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This place, and this family, is ridiculously nice. On June 24th, the festival of San Juan, Ellen and I took a day of rest after our busy weekend of exploring the Amazonian way of life. We set up our mosquito net as a safe haven where we could chat and play games in peace, and spent the day puttering around. We went for a swim in the Amazon river (staying close to shore, of course) and washed our laundry in the river as well. We felt slightly guilty for doing nothing all day, but after dinner Lucio suggested a quick walk to the bridge and back. This turned into a full-scale jungle walk by torchlight. We listened to the sounds of nocturnal birds, bats, and frogs, spotted a few jungle creatures, and listened to Lucio tell us a legend that was the Amazon version of Hansel and Gretel.

The following day we walked into Tamshiyaco, the nearest town. On our way, we passed a local who had just come across and killed a 3.5 meter long boa constrictor. The snake was still moving, although the blood trail from a nearby field indicated that we’d missed the action by at least 15 minutes. We felt thrilled to see such a large snake – and frightened to find it so close to our path. What if we’d been the first to stumble over it, unarmed and unaware? Despite the carnivorous snakes and piranhas in the river, the Amazon doesn’t feel like a dangerous place to me, though. It has a powerful natural force to be respected, but caution rather than fear seems to be enough to keep you safe. You can swim in the river, but not too far out where the current will sweep you away. The piranhas don’t eat people except in extremely rare cases, and the crocodiles only come out at night. The Amazon feels like just another place that people call home, albeit a wilder one.

To think that we could have come across one of these on our own!

To think that we could have come across one of these on our own!

On Wednesday morning we went fishing again. I wanted to make up for my failure to catch anything earlier in the week, and nobody here will turn down a nice fried fish. I jokingly insisted we all change rods, blaming mine for my bad luck last time, and the lucky rod Ellen had used before paid out on this trip as well. This time around, I caught four piranhas, a sardine, and a tall flat fish called a palometa, while Ellen caught two piranhas and a striped grey fish that Lucio called a lisa. Lucio, using the rod that had been so unlucky for me last time, broke his hook after catching just one fish, a catfish-like creature that we used for bait. The four silvery-grey larger fish flopped around in the bottom of the canoe while we finished fishing, but Lucio insisted that the piranhas be put at the front of the boat where they wouldn’t bite our bare toes while we fished. I found it amusing that we were free to trail our hands and feet in the water, or even jump into the river to bathe or swim without fear of being bitten, but a half-dead piranha on the canoe floor was a risk. However, seeing the impressive mouthful of teeth in one of them, I was willing to play it safe!

Rah! I'm a piranha! (They don't look so scary once they're caught!)

Rah! I’m a piranha! (They don’t look so scary once they’re caught!)

Several fish that we caught, displayed in one of the nice bowls we admired so much

Several fish that we caught, displayed in one of the nice bowls we admired so much

Late in the morning, we headed back to the house with a wooden bowl full of fish. We’ve seen a lot of similar bowls, which look like they’re made of coconut shells, are used for all sorts of tasks, especially for bathing. Ellen and I admired them openly, so Lucio offered to show us how they’re made. He took us to a tree with shiny green fruits the size of a small watermelon, pointed out a ripe one, and knocked it down with a stick, so he could make us a bowl each. He carefully sawed the fruit in half, shoosing which angle so the bowls would stay upright when filled. Then with a machete, he removed the horrible-smelling pulp (it’s good for inducing vomiting in sick or poisoned patients, he explained) and scraped the inside of the shell clean with a spoon. The completed bowls we placed to dry in the sun. At the time they were green, but within a week or two they’d turned brown, and looked like they’d make fine salad bowls. At this stage in my trip, with thoughts of leaving South America and establishing a home again on my mind, I was glad to carry around the bowl as a souvenir of my time in the jungle.

Lucio hollowing the bowl out with a spoon.

Lucio hollowing the bowl out with a spoon.

Uncle Lucio and Aunt Ana’s house is a few hundred meters inland from the Amazon River, a short distance from a little village. The front of the house affords a view of a field of water buffalo with the river beyond. Behind their home, a chicken coop is nestled among fruit and nut trees. The jungle backs the orchard almost immediately, and the house is an interesting juxtaposition of civilization in wilderness. The roof is half thatched, half metal. Many of the beams are milled, but one section is made of nothing but logs. A concrete road the width of a sidewalk passes by the front door, but there is no plumbing in the area and the family cooks on a wood fire. When we arrived, Ana was cooking lunch for a road crew that was improving the riverfront path. She quickly fed us and pointed us to a little purple cabin on the riverfront with plenty of balcony space for our tents and two hammocks for us to relax in. We were home!

Somehow, we seemed to settle right into their family’s routine. Lucio took us for a little tour of the nearest town while the rest of the family did their shopping. Waiting for the canoe to take us home, Ellen and I watched river dolphins jumping and frolicking in the sunset. We rode back along the river by moonlight. Ana had a dinner of locally hunted armadillo waiting for us – “It’s endangered, but we need to eat,” Lucio explained.

The next day, we got to have our little trek into the jungle. Lucio took us wandering through dense foliage and across streams. As the path became less identifiable and split off repeatedly in all directions, it was clear we could never have explored this way on our own. We were making too much racket crashing through the bush to see any wildlife, but our guide was thoughtful enough to point out medicinal plants, edible fruits and nuts, and the local trees used for lumber. Back at the house, we munched on fresh Brazil nuts and finger painted with the seeds of the achiote fruit, under the cheerful instruction of the local children.

Sunday was the festival of San Juan, who was the namesake of a local town and the patron saint of the Amazon. Ana left just before midnight to buy special ingredients, not to return before lunchtime. While she was gone, we went fishing for piranhas with Lucio. Fishing is a much simpler affair than at home. Lucio cut three rods from a nearby tree and tied fishing line to them. We headed out in the family canoe with a can of worms from the garden. Cousin Romario turned our boat down one of those dark streams nestled amongst the trees that Ellen had been so dying to explore. We puttered up to a likely spot in the shade and watched as the fish managed to eat every worm off our hooks without being caught. Ellen had better luck than the rest of us, catching two small fish that we used for bait. My spell of bad luck continued as everyone else managed to catch something, and we got three piranhas in the end. The quiet time on the river did have one excellent reward, though: we saw two different kinds of monkeys in the trees. There was a pair of tiny monkeys no bigger than one of my fists. Their small bodies clutched the tree trunk as they ate sap from beneath the bark. Farther up, three slightly larger monkeys, black and white, swung from the branches at the tops of the trees. It was an excellent end to the morning.

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.

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. Gaëlle 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

I am absolutely enamoured of the insects here in Ecuador. Actually, all through Latin America, Ellen and I have stopped to admire almost every insect we’ve seen. Beetles, stick bugs, spiders, caterpillars, millipedes, moths, butterflies, and flies are all larger, more distinctive, and more plentiful than at home. Let me introduce you to some of our local many-legged friends.

I'm not sure, but I suspect this mandible-y flying creature is one of the loud locust-like insects that keep me awake.

I’m not sure, but I suspect this mandible-y flying creature is one of the loud locust-like insects that keep me awake.

Moth, disguised as a leaf

Moth, disguised as a leaf

Some kind of leaf-eating bug

Some kind of leaf-eating bug

Butterfly

Butterfly

Caterpillar feeding on a lump of something sticky

Caterpillar feeding on a lump of something sticky

Large spider on the ceiling

Large spider on the ceiling

Giant cockroach, about five centimeters (2 inches) wide

Giant cockroach, about five centimeters (2 inches) wide

Millipede - also available in bright red and turquoise blue

Millipede – also available in bright red and turquoise blue

Spiky caterpillar that stings you with its spines

Spiky caterpillar that stings you with its spines

You’d think that after five months in Latin America, I’d tire of taking pictures of bugs. You’d be wrong. Ellen and I have also discovered that we can also consume fresh fruit, homemade bread, and guacamole every day and still be absolutely delighted to be served more. I think some things in life are just plain good. Most things. Maybe it’s easier to say that life is good, full stop. Yeah, I like that.

