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!

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

Perhaps it was our hapless introduction to Quito that clouded our judgment, but it suddenly seemed as if everybody was getting really annoying.

Our first negative encounter was with our taxi driver into Quito. It’s a familiar and annoying scene: you tell him (it’s always a he) where you want to go, he says he knows exactly where it is, you get into the cab, and then about five minutes later, he asks you, “Wait, what is the address?” When you tell him again, it’s all confusion and bafflement on his part, and total exasperation on your part.

“No, we said, ‘Andalucia‘, not ‘Santa Lucia‘!” we repeated over and over. It would have been funny if we hadn’t already been exhausted and hungry, and if this situation hadn’t already occurred about a zillion times on this trip already.

On our second day in Quito, we went on a mission for SNACKS. My best friends from childhood had sent me a care package, and I had been salivating for about a month in anticipation. A perk of being a member of the South American Explorers Club is that you can use their address to accept packages. I had been in contact with the manager of the Quito Club, John, about the arrival of the package, and during our email exchange, he asked me twice if I was an “Avon Lady” and told me that he needed three tubs of silicon glove (my email address contains the word “avonlea”, which is the setting for the Anne of Green Gables series of books). His repeated question made me think that he was 1) old and 2) possibly senile. These two predictions turned out to be true.

This is what my package looked like. Good thing chips and candy aren’t fragile items! Thanks to Elizabeth, Hyemee, and Manda!

We arrived at the Quito Club already knowing that we would have to pay them $8, since John had gone to the post office to pick up my package and had to pay $5 for duty. The extra $3 was for the taxi ride, apparently. I gave him a $10 bill and he grumbled about having to give me change. “Do you want to just give me a $2 tip?” he asked.

“Uhhh, not really,” I said, but I thought, Are you serious?! Craig and I could have gone to the post office ourselves, after all. Yes, it was very nice of him to do it, but not necessary. I also had no idea he even intended to go. It’s definitely the sign of an old, white, American gringo ex-pat to assume backpackers will gladly hand over $2 without thinking about it. John seemed so out of touch with the kind of travelers we were; he ranted to Craig about how tourists should tip heavily because “they can afford it”. It was pointless to even try to explain to him that there now existed more than one type of tourist, and that some of them (like us), were counting every penny.

Even with the euphoria of my American junk food, the encounter left a sour taste in our mouths.

We spent our last day in Quito exploring the old, colonial part of the city. We visited the Basilica del Voto Nacional, a huge neo-gothic monstrosity that was built in the late 1800s. You can, for $2, climb up all three of its towers, which allows for amazing views. Craig and I braved the questionable metal staircase that had been positioned in a seemingly precarious spot, clinging to a flying buttress far above anything solid. We remarked on how something like that would never be allowed in the States (a common theme in South America), but the views were spectacular. Still, we were both shaking a bit when we finally got back to street level!

Basilica del Voto Nacional. Not ostentatious at all.

Scary staircase. We weren’t the only ones who found it unnerving.

Hello from Quito!

Colonial Quito showed us that the city did have some charms. We finally saw some interesting architecture (the rest of Quito is a concrete and uninteresting), and stopped for a coffee in a cafe off the Plaza de Armas. It was a beautiful Sunday, and the plaza was filled with Quiteños, eating ice cream, riding bikes, and wandering the artisenal market. Unfortunately, as soon as we sat down, our patented gringo-alert began to buzz. You can usually tell them by their plaid shirts, cargo shorts, and sunglasses. This one helped us out by speaking very loudly in American English about all the things he’d done and seen.

As soon as his companion left to go to the bathroom, he zeroed in on us (it’s impossible for them to stop talking about themselves if there’s someone around to listen).

“Where are you from?” he asked without preamble. (By the way, should we have just answered in Spanish that we didn’t understand English?)

“We’re from Seattle,” we said (we answer Seattle to Americans and los Estados Unidos to everyone else).

“Ah,” he said. “I’m from Winnipeg.” (So I got the American part wrong, but… close enough.) And then–of course–he asked the absolute most common question of all, “How long are you traveling?”

“We’re not entirely sure,” Craig replied, momentarily stunning the Winnipegger into silence. Before he could recover, Craig explained, “We’re traveling through South America, but we don’t have an end-date.”

