Whilst volunteering at Paola’s Ecohostel Medellin we had the opportunity to take part in some workshops and field trips. Sadly the visit to one of the local coal mines didn’t happen (although I know that Paola was glad – in here words she said – the Ecohostel doesn’t support the exploitation of Mother Earth – but we did do some really cool stuff which you can read about below.
Lilian, Luz Maria and Luis Fernando live on top of a mountain in the house that their father built. Everything had to be carried up on the back of a mule and even now, when they go shopping they bring goods up on their shoulders. The nearest town is a precise 18 minutes away but as an indication of how steep the mountainside is, it takes 30 minutes to get back. Lilian, Luz Maria and Luis Fernando are all quite a bit over the age of 60 but you would never think so as they are so trim and sprightly and have a zest for life that is not slowed by their age.
They grow a specific type of grass which, after it is dried and coloured, the ladies sew into jewellery, purses and hats. Paola from the Ecohostel Medellin had arranged for us to visit this lovely family and after trekking for nearly three hours to their home we were treated to a tasty lunch and then we had a bash at making our own jewellery.
Once a month the trio travel to Medellin to sell their unique products at the awesome artisan market – but first they have to carry everything down from their mountain via the local town and setting off at stupid o’clock for the bus.
some of the amazing finished products
The clay arrived in a big tub and we were instructed to get down and dirty. The grey gloop had to be worked to the correct consistency and then silence descended over the Ecohostel Medellin as we concentrated. Clay flutes, an aeroplane, beads, salt and pepper pots destined for a display cabinet in the U.S. and even a backgammon board were produced. The finished products were then whisked away to a kiln to be dried out before being returned to us. My flute ended up in the bin as I dropped it while travelling but the backgammon board was very well used over the next few weeks despite the seed counters rolling away every so often.
silence as everybody concentrates
Roof Tile Factory
Like a scene from a Dickens’ novel this small factory produced clay roof tiles. We had often seen the clouds of black smoke from the kilns drifting up through our valley and now we could understand the process. Machinery as old as the hills transformed splodges of clay into tiles which were then piled up into the kilns over the ovens by a team of soot covered men and twice a week fired up. The work is hard and filthy and we would see the men walking back down the lane after their shift with bodies black with coal dust and just the whites of their eyes shining bright. Our own little clay products from our workshop found their way here to be dried out along with the hundreds of roof tiles.
making the roof tiles
Paola wanted to construct a roof over the little barbeque area at the EcoHostel Medellin. The wood was harvested from the little jungly area and then the men turned up to build it. Holes were dug and poles sawn, a roof added and voila – it was completed in no time. The one thing that fascinated me about this process was that there is an optimum time to harvest bamboo. It shouldn’t simply be hacked down but the time of the month needs to be considered. If you ever doubt the effects of the moon on our planet try cutting bamboo at the wrong time. The gravity of the moon affects the water in the wooden stems – pulling it up and easing it down in a natural rhythm. Cut when the moon (and tides) are strong and you end up with a wooden pole full of water!
the bamboo workshop
We made our own soap from used cooking oil. Like chemists we mixed and stirred our oil and the necessary acid NAOH sodium hydroxide to ‘cook’ the gloop. Care is needed here as te misture has a potential to explode! Essential oils can be added to make it smell sweet but we added lime juice and teatree oils as we wanted to use our soap for the dishes and laundry. With soap you have to be patient, waiting for a month or so for the chemical process to work but it is a great way to utilise that old cooking oil rather than simply dumping it. One of our volunteers had made soap in the States previously – and she showed us pictures of soap as pretty as cupcakes, whilst our product was more functionable
chemists at work
Visit to the Panela Factory
We set off in a jeep to a small village high in the mountains to the panela factory. Run as a local cooperative, farmers bring their sugar cane here twice weekly for it to be converted to panela which forms the basis for so many things here in Colombia.
Using very basic machinery the canes are stripped and pressed and the juices then boiled until caramelised. Worked by a team in large steel basins the sugary mess is then pummeled into submission and formed into round puddings to harden before being packed.
boiling the panela
A bottle that was bobbing around in the hot tank caused much interest as the worker would periodically swoosh boiling panela over it. What part of the process could a bottle possibly contribute? Umm – the man was simply heating his coffee back up.
