Outsider In Ecuador: Living in a farming community

In May and June 2011, I spent a few weeks in what felt like a forgotten part of northern Ecuador – a mountainous rural zone called Intag on the edge of a cloud forest.  I pillaged the emails I wrote home to friends and family at the time for the posts here.

As with every Sunday, we squeeze in to the back of the community milk truck with grannies, children, a dog, urns full of hand-drawn fresh milk, and anything/one else needing transporting to the village.  For the locals, Sunday in Cuellaje was The Main Social Event of the week; for us it was a chance to write home.  Hard to believe the place had internet – when we’d first arrived before moving to the even more remote farm that became our home, we were astounded the village even had electricity!

We bump down the hilly mud paths, giggles and shouts as things and people bounce around and nearly out. Despite the moist and muddy setting, everyone looks at their best, defying the six other days of the week where it’s impossible to be anything but filthy, us included – we spend most of our time running, jumping, climbing trees with the kids from the school I’ve been teaching at and of our host family.

The family we live with are a young cattle farming couple and their two daughters, 8 and 10, doing well for themselves compared to neighbouring farming families struggling to get by with up to 9 children.  The six of us – the family, my travel buddy and I – squeeze into their two bedroom bungalow  which sits at the side of the mud road.  It’s made of breeze block with mostly concrete flooring inside, and a kind of shed attached at the back with a mud floor where food is kept for the animals (and us) and a cooking fire occasionally is occasionally lit.  Normally, though, they use the gas burner in the kitchen – cum dining area cum entrance to the house.

There can only be three other farmhouses within 1km but we can’t see them; just beautiful hilly surroundings.  We are in a bubble of our family, the school, and the odd passerby, dog, visitor.  The only gringo we see is when we tramp the kilometre or so up to the farm owned by Ned, the only native English inhabitant who settled as a farmer and then started the volunteer and eco-toursim project here.  Almost total immersion then, and very much a different way and pace of life…

Daily life

That week I had mostly been:

– dirty. Yes.

– wearing wellies – because of the mud, of course, and rain..

– ..getting rained on – being in a cloud forest means that it’s a pretty wet and humid place and we arrived at the tail end of the wet season.

– riding to school in the mornings on the back of a motorbike with the engine switched off to save petrol as it’s all downhill. Other modes of travel have included the milk truck – of course – or a cattle wagon, for long journeys to the village, horse, mule, quad bike, or just our legs.

– getting up at 6am and going to bed before 9pm. As farmers, our host parents get up at 5am to milk the cows, and get all their work in before it gets dark at 6pm-ish. Being on the equator, these hours of light and dark are the same year round.

– sleeping in a fleece, down jacket and socks. Partly because it was a bit cold but mostly to stop the damn ‘no see-ems’ munching my feet and ankles and arms – tiny little bastard flies that bite A LOT but you NEVER catch them in the act!

– trying to keep out the millions of actual visible flying insects that want to get into the bedroom at night, including a moth the size of a sparrow – not a joke.

– spotting tiny bright black grasshoppers. Hundreds of them, everywhere (except in our bedroom – the only insects that aren’t!). They don’t seem to have the common grass or mud-coloured variety here.

– watching animated barbie films over and over and over… Thanks to living with an 8 and a 10 year old. It’s helping our Spanish though, so..

– ..getting a bit better in Spanish – yay!

– doing the washing up with a child’s sock. It being the preferred implement is somewhat representative of the kitchen situation as a whole – not a sterile aesthetic environment, but one that prioritises the storage and preparation of food, a proportion of which comes from the immediate environment. To be blunt, my old food tech teacher would have kittens over the dirt and grime! We won’t dwell on that side of things, rather, let’s talk about…

..Food

Things I’m getting used to:

– Eating shedloads of rice.

– Eating shedloads of rice and potatoes – now a totally normal combination on a plate. Or rice with any of a seemingly infinite variety of tuber/root/potato vegetable they have here. Still can’t get my head round pasta and potatoes though.

– Using corn for feeding everyone and everything in more ways than my imagination had ever previously stretched to: dry and crunched up with hot milk; ground up into a paste and cooked in its own leaves to make a sweet or savoury cake; toasted and salted; rubbed and boiled so it inflates twice the size; boiled and eaten with fresh cheese; used to feed the pigs; used to feed the chickens…  tons and tons of it.

– Eating fruit that we don’t even have names for.

– Drinking hot fresh milk.

– The new, quieter cockerel as we ate the one that used to wake us up! Bit of shocker when the mum told us he was in the soup we had one evening. I think he was getting on a bit, though. And he really was very noisy.

