Diary of a Volunteer Project in Ecuador

Meet Alice and Jess, two intrepid lasses heading off to volunteer in exotic Ecuador for the next few months...

This cheese-loving duo will be taking part in a combination placement with The Leap, which includes working with local communities to develop medicinal gardens, breeding piranhas and teaching English to local guides.

They decided on these projects as they felt that the variety of practical placements (one in a rainforest and the other at a coastal location) and volunteer work would give them a good cultural experience. The opportunity to do both community and conservation work on the trip also appealed, as did working alongside a group of other like-minded travellers. The lasses are joining their project group a month late, but hope to bond quickly thanks to their super-size stash of Haribos, Marmite and Heat magazine.

Once the volunteer work is over, Alice and Jess plan to travel independently for three weeks where (fingers crossed) they'll end up in Peru. Must-dos include a trip to the Galapagos Islands and trekking the Inca Trail, should budgets allow. But other than that, they just want to go with the flow until they fly back to the UK from Lima at the end of December

So how do you breed piranhas? Will Marmite and Haribos make effective bribes? Will a cash crisis mean they'll be begging for a piggy back up Machu Picchu? All these answers and more in their gapyear.com diary...

Update One

Alice writes...

Hola from Ecuador!

Well, after potentially the worst flight either of us has ever has ever taken (eleven long hours of no drinks, no peanuts and the same rubbish film repeated three times for our viewing pleasure...) we arrived safely (if slightly frazzled) in Quito. First impressions are of how clean the city is - or at least the parts we've seen so far). From previous experiences of travelling in the developing world we'd expected dog carcasses to be littering the road, massive amounts of street hawking and dirty concrete as far as the eye can see! Not so, in fact the only hawkers we've really seen are street performers who leap into the middle of the road as soon as the traffic lights change to make dare devilish human pyramids and back flip around the waiting cars!

We were collected and brought to our hostel to meet the rest of the group who have made us feel really welcome and clearly made it their mission to give us a baptism of fire into the seedy world of Ecuadorian nightlife! Two hours after we arrived we found ourselves hopping around energetically to jungle beats in a salsa lesson. Though it should be stated that major physical exertion is not the best activity after a 11 hour flight, two days of minimal nappage and altitude sickness - I had to frogmarch Jess home through the streets to avoid her vomiting on the pavement!

Last night, to celebrate our final night in the big smoke (read 'smoke' literally, it's very smoggy in Quito!), we got dressed up in a colourful array of tacky fashion jewellery, visors with sunglasses and gangster gear and danced into the wee smalls... in fact, I don't actually think the boys have been to bed yet and it's midday!

In about 20 minutes we're off to the rainforest to start breeding piranhas... woohoo! We'll be in touch soon!

Love Alice and Jess x


Update Two

Jess writes...

Well it turns out (courtesy of environmental demon 'Texaco' ) that even in the depths of the Amazon jungle you still can't escape the wonders of the internet... so we're not quite as isolated as originally anticipated!

The place we're staying in for the next two weeks (Chichico Rumi) is possibly the coolest place imaginable. The rainforest is picture postcard beautiful and we're still half expecting to bump into David Attenborough or Michael Palin and their accompanying film crew at some point! We've been temporarily adopted by the most welcoming indigenous family who have loads of exotic pets and children running rampage throughout the day.

As well as maintaining the land as an educational spot to teach tourists and fellow Ecuadorians the fast-dying native traditions, the family are also striving to create a small nature reserve, which currently comprises a caiman (mini crocodile), two terrapins, a mini monkey, a baby owl, wild boar, two chickens, two dogs and dozens of hallucinogenic plants in their 'medicinal garden' (which we're definitely hoping to sample).

We did actually arrive with a gift of two baby chicks to add to the animal empire, but sadly one died on the first day from a mystery sickness and the other rather unfortunately was trodden on by one of the volunteers ending in a rather messy head explosion.

