When in Ecuador … it’s best to adopt some nonchalance

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It was painfully obvious from my first day at the summer camp that never having been to school, or exposed to books or films, the market children had no sense of creativity.

Place coloured pens, card and glitter in front of them and tell them to draw their favourite animal and they stare at you blankly. Only when you take their hand, clamp it around the pen and draw the creature yourself, will any progress be made.

Even more frustratingly, despite Cenit’s best attempts, the majority of these children will never receive the individual attention and academic stimulation that they so desperately need to develop both intellectually and socially. So, despite sparky characters and undoubted potential, the fate of many of the street children is already sealed, and is already being played out by their parents.

At times, such hopelessness makes volunteering seem futile but then you experience an unexpected moment of breakthrough and you are back, full of enthusiasm and faith that maybe you are making the tiniest of differences after all.

Having been allocated a group of ten children of various ages last week, I produced a map of South America and prepared myself for an unproductive trawl through the locations of Ecuador and its neighbouring countries. How wrong I was. At least half of the group faultlessly identified not only every country on the continent but also every capital city. When I ecstatically asked them where they had acquired this knowledge they shrugged, completely unaware of their own moment of brilliance.

They then proceeded to ask me endless questions about England.

Does it rain more than it does in Quito? Yes.

Do we have giant tortoises? No.

How long would it take to travel there by bus? A very long time.

I was told when I started at the camp that such prolonged contact with the children would make illness inevitable. Sure enough, within a week I was bed-ridden with a tummy bug as my underdeveloped, western immune system adapted to its new, more prominent role. Despite volunteers dropping like flies – week two brought three diagnoses of swine flu – the majority of the children soldiered on without complaint.

In fact, throughout the whole month, only one little boy, Darwin, (one of many names pulled directly from the history books, a more unfortunate example being five-year-old Stalin) became seriously ill. We had decided to take the children on what was for many of them their first ever cinema trip.

While the majority of them climbed over and under seats, Darwin sat on his own, clutching his side and sobbing silently. After cuddles and paracetamol made no improvement, Esteban, the camp leader lifted up Darwin’s T-shirt to reveal a leaf of red cabbage safety-pinned to the inside. The boy’s parents, in keeping with indigenous tradition, had hoped that allowing the vegetable to rub against their son’s skin would alleviate his pain.

In fact, the doctor whom Esteban later insisted that Darwin visit, diagnosed him with malnutrition which was in turn provoking unbearable stomach cramps. Yet again it was clear that while we, the volunteers, tried to comprehend the challenges faced by the San Rocque market children, we could only begin to imagine the dismal reality that lies behind their cheeky smiles.

Working in Quito means that within half an hour of finishing work on Friday, I am usually on a bus heading for some exotic getaway.

So far I have spent a blissful weekend in the sleepy fishing town of Puerto Lopez, have hiked to the base camp of Ecuador’s highest, active, snow-capped volcano and am planning a trip to the Galápagos Islands which will officially bankrupt me, but I am assured will be worth every penny.

I spent my first Ecuadorian weekend with eight other volunteers in a small resort town, famed for its thermal baths, called Baños. We had eagerly pre-booked our tickets for the five-hour bus journey two days earlier.

However, as the bus pulled into the Terminal Terrestre, already fit to burst with passengers, we immediately realised how ignorant we had been to expect slips of paper to translate into actual seats. Pushing myself up the aisle blocked by locals, travellers and carts of vegetables, I politely addressed the woman dozing in my seat.

She did not have the slightest regard for the ticket that I thrust under her nose. She had reached the seat first and therefore it would be hers all the way to Baños. With that, the driver appeared collecting $3.50 from all of the seated passengers, issuing them with tickets identical to mine in appearance and irrelevance.

As the bus pulled out of the station, one of our group hanging halfway out of the door, we all decided enough was enough and furiously leapt off the bus followed by the driver yelling at us that we were ‘chicas histéricas’.

Employing my best, most argumentative Spanish I launched into an angry tirade. Did the driver not care about the health and safety of his passengers? Could he not see that his bus was a disaster waiting to happen? The answer to the above questions was a resounding no.

Still fuming but desperate to reach Baños after an exhausting week, we finally conceded defeat, two of us sharing the driver’s seat, the others squashing onto seats alongside fellow passengers. Eventually, we pulled into Baños, with its multi-coloured quaint buildings set against the dramatic backdrop of mountains and cascades.

The journey had, in fact, not been half as uncomfortable or life-endangering as we had envisaged and it later occurred to me that my outburst had, most probably, been a complete over-reaction. Yes, I was working in Ecuador alongside Ecuadorians, living with a local family and (attempting) to speak the language, but as yet, I had failed to adopt the Ecuadorian mentality. In order to get the most out of the trip I was going to have to abandon my rigid, British expectations of what was and wasn’t acceptable, and soak up a bit of Ecuadorian nonchalance.

On Sunday afternoon, I returned to my hostel in Baños to find that $100 had been stolen from my bag.

Of course I was angry that my student budget had been so unnecessarily dented, but I had spent the past two days hiking in breathtaking scenery, horse-riding around a volcano crater and rafting down canyons.

Whereas at home I would have raged for days about the loss of such a vast sum of money, somehow, my material loss paled into insignificance in the scheme of my phenomenal weekend.

Maybe I was coming around to the Ecuadorian way of thinking after all.

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