Ants in the pants

We had another run-in with the ants today, but these guys weren’t the same hug-you-en-masse fire ants who made our acquaintance on our permaculture walk. These were more recognizable big, black ants, but still biters, according to Dave. Today was our day of Bokashi – a word we’ve heard gleefully uttered pretty much every day since our arrival. Andres, our gardener, is always enthusiastically shouting “Bokashi!” in his Colombian accent, dissolving into a slurry of Spanish to explain the wonders of micro-organisms and his love affair with soil. And finally today we were able to share in his passion. Only, the ants weren’t as happy about our special moment.

Bokashi, turns out, is more than just something Andres says when he’s bounding from compost to mulch pile, it’s actually a Japanese recipe for creating dirt. Today we mixed mulch, wheat and corn husks, wood shavings, charred organics from town, dried leaves, and ash together with a weird molasses concoction that contained humus Andres had scraped from a nearby forest, molasses, yeast and water. You would think being covered in molasses would be like our olive branch to the ants, but no such luck. After just a few minutes in I noticed a really pissed off colony itching for some payback that was marching out of the dirt I was chucking into our soon-to-be-Bokashi. But, by the time I warned the others, it was too late. Dave already had several dozen ants scrambling from his shoes, up his pants and gunning for the shirt collar. Because these guys are a bit bigger, they move faster than their fire ant cousins.

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Yep, he had ants in his pants. One added bonus of zip-off pants: getting the bugs out easier.

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Dog bites man…almost

Also, Dave got attacked by a dog on Friday. Well, “attacked” is a strong word. This dog fully intended on attacking him – and even chomped on the side pockets on Dave’s pants, but that was as far as he got. We were on the last leg of our journey home, walking down the gravelly path from Amaga center to Paola’s hostel that usually takes about 20 minutes. We had encountered this dog on other occasions and duly noted his insanity at the way he incessantly barked at us and followed any passerby for the full length of his territory.

On Friday he was really raring for a fight. Maybe because it was dusk he felt more threatened by us, or maybe his insanity builds up over the weekdays and culminates on Friday nights. Either way, as we approached we saw him stop and stare us down. He looks like a medium-sized Doberman, but is a bit stockier and doesn’t have the pointy ears. As we got closer hunkered down on all fours – kind of like a cat getting ready to pounce – and his growl grew louder. We tried our best to approach him calmly, walking swiftly and not making eye contact but that didn’t stop him from circling our legs, barking like crazy and trying to draw blood from Dave’s pocket. While we made it through this encounter unscathed (Dave just got some dirt of his pants) today we made sure to stash a stick near the beginning of his territory, and Paola said she’d have a word with the owner. Maybe that worked, or maybe he’s a Catholic dog, but today he wasn’t in his usual place.

The hangover

I’ve been drinking the coffee here, mostly to entertain my “when in Rome” mentality and partly because I really love it. I gave up drinking coffee a few years ago when I started to get caffeine withdrawal headaches, but the genuine Colombian stuff is just so freakin good – and so prolific – I haven’t been able to turn it down. But I think I overdid it on Friday when I had one of the worst hangovers I’d ever experienced.

Friday was our day-trip to Café de la Clima, a small, family-run coffee farm that gives plantation tours and explains the whole process from seed to roast. In the morning everything was peachy. We took the small bus to the big bus to the taxi jeep, which took us up the hill to the farm where we traipsed through the mountainside that was dotted with shrubby coffee trees planted in meandering rows. We even helped collect some small red coffee berries and dropped them into their collector – a trashcan with a chest strap. Now because their farm is essentially carved into the mountain, the easiest way to carry the beans down would be to employ gravity some way, which they’ve done by laying a pipe from the top of their harvesting area all the way to the bottom where the beans spill out into a container near the fermenter.

After the tour we were treated to a delicious lunch of chicken, rice, vegetables and arepas all served in a giant plantain leaf. After seeing the inner workings of the farm, and finally being able to truly appreciate the work that goes into perfecting each bean, how was I supposed to turn down a lovely cup of highly caffeinated homebrew? So what that it was my second one for the day. I gladly dumped in my sugar packet and delighted in the intense flavor.

