The Morning After Cambodia

What happens the morning after? Will we get closer? Or will I just feel like I just made a big mistake? The “morning after” usually refers to what happens after two people have sex. And it usually depends on what happens the night before. In my case, the morning after refers to Cambodia, and to what happened a few months ago. I do not mean that I had sex with the country (of course not), but I do refer to the manner in which I was emotionally overwhelmed, because it was at least as ‘deep’. 😉

Sihanoukville 400

In love with Cambodia @ Koh Rong Samloem

I mean, if you are in love with a country and you have thought about the decision to volunteer, your entire experience can be something turning out dramatically different than your initial expectations if the country – or other (f)actors – do not seem to be on the same line as you are. Volunteering won’t automatically bring you closer, you might probably feel better by doing it initially but if you and the country do not seem to find a solution for the projects you’re working on, you might be asking yourself questions:

  • Why do I (still) want to volunteer?
  • What does voluntourism mean to me?
  • Does voluntourism fit with my values?
  • Is this a short-term thing or do I see this having a long-term benefit?
  • And if we have a relationship, what does connect us?

I never expected myself to raise these questions in my mind, but after working in the volunteer industry in Cambodia, I did ask myself many deep questions about volunteering and tourism (so called ‘voluntourism’).

  • What kinds of projects work?
  • Who will benefit from our projects: the locals, the industry or the volunteer?
  • What will we do if it fails?

Tonle Sap & Basket Weaving 233

What if voluntourism was like a fake ‘snake’ / sneaky friend?

“Don’t fear the enemy that attacks you but the fake friend that hugs you.”

When I was working in Cambodia this summer, the first weeks I was doing my job great and I traveled around with the volunteers. Only by the time we were finishing our volunteer projects, I started to raise these questions. Some things just weren’t right. Maybe that’s the reason why I stopped blogging? Because I was confused?

I mean… If you are building toilets without offering maintenance or technical support, what does the family then do when the toilet is broken?

I mean… If you are building water pumping wells and you don’t supply the water filters, how can those people then give water to their children?

I mean… If you are teaching English to a class of children, but you only stay for two weeks, how can you get to teach them something worthy?

I mean… If you are going to play with orphans in a so-called orphanage, does it really make these children better if you leave again after two weeks? 

Cambodia Leap 228

Volunteering in Sihanoukville (Cambodia), Summer 2014

These are only a couple of questions that raised in my mind, after working as a volunteer group leader in Cambodia… And of course, I have seen many beautiful things too and the volunteering did contribute to many factors too. I am only disappointed that I feel like voluntourism does seem to have more positive impacts on the personal development of the lives of my volunteers, than it does on the country. That is why I talk about a “morning after” effect.

In the mean time, months have passed by that I am back from Cambodia, but I can’t get this questions out of my mind. And as I started my Masters in Anthropology in September, I found that this issue is the appropriate topic for me to write my thesis about. Therefor, I am now researching a lot about Voluntourism and its impacts. And I have found surprisingly much information and articles about it. So much that I am even stuck in finding my own research question to solve in my thesis. 🙂 So if you can help me, comment bellow and help me finding my thesis topic!

No, the real reason why I want to share my feelings about voluntourism in this blogpost, is not about willing to stop the explosion of voluntourism. I still do have a lot of respect for all the volunteers in the world that want to spend time hoping to help a country and its people forward. I believe that they all have the right intentions, but that the problem of voluntourism is somewhere in a layer underneath: somewhere between the intermediaries and the local businesses… And I am afraid I am not powerful (and even not brave) enough to fix that fundamental issue.

to hell with good intentions

What I do hope to send out as a message via this blog post is to be aware that you might be going to hell with good intentions. One of the problems is that “There has always been a nagging inadequacy around the assertion that one cannot sell poverty, but one can sell paradise. Today the tourism industry does sell poverty.” (quote from my Professor Noel Salazar from Tourist Behaviour: A Psychological Perspective)

I am afraid that I cannot give you that much answers yet, but what I can advise you is to be careful when you decide to go abroad volunteering. You can find tips and tricks on http://learningservice.info/ , created by the ‘rethinkers of volunteer travel’. Because I am convinced that we all want to make the most out of volunteering and travels, but we have to do it the right way. And if we – volunteers – are aware of the critical issues in voluntourism, we are one step closer to rethinking and re-creating what used to be a noble random act of kindness.

service-learning

And don’t worry, I don’t have the intentions to stop volunteering. I won’t stop before I have the feeling that something has changed, partially through my efforts. Because you have never really lived until you have done something for someone who can never repay you. ❤ Share the message if you agree that volunteer travel needs to change. Awareness is the greatest agent for change! ❤

Lots of love

x Julie x

Livin’ the GOOD Life in Cambodia

I’m writing this post during a rainy Saturday evening in Siem Reap. Although it is rainy season, it has only rained for a few hours a day, mostly in the afternoons or evenings. And while I’m sitting here cosy in my bed with the laptop on my lap, I have time to daydream about the past month here in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Actually, it is not a dream – it is real – but the time has gone so fast ever since I arrived here, that I realize I’m already half way through and there are still so many things I would like to do. I guess “time flies when you’re having fun” and you can definetely only regret chances that you didn’t take in life. But before I get too deep in my musing, let me briefly tell you what I experienced the last 4 weeks here…

volunteering cambodia

Life feels good when you are doing something good… ❤

When I came back from my short field trip to Sihanoukville on a night bus, I was sick. That bus was one of the most horrible experiences in my entire travel life. I had to sleep in a cabin which looked like it was for one person, but I had to share it with two. The journey took also more then 14 hours (19.00-09.00) with no space to stretch your legs/arms and hardly any toilet stop. I had to go home from the office later after that day, and I slept the clock round, taking paracetamols struggling to get my sudden high fever down. I was scared to have catched a tropical disease and was worried about being so sick as the group arrived next day. But surprisingly, I felt a lot better already the next day and God-bless-my-strong-body-and-mind, because ever since the group arrived the 2nd of July, I have been busy for more than 15 hours a day, each day!

Siem Reap Volunteer House

The Volunteer House in Siem Reap

After picking up the group at the airport, I showed them the volunteer house in Siem Reap where they would be staying for 4 weeks, and I took them for a strawl around town. Later at night, we had the welcome dinner and the next morning we did the orientation session about their volunteer projects here. The afternoon was spent getting to know eachother during a visit to the local handicrafts market and the best icecream bar in town (The Blue Pumpkin).

 Siem Reap first drink

First drink with the Leapers in Siem Reap

The day after that, we started our first day on the project sites, which consisted mainly out of introducing them to the work and dividing them in smaller groups. The afternoon teaching project did not seem to be able to offer us the desired work, which caused a lot of extra work for me and the project leading team to find another school. Stressy days!

Siem Reap Projects Self Help

Self Help Community Centre

Then at night, we started of the weekend and I decided to go out for a drink with the girls to socialize and get closer to them. We headed to the famous Pub Street, which is the most famous street in Cambodia, with endless dining, drinking and party options… As pretty much everyone got way too drunk way too fast, I headed back home at a descent hour, sober.

first night out in Siem Reap

First night out in Siem Reap with the volunteers

The next day, Saturday, we planned a full day visit to Angkor Wat, the biggest religious monument in the world, a temple complex for which you need at least two days to visit the main sights only. Spectacular!

Siem Reap & Angkor Wat

Monks around the Temples of Angkor Wat

We also used our free Sunday to visit some more of the temples and I felt a 100% blessed to be able to work in Cambodia for the summer and seeing al these beautiful and unexpected things in the world.

Siem Reap Angkor Wat

+/- 3 million of tourists visit Angkor Wat each year…

After an impressive first weekend, I started a new work week with loads of positive energy. We started to build a water pumping well in a local community in the Puok District, and we were able to find a great little school for the afternoon teaching sessions, with many children in need to learn English. The first teaching experiences were hard as it was difficult to tell their level of English, but the great thing is that while the volunteers are teaching, they learn as least as much theirselves too from the experience itself. It was definetely a great opportunity to do this for a few weeks, and the children obviously loved our presence at the school. They are adorable!

Siem Reap Water pumping well project

Our water pumping well, nearly finished…

By Wednesday we already finished our 2 water pumping wells (each group one) and we moved on to the next water project: building a toilet. We could see that the locals benefit a lot from our help and so our time is very well spent. We are doing such a great job here, which gives a huge feeling of appreciation! However, I had some difficult days on a personal level, maybe because I was tired and adapting to a new life style and a new group in a new country again, but it could not stop me from feeling proud of myself for what I was doing here! And the more the days passed, the more I started to enjoy Cambodia and the group. (of course I would!)

