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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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!

Occasionally, Ellen and I wonder if we’re spending too much time in one place. We are, after all, on a Latin American adventure, and yet we’ve spent over one-third of our vacation at this farm here in Ecuador. This led me to start an inventory of skills or concepts I’ve learned here.

The largest category of skills I’ve had a chance to develop on this farm have been construction-related. Since the farm is just starting out, there are lots of outbuildings to build and existing structures to expand. Ellen and I have been involved in every stage of construction. We’ve cleared land, felled trees, split bamboo, dug foundation trenches, hauled stones and sand, set posts, built frames, put up roofs, painted, and repaired buildings. We’ve evened the land out, laid a concrete pad, leveled it, brushed it smooth, and kept its surfaces damp while it dried. Then we yelled at the dogs and cats for jumping on the fresh concrete, repaired the scratches and footprints, and re-smoothed the surface. We’ve built greenhouses, drying houses, benches for beehives, chicken houses and barns. Before I came here, I had a feel for the concepts of building, from reading books on construction and from watching building shows on TV, but now I know construction from experience. It’s a different kind of understanding altogether. I can tell by look and feel whether the cement I’m mixing is the right texture and has enough water in it. I’ve never learned that kind of skill from a book.

The new beehives, on the hand-crafted bench.

The new beehives, on the hand-crafted bench.

Despite being a good cook at home, I’ve also learned a lot from spending time in the kitchen here. Cooking here is much more of a challenge than at home because of the availability of ingredients. I have my recipes from home here with me, but they’re completely unreasonable here. My cake recipes, for example, call for half a dozen eggs plus two yolks and a cup of butter in one cake. Here, I cannot justify using any butter or more than three eggs for a cake – we just don’t have the resources. (When the young chickens start laying, we’ll be able to use as many eggs as we like, though.) I’ve learned to cook more by feeling, which I’d heard was difficult with cakes. Just as with the cement, I can tell from texture whether the batter is right. With other dishes, too, I’m getting the feel for how to cook Latin American food. I understand the ingredients and I’m learning how they work together to make the flavours of the foods I love here.

I’m also adjusting my ideas about working with others. When I’m doing projects alongside other volunteers, sometimes I have to let them struggle to do things without stepping in to help. It’s important to let inexperienced people try, and succeed, on their own rather than to do the work myself. Most of the volunteers are much younger than me – between 18 and 23 – and have never done this kind of work before. I’m also working with the family’s daughters, who are 13, 11, and 2, and who are very interested in learning and working alongside the volunteers. I have to let go of my ideas of doing a perfect job, in order to make the project educational and enjoyable for everyone. Even Laia, the two-year-old, gets to have her turn to use a paintbrush or a trowel. I’m much more aware of giving everyone a chance to try, although the work goes more slowly and isn’t done exactly the way I’d do it.

The two year old gets to feed the animals too! (Especially the baby lamb, of course!)

The two year old gets to feed the animals too! (Especially the baby lamb, of course!)

Even with all the things I’m doing and learning, I still have dozens of ideas for things to learn next. Every skill I learn opens the door to other projects for which I’ll need to learn something else. It’s a reminder of how learning is a lifelong journey, and there’ll never be enough time to do everything. Even staying in one place, I feel as if every day is a step in the right direction.

I have never had much to do with horses before. Ellen and I grew up on a farm, but we never raised large animals like cows or horses. Our mum wasn’t fond of any animal large enough to cause serious damage if it lost control, and besides, we were enchanted by the sweet dispositions of goats and pigs. I never felt as if I missed out by not going through the typical teenage girl’s love affair with horses. When we got to this farm, though, we were pleased to note that they had horses here – we could learn more about these popular animals and see what we’d been missing.

That’s what we said when we arrived, anyway. Seven weeks went by before either Ellen or I did more than throw the occasional bucket of food at the farm’s two mares and single foal. They’re pretty enough, but they don’t really do anything. The white horse likes people, and comes running over if you have a bucket of food handy, but the mother and foal mostly keep their distance, and the mother flicks her ears back and stamps her hooves if we even look in her direction. A few volunteers have ridden the horses once or twice in the time we’ve been here, and a couple of times we’ve used them for hauling wood, but most of the time the horses are grazing in the neighbour’s field, and we leave them alone.