– Drinking boiled water that tastes like the pot we boil it in. As for the water situation, then…

Personal hygiene

There’s no hot water. None. Not a drop. Water to the house is sourced from the nearby river, and there is no system to heat it so it is Mountain Fresh. I might be going on a bit about the dirt thing but we really are chuffing mucky. Because, of course, it’s not fun having cold showers.  I realise that a warm shower is such a pleasurable thing, and being able to have one every day and be clean, such a privilege. Probably, if only cold water existed in the world, we wouldn’t waste so much of it as the bathing rate would dwindle from every day to every other (or three or four!) days.  Going on from this…

I’ve seen that cleanliness and hygiene, do not – of course! -, have a universal standard. When you work outside in the mud or dust and you get dirty just by stepping out of the shower, and when washing clothes is hand-grinding time-consuming work, what’s the point in making yourself clean too often?  Here, walking down the road you get dirty; sitting down, eating, picking up a bag, you get dirty; boiling a pot of water, YOU GET DIRTY. You may as well keep your clothes on for a few days running, including sleeping in them, and have a shower for special occasions, like Sundays, when you go into the village.

So this is where we find ourselves. Everyone trying to up their Sunday best appearance as we cling to the sides of the milk truck, rattling, rolling and windswept past farms and lush, hilly fields

I’m looking forward to having Cuellaje’s concrete under my feet for a little while, a home-made fruit ice cream, and writing home about all this different wonderfulness.

To learn more about tourism, volunteering or conservation in the area, read more on their blog and Facebook page, or contact Ned Cresswell on their Cloud Forest Adventure website.

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Outsider In Ecuador: Volunteer teaching at a rural primary school

In May and June 2011, I spent a few weeks in what felt like a forgotten part of northern Ecuador – a mountainous rural zone called Intag on the edge of a cloud forest.  I pillaged the emails I wrote home to friends and family at the time for the posts here.

It was a Thursday when I’d been filling an email to the brim with experiences of volunteering as an English teacher in a primary school in a remote Ecuadorian farming community.  I’m sure things have changed immensely in the five years since I was there but, then, slow slow internet was only available in the main village of Cuellaje; its tentacles had not spread to the farms, one of which we were staying in, dotted around the community, miles apart, separated by hills, mud tracks and very little transport.

Usually our only chance to make it to Cuellaje, and so connect with the outside world, was on a Sunday when we’d head down with our local host farming family – along with every other member of the surrounding communities. This was the day for churchgoing, food shopping, playing a variant of volleyball (very high net, no smashes) and generally hobnobbing in the village in one’s Sunday best. With only four dial-up computers available and a lot of teenagers around, it was also the day for fighting over internet.

On this Thursday, though, the teeny San Antonio primary school was closed. This wasn’t the first occasion that the children had been treated to a no lesson day since my arrival a couple of weeks before, but this time it was owing to a serious meeting. With only 17 children in the primary school, the education supervisors of the parish had deemed three teachers to be one too many, and so all had gone to Cuellaje village to decide who would be moved instead to the secondary school there.

While their fate was being determined, my travel buddy and I opportunistically made the 40min trek into the village on the back of the milk truck – the most regular and reliable form of transport around – so I could write home about my exploits… this time, school life, starting with a caviat:

An unsteady stream of volunteers with dodgy English teaching credentials is the only access to the language these children get.  English has relatively recently become part of the national curriculum in Ecuador, but it takes a long while for teachers’ qualifications to catch up, especially in rural areas.  People like me partaking in what I now see as ‘volontourism‘ doesn’t necessarily improve the situation, and potentially dis-incentivises local governments to train up teachers… still, I found myself there, happily ignorant to these ethical qualms whilst I learnt quite a lot but also felt appreciated by the locals.  (You can judge more here.)

I was teaching three groups of children, roughly divided into the 5 and 6 year olds, 8 and 9 year olds, then the 10 and 11 year olds. The school itself was pretty dilapidated but cheery and it soon felt normal, though it certainly wasn’t by western standards: faded painted concrete walls, broken windows, doors that barely locked, outside toilets and sinks, no playgrounds as such, just an uneven grassy field, and pencil-scribed workbooks to be rubbed out and used again.

None of that seemed to matter, though, as the kids made the best of it all. They were pretty up for learning, especially as I tried mostly to do games. It was a million times easier than teaching moody French teenagers which had been my experience up to that point. They could be a pain in the arse sometimes, of course, but mostly they were hugely entertaining, and wanted to play all the time. They were upbeat and adventurous, grubby and fun-loving like kids should be – even the 11 year olds who could have been pre-pubescent horrors but just weren’t. It inspired a child-like feeling in me again.

