|Despite good intentions, my plans for volunteering in four different communities went somewhat awry along the way.
I started out in "La Chimba", a small remote Andean community about 3 hours north of Quito. Years ago, each family in La Chimba used to own a fair chunk of land, but tradition dictates that when the father dies the land is divided amongst all children. Given the over-abundance of children in most families, it didn't taken long for the typical family plot to significantly dwindle in size. As a result, the youth of today have no hope for making a living off the land, and the leaders of the community are trying to develop an eco-tourism program that will create jobs for their youth and generate income for their community.
I have to admit that my first volunteering experience wasn't exactly what I had expected. I had, after all, expected to, well, WORK - isn't that what volunteers do? - but this community is basically ready to roll-out their eco-tourism program, so any new volunteers who visit are treated like "test tourists", ie. shown all the sights and taken on tours, and in return we simply provide feedback and advice ... something of value to the community as they've had little experience with tourists in the past, but not exactly the hardcore work stuff I'd expected.
Even though I was more tourist than volunteer, I very much enjoyed the experience of living in a remote community amongst friendly people and splendid Andean scenery.
At present La Chimba's only income is from milk. Twice a day locals walk out to pastures to milk their cows (something that I learned is harder than it looks!), sometimes walking for hours each way to reach remote pastures. All day long you'd see people making trips to and from the central collection tank carrying heavy containers of milk on bicycles, horseback, motorcycles, cars/trucks/tractors of various type and vintage, but more often simply in typical Andean fashion - wrapped in a piece of cloth and carried on their back, walking almost doubled over to balance the weight.
I said goodbye to my new friends in La Chimba after 4 days with promises to help them write a bilingual tourist brochure, in the end feeling like I was able to offer some assistance after all.
Nothing like a few days in the country to make a person really appreciate the luxuries of a hot shower, warm comfortable bed, and varied food options. My place of recuperation was Ibarra, a small town and the nearest point of civilization north of La Chimba.
From there I traveled to San Lorenzo, a town along the Pacific coast in the far northwest corner of Ecuador. The landscape changed as I left the Andean Highlands behind; vegetation became thick and lush, roads muddy and rutted from continual rainfall, and poor clapboard houses raised up on thin wooden stilts. Long sharp machetes were carried by everyone, around town, in restaurants, on the buses ... something that made me feel a little nervous at first, but at least they stored the chain saws and REALLY long sharp tools in the underneath storage! The appearance of the people changed also; this area of Ecuador has a very high Afro-Ecuadorian population and I often felt more like I was on an island in the Caribbean than in Ecuador.
I planned on catching a few boat connections from San Lorenzo to my next volunteer community of "La Tolita". The volunteer coordinator only lives in La Tolita on the weekend, so I needed to plan my arrival for that time. But a combination of bus problems (causing delays into San Lorenzo and missed boat connections) and stomach problems (thankfully short-lived) meant that I missed my weekend timing in La Tolita.
I spent a few days in San Lorenzo, which in all honesty is a fairly ugly little town. It wasn't the kind of place I wanted to hang around for a week while waiting for the upcoming weekend, so I decided to cut my losses and head further south along the coast to the next community.
That's when I met some friendly Ecuadorians on the bus and got talked into continuing with them to Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest city and about 8 hours south of where I had planned on going, for a whirlwind one-day visit. One day and another 8 hours on the bus later I was back up north at my original destination, with one lovely Ecuadoriano travel partner. At this point I pretty much gave up on volunteering and just enjoyed traveling south along the coast, stopping briefly at popular vacation destinations like Atacames, Bahia de Caraquez, San Vincente, Canoa, Montecristi and Manta. Many places had nice beaches, cute beachfront tourist shops and restaurants, but I also felt, metaphorically speaking, like I had to kiss a lot of toads to see the real princes of places as I traveled south down the coast.
I spent many long hours on many rundown buses. The scenery that passed before my eyes between main destinations varied little. There were areas where we drove for endless miles past banana plantations and rice fields. Roads, even the main ones, were rough and winding. Towns and villages were very poor, houses always raised on stilts with walls either constructed of cinderblock, wooden planks, bamboo sticks or woven mats. Men and women worked in fields. Skinny animals roamed the land rummaging for food. I took very few photos; it seemed a terrible imposition to take images of these poor people trying to make a living in these basic living conditions.
Somewhere along the way I had received an email from my girlfriend Tracy from USA (we met in Bolivia last year). She told me she was visiting Peru in November, and eventually we made plans to meet in Lima and travel together for a while. That meant it was time to set a new course heading south.
But first I had to return to Quito to collect the rest of my gear and to sneak in a quick visit to "La Mitad del Mundo", a monument at the exact location where the imaginary line of the equator passes through Ecuador. There's also an interesting museum that conducts some interesting experiments between the different hemispheres. I even received a certificate that says I balanced a raw egg on a nailhead over the Equator!
I picked up another travel mate on my southbound journey. Rachel (from the UK), another volunteer who I met in Quito, wanted to visit a community in southern Ecuador but she hadn't traveled much in the past, didn't want to travel solo, and when she heard I was heading in the direction she wanted to go, she asked if she could tag along. Fine by me, off we went.
Our first destination was Baños, a lovely touristy town surrounded by lush green hills, beautiful waterfalls, natural hot springs ... and coffee shops serving the "real thing" (yes, I'm back in the land of the dreaded Nescafe!). We decided to sign up for a 1/2-day tour to see some nearby waterfalls and somehow ended up on a private tour with 20 nice young men from Guayaquil who were on some kind of management retreat. They all worked for Dole (the fruit export company) and it was hard not to laugh when asking whether they worked in the pineapple or banana department! We never did figure out why we were booked in with their private tour, but they were very friendly, we had lots of fun, and everywhere we went in Baños we kept running into our 20 new friends! Some other volunteers from Quito joined us in Baños for the weekend and we also went on a couple of nice hikes to other waterfalls with them.
From Baños, we traveled in a circular southbound loop around Volcano Chimborazo, Ecuador's highest peak (6310 meters), to reach Riobamba. From there we took the famous trainride called "the Nariz del Diablo" (Devil's Nose) that trudges slowly through beautiful countryside with spectacular views of Chimborazo before it's final switchback finale down into the Devil's Nose. For some reason all tourists (including us) sit on the roof of the train where the views are better; the more sensible locals sit in the comfortable seats below. Unfortunately, for some unexplained reason, our train sat in the bottom of Devil's Nose for a few hours, so our 5-hour train trip took around 8 hours! And from the end of the train line we traveled another 4.5 hours by bus to reach the beautiful colonial city of Cuenca. Both my back and bum were completely numb by the end of that day!
Cuenca truly is lovely, with an abundance of beautiful churches, plazas and wonderfully maintained colonial buildings. It reminded me of Cusco or Arequipa, cities I had previously visited in Peru. It was a real pleasure to explore the city for a few days, and we regretted that there were many communities and parks nearby that we just didn't have time to investigate.
The next day Rachel and I said our farewells. She left to visit her community. I lingered in Cuenca for one more day, then continued southward to Loja, positioning myself to cross the border into Peru the following day.
I'm not finished with Ecuador yet; there's still so much that I want to see and do and other volunteer communities I want to visit ... but for now I'm on my way to rediscover Peru.