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.

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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One of the nicest things about Colombia is the public spaces. Every Colombian city or town we visited had places where you could go and be social in the community, without spending money. Since I grew up not too far from Stanley Park in Vancouver, you wouldn’t think I would be so amazed at the much smaller and less-natural parks in Colombia. You’d be wrong – Colombia has parks and public spaces done right.

The church at the Plaza de la Trinidad in Cartagena

The church at the Plaza de la Trinidad in Cartagena

The first public space that really impressed me was the Plaza de la Trinidad in Cartagena. This little square in front of a church was a place for children to play soccer as their parents or older siblings watched from benches around the plaza’s edges. Vendors had carts set up to sell all kinds of snacks and drinks – barbecued meat and vegetables, arepas (like thick pancakes of hot buttered cornbread in Cartagena, but thinner and more tortilla-like farther south), and fruit juices (mixed with water, milk, or shots of alcohol) – and a man had a card table set up with rental information for homes nearby. At night, the plaza was transformed into a giant street party, with musicians, dancing, and bingo. Ellen and I went there every day during our stay in Cartagena – it was an irresistible draw.

Bingo in the square in Cartagena - Ellen almost won!

Bingo in the square in Cartagena – Ellen almost won!

In Medellin, our next stop in Colombia, the Botanical Gardens were the most appealing public space we saw. Free to enter, this park had everything you might like – restaurants, open grassy fields, various gardens including a medicinal herb garden, a butterfly enclosure, a lake and accompanying water birds, and various birds and lizards enjoying the space alongside the people. For the curious, all the trees and plants were labelled with their common and Latin names, making the botanical gardens a good spot for a school field trip as well. Outside the gates, between the gardens and the Parque Explora (interactive museum of science and technology, featuring a Darwin exhibit I would’ve loved to see) next door, dozens of vendors sell snacks and souvenirs.

The Botanical Gardens in Medellin

The Botanical Gardens in Medellin

In Cartago, the public space we liked best was the Plaza de Bolivar, the main square in town. This was a park filled with benches for seating, coffee carts and ice cream vendors, and people wandering through selling anything and everything you might need. There are even people with handmade carousels or ride-on cars, pushing children around by hand. The trees in the park were huge, home to monkeys swinging from the low-hanging branches, iguanas climbing the trunks, and birds and bats flitting between them. People coexisted with the animals, although the park was unlit at night so the animals could sleep, and consequently it was much less visited by humans after dark.

Monkey in the park in Cartago

Monkey in the park in Cartago

Santa Rosa’s public space was a billiards hall off the public market. The billiards hall was attached to a bar which served very cheap drinks as well as espresso-based coffees. What impressed us most, though, was that most of the people in the billiards hall weren’t drinking. There were a few coffees and beers being consumed, but most of the locals inside looked like little old farmers, meeting up with friends after dropping off a load of vegetables at the market. There was chatting and laughter as well as concentrated attention on the billiards tables and the games being played there. The bartender was singing along to the music (on key, I might add) and seemed unconcerned about all the potential customers who weren’t buying anything.

That’s what I like about the public spaces in Colombia. You have the option to eat or drink, but you don’t have to buy anything to feel welcome in the space. If you want to meet friends in Canada, you either have to choose to meet in a park, where it’s free but you don’t have anything to eat, or choose to meet in a coffee shop or restaurant, where everybody ought to order something. Here you have the best of both worlds. Parents can take their kids to an outdoor space to play, where adults feel equally welcome. You can meet up with friends without spending money. That’s what public spaces ought to be like.

Before I came here, all I knew of dogs in Latin America was what animal rescue organizations told me in heart-wrenching pleas for fundraising. My expectations were that I’d come across countless street dogs with open sores, and sad eyes sinking into their pleading, underfed faces. My research on travel vaccines warned me that they were often rabid and unpredictable. Certainly, lonely homeless street dogs would be everywhere.