We've been helping the family thatch roofs, lug canoe loads of heavy rocks (I'm still not entirely sure why), harvest ginormous palm leaves and build bamboo bedding... we're complete beef cakes in the making.

There's also plenty of time to play tough and we're enjoying daily splashes in the Amazon, and kick arounds with the locals. They've been so kind to us since our arrival and despite the language barrier always have a joke to share (cue lots of confused smiles all round!) The grandmother of the family treats us exactly like the rest of her brood, whipping out homemade ointments and potions at the merest mention of illness! One of our crew came down with the runs this week and was ushered off at regular intervals to sit in an incense fume filled hut and be wafted with leaves!

It was my birthday yesterday and probably the best one to date. The other volunteers had organised a cake and mostly food-related prezzies wrapped in banana leaves...it was quite a breakfast spectacle! I was bestowed with handcrafted jewellery and decorated with tribal patterns on my face using the natural paint from a bizarre prickly plant grown in the medicinal garden!

We worked a bit in the morning but then visited a stunning waterfall in the afternoon (although I nearly killed myself a number of times on the treacherous trek there). By coincidence they were also holding a big fiesta in the main village in aid of forthcoming elections, so we gatecrashed that and showed them how to party Brit stylee...oh how the tequila and embarrassing salsa moves did flow! Alice and I are utterly embracing the jungle filth and I have apparently already gained myself a not-so-secret nickname of sweaty...to be expected I suppose. This is however probably doing little in my favour to woo some of the hot local men, although the fact that they are generally less than half my size doesn't do much for the cause either!

Can't quite believe we've only been here one week, it feels like so much longer but we're both really excited about the rest of our time here, possibly helping in the local school and with the elusive piranha...although we may have our work cut out with the current brood of animals!! Keep you posted!

Love Alice and Jess x


Update Three

Jess writes...

Where to begin? It's been another week of sweaty tribal hecticness, with yet another grande fiesta in honour of the largest tribal member to date. That would be Alice! The average height of Ecuadorians is somewhat short of her massive 6ft 1" status which has resulted in her being tagged with the less-than-attractive nickname of giant woman! Work this week has entailed yet more leaf collecting, which is far from the meagre activity that it sounds, as it involves splitting and hauling tarantula-ridden palm leaves, which are equal to myself in both height, weight and smelliness.

Coca leaves appear to be the main booster of team strength, energy and morale during labouring hours, and are dished out in handfuls by our indigenous colleagues... I'm slightly concerned that I may develop a pricey dependency by the time I return to English shores. I'm even contemplating reserving myself a precautionary place at The Priory for just such a instance.

Alice's birthday was yet another corker, and a prime opportunity to slack off for the day. We spent the afternoon tubing which entailed gently bobbing down the Amazon in the massive inner tubing of a lorry tyre. It was all very tranquil until the end set of rapids carried off the least aquatically-capable volunteer another 3000m down stream (minus a tube for approx the last 2500m) but we had no fear as jungle Rambo Hector (our guide) came to her rescue in his big phallic man canoe... what a hero.

We also had the opportunity to don some of the traditional beaded (yet also worryingly revealing) clothing and partake in a bizarre local dance which as far as we could tell consists almost entirely of foot shuffling and the dramatic reenactment of fishing. Alice was definitely shaking her jungle coconuts, which did in fact pop out of her costume on more than one occasion. The children of the family then gave us an exclusive performance of the dance as it should be done, definitely putting our white, sinewy booty-shaking to shame. The day was crowned by some very energetic bopping at the local disco-cum-shed followed by a two hour walk back to camp in a torrential Amazonian downpour, definitely one of those classic 'the journey is the destination' gap year moments!

