Showering with a (dead) tarantula

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Summary of 3 months in Ecuador
No. potatoes eaten: 10,000,000 (approximate figure)
No. Scottish people met: 0
No. mosquito bites: (I lost count at 53 - on my left arm alone!)
No. tarantulas: 5
My last month in Ecuador was filled with wonderful things like food, boobies, biodigestors and tarantulas: I’ll attempt to express my experiences, but I fear that a mere blog is not enough give an accurate account.

 

I thought that returning home would be tricky – coming back to a life of expensive buses and cold weather; would my body react badly to the lack of potatoes in my diet? Or maybe I would die in a horrible car crash not wearing my seatbelt. I can’t say I miss the food: every meal would consist of potatoes with rice or bananas (I’ve developed a new appreciation for the versatility of bananas. Fried, baked, grilled, with cheese or chocolate or sugar; sliced thinly and fried to make chifles; you can do so much with them!)

 

However settling back in has actually been as easy as pie. Yes, it feels weird wearing a seatbelt, the weather is so cold I’m wearing layer upon layer, the bus fare has risen (£1.50?! It’s an outrage!) yet it’s good to be home. While I do miss the Ecuadorian music, the fruit and the hot chocolate, I’ve missed Scotland – home – equally. I flew from Quito to Amsterdam, and from there to Edinburgh: arriving in Amsterdam was so comforting hearing all those Scottish accents arguing and bickering in the transfer gate. The highlight was when someone skipped the queue to get through security; I think it went something like this:

“Hey, what’re ye daein’? There’s a queue y’ken!”

“Aye, ah ken, but ah’m a flyin’ silver member sae ah hae a reit tae be at th’ front.”

“Nah, don’t gimme that, ga tae the back o th’ queue!”

“Nach ach oooch aye it’s awful och aye aaach.”

Ah. The joys of Scotland. The only daunting moment of the journey home was when everyone had boarded the plane after a long delay – we were told that they had lost the proper plane and the one we were on had been borrowed from a totally different company. The captain went on to say that the pilot had to be replaced because the usual one had run away.

 

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So I’ve just realised that most of this post consists of potatoes and Scottish people. But it’s a pretty accurate summary I think – too many potatoes and too few Scottish people! But I’ll shut up and start talking about important things like my final project in Ecuador, La Hesperia (this is where the tarantulas come in).

 

My time in La Hesperia was probably the most memorable out of my 3 months in Ecuador. The work was rewarding, the atmosphere friendly and the food incredible. What more could you ask for?! Every day was really varied – work ranged from weeding plants to painting rooms, reforestation to cleaning the biodigestor (I´ll explain later…) The aim of La Hesperia was to become a self sustainable community solely reliant on their own crops to feed the workers and the volunteers. I always I felt like the work I was doing benefited not just the environment but the community as well.

 

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La Hesperia

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The varied work meant that every day was a surprise. One day we were set the task to clean the biodigestor: a biodigestor is an eco-thing to produce fertiliser and usable gases, using cow manure. The machine was blocked by the manure and our task was to fix it by, well, unblocking it. Sound gross, but we were reassured that the manure would be dry: the machine was in a greenhouse so the logic goes that the manure was being baked under the sun. This makes sense. So why was it wet?!

 

At first we tried buckets. Yes. Bucketing wet cow manure outside. If you saw the size of the thing you’d realise it was a lost cause, but we were fuelled by a grim determination to do our task, and do it right. After 15 minutes of sloshing buckets of cow shit in the sweltering heat we gave up and were forced to try numerous different angles.

 

Eventually we came to the conclusion that the best way to save the biodigestor was to dig under the greenhouse to create a tunnel, so the manure could flow out. Eurgh, it sounds horrible! One of the workers described it as a ”río de caca” – I’ll let your imagination work out what that means. Surprisingly our hard work paid off and we came away from the morning’s work satisfied. In truth, once you forgot what you were dealing with the work was actually fun!
The biodigestor

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We were pushed mentally and physically in La Hesperia. While our lodgings were idyllic, there was the problem of the bugs, mosquitos and tarantulas that had decided to make our home their permanent residence, too. One tarantula we named Harry, who lived in the common room. He was really sweet in a way once you got used to his presence; every evening when we came down to play cards or lay in the hammocks, Harry would emerge from his hole and watch us. I think he was a bit like an annoying sibling: you were able to live with his presence so long as he was quiet, and you realised just how attached you were when he wasn’t around.

