Volunteering on a coffee farm in tropical forest, working at the reception in hostel, exploring the historical center of Quito, learning the Spanish language, fighting with rain and sudden weather changes.
It has been more than a month, when Peter and I left Slovakia for discovering the world again. We successfully tried this kind of long-term slow traveling connected with volunteering three years ago in Asia. Now, we chose a new continent. For this time it was me who quit my job, while Peter was a freelancer and therefore he had to manage other administrative things. Our travel plan in very sketch: we would like to move as slow as possible and dedicate most of the time for volunteering through networks as helpx/wwwoof/workaway. We had successfully worked in hostel and on a farm in exchange for free food and accommodation in Asia back in 2014, so we will see how it goes this time.
Our South-American adventure started in Quito, the capital of Ecuador. We didn´t have any specific preference for the place of arrival. The price was obviously most important for us and we secretly dreamed about all possible Andean destination. At the end, we were quite lucky. One way ticket from Madrid to Quito (with a stopover in Guayaquil, Ecuador) cost around 370 EUR. Along with the Ryanair ticket from Bratislava to Madrid, the transport to Ecuador was arranged. Our first activity was working at a coffee farm and now we are volunteering in a hostel, where we work at the reception.
It all started with a coffee..
The very first week of our South-American adventure took place in a coffee farm in the middle of the tropical forest about 1,5 hour bus ride north of Quito. It was a middle-sized coffee plantation in a hilly area, half an hour from the Nanegalito village by foot. Our boss Alejandro was an old guy who apparently visited the whole world (except for Slovakia) and did everything perfectly according to himself. And somehow, we were not like him. We seriously tried to do things as good as possible but the instructions were really unclear and mysterious so we mostly used the method of trial and error. During the time spend there, we were lucky enough to learn a bit about the process of producing coffee. Most of the coffee cherries were not ripe, so we only had to pick the few which were already red. The whole process continued with hand peeling to remove all the skins and pulp. This part was really monotonous and quite boring actually. My eyes didn´t like it that much. At the end of our stay in a farm, we finally had the chance to roast and grind the coffee beans and after that we drank it all! To be honest, it was a strange taste!
Apart from working with coffee, we also did a bit of housekeeping, cooking, helping with the construction of a garden house and digging a small channel. We were feeding chickens and a guinea pig (cuy in Latin American Spanish). The last one is not considered to be a pet in this region but a very tasty dish! We haven´t tried the roasted cuy yet. There were several hummingbird (colibríes in Spanish) feeders in the farm. Feeding them with the sugary water (nectar), which we had made, was definitely an unusual experience. Observing from the terrace how those small tiny birds were drinking, was just amazing!
When it comes to our relation with coffee, it is necessary to explain same basic facts.Several of our friends have already asked about this too. In this super coffee country, we are totally able to drink the coffee as much as it is being consumed around. The coffeewas drunk along with every dish at the farm and is also being drunk very often here in the hostel. Back in Bratislava for instance, we often went to take a coffee with our friends after work or simply during work. Peter sometimes became addicted to coffee so he drank it several times a day. But the curious part is that we almost never prepared coffee for ourselves at home. The only time there was a coffee bag in our Bratislava flat was when we tried to prepare tiramisu dessert. The same for our parents households in Banska Bystrica. We almost ever drank a coffee there. It is really interesting as I worked as a barista back in New York City during the summer of 2010. Our coffee relationship is really quite complicated. Who knows how it goes after staying in these super coffee-addicted countries.
Equatorial and mountainous metropolis at the same time- Quito
From the tropical forest, we slowly moved to a huge city. With the elevation of 2850 meters above sea level, Quito is the second highest capital in the world. (La Paz in Bolivia is arguably the highest). However Quito is not the most populated city in Ecuador (port city of Guayaquil has a bigger population), it is however a true metropolis. The metro underground transit system is being built now and should start operating in 2019. The city lies in a valley hemmed in by volcano peaks. The shape of the city resembles a sausage with the length of 50 km and 10km width. The system of Bus Rapid Transit popular in developing countries (I had the chance to try it in Mexico City or Istanbul before) has been operating here for more than 20 years. The buses and trolleybuses have individual lines and stop at designated platform stations.