Toby, the very healthy ex-street dog in Mastatal, Costa Rica

Toby, the very healthy ex-street dog in Mastatal, Costa Rica

So far, the only consistently correct information on dogs here has been that they’re ubiquitous. Ellen and I see dogs on every street corner, napping on the doorstep of a restaurant, sniffing at a dropped ice cream in the park, or wandering through the market like they own the place. Most of them look in decent shape – nice shining fur with no visible ribs, anyway. I’ve seen more sick and hungry looking horses on the side of the road than dogs.

Two of the little tiny dogs in Mastatal, munching down on fresh barbecued meat

Two of the little tiny dogs in Mastatal, looking for scraps of fresh barbecued meat

Some of the dogs we’ve seen are strays, but many have homes and are free to wander off-leash during the day. This leads to interesting patterns in the distribution of dogs in the street. In Costa Rica, most of the dogs in the village of Mastatal were tiny miniature pinschers, but clearly a hound passed through the village some years ago, leaving a variety of hound-cross puppies in its wake. As you head into the next village, the floppy hound ears were combined with short legs and long hair. All the way along the bus route, we could guess the breeds of the wandering street dogs by the characteristics of the local pets chasing the bus.

Milo, my favourite big fluffy puppy at home.

Milo, my favourite big fluffy puppy at home.

Here in Santa Rosa, the dogs are much bigger, although not as big as our three big fluffy puppies at home. Whenever I wander through the park, lab-sized dogs are haring around chasing each other with big doggy grins on their faces. Nobody seems concerned about them, and nobody seems scared. At home, a small child would get knocked down and somebody would call the SPCA to remove the dogs and put up a fence and signs to prevent their return. Here, dogs wandering around are just part of life. We haven’t been bitten, but in my first week in Costa Rica I was licked on the mouth when a dog jumped up at me.

Dog on the street in Santa Rosa, Colombia - possibly crossed with a tiger?

Dog on the street in Santa Rosa, Colombia – possibly crossed with a tiger?

I wonder whether the dogs here seem less dangerous because people aren’t trying to lock them up. They’re not bored at home all day, going crazy. Instead, they’re free to live more naturally, forming friends and packs and sorting out their disagreements on their own. There are certainly some dogs that could be dangerous, but there isn’t the culture of keeping large dogs on short leashes or trapped in small apartments, waiting for people to give them permission to move. I think the lifestyle here is good for dogs, and I’m glad they seem content.

After a few days with spotty internet access, I’m back! Ellen and I left the yoga farm early, after only a week, and have started to volunteer at a hostel in Santa Rosa de Cabal instead. We had an almost-constant feeling of discomfort at the yoga farm, which we couldn’t escape without leaving. We had many good experiences there, but we were getting snippy and having a hard time being patient. For Ellen, the biggest irritation was the constant sound of cicadas – a high-pitched buzzing that feels like a knife being driven through the ears into the brain, and which was audible from absolutely everywhere in the house or outside thanks to the open-concept design of the building. Poor Ellen had to put wads of toilet paper in her ears to muffle the buzz of the cicadas and still ended up staying in our room fairly often. For me, the non-stop chanting was fraying my nerves – apparently being able to hold a tune is not a prerequisite for producing entire albums of krishna music. I understand that Indian music uses a different set of notes, but some of the chanters were entirely tone-deaf, and simply chose a starting note and wandered off wherever their voice took them in the course of the mantra. The music was played loudly enough that you could hear it anywhere on the farm.