Wednesday afternoon involved lots of kiddy bonding, as we were designated the 'responsible' elders of 25 local children for two hours, whilst the local parents held a community meeting. We met in the open air church and busted out numerous renditions of 'Hokey-Cokey' and 'Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes', along with a nifty round of 'Duck Duck Goose' and a brief introduction to 'How to say your name in English'. The kids had such a good time; the parents are apparently going to make the activities a weekly occurrence. We were slightly concerned in the beginning, however, when the head grandmother set fire to all the surrounding land, which consisted entirely of a dry grass and other highly flammable crap... We initially thought that they were taking slightly irrational precautions to stop the kids from escaping, but luckily they were just carrying out a routine land clearance.

We've spent the past couple of days in our weekend haven, Tena. Yesterday was epic amounts of fun as we went white-water rafting. Fortunately for us, we met another English girl who is teaching at a school in Tena as well as romancing one of the rafting instructors. This resulted in a full day of rafting fun, waterfall sightseeing, guacamole picnic and a touch of jungle canyon exploration, all at a very agreeable price. I did, however, manage to swallow a few gallons of excrement-filled river water whilst I was continually tipped over board by the guides... I'm bracing myself for some serious puking out of both ends... but it'll all be worth it.

We're preparing ourselves for some immense fiesta fun tonight in Tena, as today is the final day of elections. Ecuador has apparently had to make it illegal to drink for 48 hours before voting, as so many people have turned up inebriated to vote over previous years. I have a sneaking suspicion that people will be fully compensating for the weekend liquor drought from about 7pm onwards. So if you don't mind I must depart to line my stomach in preparation! Ciao!

Love Giant Woman and Jess x


Update 4

Jess writes...

I believe that at the time of my last installment we were set to depart for our evening of election-related celebrations in Tena. A very bizarre experience indeed. By the time we arrived, the fiesta was already well under way... all the town was gathered in the spectator stands of the sizable basketball court in the centre, and an unidentifiable he/she was rocking the mic with plenty of political banter, amidst short bursts of Spanish hip hop from the resident DJ Jazzy Jeff.

Earlier that day we had decided to take good heed of the warnings that it was highly illegal for foreigners to partake in political protests or rallying of any kind. However, a mere two minutes after we greeted our adoptive family in the town centre, we were bundled into a the back of an already crammed pick-up truck to join the victory lap of Tena, which was accompanied by excited chants of 'All vote for political party number 3'. A number of head dives were made towards the centre of the truck as were passed numerous clusters of TV cameras and journalists. We fortunately managed to escape without arrest and full of the party spirit.

My nickname of Sweaty has recently changed for the worse (to Al Pacino/Scarface), due to an unfortunate (sober) tumble at a departing jungle disco. My entire chin and left shoulder now consists of a less-than-fetching crusty brown scab, with intermittent patches of blood and pus. I made to mistake of attempting to imitate Daisy and Duncan's breakdancing move (the worm) which entails a partial handstand and a wavy floor movement. My version however, consisted of a full handstand and an intimate face-greeting-with-the-floor move. To conjure an image of the resultant injury, try envisaging Jimmy Hill the morning after an introductory night at Fight Club and you're probably pretty close. I made at least three children of Chichico Rumi, our jungle village, run in horror when I tried to hug them goodbye... I'm sure the nightmares will haunt them for a good few weeks.

Gaping facial gash aside, our final few days of tribal living were most enjoyable. A massive party was held on the last night where were had to perform a briefly practiced local dance in our self-crafted traditional costumes in front of approximately 150 villagers. Comic viewing all round, I feel. We were later able to feast on our self-killed and collected traditional banquet. The morning was spent spearing a large number of fish belonging to the Parana family, in addition to collecting bananas, papayas and yuka from a neighbouring island. The fish was then cooked in banana leaves with a vegetable medley... the result of which was utterly amazing and should be recommended if tilapia fish and banana leaves are ever made available in Tesco!

Following a fairly sniffly departure from our indigenous jungle family, we've returned to Quito for a weekend of laundry and partying before we set off on our 11 hour bus journey to the coast (Agua Blanca). This will be our home for the next three weeks, after which myself and Alice will be fending for ourselves on our tour of Peru.

Lots of love, Scarface and Alice x