I was enjoying Cambodia and The Leap program more and moer everyday. The work was enjoyable as we moved from the one community to another and it did not feel as tough as the program in Ecuador. It was a luxury to come back every time to the hotel room, having nice food and a shower every day. But I also feel like I’m rather gaining weight than lossing it… So I decided to start a 5 minute workout program daily: 61 sit-ups (the number of days I stay in Cambodia) and 10 squad excercises (with a Youtube clip). The price you pay for having all this luxury and food around you… 😛

dinner night out siem reap

One of the many nice dinners out in Siem Reap

Anyway, after finishing the water pumping well, we started to build 2 toilets for 2 incredibly friendly but poor families in another community. Initially, the project was planned for only 3 days but we ended up staying there 6 days. One of the families had 4 children and they had to walk down the whole street to use a neighbour’s toilet or go in the wilderness. Our toilet was more then welcome so! Their oldest daughter was 17 years old and the only one in the family who could speak some English. In the afternoon she went to school and in the morning she helped her mother with the household. She LOVED having us there and I had many beautiful conversations with her, that in the mean time broke my heart… For example, she asked me about my favourite food, so I said curry and rice (because I thought that might be something she knew) but she didn’t. They only eat rice, leafs, coconuts and other vegetables or fruits they can cultivate there. She never ate a pizza in her life and she did not even know what it looked like.  I took some pictures of her and her mother because they did not have any mirror either to see theirselves, and of course no family pictures either.

Toilet Project Siem Reap

Me with the daughter of 17 years old, she could be my little sister

The family also had a baby pig, which they were growing up to sell later on to get money from. One of their only sources of income… But the pig was the cutest pig ever and became my friend more and more every day. It loved being petted and I took it for a walk a few times because it was too sad seeing it in its small cage. My “Babe” behaved like a dog, was obviously having the best days of its life running down the street, playing in the mud and eating grass in the ricefield. On our last day, I asked the family not to sell the pig for slaughter, but they said they needed the money. So they asked me to help them buying a male pig (this one was a female) so they could make babies and sell those, and have more income. With the money they explained they would build a new house, because the one they had was too old and too small. I realised that indeed one pig extra could change the financial situation of the family drastically. I was convinced and we promised to come back one day with a male pig (costs about $50).

Siem Reap Volunteer piglet

The cutest Piglet I’ve ever seen in my entire life! ❤

I have such a great memories of our time there with these people and piggie! In the afternoons, we went to ELMA School, where my volunteers were teaching better and better every day. The atmosphere there was great and we had also fun with the kids, playing games after the classes. The last day we were thanked with a traditional dance show and an English song, and the volunteers got their certificates of teaching English. Another mission accomplished! 🙂

Elma school

ELMA School : ‘Education – Love – Motivation – Action’

Now we are spending our mornings in Samrong Village near Angkor Wat, where we already made insence sticks (which looks easier then it is), and we plan to do basket weaving for next week.

Insence Sticks

Making Insence Sticks

In the afternoons, we are now going to CDO (Cambodian Development Organisation), where the volunteers spend 2 hours teaching English and Computer classes to orphans and 1 hour of constructing a new orphenage for them each day from Monday to Friday.

There is only one week left at those projects in Siem Reap, so the time definetely goes fast. This weekend we went to the Floating Village and we did a boat trip on Tonle Sap Lake, which used to be the biggest sweet water lake in South East Asia.

Tonle Sap lake floating village

The floating village at Tonle Sap lake

Usually, the girls go out on Friday evenings so they can be hangover on Saturdays, enjoy a brunch in town, have a pedicure/manicure/massage and do some shopping. Then Sundays are reserved for an excursion. The first weekend we went to Angkor Wat (temples), the second weekend we went to Phnom Kulen (waterfall) and this weekend we visited Tonle Sap (Floating Village and Lake). Phnom Kulen was a National Park with some buddhist statues in it and other religious places, but most famous for its giant waterfall. It was nice to cool off and swim there, feeling like Tarzans in the jungle, enjoying a picknick and tanning a bit.

Phnom Kulen waterfall

The waterfall at Phnom Kulen N.P.

During the week everyone goes to bed surprisingly early and the spare time is filled with shopping at the market, going for Indian/Mexican/International food and watching shows like the traditional Apsara dance show. We also got slightly addicted to the fruit shakes that they sell everywhere for only $1: they are frozen and contain fresh fruit! Jummie! 😛

apsara

Apsara traditional dance show at Temple Club, Siem Reap

I think the girls are having the time of their lives and even though I have busy days being with them most of the time AND training my fellow local colleagues in group leading AND writing reports for The Leap AND preparing various documents for the program, I am feeling better and better here because the days go fast and the program is going so well and nice! I’m starting to fall in love with Cambodia’s charming landscapes, laid back way of life and beautiful children. Only one month left to go and I’m back home! Half way through now!

x x x Love x x x

Julie

Volunteering in The Andes + Otavalo Weekend

After a successful adventure week it was time to get back to work. Together with my group, I left Quito to Otavalo, and after some ‘camioneta’-rides later we arrived in Chilcapamba. Here we would stay 2 weeks to work on a community project, providing water to the local houses. The free weekend was spend discovering the markets of Otavalo and discovering Laguna de Cuicocha. Enjoy the story!

The Andes Otavalo The Leap

My Leap Group with Don Alfonso in Otavalo

It had been a shocking night and nobody felt really in the mood to leave to the next community, as we only had a few hours of sleep and a traumatic experience (see blog post Riobamba). But we survived a 5 hour trip from Quito to Otavalo to Quiroga to Chilcapamba, somewhere deep in the valleys of the Andes… The first day was spend dividing rooms, eating and doing siestas. We got a quick introduction by our project host Alfonso Morales, the leader of the Chilcapamba community and many others in the area. Quite early we went to sleep, preparing ourselves for some hard work the next weeks.

The Andes Chilcapamba Welcome

Welcome to Chilcapamba

Chilcapamba is one of Yanapuma’s sustainable community development projects in the Andes. Located in the north of Quito, near the famous market town of Otavalo, this population lives by farming and the production of various crafts. Our involvement with this community consisted in carrying out a water project, helping in the local school and other tasks related to agriculture. In the afternoon my Leapers enjoyed Spanish classes, which meant that I had some time off every day to relax or do some paperwork in the internet cafe. We lived in a volunteer house with an indigenous family, and explored the local environment and culture.

The first morning I enjoyed a hot shower around 6.30AM and woke the rest of the group up around 7.30AM. During breakfast we divided our daily tasks in a democratic way (everyday 2 persons helping in the school and 2 cleaning team + the rest worked on the project). We started our work after walking around 15 minutes to a road nearby, where two local men pointed us a place to start digging holes. The aim: finding the water pipe lines, opening them to put an extra segment to provide water to the houses nearby.

The Andes Chilcapamba

Water pipe line

This work we did every day from 8.30AM until 1PM. I can garantee you that I have discovered muscle parts in my body of which I did not know they excisted and it was quite a work out for all of us! But we were giving freedom to work at own pace, as the local men just dropped us at our work spots every day. We digged an average of 2 holes per 4 persons a day, so 4 holes a day. And that during a week. So our contribution as volunteers was giving 20 families in Chilcapamba water!

The Andes chilcapamba

One of my Leapers and I working hard 😛

In the afternoons I usually went to the internetcafe, which was a 20 minute walk up the hill from the volunteer house. I had a few hours free every day while my group members had their Spanish courses. Sometimes I just stayed home and did a siesta or read a book. But I loved the walk through the fields, admiring the surrounding mountains and corn fields. It had a very quiet atmosphere and made me feel closer to myself. Like a meditation walk…

 The Andes Fields

Views on my way to the internet café…

The evenings we spend playing card games, Maffia, having someone’s birthday party, playing ‘Would you rather…’ in the room, watching the stars on the rooftop terrace and playing football next door with the local kids. Days passed by quickly like this, even though it was a more boring experience living the farm life then the jungle life (Tsachila) or the island life (Galapagos)…

The food in the Andes was OK, but nothing more then that. And after a few days, your body is craving for proteins, which it doesn’t get a lot here. Breakfast was usually the best of the day, as they brought us fresh bread with jam and hot chocolate milk. The locals ate rice, eggs and beans. For lunch we always got a fresh juice and soup with potatoe and corn in it, followed by rice, some vegetables, beans and more rice. Dinner was the same. We hardly got any meat, which was no problem for me as I am almost vegetarian. But having only rice, two times a day for two weeks was a though diet. There were hardly fruits either, so it was not really a balanced diet either. But exactly that is one of the problems of the Kichwa people that live in this community. There is a lot of malnutrition, and people need to eat more carbohydrates because of the altitude.

food sierra

Typical dishes in the Andes (Sierra)

On Wednesday the Spanish courses were cancelled, and we got to finish work early because we were invited by the Ministerio del Ambiente (Ministry of Environment) to participate in a congress. We got a V.I.P. pick-up service (read: camioneta) from Chilcapamba to Otavalo, and were assisted by our project leader Don Alfonso the whole time. We saw him making a speech, signing a contract about God-knows-what, enjoyed some free-style Ecuadorian entertainment and sweet food afterwards during the reception. Although the group did not understand a word of what was going on (and I could impossibly translate because we had to be quiet the whole time), it was a great experience and I felt very thankful to be invited in this event. It was the first time that volunteers from abroad were recognised by the Ministry to participate in this kind of events, so it was really a valuable experience! Late in the evening we went back to the community for dinner by camioneta…

