Farm Stay – Sept 4 – 17, 2016
When we decided to travel in South America for six months we knew we’d have to do volunteer work (and we wanted to volunteer) to make the $$ stretch for 6 months. Yet, I was less than enthused about a full month on a farm. Leontiy found a place where we could work on an organic farm and then work in the café which sells the farm’s coffee, chocolate, fruits, and vegetables. We booked our first stay, planning two weeks on the farm in the Andes and two weeks in the café in Quito.
Leontiy found the farm through WWOOF – World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or Willing Workers on Organic Farms. It is a loose network of national organizations that facilitate placement of volunteers on organic farms.
The farm or La finca is located in Northern Ecuador. After a challenging journey on our first day (see Leo’s early post), we made it to an idyllic setting. Beautiful doesn’t begin to cover it. The farm was very different from the flat cornfields of southern Indiana. This is a farm in the mountains, so the fields were on the mountain sides. The views were like scenes from a dream.
People don’t realize how remote remote can be. Here, we went as far north as Ecuadorian paved roads could take us and then we went on the dirt roads. If you look on google maps, it just shows that you are in the middle of Andes near nothing. It was actually very comical to us later (not that we knew how remote it was while we were there as we had zero contact with the outside world.)
I wasn’t sure how I would react to farm work. I am not exactly what you call an outdoorsy person, but we wanted an adventure. This is what we got. There was no internet and no cell service. We couldn’t contact our families for 5 days because we didn’t know how to get a message out. We had to hike over a mile up hill to a small hotel that had internet sometimes, when it was a good day. We did get online, however, and I had many messages from worried family members.
We stayed in a “cabin” which was three stories. On the top was our open air kitchen. The main floor was a single room complete with 4 bunk beds (happy honeymoon!). And on the bottom was the open air bathroom. The shower was a sink head located over the toilet. The water which ran from it was cold or colder. The cabin was heated by sunlight and the cooled by nighttime.
My first shower on the farm was barely a splash. Actually I stood next to the water and would just bend my head over so only the smallest part of me could get wet. This approach worked well until I started to smell. BAD. So eventually over two weeks I developed a system for actually showering. Never forget the importance of quick dry shower sandals. They are a life saver. The best time to shower was right after lunch when it was the hottest time of day and the sun shines in the bathroom. It was a bit warmer that way.
Part of the farm stay was making our own meals. We were equipped with large barrels of pasta, rice, flour, beans, oats, and panella (cane sugar). We were brought some fresh vegetables and eggs once a week, and we could take coffee from the farmhouse. We could also pick fresh fruit off the trees including bananas, papayas, plantains, oranges, and lemons. I had no idea lemons could come in so many colors!
In the kitchen, we had 2 mugs, 3 glasses, 2 plates, a coffee “sock,” a few utensils, and some pots and pans. We had a two burner gas stove that you had to light with a candle, quiet carefully. Once or twice I almost took off my eyebrows. The kitchen had a light to allow cooking in the evening time, but you couldn’t do that because the light would attract bugs. With no screens to keep the bugs out, they DESCENDED ON YOU AT NIGHT. By 7PM every night we would lock ourselves in the bedroom (where we could close the window to keep bugs out). One day we had no power so had no light inside our cabin after the sun set. Another day we ran out of gas for the stove. It was definitely remote.
What did we eat you may wonder? Well we ate rice, pasta, beans and fresh veggies. We had no cheese, milk, sweets or fried foods. No bread. So it was basically a diet. We did learn to make pancakes toward the end of week 2 and that was a godsend. On our last day I wanted to make pancakes to bring with us on the bus. I wanted to finish, so kept cooking after darkness set in. I had TWO HUGE BEETLES FLY INTO THE BATTER to meet their death. Better in the batter than in my face which is also where they were trying to go. On the bug topic, wow there were critters of all shapes and sizes, day or night.
We worked every day of the week form 7:30AM-12:30PM. The first week we worked on cacao trees. This a fruit tree and the seeds are used to make chocolate. In September, the trees were at the grooming stage. These trees have large full leaves. However, if the tree is too full it discourages fruit growth. Therefore we had to prune the trees of their leaves. We took all the leaves from the trees except for the leaves at the very tip of each branch. I was thrilled this involved little effort, but it was tedious.
