Gap year in Ecuador – Yunguilla Cloud Forest Village

Posted on the 11th April 2018

New Zealand volunteer Lauren has written all about her time volunteering in Ecuador on a teaching and conservation project! Keep reading to find out more about her experience!

What made you volunteer in the first place?

There were a whole bunch of reasons that made me decide to volunteer with Lattitude. A combination of not really knowing what career I want or study I want to do, and some pretty itchy feet meant I had already decided to take a gap year.

No matter how much I want to go on to university I couldn’t fathom jumping straight into even more study without getting out and seeing some of the world first. My understanding of gap years in New Zealand was either going to America and working in summer camps or staying home and working. As an outdoor enthusiast summer camp sounded fun but not quite the challenge and excitement I was looking for, but I didn’t feel comfortable just setting off traveling solo straight out of high school either.

A Facebook event got me on to Lattitude and the information evening showed that volunteering was pretty much the exact middle ground I had been looking for.

Why Ecuador?

Well, South America had always been close to the top of my bucket list for the very reason that I felt that for most New Zealanders it kind of wasn’t. Outranked by Europe and Africa in terms of desirability the semi-forgotten continent only appealed more to my contrary mind.

Aside from that the main reason I chose a gap year in Ecuador (apart from again being more of a mystery than Argentina – the other SA option) was my specific placement. I am a self declared Eco-nut and conservation enthusiast so the unique cloud forest conservation village of Yunguilla seemed right up my ally. I also felt it would be really valuable in helping decide if the environmental branch is where I want to go for my career, and would add a lot to it if it is.

Can you describe your placement in detail?

So I am placed in the small village of Yunguilla, about an hour and a half out of the centre of Quito City. The village sits up in the cloud forest of Ecuador at 2650 metres above sea level, and is an organised community committed to the development of sustainable economic alternatives.

Basically the village works to conserve the cloud forest and operate as sustainably and organically as possible. Ecotourism is an important part of the community’s economy, as well as well as producing cheeses, jams, and handicrafts made only from products of the community’s farms and gardens.

My role as volunteer in Yunguilla is split between teaching English in the local school and working on the community farm and in the community in general where needed. Twice a week we go to the small primary school and take classes in English – as tourism is such an important part of village life English is a really valuable skill to have.

The school itself only has 14 children between the ages of 5 and 13. I am responsible for teaching the 6 five-year-olds and Kyla, the other Lattitude volunteer here in Yunguilla, has the older kids. The rest of our time is spent doing all kinds of work from planting in the greenhouses, building gates, making cheeses, clearing pre-inca trails (with machetes!), and doing computer work and filing in the office.

We also hold separate English classes every evening for adults and children who want to learn.

Can you describe your accommodation?

With our Yunguilla placement we actually end up having multiple host families. In order to reduce the burden on the poorer village people we change our host family here every month, and we also have a seperate host family in Quito who we can return to on the weekends.

So far in Yunguilla I am with my second host family, a lovely older couple who have both lived their entire lives in Yunguilla. Life is fairly basic, with small square concrete buildings and a few creepy crawly (or sluggish) roommates, but is still super comfortable and friendly, and I don’t mind the extra company! Our families seem determined to fatten us up and there are always huge quantities of rice, potatoes, corn, soup, beans, bread, eggs… to keep us happy.

There are always ways to help out as well from peeling pumpkin seeds and podding beans on little stools by the fire in the evenings, to getting up at dawn to milk the cows. Life in Quito is a bit of a contrast, with another lovely couple in a big house in the centre of the city.

How did you cope with the big differences between Ecuador and home?

Ecuador is very different to New Zealand in lots of different ways. Simple things like food and transport (lots of carbs, lots of people!) have been fun getting used to. Other things like slightly different gender roles and a general different culture have been more difficult but I think just keeping an open mind has been really helpful, as well as all the awesome people who’ve helped us out. The language has also been a massive challenge but as with everything is getting easier by the day.

Can you give examples of any personal development you may have gained during your time there?

Overall I think the entire experience expands on pretty much every skill. For me a major area of development has been the language. Before coming to Ecuador I had next to no Spanish, and so despite two weeks of language school at the beginning of my time here communication was very difficult. Now after two months, while still pretty fumbly, I have definitely noticed a significant improvement and can probably hold a basic conversation and understand a lot.

Being unable to talk to people and the different culture as well I think has really challenged my communication and interpersonal skills. Aside from this all the physical work has definitely developed my practical skills from fence building to how to kill a chicken!

What are your future plans, and how do you think your volunteering experience might help?

Next year I am planning on going to university to study environmental science in geology at the University of Canterbury. While I thought this might be my plan after Lattitude, my volunteering in such a special environmentally minded place has cemented my desire to work with in the environmental and conservation areas.

I feel am also gaining valuable experiences to do with working and living sustainably, and being such a culturally different place has expanded my understanding of how these areas impact and are addressed globally.

Why should others consider a gap year in Ecuador?

Why not? So many people I spoke to in New Zealand didn’t even know where Ecuador was, let alone how amazing a country it is. It may be small but there is so much diversity packed into it, and it has such a gorgeous culture, and the people here have been nothing but friendly.

Volunteering in general is such a rewarding experience wherever you go, and the best way to fully experience a place by living and working as a part of the community. I think Ecuador is underestimated and overlooked but everything I have experienced here has only proved how much of a gem this little Andean country is.

 

If Lauren and the Yunguilla community have inspired you to volunteer in Ecuador then check out our remaining spaces for August 2018 and February 2019 here!

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