The Andes Ministerio del AMbiente

Ministerio del Ambiente – Pretty Building in Otavalo

 The next days were a little difficult on personal level. I had a fight with my boyfriend, things were all going so great here in Ecuador with my internship and The Leap, but at the homefront nothing seemed to be going well: bad communication, plans that did not work out, … I felt like I never wanted to return back home, and every day walking in the mountains to the internet cafe I was thinking more and more about how I would love to disappear and go somewhere else on this earth. I felt happy and in the same time lost. As if I was not the same person anymore and wanted to start a new life somewhere else in this world, gone from all negativity, continuing this positive vibe I was living here with my projects. And I wondered: am I just becoming a different person or is this place just a different world? I had no idea about who I was and what I wanted in life, and that was so funny, because all I every tried to convince my group from was ‘finding theirselves’ during their Gap Year. But to be honest: once you find yourself, you’re fucked up and more lost then ever because your whole life does not fit in the person that you have found there and then! Or maybe life was just perfect the way it was, but people are constantly looking for issues? I didn’t know, I just felt like something was about to change…

Anyway, before I knew it, it was Friday – yep, thank God it’s Friday! I participated in a fun Spanish class where the Leapers had to taste typical Ecuadorian fruits and had a lot of fun! And because we were leaving for the weekend in the afternoon, there was no MINGA (community work) planned for today, just the Spanish classes in the morning. I enjoyed the sun, the fruits, called some camionetas, made reservations, made sure the rooms were left clean before the weekend and then we left…

The Andes Spanish classes

Fruit games during Spanish classes in the Volunteer House 

When we arrived in Otavalo, checked in at the hostel (Flying Donkey, very recommendable BTW), we walked around in the shopping street and enjoyed a descent dinner together. I enjoyed my lasagna so much after a week of rice! 😉 You can imagine… After my favourite cocktail – Piña Colada – it was time to head to bed and prepare for  a sweet day…

Otavalo has hosted one of the most important markets in the Andes for hundreds of years, and is therefor one of the main tourist attractions in Ecuador. In the colorful open-air marketplace, vendors hawk everything from handmade traditional crafts to imported (table)clothes. Packs of tourists from around the globe hunt for bargains here, and go home with loads of souvenirs.

The Otavaleños are indigenous people who are known for their animal trading on the early morning markets, and their exquisite weavings. They are the wealthiest and most commercially successful indígena people in Ecuador, which makes that most of them live in more comfort than other Ecuadorians.

Saturday morning, I woke up at 6AM and managed to wake up not even half of my group to go to the animal market. There we have seen screaming piglets, bags of guinea pigs and many cows. The market is actually not nice at all seeing all this animals suffering, but the atmosphere is unbeatable and the chaos has something cool!

The Andes Animal Market

Feria de Animales, Otavalo

After the animal market, we woke the rest of the group up in the hostal and went for breakfast together. Then it was time for the other market: the crafts market! This market is located at Plaza de Ponchos, and this is where the real action happens every Saturday, because then the market swells into adjacent roads and around half of the town center is a sea of brightly dyed carpets, clothings and other trinkets then. You can buy so many things there: woolen goods such as rugs, tapestries, blankets, ponchos, sweaters, scarves, gloves and hats, as well as blouses, hammocks, carvings, beads, paintings, woven mats, jewelry and so on. I spent more or less 100 USD on souvenirs there, and I managed to bargain for another 100 USD. After one whole day you get to know the skills to do it!

The Andes Otavalo crafts market

Shopping at Otavalo’s Crafts Market

The afternoon was spent watching football by the boys, and I took the girls to the Cascadas de Peguche. We took a taxi just outside of town, and were dropped off near a trail leading to the waterfalls. These falls are sacred to the locals and are very impressive. Entrance is free so another reason more to visit!

The Andes Cascadas de Peguche

Cascadas de Peguche

In the evening we went out all together for pizza in Otavalo, and had some pre-drinking games in the hostal room before going out. I stayed in, tired from the busy day, and the others came back before I closed my eyes because they did not find a club. Lol, that was funny! 😛

Sunday morning we left after breakfast to drop off our luggage and many souvenirs in the volunteer house, and took the same camionetas to head further to La Laguna de Cuicocha, which was around 20 minutes from our community in Chilcapamba. It is a lagoon cradled in a collapsed volcanic crater some 3 km wide and 200m deep and it features two mounded islands that shot up in later eruptions. The islands look like the backs of two guinea pigs, hence the name “cuicocha” means ‘guinea pig lake’ in Kichwa.

The Andes Laguna de Cuicocha

Me and my boys!

We did not hike the trail nor did the boat trip because none of us felt like doing a lot of excercise, due to busy last days. In stead, we enjoyed the views from the view point and had a nice lunch in Restaurante El Mirador…

In the late afternoon we went back to Chilcapamba, where some of us did a siesta and I headed to the horse races in Quiroga to socialize with the locals. It was also a good walk, 20 minutes down and 30 minutes back up hill.

The Andes Horse races Quiroga

Horse Races in Quiroga

Monday it was back to work! Today I was on schedule to work with the kids and help out a hand in the kitchen, together with one of my boys. The others were picking corn in a field, to have some variation on the never ending digging water pipe holes. It was a good day! After I translated the instructions from one of the Kichwa women, we started to help in the kitchen making breads (donuts?) for the kids. Then afterwards, we got to bring them to the nursery of the community.

The Andes Kichwa woman

Helping a Kicha woman in the kitchen

In the nursery, we gave the kids hot banana milk, the donuts that we made and played with them. We teached them how to count and some letters of the alphabet. They all called us “TURISTA” which was a little bit discriminating I thought, but in the same time cute and sweet of them. They made some dances for us and we sang a song.

We went back to the kitchen to prepare lunch and went back to feed them. Then we played with them outside, and finally it was time for us too to have lunch with the other volunteers. A nice experience!

The Andes kids kichwa

Kichwa Kids

After lunch, the others had Spanish classes and I went to the internet cafe for my daily portion of walking in the nature and connecting with the World Wide Web. In the evening we enjoyed a quiz, organized by one of my group members and it was very difficult!! I blamed it on the fact that I was the only one not being from the U.K., but honestly… I really sucked hahaha. I ended up being last in the game. Grrrffhmmmgfhhhfd!!

The next days we worked further on digging our water holes, and closing some of them that were ready again. We also cleared the roads and equalized the levels. The afternoons were spend the same and I organized a story telling night and question round with Don Alfonso for my volunteers. That was probably one of the highlights of this week, as we got to know much more about his background, the history of the community, the importance of our volunteering and many more facts and figures.

The Andes Volunteering Chilcapamba

Digging holes as deep as my body!

The last days were spend equally and we got adapted to our routine just before we left again. After two heavy weeks with lots of work and lots of fun, lots of personal challenges and physical ones, it was time to head back to Quiroga, Otavalo and Quito. The next weekend was going to be spend in Mindo… I’ll post it in the next blog post.

goodbye alfonso morales chilcapamba

Goodbye, Don Alfonso!

Happy reading!

Julie

 

An Adventurous Week in Ecuador – Baños

10 May 2014 – 17 May 2014

The Adventure Week AKA Ruta de los Volcanes

The Leap promised its Leapers an “a week of adventure and expedition, taking the famous “Ruta de los Volcanes” (Volcanic Route), biking to waterfalls, white-water raft, climb Chimborazo volcano and kayak over Quilotoa crater lake”, but it was much more than that, exceeding all of our expectations. It was a crazy week, finally getting EVERYONE out of their comfort zone, with loads of unforgettable memories, and loads of work for me as a leader! Here follows a great story, enjoy the ride! (Part 2)

Banos white water rafting

BAÑOS

After exploring the lake of Quilotoa (see former blog post), it was time to head further to Baños. This was definetely one of the highlights on the program and everyone had a lot of adventurous expectations: white water rafting, bridge jumping, paragliding, the end of the world swing, canyoning, … It was all on the planning for Leap Group B!

Baños is an adrenaline junkie’s paradise caught between the Andes and the Amazon in a magical little valley complete with its own waterfall and numourous natural springs. It is also the most popular backpacker spot in the Central Highlands of Ecuador, so you’ll never really alone in Baños and tourists mean… Good food, good bars!

The afternoon we arrived was spend bridgejumping by the boys, enjoying the thermal pools by the girls and me exploring this new town. I had never been in Baños before and it was quite an interesting touristy place. I went for a coffee, checked out restaurants and enjoyed the views on the roof top terrace of our lovely Hostal Plantas y Blanco. In the evening we had dinner with all of us together, and by bedtime I could feel the adrenaline pumping through my body for next days Rafting excursion!

Adventure Week banos hostal plantas y blanco

Rooftop terrace in Hostal Plantas y Blanco

Baños is a mixture of amazing settings such as waterfalls, lush forests and steaming thermal springs. The town itself is not so nice when it comes to architecture (as most Ecuadorian towns), but there are many tour operators, travel agencies, bars, restaurants and hostals who contribute to its backpacker-ghetto atmosphere.