We worked with Ines during week one. She was a sweet woman who had worked on the farm for 9 years. She was kind and a good source of information about the area. She showed us how the chocolate beans dry before they are roasted, but we didn’t get a chance to actually roast any. The last day Leo got to trim brush with a machete. He was literally ecstatic to do this as I watched in terror.
On week two, we worked with Olga. With her we worked on pruning coffee trees and planting yucca. Coffee trees are much more delicate than cocao. While we basically did the same thing as with the cocao trees, we had to work with these trees very carefully. Each leaf had to be cut individually with scissors. You couldn’t just clear a whole branch with your hand. This was even more tedious.
The days working with yucca really were the hardest! We had to rake and clear brush. Then dig holes and shove yucca branches in the ground. Yucca is a potato-like root vegetable. It grows into a small tree. When the plant is ready, you pull up the branch and one or two yucca roots are at the bottom. Then, you can cut up the branches of the used plants to grow more plants. Each of these will grow again as there are seeds in the branches. I was so sore after these two days I could hardly move.
Excursions: Mindo and Miradona
One of the great things about the volunteer work on the farm is that your weekend is free. We had one weekend in between our 2 weeks of work and we took advantage of it.
First, we traveled to a town in the cloud forest: Mindo. Mindo was gorgeous. It is well known to tourists for its landscapes and adventure sports. Plus it was surprisingly only an hour bus ride for us. When we got to the Mindo stop, we were on a mountain top. However, Mindo was in a valley between two peaks. We didn’t see another bus so we decided to start walking. 20 minutes later we began to realize our mistake. It was much farther than we anticipated. Lucky for us, a pickup truck stopped and we got to hop in the back. This wasn’t our first nor our last trip in the back of truck. The trip was only 15 minutes at that point.
Once we arrived in town, we were met by a very cute main street and a Saturday market. We walked around and decided to go zip lining early (but not too early) to optimize our chances for good weather. The mornings in the cloud forest start with clouds. By mid morning the heat disperses the clouds until they descend again, sometimes with rain, in the afternoon. This is also how it was at the farm.
We booked our zip lining trip. We were in a group with two other American tourists. They were friendly and just as adventurous/slightly incredulous as we were. When we climbed up the mountain with our gear to start our tour, I was beyond nervous. We then spent about 2 hours zipping between mountains and over valleys. Each time I was terrified. I mean shaking but it was worth it. All of this for only $15.
On Sunday that weekend we caught a ride to Miradona. These are waterfalls up in the hills near our farm in Guanabana. The entrance is located about halfway on the road between Pacto and Guanabana. We got a ride in a “taxi” and made it to the base of the falls. We were accompanied by Julia, a fellow volunteer from Germany. We started hiking to the falls just as the rain started to pour. Back luck. We kept going anyway to get to the swimming area of the falls. It was still beautiful despite the weather and the cold. We thought hell, we’re already wet. So we got in the water in our suits. I predictably fell twice on the slippery rocks which you had to climb down to enter the water. It was not safe and I wiped out. Leo thought I was a goner but thankfully I didn’t hit my head. The water was freezing! Once we left the water, the sun came out and we warmed ourselves at a local watering hole near the start of the river. The owner was an odd dude, but it seemed to be a good place for a beer.
We hiked from Miradona into Pacto to check out the Sunday market. Pacto was the closest town to us. The town was bustling despite its small size. We loaded up on some bread and beer and then watched some of a volley match. Volleyball is huge here. It’s a bit different than in the US. The ball they use is harder and doesn’t have much bounce. We saw Olga in town and caught a ride back to the farm on the bed of her truck.
We very much enjoyed our time at the farm. After a week, I realized why the farm’s owner doesn’t provide the volunteers with TV or internet. It’s so you really experience rural Ecuador, in its beauty, how it’s meant to be seen. You could lay in the hammock with a book or just take in the landscape. As the days pasted, I longed for civilization less and less. I really saw Guanabana’s town (10 homes) and its people. I lived like a local for a while. I thought maybe we should stay longer… but then I had a dream about chocolate chip cookies. The next day I nursed 100 mosquito bites. Two weeks was plenty.