 

Not so sweet were the tarantulas that moved. After a hard day’s work I was really looking forward to showering and winding down for the day. However it wasn’t until I was in the shower that I realised I wasn’t alone: I looked down and saw in the shadow a humongous dark, pointy, spidery thing that was in fact a tarantula. It was dead thank god – another poor volunteer had the awful experience of seeing it move while she was showering. She and her friend killed it with a broom.

 

There really is so much more to write, but I think I’ve left updating my blog too long to carry on writing (which is probably a good thing – this post hasn’t exactly been on the nicest of topics). I’ll write a few more posts over the next weeks about trips we made to the amazon rainforest and the Galápagos islands, so keep an eye out for them! And once again thank you all so much for your incredible support. I know that without all the donations and even just words of encouragement, this unforgettable experience would not have been possible. Thank you, everyone.

 

 

Say what?!!

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Two whole posts in a week?! I think I’m breaking a personal record here. I thought it’d be good to give a proper account of the two projects that I have so far embarked upon in Yunguilla and in the day care centre for disabled children.

Yunguilla is the most beautiful, serene, idyllic place I have ever laid eyes on. When I first arrived I really couldn’t see the whole cloud forest thing going on: it was a clear morning and the view stretched for miles all the way to the mountains; however by noon the clouds had rolled in letting Yunguilla to live up to its name.

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A cow on the path!

I worked with two friends, Connie and George; our days generally consisted of a range of activities: watering plants in the orchard, planting seeds, sweeping paths, assisting tourists and teaching in the school. On one of the days we had a trip into the cloud forest to find seedlings and take them back to the nursery; here they began the long term process of being nurtured until they reached the required stage that would enable them to survive, when they would be replanted in the forest.

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The school was really tiny, with 3 teachers and 12 kids. There were 3 classes: the first was made up of of 3 – 6 year olds, the second were ages 7 – 9 and the oldest class went up to 14. Teaching English was fun and the children eager to learn – the teachers encouraged us to teach the youngest class outside as they were very energetic!

Our time there coincided with the national holiday of carnaval. On the last school day Connie and I were ambushed by screaming kids (and screaming teachers!) with cans of spray foam and tubs of water. Sadly I was in no state to take photos of that crazy day! All I can say is that literally everyone here takes carnaval to heart. I´ve lost count of the number of times I´ve been drenched on the street by passing cars!

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Connie teaching English in the playground

Yunguilla is such a small place I don´t really know what to call it except a community. Everyone is related in some way or another – a bit like the Scottish highlands! – and everyone knows everyone. Houses are scattered along a long road, some hidden behind trees and up hills.

In truth, there really wasn´t much to do in our spare time. Sometimes we would get off work at 3pm with the whole afternoon to spare! The three of us had many, many walks. We also found out how the younger ones managed to spend their time: by swinging. Everywhere we went we would find swings; some were small but others swung right into the landscape high into the clouds – which isn´t actually that daunting considering that Yunguilla is set in a cloud forest.

Working with the children at the day care centre is a totally different world. The place is called ABEI: Amigas Benefactores de Enfermos Incurables (Benefactors of Terminally Ill Friends). I feel really needed here, as the kids are quite demanding and there are only three nurses to take care of them. With the other volunteers, we take care of one kid each for the day, feeding and playing with them and making sure they´re happy.

Although the work is tiring and sometimes emotional seeing the kids so helpless, I feel like I´m making a huge difference. The atmosphere is so warm and the nurses are really caring. It´ll be sad leaving such a great place next week! But of course I´m really looking forward to starting at La Hesperia, where I´ll be doing the work I came here to do. Until next time!

Words of Wisdom

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Before I begin, I have to apologise for the the lateness of this post. How on earth do I write about 3 weeks of total craziness in one single blog post?! Upon leaving home I was given a huge amount of encouragement and advice. But of course, you don’t realise how wise the words of friends and family are until you’re in the situation where you need the words. So with that in mind I will head each part of this post with the two most appropriate quotes that sum up my time here.

“Prepare for the unexpected.”

Quite naively, I left for Ecuador under the impression that things would go according to plan: I would spend my time doing conservation work with two different communities, Yunguilla and La Hesperia – doing my part to save the world! However, after only 2 weeks in Yunguilla I realised that although the work I was doing was important it wasn’t what I expected and it wasn’t enough for me to justify staying on the project; thus I came to the difficult decision to leave this project early.

Saying goodbye: my host family in Yunguilla. May I comment on my height?!