Early in the morning we left to the Pastaza River where we would go white water rafting. After a 45 minute ride to that river, we (no, especially me) were nervous for the briefing and security check. I could not focus on what was said by our instructor/guide because of nerves, and honestly wanted to quit before I even was on this river. But I did not want to be the Pussy of the group and decided to hold on…

Rafting Banos

Strategically I placed myself in the middle of our raft, and with a lifejacket and a wetsuit I felt more ready to do it! There we went…. Only 1 hour of rafting, but so much fun… The first 30 minutes I was probably more screaming than paddling, but the further we got and the wilder it got, the more I started to enjoy the adventure!

My biggest fear was to fell out of the boat, or even worse: being pushed by another team member and fell out of the boat on purpose. Luckily, none of that happened to me, and straight after arrival I felt disappointed: was this it? Was this the reason why I had been so scared? Oh baby…. 😛

After we had lunch together with the team and our guides, we headed back to Baños where we were given some pictures of our tour. Great memories! Viva la aventura!

rafting pastaza river

While the rest of the group went to rent quad bikes in the afternoon, I decided to take it easy and slow. I went for another strawl around town, visited the thermal pools (baños) of Baños, and went to see the ‘holy’ waterfall from nearby. I went inside the impressive church, did some souvenir shopping, looked for a restaurant that night, and finally enjoyed a pinneaple juice on a terrace. The group came back pretty late from their quad bike trip, but we still enjoyed a good late night dinner together!

Oh yeah, and what is my job in the middle of this relaxed text: participating in activities, guiding the group from the one activity to another, arranging lunch and dinners in restaurants, buying bus tickets, helping to find and buy tours, … and being my lovely self enjoying it all with them! Life is good!

Adventure Week Banos waterfall

The waterfall in Baños

The next day I planned to go to La Casa del Arbol with some of my group members. The weather was not how we expected it to be that morning, but the clouds gave a mystical feeling to the experience. La Casa del Arbol means Tree House, and it is mostly famous for its “End of the world swing”. It is located about 20 minutes up the hill from Baños, and by good weather you can have a spectaculour view overlooking the town, the forest and the mountains.

Adventure Week Casa del Arbol

Me at the “End of the World Swing”, Casa del Arbol

Next it was time to go Puenting (think bungee jumping without the bounce). It crudely translates as ‘bridging’, but it’s really swinging, in this case along a rope tethered to two bridges. I’m not sure whether it was for budget reasons or fear, but I decided to skip this activity and just how the others having their adrenaline portion of the day!

Adventure Week puenting

One of my Team Members “Puenting” in Baños 

After lunch, the boys went for paragliding, an activity that I really wanted to do myself too, but it was expensive ($60) and all places were booked. So in stead, I went for a relaxing full body massage at Chakra, one of the massage spots in town, where I forgot all my worries for an hour… (And that was still wayyyy less expensive than the paragliding)!

paragliding banos

Impression of Paragliding in Baños

In the evening we were all ready for some descent Mexican food and chilled further until bedtime on the rooftop terrace. It was a lovely last night in Baños, and I guess we all achieved our goals in this thrill town, ready to leave for the next adventure…

Adventure Week banos

NEXT POST / STOP: RIOBAMBA

With love,

Julie

Volunteering in the Galapagos Islands

In 1835 Charles Darwin arrived on the Galapagos Islands. 179 years later it was my turn to step foot on land. Unfortunately I did not came up with a new evolutionary theory, but I did do my contribution to “The Enchanted Islands” by a nice 10 days of volunteering at Hacienda Tranquila on the island of San Cristobal. I have coordinated my group of volunteers, helped in the farm and looked for new volunteer projects for the Yanapuma Foundation.

The remaining 12 days of my 3 weeks in Galapagos, I did some island hopping on the archipelago. Again, unfortunately, not aboard of the legendary Beagle (Darwin’s ship) but with typical lanchas (boats), good for $25 per ride: a cheap and sustainable way to visit these unique and expensive places… Here follows a story of my first 10 days at Hacienda Tranquila…