Last week, however, a volunteer arrived with experience training horses, and in the last few days I’ve finally had a chance to work with them. In two days, we’ve gone from having to chase the horses around the field to being able to put a halter on without a fuss. GaĆ«lle showed me how to approach a shy horse without startling it, and I’ve started keeping a supply of horse food in my pockets just in case. I’ve practiced training the horses to walk and stop on command, and I have learned how to tie the horse safely and how a halter works. Learning skills like this, with improvement coming in leaps and bounds, is incredibly rewarding. My confidence with the horses is increasing every day. I’m no longer keeping an eye on their feet apprehensively and wondering if they’re going to kick me – instead, I’m aware of their ears and their mood, and I feel calm and in charge when working with them. I still have a lot to learn, including basics like how to put a saddle on a horse, and I haven’t ridden one in recent memory, but horses are no longer a foreign animal to me. Yet another lesson I’ve learned on vacation that I’d never have thought to seek out on my own.

Mama and baby horse, now willing to approach me.

Mama and baby horse, now willing to approach me.

Baby horse eating out of my hand

Baby horse eating out of my hand

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.

Death is a natural part of life, but that doesn’t mean we have to like it when it happens. Last week was a difficult one for Ingo and the farm. The oldest dog, Kira, slipped and fell under the wheel of the car as Ingo was returning home on Sunday afternoon. She died instantly, and Ingo was heartbroken. I heard about it when I got back Monday, and was glad I’d taken the time to throw sticks for her a few times the day before she died. She was old, and Ellen and I are glad she died painlessly, quickly, and without suffering.

That wasn’t the end of the farm’s unlucky week. Two days later, the donkey died mysteriously – the neighbours told Ingo it might be a snake bite, but we saw no evidence of that. We just went down the hill in the morning to do chores, and the donkey was lying there, dead. I wonder if it was a heart attack, but she was a young donkey, and we have no way of knowing what killed her. Ellen could have dissected her, but we decided just to say a few words and bury her. You’d think two deaths in a week would be enough, but of course bad luck comes in threes.

Last Saturday, as I was taking Ingo and Genny’s daughter for a walk, we noticed that Anise, the final goat due to have kids, had two little feet sticking out of her back end. We rushed, as fast as I could convince a two-year-old to hurry, to tell the others so they could also watch the goat give birth. The other three does had had four buck kids between them, and Ingo had threatened that if this one came out with a penis, he would push it back in there himself. Luckily for Anise, Ingo had returned to the house when she gave birth to the farm’s fifth male baby of the week, a handsome brown boy we named Jackson. After giving Anise a few minutes to rest, we helped her and the baby up the steep driveway to the makeshift nursery.

I would like to take a moment to tell you about this nursery. Originally designed as a greenhouse, we built the structure with our own hands. We cut the trees in the clearing, hauled the logs down the hill, dug holes for them, cemented them in, cut and split bamboo to support the roof, put the plastic onto the roof, attached chicken wire to the posts to make walls, and then reinforced it with stronger wire mesh to ensure the goats couldn’t get out. It’s warm and dry, and can house the baby chicks on one side and the mother goats with newborn babies on the other. The babies stay up their with their mothers until they’re walking strongly and nursing regularly on their own, and then we put them back down with the other goats in the regular goat pen.

Over the course of a few days, Jackson figured out how to nurse, and his mother caught on to the idea that this was her baby and she should care for it. On Tuesday, Jackson and Anise rejoined the herd. On Wednesday morning, sometime before breakfast, Anise caught her head in the fence and died.

The dog’s death was upsetting, a sad end for a loyal member of the family. When the donkey died, we were puzzled and sad. The goat’s death, though, seemed to infuriate Ingo. How dare three animals die in one week? The most urgent matter, after burying the goat, was deciding what to do with Jackson, her four-day-old kid. Ingo didn’t want to sell him, because nobody buys newborn kids at the auction here. Ellen, Genny and I were willing to slaughter the baby goat for meat, but Ingo was sick of death and didn’t want another one on his hands. The other milking mothers weren’t producing enough milk to feed Jackson, so Ingo brought milk powder and a baby bottle home from town and Jackson became a house goat.

