Feathered Aspen


Journal Prompt: Day Three

Have you ever seen a ghost?

No.  But I’ve felt pretty darn sure that I’ve heard one.  In 2006, when Joshua, Caitlin, and I went to Peru and Ecuador, we stayed on a farm in the Andes.  The place was quite remote, and although it has the trappings of an idyllic hermitage, it turned out to give us the heebie-jeebies (as well as a few medical conditions).  I could retell the account, but I decided to dig up our e-mails on the adventure and post them for your reading pleasure.

As for ghosts, it’s a topic that intrigues me.  It seems as though most people have a ghost story, and the ones I like best come from the most unexpected sources.  I would say that I am inclined towards skepticism, but then there’s that feeling…  You know when the hair on your arms stands up and your muscles still?  When you feel your breath go low and you try to quiet the beat of your heart because you’ve just heard/felt/sensed something?  I’m a skeptic, but I also like quoting my high school Humanities teacher, “suspend your disbelief.”

What’s your ghost story?


Subject: There once was a little amoeba…

Date: Saturday, September 30, 2006, 3:44 PM

From: Caitlin R Deede


Hello everyone-                                                                                                     Internet cafe, Loja, Ecuador

Background information:

1.We arrived at the Never Never Land farm just ‘outside’ of Vilcabamba on September 22. Definition of ‘outside’-one forty minute bus ride with at least sixty school children, one old man, and one perro caliente (dachshund). Temperature-roughly 95 degrees. Then, we embarked upon an hour-long trek off the beaten path in the countryside of Ecuador to find the farm. Shockingly, it is quite warm in southern Ecuador in the afternoon. Quite, incredibly warm.

2.Welcoming words from incredibly friendly, if not red-eyed, occupants of NNL farm: ”Take off your bags (sixty pound backpacks). Have a seat. We´re just trying to stay as high and drunk as we can until dinner.´´ Oh. Well. Ok.

3.Alrighty then.

4.Life on the farm: (A) The animals are wonderful (horse, donkey, cows, two cats, two dogs, four puppies, goat (cabra), lots and lots of sand flies (with a bite far worse than that of your ordinary mosquito). (B) Sleeping situation: I shared a small room with two other girls (Nicola, from New Zealand, and Ruth, from Wales). My bed, made of bamboo sticks precariously lashed together with twine, promptly fell apart, dropping me onto my face in the middle of our first night on the farm. Bam! It didn´t feel very nice. So, the next day: Ellie and I completely dismantled my make-shift ‘bed frame’, comprised of short logs nailed shoddily together, lowering it to a short stand to keep my mattress four inches off the rat-infested ground, and then chucked the left-over pieces of wood into the wilderness to destroy the evidence of our destruction. (C) Otros personas (que paises): Wales, New Zealand, Virginia, Montana, Minnesota, Canada, Ecuador, California. (D) General break down of day-to-day activities: wake up (whenever it pleases you), make breakfast, eat breakfast (note: most meals, although created from a diverse array of fruits, vegetables, lentils, rice, and honey, pretty much all taste the same), do dishes, change clothes, figure out what you´re supposed to work on for roughly two hours (sometimes, that means, read a book or pet Clementine, the affectionate orange cat), make lunch, eat lunch, do dishes, relax, bathe (a general term. ‘Bathe’ generally meant stand in the creek up to your knees and splash water onto your dirty self. Or, you could attempt to use the hot shower, entirely open to the public and give it your best shot to not flash anyone.), perhaps do some more reading or chatting, make dinner, eat dinner, do the dishes, sit around table and participate in some illegal activity or another, in other words, partake of the farm-wide glee in substance abuse. (Note-Neither Josh, Ellie, or myself ever partook of any illegal substances). Ahhhh…the life of liberty… (E) What I accomplished whilst on the farm: ‘Helped’, for one day, to recover an irrigation ditch filled with earth during a landslide. During this activity, I threw a rock over the ledge we were working on and fractured the main water pipe that provides the delightful people of Tumianuma (a nearby little city) with water. Alrighty then. No more water for those folks. The farm staff leading our project, Andreas, was not pleased. Lo siento. I also rode the horse (her name was Llegua), cooked a fair bit, managed to recieve upwards of seventy fly bites (concentrated on feet, ankles, and elbows), and saw my first ever scorpion in real life. Quick little devils.

Brief Anecdote:

There once was a little amoeba that lived on an organic farm in the wilds of Ecuador. Surrounded by beautiful papaya trees, tall wild grasses, velvety green avacados, and dark amber hills, the little amoeba floated happily down a small creek in the countryside. This creek was often used for drinking by local livestock and contaminated with decomposing food, dirty still-water, and animal feces.