My last blog post ended up with leaving the community of Tsachila, somewhere deep in the jungle of Ecuador… We (me and my group) travelled back to Quito for two hectic nights before heading to the airport to catch our flight from Quito to San Cristobal via Guayaquil. After a crazy bus ride that took us from 750 meters of altitude back to 2850 meters of altitude in Quito, we had an orientation about Galapagos in the Yanapuma office, did our laundry, went to the hairdresser, bought groceries and I made my reports for work and school. Next day was time to do the online pre-registrations and check-ins for Galapagos, put my pictures of Tsachila online, meet my host family, celebrate Semana Santa, pick the laundry up, write my blog and switch my luggage. As if that was not hectic and busy enough, we all had to wake up at 5AM on Saturday to catch our flight…
semana santa quito
Saturday the 19th of April we arrived on the island of San Cristobal, the aerial views from the plane were very impressive and promising. We couldn’t wait to get out of the airport (after paying our $100 National Park entrance fee) to get to explore the surrounding area. We were picked up in a pick-up truck, bought food and left to Hacienda Tranquila, in the higher area of the island. There we would start volunteering Monday.
Islas de Galapagos Hacienda Tranquila
As it was weekend, we could start our experience with some exploring and relaxing…. Therefor, we decided to leave for a good welcome party night in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno (capital city) at night, after installing ourselves and our stuff in the Hacienda. We enjoyed some Piña Colada and Caña (local strong liquor) and enjoyed clubbing in ‘Discoteca La Isla’, where the islanders welcomed us warmly (and hot) for some sweet bachata, salsa and merengue dancing. At a surprisingly decent hour we left for the Hacienda, tired as we were from the long day traveling and adapting to this new environment and climate.
Hacienda Tranquila room
Sunday we had our first breakfast together on the pick-nick table outstide after a long night of sleep. In the afternoon we left for La Loberia, a popular beach in San Cristobal were you can swim and tan with and near the sealions. The road to the beach itself is like one public zoo (entrance is free) where you can encounter sea iguanas, lizzards, crabs, birds and sea lions, lots of ‘happy’ sea lions…
Islas de Galapagos La Loberia San Cristobal
We went for our first swim in the Pacific Ocean, regret that we didn’t take snorkel gear and enjoyed tanning on the beach.
Islas de Galapagos La Loberia
Of course, tourists as we were, we all took some pictures with the sealions in front of us. Nice to have such a sweet memory, though…
La Loberia San Cristobal
After enjoying some tanning (and first sunburning, yep, the UV is strong near the Equator), we enjoyed the sunset and head back to the Hacienda.
Islas de Galapagos sunset
As we didn’t feel like cooking – after all it was a little bit of holiday today – we took a taxi to town, had dinner in a restaurant, walked on the Malecon (strip/peer) and spotted some more sea lions chilling there. Late at night we finally went to bed. It had been a beautiful Sun-day and life was beautiful! The only thing I didn’t really like was sleeping in a dorm (room of 5 beds) and having to share a bathroom with 20 other volunteers… Lack of privacy 😉
Islas de Galapagos hacienda tranquila
Monday at 8.15AM we had our first meeting with Giovanny, the dueño (big boss) of the Hacienda (farm). A little bit later we started our first day of work, full of fresh energy and motivation! We worked in the hot sun until lunch time, clearing an area nearby where they would construct a nursery to cultivate more vegetables for the local communities. Just before lunch time, I had to go to the hospital with one of my group members… Food infection… Bahhhh 😦
Hacienda Tranquila vivero
In the afternoon, we had another thing to do… Cleaning a house and its ‘lush’ garden nearby. We splitted up the group in 2: one for the garden, one for the house. Around 4PM we finally finished our day of work, longing for a refreshing shower. We went to the supermarket and I decided to cook some Cocos Curry with Rice for the girls (the boys cooked seperately). Jummie! But, one of the girls cut her finger very badly in the kitchen and so I had another visit to the hospital late at night. What a day, what a day… Fortunately, it was not that bad and she is still alive! 😉
cocos curry rice prawns
Around 10PM I went to bed exhausted from the work, cooking and hospital visits. Apparently, I was already snoring when the others entered the room later at night. Good sleep I had there! At 6.30AM I was alive and kicking again, so I decided to help the locals with milking the cow. Oh my god, I’m really getting a peasant woman here!!
Farm milking cow galapagos hacienda tranquila
Islas de Galapagos farm hacienda
Another day of work was planned, using the machete until I got blisters from cutting invasive species to restore natural habitats for the local species of flora and fauna. Small detail: we were controling the Guayaba plant today.
guayaba
After lunch I went to the airport to pick up another group member / volunteer, and immediately I put him to work in the farm. Luckily for him (and me) the work was some more relaxing this afternoon as we were just peeling coffee beans to prepare them for roasting.
Coffee beans hacienda tranquila
Around 4PM we finished work and took a taxi into town to go to the internet cafe, because of course, there was no WiFi at our volunteer spot. Small detail: with town I mean Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, which is not only the capital of San Cristobal but of the whole Galapagos Islands, but it doesn’t feel like a capital at all. A taxi to town took us around 20 minutes and costs $5, which we could divide by the number of passengers in the car (or in the back of the car).
We had dinner in the Mockingbird Cafe and went back to the Hacienda for a movie night. We watched a documentary about Ecuadorian social problems, and went to bed on time because at 7AM we had to be ready again to make pizza dough and milk the cows. It is actually a nice thing to cultivate your own food here: we use milk from the cows, fruits/herbs/vegetables from the garden, eggs from the chickens and so on. We make our own coffee and sometimes they even make cheese here!
pizza dough hacienda tranquila
Apart from that is our work, that started as always at 8.30AM. Wednesday we had to walk about 20 minutes to a jungle place where we collected leafs and earth to use as compost for the nursery we were constructing. We had use rakes to collect the material and carry all the bags of compost to the farm. It was a pretty hard work to do, as it was hot and humid in this part of the island.
Islas de Galapagos machete work
You cannot imagine how happy we were to be back in the farm, because it was Wednesday and that means pizza day! The farm has a stone oven and so we prepared our dough and put all the toppings we wanted on our pizzas and baked our own freshly created designs…
Islas de Galapagos pizza
It tasting amazing, probably because we had putted so much effort in it. You get to appreciate things way more when you realize how much effort they demand. And it is so much rewarding when you do things yourself. So, to all of you out there: move your lazy buts and start to make your own healthy pizzas at home to! 😉
Islas de Galapagos pizza result
After that delicious lunch, there was a good atmosphere between the volunteers. In the Hacienda it was not only my group but also other individual volunteers from France, Germany, Australia, United States, … We started to do the cleaning of the farm, which included kitchen, bathroom, dorms and so on, while others painted the house we cleaned the other day and some others roasted the coffee.
Islas de Galapagos hacienda tranquila
As every day, we stopped working around 4PM and chilled a little bit. I did a nap in the hammock, even though I felt quite a bit restless being with so many people in the same place all the time, sharing all the facilities and having not one place of privacy. At such moments I missed the jungle, where I had my own cabaña (wooden house) and even though there were no doors or windows in it, at least I had that private room to chill for a while. Maybe I was just a bit homesick, cold turkey from the jungle life?!
At the same time, I was excited to leave the Hacienda and start travelling, but I also would miss my group as they would stay for another 12 days to volunteer. Mixed feelings? Or just a difficult day? In the end, my whole group said that they did like the Hacienda a lot more than the jungle, so it was probably just my having issues… And it was obviously a completely different place, and I realized I had to stop comparing it to the jungle. I had to accept that I was here and make the best out of this place and time, but it was also a hard time for me accepting that Giovanny was leading the group here more than I did because he spoke English and there was less need for me as a coordinator / group leader here. Sometimes I felt like I was just there to call taxis and tell my group to clean the kitchen, but I realized at the same time I had to stop feeling bad and thinking negative. I just hoped this feeling would go over soon… (And yes, it did. But everybody has his difficult moments somewhere somehow, right?)
Islas de Galapagos smoking area
Smoking area where I relaxed and over thought life…
On the other hand, oh my god, I was living my dream, being happy in the middle of the ocean… Feeling blessed for being on the one and only Galapagos Islands. But I was so far away, missing my boyfriend and realizing that happiness ment nothing when it couldn’t be shared with the ones you truly love. And yes, I did find my dream job here by doing this internship, this is my passion, I am born to do this. But how can I ever get a stable life if I stay traveling and working abroad, far away from family and friends?
The things that make me happy, seems to be opposites of each other and that made me think a lot. I was having a hard time dealing with this paradoxes. Something in me wanted to keep working and traveling like this for another year at least, but another part in me was missing home and wanted to be as fast as possible back home to be with my love.
Maybe I should find a way to get ‘The best of both worlds’: travel with my boyfriend one day, and for now: focus on the island life and enjoy it to the fullest!
Islas de Galapagos clean house
Thursday morning… Early in the morning we left by car to drive 40 minutes to an area of another community. There we would help them to reverse the negative effects of invasive or introduced species, restoring the native and endemic forests of San Cristobal.  We worked in a controlled plot of land to eliminate introduced/ invasive plant species. Today it was time to eliminate a whole field of blackberry plants.
Islas de Galapagos cutting mora blackberry
After work we took the pick-up truck another 40 minutes back to the Hacienda, where we had some salad for lunch. In the afternoon we went to the house nearby, where we continued renovation work. The idea was to make a workshop place here for local children.
Islas de Galapagos pick up truck
After work, as usually we called a taxi to go into town, where I finally got to Skype with my boyfriend. This helped me a lot to get over my issues… What a release, and a good night of sleep with a peaceful mind as a result.
Friday, my ultimate day of work before the weekend and my travels…. But oh what a day, what a day… I had to wake up at 5AM to get early to the hospital with one of my group members, had a difficult time to get the right diagnosis and finally got back around 9.30AM at the Hacienda, where everybody started to work already. I was so tired and lacking the energy to work, that I decided to do a nap instead until lunch time. I felt a little bit guilty, but in the same time I think it is important to listen to the needs of your body. Enough is enough!
After sleep and lunch I felt like a new person and joined the volunteer work. It was a funny afternoon, catching wild chickens and driving cattle to another field. We also cleaned the local soccer field from trash and played football on it afterwards. Farm life is more funny then most people think!
Islas de Galapagos chicken
Islas de Galapagos cattle drive
In the afternoon the group went for a beer in a local bar nearby, which they opened on demand of my group. I guess they did good business that night! While the rest of the group went further out in town, I went back to bed. In my bed, I realized today I was exactly in the half of my time in Ecuador. 56 days passed, 56 days to go. Let’s start the countdown!
Saturday, time for the weekend!! As we booked an excursion with the whole group, we left at 8AM to town. We were going to do a boattrip all together to finally discover some more of the island after a week of hard work. We had booked a $70 trip from 9AM to 4PM, including 2 snorkel sites and 1 beach. Lunchbox included.
First we went to Cerro Brujo, here we did our first snorkel. I was kind of nervous as it had been a long time ago and it was my first time at the rough see again, but I managed to do it well and after 10 minutes I felt comfortable as a fish in the water. I was proud of myself!
Islas de Galapagos cerro brujo
Overall, it was a wonderful experience snorkeling through a natural stone bridge where the sun rays shined in and put a beautiful light illumination, where I have no words for. The many fish in that cristal blue water with top visibility made me feel like in a different world.
cerro brujo
We saw lots of fish and were getting more and more exciting. How fast can a human being change from state of mind? From a scared swimmer I went to an enthousiast snorkeler in less than half an hour. We hopped on board of our boat again and headed to the next stop: the famous Kicker Rock (Leon Dormido in Spanish). It is the most popular dive and snorkeling site off of San Cristobal Island, and is the remains of a lava cone, now split in two.
Islas de Galapagos leon dormido kicker rock
The two vertical rocks rise 500 ft above the ocean and form a small channel that is navigable by small boats, whilst the cliffs are home to many boobies, frigates and tropic birds. Under the water, the channel with a sandy/ rocky bottom is one of the best places in Galápagos to spot the elusive Galápagos sharks. Yep, yep, we did see sharks here! A little bit frightening but I survived it! It was definetely special to see a 2m long shark passing at 5 meters in front of me…
shark-kicker-rock
Spotted eagle rays, green sea turtles and white tip reef sharks also like to glide against the current through the channel, as well as a large variety of colourful reef fish. It was all an awesome sight to see. This trip was definetely worth its $70, as it included also a nice lunch on board after the 2 snorkel stops.
Islas de Galapagos Manglecito beach
Last but not least, we stopped by Manglecito Beach. After a wet landing we visited the mangrove area and spend some time enjoying the beach. We saw some sea iguanas and got bitten by horseflies, so kind of a nice experience, let’s say. I mainly enjoyed walking near the sea, enjoying the nature to the fullest.
Islas de Galapagos Manglecito San Cristobal Playa
After that, it was time to head back to the port of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, where we started the tour. On our way back I talked to the naturalist guide and the boat men and I for the first time I felt like a real tourism professional, making connections and talking about the tourism industry as if I was part of it for years already. I felt appreciated, not only by my ‘colleagues’ but also by my group members.
We ended the day eating dinner in the Hacienda, discovering we were amazingly sunburned. ALL OF US. And it lasted for about a week, no matter how much aftersun and aloe vera extract gel I have put on it. After a good shower and dressing up, we left for party in town again. After all it was Saturday night and my last party opportunity in the Galapagos with my group. We did some drinking games near the peer, went to a hippie bar and 2 clubs (La Isla & Neptunus). After all that partying, we headed back to the farm exhausted.
Sunday we slept long, took a shower and prepared ourselves for another tour. I had rented a pick-up truck with private driver for a day to take the group to some visitor’s site on the island, so that they could explore some more areas. Unfortunately, we couldn’t complete our program the way we planned it, due to rainy weather. We ended up visiting La Galapaguera, which is a breeding center for giant tortoises of the Galapagos Islands.
galapaguera san cristobal
After lunch in a local town, we went to Laguna El Junco, located about 700m above sea level. It is one of the few permanent freshwater bodies in Galapagos. There was not a lot to see there as it was very misty, but at least the group was able to visit this place.
el junco laguna
Laguna El Junco – or how it looks like with better weather conditions
It was a nice way to end my last day on the island of San Cristobal with my Leapers (volunteers). I was completely ready to travel further on my own for some days to the other islands, including Santa Cruz and Isabela. I will write another blog post about that experience, as the volunteering part was completelly different from my further ‘discovery’ of the Galapagos archipelago. And of course, because this blog post is going to become too long other wise.
Islas de Galapagos Hacienda Tranquila the leap
Sweet memories from Hacienda Tranquila
Thanks for reading! Thanks for following me!
Greetings from the Galapagos chick 😉