On the way home from school it could take anywhere between 40 minutes and 2 hours to walk back because of the many kids we’d have in tow. There were often various stops to scramble up mud banks and climb trees in order to scrounge whatever wild-growing fruit was obtainable. I would mainly stand at the bottom, shouting directions, giving a leg up, and catching things on the way down. Always generous, any of their fruity bounty they would share, from their grubby little hands to ours. I would accept with glee, my heart always won through my stomach… unfortunately, this was a surefire way for my stomach to also win out over my bowels…

In other food matters, before the school day even started we were fuelled with two (!) breakfasts: one at home and one at school with the kids. The latter consisted of a thick porridge-like drink tasting vaguely of banana and called colada, with biscuits and granola. We were also once treated to piglet uterus, which was a first. Like the kids, the teachers often insisted on sharing food with us and, on this occasion, wouldn’t divulge what we were eating until after we’d finished. I felt only a little weird about it.

The teachers were nice and pretty laid back. The volunteer ‘programme’ coordinator, an English guy named Ned who’s ‘gone native’ and become a farmer in the community, was of the opinion that they were “bone idle”. I’d rather believe it’s a cultural difference… although, it is true that, by mid-way through my time volunteering, there had already been the inexplicable days of no classes, and on National Children’s Day we just played games, ate corn and cheese and watched Ice Age

Slightly incomprehensible situations were commonplace in my life there, thanks to the giant culture differences and my not-fast-enough-improving level of Spanish. The now semi-anthropologist in me would have seen this all with quite different eyes but, five years ago, I was an English girl amused by the new oddities and contradictions I felt I was witnessing. And school seemed particularly rife with them.

Sometimes there were rules and timetables for things, other times there weren’t. As far as I could tell, it depended on the mood of the teachers.

Sometimes I’d end up taking one of the classes for an entire morning whilst, for example, the teacher put together a flat-pack cupboard so couldn’t possibly teach at the same time.

Break time could last 10 minutes one day and one hour the next.

Once a whole school lesson consisted of putting cut grass into a big hole in the field. I also believed at one point that the teachers were making the kids do gardening labour for them, but apparently it was part of the curriculum…

Monday at school was, inconsistently, the ‘day of patriotism’. The children were supposed to sing the national anthem, flag waving and hands over hearts. Extremely important for patriotism, it appeared, is having clean fingernails and ears, not wearing wellies and having a clean and folded hanky in your pocket. If not, a bunch of squats was doled out as punishment – for lack of patriotic cleanliness, I can only suppose.

Ultimately, propriety and orderliness were fighting a losing battle against a group of farm kids living on the edge of a cloud forest, where boundaries and time seemed loose. For me, this daily picture somewhat encapsulates it all:

The girls would start off the day, puffed up and pleased, with elaborately plaited and immaculately scraped back hair; the boys would have it combed, parted and plastered down to one side with water, all to stay that way for an hour at most. Their once weekly mother’s-hand-scrubbed uniforms – cold water, brush and soap against stone – stood no chance against their daily antics: they were generally ragged and torn, and increasingly dirty as the week wore on. This image was all topped – or bottomed – off by sock-free feet jammed into unmatching wellies…

The teachers reacted alternately with utter dismay, or total indifference.  And the kids, of course, spent 99% of their time not caring a single blooming jot!  And I adored them all the more for that.

To learn more about tourism, volunteering or conservation in the area, read more on their blog and Facebook page, or contact Ned Cresswell on their Cloud Forest Adventure website.

Outsider In Barcelona: An exciting arrival

Almost three years ago to the day, I wrote about my first experiences in Barcelona – a city unknown to me at the time that I had decided to start a new life in.  As this is where my first ideas for this blog came from, I thought it fitting to document my exploits here. These blog posts started out life as emails to my friends and family during my time there.

I wrote this first entry on the day that I had finally become ‘official’ in Spain.  This ‘officialdom’ had come in the form of an unimpressive flimsy piece of credit card sized paper, laminated ON ONE SIDE ONLY, costing a meagre 10.30€ but an awful lot more in hours of my life wasted, bearing the golden digits that allowed me to work legally in the country.  Yes, this much sought after ‘document’ is THE NIE (nee-ay aka national insurance, social security card/number). 

But that is a whole other story in itself… (for up to date information on how to go through the painful process, which appears to have become even more bureaucratic since my own joyful experience, have look here:).

Well before that, though, my first escapade started almost literally upon touching down in the country.  Waiting for a train to take me from the airport to the completely unknown, soon to be my home city of Barcelona, I was accosted in an amicable manner by a local who had apparently decided to befriend me.  Said local was a man and, as a solo, decidedly non-local female, I was obviously a little wary. 

