Tuesday I got back to work and realized I had to leave on a work trip the next day. We send summer volunteers out to this region called Intag which is deep in the cloud forests of Ecuador. I needed to go and liaise with our contacts there, visit the schools and also the host families that we generally use. This region is where we send those volunteers that want a super authentic experience. There are few amenities there – no cell service, not even a bar in one of the larger villages. Wed morning I took a bus out to Otavalo and from there another bus into Intag. It was a long ride as we circled the mountains on dirt and gravel roads and of course no guard rails. There were even some mini waterfalls that fall down the mountain and those sections were even more treacherous as the stones were nice and smooth and perfect for slipping. I have survived to tell the tale however.
Lacking in the conveniences of a larger city, the people more than made up for it with their friendliness. Everyone says Buenos Dias or Buenas Tarde. Everyone knows everyone and people walk around leaving their homes unlocked.
Cuellaje (pronounced Ku-ya-hey)
I met up with the lovely Cecilia Alvarez who’s our main contact in the towns of Cuellaje and La Loma; she’s a teacher at the school in La Loma and the main contact for volunteers while they’re there. I actually asked Cecilia how they came up with the name Cuellaje and she told me this lovely story.
Around early 1900s or so, a man came upon the town and bought it for a pack of cigarettes, a rifle and around $5 (my memory is failing me but that’s about the gist of it; should have written this down soon after she told me the story). He, his family and a few other people settled the town and for food they would farm and hunt. There were many birds in that region and so they would shoot the birds for meat. They started to notice that in the birds’ collars there were precious gems. The birds had been feeding from the local rivers and when as they fished, they would pick up precious gems from the river that remained in their feathers. So when the hunters shot down the birds they’d find the gems. And that’s how the town got it’s name. A necklace is called a collar (pronounced ko-yarr) and so the bird had a “collar de gemas” (ko-yar de ye-mas). “Collar de gemas” => Cuellaje. It seems that most of the residents of Cuellaje are descendants of these hunting families. The Intag region was one of the last to be settled in Ecuador so they’re still quite close to their settler history.
Anyhow, once I arrived, I was immediately taken to the school in Cuellaje to visit the head teacher and have a tour of the school. While it’s definitely a poor area, it’s obvious that the teachers care deeply about their school and are really excited to have World Teach volunteers coming. Here’s are a couple of views from inside the classroom:
The school received some computers from the government and they’re excited about that.
After meeting with everyone and getting the summer contract signed, we got a local to give us a ride to La Loma to see that school and meet the host family. Only about 35 students attend that school and there are only two classrooms covering kindergarten to about 7th grade. Each grade has a desk within the classroom. There are two teachers. One teacher teachers kindergarten to around 2nd grade and the other teacher (Cecilia) covers the rest.
Here are some photos of the school.
After visiting the school, we went to meet the host family. It’s a lovely couple with two pre-teen kids. The house is nice though humble. The family grows everything they eat. This seems to be the norm in this farming community.
They also raise mules. The host dad said he was looking forward to the volunteers arrival so that they could go riding together. I really think that the volunteer I placed there will love the location and the family. He said he wanted to be immersed in the community and have few interactions with other foreigners. I’ve given him exactly what he wanted.
Back to Cuellaje
After the host family meeting, we were driven back to Cuellaje. I went to Cecilia’s house and had a snack and met her mother, sister and brothers. I had some delish guava jelly that the family makes themselves. I could have drowned in it. It was so lovely. I gave Cecilia some chocolates I’d bought in Quito as a thank you for showing me around.
Cecilia then took me to a small hostel where I would spend the night. We then walked around the tiny town park a few times chatting and watching the teenagers play Ecua volley (volleyball but played on cement). I then went to my hostel, had dinner, and soon went to bed. I paid $8.50 for my hostel including dinner that night and breakfast the next morning.
The next morning I had to be on a 6:15am bus to Peñaherrera to visit another site where we’ll be sending one volunteer. There are few buses that pass though that region and so I had to get up that early to be on my way. Luckily school starts at 7am so it all worked out. There I met the rector (principal), Edgar Carrera. He spoke some English though I think my Spanish was better than his English so to make sure that certain things were understood I would switch to Spanish. The rest of the time I humored his English as he was happy to practice it. I got the contract signed and was ready to go by 8am.
Schools here are also concerned about H1N1:
Lacking buses, I had to get a ride with a guy who was heading into Apuela (a larger town not too too far away where buses pass more frequently). The driver was a friend of the principal’s so it was all safe. In that area of the country, pretty much hitchhiking is the main way to get around. There’s only one bus that goes into the area during the day and one or two buses leaving. Few people have cars and so if you need to get somewhere you have to hitchhike. I got to Apuela without incident, waited about half an hour and then got a bus to Otavalo. Then on to Quito. I was supposed to be on the trip until Friday but I managed to get everything done (it being a small town and all and everything informal) and was back in Quito by lunchtime.
While I loved the friendliness of the people, I’m a big city girl and probably wouldn’t have survived much longer than the couple of days I was there.
In other news, Tungurahua, a volcano in Baños erupted a bit and ash is all over Ecuador. Quito isn’t affected but people are walking around wearing masks in Riobamba, Ambato, and even as far south as Guayaquil.