I have always had an ambition to visit a rain forest so doing a project in Ecuador gave me this opportunity. I was apprehensive about travelling to a country with such a different culture but on arrival the excitement soon got to me and I found myself settling in rather quickly. The Spanish course was intensive but after just two weeks I was amazed at how much of the language I had already learnt.
The Street Children Project is a catholic charitable organisation in the south of Quito that works with children aged 3 to 18 from the Camal and San Roche markets. These are vulnerable children whose parents work long hours in the markets and usually live off very little money in very poor conditions. The project has two programmes both of which I was to be involved in. The RESCATE programme works with children from 3 to 6. This is basically a kindergarten which operates in the morning and afternoon. The Children are collected from their parents and taken to the on site classroom for activities including arts and crafts, painting, singing and games involving interaction with the other youngsters. CEA is a programme which works with the older children aged 12 to 18. This is basically a homework club. The volunteers working within CEA require a higher level of Spanish.
I very quickly picked up a positive feeling towards this project as I could see the huge amounts of energy, love and enthusiasm given to these children from all the volunteers. I was introduced to my team and we were back on the bus and off to San Roche to collect our first group of toddlers. I had never had experience working with young children before but quickly fell in love with them. I was amazed at how much these little children had me laughing; however, it is quite a difficult experience working with a group of malnourished and half starved 3 year olds. It was difficult to hold back emotions but I suppose this is something all the volunteers had to battle with.
The project runs from about 9.30 until 12.00pm and usually starts with us collecting the children although some would turn up unannounced at the class room themselves. The first half hour would be play time and the children would have a selection of toys. I was given the task of brushing the children’s teeth. Once all the children had arrived we started our activities. This could range from learning about animals or different foods to playing games which involved interaction and basic puzzle games. Painting and arts and crafts was also a regular activity. The children would stop for a short break and would receive a small snack usually fruits, yoghurts or popcorn.
After I had my first review meeting with Emily, the volunteer coordinator. I was surprised when Emily asked if I would be interested in working within the homework club which works with the older children aged 11-18. I was rather surprised that my Spanish had reached a level in which I would be capable of working with the older children.
This project was located in the Camal market which is only a couple of minutes walk from the project base. This is a smaller market than San Roche; however I was amazed at the huge variety of foods and items available at the many different stalls. It was an incredible experience on entering the market to see these indigenous Ecuadoreans hard at work. They were very shy and reserved but once I got to know the children’s parents they welcomed me into their little community.
The number of children would vary day to day however, we would normally have in excess of 10 children (sometimes as many as 35). The children would have a range of different homework subjects to complete from Maths and Language to History and Geography. Many of the children had behavioural problems. This was mostly due to their home upbringing or lack of proper schooling. It was a real challenge to work with them but I was well aware that the purpose of my time in Ecuador was to learn how other people live in different situations. Being out of my comfort zone was actually a very positive experience for me.
Travel through Ecuador is very simple and most tourists and volunteers used the bus. Every weekend the Spanish school organised trips away for the volunteers. I was there long enough to travel around a lot and see the astonishing change in environment and scenery. These trips were usually very well priced and it was reassuring to the volunteers to know that we would be travelling with staff from the school.
After my first week in the country I travelled with a small group to Puerto Lopez, and Isla de la Plata a small fishing town located in the Manabi province about 5000km south west of Quito and rather unique as a mainland version of the Galapagos islands.
I visited Cuyabeno Reserve in the Amazon region which is situated 500km North East of Quito. We travelled from Quito by bus for 8 hours to Lago Agrio, the largest town in the province where we met our guide and after 4 hours of further travel (including a fantastic 2 hour trip down the Cuyabeno river in a canoe), we arrived at Guacamayo Lodge were we were to be staying. We did a selection of activities including night walks through the jungle, cayman and anaconda watching, parrot watching, piraña fishing and visiting a shaman at a local community situated a few miles down the river. The guides were fantastic in spotting all the unusual and rare wildlife from capuchin monkeys and sloths to macaws, turtles, anacondas and cayman. I also got to see plenty of scorpions and held a young Goliath Bird Eating Spider which certainly did make for a good end to our first night in the jungle! My ambition of visiting the Amazon rainforest had certainly been fulfilled!
The following week I visited the Tsachilla tribe in Santa Domingo. We were introduced to this small, friendly indigenous community who showed us their way of living and their rituals. We were given a small tour of the camp before receiving a Tsachilla style lunch which I have to say was actually one of the best meals I had whilst in Ecuador!
After that I travelled to Cotopaxi. At 19347ft, Cotopaxi is said to be the highest active volcano on earth so it was a real experience being taken up to the base camp at 16700ft! Although tempted to book myself onto an expedition to the top but at least I had some sense in not doing so without preparation!
My 3 months in Ecuador did pass very quickly and it is sad to have to leave such an amazing and diverse country. Ecuador, being the small country that it is, made it possible for me to get a real insight into South American culture both in indigenous and non indigenous communities. Not only did I get to work on two very interesting projects, but I also managed to learn Spanish to a reasonable level and travel this beautiful country! Ecuador really is a hidden gem of a place that should be highly recommended to gap year students and people wanting to do voluntary work abroad!