SO. This little amoeba found it´s way into Joshua´s intestinal tract. OH NO! Combine the thriving, coniving amoeba multiplying in his intestines, Josh also worked for seven hours in the hot Ecuadorian sun and, subsequently, suffered from three days of serious heat exhuastion. Bed-ridden and feverish.

We decided, quietly, and in the deep of night, to cut and run. Get out. Find a place to take a shower. To eat real food that didn´t make us ill. Get Josh to a doctor. Wash our clothes.

We were at the Never Never Land farm for a total of six days. Six. Whole. Days…We are braver than you think.

Disease strikes:

a. Josh was diagnosed with amoebic dysentery. Took him to the hospital (the expression of the doctor´s face directed at Josh: How the hell are you still walking, white boy?) and got prescription antibiotics and anti-amoeba drogas (drugs). He is feeling much better now, slowly repossessing his ability to eat, and not immediately eject, food. He does NOT like pedialyte, should you ask, but can be coaxed into consuming an entire bottle if bribed with a snickers bar.

b. Ellie, today actually, was diagnosed with giardia. Also has ring worm all over her body. Took her to the hospital (expression of the doctor´s face directed at Ellie: What in the hell are all those little red patches all over your body?) and got prescription antibiotics. She will be entirely fine within the next five days. Has four medicines. Lordy.

c. I am feeling quite ok, thank you for asking, and am eagerly awaiting the on-set of my very own intestinal condition. Yip-ee.

What´s happening now:

We are now in Loja, Ecuador. Again. We arrived here on Wednesday, September 27. We spent most of last week and today, after taking Josh and Ellie to the hospital, convincing, in a professional manner as possible, several of the local English schools to pay us to speak and teach English to their young students.

It worked.

We are now quite comfortably situated with three teaching jobs. Ellie and I are going to work at San Gerardo School, settled in the green hills just above Loja, in the mornings, and study Spanish in the afternoons. Josh is going to work, in a more structured teaching environment, at the Washington English Institute in town. The director of San Gerardo, a tiny woman who speaks very rapid Spanish, has given us an apartment, for free, to share while we teach at their school. It is quite nice- entirely furnished with a complete kitchen, bathroom with hot water, and a televison. Windows overlook the city and the mountains. Ellie and I will also receive stipends for our time, enough to more than cover the expense of feeding three people for a month. Josh will be earning lots of dollars, and his money, I´m sure, will be put to good use. Such as: buying a dvd player, numerous pirated dvds (the only kind available), and paying for us to travel every now and then to surrounding cities and parks, so that we may see more of Ecuador (which is mountainous and green). I, for instance, would like to visit the jungle, where I may perhaps see a little monkey.

We begin work on Monday. We are moving into our apartment tomorrow. We don´t know how long we´ll be here. But, we are officially making a living in Loja, Ecuador. We have officially entered the season of winter (invierno) in Ecuador, which means: lots and lots of rain and storminess.

To sum up:

1. WWOOFing is sort of scary and not meant for everyone.

2. Amoebas are bad. And they hurt.

3. The only qualification to teach English in Ecuador is to be a native speaker.

4. Giardia is bad. And it hurts.

6. Always, always wash your hands and eat food you prepare yourself.

Sorry this email was so long. I hope everyone is doing quite well and enjoying the fall. Please take care.

Un abrazzo,


Subject: Quiste de Ameba Histolytica

Date: Sat, 30 Sep 2006 16:04:54 -0500

From: Joshua


Greetings friends and family,


Where to begin…oh where to begin. It has been quite a while since I last wrote and quite a bit has happened since then. So, brace yourselves and take a few minutes because this is going to be a long one, and one that brings you both tears of happiness and sorrow.


Quiste de Ambea Histolytica translate to… well to be honest I am not sure what it literally means, but the affect is something like sists of amoeba dysentery. Yes, to answer your questions and jaw dropping…I contracted dysentery. Even better yet I have contracted the sist kind, which supposedly is the worst kind…the kind that killed lots and lots of conquistadors. But never fear, after going to the sketchy/ scary military hospital where

doctor, who was dressed in a garb very similar to that of Mr. T, gave me several perscriptions to combat the amobeas that were slowly working to kill my inner organs. In short, I am doing quite well now, and my organs will be liberated from amobeas in couple of days.


