My first experience with Minga came on the Day of the Dead, when I was forcibly ejected from my peaceful slumber at five in the morning, handed a pair of boots and a machete, and pushed out the door with no more direction than “Follow them, today is Minga.” I sleepily splashed through the Lupi River and stumbled into the jungle after a group of loud, laughing women who squelched up the muddy hillside, hacking through weeds and vines along the way. I had no idea where we were going, but I’d become accustomed to never being informed about anything, so I just swung my machete and kept climbing.

Eventually, we emerged at a place I recognized: a small clearing up in the hills where water collects in a shallow pool and leaves through a rusted pipe sticking into the side. This is where my community gets their water. There were men standing knee-deep in the pool, tossing shovelfuls of sand over their shoulders to allow more room for water to collect, and there were people “cleaning” the clearing—which just means cutting down anything that gets in their way. Somebody said something in Kichwa, and everyone laughed uproariously and looked right at me, which I assumed meant they were making fun of me. This happens often; they think it’s hilarious that I can’t understand Kichwa. It turned out they were just complimenting the “beautiful” way I use a machete, which somehow became a running joke that is still brought up to this day.

Silly jokes aside, that day turned out to be fantastic. I worked harder than I had in a long time, and at the end of it I found myself sitting around with everyone, talking and eating cookies and feeling more like a part of the family than ever. I also came to understand what “Minga” is: a group effort when there’s a problem that needs fixing. Minga is the definition of collaboration and community. It is everyone coming together to accomplish something that seems daunting at first, but with all of us helping, ends up taking almost no time at all.

Since that first day, I’ve grown to truly love Minga, waking up early and joining the ranks of friends and family members to spend a day doing sweaty manual labor. I’ll never forget the time we constructed a huge, single-use building to be taken down after the New Years’ party, or when we tore down Rukumama’s straw roof and replaced it with one of tin, or especially the day we spent draining water from a muddy plot of land and turning it into a soccer field. I’ll never forget when I was hauling logs with my host dad while everyone was taking a juice break, and my old, grisly uncles nodded proudly and called me sinchi warmi—“strong woman” in Kichwa. Or all the time I’ve spent helping the women cook lunch for the whole community. We all cram into a tiny kitchen mostly dominated by pots so big they could be bathtubs, and I feel just like one of them as I chop vegetables and join in on the latest Lupi gossip.

Honestly, it’s because of Minga that the community of Lupi knows and cares about me. It’s the reason I’ve been able to integrate fully and gain the reputation I want to have, and there’s no better feeling than hearing my neighbors laughingly recount stories about me and even brag about me to visitors! This kind of family collaboration is such a beautiful thing that I feel doesn’t happen nearly enough in the US; we don’t even have a word for Minga in English. But I might have to initiate some grand problem-solving efforts in my own family when I come home because I will miss Minga too much to let it go.