Confessions of a Jungle Girl

Two weeks can change a lot in a humans life. I travelled with my group to the Comuna of Bua in the Tsachila area near Santo Domingo de los Tsachilas, spent a free weekend with them in Atacames, discovered that I can actually survive two weeks without Facebook, Gmail, Instagram and Google and that life in the jungle is the greatest: living together with indigenous, washing not only yourself but also your clothes in the river, sleeping under a mosquito net in a wooden cabin, eating rice ricerice and more rices (and bananas) and I became a happier, more relaxed person. All of this thanks to the nature which brought me litteraly more DOWN TO EARTH. Hereby I would like to share with you a summary and my diary during this wonderful jungle experience.

Thursday 3 April 2014

After picking up both LEAP groups at the airport, having orientations, check-ins, passport registrations, Spanish tests, a welcome dinner and so on, I was burned out. Never have I ever felt so stressed and nervous, unprepared and responsible in my life… But the good thing was that I had hardly time to think and realize that we were about to leave for a two week adventure in the middle of the jungle.

Fortunately, because if I would have had more time to prepare and think, I realize know that I would only get more nervous about that! And from the first day I could notice that I had a great team, 7 boys and 4 girls, and me… the leader! Break a leg…

Friday 4 April 2014

After a first breakfast we were about to start the first day of work (volunteering) in the Comuna de Búa. As a group leader I had to coordinate and especially translate a lot of things. We digged into the ground, made mountains of sand and carried all of that sand in bags to the nursery nearby. It was a really heavy job because of various reasons: climate (humid, hot, sunny) and work load (nobody was used to this type of work).

Tsachila (The Leap) 021

Tsachila (The Leap) 040

Fortunately in the afternoon we had free time to play some football with the local people of Santo Domingo, and enjoy the river. Yes yes, I say ENJOY because surprise, surprise… I love the river. I can tell you, after a day of sweating like a pig this is the most refreshing thing you can ever wish for!

My first impressions after this day: HUNGRY! I have to get used to having less food, around 11AM I get a small headache due to a very low sugar level. There are huge spiders in the river on the raft, watching how we wash ourselves,the group atmosphere is really awesome: they are independent, work hard, don’t complain and always enjoy their selves with playing games and stuff. Love it!

Saturday 5 April 2014

Lucky as we were, it was already weekend and that means NO WORK for two days. It was a perfect timing as that first day of worked asked for some recuperation. Instead of work, Alfonso (leader of the community about who I blogged about earlier), took us on a hiking tour through the reserve and botanical garden. Again I had to translate all his explanations, which is not only quite hard to do because the vocabulary is quite specific and I have difficulties remembering more than 10 sentences to translate in one time.

Tsachila (The Leap) 090

After the tour, we had a cacao workshop. We would be able to make chocolate in a few days.

Tsachila (The Leap) 098

I went with 5 of my group members to the nearby city of Santo Domingo. To get there, we had to take a bus for an hour, because we were living in a very remote cultural center. The main goal of the trip was eating sugar, buying more things containing sugar (cookies, sodas, chewing gum, …), visiting the local pharmacies (as some of us already had some ‘difficulties’) and buying a birthday cake for one of the group members which birthday was next day. Unfortunately, this trip was not so relaxing as planned to be as the city is really unsafe and you constantly have to take care about each other and your belongings. So when we got back to our jungle home, we were exhausted and cooled off in the river.

I also decorated my room, which obviously just means unpacking my bag and hanging stuff up to dry (humidity…). While I wrote my diary, I noticed that the days passed by so quickly and I reflected a little bit. I noticed that every day I woke up so peacefully and that I appreciate this place and the nature a lot more than I expected. I  also felt way more relaxed then the first days when the group arrived. Moreover, I had the feeling quite fast that this place would probably be the most special of all three volunteer projects. But never say never, it  can get better!

Tsachila (The Leap) 074

More impressions after this day: humid and hot climate, everywhere along the road banana trees, terrible traffic in Santo Domingo, crazy and dangerous city where you never should go if you don’t need to, the smell of burned wood, the everlasting sounds of insects in the forest, falling asleep with watching fireflies above your mosquito net, the smell of sunscreen and DEET on your skin, the continuous sweating, … It reminds me somehow of my trip in Central America and I realize this is the life I love!

Sunday 6 April 2014

Waking up in the rain is something else. You feel like you can’t go outside, but on the other hand… You are outside. And you notice that when your bed is wet due the a leak in the roof. There are only two options: remove your bed or remove your body to another side of the bed. And after that, waiting until it stops raining to cover the open gap in the roof with another leaf that you take from a tree. Life is simple!

Tsachila (The Leap) 190

When it stopped raining, Don Alfonso took us out for a walk to Umpechico, the nearest by civilization. It was not impressive and the shops were not worthy to call shops, the houses were not worthy to call houses and so on. You know what I mean, or maybe you don’t. Because honestly, you have to see it before you can believe it. And then when you did that, you say: ‘Okay. Ecuador is a third world country. Still a lot of improvement to be made.’ For lots of my group members, I could notice not only the disappointment of not encountering the places they wished to find, but also the culture shock. They wanted to return fast as they felt unsafe.

In the afternoon we celebrated the birthday of one of our group members. We had bought a cake in Santo Domingo and invited the Tsáchilas (simply called Chillas by the English volunteers) to join the party. We made popcorn, played games and had fun. I feel really blessed having such a positive group!

Tsachila (The Leap) 070

We finally got to know Alfonso’s wife and other community members, and even the puppy dogs came to join the celebrations.

Tsachila (The Leap) 154

Here you can see the jungle party crew in front of our “house”:

Tsachila (The Leap) 155

In the evening I felt really tired. I noticed that going to bed around 10PM and waking up at 6AM is giving me a minimum of sleep. I don’t know why the jungle makes me so exhausted, but it is probably also because I am constantly coordinating all the activities and schedules, organizing and planning with Alfonso and translating is probably the hardest part of work, as the communication between my group and the locals is very poor due to this language barrier. I even did a small nap in the hammock in the afternoon, which is heavenly!

I noticed that I didn’t miss anything yet of the civilized world, except from my ‘drugs’: sugar, boyfriend and cigarettes. Luckily, that last one I bought in advance so don’t really need to miss it. And I already realize that once back out of the jungle, I will have to adapt to the normal world again… Not sure if I like that idea…

Monday 7 April 2014

Now that the weekend was over, it was time to get back to work. It started to be a daily routine to wake my Leapers up at 07.15, have breakfast at 07.30, point the ‘cleaning team’ of the day at 07.45 and start working at 08.00 AM. As Don Alfonso was not available, the organisation went a little bit bad. Eventually, we started working around 9AM and today we filled up bags with the sand we carried on Friday. A local group of volunteers from Santo Domingo joined us and we managed to fill 7500 bags, which we lined up in rows of 5 bags according to size and height. In this bags will be planted seeds of trees and after 3 months they would be ready to be planted in the forest. This is what we call REFORESTATION! Quite a relaxing job to do today, and plenty of time to chat with the group and the locals during work.

Tsachila (The Leap) 201 Tsachila (The Leap) 399

After work, Alfonso passed by with some Papaya. I asked him about a natural cure for constipation as some group members, including myself have had problems going to the toilet (called “the loo” by the English). And I don’t know if it was superstition or not, but an hour after I managed to do “it”! This practical problem is quite crazy, as most of the groups have the opposite problem in the jungle…

Impressions of the day: I feel finally relaxed enough to focus on reading a roman in the hammock, slowly got frustrated by the fact that clothes and towels never ever dry here because of the humidity, jump under my mosquito net very fast every night to avoid any more insect bites, hate to go to the toilet after dark because of frogs, snakes, spiders and insects near the road to it, got frustrated because DEET and other repellents don’t seem to work at all and got bitten anyway, washed my clothes in the river today and woke up at night due to raindrops falling on my face… Another leak in the roof! Bats and insects don’t seem to understand that my cabaña is not their house and so I decided to compromise and just share it with them and the cockroaches, the fact that I see my textile stuff getting molded, my supply of cookies and chocolate that gets less and a sudden lightning storm and thunder that wakes me up in the middle of the night… A lot of things are frustrating, but I can only accept it, live with it, take a deep breath and go on, and I feel so much more quite when I do that. PEACE.