Now, I am not the only one to have been struck by a deadly and infamous disease. Ellie has been having a little trouble of her own. Now her diseasesare nearly and neat as mine, but she does beat me in numbers. As I write

Ellie is currently plagued by ringworm (which is slowly covering her body), a yeast infection, and GIARDIA! For those of you not so familair with fancy outdoor diseases, giardia is this fun little parasite that takes up esidence in your gastro-intesinal tract and proceeds to give you violent projectal vomiting and diarrhea (and yes they are both projectile). However, we luckily, and perhaps borringly, caught Ellie=B4s Giardia before it progressed to the “violent” stages. She too visited the fun filled Ecuadorian Military hospital and now has several prescription medications to fight her ills.


Caitlin is healthy as a horse. (That Bastard)


Perhaps I should back my tale up a little… maybe start from the beginning (possibly answer your questions as to where we found our disease?) After our travels through Peru we arrived in Guayaquil, Ecudaor on September 19. Immediately we liked it here in Ecuador better than that of Peru. As my last e-mail informed you all, we began to grow weary in Peru from the constant pollution and gringo harassment. Yet, In Ecuador it is quite different. People are much much friendlier. After only being here for a few hours, we each had had several wonderful conversations with multiple Ecuadorians. People are just much nicer and curious. Rather than trying to sell us something, people will ask us where we are from, what we are doing here etc… Moreover, the pollution here, at least where we have been, is virtually non-existant. Also, there  are really no peddlers and beggers, and for the most part when we purchase various things we are given a fair price instead of always setting screwed. I don’t really understand why it is so different here. It was my understanding that thinbgs might actually be worse here than Peru because the Ecuadorian Government and economy is suppose to have

more problem; yet, it has been pretty good so far.


After flying into Guayaquil, we immediatly hopped onto a bus to the city of Loja. Loja is the capital of the province of Loja (the province in which he had planned to do all our farming), and is a fairly large, clean, and nice city. After a day in Loja, we then headed further south to the much smaller city of Vilcabamba. Arriving in Vilcabamba we thought we would be able to contact our first farm and catch aride there. However, after meeting a sixty year old man named Hans who lives on the farm, we learned we had to take yet another hour bus ride to the town, well four house that comprise the town of Tumianuma. (Interesting note: Apparently Hans is an infamous Maoist/ Anarchist that did a lot of crazy things in Germany in the 60=B4s and consequently has been wandering around south america for the past 20 some years. He was a pretty nice guy though.) Then from Tumianuma we had to hike almost another hour into the farm.


Now from here I don=B4t really know what to say. The farm, which is named Never Never Land, was well… a very …interesting place…. a place that didn’t fit so well with… well with my life. The farm is essentially a

hippie commune. a refuge of sorts for those societal misfits who feel that wearing sashes, listening to bob marley, reading Jack Keruoac, burning insense, and smoking lots and lots of marijuana some how makes them enlightened, somehow brings them closer to the world… closer to understanding the purpose of life. Now don’t get me wrong Kerouac and Marley had some ideas, did some interesting things… Yet… somehow this stoner cultworship/ hippie ecuadorian commune just… well… it just doesn’t seem to me like a way that actually does anything for yours or anyone elses life… I mean common people Keroac, Marley, insence, sashes come up with

your own damn ideas…is all been done before. So, to say the least we didn’t really like this place, nor did we get along to well the band of miscreants who have gathered there. Take for example Lucas. Lucas after a 5

years of college has yet to recieve a degree. HE claims college is easy, “you know, if I just sobered up every once, classes would be really easy, I mean it is just more fun, college you know if party a little…” later he went on to describe how one year him and his friends were drunk everyday from halloween until thanksgiving, just to see if they could do it.


Immediately, we could tell that Never Never Land was not going to be place for us. But we thought we would tick it out a few days and see if it got better, or had some hidden goodness. Regardless after the first day of working, I dug an irrigation ditch through a loandslide for eight hours, I got wicked wicked heat exhaustion and dysentery. The two worked together to absolutely kill me. I was bed-ridden for a couple of days, and I could

hardly move let alone make the journey out. All in all after about six days I was well enough to head out, and by that time we were stir crazy to get away from the hippie commune.


However, at this point we encoutnered a little trouble. We had hopped to stay on that farm for a least a month, and then move on to another farm. Yet, now, as we knew about this hippe communes we were a little bit wiser in finding a farm that would fit for us. Well… it turns out that most WWOOF farms here are either hippie  communes or require you to work 40-50 hours a week. Moreover, all places asked that we pay $10-20 a week for food. Needless to say, we were hosed. Up a creek without a paddle. I had dysentary, we had no home, and we still had another 2-3months left of our journey. We had no idea what we were going to do. (now is the point where you gushing with tears of sorrow.)