Quito is presented in many travel guidebooks as a city of eternal spring. It is really interesting to be located only 20 km away from the equator and at very high altitude at the same time. The annual average temperature is 15 °C. The whole month of May was rather chilly and rainy with some hot and sunny periods. However the weather is changing now and it is more warm and rainless than before. However I prefer another saying concerning Quito crazy weather: here, you can experience all seasons during the same day. We simply need to wear a jacket when we go out at night. While it is necessary to put on sun screen when it is sunny because the sun burn is of a tropical level. And it is important to never forget to take a rain coat. This is how we fight this very unpredictable equatorial hilly weather!
Historical center of Quito along with the Polish city of Krakow were the first cities declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1978. Quito downtown is truly big and well preserved. Although there are not any Pre-Colombian sites from Inca times, colonial style buildings and churches are really abundant. As Quito is a hilly city, nice places with great views are super popular and numerous. One of the most famous cafes with marvellous vistas is Mosaico cafe located less than a 20 minutes walk from our hostel in the vicinity of Itchimbia park. The prices are quite high but one drink is absolutely worth it.
Quito lies only about 20 km south from the equatorial line, so we both went to the Southern Hemisphere for the first time in our lives. The closest we had been before was in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where we were near to the 3rd parallel. At that time, we volunteered in a hostel too. ‘Mitad del Mundo’ or The half of the World as is literally translated name of the equatorial monument is undoubtedly the most visited site in the country. Going there by bus takes about an hour and a half and they are open all year round. The most popular selfie from Ecuador is definitely the one of a person standing on both hemispheres. Later GPS measures proved that the actual equator is located 250 meters from the original historical monument which was built in the 1980s. That is why another smaller and less known museum of Intiñán was established. Now, you can have two selfies with two equatorial lines, the fake and the real one.
During the day, historical part of Quito is full of people. Locals in traditional dresses, locals in very modern clothes, lost tourists, found tourists, kids, street vendors selling everything, stray dogs and police patrolling the area. Walking policemen, police on horses, on segways, on motorbikes. This completely changes at night. There are not much people in the streets, taxis are really everywhere and so the people waiting for the taxis. Police is omnipresent. It is highly recommended to always take a taxi, to not walk in quiet areas and never carry a lot of money. Simply said, Quito by night is apparently less safe than we are used to compared to big European cities. We already used night buses, night taxi rides and we also sometimes like to walk around at night (the sun sets at 6 pm here at the equator), but we try to stay cautious all the time.
Hostelling in the city center (again :))
After not-that-perfect volunteering on a coffee farm, we experienced a little big drama with getting our current job at the hostel when they kept changing our arrival dates and it all seemed a bit chaotic at the beginning. Now, we are fully enjoying probably our best volunteering placement found through helpx. This hostel is rather small and quiet, the maximum capacity of beds is 35. We have mainly private rooms with private or shared bathroom and we have only one dormitory. We are currently four international volunteers here. The reception is open from 8 am to 11 pm. Each volunteer works for 5 hours a day so the day consists of three shifts: morning, afternoon and night. One of us is always having a day off :-))
We are constantly comparing this volunteering experience with the hostel in Kuala Lumpur, where we worked for more than two months back in the summer of 2014. It is quite a different episode. This hostel has one third of the capacity of that super busy and noisy Malaysian hostel. Here is only one person working at the reception at the same time and sometimes with an abundance of a free time. This hostel is very seldom fully booked and once in a while there is more staff than actual guests. Nevertheless the atmosphere here is really friendly and cozy, clients are usually staying for several nights and are returning often. We provide breakfast for an extra fee. So during our morning shift, we turn into cooks specialized in making scrambled or fried eggs. All volunteers live together in a staff room. A Colombian guy, Ivan, is here for more than 2 months and Argentinian German was recently replaced by a Dutch guy Bart. Bart did editing of this text, muchas gracias! During our first days in hostel, Anna, the lady from Prague, the Czech republic was training us. Her second son (in our age) got happily married so Anna enjoyed volunteering holidays after the wedding ceremony. It was truly unusual to be trained using Czech-Slovak language in the middle of Ecuador!