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After a week of so much death, Jackson is bringing life back into the household. The little goat, the colour of dark-roasted coffee, cheerfully skips along behind us as we do our chores. He joins the dogs on their jaunts around the farm, bounces through the fields and along the paths to check out the pigs, and nibbles our fingers and clothes as we sit at the dinner table. Climb into a hammock and Jackson will clambour in, too, and snuggle into your lap as you sip a cup of coffee after lunch. The little boy is constantly underfoot in the kitchen, where he makes a comfortable home under the oven. Whenever I’m baking a batch of bread, I have to block off the goat’s access to the oven, or the little terror will emerge five minutes later, panting and stinking of singed hair. I think to myself, as I do every day, that it’s a good thing he’s cute.

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This farm is full of life, really. The young chicks, who could fit in the palm of the two-year-old’s hand a few weeks ago, look almost like full-grown chickens now. They come running, flapping awkwardly, whenever I walk toward the greenhouse, watching me like a hundred miniature velociraptors, evaluating whether I’m carrying food. Whenever I stand at the edge of the cliff, I see the calf and foal playing in the field below, the other four goat kids prancing and gallavanting along the cliff’s base, and the horses, cow, and sheep grazing contentedly in the grass. Birds soar overhead, chirping loudly. Some of them are vultures – Jacob, the neighbour’s dog, has dug up the goat’s body again, and the birds are looking for a meal. As long as there is life, there is death, but the vultures remind me that the opposite is also true. For the fourth time this week, I take a shovel and re-bury the goat. The vultures perch in a palm tree overhead and watch me cover the goat’s corpse with sand, then roof tiles, then more sand. Finally, I am satisfied that the goat can rest in peace, and the vultures seem to agree. They take wing and fly majestically away.

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!

One regular source of amusement at the farm is the canine contingent of the family. Nominally, the family has three dogs, but the neighbour’s dog, Jacob, makes himself at home here more often than not as well.

The oldest is Kira, a curly-haired black lab-like dog, who reminds me of the typical geriatric dog. Her joints ache, she sighs and groans in her sleep, and she’s generally napping underfoot most of the day. Occasionally, she’ll join the volunteers at their work for a few hours, tagging along for a walk to the banana field or the water source, but you can see the exertion takes its toll on her. She’s still a young dog at heart, though – she will watch you working for hours, wagging her tail and begging for you to throw a stick for her to chase. Her cataracts and aching bones don’t have the power to diminish her joy in life; I can only hope to be as happy when I’m old. Kira is sure to bring a smile to my face whenever I see her.

While Kira is only occasionally around while we’re working, Jacob is a more constant companion. This infuriates Ingo to no end, because Jacob is NOT HIS DOG and shouldn’t be here at all, let alone at our heels throughout the working day. Ingo often admonishes volunteers for being too nice and welcoming to Jacob, and reminds us regularly that we’re supposed to be mean to him. This doesn’t stop Ingo from throwing scraps of meat to the dog when we’re butchering animals, or from feeding Jacob alongside the others. Jacob is a pain, though, in that he occasionally will grab a chicken or piglet by the neck, or chase the geese around the yard. Consequently, on virtually every trip to town, Ingo loads Jacob into the back of the jeep and drives him home to the neighbour’s place. Jacob makes the 5km return journey on foot within a few hours, and by the time Ingo gets back from shopping, Jacob is waking up from a nap in the kitchen to greet him. The longest we went without Jacob was a little over a week, after one of the horses fell off a cliff and died. Jacob found the carcass and returned to the house, reeking of death and stinking to high heaven. After that incident, the neighbour kept Jacob tied up on a short leash to keep him home. This morning, though, on our way into town, Ingo dropped by the neighbour’s place and let Jacob off his leash (“It’s cruel to keep him tied up like that!”) and when the dog followed us several kilometers into town and caught up to the car, Ingo let Jacob come along for the ride. No doubt when I get back tomorrow, the dog will be napping comfortably in the kitchen, where even Ingo might admit he belongs.