Well, as we had hit rock bottom…things took a turn for the better. Just like in the movies, Ellie and Caitlin were crying in a cafe (I was laid out with dysentery), and then Ellie looks up and on the wall there was a flier looking for native english teachers… Ellie thought to herself “hey, we speak english. We could teach english!” and like that God sent angels and rays of light from Heaven. It was truly angelic. And, since this is getting very long, to make a long story short… we are now going to be teaching English. The farming game is out the window.


Now, we are back in Loja, the city, and have found employment (yes we are going to be paid) for the three of us. Ellie and Caitlin will be working for the San Gerado elementary school, and I will be working for the

Washington English Institute. As it tunrs out there are all kinds of schools looking for native english speakers to help teach grammer and vocabulary, and most of all to help with conversation in perfecting pronouncation etc…


Moreover, the San Gerado school, whcih Ellie and Caitlin are working of, is partly paying them in the use of a beautiful and spacious apartment. So, not only will we be making enough money to cover food etc…, but we also have a permanent place to stay for the next two months (we plan to travel throughout the rest of Ecuador in December before we come home). Now is when you weep with tears of happiness.


So, afters some bumps and a few ups and downs, we are doing quite well. We are healthy, at least on our way to being healthy, we have good place to live, and we have really cool jobs for the next two months.


I suppose I will sign off here, this is getting quite long, as I warned you it would be. Any how… If you have any questions let me know. I have internet access here in the city so I’ll check my mail ever so often, and I’ll keep you posted on how the teaching goes.


I hope all is well with all you.






P.S. Ellie too picked up her diseases from the wonderful Never Never Land farm.


P.S.S. For those of you not on Ellie and Caitlin’s email lists, they have started a photo-blog at http://www.travelblog.org/Bloggers/llama-lovers/ youshould check it out.


Subject: Sicklings

Date: Sat, 30 Sep 2006 16:21:44 -0500

From: “Ellie M Kuhne”


The bus ride from Loja to Vilcabamba winds along the Podocarpus National Park, a reserve reknowned for its rainforests, Andes mountains, lagoons, and wildlife.  After forty-five minutes and a few small villages, Vilcabamba appears low in the valley.

The three of us arrived in Vilcabamba on the 22nd.  After a few phone calls, vague directions, and a quick internet search, we boarded another bus for the even smaller village of Tumianuma.  (I would like to add that the number of people squashed onto the bus was nothing short of incredible, and that, yes, there were chickens.)

From Tumianuma, we followed an older German man, Hans, who said he knew the way to Never Never Land.  The journey is breathtaking.  The mountains are yellowed with brush and the river-fed valley is green with flowering cacti, fruit trees, and grasses.

Breathtaking and hot.  From Tumianuma, we walked for nearly an hour along the mountainside.  We saw Hans to his home, and from there we walked another 200 meters to a swinging log bridge above the river.  On the other side, a beautiful Husky with one brown eye and blue eye greeted us and led us up to the farm.

Never Never Land consists of three (almost four) buildings.  The first of which is the kitchen, a small, square building with no refrigerator and no running water.  As you progress from the kitchen, there is a sink with a hose (where I spent hours doing dishes), and a series of stone stairs which lead to the patio and `the downstairs.´  Behind the downstairs house, a shower head dangles from palm trees, and sheets are strung up to allow for privacy (supposedly).  A steep dirt path then leads you to the poop shed and `the upstairs,´ which is comprised of three sleeping areas and a small courtyard.  The property is nestled in a deep valley and a river traverses its entirety.

Our first night at Never Never Land was a harbinger of treats to come.  We were informed that, with the addition of the three of us, the farm would now be sleeping seventeen, a statement shortly followed by another, far more telling statement, `so yeah, we´re just trying to stay a little bit high and a little bit drunk until dinner.´ After a little pep-talk amongst the three of us (`well, I guess we´re just going to have to adjust´), we prepared ourselves for our first day of work on the farm.

The next morning, Josh, Caitlin, Andreas (the hired farm-hand), two other WWOOFers, and I set out to dig an irrigation ditch.  With a machete, two shovels, a pick axe, and two heavy stone-breakers, we worked on the ditch until lunch in the wet heat.  It was hard work, and all of us were sweaty and incredibly dusty when we were done.  After lunch, Josh went back with Andreas, while Caitlin and I helped clean the living areas.

That night, Josh got really sick.  During dinner, he was weak with exhaustion, and afterwards he excused himself for the night.  That night, Josh´s skin was incredibly hot to the touch, and he had severe diarrhea and nausea.  The next day, while some of us picked zapotes, lemons, and oranges, and Caitlin joined Tina on her midwifery rounds, Josh lay in bed with a fever and diarrhea.

I´ve never been so worried about him.  His eyes were glassy, his cheeks were red, and he was desperately homesick.  Meanwhile, the inhabitants on the farm continued to smoke pot multiple times a day, drink abusively, gossip bitterly, and lay around, allowing others to do all the work.

