A line of autobus’ each with a man yelling their destination. Many stop us and ask “Where are you going?” “Salasaca!” We were rushed onto a bus crammed with people and animals and begin our journey costing us 50c. Twenty minuets later and a man yells out “Salasaca!” We are hurried off the bus with it still moving. But something wasn’t right. Where were the weaving markets we had read about? We began walking in a direction with think might be the right way, but the sun and the lost feeling begin to make us edgy. Finally a taxi came past and we asked if he could take us to Salasaca central. Fifteen minutes and $2 later he dropped us off at a colourful market full of beautiful weavings, jewellery, clothes and souvenirs. Yes, we were on the right track. We saw a sign with an arrow pointing to Pachamama, the hostal we were to stay at, and started walking. After a while we felt lost again and a little old lady with grass on her back was laughing at the silly lost gringos. We decide to turn around and head back to the markets to see if we could get a ride. We vaguely communicated to a guy with a camioneta that we wanted a ride to Pachamama hostal, he asked if we knew where it was. “Umm, not a clue” He told us to jump in and we proceeded to drive around for a while, a good way to see the area, I guess. Eventually he said in the little English he knew that he had a friend who spoke English and he took us to a blue square building.
It turned out that it was the community biblioteca and we met our fist two volunteers with whom we would be living with. A girl with a big smile came out to welcome us and introduced herself as Lizzy, from Wisconsin. She is an English and music teacher at the school. Behind her Nicholas emerges and shakes our hands. He is from France and works mostly at the library. We found out that the running of the biblioteca is also a part of the Sumak Kawsay Yachay (SKY) volunteer programme. SKY can be roughly translated as ‘a beautiful life through education’. SKY is an education foundation funded solely through donations. Nicholas and Lizzy then told us that the hostal was just down the road so we set off once more, finally pulling up in front of a big brick house with little gargoyle like creatures on the roof.
We were met at the door by a young French girl called Morgane. Guessing who we were, she was the person whom we had been communicating with via email. The longest running volunteer, Morgane had been working with the school for over six months and was staying on for a year more. Mostly teaching maths, she also helps with construction and administration. She showed us around the house explaining that she had moved out of the hostal to live next door and that we would meet the house manager later. A large communal area with colorful local art and tapestries met us beyond the door. Brick and stone with large vaulted ceilings. Two small bathrooms in the main room which led to a large kitchen populated by flies straying from the local pig farm. Two bedrooms lay in the main area of the house and led to a large patio area out back affording lovely views. Downstairs lay three more rooms and bathrooms with an outside area for washing clothes. Instructions on how the food works were a little different to the email as were a lot of things we were to find out, the information forwarded us a little out dated. Not all meals were to be provided which was fine, we love to cook. The hot water was a little shonky and the plumbing wasn’t so good. Lots of plunging the toilet was to follow. Morgane made us tea and we sat on the back patio which afforded an amazing view of a valley and many mountains. We were told that on a clear day you could see Chimboraso, the closest mountain to the sun because of the way the earth is shaped. We told Morgane of the difficulty of getting here and she explained that some of the Mestizos population (people of Spanish blood,) didn’t like coming to Salasaca because of the class difference and that Salasaca was a closed community until only 13 years ago. Around that time some outsiders came into Salasaca and the locals cut their heads off and put them back across the river. So there is still superstition on that front. Whenever you catch a bus here or a lift you have to be specific that you want Salasaca CENTRAL. We had read that the locals didn’t like outsiders (after we signed up) and this was an interesting yet nerve-racking story. Part truth and part myth these kind of incidents quickly become urban legend. Morgane then proceeded to tell us that it was easy to get parasites here from the water and that most people who come here get sick. We started feeling overwhelmed and a little uneasy. She said not to worry and that we’d feel at home in a week. We continued chatting about general getting to know you traveller talk when more people arrived. A couple from Sweden called Emma and Damir. Emma is the temporary house manager so Morgan left us in her hands and returned home. “Have you got a room yet?” “No, what do you have for us?” Going back out to the back patio Emma took us up some stairs to a small balcony leading to the “Penthouse” A triangle loft/attic in the roof of the house. With room to stand in the middle and ducking space elsewhere. We were not impressed with the dusty, fly infested, cobweb covered room with two single, smelly mattresses on the floor of different heights sinking in the middle and a small spinning wheel in the corner. We asked what other options we had and we were shown to a room on the basement level. Smelling strongly of mould, it had a few single beds which meant we would have to share if more volunteers came and it was right next to a shared toilet with bad plumbing. We decided to take the Penthouse. Private with less bad oders and the balcony had an amazing view.
There was only us and the other four that night, we were told that there was also an English couple here, but that they had gone away for the long weekend. Our timing of starting with SKY was in conjunction with the Easter long weekend. Thursday was our first day and we wouldn’t have to start work until Monday. The next day, after an uncomfortable sleep which ended up on one small mattress with our hips digging into the floor, we decided to spend our first full day in Salasaca fixing up our room. Dotahn had spotted some mattresses on the mezzanine above the kitchen and decided to find a way to climb up there. After several unsuccessful attempts he scrambled up, soon covered in dust and grime and found a nice, thick double mattress. After the exchange, some sweeping, mopping, cleaning the windows and tidying the space, the room was completely changed. We felt that we could be happy in the room with its new clean and personalised facade. The view from our window was breathtaking, tumbling clouds, tiers of mountain peaks and a valley of lush farmland. It seemed a very remote and different place. The strange and strangled sound of donkeys, sunshine pushing the lake of clouds from the valley below us and small, poncho-clad figures toiling in the fields. The local dress for men being a white shirt and pants, a black poncho over the top and a black rimmed hat. As the sun closed in on its path behind the mountains and the clouds thinned to coloured bands in the sky we settled into the communal area with dinner and felt at home. Appreciating our new nest in the roof and thankful for it’s cosiness after all. Sometimes you have to use your imagination to see the potencial in something and not disregard it at first glance. Talking late into the evening with Emma and Damir, it felt good to be meeting interesting people and to have the time to get to know them. Darkness fell and chilled the evening and as we ascended the stairs to bed it felt as if we had been transported to a different place. The gentle fields and quiet isolation had become a mass of lights and blinking traffic. What in the day was a small indigenous community at night became surrounded by what seemed to be a city. We realised that the city of Ambato which lay across the valley from us was closer in the night, the distances closed by darkness.
The next morning on the Saturday we awoke to what would become a very familiar song. “You light up my senses, like a night in the forest” Our first impression of Robert was to be a sweet early morning wake up tune of Annie’s song. Bleary eyed we made our way downstairs to the smell of porridge and an introduction to Robert, the founder of SKY. With a wealth of experience and a humour regardless of circumstance, Robert is a fascinating and enigmatic character of 78 years. Although rich in humility he has a story for every occasion and our discussions have been rich, exciting and a learning experience. Almost the sole funding source for the school, library and volunteer program, Robert moved to Ecuador around 15 years ago after 10 years in Mexico and originating from America. Asking what we had planed for the day we replied that we were going to check out a nearby town called Pelilao. Robert asked us if we wanted to see the school as it was on the way to Pelilao if we wanted to walk there instead of catching the bus. In the lifting cloud of the morning we made our way amongst the dust and cactus which lines the fields towards the hills with patchwork squares covering their sides like a giant quilt draped over their bodies. Robert told us stories along the way and pointed out the six local volcano’s which are visible on the walk. The poncho clad figures in the fields became animated as we drew closer with wide toothless smiles and many hearty “buenos dias”. We climbed the hill to a small road which followed the curves of the mountain, skirted by irrigation channels which seemed to defy gravity. About 40 minuets later we rounded a corner and came upon a small sign with Katitawa painted on it pointing up a snaking drive to a huddle of coloured buildings nestled in the hill. A small cage of solar panels harnessed the sun and fed a pump to bring water up to the school. A large garden growing a selection of vegetables and a composting system for the toilets, a plethora of construction projects, from dreams to works in progress abound. The small forest of fifty trees next to the school was supposed to be harvested soon, but Robert was trying to raise money to lease the area and preserve the trees. A large central building housed the main classrooms with another holding the tool shed and the nursery. Below was the kitchen and dining hall. A colourful Andean cross complete with sundial had been constructed below the main classrooms. The first projects to be focused on were the development of a small farm behind the school and the building of stairs leading to the nursery.
After we left the school Robert walked us to the local graveyard, explaining the local rituals and ideas of the dead before we parted ways, continuing our journey to Pelilao. As the road led us down the hill the rock led way to dust. A fine dark volcanic dust which was endemic to the area making it a necessity to cover your eyes when cars drove past and constantly sweep any room. Small, ramshackle concrete houses and flea-bitten dogs lying in the road. Farms made way for the beginnings of the town and soon we were walking in the cracks aside the crumbling remains of a main road. Concentrated buildings and increasing traffic of camionetas, buses and trucks led us to the area of Pelileo almost entirely made up of jeans shops. Dotahn needed some pants more suitable for work and so we weaved amongst the stores until we found the right pair. Small food vendors nestled amongst the denim hawked slices of pizza and almuerzos and large wheels above pits of flame skewered rings of roasting cuy. A large relative of the guinea pig and an Ecuadorian delicacy. With pants in hand we made our way into the centre of Pelileo and found a large, bustling market. Most vendes want to charge at minimum a dollar, so for the best bargain it’s best to buy more of everything. Sweet old ladies with blacken toothy smiles kept piling more things into our arms and forcing us to try their strange fruits. Loaded with vegetables we made our last stop at the supermarket and went in search of a bus back to Salasaca. A bus ride and a wind-swept hitch in the back of a camioneta brought us home to cook again, much to Dotahn’s satisfaction.
Sundays plans revolved around heading into Salasaca central to check out the weaving markets in town. Waving down a camioneta and an exchange of 10c and you have the wind in your hair balancing on the back of the tray, holding on tight as you go over speed bumps is the typical journey into town. The local farming produce as well as sweets, almuerzos and random meat vendors set up stalls next to the brightly coloured and beautiful craft work of the local weavers. Rows of stalls with women in the customary dress of Salasacans selling their wears. A traditional outfit for women consists of a white top, long black skirt with a coloured band around to hold it, long hair usually in a ponytail with coloured ribbon wound down the length, a shawl over their shoulders either of red, deep green or grape and at times a small rimmed hat. So many amazing things were on display. From scarves, shawls and wall hangings, to many varieties of ponchos, jumpers, hats, dolls, jewellery, blankets and much more than I can remember and all hand-made. We decided to come back next Sunday with more cash. That evening the British couple Ed and Tanya arrived back from a weekend away. They were the two english teachers at Katitawa. We spent the evening getting to know everyone better and uncovering our repoire with the newly arrived couple. With great senses of humour and a genuine caring nature Ed and Tanya quickly became friends. We realised all the little things we had in common with Lizzy, Nicholas swung between shy and quirky, Morgane had a wealth of knowledge about the area and we quickly became close with Damir and Emma. Our first weekend in Pachamama gave us the chance to develop friendships, settle into our room and to feel more at ease with the coming month.
Once more the strains of Robert’s song drifted through the house as the week morning sun pushed the clouds from the surrounding vulcanos. With porridge bubbling around cheery good mornings we discussed the coming week and our new found roles in the volunteer program. Emmily was to start out in the nursery, helping Antonia the nursery teacher and Dotahn was to begin construction of the nursery stairs. As we strolled amongst the lowing cattle, sheep and braying donkeys we chatted with Robert about the community and the school’s place within it. As Emmily was tugged away by the smallest of the children, Dotahn was taught the fine art of simple composting toilets. With breath held Dotahn learned that the material from the toilet maintained a constant temperature of 110 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The buckets were washed and the smell hidden below a pile of weeds and clippings from the garden. The stairs proved tricky with the tools at hand, but were soon taking form. Planks of wood cut to size and held in place with stakes were measured and readied for the concrete to be poured. The nursery proved chaotic and fun with small, gorgeous, messy niňos running around hitting each other, pulling things apart, laughing and gluing random things together. The simple structure of the school day broke first with colada, the morning break named after the simple drink made with a type of flour, coconut and vanilla. As the sweat built in the mid morning sun, the lunch siren rang and we flocked to the kitchen for a simple soup with a few potatoes and silver beet. After lunch Emm went down to the Biblioteca to help out with Emma, Damir and Nicolas chase around the local kids and read to them as well as look after the use of the internet . When school finished Dotahn traipsed down the hill to hang out at the library also and check up on our internet connections, albeit slow and time limited. We all decided to have a game of soccer on the volleyball field of packed earth across the road from the house. Besides our lacking in the skills required we won the match and had a happy dinner over beers with the housemates.
The following day Dotahn was introduced to an older volunteer from Baňos, Ramel. Ramel was to work with him on the stairs. With an interesting partner in construction the forms for the stairs were finished and the concrete began to pour, filling the moulds, ready to be reinforced with gravel and earth. Emmily got crafty in the nursery and made a maraca and a bunny fashioned from tissue paper, followed by the excitment that only blowing bubbles can bring.
The rest of the week followed the simple pattern of morning porridge with interesting conversations with Robert on the way to school, work, soccer and a lovely meal with our fabulous housemates. Dotahn continued working on the stairs whilst Emmily tried to teach in the nursery and help out at the library in the afternoons. Asked by Morgane to try and show the kinder kids numbers because when the move up into her class most of them still can’t count. This proved almost impossible except for Franchesca and Adrian who liked to show off their skills. Caeser created havoc pushing both objects and kids around equally whilst the rest of them fraught over blocks and chairs to make random forts and Jessica and Estrella wanted little to do with the rest of them, content to play quietly in the corner with puzzles. We did manage to create seed pictures in shapes (Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! So much glue everywhere) and Emm made a sunflower to go on the wall.
Food was a popular topic at our international share house. So many great cooks with different approaches to food stemming from our various homelands. Damir, who is a chef by trade, was introduced to peanut butter and went crazy. Putting it into everything from porridge to salad. We now have a new found appreciation for the simple spread. Recipes were swapped, lots of pizza was made with interesting toppings, ingredients were shared and as the gastronomical conversations accumulated we all decided that on Friday we would have a massive desert feast. Ed suggested that this would be the perfect opportunity for us to sample the local rum so he decided to go on a mission to retrieve 10 bottles at $1 each. On Thursday afternoon Dotahn escaped to Pelileo with Ed on a mission to eliminate the possibility of babies. With this mission quickly and thankfully completed they spent some quality time with beer. Discussions of politics, travel and cultural differences coincided with a thorough exploration of the sale points of cerveza within Pelileo. The afternoon culminated in a lesson on reducing the over-frothing of beer in plastic cups and a trouncing at pool.
Friday came fast and our first week was over. Dotahn’s stairs were setting in the sun and Emmily was a little exhausted by the nursery. The language barrier with Antonia was frustrating for the both of them and the lack of any control or structure proved too much, like babysitting a zoo. Antonia didn’t seem to mind the constant fighting and destroying and Emm thought her time could be better spent than just making puzzles with Jessica and trying to keep them all occupied before they ran wild around the school grounds. Ideas are challenge constantly here, child rearing is a different world with kids at the age of four carrying around machetes amongst other things that would make a western world cringe. Having spoken to Emma and Damir about a puppet theatre they were going to build at the biblioteca next week Emmily got excited and spoke to Robert about the details. An arts project being exactly what she wanted to get involved in.
The deserts rolled thick and fast to the table and the cuba libres started early. The arrival of Gautam (Googie) was timely as he was able to partake in the sweet feast. A lovely guy from India with an easygoing attitude and keen intelligence. Two Irish guys, Rick and Nigel also arrived a little later in the evening with a box of chickens and ducks for the school as well as a swathe of books and pencils. Saint Nicholas was soon born as Nicholas made the rounds to ensure all glasses were perpetually full. With dancing, yoga sessions, rounds of jokes and the antics of an ever growing group the night was great fun.