Exploring Ecuador and Preparing to Volunteer
Pola Henderson is our Greenheart Travel Scholarship winner who is participating on a volunteer program in Ecuador. She also has her own travel blog site: JettingAround. Check out her video on our YouTube channel.
I came to Ecuador just over a week before the start of my volunteer program. Even though I would spend three weeks near Quito, I knew that there wouldn’t be much time to visit other places. And from what I’d heard about the country, there was a lot to see: colonial towns, volcanoes, rain forests.
It was the right choice. Exploring Ecuador not only turned out to be one of my favorite travel experiences with lots of “firsts” (first time zip lining, first time bridge jumping, first time in the jungle), but also eased me into the program. By the time it had started, I was familiar with local food, Ecuadorian Spanish, and how to take public transportation. There wasn’t much adjusting to do on Day 1. I was ready to work.
Landing in Quito was not for the faint of heart. Due to the mountainous setting and winds in the valley, the plane swang and tilted upon descent. But the views outside made me forget all about it – I couldn’t wait to see the colonial city center and hike the Pichincha volcano on the west side of the city.
I had been to several old towns in the Americas, but none of them were as large as Quito’s. It’s very well-preserved and in 1978 was the first area to be named a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site (coincidentally, along with my hometown Krakow). I had a hard time putting the camera down, as every intersection and plaza looked like they were there to be photographed.
Ecuadorian cuisine quickly became one of my favorites. As a vegetarian, I’ve had no problems finding things to eat, and everything tastes fresh. I’ve been eating lots of rice, beans, avocados, and plantains, and drinking all sorts of fruit juice. Some of my discoveries: guanábana (soursop) and tomate de árbol (“tree tomato”). This country has been keeping me quite healthy…
And then there are people. They have been very friendly towards me – not only my host family and people I’ve been working with – but strangers: cab drivers, shopkeepers, hotel workers. They’ve made it easy for me to feel comfortable and welcome.
The host family
I’m staying in Lumbisí, a native community about 30 minutes east of Quito. My hosts are a married couple who have four adult children (one of them lives in their house and the rest nearby). Clara is a homemaker and takes care of farm animals, her husband Espiritu runs a carpentry business, and their youngest son Braulio is studying to be an electrician. I have also met other members of the family, including their children, grandchildren, and nephews.
We eat together in the dining room three times a day. Most of the time it’s me, Clara and Espiritu, but we have been joined by others several times. Each meal is an occasion to share stories: about our families, daily life, and the culture of the United States, Ecuador, and my native Poland. One topic that keeps coming up is the 2014 World Cup, as we are all soccer fans, plus Ecuador has a chance to qualify (good luck!).
There are two reasons I chose to come to Ecuador: I am fond of South America, having previously visited Uruguay and Argentina, and I wanted to brush up on my Spanish. So far, it’s been going well.
Interacting with the host family allows me to practice both listening and speaking skills. At times it takes an effort, because everyone is accustomed to speaking at their natural pace (i.e. faster than classroom Spanish), but it’s exactly the kind of challenge I was hoping for. And working at a day care center has improved my knowledge of… imperatives. Plus, I’ve learned some words that I didn’t even know in my first language (what’s Polish for colchonetas*?).
Thanks to being familiar with Latin America, not much has come as a surprise to me in Ecuador. But I did have to learn to aggressively push my way through the crowd in order to get on and off trolleys in Quito (a common practice), and I’ve noticed that local septic systems can’t always handle toilet paper (you are encouraged to dispose of it in a garbage can). On a positive note, Ecuador’s official currency is US dollar, which means no hassle to exchange money.
*foldable mattresses/lounge chairs for children to play and sleep on