However, after much chat and upon discovering that I just so happened to have stumbled into Barcelona on one of the biggest saints’ day fiestas in the year (La Mercè, anyone? I could’ve been more clued-in had I done a bit of googling…), I found myself jettisoning all usual caution: my desire for what could turn out to be an instant friend in my new vida, along with the potential of a pretty culturally exciting first evening, had me agreeing to meet up with him later that night to cavort on the streets of the city with thousands of other party goers! Worst case ‘creepy-man’ scenario, I could run away and get lost in the crowds…

Still all before I’d managed to arrive in Barcelona itself, though, I realised I’d lost my phone – somewhere between the airport baggage carousel and getting on the train.  At that time (and as is pretty much still the case now) I couldn’t possibly boast to be the owner of any real technology worth stealing, least of all my £5 Nokia.  Even so, it was a vital part of the new life puzzle I was attempting to put together and so I needed it back rapido! 

My New-Catalan-Friend came to the rescue and I abused our 20-minute old friendship, borrowing his mobile to conduct expensive and relatively incomprehensible calls with the policeman who’d found my phone at the airport. Eventually, New-Catalan-Friend took over and established where and how I could go and pick up my mobile, so my arrival in Barcelona was followed by a swift departure: back to the airport I go lugging my 20 kilo case with one broken wheel behind me.  And, by the way, it is hot and muggy. 

I get to the airport police station to claim my treasure which the policeman asks me to describe before handing it over.  “Muy basico” covers it.  He laughs at me and my phone but I get it back – first near crisis of my adventure averted!

Later on that evening, New-Catalan-Friend and I hit the busy streets of Barça to watch and, eventually participate in, a street spectacle that health and safety in the UK would have absolute kittens over.  Hundreds of ‘fire diablos’ and bands of drummers march and dance down the streets whirring sticks over their heads bursting with enormous sparklers and fire crackers sending streams of sparks flying off in every direction.  The job of anyone else who wants to get involved is to try to dance with the devils or stop them going on their way (the devils also push around massive animals on wheels, running at the blockades of people, bursting with sparks in every direction! 

All of this is called a correfoc – fire run – and mini-versions happily take place at fiestas throughout the year.  So, in we went – the closer you get to the devils the fewer sparks you get showered with. I was pretty scared on the first attempt but got taken under the fire-retardant cape of a rather yummy-looking devil and so all was good, bouncing and hopping around to drums in the sparks with people chanting and singing all around!  With all this incredible atmosphere, I am instantly totally in love with Barcelona (and also rather taken with my cape swishing devil!)!

A lot more dancing and running around in fireworks later, sweaty as anything, pretty choked up from the fumes, singed hair and with burn holes in my clothes (all that careful packing straight out the window…) it’s time for my first eats in Barcelona – oh yes! 

Thrift and a somewhat traveller’s mentality ever wielding the power of decision making, and I’m up for grabbing some cheap and yummy tapas or Barcelona-style street food.  I’m somewhat surprised, then, to find myself in a rather fancy and expensive looking restaurant for the occasion.  My protestations fall on deaf ears and at this point it dawns on me that I have accidentally stumbled into a first date.  On my first night in Barcelona.  New-Catalan-Friend appears to want to be More-Than-Just-New-Catalan-Friend.  Oh dear…

That issue aside, the food was amazing – good tapas is REALLY good here! (Although Barcelona is not particularly famed for its cuisine in Spain – apparently Asturias is where it’s at – and my only memory now of the meal is wine, asparagus and my first ever Romesco sauce). 

With our intentions somewhat differing, I nevertheless decided that we hadn’t actually arrived in ‘creepy-man’ territory, so off we continued with our evening to visit the Sagrada Familia by night where there was a light display as part of the saints’ day festivities.  In fact, we missed the light show by mere seconds but I still got given a guided tour of the outside of Gaudi’s basilica – incredible (and even better on the inside, I would later discover) – and collected a flashing light bug as a souvenir – hurrah!

Cocktails were proposed as a continuation of our evening but I decided it was definitely time to call it a night and chip off back to my hostel before wires could become any further crossed…

Later on, lying on my top-bunk with a gently snoring American bunk-mate below, trying not to move for the mugginess (is it going to be like this all the time?!) and I have time to take in my first night in Barcelona; done – and in quite surreal and spectacular style!  Although I know that every day won’t be like this (I still have a job and flat to find, a life to create… and a bloody NIE to get) for sure I am already in Love Love Love…- with the city, NOT with New-Catalan-Friend!