My favourite dogs on the farm, though, have to be Tank and Dozer, the six-month-old Great Dane puppies. They’re huge, stumbling over their enormous feet as they flollop around the farm. Tank is the bigger of the pair of brothers, and seems to be the dominant puppy as well. He’s honey brown, lanky and gawky, with wrinkly cheeks and jowls. He’s the smarter of the young dogs, which isn’t much of an endorsement – both are as thick as two short planks, with the memory of a goldfish and the attention span of a gnat. Tank may not remember “sit” or “come” for longer than a few moments, but at least he’s figured out how to get into a hammock by himself. His ebony-coated littermate, Dozer, is thinner, more submissive, and significantly less bright than Tank. Training Dozer takes an endless repetition of “sit, sit, sit!” before he eventually puts his rear end on the ground, and moments later he’s distracted by Tank pulling on his ear and you have to start training him all over again.

Silly puppies, all floppy ears and nipping teeth

Silly puppies, all floppy ears and nipping teeth

The pair of them together are an endless tumble of floppy ears, whipping tails, and oversized feet, nipping and wrestling each other all over the farm. They’ll follow us to the top of the mountain, tripping over their own feet and faceplanting in the dark soil. Dozer sometimes forgets to follow us down the mountain again, and has to be fetched when we realize he’s been left behind again. A few of the volunteers have taken on the task of trying to train Tank and Dozer. It’s a daunting task, because the slightest distraction makes the dogs forget everything they’ve ever been taught. With close to a dozen volunteers around, plus wandering pigs, chickens, cats, and other dogs in the vicinity, there are always distractions at hand. Even in a completely silent field, Tank will run to the top of the cliff to look out and see what everyone else is doing, rather than coming when he’s called. While Tank and Dozer aren’t the swiftest to pick up on these things, the family’s two-year-old daughter is much quicker. Hand her a cookie, and she’ll march up to the nearest dog and repeat sternly, “Sit! Sit! Sit!” before sharing. She’s even been known to say it to the occasional volunteer who wants a cookie, as well. It goes to show that even volunteers on vacation are trainable. Only time will tell for the dogs.

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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!

I’m woken up this morning by a thump-thump-thump. Somebody has gotten up to use the toilet and is stomping through the house of sleeping people, wearing shoes. I’ve never understood wearing shoes in the house, and my first thoughts of the morning are grumpy. I open my eyes to see blue sky and the last dregs of what must have been a nice sunrise – wisps of pink clouds dance across the sky. Normally I would roll over to catch an extra half-hour of sleep, but this morning I’m hungry for a few minutes to myself to enjoy the peace and solitude of the morning. I get dressed and tiptoe downstairs.

As I put a pot of water on to boil for coffee, I hear an odd noise from the forest. I turn to look, and hear a crunch, creak, CRASH! I watch as a tree totters and falls, almost in slow motion, down the steep hillside, landing where only yesterday we had staked a pig by the forest’s edge to clear some land. I watch for a moment more, but nothing else moves. While the water heats, I sit myself in a hammock with my journal and enjoy the first rays of the morning sun. A dozen different types of birds are twittering, tweeting, and chirping in the bushes by the house. I catch sight of blue ones, bright yellow-and-black ones, and tiny green hummingbirds darting around. A beautiful butterfly floats by, rising higher and higher into the sky until I can’t see it anymore.

My moment of silent reverie ends almost before it began. Ingo heard the tree fall and has gotten up to investigate. I assure him all is well, but he is followed by his two-year-old daughter, Laia, who makes a beeline for me in my hammock. She has put her hands in wet paint, and shows them to me. “Sucio!” she announces. “Yes, they’re dirty,” I agree, and take her to the sink to clean them. Soon, the sounds of birds and butterflies are replaced with the bustle of a busy day – we’re driving into town this morning, and everybody needs to be ready to leave in an hour.

Ellen gets up and Laia wants us to take her to milk the goats before breakfast. Motivated by a desire for fresh milk in our coffee, we let her help us put our boots on and choose a container for the milk. Off we go to the greenhouse, which has been converted to a makeshift nursery for newborn goats and chicks. Ellen has taught Laia how to milk a goat, and the two-year-old eagerly and insistently wants to try her hand at filling her tupperware container with fresh milk. Once the goat has been milked, we spend a few extra moments admiring the baby goats and chicks before returning to the house. It may not be a serene solitary morning anymore, but dawn on the farm is pretty pleasant nonetheless.