Lauren in Yungilla

Gap Year Ecuador – Lauren in the cloud forest village of Yungilla

What made you volunteer in the first place?

There were a whole bunch of reasons that made me decide to volunteer with Lattitude. A combination of not really knowing what career I want or study I want to do, and some pretty itchy feet meant I had already decided to take a gap year.

No matter how much I want to go on to university I couldn’t fathom jumping straight into even more study without getting out and seeing some of the world first. My understanding of gap years in New Zealand was either going to America and working in summer camps or staying home and working. As an outdoor enthusiast summer camp sounded fun but not quite the challenge and excitement I was looking for, but I didn’t feel comfortable just setting off traveling solo straight out of high school either.

A Facebook event got me on to Lattitude and the information evening showed that volunteering was pretty much the exact middle ground I had been looking for.


Gap Year in Yungilla, Ecuador

Why Ecuador?

Well, South America had always been close to the top of my bucket list for the very reason that I felt that for most New Zealanders it kind of wasn’t. Outranked by Europe and Africa in terms of desirability the semi-forgotten continent only appealed more to my contrary mind.

Aside from that the main reason I chose a gap year in Ecuador (apart from again being more of a mystery than Argentina – the other SA option) was my specific placement. I am a self declared Eco-nut and conservation enthusiast so the unique cloud forest conservation village of Yunguilla seemed right up my ally. I also felt it would be really valuable in helping decide if the environmental branch is where I want to go for my career, and would add a lot to it if it is.


Gap Year in Yungilla, Ecuador - village scene

Can you describe your placement in detail?

So I am placed in the small village of Yunguilla, about an hour and a half out of the centre of Quito City. The village sits up in the cloud forest of Ecuador at 2650 metres above sea level, and is an organised community committed to the development of sustainable economic alternatives.

Basically the village works to conserve the cloud forest and operate as sustainably and organically as possible. Ecotourism is an important part of the community’s economy, as well as well as producing cheeses, jams, and handicrafts made only from products of the community’s farms and gardens.

My role as volunteer in Yunguilla is split between teaching English in the local school and working on the community farm and in the community in general where needed. Twice a week we go to the small primary school and take classes in English – as tourism is such an important part of village life English is a really valuable skill to have.

The school itself only has 14 children between the ages of 5 and 13. I am responsible for teaching the 6 five-year-olds and Kyla, the other Lattitude volunteer here in Yunguilla, has the older kids. The rest of our time is spent doing all kinds of work from planting in the greenhouses, building gates, making cheeses, clearing pre-inca trails (with machetes!), and doing computer work and filing in the office.

We also hold separate English classes every evening for adults and children who want to learn.


Gap Year in Yungilla, Ecuador

Can you describe your accommodation?

With our Yunguilla placement we actually end up having multiple host families. In order to reduce the burden on the poorer village people we change our host family here every month, and we also have a seperate host family in Quito who we can return to on the weekends.

So far in Yunguilla I am with my second host family, a lovely older couple who have both lived their entire lives in Yunguilla. Life is fairly basic, with small square concrete buildings and a few creepy crawly (or sluggish) roommates, but is still super comfortable and friendly, and I don’t mind the extra company! Our families seem determined to fatten us up and there are always huge quantities of rice, potatoes, corn, soup, beans, bread, eggs… to keep us happy.

There are always ways to help out as well from peeling pumpkin seeds and podding beans on little stools by the fire in the evenings, to getting up at dawn to milk the cows. Life in Quito is a bit of a contrast, with another lovely couple in a big house in the centre of the city.

How did you cope with the big differences between Ecuador and home?

Ecuador is very different to New Zealand in lots of different ways. Simple things like food and transport (lots of carbs, lots of people!) have been fun getting used to. Other things like slightly different gender roles and a general different culture have been more difficult but I think just keeping an open mind has been really helpful, as well as all the awesome people who’ve helped us out. The language has also been a massive challenge but as with everything is getting easier by the day.


Gap Year in Yungilla, Ecuador

Can you give examples of any personal development you may have gained during your time there?

Overall I think the entire experience expands on pretty much every skill. For me a major area of development has been the language. Before coming to Ecuador I had next to no Spanish, and so despite two weeks of language school at the beginning of my time here communication was very difficult. Now after two months, while still pretty fumbly, I have definitely noticed a significant improvement and can probably hold a basic conversation and understand a lot.

Being unable to talk to people and the different culture as well I think has really challenged my communication and interpersonal skills. Aside from this all the physical work has definitely developed my practical skills from fence building to how to kill a chicken!


What are your future plans, and how do you think your volunteering experience might help?

Next year I am planning on going to university to study environmental science in geology at the University of Canterbury. While I thought this might be my plan after Lattitude, my volunteering in such a special environmentally minded place has cemented my desire to work with in the environmental and conservation areas.

I feel am also gaining valuable experiences to do with working and living sustainably, and being such a culturally different place has expanded my understanding of how these areas impact and are addressed globally.


Gap Year Ecuador - Eco Village

Why should others consider a gap year in Ecuador?

