with room and beds for about fifteen. It has a kitchen, library, yoga room, workshop, and dining room open to the outdoors. It borders the river, and they’ve set up a swimming hole near their canoe and water pump. A bench sits on the sandy bank, overlooking the greenish water below. Beyond the fields of sugarcane along the opposite bank, dusty brown hills dominate the landscape.

The river as seen from the farm

The river as seen from the farm


Even with the river, the land here is dry. The soil is grey and sandy, parched after two months of drought. Despite the proximity of the river, not nearly enough water is making it to the plants. The land is not producing enough food to support the two full-time residents on the farm. I wonder if our host comes from money, or manages to fund the farm’s expenses through teaching yoga classes in town. Somehow neither seems likely. The money must come from somewhere, though, because she spends her time volunteering at the community’s primary school, and says she feeds a variety of local children when they feel like dropping by.
I’m not exactly sure which religion Mary practices, but it takes up most of her time. There are morning prayers, offerings before meals, and hare krishna chants playing on the computer speakers for much of the day. The bulk of her religious practice, though, seems to revolve around food. She’s vegetarian, of course.
The food here, despite my misgivings, is good. One of the tenets of Mary’s religion is that food must never be eaten before it is purified through some kind of ritual prayer. This means that you can’t taste what you’re cooking to season it, or take a bite of pasta or rice to check if it’s cooked. To me, this is unimaginable. How does a food culture develop, how are dishes perfected, if one can’t adjust the flavour based on real-time information? Even with this limitation, Mary’s food tastes good.
The food is purified by taking a small serving of each dish and presenting it as an offering, saying some sort of prayer, and after enough time has elapsed, returning it to the pot. Once added back to the rest of the food, it passes on its purified properties to the entire dish, and it can be served. This need to purify food extends to the kitchen sink, where there are different sponges to use for dishes that held purified food versus those that contained unpurified foods. Around the kitchen, various signs in English and Spanish state the rules, with accompanying quotes that fail to clarify the reasoning behind the practices, to me at least. On the fridge is a sign imploring me to think about what I’m eating, with illustrations to match. A hamburger has a speech bubble saying “moo”, and a hotdog “oink”. There is also a drawing of a cardboard Chinese food container which says “woof”. This last strikes me as more ignorant than thought-provoking.
Both Ellen and I decided to push ourselves to the boundary of our comfort zones in coming here. We anticipated there would be some philosophical points we would disagree with. We figured there would be important aspects of our lives that wouldn’t be welcome here. I had hoped, however, that the farm would be a lively place full of passionate people living their dreams. I wanted to be caught up in people’s enthusiasm for the lifestyle, drawn in by the sense of purpose and community. Instead, I feel as if I’m a visitor at a commune of one.
Our host has set out to build a community here, all by herself, but doesn’t seem to be working at attracting the like-minded to join her. Our conversations with her are often awkward and stunted. Her questions of us require simple yes-or-no responses that are hard to expand on. Our philosophical differences and ignorance of her belief system make us uncomfortable asking her the things we really want to know for fear of seeming judgmental. The questions we do ask are answered vaguely, with stilted and halting conversation being the order of the day.
I feel as if passing judgment on this place after less than 24 hours is unfair, and yet I’m having a hard time keeping an open mind. I needed this place to be run by a crusader, an evangelist for healthy living, meditation, community-building, and inner peace. I’m torn between giving her more time to open up and asking to be taken to the next bus out.
(Side note – photos aren’t uploading – I’ll add some next time I can)

I detest the cliche of leaving my old life behind to travel for a year and “find myself”, and so it is difficult to describe what I’m doing now without falling back on the term. I am travelling, yes. I like to say I’m looking for a place to fall in love with so I can stay there. It may be a physical place that I fall in love with, a community of like-minded individuals, or yes, even a person. I’m not seeking the truth or a higher power – I want to find a place to call home. I know who I am and it’s pretty close to who I want to be, but I want to discover where I want to be.

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A place like this might be too isolated for me

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Cartagena is a beautiful city but very hot and teeming with tourists

I know a lot about who I am already. I know I am a kind person, I know I am intelligent. I am aware of what makes me happy, and I am not just aimlessly wandering. I know that I like to throw myself heart and soul into projects, and I know I tire of those same projects if I work on them too long. I know those things about myself, and I don’t feel lost and in need of finding.

I am doing this because I want to learn more. I’m finding it really difficult to describe my skills and strengths when applying for volunteer positions because I don’t want to limit myself to doing only things I’m good at. A big part of this trip is developing new skills and seeing how others do things. I’m learning things I didn’t know were there to learn, things I’d never thought about before.

The balance I’m having trouble finding, though, is between meeting like-minded people and having an authentic experience. So many opportunities I find are to live sustainably in a 50-acre compound of North American expats practicing yoga and eating organic vegetarian meals while working on conservation projects in nearby jungles and setting up schools for the locals in their spare time. In fact, Ellen and I are on the verge of signing up for something similar to that for our next stop. I’m going to send them an e-mail as soon as I publish this post, but I have no idea whether this will be an awkward two weeks with people whose idea of nirvana is clearly not mine, or whether everything they’re doing will be exactly the things I’ve been looking for.

I want to like those things, but I didn’t come to Colombia to meet North Americans finding themselves. I came here to experience Latin American culture, and I’m not convinced I’ll find it in a yoga retreat. I want to find something developed by locals, where I’m sure that I’m helping the community and not just contributing to the wealth of a group of foreigners who are using land for ten people that could support 75 local families if they weren’t there. But then again, I might discover that a yoga retreat in the mountains of Colombia is exactly where I’ll find people who know how I feel. They might know exactly what I’m looking for and where I can find it.

What I want to get out of the trip is this: I want to develop a variety of skills and bases of knowledge in myself, but what those will be depend on what opportunities I take. I want to work in places where I’m furthering the interests of the locals, rather than contributing to a foreign ecotourism venture. I want to meet like-minded people. I want to find a place that feels like I could make a home of it. I want to make connections with people who might help me in future projects, whatever those may be. I want to learn the local languages. I want to interact with local families. I want to eat the local specialties, drink the local brews, understand the local culture. What I’m looking for is actually quite similar to what I found in Korea – meeting good people, enjoying the culture, food, and language, and feeling I’ve made a difference to others while furthering my own prospects for the future. I’m sure I can find that here.

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

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Beautiful buildings in this area

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

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

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

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A stand of bamboo holding soil on a hilltop

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

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

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

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Our cousin's farmhouse

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The bamboo structure my cousin built as a community theatre

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

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

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

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