All of this would have been enough, but there was more.  I am convinced that Never Never Land has bad energy, spirits, sour karma…  Whatever it is you want to call it.

I have never suffered from insomnia (except for when I was very young) and neither have Josh or Caitlin, but none of us could sleep.  When I did sleep, it was a half-waking dream state.  I heard whispers and footsteps.  When I was awake, I was rigid with fear, because I had the very real, very lucid sense of someone being in the room.  Every one else who slept in `the upstairs´ also had terrible dreams and trouble sleeping.  A month earlier, a group of four girls had left after three days, claiming that the place was haunted.

The farm has a sordid history.  Tina´s son was murdered four years ago on the property and he is buried alongside the river.  A few years ago, a man went to rob the farm after every one had left the premises.  As he was about to break into the house, someone within began to bang against the walls, screaming and writhing.  Terrified, he ran away.  He swore that he could see Tina`s son running after him.  To this day, the villages of Quinara and Tumianuma believe that the farm is haunted.

The property was given to Tina by one of the first gringos who moved to Vilcabamba.  He was a fruitarian, fasted frequently, and prophesized.  His follows believed that he was the reincarnation of John the Baptist, as did he.  His prophetic writings are stored in `the upstairs,´ and apparently the area also served as their ceremonial center.

There is more.  Tina has just gone into remission after a bout with cancer, her grandson died from Leukemia, two of her husbands cheated on her, her latest husband was in a bus crash where everyone died, and she herself is having an affair with a married Shaman (who´s wife happens to be a very good friend of hers).

Long story short (sort of):  we needed to get out of there.  Caitlin and I went into town to call a couple other WWOOFing farms, but most of them required upwards of 40 hours a week, and none of us had that in mind for our `semester off.´  We decided to stay for the rest of the week at the farm, and then go to Loja to regroup.

That was the plan, but Tuesday night I woke up sweating with fright.  I swear to you I heard footsteps and someone open the door, but when I looked, I heard nothing.  The next morning Josh and Caitlin asked me why I had been so afraid, and I told them about the footsteps.  They were silent for a moment, and then they both admitted they had also heard footsteps.  We had to leave.

The next day we packed our bags and left.

Unfortunately, our bad luck had yet to run its course.  When we got to Loja, we brought a lab a sample of Josh´s feces for a stool test.  Drum roll…  Josh has amoebic dysentary.  Thus, we herded him down to Loja´s military hospital for a very questionable consultation where he was given a prescription for antibiotics.

Then, two days later, I was sitting in an internet café minding my own business when I all of a sudden pooped in my chair.  I had no control what-so-ever.  So, I did what any sane person would do after they had pooped in a public establishment:  I got up and I ran.

I´ll spare you the rest of the gory details, but suffice it to say that I got a stool test and I have…  Giardia!  And a yeast infection, and…  I´m breaking out all over my body in these strange red dry spots (I´m not kidding you, I have upwards of thirty of these little guys).  Josh and Caitling think I have the grand-daddy of ring worm, but the doctors at the military hospital are very intrigued by my case (I had six of them ooo-ing and aaaa-ing over my skin).

Ok.  Now for the good news.  After three days of a very nerve-wracking search, Josh, Caitlin, and I have been hired to teach English.  Caitlin and I are now employed by a very ritzy private school just outside of Loja, and Josh is juggling a couple offers from two other English Institutes.  Caitlin and my salary consists of a beautiful, clean, furnished apartment (with a kitchen and a bathroom) plus fifty dollars each a month, and Josh will be making somewhere around 250 a month.  So.  Life is sweet.  We are actually getting paid to speak our native language.

Signing off for now,

Lots of love and happiness to all,





Built in 1942, this farmhouse is both traditional and unusual. The layout mimics a classic four-square farmhouse, with the floor plan divided into four equal quadrants on both the first and second floors. One room is the kitchen, the other a dining room, another the living room, and another the… Parlor? Upstairs, there used to be four bedrooms, but at some point, one of them was split in half. One half was turned into a bathroom and the other was turned into storage. An unfinished basement and attic complete the traditional ensemble, and I have faithfully avoided all opportunities to actually see these dank, dark locales. Joshua has spent a great deal of time in the basement as of late, and he informs me that there is a ton of moldy, water damaged sheet rock. Yum yum. His current project involves wearing a mask ala Darth Vader and ripping out the sheet rock to create usable storage space downstairs. At one point, he informed me that he has visions of one day finishing the basement into a recreation room. I have visions of cold cement floors and pool tables with canned beer. I suspect that I will spend about the same amount of time in the finished basement as I will in the unfinished basement.