After lunch was our coffee taste-testing challenge. Four different roasts from three different companies put our senses to the test. And, not having been able to properly drink the samples, I felt obliged to at least have one more cup before we hit the road.

Now, you would think after three cups for the day – after not really drinking coffee for several years – I would have a serious caffeine buzz going on, but instead I passed out on the bus ride home and continued to be a cranky mess until we got back to Paola’s. By the time we were back in our room it was already dark out and a monster of a headache was slowly spreading from the front of my forehead to encompass my entire skull. Not only that, but there were a few moments when I was sure I was about to throw up my delicious lunch.

Anywho, the coffee hangover continued all night – I think I slept about an hour in total – and into the next morning where it was hard to get out of bed. Thank god this ecohostel was able to scrape up some conventional painkillers. The point is, like Pablo Escobar, Colombian coffee can be dangerous.

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English class

Today was only our fourth day of teaching English to our eleventh-graders, but I think we’re already pretty cool in their eyes. Our class is comprised of about 15 students ranging from age 14 to 18. There’s Jefferson who knows some English already and cracks open his seriously dated Spanish-English dictionary to throw out random phrases like “the people of Amaga are gay.” Then there’s the three 14-year-old girls who sit in the front, yet still shut their eyes and refuse to open their notebooks. There’s also the guy in the corner with a mullet whose notes look like works of art – he has quite the array of colored, sparkley pens.

Despite their age differences they work fairly well together, and I think have even learned a few English phrases. Today Dave and I taught them “What is your phone number” and we got a few giggles of understanding.

Cornballer

When we first arrived in Colombia we saw one word scrawled on nearly every restaurant’s chalkboard, advertising the day’s menu: arepa. Arepa with arequipe, arepa with chicharron for lunch, arepas in pastry shops, arepas everywhere. What was this crowd-favorite? At first we were told the arepa is Colombia’s version of a corn tortilla – a bit thicker and mealier than its Mexican cousin. But, that definition didn’t really pan out when everything we ordered at the panderia was called an arepa. Turns out these arepas can take many shapes and I’m pretty sure anything made of corn flower and fried can go by this name. And while it’s certainly not my favorite arepa, the one I was the most excited about when I saw it, has come to be known as the cornball — also known as a buñuelo.

If you’ve ever seen Arrested Development you’ll remember the Corn Baller. Guess what. It’s alive and well in Colombia. Not only that, but it would probably sear your fingerprints right off if you ever touched the side – just as seen on TV.

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Perma-meeting

I think I’ve unintentionally carved out my role in the whole permaculture process. What started as a simple question to Paola – Were there any notes from previous volunteers about how the land was managed – has snowballed into my new responsibility of keeper of the garden archives.

The group of volunteers who completed the same six-week program before us, stayed at this hostel from October through December 2013 and were led by a Canadian woman schooled in permaculture design. Our group, however, and all of our garden tasks, have been led by our perma-man, Andres. These two are both very capable leaders, but differ on many levels – including the interpretation of permaculture principles and their cultural backgrounds. Andres is a Colombian native and delights in hacking into the lawn to create a terraced garden. This Canadian woman – as I’ve heard – would cringe at the thought of rearranging the earth to fit it into a design. This dichotomy, coupled with constant coming-and-going volunteers, makes creating long-term goals a challenge. I felt like I was transported back to my 9-to-5 today after sitting down with Andres, Carlos who could translate, Mike who had ideas, and Dave who is tuned into permaculture, to hash out what exactly we’re trying to accomplish here. We should have been sitting around board table in a climate-controlled meeting room, but instead we were gathered around a small white board and Andres would excitedly gush about his ideas in a string of Spanish, Carlos would nod and help translate, Mike would offer opposing view and Dave and I would exchange glances. Even still, I think I managed to get the idea. Now I just have to archive it.

Mondongo

So if you ever find yourself in Colombia, or even in a Colombian restaurant for that matter, remember: You can’t go wrong with mondongo. It sounds weird — and can easily be confused with that movie ticket company Fandango — but it’s worth trying. Dave has had it in two authentic restaurants so far and I’ve looked on jealously.