Tsachila (The Leap) 122

Tuesday 8 April 2014

At six I woke up from the pouring rain. I guess this is what they call “showers” in English. It would have been the perfect time to take a shower outside, but instead, I turned around in bed and slept some more. As it was raining so much, we could not go to work. It is very demotivating and frustrating. So after breakfast, we just waited until it stopped raining. In the meantime, I talked with Alfonso and out of nowhere I came up with a self-made quote: “En la selva la naturalezaes el jefe del trabajo.” (In the forest nature is the boss of work.)

At 9AM it finally was over, but as it was late we couldn’t do what we had planned to do for today. We supposed to go to another community to construct a “casa tipica cultural” (typical cultural house), but that plan was definitely cancelled now. Again we had to go to the nursery and fill some bags with sand. It was quite boring after two days… At 11AM everybody got very hungry, and we ate banana. Did I tell you that Ecuador has more than 5 types of bananas?!! Maduro, Banano, Verde, Platano, … And they make all different kinds of things with them.

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As one of my group members had some emergency situation, I left quickly to the city of Santo Domingo with him. I was quite happy to get out of the jungle, not because I didn’t like the place but because I could go to the bakery to eat something sweet and ‘normal’. I ordered a cheese sandwich, which I didn’t manage to finish, no matter how hungry I was. I guess your stomach gets smaller when you eat less all the times. And oh yeah, the reason why I longed for that cheese sandwich is: we don’t have a fridge in the community so that means we don’t have fresh products like milk, cheese, yoghurt, meat, … Also, a bakery is unlikely to be nearby so we hardly eat bread there.

Before it got dark, we returned to our jungle home in Búa, where it was raining again. But because we were so sweaty, we went to the river anyway. You get wet anyway so what does it matter! We ate some more banana for dinner and Alfonso visited us to repair the beds and leaks in the roof. As always, the group members enjoyed their selves in the evening playing games, listening some music and so on.

Wednesday 9 April 2014

I woke up again around 5AM because of the rain. But luckily it stopped raining by the time I had to wake up the group. We had an awesome breakfast as they finally bought more tea and yes, we had some bread! Around 8 o’clock we started to work. This time, Alfonso decided that we could make a cultural house for our own community so we didn’t have to worry about the cancelation of the other project. Well, here in the jungle time is a concept that hardly exists. Everything changes from hour to hour and from day to day. You have to be open minded, flexible and accept that. It is the only way to survive.

And as we could only start the next day with our new project, today we would clean the road from the community to the public road. It wasn’t really a nice job, but clearing the leafs we saw a lot of insects and spiders. That made it a little bit more adventurous. As my group was not really motivated to do this job, I decided to work a little bit harder to give the right example. And as always, they did what they had to do, didn’t complain too much and finish the task of the day well. I was satisfied but tired!

By lunch time, I had blisters on my hands from cleaning the road so I was happy that we didn’t have to work again in the afternoon. Instead, Alfonso demonstrated the coloring of his hair with the typical plant called ACHIOTE.

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After that, it was time for a siesta in the hammock. I love it! The worst part is getting out, you never want to leave that place once you get in… While I was chilling, I was smiling to myself. My mother should see me here, how her daughter that never ever before touched something in the garden because she was more an urban chick now slightly turned into a real Tarzan&Jane personage with green fingers, like she had never done anything else before in her life… But it is the perfect proof that it is never too late to change as a human being!

In the mean time I’ve got quite attached to my rain boots. My socks smell like a death mouse, but it didn’t matter. One day more of work, and then we had a free weekend which we would be spending on the beach. And oh, what was I happy to have some pasta (and for god sake, not RICE) as dinner. Like a culinary orgasm…

Thursday 10 April 2014

After breakfast we had a reunion with Alfonso. Yesterday in the afternoon we had made a design for some new volunteer cabins in Búa, as the current ones are obviously getting older. At 8AM we had a meeting with the Tsachilas, which I had to lead. I guess I did it quite well, involving as much people as I could, translating from English to Spanish and from Spanish to English. Alfonso was very happy with our suggestions and designs.

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At 9AM we left walking to Umpechico, the nearby village, to hike into a forest where we would be cutting huge leafs with machetes for the construction of our typical house. It was a very hard task to do, as we had to go deep in the jungle, deal with lots of insect bites and snakes hanging around. It was also very very humid and hot so we were quite exhausted by the time we could return for lunch. Luckily, a pick-up truck (camioneta) took us back, so we didn’t have to make the hour long walk again to Bua.

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Straight after lunch we had to get back to work and clean the area where we would construct the house. We cutted trees to make space, we cleared the leafs hanging around away and sorted the branches and trunks. I can tell you, I was exhausted after that and I am eating so much cookies whenever I can!

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In the night, I woke up having a nightmare that I lost the group near the beach and I had my first night trip to the eco-toilet, which included an encounter with several frogs, spiders and other ugly insects. I can tell you, going to the toilet at night is the last thing you want at night, as you have to get out of your mosquito net, take your torch light, make sure your road is cleared from animals, survive a road in the jungle towards the toilet, do some stairs in the dark and go all the way back to your wooden cabin, jumping quickly back under your mosquito net, hoping no insect had entered. A whole adventure for a simple pee! But what needs to happen, needs to happen…

Oh yeah, and we have some small ducks in the community since a few days now. Unfortunately, two of them died but one of them seems to survive well. I called it PatitoLuís (little duck Louis) and took him for the first time to the river to learn it how to swim. He loved it, the cuttie! The girls of the kitched joined me also to the river today and they took me for a ride on the raft. We smiled a lot but didn’t really talk a lot as they are very shy, but I can see that I feel good back to basics and I noticed that these girls don’t need much to live here happily.

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I thought about Tuesday, when I entered my Facebook account in the internet café and suddenly saw a mirror of my life and my friend’s lives. It was a shocking experience as it all seems so far away and different from this reality I am in now. It is like I am not the same person here, and I started to wonder if the life back there is the life I really want. Deep inside it felt like I entered a new road in life, and something in me was scared that my old life would not fit in anymore. I am following my heart and my dreams, and living outside makes you think about the outside world at home, which is something completely different. Here nobody cares about your looks or your status… I felt like the river I was in, I’ve landed in a stream of life and I’m floating in the right direction. But there are still 9 weeks left before I return to Belgium, so time enough to worry about my comeback…

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Friday 11 April 2014

Time for the weekend to begin! At 8.30AM we took a pick-up truck to Santo Domingo, which I arranged for my group. There I assisted them to buy bus tickets for the bus to Atacames, which is a vibrant beach town in the north of Ecuador in the province of Esmeraldas. And yes, that’s a dangerous party place…

Around noon we arrived there and checked in into the hotel, which I also reserved for the group. It was really even more hot here in the coastline, and I had no hot water or air-conditioning in the room. But I did have a shower, and oh god, that did so good after this long time in the jungle river…

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In the afternoon, after having lunch with the group, I went to an internet café to write my weekly reports for school, Yanapuma and The Leap, and to talk to my boyfriend, friends and family at home. At night it was time for a first night out with my group members, and like always we had a lot of fun. Going out in Atacames was a very nice but different experience as the bars are lined out next to each other on the beach and all playing reggeaton music as loud as they can. Late at night I went to sleep. Satisfied!

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Saturday 12 April 2014

Quite early in the morning I woke up from the noises around my room. Atacames is definitely not the place where you should go for a good sleep! I had a nice breakfast near the hotel and chilled a little bit around. In the afternoon I went for some fresh seafood lunch with some of the group members and I had the chance to try the famous CAMARONES ENCOCADOS. It’s a local dish of the region. Delicious!

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In the evening we all went for a pizza on the beach strip and after that we went to party again. It was a lovely time there and although the group members ask me for help, translations and other things a lot of the time, I must say I am enjoying every minute of this experience and I feel so blessed being part of this!

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I feel super even though I am quite exhausted already. I just try to go to bed on time and get enough hours of sleep  every day. So dear mother, don’t worry. I’m fine! 😉 I do miss my boyfriend a lot, but I also realize that in life you can’t have it all. As I always say to my friends: CHOOSING IS LOOSING. And I have chosen for this adventure/internship in Ecuador, and so far I got a lot of things in return for that.

Sunday 13 April 2014

The weekend in Atacames finished Sunday morning as we took the bus back to Santo Domingo. After 4 hours on the bus we arrived, had our last nice lunch in a local restaurant and then headed back with the pick-up truck to our jungle home community of Bua. Once arrived there, I realized the last 3 days were here and I am going to miss it a lot as I feel already home here…

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I was happy to be back in my quite wooden cabin, as last night had been a rough night on the beach. I had some piña colada, which had some ice cubes inside, and gave me the “D” (diarrhea). Also, there had been a fight in the club we were and some of the group members were quite drunk. But fortunately, we had danced good, partied hard, enjoyed the food and the music, and nobody got robbed or sick. I just hoped my “D” got over quickly, because going to an eco-toilet like this is not fun!

