Photo Credit: Paul Krawczuk
When I arrived in Cartagena, Colombia, on the day I was to begin the longest mostly solo journey of my life, I had grandiose and improbable ideas and, simultaneously, no actual plans at all.
The facts were not accommodating to the former–I had $2,000 in my bank account and most of the specific things I wanted to do were also the most expensive: the Ciudad Perdida tour in the Colombian mountains, Galápagos, the Amazon, the Bolivian salt flats. My eventual goal was to get to Santiago de Chile and find a job teaching English, but I had very little practical knowledge of how I would accomplish that. The trick was going to be how to stretch the little money I had far enough to meet at least a few of these dreams born and bred of legend.
Before leaving the U.S., when I was still stuck behind a desk as an over-abused and underappreciated administrative assistant at a book press, I had researched and signed up for various volunteer websites, including HelpX and WWOOF. I had eagerly perused these sites and daydreamed about spending my days learning to cultivate native crops or building huts in the rainforest. But it wasn’t until I was confronted with the frightening reality of being in a foreign country with less than ample money that I began to shave off the plumage of those daydreams and make them into realities that would both differ from and exceed their oneiric predecessors.
I was in Medellín, Colombia, when I decided to start putting out feelers for places to work in exchange for room and board. Call it luck or coincidence, but one of the first ads I found was for an artisan hotel on the island of San Cristóbal in the Galápagos. Within hours of sending them an email, I had received a positive reply and had bought a ticket for three days later, on a plane leaving from Quito, Ecuador. After over 48 hours of bus travel, a taxi ride I was sure would be my last (I had been unaware that Quito’s airport was an hour from the city and thought I was about to become a statistic of solo women travelers getting kidnapped), and a plane ride that seemed to last forever, I stepped onto the tarmac of the arid and breathtaking landscape of San Cristóbal.
The hotel I was to work at was called Hotel Katarma. Even though it was still under construction, it was studded with wonderful mosaics of animals endemic to the islands. The layout was open and airy, with a meticulously clean pool slicing through its center, and the ocean could be heard and seen from my spacious private room with adjoining bathroom. My duties were simple–I was to help Teresa, the cook and maid, prepare breakfast in the mornings, which was mostly limited to using my 2.5 languages to ask the guests how they liked their eggs. That task done, Teresa would make breakfast for us and we would sit and talk for a while. I learned how she lived with all her children, including her son’s girlfriend and their baby, and she would often tearfully tell me about the struggles in her life. I would do my best to comfort and listen to her, although it was hard for me to understand how trapped she felt in her life, being as I was almost completely unmoored from any true responsibility.
Teresa would later invite me to her house, which turned out to be two rooms and a kitchen surrounding a cement courtyard (when we entered, she asked me to por favor perdone la pobreza), and feed me ceviche and seco de pollo while her mostly grown children would ask me how many celebrities I knew and how much this or that cost in California. I would answer all their questions as gently as I could while holding the sticky, cheerful baby in my lap. I say gently because my admission that I didn’t know any celebrities or I had ever seen any caused their faces to crumple in disappointment. It was simple –Teresa’s invitation and provision of almuerzo, her family’s naive curiosity about the world they’d only seen on TV — and yet this time with them would prove to be some of the most meaningful I would experience.
Aside from breakfast, my only other duty at Katarma was to work the bar whenever there were guests to populate it, which was seldom considering it was the slow season for tourism. All in all, I generally worked about two hours a day. I passed the rest of my time during my three-and-a-half weeks on the island getting scuba certified (a splurge I figured was justified by the once-in-a-lifetime feeling of scuba diving in the Galápagos), wandering the boardwalk and beaches with my camera and a book in hand, playing fetch with lobo marino pups while snorkeling, and eating more Oreos and Ritz cheese crackers than I had since I was twelve years old because food on the islands is ridiculously expensive.
Time passed slowly, as it only can on an island of 6,000 people in the middle of the Pacific, but instead of measuring time in coffee spoons, I was measuring it in meters below sea level, in land iguanas, in sunsets observed alone from the end of an abandoned rock jetty. I was aware of the wonder of my situation, the luck that had led me to find a hotel that needed a volunteer in one of the very places I so dreamed of visiting, but would have been unable to do so because of my limited budget.
As I climbed the metal steps to board the plane that would take me back to the mainland, towards Quito and Cuyabeno and Puerto Cayo (where I would volunteer again but have an entirely different experience), I looked behind me and remembered a line from a Mary Oliver poem: “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” This, I thought to myself, this.
We’ve covered numerous volunteer opportunities in Cuenca if you’re looking for something a little less remote.