Basically it’s a bowl of mystery meat soup in a really fatty broth with chunks of papas, zanahorias and peas. But the best part is you get an entire plate of items that are enhanced when covered in mondongo. For example, today Dave ordered his standby and got the bowl of soup plus half an avocado, a pile of rice, two lime wedges and a fried rice cake. At a fancy restaurant in Medellin the mondongo also came with an entire banana, which, honestly, we ate as a dessert, not really knowing whether we should chop it up for the soup. Still, great meal for mas o menos $5.

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Ow is for ouch

Today I actually got to teach English to an adult. Operating off the barter system, Andres, our permaculture guide, gives us perma-tips and we take turns giving him English lessons. When I asked him what he wanted to work on he said pronunciation, so I pulled a page from Billy Madison’s spelling bee and taught Andres some tricks to sounding it out. I think it blew his mind. I was having French phonetique class flashbacks as we went over how vowels (not bowels as Andres wanted to call them) change their sound depending on the presence of other letters. An “e” at the end of a word really does magical stuff. It’s not mad, it’s made.

Day 1

Today was the first day of our whirlwind schedule yet somehow I still found myself in bed by 8:30. I think we just managed to compress time enough until it surrendered. Surviving mostly on our mental clocks – put to the test by the Colombian sense of punctuality – we were able to attend meditation, eat breakfast, weed a garden, attend Spanish class, teach an English class, do some more weeding, eat lunch, take a siesta, jerry-rig a rain barrel, cook dinner and eat dinner. Near the end of the day, the changing hour elicited a Pavlovian response from me that was slowly leaning toward detesting yard work. But cooking dinner easily lifted our spirits. Today was our day to play Iron Chef Amaga. Dave, Bria and I were presented with a kitchen counter full of ingredients and asked to prepare a meal for nine people. The special ingredient? Radishes. Pulling an old favorite from my days in Peru, we made potato-lentil veggie burgers with radish, broccoli and ginger stirfry. Muchas gracias Morimoto.

Painful Permaculture

Here’s a nugget of wisdom: When you start to get all warm and fuzzy about the interconnectedness of nature and you’re nodding your head in agreement because, yea, I get it, “every living thing is intertwined by an invisible thread,” don’t forget that fire ants – shockingly – aren’t your friend, twined or un-twined.

Today we gathered in the gazebo for our first lesson on permaculture. Andres, our smiley Colombian gardener who has that cabana boy thing going on, gladly informed us about the central philosophies of permaculture – help people, help the land and share the harvest. Yet despite his overview, a few of us were still left wondering… what exactly is permaculture? Some of us were totally lost once he highlighted the subtle differences between organic agriculture and permaculture. Here’s the gist: Permaculture uses organic methods, companion planting and landscape design to plant a variety of plants, which, if done correctly, will require little intervening. It’s basically trying to recreate how the plants would operate in nature, while at the same time adding in some crops for your own benefit. This idea also extends into other areas of sustainability such as water management and housing.

Fresh from the permaculture pep talk, Andres added fuel to our enthusiasm by saying we were going to take a walk through the hostel’s grounds and check out what practices had already been implemented. Woo hoo! Nothing like a hands-on lab session to really understand science. I was all set to be my own Bill Nye and then Andres added his little playful caveat. “We’re going to go without shoes on,” he added in his thick Colombian accent. Ah. Lovey.

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Dave and I warily exchanged glances and slowly made our way to the edge of the gazebo to pull off our shoes and expose our white feet to the sticky Amaga air. Gingerly we ambled down the concrete pavers and prepared ourselves to step onto the grass. My mother, who used to yell at me if I kicked off my shoes in a suburban playground to enjoy a scraggly patch of dried grass, would have had a heart attack today. And in her “I told you so fashion,” after traversing the gardens and traipsing up hills, Dave and I returned to the gazebo with about 20 swollen and burning fire ant bites (me) and two bloody puncture wounds (Dave).

Maybe my permaculture will be “no ants allowed.”