Why not? So many people I spoke to in New Zealand didn’t even know where Ecuador was, let alone how amazing a country it is. It may be small but there is so much diversity packed into it, and it has such a gorgeous culture, and the people here have been nothing but friendly.

Volunteering in general is such a rewarding experience wherever you go, and the best way to fully experience a place by living and working as a part of the community. I think Ecuador is underestimated and overlooked but everything I have experienced here has only proved how much of a gem this little Andean country is.

Jess - Community/Teaching in Ecuador

Assisting teaching in Ecuador on Gap Year

I was led to volunteering as I was unsure as to what I wanted to do after high school and have always been passionate about learning about other cultures, travelling and helping others. I chose Ecuador for the unique placement offered in the Andean cloud forest. I wanted a placement where I would be in a rural community and could get my hands dirty. I wasn’t afraid of change or being shocked and in fact I was almost wanting that to happen. I wanted a completely unique experience and knew Ecuador could offer me that.

I was mainly involved in the reforestation project the village is part of but I also did many other things. The reforestation project takes place all around the cloud forest and I would wait in the morning at the village shop with my lunch (rice and beans) for an old pick up truck to come rattling along the dirt road and get me then we would go off for the day.

I taught English at the school and also in the village shop a few days a week to people aged from as young as 2years old to people aged over 50. The village school had 14 students at the time I was working there and I would take 3 different groups as English levels differed. I took other classes under the village shop with toddlers and we would sing songs and jump about. High school students who lived in the village would also have a class, as did adults with varied English levels.

I helped out in the house they have for tourists, cooking and cleaning when tourists came. I assisted on farms and in vegetable gardens. I helped in the construction of a restaurant and many other things: I helped out in the organic village garden, I worked on a construction site helping build the restaurant painting and hammering, I helped make cheese and jam, I had a chance to help create small paintings and bracelets they sell in the village shop, and I helped out on farms milking cows etc.

Assisting teaching in Ecuador on Gap Year

My accommodation situation was very unique. In the village I changed families who I lived with every month. Through this system I got given a unique way to experience people’s lives from different walks of life. I moved from the village to the city on weekends, to a modern apartment that was similar to a penthouse which had a pool, sauna and gym.

Although I could not speak any Spanish when I arrived in Ecuador it didn’t cause me any troubles when it came to making friends. I found doing activities with people really helped, I played a lot of village football and we would also dance to music a lot. I started to understand Spanish pretty quickly, and after 8 months in Latin America I can say that I’m almost fluent and I constantly write to my friends in Ecuador in Spanish! I never enjoyed languages during school but learnt very quickly when I was immersed in it! I think being able to speak another language is a great skill to have especially if you’re like me and want to travel the world!

I was a very shy person when I left home and had never really been very confident in myself and the things I pursued. I now would say I’m an outgoing person with a lot of self confidence. After 8 months away I feel like I really know myself a lot better than I did before and I’m very confident in myself and the decisions I make. I also feel as though having that life experience has really made me grow as a person overall. I have a much better perspective on the world knowing we don’t all have easy access to clean water and a minimum wage.

I’m now home, doing a BSc & BA at Victoria majoring in Environmental Studies and Spanish! I have always been passionate about the environment but last year during my travels around South America my eyes were really opened to some of the hardships my generation is going to face due to damage done before us. Also Spanish as I fell in love with Latin American culture and have my compass set to go back as soon as I can!

Assisting teaching in Ecuador on Gap Year

Ellie - Community Worker in Ecuador

Ellie's Lattitude Gap Year in Ecuador

I volunteered at CENIT, an organisation working with street children in Quito, Ecuador. Every morning we’d lug a bag full of crayons, stories and a giant set of plastic teeth named “Señor Dientes” to our room in Camal market, where we played with kids aged about three to five who would otherwise be selling sweets or fruit.

The market is a strange sort of place. A short stroll around it forces you to take in row after row of pigs´ heads, strings of menacingly black sausages and baskets laden with live crabs. The best bit, though, is the fruit section, where it’s possible to purchase 25 mangoes for a dollar or take your pick from hundreds of papayas balanced skilfully in pyramids.

Nevertheless, the middle class Quiteños who never venture into the South of the city, dismissing it as dirty and dangerous are making a mistake. Among the people at Camal market are some of the friendliest Ecuadorians you’ll ever meet, who always make time to greet you with a smile. Naturally it took time for the families to trust us to take away their children, but before long they were presenting us with free empanadas, crowding around to watch us sing and asking us whether we could teach the kids English.

On countless occasions we’d have to stop what we were doing to go and watch a protest or parade, usually with hundreds of school children, drums and balloons. Those at Camal market may be poor, uneducated and neglected, but they know how to have a good time.

The children were not always easy to work with. But there are naughty kids everywhere, and the children of Camal market are essentially no different. They often made me angry, and occasionally upset, but above all they made me laugh, smile and sing- I am now an expert at Spanish nursery rhymes. I will never forget how their clothes got drenched in water as they tried to brush their teeth, their demands to read the same book over and over again and their pride in their completed Lego houses.