“And how long have you been traveling for?” the Winnipegger asked. We knew that our answer of “Almost six months” wasn’t what he wanted to hear. He wanted us to tell him that we’d only arrived to Quito yesterday, just so he could then regale us with all of his knowledge. We knew this because after six months of traveling, you start to separate people into types, and Winnipegger was the I-like-to-feel-like-I-know-everything-and-I-want-to-impart-my-vast-wisdom-type. Of all types, this is one of the most irritating.

So it was with great satisfaction that we could say, “Almost six months,” and stop his lecture before it began. Despite having nearly half a year of backpacking under our belts, some of these types still feel the need to ask us silly questions that I perceive as condescending. “Of course I know I need small change to buy street food!” I want to scream. “You think after six months I don’t know a thing like that?!” Ugh.

But the Winnipegger lowered himself even more in our esteem in an entirely different manner when he said, “Six months! Are you tired of everything, then?”

Tired of what, exactly? Getting to see new, beautiful places nearly every day? Not having to work and pay bills? Exploring new cultures? Learning a new language?? Double ugh.

“Well, tired of churches, at least?” the Winnipegger asked, grasping at straws.

I won’t say that there haven’t been times on this trip where I’ve thought, “Oh God, not another church!” But we had just visited the Basilica and had a great (if slighly terrifying) time there. Traveling, like anything, can get tedious, but I think it’s probably one of the most tedious-proof things you can do. There’s always a new city to explore and hows and wherefores of getting there. It is an adventure, but above all, it’s a treat, and to have somebody ask you if you’re tired of it (and not just of traveling, but of everything!) is like asking if somebody’s tired of ice cream, or tired of taking naps. In short, it’s the type of question that only somebody like the Winnipegger would ask. I mean, what did he expect us to say? “Yes! And we’re leaving tomorrow!”? Not a likely answer from any backpacker, but of course, the Winnipegger couldn’t possibly know that, not being a backpacker himself.

Luckily, his companion finally returned, saying, “The bathroom! It’s through a tunnel!” Cue eye-rolling.

You’ll only see something like this in Colonial Quito. The vast sprawl of the rest of the city is fairly boring in comparison.

Our next destination was our work-exchange on a farm near Cotacachi, just a few hours north of Quito. When we arrived, the rest of the volunteers had just finished eating lunch, and Lindsey and Shawn, the young American ex-pats who owned it, were MIA for a bit. One of the volunteers, an English girl named Analise, immediately took it upon herself to give us a tour. Five minutes in, I was thinking to myself, I really hope the rest of them aren’t like this.

Analise was very much like the dreaded Bob of the Salkantay trek. Condescending, patronizing, and bossy. She could make a simple request, such as refilling the sugar bowl, sound like an order from the Queen of England. She was also a “buttinsky”–needing to put her oar in whenever possible, but in a totally meaningless way. Her haughty accent didn’t really help matters, either. Craig and I thanked the heavens she was leaving in two days.

So now I’m wondering, have Craig and I become that equally abhorrent type of traveler that judges everybody and finds them lacking? Of course we’ve met people that we absolutely loved on this trip, but there are also plenty that we would just as soon have done without. Are we jaded? Or have we always been like this? I vote for the latter for myself, but sometimes, I’d rather that we didn’t get so worked up about the people we don’t like. So what if Analise wanted to feel like she was better than us? So what if the Winnipegger loved to act like a benevolent, enlightened tour guide? Who cares? They shouldn’t affect us at all, but they always end up rubbing us the wrong way.

Should we try and stay above it all? Or just suffer through it in our usual frames of mind, until we can really get down and enjoy a thorough rant-fest about them? It’s seems very much like the high road versus the low road. Well, personally, I’ve always loved a good gab and gossip. Not in a malicious way, of course, but in that (skirting-the-line) “I’m just trying to understand!” way. It’s with good intentions; perhaps, after meeting and talking about enough of them, we’ll eventually come to be more sympathetic! Miracles can happen, right?

View of the garden and the pigs from the roof of our work-exchange. Such a beautiful landscape! That’s something I can’t feel glib or jaded about, and, thank goodness, I’ll never get tired of it!

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

san carlos de bariloche

While in El Bolsón we found ourselves really missing this relaxed, small hostel in Bariloche.  So we decided to take the owner up on his offer and come back for a week to volunteer!  It has been passing by in a blur.  Bariloche is a great city in a fantastic location.  There are lot of treks to do nearby, and until today, the weather has been perfect.  The environment in the hostel is really laid back, and the shifts are easy.  Our fellow volunteers are fun people.  It’s the kind of place that has the potential to trap a traveler…

Sheena checks out Lago Nahuel Huapi from Cerro Otto


Tronador (3,470 m), from Cerro Catedral


Siloah on top of Cerro Catedral


We have watched way too many X-men movies here… Did you know there are 6?!