The hostel is family-run business. Ornelia, the owner is a really nice Ecuadorian lady who lives here with her partner and her youngest son- Borys. He goes to high school and is the only member of the family that speaks perfectly English. The older children come over almost every day and help running hostel and travel agency. None of them speaks English well so we do really communicate in Spanish! And it works!
There are way less crazy travelers than we used to meet on a daily basis at the hostel in Malaysia, but there are still many interesting backpackers worth mentioning:
-Danish guy who traveled by hitchhiking boats. He had previous sailing experience and was simply moving around the ports and getting in touch with possible captains looking for a new crew. A very inspirational and unusual way of transport!
-Finish-Estonian couple who met each other many years ago in Australia during working holiday program. They worked and lived in many places around the world, currently enjoying sunny Ecuadorian beaches at Galapagos islands. Sari and Gunnar are traveling for more than a half year now and their plan is to go all the way down to the south of South America.
-French guy who wanted to climb all possible Ecuadorian volcanoes. He kept adjusting his plan daily according to the unpredictable volcano and weather changes. He unintentionally hiked through The Death Pass (Passo de Muerte) during his way to Rucu Pichincha, on the way to the main peak in Quito. On the top of cable car peak, he joined group of local avid hikers and experienced one of his hardest hikes ever. Nothing was planned before, he wanted to take regular hiking path but it all ended differently. He also helped me with proofreading my Slovak – French translation text for a friend.
-Australian senior couple which stayed here few times during their trips around Ecuador. They had to twice postponed the flights to the USA because of issues with ESTA certificate and had to return to hostel at a late night hour. The problem was finally solved and they happily left Ecuador for their new adventure.
-At one time, we had here one disassembled bicycle in a box, one surf and two big motorbikes. Later, the Swiss guy assembled his bike and went to the jungle. The British old couple went up to Colombia on their huge motorbike. The unfortunate French Canadian guy who always parked his old motorbike in front of hostels he was staying in during his 4-month journey just realized one Saturday morning that his motorbike was stolen here. The Police came over twice to investigate the case but for now, the motorbike is still in an unknown place.
Aqui hablamos español (We speak Spanish here)
It is a well-known backpacking recommendation that you should speak some Spanish when traveling South America. I have been actually studying Spanish for quite a long time, for about 6 years now, but I never really spoke it. During my university studies, Spanish was my third foreign language and we simply never went beyond the beginnings. I caught quite a lot of Mexican slang words when I was working in the USA during summer jobs, a long time ago. At that time, I was actually able to read some free Mexican tabloid newspapers. Last year in Bratislava, during my corporate career, I attended Spanish classes twice a week. Thank you my former employer for that great benefit! But still, I was never really speaking the language. Peter started checking the book >Spanish for beginners> around January this year. He was slowly doing many online exercises and listening to the Gipsy Kings.
When we were flying from Slovakia to Ecuador, we had a 24-hour stopover in Madrid, Spain. It was there where we started using our Spanish language skills. Surprisingly, it somehow worked 🙂 Since then, I try to use Spanish as much as possible, for ordering food, asking for directions and similar easy things. It was quite hard and at the same time very interesting in a farm where we usually worked with Alex, farm employee who didn´t speak any English. Somehow we tried to understand each other. He showed us how to pick the coffee, dig the channel and all other things. Alex was also genuinely interested in European lifestyle in general.
We had two unofficial job interviews at this hostel. First one was with the owner’s daughter and the second one with the owner itself. As I already said neither of them speaks English so the conversation was held in Spanish :-)) Funny situations happen when the phone is ringing at the reception. 90% of all incoming calls are in Spanish. We always answer the phone in English but the person calling usually keeps talking in Spanish and after a while, we try to guess what or who is needed. That are just funny moments :-)) Last days, we became addicted to the Duo Lingo app. It is a really nice way to learn a foreign language!
OK, thanks for reading. It is all for now :-)) I am ready for your comments.
Have a great time!
Hostel Colonial House, where we are volunteering at the moment: http://www.hostelworld.com/hosteldetails.php/Colonial-House-Quito/Quito/32554/reviews#propname