Afte buying some panela we were then invited to Raul’s home high on a ridge with THE most spectacular views and he played his guitar for us. Traditional Colombian tunes filled the air with such simply haunting sounds – I know that I shed a few tears as did some of the other volunteers as he softly played and sang for us with the mountains of Antioquia tumbling down behind him.
Raul sings for us
Machete, machete, machete
This was not really a workshop but is a useful lifeskill to have. Why don’t we have machetes in the UK? Well balanced, they slice through most things with complete ease. Hacking down thick bamboo poles, chopping through the undergrowth or digging up weeds – these tools are amazing and I want my own. I am sure that adding machete handling to my CV will make future employers stand up and beg for me to work for them.
hot filthy work in the kilns
This is a Japanese inspired way of making a quick soil from crap. Yep – we were off into the fields opposite the finca with our shovels and collecting cow shit. These cows are free range eating the finest grass but they produce the sloppiest poos. By the end of our sessions we were plastered in the stuff!. Leaves, yeast malt and other stuff go into the pile which is then mixed and covered with a tarp. It heats up – and I mean it REALLY heats up and is turned twice daily. Within about ten days there is sweet smelling compost ready to spread onto the newly constructed terraces and it can be planted up. The climate in this part of the world is perfect for cultivating things and within four weeks we had tomatoes ripening in the new beds.
mixing the bocachi
I learnt to play poker. I loved this game. Buying a handful of beans, seeds and bamboo chips we gambled a couple of evenings away. Considering I had never played before I didn’t disgrace myself (although I didn’t win). We were serious but fun, sat in one of the tiny mountainside bars that litter Latin America drinking beer and eating lemon flavoured crisps.
local bar (poker den) ingeniously decorated with bottles
Bars here are set up on any piece of ground, often contain a pool table or french billiards (like snooker or pool but you play with just three balls and no pockets!!!) and are decorated in the most ingenious of ways with very little expense. Children usually play around, dogs pant and sprawl and music pumps out at full volume around the clock.
The above should give you a taster of the things that I got up to in my five weeks with Paola and the gang. In fact, I loved Amagá and the area so much that after my initial five weeks were up I moved in with a local family for four weeks and then I drifted back to the hostel for another two weeks
So, after an initial few days spent settling into Medellin I jumped on a local bus on a Sunday lunchtime and I headed off to the little mountain town called Amagá which is just 45 minutes south of the city. After being deposited in the bustling central parque an entire family helped me to locate one of the Willy’s jeeps which would take me up the rough track to the hostel.
And there I fell into another little slice of paradise. I struck gold with the location of the hostel, the owner, the other volunteers and all of the residents in the town of Amagá.
The EcoHostel Medellin is fast establishing itself as a permaculture farm and guests here have various options. My week (and that of most of my fellow volunteers) went something like this:
On a good day I would get out of bed just as the mountains were turning a blue grey as the dawn broke and the soft mist would saunter up from the valley below. I would often attempt to meditate or I would join in a yoga session. Breakfast would be at 6.30 and then me and Nat (and later Mat) would head off up the tiny path up the massive hill to the little one-room primary school where we would endeavor to deliver an English lesson to up to eighteen adorable children. I take my hat off to their full time teacher who taught on four separate blackboards to an age range of between five and twelve year olds, all at the same time. She had the patience of a saint and a smile to go with it.
Spanish lessons in the outdoor classroom
After the English class we would have an hour and a half of Spanish classes with Paola in the most perfect outdoor classroom. It is tough trying to conjugate those bloody Spanish verbs but it was made far more bearable with the backdrop of the mountains rearing up over us, the vultures circling above us and the insects and birds squawking and chirruping away.
I also worked on the farm for two hours a day – and we usually managed to fit all of this in before a wonderful hearty healthy vegetarian lunch. The farm work varied hugely but could be anything and included planting and weeding, collecting cow poo from the field opposite, collecting leaves down in the jungly bamboo forest, clearing new paths with machetes, digging terraces and making Japanese bocachi (a quick compost).
one of the vegetable plots
Some of the volunteers would head off to teach English to the secondary school children in the afternoon, but having done my bit at the primary school in the morning I would either hang around in a hammock and recharge my batteries or I would head off in the other direction into the town. We would also take it in turns to attend an intercambio group consisting of adults and children in Amagá and which usually ended in a beer or two once the little ones had left.
Paola also organised various field trips and experiences for us all. I will tell you about these trips in a future entry but they included a visit to a panela factory, soap and clay workshops and a trip to the local roof tile factory.
our volunteer family
Permaculture is as old as the hills but seems to have got forgotten along the way as human beings have ‘progressed’. More and more people around the world are turning to this method of farming which involves working with the land, geography, climate and the natural resources. Water is used wisely, waste composted and the food is organic. It is a complete way of life and if you want to know more you should visit Paola’s place and do a stint here.
Although every batch of guests going through Paola’s place are great, I know that I was with the very best of the bunch. We were an unusually large group as some volunteers had just turned up to check out the place and ended up staying. Some lunchtimes there were sixteen of us around the large dinner table – the guests, Paola and her novio, Tia (aunt) and Mauri our juggling, acrobatic, samba drumming gardener.
our juggling gardener
We, the volunteers were a diverse bunch but we had the best of times. As well as the yoga and the meditation I had a massage from my Texan friend in the little outdoor schoolroom during the most spectacular thunderstorm, reiki and crystal healing from LL and I have it on good authority that a baby may even be named after me!
I had a magical twenty minutes in our darkened dorm room with my Swedish pal – no.. wait.. where we were totally mesmorised by a firefly which had somehow got in and which treated us to a Disney-type neon green dance as it floated and flashed around our heads whilst we oohed and aahed. Tinkerbell has to have been modelled on this phenomenen of nature and then on other evenings we would spend ages up on the high bamboo platform as dusk fell, watching the magical sparkles as the glittering bugs floated and swooped and danced in the trees and bushes, made all the more magical by their silence and the intensity of their green, orange and white lights.
the mountains go on for ever
With no internet, TV or radio at the hostel we would head into town to connect with the outside world. Often, walking along the track we would overtake horses or cows which were grazing along the grass verges, clamber up the ridiculously steep roads to the market and, past the outdoor area where you would see women doing the laundry, lads washing their motorbikes off and miners black with coal dust showering under the freshwater spring where the water gushed freely out of the mountainside. And there were of course many many times when a passing motorbike would stop and with no helmet I would jump on the back, or one of the Willy jeeps would stop, fully laden but would allow us to hang off the back ladder for free.
Many of the houses in Amagá have no running water and residents use the outdoor spring to collect drinking water, shower and laundry. It was always a bit disconcerting walking back from the town after dark and bumping into a silent cow or horse, but the show of stars above and the many glittering lights from the hundreds of houses scattered among the mountainside plantations gave the whole place a cosy feel.
The town has no museum or attraction to visit and there is no reason to stop there as it sprawls up the mountainside – BUT this is what makes it such a magical place and the EcoHostel Medellin perfect for a weekend stop or a more extensive break. Apart from the guests at the hostel you will be hard-pressed to find anyone from outside Colombia in Amagá and therein lies its secret, and of course it is just an hours bus ride away from the magnificent metropolis that is Medellin.
Amaga on a Sunday afternoon
The people here have to be the friendliest, most inquisitive, most generous people in the whole wide world. Whether you are sitting in the market trying to skype home, having a drink in one of the hundreds of little street side bars or shopping, people will come and talk to you. Men, women and children are inquisitive and so proud that you are in their town. They want to practice their English, invite you into their homes for dinner or pay for your beers or coffee. And always they have the widest smiles and the happiest manners.
And I can’t omit to mention the little town library. It is a little hub of activity and with the cutest little courtyard which is lovingly tended by Julio the great librarian, this has to be the prettiest library in the world.
the little library courtyard
After initially planning to stay for just five weeks I extended my visa and I remained in and around Amagá and Medellin for twelve which will give you some indication of how I fell head over heels in love with this place. I need to move on so next is Cartagena and the Caribbean coast. I need to move on so that I know if I want to return.
I could write forever about Amagá and the region of Antioquia, but I will try not to bore you. This area and its people wove a magic around me. Here I eventually found an inner peace and I am moving towards an acceptance of things that I am unable to change.