Jordan works the morning shift.  It looks pretty tough, right?

Filling in the cracks

Craig’s been doing an excellent job of updating the blog with pertinent information, so I’m just going to give some extra details in this post.

I was very sad to leave Frutillar… mostly because we had to part with our new volunteer friends, who were so amazing! I really hope to see them again someday, if not on this trip, then in France or Australia… or wherever!

Our hostel in El Bolsón (La Casona de Odile) was really nice, except for the fact that it was 7km from town. You either had to take an unreliable, slow, and infrequent bus (3 pesos) or a taxi (30 pesos) to town. Guess which one we decided was the better option? Click here or in the sidebar to see my Instagram pictures (my username is @hopsee) and find out!

View from our hike on the first day after a very steep climb. I was almost too tired to appreciate it.

We enjoyed some great weather for hiking the first day to Refugio Hielo Azul… it was nice to feel warm on a hike again after our cold cold days in Southern Patagonia. I only needed to wear one layer! What a welcome change.

A fun little basket to send stuff across the Rio Azul. Presumably it mostly carries orphaned babies who are actually princesses and will be raised by either forest animals or fairies.

Packhorses on the trail. Better get out of the way!

This reminded me of Scotland, without the billions of sheep.

When we got to the refugio, the sun was out and it was still warm, so we felt a bit guilty about not bringing our tent and camping like “real backpackers”. There were also hot showers (which we took advantage of… sorry for being wussies) and flush toilets! I think I could get used to this glamping after all… Forget that feeling of accomplishment, ruggedness, and dirtiness… I think I’d rather be clean and warm!

Cordero (lamb) slow-roasting in front of the fire. I wanted to try it, and I'm sure the people cooking it would have let me, but it took about SEVEN hours to cook! So I was asleep by the time it was done.

Cordero (lamb) slow-roasting in front of the fire. I wanted to try it, and I’m sure the people cooking it would have let me, but it took about SEVEN hours to cook! So I was asleep by the time it was done. Also, those are its kidneys. I asked.

The downsides to the refugio’s sleeping porch, however, was that the mattresses were all side-by-side and not very thick (see instagram), and the loudest snorer always placed himself RIGHT NEXT TO ME. I think there must be a special place in hell reserved for snorers who choose to sleep in public places when there’s an alternative… like freezing in a tent… or missing out on beautiful scenery. I’m pretty sure snorers shouldn’t get the same sleeping rights as non-snorers. I also maybe need to get better earplugs for myself…

Our first refugio had an emergency slide in case of fire. A scary thought, especially since it was so hot and dry with two wood stoves going. An even scarier thought was that our next refugio had no slide…

The hike the next day was also fairly difficult… extremely steep uphill and downhill both. Craig and I got pretty tired and frustrated with the constant little slips going down. (We must be getting soft with all this glamping and not sleeping in a tent.) We finally made it to Refugio El Retamal, a 40 minute steep (South Americans have never heard of switchbacks, apparently) hike up from Refugio Cajon de Azul, which was this huge compound/farm/garden… we were happy to skip this for the more laid-back, less-crowded Retamal (even though it also harbored a loud snorer… they’re following me, I swear).

Craig crossing a mini-bridge.

We met a fun French couple at El Retamal, Pierre and Marie (whom he called “Mary” when speaking English… so funny!). They went halvesies with us on a bottle of wine and some delicious pan casero (homemade bread). They also introduced me to a cream-cheese-like product with the brand-name of Finlandia. On the package, it’s described as queso procesado. Yum!

This cute little mini-Kisa followed me for awhile on the trail between the two refugios, but I wasn't sure which she belonged to so I tried not to encourage her in any direction. I hope she's still okay...

This cute little mini-Kisa followed me for awhile on the trail between the two refugios, but I wasn’t sure which she belonged to so I tried not to encourage her in any direction. I hope she’s still okay… we didn’t see her the next day.