To get to the attic, you have to walk through the bathroom, through the storage half-room, and into a closet-sized space with a ladder. At the top of the ladder is one of those non-user-friendly lifty doors that leads to the attic. The other day, Joshua and I walked into the closet-sized space with intentions of exploring the attic, a place that I was actually willing to go in my grandparents’ old farm house (it helped that all of the vintage clothing, shoes, and various keepsakes of yore were stored in the attic by my pack-princess grandmother).

But no. As soon as I saw the ladder, I decided to forgo all attic-related explorations. Joshua, infinitely braver, began his sojourn upwards but bailed at the last moment when he encountered mouse poop and an entirely dark room above.

The story of the attic continues when, a week later, Dave informs us that he has dared to go where Joshua and I have not dared to go before. Armed with a flashlight and a disregard of creepy-crawly creatures that go bump in the attic, Dave climbed the proverbial ladder. At the top, he conducted an ill-lit investigation: where is that goddamn water coming from? Luckily, he ascertained that roof is not riddled with holes that will soon tear us asunder (which is what I assume, what keeps me sweating and tossing and turning in the night). Instead, it’s the ‘flashing’ around the chimney. Don’t ask me what ‘flashing’ is; as far as I know, it’s one of those boy-terms that means something to other boys (Joshua nods sagely) and means absolutely nothing to me.

But the story isn’t over yet. The flashlight flickers out, and having spied a bare light bulb with a descending string below, Dave gives said string an experimental tug. Ooooo! What’s that, you ask? Well, it’s two lover-bats clinging to the end of the string. Partners in crime. Hangin‘ upside down. Chillin‘ like villains.

Dave, not easily shaken, strikes out. When the stiff, dry bodies of the lover-bats shatter and fall, Dave breathes a sigh of relief. As we all know, lover-bat battles are unpleasant experiences all around.

LESSON #1: Don’t go into the attic. Don’t get into fights with lover-bats.

Other traditional features include lovely maple floors, extensive oak woodwork, and lots of wall paper. My current project involves removing the wall paper from our bedroom. Although I recall the labors of removing wall paper from my bedrooms of yesterday, removing the wall paper here was blissfully easy. Joshua and I simply pried loose a corner with our finger nails and then tore it off in whole, satisfying pieces. Underneath, the walls were bare, save a few small scraps of previous wall papers. Unlike the smooth, finished walls of newer homes, these walls looked like cement. Joshua and Dave talked sagely about lathe and a plaster mix. Whatever it is, it was deeply pitted and had never been painted.

Joshua and I spent the next couple of days painstakingly filling in the holes in the wall and cracks in the ceiling (oh? I forgot to mention that our home is listing to one corner, causing the floors to slope dramatically toward the Northwest, the ceilings to crack, and my heart to palpitate) with putty.

This was my first experience with putty, and I must say, the first three or four hours were quite enjoyable. It’s a little like fussing with play-dough, and scraping the putty-knife across the top releases a satisfyingly professional swick-thwack. However, the seams between walls and the wall and ceiling are trickier, and I soon tossed my trusty putty-knife to the wayside, in favor of the tips of my fingers.

After a few more hours, the enchantment of putty and swick-thwack putty-knives wore off, and the tips of my fingers were a few layers short of an epidermis. Finally, Joshua agreed that we were finished. We let the putty dry for 24 hours.

LESSON #2: Don’t use your fingers to apply vast amounts of putty to rough, unpainted plaster mix walls.

The next day, cracking open a can of KILLZ primer (because, baby, this is WAR), we began the labor-intensive process of coating unpainted walls with their virgin layer of paint. Using a roller with plenty of nap (wha?), Joshua smoothly, evenly coated the surface. Handing the roller to me, he relinquished control of the priming process for approximately 20 minutes. It wasn’t pretty.

Retreating to a paint-brush and trim work, We moved about the room, making sure every last inch of cement and putty was covered in white. Throwing caution to the wind, Joshua said ‘sod it’ and began priming the wall, without placing a drop-cloth on the furniture first.

Before we could begin painting in color, I got down on my hands and knees with a razor and a pungent, potent can of chemicals that swears to remove paint from floors. I removed all immediately visible spots, but unfortunately, there is a fine spray of tiny paint particles over the entire room.

LESSON #3: Always use a drop cloth over floors and furniture when painting the ceiling.

Applying colored paint was, in comparison, a walk in the park. Even in my novice hands, the roller ran smooth and even. In less than an hour, the walls were a custardy-yellow (actually, ‘Banana Split’), and we were feeling more than a little bit pleased with the transformation.