The description of the project I applied for gave the impression that Yunguilla was a village dedicated to conservation, which is not the case. The community aims to preserve their natural life and surroundings through volunteers participating in community work such as sweeping paths, construction work, teaching in the school, helping cater for tourists, making cheeses and jams etc; conservation is only a part of this.

Teaching the kids in the school

Teaching the kids in the school

Of course I have a huge amount of respect for Yunguilla – not just the ethics of the community, but the simple life and the determination of the people to achieve something so important in a world intent on destroying itself. Upon receiving a grant in the mid-1990s the village rapidly developed into the self-governing community it is now and although the work wasn’t what I expected, I learned a lot from the short time that I was there. I am so grateful for the opportunity to have worked on such an inspiring project!

Yunguilla in the morning (before the cloud comes in...)

Yunguilla in the morning (before the cloud comes in…)

And Yunguilla when the cloud has come in and obscured everything within 2 meters!

And Yunguilla when the cloud has come in and obscured the beautiful views!

However a part of me feels like I have failed to live up to the goal of my time in Ecuador. I really wanted to work on conservation and reforestation here and while I´ll get my chance in 2 weeks when I move to La Hesperia, I can´t help but feel like I´ve let myself down. But I guess that ties into the other piece of advice I was given,

“Travel with an open mind.”

I´ve come to realise how important it is to travel with the mindset that things are going to happen that you don’t expect, and that doesn’t make what happens bad or wrong, just different. Unexpected.

I think I’m taking the whole open mind thing to heart: my new project is working in a day care centre for disabled children. The work is really challenging but rewarding, and I really feel like I´m making a difference. I´ve been here for 2 weeks so far and I have 2 more to go until I move to La Hesperia for the rest of my time in Ecuador. That is, if it all goes to plan!

¡Hola chicos!

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Following an 11 hour plane journey, bags lost in transit, sunburnt skin and 28 hours of Spanish lessons, I have survived my first week in Ecuador. Success!

I´m having trouble as to where to start this post! I guess from the beginning: descending into Quito was exhilarating to say the least. From above you get a real sense of the geography: mountains surround the city to form a basin – albeit a huge one! Houses look like lego bricks scattered haphazardly into every nook and cranny. The airport is crammed into a tiny space so that when the plane lands, it feels like you can reach out and touch the buildings. Here are a couple of photos to get a vague idea of what it´s like:

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The view from the Basilica cathedral in the old town of Quito

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Quito itself is a strange mix of hurried and relaxed. Walking across the road is terrifying as you get the sense that if you find yourself in the way of a car, it won´t stop. And I swear I´ve inhaled a lifetime of car fumes! However the people themselves are really laid back, always walking at a leisurely pace and arriving 20 minutes late to meetings.

Our first day consisted of a mini tour of the town, safety tips and juice. The safety tips certainly had an impact – I now walk with my bag on my front with no more than $10 in my pocket and I always catch a taxi past 7pm. When I get back home I´ll be even more paranoid than my mum! We also received an itinerary of our week which consisted of various trips throughout Ecuador during the weekends, and 4 hours of Spanish every day for the next 2 weeks. I´ll be leaving to the cloud forest next Monday to begin my ´save the world´project in Yunguilla. I´m really looking forward to going! Quito is wonderful but the pollution and noise is so much that I don´t think I could last a whole month.

I am just over a week into my Spanish lessons, and my brain is numb. I can now understand most of what people say but I find forming a coherent sentence so difficult! I´ve found the most useful phrase to be ¡hola chicos! It´s the best way to start a conversation, followed by lots of nodding, and lots of ´si si si. Si. ¡Si!´

So yeah, it´s been great! I´ve tried traditional food like guinea pig and intestines, and I´m making up for the lack of tea by eating a ton of bread – yesterday I ate 10 slices nom nom. Our weekend trips have been amazing. Last Sunday we went to these natural hot springs in a place called Papallacta, 2 hours away from Quito. Oh, it was so beautiful! Imagine hot baths surrounded by huge towering mountains, hummingbirds chasing butterflies, the faint smell of flowers lingering in the air followed by smoothies at the edge of the steaming baths. It was stunning.

The next weekend was a day trip to Otavalo, an indigenous market. We had to barter which was a strange experience; it was addictive yet the things that were being sold were so beautiful that it felt rude to haggle the already cheap prices! We also visited this historic sight where virgins were sacrificed to the Sun God. Despite that slightly ominous fact the landscape was the most beautiful I have ever set eyes on. Words – and photos – don´t do it justice. Actually words don´t do this whole trip justice, so I´ll leave you all with a selection of photos. I apologise in advance for the bad quality!