Much of our frustration at the yoga farm could be attributed to a lack of public spaces. There was really no place to go where we could be comfortable, especially if we wanted to socialize with the other volunteers. There was a sitting area that sat two to three people, but it also featured speakers playing chanting music straight into our ears, and frequent mosquito swarms, which we weren’t supposed to kill because the krishna religion respects all life. The dining room table seated six and was farther from the speakers, but you couldn’t hear yourself think from the cicadas buzzing, and you still ended up spotted with mosquito bites. There was a bench that seated two by the river, where the wind occasionally blew hard enough to keep the mosquitoes away, but the cicadas were even more deafening. The most comfortable place to be was in our own beds, under our mosquito nets, with the curtains drawn against the buzzing of cicadas coming in through the screen windows. We felt quite antisocial if we spent most of our free time in bed, though.

Despite the difficulty finding places to sit down and relax, Ellen and I did have some very pleasant experiences at the yoga farm. Sunday was particularly enjoyable. Several people were visiting the farm from other towns for the weekend, so it began to take on a bit of the community feeling we were missing. To accommodate the larger group, a circle of chairs was set up by the river bank and we had breakfast under the trees. The conversation was still stilted and awkward, but at least we were attempting to socialize. Later I was able to read a good book by the riverbank and have a nice chat with one of the other volunteers.

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Sunday afternoon we paddled up the river for a picnic and a short walk in one of the sugarcane fields on the opposite bank. Here too, there was constant noise – the sound of water pumps irrigating the crops, and the never-ending chanting emanating from the cellphone of the teenaged krishna devotee who was with us. We saw a variety of water birds on the banks, which I tried to photograph with our host’s camera with limited success. On the way back, we passed half the village splashing around in the water, so four of the local boys hopped in our canoe to join us for a swim in the river by the yoga farm, where a steep cliff on the bank made an excellent diving platform. Cannonballs seemed to be a popular type of dive among the local boys.

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In the evening, our host brought out a krishna board game to play with us and the local kids. It was like a cross between snakes and ladders and the game of Life. As you go around the circular board, you earn virtue tokens which allow you to move to the next level of consciousness, with the goal being to pass through all four levels to reach nirvana. Some squares on the game board give you karma cards, which describe a sin or virtue according to krishna values, and gain or lose you virtue points or levels of consciousness, depending on the importance of the concept. The cards were in Spanish, so we were able to learn more about the belief system while improving our Spanish vocabulary. It was an enjoyable way to pass the evening.

On Monday, Ellen and I left the yoga farm. We had received an e-mail inviting us to volunteer at a hostel in Santa Rosa de Cabal, about an hour away from the yoga farm. We had originally planned to arrive on Monday, but the owner sent a message saying Tuesday would be better. Ellen and I agreed that we needed to leave Monday as planned, so we spent an enjoyable day hanging out in the town of Cartago before arriving in Santa Rosa on Tuesday.

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Cartago is the town with the beautiful public park full of iguanas and coffee vendors that I wrote about a few weeks ago. We arrived in the morning on Monday, and had no difficulty finding an inexpensive hotel room near the park. We spent much of the day sitting in the park sipping coffee or beer, and watching the iguanas making displays of dominance at each other or at people who got too close. We also spotted some small monkeys swinging around in the trees, so I spent a pleasant hour taking pictures of them, with a few locals giving them candy to help me get better shots. We bumped into someone we knew in the park, a relative we’d met at our cousin’s house, which was a surprise as well. She’s our cousin’s husband’s sister-in-law’s aunt – practically family, right? Close enough to buy her a coffee, anyway.

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Yesterday afternoon we took the short bus ride to Pereira and from there to Santa Rosa where we easily found our hostel. Finding the host was not quite so easy – he showed up a good four hours after we arrived. In the meantime we wandered back to the pleasant tango bar we’d visited with our cousin, and chatted to people in the hostel common room. Unlike our experience at the yoga farm, we instantly felt comfortable here. Our host, when he arrived, turned out to be a cheerful man from Bogota who took us and a family of guests out on the town until the wee hours of the morning and treated us more as welcome guests or long-lost family than working volunteers. I assume someone will show us what we’re meant to be doing and how we can help today, because barely a whisper has been said on the topic since we arrived. We feel predisposed to like the work, though, which is absolutely a good sign.