The only problem was that the fabric that I had chosen for the curtains didn’t match.

Let me rewind for a moment by explaining a habit of mine. I tend to do things a bit backwards. For example, most women choose their wedding dress first, and then they move on to more minor accessories, such as shoes, jewelry, and hair things. Not me. Walking through a market in Ecuador, I spied a gorgeous necklace. With seven strands and a gorgeous, coral-pink hue, it reminded me of an Egyptian collar or Aztec-princess costume. I bought it and decided right then and there that this was the necklace I would wear on my wedding day. Everything else had to match the NECKLACE.

The curtains are a similar story. In Nepal, Joshua and I walked into a fabric shop, and sitting cross-legged on an elevated display stage, we watched the shopkeeper unroll silks in a dozen different weaves and colors. When he unrolled a golden, rough-woven stretch of silk, it was love at first sight.

When Joshua and I went to the hardware store to select our paint, we brought the silk and held it up to each option. On paper, ‘Banana Split’ suited our tastes just fine.

On the wall, however, it didn’t suit, and I prayed that our stencils would rescue our color mismatch. Luckily, our stencil arrived in the mail on the very same day, and I was able to begin painting the next morning.

Allow me to rewind again. When I say ‘stencils’ I fear that many of you may have visions of tacky cornucopia borders from the eighties, but I am here to tell you that the stencil market has changed. Gone are the dark days of wheat sprigs and sea shells. There’s no sponge-painting here, my friends. Now, with the miracle of stencils, you can either hearken back to the wallpapers of the 20s and 30s, or you can go modern, using edgy, lovely graphics to uniquely adorn your walls. If you don’t believe me, check out etsy.com and search for wall stencils. Cutting Edge designs are my favorite.

Anyway, after much deliberation, Joshua and I selected a design with peonies. A little feminine and little art nouveau, we hoped the stencil would provide us with that vintage look without the hassles and price of upscale wall paper. When we chose ‘Banana Split’ at the hardware store, we also selected white for the peonies and a muddy brownish-green for the stem.

Using painting tape and mini-rollers, I test drove the stencil on cardboard and then set to work. After a bit, I got the hang of it, and when Joshua offered to take over, I informed him that I was a stenciling pro and he should step aside. ‘Flashing’ and ‘lathe’ might be boy-speak, but this is my domain, honey. Give me a stencil and a mini-roller, and I’ll give you beauty.

It took me two and a half hours to use the stencil 26 times. During that time, I was able to cover one whole wall. It may sound like slow going, but already, the husband and in-laws were in awe. With a whole wall finished, I compared my golden silk and discovered – to my infinite relief – that the colors suit each other beautifully. It’s a match!

LESSON #4: Stencils ROCK.

Quickly followed by…

LESSON #5: Stencils take a very, very, very long time.

It’s been days. I’ve navigated corners and windows. I’ve painted for hours and hours. Our bed looks forlorn, sitting smack-dab in the middle of the room, boxed in every side by our dressers and night stands. I still have one wall left.


These features are traditional. The lovely wooden floors, the four-square floor plan, the unfinished attic and basement, and even the listing corners, water damage, and wall paper are characteristics that our farm house holds in common with a hundred other farm houses. So what makes this place unusual?

When I was a little girl, the most iconic building in the Twin Cities was the ‘Witches’ Tower.’ I’m not sure if this is the Christian name of this historic piece of masonry, but it’s the name my dad and I used. Whenever we drove by, my dad would faithfully say, ‘Hey look! It’s the ‘Witches’ Tower!’ (in much the same way, he religiously noted any and all sightings of birds of prey: ‘Hey look!’ he would say, ‘it’s a red-tailed hawk!’).

The concept of turret in a home was and is almost to good to be true. My very own Witches’ Tower? Are you shitting me? In my mind, the turret on the Southeast corner of our 70 year old farm house is THE defining architectural feature. Downstairs, the turret manifests in a bumped-out, rounded corner filled with windows. This feature is repeated upstairs in our bedroom (hence the crowning golden curtains), and both lovelies are topped with a witch’s hat.

Another unusual feature lies in our imported stained glass and window etching. In the living room, the widest window is topped by a beautiful green and yellow swath of colored glass. In the very same room, the door displays a frosted glass etching of a man shootin‘ birds with his huntin‘ hounds nearby.

Finally, the porch. When Joshua and I left New Orleans, I mourned the departure of lovely wooden scroll work and lazy Southern porches from my life. I hadn’t realized that, apparently, most of the farm houses outside of Ellsworth have the same beautiful, summer-afternoon porches, and our new home is no different. Unfortunately, the roof and floor of the open, wrap-around porch is in pretty bad shape, and at some point, we’ll probably have to tear it down, save the ornate columns and scroll work, and then rebuild.