Our last day, we walked past the beautiful Cajon de Azul, which was wonderfully lit with morning light. It was a relatively easy walk back to the trailhead, where we called for a cab to share back to town with the Frenchies. Like most people we’ve met here, they were incredibly friendly and we became email friends and exchanged blog addresses. We’ve friended dozens of people on Facebook, gotten loads of email addresses, phone numbers… it’s a common theme for everybody to be very friendly and giving.

I can take pretty pictures, too! Take that, Craig!

On the other hand, there’s also always one American nay-sayer. We end up defending the U.S. more often than you would think from a couple of hippie, liberal Seattleites. In truth, I think being Estado-unidense has incredible advantages. There’s a reason that my parents chose to emigrate to the U.S. and ended up becoming successful middle-classers. But you always meet somebody who claims that America is full of intolerant and ignorant people and sure, there are some, and sure, we have our problems, but doesn’t every country? And it’s kind of hard not to have an incredible spectrum of perspectives and beliefs in such a huge country. Give us a break, you tiny European countries! It’s not easy being green!

Craig relaxing on the sun porch of La Casona de Odile.

Craig relaxing on the sun porch of La Casona de Odile.

Spending a couple of nights at our hostel to regroup was wonderful. Going trekking is always such a difficult endeavor in regards to packing… We have to take everything out of our packs, repack it with trekking stuff, separate out everything else to store at the hostel, and then redo everything over again when we get back from the trek. Such a pain! But we wanted to go trekking during our travels, so you have to make sacrifices for it.

How many Americans does it take to change a spare tire?

Ruben (the owner of our work-exchange hostel) sprung a flat as soon as we arrived. How many Americans does it take to change a spare tire?

We’re now having a great time at another work-exchange in Bariloche. The weather’s been beautiful and warm, although the leaves are changing color and reminding us that we’ll need to be heading north soon to follow the sun. But it’s a great, laid-back, and small hostel where we can spend a week, have a lot of laughs with the owner and the other volunteers, and “save” some more money. I’m currently hanging out with a spastic (but cute) cat on the sofa, about to begin the second leg of an X-Men movie marathon (not our idea), after only doing a few hours of work this morning. We also had time to take a hike to a local mirador (lookout) and jump in the hostel’s pool afterwards! Seven weeks into our trip, and life is good.

All About Working Away

Sunset over the farm at Lagune Club.

We arrived in Frutillar on a beautiful Sunday, when crowds of tourists lined the beachfront and boardwalk on Lago Llanqihue, the second-largest lake in Chile. After getting scammed by our taxi driver for an extra $3 US (I wanted to fight with the driver about this, but Craig didn’t and since he’s the one who speaks the Spanish, I had to let it go…), we made it to the hotel where we would be doing our work-exchange. Only 3km down a road that skirts the lake, Lagune Club has beautiful views of the lake and surrounding volcanos. (Craig set up our work-exchange through a great site, WorkAway.)

View of Orsono Volcano from Lagune Club

We were pleasantly surprised to find that we would be housed in our own 2-bedroom cabaña (that usually goes for about $150 US/night), complete with a kitchen and a bathroom, but only until more voluntarios arrived to fill the other bedroom.

Next door, three volunteers had already been installed for a week: an Australian, Michael, and a French couple, Martin and Agathe. They, like us, had quit their jobs to travel, and it was immediately apparent that everybody would get along like gang-busters. It has been a common occurence on our trip so far that the English language skills of foreigners, like Martin and Agathe, far surpass anybody else’s Spanish skills, and so the majority of conversations take place in English, despite a shared goal of either improving or learning Spanish. At least for Martin and Agathe, it’s a chance to practice another 2nd language, but for Michael and ourselves, it’s both a comfort as well as a disappointment to not have that challenge.

Craig shooting the breeze with Martin and Agathe on the patio outside our cabañas.

Michael and Craig at dinner.

The work itself has involved a variety of things, mostly the renovation of a small house–painting, plastering, wood-trimming, electrical wiring. Other duties have included blackberry-picking (from whose thorns my clothes and I have sustained many small injuries), cutting down trees and chopping wood, semi-dangerous work sawing through steel beams, and the normal work involved in running a bed-and-breakfast hotel–cooking, making beds, and, unfortunately, cleaning toilets.