The kids, however, will probably forget the time we took them to watch a strange mime show aimed at warning them off alcohol, they will probably forget the actions to the Hokey Cokey and they will probably forget their trip to the reptile house- although I certainly won’t, what with having a boa constrictor around my neck! They almost definitely will forget us. But I hope somewhere they might remember our attempts to get them to share, to colour and to learn instead of selling fruit.

I already miss my Ecuadorian host family, who introduced me to friends as their English daughter and who knitted me scarves after I complained Quito was too cold- it’s on the equator; I didn’t expect it to be!

I already miss the opportunity to speak Spanish all the time, and how easy it is to escape for a weekend away- only in Ecuador could you wake up to the howl of monkeys deep in the jungle, have lunch overlooking snow-capped mountains in the sierra and fall asleep on a hammock to the crashing of the waves. Admittedly such a journey would require many hours on a cramped, erratically-driven bus, but this is all part of the adventure.

I consider the five months I spent there time well spent. Without Lattitude, without my mornings making finger puppets and pasta necklaces in Camal market, my bike rides through the Atacama desert and snowball fight in the Bolivian salt flats, I doubt I would have acquired such a range of skills, stories and memories.

Natasha - TV appearance before heading to Ecuador

Natasha - Community Worker in Ecuador Part 1

Natasha's Lattitude Gap Year in Ecuador

Hola Amigos! For those that were wondering, yes, I made it to Ecuador alive. After almost 30 hours of travelling we landed in Quite, Ecuador with a bit of a bump (enough to make the woman in front of my throw up). But no bumps along the way were going to faze me! I am usually the one gripping the arm rest until my knuckles go white during turbulence, but instead I was having a blast – laughing away with the man next to me, who obviously thought I was quite entertaining! I think knowing with such assurance that I was doing something I was meant to do, and the excitement for what this incredible journey will bring, gave me a peace that transcends all understanding. Hallelujah!

2 days into a year trip and not only am I alive, but I am seriously living! This city is incredible! Tucked away in the valleys of the Andes at 3000m above sea level, it is a thing of beauty. Steep roads, and stunning Spanish style houses are framed in majestic mountains – this is a sight that continues to take my breath away. However, this might just be the altitude! Quito is the second highest capital in the world, and apparently none of our Travel Doctors thought we needed altitude medication – hey, don’t mind us, we will just stick out the nausea, headaches and dizziness! Not as bad as it sounds seeing as I am experiencing none of the above.

Not only is the landscape beautiful, but the people are also. I love Latin American’s. They are so full of life! On our first visit to Vida Verde -our Language school for the next 2 weeks – we were treated to a Spanish music sing along. Led by a charming fellow named Fredrico – a man over flowing with character – on the guitar and joined by the other teachers and students none of us could help but laugh, smile, clap along, and attempt to sing/make random noises with our mouths. Our involvement was limited due to the fact that, while we had word sheets, it was difficult to read each word, process it, figure out the pronunciation, and then sing it to the fast beat. Smile and mumble was my moto!

Natasha's Lattitude Gap Year in Ecuador

The family I am staying with are absolutely lovely! Mi Madre llama Hepatio (translation for all of those who aren’t fluent in Spanish…. My mum’s name is Hepatio – atleast that’s how it’s said), and mis hermanas llaman Angie y Natalie (again, my sisters are called Angie and Natalie). You will all be my guinea pigs as I learn espanol – even if you don’t understand me, or you are a smarty pants and know that I said it wrong, just tell me I am doing great, por favour! Gracias in advance. I think my language of choice at the moment is Spanglish (Spanish + English, in case anyone missed that). The trick is to slip in one Spanish word in an English sentence, to firstly prove that you are trying, and score brownie points with the locals, and secondly in the hope that they will actually understand what you are saying. This method works approximately 98% of the times – success in my eyes!

Natasha's Lattitude Gap Year in Ecuador

Natasha - Community Worker in Ecuador Part 2

Natasha's Lattitude Gap Year in Ecuador
Hola mi Guinea pigs! ¿Cómo estás? Yo estoy SUPER, HIPER, MEGA BIEN! Welcome to my update on life in Ecuador: so far I have completed almost 1 out of my 3 week Spanish course and orientation in Quito. In total I have been here for only 8 days!! This seriously blows my mind!! I feel as though I have been here for a lifetime. Firstly, because life in New Zealand now seems almost incomprehensible – it’s as though Ecuador is worlds away; everything here is so different. And secondly, I simply feel so at home. Home has always been a funny concept for me; is home England where I was born, and where my family is, or is home New Zealand, or is home even a concrete place at all? After having my life impacted and changed – for the better! – by incredible people along my journey, both travelling and in New Zealand, I have come to the conclusion that for me home is people. The people that shape me, challenge me, inspire me, that ultimately live life with me; and I have already met some pretty crazy amazing people in my journey in Ecuador already.

One in particular is an incredible girl called Lucy, whom I have the pleasure of being hosted with here in Quito. From the outset she is one of the bubbliest, funniest, loving, caring, stunning, and kind girls I have ever met. I feel as if I have known her forever already. Talking with over the top English accents is just one of our new found connections. Don’t you love it when you just click with people? It has made such a large transition seem so natural and easy. Being a bit of a people addict, it is not just the surface that draws me to a person – if I am honest ‘small talk’ drives me absolutely insane – it is their story. Learning where people are from, what they been through, what they love, and what their dreams and hopes are makes a beautiful person all the more beautiful. In saying that I am prepared to be overwhelmed with beauty!!