That Sunday night, you can imagine I went to bed early as I was tired from the whole weekend trip.

Monday 14 April 2014

Yesterday evening I went to bed early, hoping to enjoy some private time under my mosquito net, enjoying reading a book. That wasn’t so nice and private as hoped… While reading I saw something coming closer and closer coming out of my pillow. When I turned, I saw it was a small snake/worm from about 25cm. I jumped out of the bed, catched the animal and threw it in the first plant I saw, I was shaking. Oh my god, in my bed!!

I didn’t read one page further or another giant insect entered my room. I could hear it flying in as if it were a helicopter, that big! It settled itself cosy on the ceiling, so there was no way catching it. So, as I was done with reading now, I decided to put the light out and go to sleep. But when I wanted to close my curtain, I was so surprised. My little gecko pet was hanging in the curtain and we both were shocked. The little poor animal looked like it could jump on top of me and so I didn’t know how to turn of the lights like this. I was done, enough jungle!!! I broke… I had enough of this jungle sh*t.

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Finally I went to bed later then planned, frustrated and sad. I had to take peace all the time with the fact that all this animals entered the room without my permission and that sucked. But yeah, nothing else to do about it. Just sleep.

In the morning all animals were gone, and I enjoyed the sounds of the jungle as I woke up. When I went to the toilet, I had another “tropical surprise”. The ‘D’ had not disappeared but continued for about 3 times in the same morning. I decided to wait until noon to see if it got better. It didn’t got a lot better, but it also didn’t got worse…

And at 8AM it was time to work and construct the house. I don’t know what it was, but maybe I was weaker after the weekend and this toilet problem, but I couldn’t seem to motivate myself to work good today. Just as I thought the days were almost over and nothing could go wrong, I felt down… I had to take a lot of breaks, ask fruits to eat more in the kitchen and take enough rest. But I also had to coordinate the work of my group, so I didn’t really have time to take a day off…

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Luckily, the group worked good and hard and they seemed happy finally being able to construct a little house. In the evening, they even helped to cook some dinner in the kitchen, and I am very happy that they take some initiatives. They are lovely!

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Tuesday 15 April 2014

The penultimate day of work in the jungle! And you should think that this last days go easy and pass by, but no no, the last days were a hell for me. I didn’t have energy and had difficulties with work. But I fought with myself and continued, knowing it was the last day of work for me.

As I felt weaker, I suddenly felt a little bit down too. I had the need to talk with somebody about how I feel, because it is always me who is asking my group how they feel. And as a group leader, nobody ever asks you how you are really doing. Well yeah, they do but it is never a ‘deep’ conversation…

I just tried to keep everybody busy with work and didn’t work so hard myself, to be honest. But I kept coordinating and don’t think the group was bothered by that. When it was finally noon, I fell asleep fast in the hammock and I woke up an hour later to get back to work again. After work, we were all tired and relaxed and cooled off in the river… What a day!

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In the evening Alsonso talked to me, because he could see I was tired. He told me that I was a fantastic group leader and that he admires my enthousiasm. I really appreciated that, as it was exactly the compliment I needed to feel a bit better.

Wednesday 16 April 2014

The last full day with the Tsachilas! I had to go early in the morning at 7AM with two group members to the hospital to assist them with some medical consults. I also bought bus tickets for our return to Quito, and by noon we were back in the community.

In the afternoon we visited a local farm where the Tsachilas harvest fruits and vegetables such as yucca and maracuya.

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After getting back and going for a last time to the river, we had a goodbye celebration “la despedida” with all the community members. We evaluated our work, I translated as always what Alfonso said, coloured the hair of our boys with Achiote, bought souvenirs on the local market, made our own chocolate and had dinner all together. It was the perfect occasion to thank everybody for this wonderful experience and enjoy a last evening together.

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Thursday 17 April 2014

At 8AM we left the Tsachila, heading back to Quito. The jungle adventure is over. It was a long blog story, for which I apologize. But I hope you can see that it was an incredible and unique experience living and volunteering there for 2 weeks. I am grateful for each and every moment I shared and each and every person that was part of it. I think 2 weeks are not enough to change as a person, but at least some twinkle in my eye changed, is more relaxed and peaceful. I will never ever forget this in my life. And even though a return visit is unlikely, in my mind I will travel back often. I promise. Love you all, Tsachilas!

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From Julie with Love

Volunteering in Quito – Spread the Wor(L)d !

The second week of my internship in Ecuador flew by. Before I knew it, it was Friday evening (while I’m writing this). I feel already ‘home’ at the Yanapuma office and more work and responsibilities are coming my way as the days pass by… But I wouldn’t like to talk about what I did at work, I would like to talk about what I experienced as a human being… Because I was sent to visit some of the volunteer projects of Yanapuma near Quito. And doing this, did make quite a movement in my heart and mind. So while reading this… Please consider volunteering at least one time in your life. Spread the word through the world, because your help is more than welcome!

The experience of volunteering is often one of the highlights of any traveler’s journey, and Ecuador offers some great opportunities for connecting with communities and worthwhile projects. And even though I didn’t come to volunteer myself, I got the chance to taste from this wonderful world of CARING and GIVING. And I start to understand it…

“Volunteers are not paid – not because they are worthless, but because they are priceless.”

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Or as Martin Luther King Jr once said:

“Everybody can be great because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.”

And so I started my journey to one of the first projects: CAMP HOPE, or in Spanish: Fundación Esperanza, a day-school for disabled and underprivileged children in the northern area of Carcelen in Quito. Every day the local staff and volunteers take care of medical attention, rehabilitation, vocational training and recreational activities for these kids.

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For me it was an eye-opening experience, as I felt so warmly welcomed by the local director. I still try to understand how these people keep smiling no matter how poor their life conditions are. Everybody, no matter in what circumstance they were living, was smiling. And the children loved to touch and hold me. I could feel they had so much love to give, and even though I felt uncomfortable being so much more ‘normal’ then them – almost feeling guilty for it – I smiled every second of the time I spend there.

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It just demands so much courage and emotional stability to be working and / or living in Camp Hope. And so I figured out where they got the name from… On the website of the project (http://www.camphopeecuador.org/ ) I encountered a video which is definitely worth to take a look at:

After the story, you get some information about the project itself…

Unfortunately I was not allowed to take close up pictures, and the pictures I did take were only allowed for promoting volunteers to come and help them out. So I would like to announce via this blog also to collaborate and volunteer. For more information:  http://www.yanapuma.org/en/volunteer-CampHope.php

And what we can all learn from this is maybe that the only disability in life is a bad attitude, or like Fundación Esperanza says: “prohibido decir no puedo” (forbidden to say I can’t…)

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The long hour traveling on the bus was definitely worth the ride, and I had some time to meditate about it on my way back. And God, if feels so good doing something that does make a difference!

The next day it was time to go to Conocoto Public School (“Escuela Fiscal Amable Arauz” in Spanish), also located about an hour away by bus from Quito center. In this project volunteers can teach (English) in the busy primary and elementary school.

There are more than 1400 children, as I was informed and most of them come from the nearby neighborhoods in Quito. As it is a public school, parents don’t have to pay BUT it also means that there is not so much budget and the classes are too full (I counted an average of 40 students in one class room).

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Although the project is a little bit far from Quito, it is worth the travelling. During the bus trip I had some amazing views over a valley in the Andes! (Why didn’t I make pictures of that?) And the town of Conocoto is also really nice: there is a small ‘plaza’ park with a beautiful little church. Right next to it is the school.

Inside the school you also have beautiful views over the surrounding mountains, but what was definitely the most impressive is the people themselves here. I met a wonderful English teacher, Lorena, who loved to talk with me about the school.

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Then I got the chance to enter some of the class rooms and the children were amazingly excited to see “LA GRINGAAAA” with a camera. (My job was to make pictures of the projects for the website, and to discuss information about the project with the director).

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All the teachers were also very friendly and warmly welcomed me to enter and interrupt their classes. I felt like some of them had never seen a camera before and tried to take as many pictures as I could of the children, and showed them afterwards to them.

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The happiness and purity in the faces of these young human beings, which is so far away from western lifestyle, is very confronting. Even though these people have so much less than we do in Europe, in my opinion they had so much more to give. And that’s what it was all about for me. Trying to give things which are not evident for me, not to have… but to be.

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I realized that as most of these children will never get the opportunity to continue higher studies or will never manage to speak good English, it is important as a further developed human being to try to help out the weaker amongst us. And we should realize that no act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted. See it like this:

“Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.” – Muhammad Ali

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“When we seek to discover the best in others, we somehow bring out the best in ourselves.”

If you would like to volunteer in the Conocoto Public School of Quito, please surf to: http://www.yanapuma.org/en/volunteer-conocoto.php for more details.

And… SPREAD THE WOR(L)D ! 😉