Anna, Craig and I at the house that we’re helping to renovate

Lagune Club is owned by a hard-working family that also runs a dairy and a farm. Ricardo, the 40-something year-old son of the owners, Monica and Sergio, has big dreams. He wants to build a restaurant that can serve up to 400 people (in a town with a population of only 15,000), add on a nightclub, renovate the original house, and has several other small projects running, aside from the work that we’re currently doing. He also seems to believe he can do this all by himself with just the help from unskilled voluntarios like ourselves. Ricardo’s estimates of the amount of time and work it will take to complete these projects is always hilariously short of what we think is realistic. The small house was supposed to be done last week, but we all think it will take at least another three. The restaurant is apparently going to be up and running in under a year, but they’ve only got the foundation done so far. It’ll be a hard road for these coming volunteers!

Riding a tractor to go chop some trees.

In exchange for all this back-breaking work, we get:

  • A pretty nice cabaña (shared)

  • desayuno (breakfast), which consists of tea or coffee, home-made bread, and home-made blackberry jam. This is not really enough to sustain us, so we’ve been supplementing with fruit, eggs, granola and yogurt, from the local supermarket

  • almuerzo (lunch), which is always huge and hot, thankfully

There is no cena (dinner) here, instead they have what’s called tomar las onces, which is just a light snack very similar to breakfast. Think of it like English tea, but there’s no satisfying hot meal a few hours later. So we’ve had to make our own dinners; group-cooked affairs that are usually way more food than you’d think we’d need, but somehow all this manual labor makes us very hungry…

Also, there are puppies. Unlimited access to puppies is a definite benefit.

We only work 5 hours a day, and also have weekends off (not always the case with work-exchanges, we’ve heard). We can pick blackberries on our own time and eat as many as we want, and we get to use the large, indoor barbecue. Sometimes, it does seem as if the family is being stingy by not giving us dinner, not turning the heater on in our cabañas all the time (and the weather has been down in the 40s F at night), not giving us mantequilla (butter), but 25 hours per week in exchange for what we do get, is not too bad of a trade-off….

Last weekend, we got lucky with some semi-nice weather and took a day trip to Petrohue, where we hiked near Lago Todos los Santos, a beautiful lake with Osorno Volcano nearby.

Craig in front of Lago Todos los Santos, with David and Martin in the background.

Some of the scenery during our hike reminded us so much of the Olympic National Park in Washington.

Even with our snacks and dinners (and a copious amount of booze), we’re not spending very much money (about $10/day total for the both of us), which was the whole point of doing the work-exchange in the first place.

The additional benefit is, of course, meeting such amazing people. I hope to keep in contact with the people we’ve met, and see them someday in the future. We’ve shared so many laughs and had so much fun… it’s hard to imagine that we’ve only known the other volunteers for such a short while.

We did have one unfortunate experience with another French volunteer, who insisted on stereotyping everybody. To me, he kept repeating the two phrases that he knew in Mandarin: “Hello” and “Thank you”. It’s not even my native language, which is Cantonese. He never really said anything else to me, never even asked me if I was Chinese. And after the 5th time he did it and I just grunted in response, he asked me, “What, you don’t like to speak Chinese?” He also insisted to Craig that all Americans cussed constantly and used the n-word, despite never having lived in the U.S. He offended Agathe when he made derogatory remarks about the Arab population in France. He also did not drink (a teetotaler!). In effect, he wasn’t the type of person you’d expect to see doing a work-exchange (i.e. hippie, culturally-conscious, liberal, semi-alcoholic). Luckily, he was aware enough to feel our disapproval, and left only a few days later.

Otherwise, the work-exchange has been like living in a dorm or a hostel–sharing your bathroom, sharing food and alcohol, listening to multiple languages spoken, having a lot of fun. The only downside is, of course, the work, but even that isn’t necessarily horrible and it definitely creates bonds. I have had moments where, in the middle of some ghastly task such as cleaning hair out of a drain, I’ve thought, “What the hell am I doing?? I’m a highly-trained professional, for heaven’s sake!” But thankfully, those moments were few and I eventually remembered that I quit that profession to travel and life is definitely not going to be anywhere close to my previous middle-class existence for awhile.

Craig getting schooled by Agathe at table tennis. This is the room where the giant BBQ is located.

All in all, I think Craig and I are very happy with our experience. I also think we’re happy that it’s ending. My back hurts, his back hurts–truly, menial labor is not for the weak (just ask the farmhand Lucio who, although only in his 50s, walks with a perpetual hunch and limp). Now that we’ve “saved” some money and met some great new friends, we’re off to Bariloche, El Bolsón, and Pucon for some trekking, hiking, and hopefully warmer weather!

Hanging out in Petrohue after our hike.