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Quito as the sun sets

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The centre of the world

The centre of the world

Standing on the equator line!

Standing on the equator line!

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I´ll try to post another update later this month. We have trips planned to various places like a weekend hiking up Cotopaxi (a huge active volcano), a week in the Amazon rainforest, and probably the most exciting – a week on the Galapagos islands. So hopefully in my next post I´ll have lots to say with nice photos to follow. Chao!

 

Goodbyeeee!

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Happy new year! In 10 hours, I will be on a plane to Ecuador. I can’t believe I’m actually going! Time has flown by far too fast. This has been the first long term plan of my life which has stuck – an achievement in itself on my part!

Taken at the Street Party in Edinburgh - amazing!

Packing has been stressful. The first bag I had was too small, so I hurriedly bought a bigger one – which turned out to be insanely uncomfortable. So I had to swap it for yet another one which arrived just a couple of days ago! I just managed to fit everything in, but the bag is near to exploding.

Farewells to friends have been emotional!  I still can’t get my head around the fact that the next time I will see them and home will be in April. And I mustn’t forget to mention for the final time how incredible the support has been. Right up until today I’ve been getting phone calls and emails to wish me luck for my trip. I will send postcards to as many people as possible!

I apologise for the briefness of this post, but I assure you my next one will be real news! I have an early start tomorrow at 3am, to catch my flight at 5.50am. Aaaaah! I hope I’ll be able to sleep, the nerves and excitement are beginning to turn into butterflies on steroids.

Wish me luck, and I’ll see you all in 3 months!!!

 

Am I the only Scot here?

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It’s already December. Which means there are only 27 days to go…! (Ooh and my countdown timer is now counting down the days too —> )

Last week I made the long journey down to Somerset for a pre-departure day in the Outreach office. I made the journey over a weekend, staying with a friend in London.

Laandan!

I was lucky to get to Somerset on time as so many trains were delayed due to the rain! Upon my arrival I met volunteers who will be doing projects in Cambodia, Kenya and, of course, Ecuador. While most of the 25 volunteers will be going to Ecuador, I will be working with only 3 other people in the Cloud Forest! The others signed up for projects which are based in Quito, namely working with and caring for poor communities, children living on the streets, with the disabled and in orphanages.

On the day we were given extremely helpful information. On the subject of immunisations I felt relatively safe, having had all of mine except the BCG blood test. A volunteer asked about the risk of malaria to which he got the answer:

Don’t worry about malaria. In Quito and the cloud forest you’ll be too high for mosquitos to survive so don’t fork out on malaria tablets.

… I proceed to kick myself when I think of the £40 I spent on 3 months supply. James, the director, finished off his spiel on immunisations saying,

The chances of getting a serious illness is about 1 in 30. Which means at least one of you in this room will suffer from something nasty.

Cue nervous laughter and awkward glances around the room: who will it be?

One thing that struck me on the day: I am the only Scot embarking on this trip. Someone remarked on how they liked my accent – which is a sure sign that I really am the only Scot here as my accent, when heard in Scotland, is heard as very English. I feel the need to play it up while I’m in Ecuador to remind me of home. I should take a couple of copies of The Broons and Oor Wullie. Maybe even pack a bagpipe or two.

There are no kangaroos in Austria

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My gap year has officially started! Austria was such a fantastic trip but scary as well as it was my first experience travelling across a foreign country on my own. I had to get the train from Vienna to Graz; the landscapes were so beautiful. Sadly no photos as I was using my film camera :( It was even more calming sitting in that warm, comfortable, roomy train! I felt like I was on the Harry Potter set as I was sitting in a 6-seated compartment with a sliding door, the old woman with the trolley making her way down the corridor… I half expected Ron Weasley to come in and introduce himself.

Also it was my birthday last week (yay!) and I got a huge amount of Ecuador help things: an insect repellent shirt (I had no idea these existed!), loose trousers, a gortex raincoat, waterproof trousers, a torch set (which included a head torch!), maps of Ecuador, and a mini guidebook to Quito and the Galapagos. Oh and Ecuador chocolate from the Los Rios province! (Actually I think it was from Lidl. But it says on the packet…)

Nom nom nom.

Next week I will be in London for a couple of days for the pre-departure weekend! I’m quite excited but worried as it’ll probably make me panic about leaving. I would have nearly everything prepared but I missed my final jab last week because I slept in :( So it’s rescheduled for the middle of December.

7 weeks to go!

7 WEEKS? That’s 49 days. Oh my god so soon! Aaaah!