Entonces (that means ‘so’ for any of you out there with no translator at hand), after 1 week in Spanish school I am totally knackered! It is muy tiring listening and processing another language all day long, however, the effort is worthwhile. After thinking that using Google Translate on my Spanish had backfired and I had been put into the top class – eeeeek – we finally came to the conclusion that that was not the case at all. Phew! We are all just starting in different places. In saying that with a mere 2 weeks experience in Spanish prior to the trip I think I deserve a pat on the back for my progress. At the moment I can understand a lot more than I can say. This is a bit of a problem when talking to local people, as even though I know what they are saying to me or asking, I cannot – in most instances – answer them with more than three disjointed words. This leaves me looking incredibly stupid, when all I want to do is shout at them (nicely, of course) “I UNDERSTAND YOU, I JUST CAN’T REPLY!!.” However, on my quest to make friends, this tactic is probably not the best.

This weekend we crazy volunteers are heading to Banos for Carnaval! With no accommodation arranged and a whole continent celebrating and partying I am sure we are in for an experience. Excitement doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Natasha - Community Worker in Ecuador Part 3

After this weekend I think I am going to legally change my middle name to ‘spontaneous’. Natasha Spontaneous Cox…. hmm perhaps not….maybe a tattoo across my forehead instead?? Either way my spontaneous levels have increased. Desperate to get out of Quito for the weekend we began a search for accommodation in Banos on Wednesday evening. After being told by countless hostel sites that there were no availabilities for the weekend, we were feeling a little dejected. PERO, nothing was going to stop us! Instead we came to the conclusion that it didn’t matter if we had to stay up all night, and sleep on a park bench, we were going to Banos!

Fast forward to Friday afternoon sitting on the 4 hour couch ride south: “oh my goodness, what are we doing?!” I have always been one to laugh in awkward situations or in the moments when it’s really not appropriate to be laughing – for example when you are being told off by your parents – ergo I found the situation muy amusing. On route to a foreign place in the pitch black with 12 young adults with no plan and no accommodation, HA! Genius! I literally could not comprehend what we were doing: Ecuador what have you done to the sensible, plan years ahead, Natasha? It all sounds incredibly exciting and ever so slightly mad and dangerous, but in all honesty we found accommodation – or more to the truth the owner of a hostel found us – 2 minutes after getting off the bus. Yes mum, I was safe!

Natasha's Lattitude Gap Year in Ecuador

Banos itself was amazing! When the sun rose on Saturday morning and I stepped out to buy some valentines treats for my volunteering family (just as a side note the heart shaped sweets I brought – traditional to Banos in Carnaval – were pretty average, just in case any of you were thinking about flying half way across the world for them) I was in awe of the small town snuggled beneath the mountains. You feel as though you are enclosed from all sides by these stunning natural towers. The town itself is small and easy to get around on foot – handy for poor tourists like ourselves. However, on the weekend it was brimming with people; the pinnical of the craziness was the pools located right underneath one of Banos’s many waterfalls. Ready for a relaxing day in the water we paid our $2 entry fee and walked up a ramp…. the sight that met our eyes will be etched in my memory forever: a browny coloured watery square jam packed with brightly coloured bobbing heads. I wouldn’t be over exaggerating if I told you that we almost donated our money to the pool and ran straight back out the door. To make matters even more ridiculous we were had to rent a swimming cap – the origin of the bright colours – in order to get in. It had to be one of the most interesting experiences of my trip so far, and for that the money and ridiculousness was more than worth it. We managed to dodge the main brown pool and hopped between a sub zero temperature, normal water coloured pool, and the hot – adults style – one. My only venture into the middle/’no go zone’ included a near miss with a young girl pulling down my bikini bottoms, and getting splashed by grandmas, whom were ‘helpfully’ sitting on the stairs and blocking our way out.

Natasha's Lattitude Gap Year in Ecuador

Foam, foam, FOAM!! I don’t even want to know how many litres of this substance my body had absorbed over the weekend. It is a Carnaval tradition for people – of all ages – to roam the streets with canisters of foam and completely own anyone and everyone they see, especially tourists. Children scampered around giggling their little heads off as they caught unsuspecting victims right in the face; full grown adults encouraging their kids in their ventures, or joining in the fun themselves with a canister cleverly hidden at their side. No one was safe. I myself was cornered and held down by a Swedish friend we made, subsequently I was soaking wet for the rest of the night. I will just tell you now that, while it doesn’t smell too bad, it tastes absolutely dreadful. It was my kind of crazily enjoyable madness! I was just surprised at how many people took it all on the cheek.

Natasha's Lattitude Gap Year in Ecuador

If all of this isn’t crazy enough for any of you, then maybe 12 of us in one hostel room sharing 5 beds is? Due to the skyrocketing prices at our initial hostel, Lucy and I set out to find a cheaper option. While the boys thought they got the best deal, we girls trumped them (NEVER send a man to do a woman’s job); other experience to tick off, as well as a surprisingly good sleep.

