The ride from Laguna Yahuarcocha to the farm where I was due to volunteer was only 25km but it was all on the Panamericana. In the pouring rain. Unlike in Colombia where it’s not uncommon to have a single lane road linking 2 major cities, Ecuador has decent infrastructure and 3 lane highways. This is great if you’re in a car but not so hot for those on bikes. Trucks and buses whizz past at high speed and when there’s not much of a shoulder things get a little hairy. I put on some Black Flag and powered uphill through the rain, doing my best to ignore everything but the road immediately in front of me.
As I neared my turnoff I couldn’t help but notice a man in a purple tracksuit standing in the central reservation. Was he waving at me? I pulled over and he ran across 3 lanes of traffic to talk to me. What could be so urgent? Was there something wrong with my bike?
“Where are you going?”
“Uhh, to a town near Otavalo”
“Here, take this. For water”
He gave me a handful of coins and I could barely utter “but I don’t even pay for water” before he was back off over the motorway. I counted them up, assuming they’d be shrapnel, some spare coins he had lying around, but no. This divine purple stranger had given me 10 dollars. Taking into account the respective average wages, that would be like a British person running across the M25 to hand me a £50 note. I spent the next half an hour shaking my head and smiling to myself. The rain didn’t bother me so much after that.
At the farm I was greeted by some of the other volunteers: a Danish couple named Peter and Rikka, Glenn from Australia and Sarah from Nebraska. I went over to the main house where I met Lindsay and her 3 young kids (within 30 seconds my respect for parents with young kids grew insurmountably) and she showed me the ropes. Us volunteers had our own shared private quarters: a row of beds in a wooden construct above the kitchen where the majority of the work would be done. Hours were 8-4 Monday to Thursday, leaving us Fridays and weekends to do with as we pleased.
Shawn, who I met the following morning, bought the farm almost 10 years ago and has been raising livestock (primarily pigs) and selling the meat to the local community of expats ever since. Over the years he’s had hundreds of volunteers and Lindsay and Shawn actually met when Lindsay came to work on the farm.
Most of the work revolves around meat processing and over the next week I chopped bacon, made sausages, vacuum packed and labelled bags of meat, measured spices, hung hams in the smoker, moved rocks to prevent the piggies spraining their piggy ankles, washed dishes, weeded, built fences, raked grass and fed the hogs. The evenings were spent drinking beer around the fire, cooking up the leftover meat, being molested by the 5 dogs (one of which I’m fairly sure was actually a seal), reading, and watching movies – all done to a backdrop of verdant fields and volcanoes. It was easy to see why Shawn moved here.
After a few days it occurred to me how many similarities there were between volunteering on the farm and a cult:
– Rural setting detached from civilisation. ✓
– Group of eager 20-somethings living in cramped shared quarters. ✓
– Working unpaid for some kind of greater good. ✓
The main difference was the lack of a true religious or spiritual belief – the only altar at which we worshiped was that of The Pig and the many ways in which it can be morphed into sausages and strips of bacon. Occasionally we kneeled at the the feet of The Cow or The Chicken, but it was The Pig to whom we bowed most of the time. One of the best things about the job was getting to sample the wares. As we processed pulled pork, chorizo and smoked hams there were little snippets and rejects to munch. The Pig did not disappoint.
The 3 day weekend gave me an opportunity to explore the surrounding area and on Saturday Sarah and I ventured to Otavalo’s famous market – a sea of stalls teeming with alpaca ponchos, jewelry, fluffy guinea pig toys and dreamcatchers. I bought a hat and scarf in preparation for the high altitude climbs that lie in wait and an Ecuadorian football shirt to add to my collection. Then on Sunday we did an 8 mile hike around Laguna Cuicocha (which literally translates to ‘Guinea Pig Lagoon’) – a scenic crater lake in the nearby ecological reserve.
*It gets a bit gory from this point on.
Monday was butchering day. Shawn didn’t have any hogs of his own ready for slaughter so he bought one from a nearby farm and at 8 in the morning they brought it over for the kill. We strung the sow to some posts with rope to stop her from struggling and the Ecuadorian farmer stabbed her in the heart. She let out a long, harrowing squeal and in a moment her eyes flashed from terror to peaceful nothingness. It was a quick death. Her warm blood bubbled from the wound into a plastic bowl and one of the dogs lapped it up.
I cut off the trotters then we set about skinning her. I’ll never forget the smell – an acrid mixture of urine, blood and…well…pig. We hung her upside down, washed and gutted her, before I was given the thankless task of sawing her in half. By this point she didn’t so much resemble a pig as a giant piece of meat which made things easier. We then spent the afternoon cutting up and slicing the fat from the chunks of flesh.
They say that we should all know where our food comes from and one of the main reasons I chose to volunteer at the farm was to see first hand what goes into putting meat on our tables. Now that I’ve, quite literally, had blood on my hands, I haven’t become a vegetarian overnight but I’ve definitely gained a deeper appreciation of the process, and the sights, sounds and smells from that morning will be burned into my memory for a very long time. When I went over to pat one of the other pigs after lunch I got a whiff of that indefinable pig smell and had to walk away. It was too much.
The rest of the week flew by and on Friday I bid farewell to the farm and resumed by nomadic life on the bike. There were times during my stay that I’d longed to jump back on the saddle and hit the road but I’m glad that I stuck it out. While I sure ain’t gonna take up butchery any time soon, I learned a ton of stuff and it was cool to have a window into a world so far removed from my own. I’ll miss the sunsets, the way the dogs all howled in unison like tuneless wolves every time someone approached the farm, Glenn’s unquenchable desire to make tubs of stock (which he always had to throw out) and having a fridge full of ribs, sausages and bacon to chow on every evening.
Next stop: Passing through the casa de ciclistas in Tumbaco and a few days in Quito
Tunes: Glenn’s Spotify playlist. I will forever relate The Safety Dance to butchering pigs.
Reads: Hillbilly Elegy – J.D Vance, Into Thin Air – Jon Krakauer, The Sea Gull – Anton Chekhov, Bluebeard – Kurt Vonnegut
Route: Ibarra – Cotacachi