All Work and No Play

After spending our monthly budget in only two weeks on the Galapagos, it was time to buckle down and work off our deficit with another work-exchange. Workaways always include free lodging, but they’ve varied tremendously in regards to meals. We heard that Shawn and Lindsey, the American couple who own a farm in Cotacachi, would provide all meals and that they were delicious; as one reviewer stated, “We ate like kings.”

So, looking forward to not only delicious food, but also the chance of not spending any money for two weeks, we arrived with good intentions and an eagerness to work. After our first day, it was evident that the food would indeed be great, but I could barely hold my fork and lift any of it to my mouth. I felt like my arms were going to fall off!

If you’ve never dug a large hole with a shovel before (and by large I mean 8x8x8 feet), you can’t possibly understand how incredibly fatiguing it is. Even with a very active imagination, and though I’ve read the book Holes, by Louis Sachar, which goes into great detail about the trials of digging, I was not expecting the varied, excruciating pains that eventually imprint themselves on your muscles. I’ll just say that I have a great respect for diggers now… and that the tractor was a beautiful invention.

Craig is so tired he doesn’t even care that a cat is two feet away from him on his bed.

When I eventually got over the large aches and pains of digging (since we finally finished the hole), I was still left with the small aches and pains associated with both working on a farm and doing construction work. At one point, I even asked Shawn, “So… does your back just always hurt?” But what doesn’t kill you just builds character, right? And at least I could start enjoying the food without wincing every time I took a bite. (Craig is convinced he’s gotten more muscles in his arms. I humor him.)

Craig and I didn’t take any pictures of the hole (I think if we were trying to repress the memory of it), but here’s the stone path that we were making, which was a lot easier than digging.

Life on the farm is pretty uneventful and isolated. I wondered sometimes about the sanity of Lindsey, so far from her North Dakota roots, stuck in the middle of nowhere in Ecuador with a 9-month-old baby as her primary company. Her favorite part of the day seemed to be when the girl next door came to take Gus for an hour, and she got to shower and then sit outside drying her hair in peace. Craig and I have discovered that, despite enjoying small towns and their quaintness, we really prefer large cities. I don’t think I could ever live so far from civilization, despite romantic notions of retiring to the cliffs of Isle of Skye, Scotland, which has a ratio of sheep to people of 12:1. I have a sinking feeling that I’d go crazy within a year.

Luckily, there were lots of other volunteers on the farm to break the solitude. Yandrec (Polish) and his wife Elisa (Italian) made for an interesting international mix. Elisa told me many things that made me wonder about the authenticity of Italian restaurants in America. She had never heard of Alfredo sauce and said that ricotta was never used in lasagna (just bechamel), but didn’t seem bothered by the cannibalization of her cuisine in other countries. In fact, Elisa was so easy-going that I wondered about that whole “hot-blooded Italian” stereotype. She remained unruffled even in the midst of an argument about the increasingly toxic anti-vaccine controversy. Impressive!

Yandrec was also a chef, so here follows various food pictures:

Turns out, baking pizza in an actual pizza oven really makes a difference. Yandrec approved of the dough that Craig made, to his great relief. Yandrec even has a “pizza certification”. Go Craig!

Gnocchi in the making! With bechamel sauce and vegetables. Craig and I are quite proud that we’ve learned how to make so many sauces on this trip from scratch–it really isn’t difficult at all, and better than buying jars with preservatives in them. I’ll still eat my Flaming Hot Cheetos, though, thank you very much. And I could REALLY go for some nacho cheese from a can right now…

Craig and I actually made these gyozas ourselves, and we made the wrappers from scratch as well (not as hard as you’d think, unless you’re making eighty of them… then it gets a bit tiring). Nothing cheers the spirit like some potstickers!

A lot of our meals included bacon or sausage that Shawn had made himself from his pigs, which was great. I think we were in between slaughter seasons, so we unfortunately didn’t get to try any fresh meat, but after considering it, I’m not sure I actually do want to know what’s involved in my meat consumption. All I really care about is that the meat here tastes way better (and is a LOT cheaper) than in the States. I suppose there’s something to be said for buying fresh, local meat, so Rain Shadow Meats in Seattle can expect to get a lot of our business when we eventually return, although it will, sadly, not be cheaper.

Animals on a farm are quite fascinating… I spent several minutes being mesmerized by the sight of thousands of chickens one morning, and the pigs were so large and snuffly that I was never very comfortable around them. The farm used to have cows, but not anymore, so that just left… PETS! Abundant and adorably cute, the dogs made working difficult (it’s hard to dig out from under a 150-lb half-mastiff) and the cats made sleeping warmer. I miss them already.

It’s a Little Cat! She was just so tiny and perfect, you hardly minded when she climbed up your leg with her razor-sharp claws.

Whenever I got close to Miley, she would immediately flop on her back and assume the maximum stomach scratching position. I couldn’t resist, and usually spent several minutes trying to appease her. Sarah is in the background.

Cat trio, before their peace was disrupted by Little Cat. They are on Craig’s bed, of course.

Eiisa observing five of the seven dogs while Tony attempts to steal Miley’s caresses away.

All in all, it was a nice interlude to our trip. I got some more knitting done, we made some new friends, and learned some new recipes. Still, we were happy to leave, if only so that our backs could finally recover. We are now in Baños, slightly lower in elevation but still surrounded by the Andes, and are looking forward to several days of exploring the beautiful landscape and enjoying our own private bathroom again!