Natasha's Lattitude Gap Year in Ecuador

After two jam packed days and nights it’s doesn’t come as a shock that we were 12 muy casando volunteers on the way back to Quito. Apart from Banos itself, the most confronting part of our time away was in fact returning; I felt like I was coming home. Banos was one of the best weekends I’ve had, and I will definitely be going back. Filled with spontaneity, scrummy cheap as chips food, a ton of natural beauty, cultural experiences, way too much dancing, and a bunch of the best people, it’s a weekend I will never forget.

Natasha - Community Worker in Ecuador Part 4

Natasha's Lattitude Gap Year in Ecuador

A piece of pure paradise entrapped in walls of mountains; a crystal blue lake reflecting the sun’s rays at the bottom of a breath taking walk down the sides of a volcanic Caldera. Quilotoa was hands down the most breath-takingly beautiful place I have visited on my wondrous adventure so far. Photos will never be able to do it the justice it deserves. However, for many of you they will have to do until you can get your lucky little butts over here to experience the stunning serenity for yourself.

The path down was “mildly dodgy”, wild, extremely dusty, and totally worth the near misses with face planting the ground. Once down the watery centre piece lured the majority of us onto its shimmering blue surface in a band of kayaks. When Julia and I stopped paddling to catch our breaths at frequent intervals, the feeling you got was beyond words. Looking up at your surroundings and being struck by the sense that you were at peace with the world, in a pocket of purity. So filled with happiness and contentment that I thought I’d never leave. Instead of walking up the previously mentioned path there was the option to ride a donkey/horse. While it may seem like the ‘lazy’ option I reasoned with myself that riding a donkey up the sides of a volcanic caldera was an incredible opportunity not to be missed! I respect all those of you that battled the walk – you are absolute super stars – and if it’s any consolation the insides of my legs are now thoroughly bruised. I would also like to thank my wonderful donkey. You were a trooper. I wouldn’t have been able to get to the top without you, and I just wish I had had a carrot handy to show my gratitude for lugging me up the side of a mountain.

Natasha's Lattitude Gap Year in Ecuador

In the theme of mountains, breath-taking views, and actual breathlessness from altitude, yesterday we ventured up the Teleferico – a cable car up the mountain side in Quito. Due to our escapades the day before the thought of getting up there at 8am was never going to be an option. Therefore, we forfeited the chances of the best view and went up at the reasonable time of 12pm – much more civilised. Despite what we had been told we did manage to get a pretty spectacular view between clouds. In actual fact it was the clouds that I enjoyed best. I always thought it was such a shame when I was told that in reality you cannot walk on clouds. It seemed so magical, and had been on my to do list from a very young age… but being inside one is the next best thing. Comparable to being in a white out whilst skiing (just less scary), I felt like I was perched in the sky, looking down on the tiny world below through a mystical veil.

Natasha's Lattitude Gap Year in Ecuador

My life at the moment is one never ending, bottomless adventure. No minute wasted: always learning, always exploring. I love that word: ‘Adventure’. It is so apt. Every day, regardless of whether you are half way across the world from home, just starting university (so excited for all of you, and sending you the best of luck and love), or you are where you have been for the last 18 years, life is a delightful adventure – you just need to open your eyes to see it. This world is full of lessons to be learned, places to be enjoyed, people to connect with, experiences to be had, and if there is anything this trip has taught me it is that you don’t need to be anywhere exotic to join in on the fun. One of the other precious volunteers, a beauty from Sweden called Linnea, said that this trip has ignited her desire to travel her own country. I am in agreement: don’t leave home until you have explored the splendour it has got to offer, and don’t ever take it for granted. So what are you waiting for explorers? Today is another opportunity for adventure; Ecuador, New Zealand, England and beyond, find those hidden treasures wherever you are.


Natasha - Community Worker in Ecuador Part 5

My last week in Quito has come to an end. Tomorrow morning at 6am I, along with 6 other volunteers, am heading south to Cuenca, where we will start our volunteering placements. The 10 hour bus ride will undoubtedly be filled with reminiscing, excitement, sadness, wonderment, nerves, and I hope a lot of sleep! I feel as though Quito is already my home, and uplifting –after what has seemed to be forever – it somewhat strange. I feel as though I’ve been here forever, yet I haven’t even started what I came here to do. Previously, these few weeks in Quito didn’t even register on my radar – my sights were firmly set on Cuenca and Quito was just to be a short stop over. I never imagined that I would form such strong connections, grow and learn so much before I even started volunteering. I have summarised everything I’ve learnt during the last 3 weeks about Ecuadorian life, and this place in general into 9 facts/tips:

1. Learning a language requires huge amounts of courage! I have completed my two week Spanish Course at Vida Verde and I think it is definitely fair to say that I have improved (not very hard with only two weeks previous experience). After this time I have come to the above realisation. You need courage. Courage to dismiss the “oh, you are a foreigner, that’s why you speak Spanish like an idiot” looks that you get, and keep pressing on. No matter how little you know the best way to learn is just to speak! This is the valuable opportunity I will be getting in Cuenca. Here in Quito – surrounded by the other volunteers – it is far too easy to speak English instead. But, in Cuenca, being hosted by myself and working with children who will likely have no knowledge of English, I am going to be forced to speak Spanish. Well, either that or I become a recluse……. not a chance!

2. The churches in Quito are overwhelmingly stunning! On the first day of our orientation this week we had a walking tour around the Old Town of Quito. This part of the city is hands down the most beautiful. With the old Spanish style buildings I felt as though I was somewhere in Europe – Spain most likely. We visited numerous stunning churches, one that took hundreds of men 160 years to build and complete. This astounds me. Men dedicated their whole life times – at least two generations – to these incredible buildings. They are truly breath taking. However, coming from a church back home that is tucked into the industrial area and next door to a bottle store, they can be a little bit overwhelming.

Natasha's Lattitude Gap Year in Ecuador

3. The toilet water really does spin the opposite way! If any of you didn’t realise (not meaning to sound patronizing because up until now I didn’t realise either) Ecuador was given its name due to the fact that it is the highest point on earth that lies on the equator – Mitad del Mundo. There is a simple line (well actually there are two, one done by the French, and the other by military GPS) representing the ring that wraps itself around the earth. Crazy to think that as I jumped from side to side I was jumping between the Southern and Northern Hemisphere! I have always heard Americans say that the toilet water spins in the opposite direction for us Down Under, but I’ve never exactly believed it. Now I know that it is true! At the museum a woman gave as a demonstration that showed that the water spun in the opposite direction depending on whether you were in the Northern of the Southern Hemisphere. Funnily enough sitting right on the equator the water doesn’t spin at all! It simply gets sucked straight down.

Natasha's Lattitude Gap Year in Ecuador

4. Ecuadorian Zip Lining is fantastic! A highlight of orientation was when we went to Nayon Xtreme Valley and zip lined across an Ecuadorian Canyon. Feeling like you are flying over beautiful valleys was unforgettable. In addition to this we all did what they call the Tarzan Swing. Launching yourself off a ledge, stomach dropping as you freefall for a split second, and then relaxing as you enjoy the incredible view and the adrenaline shot.

Natasha's Lattitude Gap Year in Ecuador

5. When visiting the Presidential place always dress expecting to meet the man himself! If all this wasn’t thrilling enough on Wednesday we met the President of Ecuador! Whilst on our tour of the Presidential Palace we stumbled upon the political leader, and were lucky enough to snap a picture with him….. HE ALSO TOUCHED MY FACE!!! The President caressed my cheek, and I was wearing my sports bra and sneakers – always keeping it classy! Please refer to the picture proof below if you are having doubts about the validity of my claims. Also, as a side note: don’t try to pull the bunny ears behind the President. I will say no more, just don’t!

6. Always put your toilet paper in the bin! That’s right, don’t flush it! This seemed crazy for the first week, and Lucy and I played the naive foreigner card for as long as possible. However, it is hard to avoid the inevitable. It seems totally disgusting, but it is one of those things you simply get used to. To be honest I would rather suck it up and pop it in the pin than block Quito’s sewage system.

7. The animals here speak a totally different language! Being an animal person (apart from chickens, which are super annoying and I can’t stand), and coming from a house hold with a beautiful cat and a mental dog, this fact was hard to come to terms with. It was clear from the start that we were never going to get along with our host family’s cat, Max. The poor thing was probably completely freaked out by the weird English speakers, yet I deem his behaviour to have been quite unfriendly – especially considering the fact that we have tried our best. Three weeks on and we simply haven’t gelled. Apart from him only understanding and responding to Spanish, he is also petted differently. My attempts to pet him using my usual techniques ended in hissing and swiping paws.

8. Carbs, carbs, carbs! Upon arrival we have eaten a diet consisting of mainly carbs: bread (three meals a day), rice, potatoes and more bread. I have heard this is not dissimilar to the diet at university; however, the Ecuadorians back their diet up with their food pyramid. Theirs goes as follows, from the bottom (what you should have the most of) to the top (things you should have the least of): Water, carbohydrates, protein, fruit and vegetables, salts and sugars. Whilst I can definitely see the proportions played out in the carbs department, I think salt should be moved down a couple of spaces: they put it on everything! They are even worse than my dad!

Natasha's Lattitude Gap Year in Ecuador

9. Never stop adventuring! In 3 short weeks my life has changed, and each day has been an adventure. I am so excited to see what the next 4 and a half months will bring, and I cannot wait to start changing the lives of the people in Cuenca. I go into the next phase determined to explore everything I can, treat each new day as a new adventure and each new person as a possible connection and someone to learn from.

Adios Quito, Hola Cuenca!

Natasha - Community Worker in Ecuador Part 6

HAPPY ONE MONTH ANNIVERSARY TO ME! This time a month ago I was embarking on a crazy adventure, with limited knowledge and an open mind. I can’t believe that day was only a month ago – it feels like I’ve been here forever. Yet, on the other hand getting on that first flight in Auckland Airport seems like yesterday. Time is such a weird and complicated concept.

Already a month into my visit – that’s almost a fifth of my whole trip!! – and I have only had 3 days of work. I have been in my new home city, Cuenca, with my new family, the Serrano’s, for 5 days. I am already in love; not that I didn’t like Quito; I simply love Cuenca even more. If you are ever heading over to this part of the world then you must definitely put this city on your list of To Do’s. There is one place especially that I see whilst walking from one job to the other than looks picture perfect. I feel as though I’ve stepped into a painting. It is while I am walking across a bridge towards the Historic Centre. I look to my left and there is this beautiful river with classic European houses along its banks and stunning mountains in the background – perfection.

Most of you are probably wondering how the volunteering is going, and if you aren’t then I’d advise you to get off my blog now! Both of my placements are incredible. The people are welcoming, and the children are the lights of my life – I can’t even bare to think about how hard it’s going to be to leave them, and I’ve only known them for three days.
Natasha's Lattitude Gap Year in Ecuador
My first placement is at Jan Jose de Calasanz, a school for disabled adults and children. People who haven’t had much experience with people with disabilities often jump to the conclusion that they must all be terribly sad due to the perceived difficulties they have to live with, however, they couldn’t be more wrong. These children have smiles on their faces 24/7, they are the friendliest people I know, and they are always ready with a hug, hello and a kiss on the cheek. On my first day I worked in the computer lab taking students, varying in age, to play academic games and watch clips. One young girl was doing a crossword style game, in which a picture of an animal etc came up under each number and she had to write the name of said object. The poor thing looked to me to help, yet with my limited knowledge of Spanish I wasn’t much help at all, in fact she probably could have done better without me. Despite this I had the most wonderful time getting to know the kids. On Tuesday I worked in the painting workshop – Mum I have found my passion and I am going to pursue a career as an artist – and today I was lucky enough to have a turn in the Bakery (yes, the school has its own bakery!!). Despite my complaints about the carb, carb, carb diet and the immense amounts of bread, my mouth still watered and my tummy rumbled the whole time. Hungry and cover in flour I loved every minute. It is now my permanent spot on Wednesday mornings, and I can’t wait!
Natasha's Lattitude Gap Year in Ecuador
My second placement is Centro Aurora, right in the middle of the Historic Centre of Cuenca. It is an after school care programme for kids from mostly troubled homes. Troubled homes or not these children are absolute gems. Ranging in age from 5 to around 11 our duties are to help them with their homework, serve them afternoon tea, play with them, serve them dinner, and most importantly (although it’s not in the guide book) love on them unconditionally. While they are super crazy, and hyper active each and everyone makes my day that much better. One crazy little boy (only 5 years old) named David cut a hole in my top on the first day…. yet he is just so adorable I couldn’t not forgive him. He is so cute in fact, that Lucy and I are planning to pack him in our suitcases at the end of the five months. Today we took them all to the park, and it was absolute blissful mayhem – I realise that that is a bit of an oxymoron but that’s what it was. .The gentleman who runs the centre is also genuinely amazing. He reminds me of a kind yet firm Grandpa, surround by his doting grandkids.
Natasha's Lattitude Gap Year in Ecuador
I love both of my placements, but don’t get me wrong it is definitely exhausting! I leave the house to take the bus at 7am, I then work at San Jose from 8am-1pm, I have a 1 and a half hour lunch break in which I eat at my host mums cafe in the University, I then work from 2:30pm-6pm at Centro Aurora, and catch the bus home, arriving at around 7pm (unless you count today when I waited 45 minutes watching 6 full buses go by). Sleep never takes long to overcome me in the evenings. On top of the hours my Spanish is being severely tested. I understand 1% of what the children say to me – most because they speak so quickly – and I guess 99% of the time. I am definitely improving, however, I desperately want to become fluent therefore I think extra Spanish lessons may have to be sought. My host family are a bunch of fun-loving, down to earth, loving, jokers and they are extremely patient with me and my semi passable Spanish. While my mum and sister speak a bit of English I have asked them to try to refrain from using it – unless it’s super important and they actually need me to understand. I will continue to tackle the language head on!!

Natasha - Community Worker in Ecuador Part 7

Natasha's Lattitude Gap Year in Ecuador
It could have been the South Island of New Zealand, or the west coast of Scotland, yet we were in neither of those places; we were in Cajas National Park, Ecuador. Only a simple 1hr bus ride from the city of Cuenca, Cajas feels like another world – a much needed and beautiful escape from city life. For the three of us New Zealanders and one Scot, it was like a portal home, yet it was not too close to comfort to rid the place of its exotic – in a freezing cold way – mysterious and wondrous feel. Plentiful in mountains and lakes Cajas truly was stunning.
Natasha's Lattitude Gap Year in Ecuador
The fog, rain, and a sub zero temperatures did nothing to dampen this. In fact it pooled together to create a somewhat ‘moody’ and mist-defying (see what I did there) aura. On arrival we were shown to the cabin – or refuge as mountaineers call them. Whilst we hadn’t tramped for hours to get there, and on the scale of things our need for ‘refuge’ may not have been that serious, we were definitely looking forward to cuddling up and coozying down in our piece of quite retreat. With an incredible view across the lake and its surrounding mountains, and its ski cabin characteristics it didn’t even bother me that it was only 2m from the information centre; it was perfect. Its’ only downfall: stairs that creaked like there was no tomorrow. You definitely knew when someone needed to use the bathroom upstairs.