Speaking of which, rebuilding seems to be a bit of theme around here. The roof is shot; we need another. There’s water damage around the chimney and on the wall connected to the garage. We need to replace the sheet rock. In the mud room, we need to rip everything down to the studs and then rebuild so that we can have a functional entry-way. Downstairs, we need to do the same. The walls need wall paper removed, primer, and paint. The downstairs’ bathroom needs a new tub, an extra wall, and a door. The outside needs to be painted. Due to well water that smells like raunchy eggs and stains every surface like a sloppy serial killer, we need a water softener and filter that costs 4,000 dollars. The windows are drafty as hell, and we need to reseal every single one of them.

Then there are the things that aren’t strictly necessary: we would like to take out the ramshackle cabinets and install recycled cabinets from Joshua’s grandparents’ home. They’re the old, 50s metal kind, and I’m in love with them. We want to tear out the linoleum and refinish the floors with something reclaimed. In the back room, we want to bump back the walls to take away a nasty crawl space and extend the back room. Upstairs, we want to make the bathroom bigger and add a laundry room.

It’s a gargantuan project, and when I’m not enjoying stenciling or puttying or playing with all of the animals (more on that later), I’m terrified.

But we’re doing it. Joshua says that, in order to gain something different, something without precedent, something special, you have to be willing to take the risks. I’ve wanted this farm for years, but somehow, flipping through the glossy pages of Country Living magazine never quite prepared me for the accompanying terror of stencils and barn-wood reclamation.

Recently, I asked my mother-in-law to clarify a theological point for me. She’s the expert on God and dogma around here (no, seriously, she’s a minister), and I respect her studied perspective on all things religious. Anyway, we’re looking at the house, we’re thinking about big and scary stuff like mortgages, insurance, and taxes, and I say, ‘is it true that you don’t believe in prayers of petition? Because even if you don’t, I could use a big old prayer right about now.’

I’ve only been back in the country a month, but I’m already praying to a god I’m not sure that I believe in, smearing putty with my fingers, and avoiding the creepy-crawly creatures that go bump in the attic.


What’s Next?

Some of you have asked me what comes next, and although I haven’t made any hard and fast plans, I thought I’d let you know what I’ve been thinking.

I loved writing A Carpetbagger’s Tale. It was a wonderful way to put my journey into words and also share it with my friends and family (and strangers!). In many ways, it’s my most prized souvenir: not only is it a record of each day, but it is also an accomplishment. I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember, but I never wrote. I had a lot of excuses, but mostly, I was just scared that I wouldn’t be able to do it and I wouldn’t be any good at it. With A Carpetbagger’s Tale, I proved to myself that I can write, and now, I’m less afraid to keep to writing. For me, that’s a huge accomplishment.

That said, I can’t help but feel that A Carpetbagger’s Tale ended when my travels ended and I came home. When I think about the next stage of my life, it lies on the opposite end of the spectrum from A Carpetbagger’s Tale. Whereas the last two and a half years of my life (actually, the last six and a half years of my life) have been characterized by movement, exploring foreign places, and living among strangers in strange lands, the next decade promises to be dramatically different. I’ve moved back to the part of the country where I grew up; my husband and I have bought a farm with the parents, and we’re trying to revive a way of life that my grandparents knew. I hope the next decade is characterized by roots, exploring a regional and ancestral legacy, and living among family and friends.

I think there will be a lot to write about, and I’d feel honored to share my stories of renovation, gardening, and learning the old home crafts with you, but I also suspect that I’ve tired out the day-by-day update. I don’t regret the consistency and detail with which I wrote A Carpetbagger’s Tale, but I also recognize my own (and possibly your) boredom with that format by the end of the six months.

Right now, I’m thinking that I will rename this blog with a title more fitting the next stage. Of course, the web address will remain the same, and I will also keep all the old posts. In the future, I expect to update the blog with weekly or bi-weekly posts, and this time around, I expect to include things like recipes, instructions on how to do odd jobs around the farm (I’ll teach you as I learn them myself), and pictures of our improvements. As always, if you have more requests, I’ll try my best and post those too.


As for the end of A Carpetbaggers Tale… I’ve finished out the day-by-day diary, but there’s still more to say. As you may have gathered, the transition from travels back home were rather abrupt and somewhat confused by my time in the hospital. Within the next couple of weeks, I expect to post a couple more entries on highlights, lowlights, summaries, and that sort of thing. Also, I’ve been promising photos for ages, and I suppose I should make good on that as well 🙂

Thanks again, and Happy Holidays!