Funny how even in the midst of active travel, a few weeks in any one place is enough to create a makeshift comfort zone and how quickly the unfamiliar starts to feel more like an old friend you didn’t recognize at first. My time volunteering in the Galápagos had that effect on me. To read the previous article about my time in the Galápagos, follow this link.
I was barely in the Galapagos for more than three weeks and yet if I close my eyes I can still picture the exact route I liked to take from the hotel to the malecón, or boardwalk. I can envision the rickety handrail I liked to perch on to watch the scarlet crabs scrambling and the sea lions looking as if their entire existence consisted of pure joy. I can remember the positions of the stars as I danced with a friend to the beat of the pounding waves. [pullquote]It takes so little time for a piece of you to dislodge and settle someplace new. [/pullquote] And so leaving San Cristóbal to continue my travels was like leaving home all over again. Nevertheless, it took me even less time to find a new and entirely different comfort zone in Puerto Cayo, in the Manabí Province of Ecuador.
Unlike Katarma on San Cristóbal, the owner of Hotel Sueños del Mar found me. I had emerged from the Cuyabeno River Basin, having survived tarantulas falling from trees like furry swords of Damocles and small snakes whose venom was so aggressive that the only chance of survival was amputation of the affected limb. Awaiting me upon my reemergence was an email from an American expat named Todd asking me if I would like to come to his beachfront hotel for a couple weeks to volunteer. It didn’t require much consideration on my part.
After spending a few days in Baños with some friends I had made in the jungle, I took a small, not air-conditioned bus to Puerto Lopez. Despite growing up in Southern California, where supposedly whales pass by every migration season, I had never seen one, even from a distance. Since Puerto Lopez boasts one of the best whale-watching industries and is only half an hour from Puerto Cayo, I figured a detour was in order. That mission successfully completed, I unfurled myself from the back of a mototaxi, dirty and sore, with a backpack strapped to both sides of my body, and stood to consider Sueños del Mar and its surroundings.
The first thing I noticed was the smallness of the town itself, the quietness broken only by the unceasing murmur of the sea. There didn’t even seem to be anyone in the hotel. I wandered in anyway and was immediately bombarded by a whole pack of dogs. “Luna!” I heard a man’s voice yell. “Luna, goddammit! Get over here!” The man himself soon materialized out of a small building in the courtyard. “Todd?” I asked, trying my best to keep my already precarious balance as the pack of dogs jumped and nudged at me in their competition to identify and familiarize themselves with my scent. “That’s me,” he replied as he reached out to shake my hand, thereby instantly establishing himself as an expat who had yet to accept the Ecuadorian custom of kissing cheeks, for which I am always grateful when it comes to strangers. Thus began my second volunteer experience.
This experience was as different as could be from San Cristóbal. Whereas in the latter I was more of a support than anything else, this time I had to call on a variety of abilities. I scrubbed the much-abused kitchen from top to bottom, a task that took days; I stripped beds and prepared rooms for the few and far between guests; I became the translator whenever a non-English speaking guest arrived; I chased Luna and the rest of the pack away from any visitors. But, like my previous experience, it was the slow season, so the majority of my time was spent playing Scrabble (and walloping as graciously as possible) in the bar with other expats, drinking Pilseners and reading books, and otherwise basking in the culmination of whatever serendipitous choices had led me there, to that hotel in a tiny town on an entirely different hemisphere than home.
I had never imagined it possible to find comfort and a feeling of home in so many places, with people whose existences I would never have even thought to consider if I hadn’t stumbled into the very center of their lives. By using whatever skills I had collected, and some I hadn’t (I’ve always been terrible at making beds), I found a way to travel through Ecuador in a way so intimate a guidebook could never explain it. And yet, in spite of these two experiences, it wasn’t until I began my next volunteer stint in Cuenca, Ecuador, that I was truly able to comprehend the absolutely vital importance of this method of frugal travel.
Stay tuned for part 3 of Kaelyn’s experience volunteering abroad. Have you had the chance to volunteer yet in Ecuador? Where was your favourite place? Share your experience in the comments.