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Elizabeth Mooney - Creative Arts in Ecuador

Sea lions on a beach in Ecuador

I am sitting here writing this volunteer story at home, looking out of the window at the swirling snow, thinking it couldn’t be more different from when I stepped off the plane on the sunny island of San Cristobal in the Galapagos. I was actually two thirds of the way through a three-month trip of a lifetime and really excited about my two-week Projects Abroad placement, as I’d had a hectic time trekking in Nepal, riding the bullet train in Japan, and travelling around Nicaragua, before arriving in Ecuador.

Why I decided to volunteer in Ecuador

Having been to Peru a few years earlier, I had wanted to fit in Ecuador as well but there wasn’t enough time, so when I found the Projects Abroad Creative & Performing Arts Project, it was like it was meant to be. Music has been a lifelong hobby; I started learning the flute at an early age and studied music at undergrad and post-graduate level. Music and performing is very much still part of my life so I was looking forward to being part of the Galapagos project to spend time with the local people, learn about the history and way of life on the islands, and to share my knowledge with the community.

First impressions of San Cristobal

Volunteers go out for ice-cream during their free time

Meeting me at the airport was a friendly Projects Abroad staff member. We got into a Toyota pick-up (which I soon learned was the favoured vehicle for taxi drivers on the island) and five minutes later, we arrived at my host family’s house where I was warmly welcomed and shown to my room. I was then taken out for an orientation tour, where I marvelled at the sea lions who wandered up and down the promenade and sat on the benches, and of course congregated on the beaches around Playa do Oro and the other beaches in the vicinity.

The actual town of San Cristobal is very small and logically laid out so you can’t really get lost, and everyone we met was very friendly and I soon felt at home. Arriving back at the house, my housemate, and fellow musician, invited me to go down to Playa Mann to meet some of the other volunteers to watch the sunset. It was a Sunday, and therefore we had no work, so I got to meet most of the volunteers I would spend the next two weeks with. As I watched the sea lions playing in the sea as the sun went down, I knew I would enjoy my time here.

My Creative & Performing Arts placement

Volunteers playing music during a cultural evening

I had met with William, the Country Director, on my arrival day, Sunday, prior to the orientation tour, and he had given me an overview about Projects Abroad and my work on the project. The next day, I was up bright and early and another member of staff took me to the school opposite Playa Mann beach, where I would spend the mornings with the music teacher doing a full school day from 7:15am to 12:35pm.

As I don’t speak Spanish, my Projects Abroad colleague was invaluable in translating things like the songs we sang, and she stayed with me for the first couple of days. She was really friendly, supportive and encouraging and I appreciated her kind help as I navigated my way around, and taught the recorder to enthusiastic and sometimes very boisterous students! I also assisted the English teacher for a couple of days and ended up taking a Year 1 class on my own, which was slightly chaotic but fun.

The afternoons found me at the office working with my housemate (who spoke Spanish) and another volunteer, teaching English to a small group of four to five year olds, and then doing an art activity with them following on from what we’d covered in the English lesson. For example, one lesson was teaching them Z and words beginning with Z i.e. zebra, and then we went into the art room and made pictures of zebras.

It was quite challenging at times but also rewarding when we’d had a successful creative afternoon. My housemate and I were leaving on the same day, and after she had explained that the following day would be our last, one of them sat down and drew a lovely picture of us all having a goodbye party with balloons and even a piñata! I was quite sad to say goodbye to them all.

My host family and the other volunteers

A Music volunteer teaching children in Ecuador

The host family I stayed with were amazing and it really felt like it was a home from home. The home-cooked meals were simple yet scrumptious and we sat round as a family and ate together for lunch and dinner, and in the evenings they helped us with our Spanish and we helped them with their English homework. During the weekend, my housemate visited another island, so our host father took me out on his scooter and we visited the highlights of San Cristobal such as La Galapaguera, the giant tortoise sanctuary, some of the amazing viewpoints, and a pristine beach called Puerto Chino (where I could have happily spent the rest of the day), and then went back to his farm for a rustic lunch and to admire his orange trees and very noisy pigs!

Local children during an arts and crafts class

The other volunteers were also very friendly and we used to meet up most days after work at one of the restaurants on the sea front for a coffee or a beer, and we sometimes played pool and had a cocktail or two in one of the bars. There were also opportunities to visit the bakery to sample the cakes and also treat ourselves to ice cream once in a while! As we were on a variety of different projects, the Projects Abroad team also encouraged us to get together by organising social events, one of which was a ‘cultural’ evening held at the house where the Conservation volunteers lived.

I was asked to play something at the cultural evening, but I had no music and the only instrument I had was a Nepalese wooden flute I had bought in Kathmandu to present as a gift to Projects Abroad. I felt I wanted to contribute so one evening I composed a piece of music, drawing on my Galapagos experiences, and performed it on the Nepalese flute, alongside my housemate who performed on her trumpet, a dance volunteer who treated us to some ballet, and one of the staff members who sang a couple of songs. It was an evening I will never forget.

Beyond the Galapagos

My time on San Cristobal was very special and I wish I could have stayed there longer. Now that I have experience volunteering with Projects Abroad, it has inspired me to do more, and I’ve already signed up for my 2018 adventure: a Journalism Project in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia!

Elizabeth Mooney

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