Ecuador, its warm people and its mountain scenery had left me with fond memories ever since a South American backpacking trip in 1972. That trip, right after engineering school in France, developed my skills and love for the Spanish language, and left me with the desire to someday come back.
A few months ago, now living in the US, half-retired and at the end of a temporary work contract, I was looking for a way to finally return to South America in a more constructive way than a regular tourist.
Several internet searches in English and Spanish for volunteer opportunities left me very frustrated: large US or European-based charitable organizations were offering ways to contribute my labor time in various projects, but were always demanding outrageous amounts of money, from $2000 to $4000. Even without questioning their use of such sums, I got the conviction that this money would never contribute to the local economies - only my labor would. I shared my frustration about this with various people, until I met David, at an Engineers Without Borders meeting in Portland, Oregon. He was just back from several weeks in Quito and had met a former VDO volunteer, so he gave me the URL.
From a personal point of view, what I was looking for was:
- An opportunity to be immersed in a Spanish-speaking environment, to refresh my skills and give me a vacation from my US English speaking environment;
- A local organization, so that my financial contribution would entirely stay in the country;
- An occupation in which I could use some of my skills and life experience, and also feel I was really helping local people, even though I could only leave home for a month.
- Living conditions which would be as close as possible to those of the local people I would work with;
- Some free time to be able to explore a bit the country;
- Reasonable and understandable costs.
The 4 weeks I just spent in El Porvenir de Mocha (south of Ambato) thanks to Voluntarios de Occidente (VDO), were wonderful and exceeded my expectations in many ways.
I really felt welcome and integrated in my host family, and the lively conversation around the three daily meals allowed me to learn much more about their lives, their hopes, their challenges and histories, their society and country, than I could have ever observed through 6 months as a backpacking visitor. When they invited me to join in a local fiesta nearby, it was a lot of fun to watch the parade and folkloric dances, play ‘futbolin’ with the boys Jorge & Deo, dance with the mother Regina and her friends, and chat & drink with the father Luis and his work colleagues.
In addition, my hosts’ knowledge of medicinal herbs and teas of all kinds saved me from using any of the medicines I had brought with me. The combination of the altitude, the climate, the diet, and the adrenaline also seemed physically rejuvenating, as I ended up shedding a few extra kilos and proudly hiking up and down various mountain sites faster than some of the twenty-something’s I encountered on the trails.
For the living conditions, and contrarily to many of the surrounding families, I was very glad to enjoy a bathroom that was under the same roof as my bedroom, so that I didn’t need to walk outside for my night time visits…
Regarding the feeling of contribution, teaching for only 3 weeks left me regretting that I couldn’t stay longer, and I also wished I had more experience in ESL methods (Teaching English as a Second Language). However, the daily exuberant greetings and hugs from the kids in the primary school were very rewarding and heart-warming. I was able to add to the attractiveness of the ‘computing classes’ by downloading my digital photos of the school students and activities to the best PC - kids loved to watch photos and clips of themselves on the screen, and to include some of them in their PowerPoint assignments. And on my final days at school, the flowers and various notes I received on the theme “we love you, please come back” brought tears to my eyes.
The assistance and support I received from VDO’s Maria Teresa and Gonzalo were very helpful and right on target, both for the teaching part and for the tourism part. The teaching guides, along with the observation of other volunteers in my first few days, alleviated the guess work and anxiety of my teaching. And Maria Teresa’s detailed pointers for the week ends allowed me to enjoy the Chimborazo refuge at 5000m, the Laguna Quilotoa, Latacunga, Baños, various markets, and to close my stay with a quick stint in the hot and humid fringes of the Amazon forest around Misahualli.
At the Quilotoa hostal, I met many volunteers from all over Europe, and we compared our experiences in details. All of them were in Quito and they had many diverse types of jobs, all seemingly worthwhile. However, every single one of them stated that they wished they had found a local organization and not paid the thousands of $$ they did for the experience. It reinforced my feeling that I was extremely lucky to have found VDO.
The only word of warning I feel compelled to provide is this. When Gonzalo says: “it is colder in Mocha than Ambato or Riobamba, bring warm clothes”, he is not kidding! And since houses and schools are not heated, you do need warm clothes, especially for the night if you come when it’s not ‘rainy season’ (which is much less rainy than Oregon or Bordeaux)
I will be glad to provide additional details or insight to any potential volunteer: