I spent 14 – 25 September living in the jungle on an English teaching project and had an amazing time! The Great Aves charity was set up in 2007 in England as a non-profit organisation by Nick Greatrex who founded The Arajuno Project and fundraised to then work with Juan Leon Mera school at km 35 in March 2008. Since then an additional 4 schools have been added to the project and regularly have volunteers going in to work with the children. The project is based in Le Oriente, the Ecuadorian Amazon where many indiginous communities live and work, and the capital of the district I have stayed in is Puyo. From here it is another 1 hour bus journey to Arajuno Road to km 32 where the volunteers live during their stay, and all the schools are based along the road to Arajuno.
The purpose of GA is to help improve education around the world by providing assistance to local schools in the developing world. El Triunfo is one of the newest additions and has an English teacher that is assisted by volunteers, but the others would not be taught any English if it were not for this project. The bus from Puyo to Arajuno makes several stops that don´t have names but are defined by the distance from Puyo, hence one school being named km 35. Each school has up to 25 students aged between 4-12 and are grouped into different grades, sometimes there are one 1 or 2 pupils in a grade. School starts at 7.30am and ends around 12.30pm with an hour lunch at around 10am. We work to a curriculum and plan the lessons regularly. As well as Lukas who is the current project manager and keeps everything in check and the house in order, there is also a volunteer coordinator position that lasts 3 months at a time to keep on top of lesson plans and activities undertaken in class. There can be up to 7 volunteers present at any one time and I´ve spent my two weeks with 4 other volunteers from England, America and Australia, as well as the coordinators from America and Austria. We´ve worked together on planning activities to teach the children numbers, greeting, feelings and how to say their name in English. This is my first time teaching English and it is actually more difficult than I imagined(!) but I think it gets easier with practice.
I have my first day at km 40, a new school for the project and the students I am told are very well behaved compared to some of the others! They are very keen and attentive and ask me what my name is in Spanish; my name is particularly difficult to pronounce for Latinos I have found compared to many English names! We use a white board, cards and games to teach them numbers, and expressions to teach them feelings. Some of them are quite shy when put on the spot and its sometimes hard to tell what is going in so they are tested at the end and given homework.
This project was just what I was looking for, an opportunity to live in the jungle for a once in a lifetime experience, and to give something back to the community. To my disappointment I don´t do any teaching during my second week as the schools are on strike, the teachers that is. I find out later that the current president has introduced competency testing for all of the teachers and they are up in arms about this. Others say it is to do with rates of pay. I have heard of demonstrations taking place in the streets around Ecuador and seen them with my own eyes when we spend a day in Tena. Not a day goes by in South America without a protest going on somewhere.
I learn that the kids at km 35 (the first school that joined the project) are doing very well and there is evidence that their English is improving after a year of support from volunteers. At the age of 12 these students will go on to different schools (they call this college) in Puyo or Arajuno, up to 90 minutes away by bus. They continue to learn English and hopefully what they have picked up during their younger years will prevent them from falling behind others and give them a head start in life. Not everyone goes to school/college, some at the age of 12 will finish their education and join their family to work, usually farming and living off the land. There are many people living in the jungle that started working at the age of 5, or even younger.
Great Aves are planning to expand and develop a project in Columbia where there are fewer English Language Teaching volunteers due to the notorious reputation this country has had over the years. For more information and if you´re interested in volunteering in Ecuador visit http://www.youvolunteer.org
I take the bus to Puyo and Arajuno a few times with some of the other volunteers so we can have an Almuerzo in town, use the internet and make any necessary purchases. I love these bus journeys, the driver is always playing reggaeton music, the breeze through the open windows (even though my face is covered in dust and I´m literally eating it by the time I get off) seeing people getting on and off, students going to college, men at work maybe on their way home or to another part of the jungle, and many many many young mothers breast feeding their babies. Some Latino women most definitely look a lot older than they are, it is quite surprising. The atmosphere is friendly and relaxed. There is usually one bus an hour from our house, but of course the service is not very reliable and if you´re unlucky you might be waiting for quite some time!
Living in the Jungle
Life in the jungle is interesting to say the least, and an experience I will never forget. I´m sharing a room in the lovely wooden house with three other girls; Naomi and Anna from America, and Jess from Australia. We rise at 7am to get to school by 8.30am. It´s a pleasure to be having cereal and fruit for breakfast having eaten so much bread over the last few weeks- so far so good! Lukas the project manager does the food shopping in Puyo every Monday so we´re well stocked up for my first day. The children at the school are quite shy having not met any of us before so this is understandable. We spend the morning teaching them greetings using actions, they get the hang of it after a while but pronouncing some of the words is so difficult for them. We leave school around 12.30pm and board our beloved red truck that seats 7 people (at a push) and drive down the bumpy road home. I love these journeys despite the fact that your head almost hits the roof due to all the jolts and jerks the car makes. We try to cover the painful sound by playing music from a very small CD collection in the glove compartment consisting of; Red Hot Chilli Peppers, British Indie music compilation entitled ´Chilled´ (first track is Blur – ´End of a Century´ so I´m happy), Queen´s Greatest Hits and Kanye West. Sometimes if it has rained during the night the seats are wet so you get out of the car with a soggy bottom(!). On our journey down the Arajuno road we often see locals young and old, everyone here gives each other a wave on passing by, such a nice mellow feeling. One day a young family hitch a ride with us on their way to work, carrying their machetes, a shy young boy around the age of 7 sits on my lap bouncing up and down on my knee as the car rattles along.
I learn that the road is soon going to be improved by a local Italian owned oil company, but only the section that is necessary for them and no more-it´s all about the bottom line of course. I would expect them to give something more back to the local community, especially due to the negative impact these companies have on jungle inhabitants, affecting the environment and historically small communities have had to relocate. Some homes now have generators so have some electricity which I guess in some ways is a good thing and partly thanks to the oil companies, but I´m sure in the end they do more harm that good. Oil is one of Ecuador´s key revenue streams and vital to economic growth and development, how much foreign owners have been taking advantage of this over the years is not to my knowledge but I know that this has been a difficult and contentious subject for a long time, as in other parts of the world. I want to find out more about this.
At home we spend the afternoons lazing in hammocks, reading books, playing cards, and generally having a very chilled out time-is great! We have two dogs Lucy and Jim who are adorable at times, jumping on us and licking us when we return home. They can hear us coming in advance and start barking and panting down the hill towards the car. It´s the same in the morning, Lucy runs after the car for as long as she can, sometimes far to close the wheel I can´t bear to watch. The cats (I´m not fond of cats) are great to have around, you often see Biscuit proudly walking across a room with two huge wings hanging from her mouth – she´s the insect killer and eater, great in the evenings when huge moths and other creatures come to annoy us and put out our candles when we´re trying to play cards.
We take a few jungle walks to get some exercise and generally for the fun of it, passing lots of weird and wonderful bugs on our way, some huge spiders and lush green plants and trees-I can´t believe I am here! After an hour´s very difficult descent one day wearing our wellington boots and getting stuck in the mud we finally reach a bridge, cross a river and everyone gets straight in the water. It´s good fun, and I´m reminded of tacky Hollywood films like Predator, films paint such a picture of the world for us, and when we´re traveling we recall forgotten flics we have seen and then decide how true they are.
One weekend me and a British couple John and Ellen also living in the house go on a trek deep into the jungle and sleep there overnight. Cosme is our guide, along with his sister in law and her two young children. It´s raining a bit so we are wearing our raincoats, the extra slippery-ness is making me nervous so I take my time. Cosme is wearing a huge black sheet for a raincoat, and the way he rushes through the jungle jumping from rocks and swinging ropes reminds me of Tarzan, Rambo and Batman all at the same time! We walk and climb through difficult paths, waterfalls, mud, rocks and trees, its quite difficult but a joy when we reach our destination. Cosme prepares ours beds; huge green leaves with thick hard stems that we will lie on tonight in our sleeping bags. Meanwhile his older brother Hector arrives and his wife cooks us a delicious dinner of fish and plantain. Cosme has prepared a huge fire to keep us warm and we sit in the dark damp jungle with our hands around mugs of hot tea. Later we pass around some Cubalibre (Rum and Coke) and chat with the family, they speak barely no English at all so its a good test for us all. Cosme is 25 years old and starting working when he was 5. The family are great and look after us well.
Cosme sleeps in a hammock next to\ us, I soon forget about any potential snakes and scary animals creeping around and get some sleep, although I can feel the stems from the leaves through my sleeping bag so this is quite uncomfortable. I wake up at 6am in the morning to the sound and smell of eggs cooking, breakfast tastes just great as we´ve earned it, salty fried eggs with bread and more plantain. Now we need to climb up and the sun is hot. I´m slow and Cosme teases me about this all the way up. The two brothers make us crowns out of leaves and take a red liquid from the trees that looks like blood and spread it on our faces with their fingers, jungle warriors that we are! Hector picks out various jungle creatures and insects for us to look at more closely, and Cosme hacks down a tree so we can try the tasty sweet sugar cane like fruit that is hidden under the bark. There are many medicinal values and properties to be found in the amazon, its precious and beautiful, we must preserve it. Hector gives me a hand up some difficult rocks and hacks away at leaves and bushes making way for us coming behind him. About four hours later we reach our starting point and I´m so relieved! Can´t wait to get home and get in the shower! On the bus I get a few funny looks and mostly smiles, then I realise my face is still covered in red jungle paint and I´m wearing my jungle crown!
At 6pm the generator comes on in the house and we turn on the lights. Ít´s quite loud but you get used to it eventually. Each day we take it in turns to cook and normally eat around 7pm so we can enjoy a drink, chat and do what we need to do with electric lights. At 9pm the house goes silent when Lukas turn of the generator, and candles are placed around the house. Sometimes when we´re sitting around the kitchen table huge moths fly into the burning candles taking them out, my worst nightmare is this happening while I am in the shower! Sometimes we spend the evenings watching a DVD on a powered up laptop, play drinking games or lie in the hammocks looking up at the stars. One Friday night we light a fire in the courtyard, drink Cubalibres and toast marshmallows. Oh what fun this is I will be so sad to leave! At night I sleep with a mosquito net hanging over my bed, I thought this would take getting used to, but something about being in the middle of nowhere, the sounds of the hissing jungle, the kind and enjoyable company I am in all together put me straight to sleep. At the end of my two weeks in the jungle we all travel together to Banos, the next stop on my expedition for a big night out, and I say goodbye to my jungle friends, ready to start the next chapter of my adventure.