One last Little Cat picture since she’s just too cute not to.

I wake up beneath volcanoes

This week is fun for a lot of reasons.  We’ve officially been traveling for 6 months!  And I’m turning 29!  We’re also one week into our fourth work-stay of the trip.  This one, like the previous three, has been pretty good.  Sheena and I are staying upstairs in the old farm house, sharing the attic with a girl from Belgium, and four cats.  It was three until Lindsay bought a kitten earlier this week.  Freddie is currently curled up in my lap.  She’s adorable and I’m actually a little sad I’m allergic… Cuddles has decided that she likes my bed best, so I’ve really had to be mindful of putting my hands on my face, or suffer the eye-swelling consequences..

Our accommodations – Tigger is curled up on Sheena’s bed

Shawn (Lindsay’s husband) moved here in 2008 from the United States.  He bought a chicken farm and decided this was his near-term future.  He’s unlike many ex-pats in this regard, as he had never lived here before, didn’t get “stuck”, and isn’t a retiree trying to stretch his savings in a foreign country.  He speaks Spanish well (which is refreshing from an ex-pat), and works with local contractors to complete construction projects on his property.  He has been hosting volunteers like us for a number of years.  Lindsay was one of his earliest volunteers, and we could probably say that she did get stuck.  Shawn and Lindsay have a 9-month old named Gus, which is short for Gustavo.

Little Gustavo

We thought we would be the only ones at this work-stay, but were pleasantly surprised to find other volunteers here when we arrived.  Not that the family isn’t nice, but it’s always good to have others in the same boat.  I guess it encourages camaraderie.  Yandrick (probably misspelled) is from Poland, and is a professional chef.  He and his Italian wife, Eliza, have been traveling for a little under a year.  They ended up in Mexico, outside of Puerto Escondido for almost 8 months.  I guess the work was good and the weather favorable.  We’re super glad they’re here though, as we get to enjoy some great food.  The green curry and fish was probably the highlight, but the fried rice last night was also incredible.  We’re probably going to enjoy pizza tonight as well…

The future volunteer cabaña bathroom

Tony (scar-face) and Mylie (Sheena’s favorite)

The work here has been mostly construction oriented.  Shawn is currently building a new cabaña which will house future volunteers on the second floor, and a butcher kitchen on the first.  We have trenched for the new sewer line, dug out a huge pit for the sewer treatment tank, and built stone walkways to the various entrances.  We’ve also started working on a fence along the property line, mostly to keep the 7 dogs away from the neighbors’ pack… Tony and Manny are half-mastiff, so it’s in Shawn’s best interest to keep them corralled.  There are also a number of pigs on the property, and we have to occasionally feed and water them.  Two of the females are pregnant, but I think we’ll miss the birth… We’ll also most likely miss the slaughter of one of the pigs, which is disappointing.  I know, it sounds terrible, but since we’re here I think I really do want to witness what the slaughter is like.  This is about as humane and natural as animal-raising goes, so it would be a good opportunity.

Looking towards the farm, with Volcan Cotacachi in the background

The surrounding countryside is beautiful.  Similar to our work-stay in southern Chile, we are surrounded by large volcanoes, and we have lakes nearby.  Every morning we wake up to a sunrise on Volcan Cotacachi, and every evening we watch the sun set on Volcan Imbabura.  The countryside is decidedly pastoral.  The nearby town of Otavalo has a famous Saturday market.  Rows and rows of stands greeted us in the main square, and shot off down every side street.  It was all pretty overwhelming, but a fun experience.  We’ll visit some other towns and take some day-hikes during the upcoming week.

Portable ice cream machine in Otavalo

Eating encebollada for lunch. Albacore, yuca, onion, cilantro, with a tomato-based broth poured on top – yum!

The northern highlands of Ecuador

Colonial Quito from the Basilica

We got off on the wrong foot in Quito.  Our outdated guidebook didn’t inform us that there was a brand new airport, located way out of town.  A $20, 90 minute journey to arrive at our hostel meant we weren’t allowed into the grocery store, as it was closing… the following day we dropped by the SAE Clubhouse to pick up a care-package sent by Sheena’s friends.  The excitement of that excursion was briefly dampened by the cranky old man running the place.  We were happy we made the decision to not stay there.

Finally got a black and white filter to function. A decidedly un-colonial building in colonial Quito.

Our hostel, La Casona de Mario, was definitely a highlight of our time in Quito.  It might have been the best kitchen we’ve had yet!  The climate has changed dramatically since we were in the Galapagos.  It’s still really sunny during the daylight hours, and pretty warm (mid-70’s), but the cold comes once the sun goes down.  It’s back to layers of heavy wool blankets at night, which means arguing about who’s stealing the covers more =)

Lovely afternoons looking out La Casona de Mario from our bedroom

We’re currently at a farm outside of Cotacachi, about two hours north of Quito.  We signed up for another Work-Away, and will be up here for the next two weeks.  It’s a full house with lots of other volunteers, mostly from Europe.  The host family is nice, and the food has been great so far.  Their 6 dogs, 3 cats and 9-month old child also keep us pretty entertained.

Not a bad view – Volcan Imbabura from our farm