After a walk around the lake, that turned out to be much shorter than we planed due to the fact that girls stop to take photos every 10 steps and the air was notably thinner (having thought I was adjusted to the altitude I found myself out of breath and light headed from a couple of stairs…. I will blame this on the altitude and not a lack in fitness), we begun the planned ‘coozying down’. We had high hopes for this part of our evening. It’s not that we didn’t get warm eventually; it was just a rather long process, which included squishing four people onto one single bed for body warmth. In total I may have gotten 4 hours sleep. Yet I am not sure because it felt like I was awake the whole night. We were warned about the cold temperatures. However, when packing for a climate on the Equator, thermals and such were the first items to be forfeited. I am now regretting this decision. Before heading off travelling, or even going back to Cajas – which I most definitely intend on doing – I need to gear up. Heads up to anyone else heading in this direction!

On our departure – flagging down any bus passing by and hopping on – we were treated to the typical ‘llama in the mountains’ shots. I’m sorry that I couldn’t take a live one and send it home for you, mum, but there is a picture below that you can use to curb your obsession.

Natasha's Lattitude Gap Year in Ecuador

While being prepared is such an important thing when travelling, or going anywhere new, I have learnt that surprise is a necessity. I am guilty of over thinking many things, and with this often comes expectation. True, Cajas may have been more enjoyable with a few extra layers, a beanie and a pair of woolly gloves. However, apart from knowing the type of clothes/equipment to bring, I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

There is something magical about surprise; about turning up in an unknown place with no expectations. The moment when you are so overwhelmed, because what is in front of you is perfect. Untainted by expectations of what it should or shouldn’t look like. It isn’t trying to live up to any pre-set standards; it just is. When it comes to volunteering, and travelling in general, we mostly hear the overall result, or see the hand-picked photos. Because of this we expect that volunteering will be constantly rewarding, and you will always fee fulfilled because you felt like you’ve helped. Travelling, in turn, looks perfect and magical – constantly enjoyable. Before I go on you should know that I am not being negative (my optimism won’t allow for any of that), I am being honest. On a whole volunteering is hugely rewarding, and you are helping even when you feel as though you aren’t, and travelling is magical. However, having these pre-set expectations can often make reality hard to handle. The days when you are so exhausted, when you feel like you’ve achieved nothing, when you don’t feel fulfilled, and the journey feels anything but magical. They are life. They are just as vital to the experience as the perfect days, and therefore should be embraced with as much vigour. They make the adventure real, and not photo-shopped. Ridding life of expectations frees you to enjoy even these times. Don’t expect everything to be 100% rosy, because you will more than likely set yourself up to fail. Expect life to be an adventure; one with smooth seas and thundering storms; a mixture of delight and pain – all of which is necessary for true appreciation, and I am truly learning to value each and every part of this incredible journey.

Natasha's Lattitude Gap Year in Ecuador

Natasha - Community Worker in Ecuador Part 8

Embrace the weird and wonderful
I ate someone´s pet…….Ok, well not literally. However, it felt like it considering that Guinea Pigs are kept as household pets back in New Zealand. If you tell Ecuadorians this, they simply give you a “New Zealander’s are crazy” kind of look. As an Ecuadorian delicacy we were obliged to try the little piggies at some point – and what better time than one of our fellow volunteer’s 18th birthday! Happy Birthday again James, you are an awesome guy. Side note: with one other volunteer yet to turn the big 1-8 (and not until August!!), this time really made me realise how young we all are. On the other side of the world, volunteering (working full time in full on roles), fending for ourselves in many ways, and most set to travel South America. In fact, after explaining what we are doing here to every other traveller we meet, most of them can’t believe we are the ages we are. You get responses along the lines of “wow, and you’re only 18?” or “Man, I wish I did something like this when I was your age,” or “aren’t you still supposed to be living with your parents?” Side note ended – let’s get back to the subject of eating pets!
Natasha's Lattitude Gap Year in Ecuador
After a surprise afternoon full of sweets, board games and pool, we taxied off to a restaurant booked by another volunteer’s host dad. Having pre-booked for 4 guinea pigs between the 8 of us (that’s half a guinea pig each for those that can’t do maths), at a price of $16 for each pig (or so we thought) many of us were a tad apprehensive about paying $8 each for the meal. That sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? Ecuador has ruined us. In a place where you can buy a full meal for $2, sometimes less, having to fork out a whole $8 seems like a big deal. I think I will be putting up a fight when I arrive home to $20 meals out – I may even write a letter. The high price aside we decided to sit back and enjoy. It would be a cliché to say it tasted like chicken, but I kind of did; chicken and duck – especially the skin. In a nut shell it tasted like decent but incredibly salty meat. I think the wow factor was the visible appearance instead. Whole heads, with teeth attached, and body parts with feet that still had its claws. It was an experience. Full of pet and ready to leave we went to pay the bill……… $95 USD…… WHAT?!! $95 for 4 guinea pigs and 5 bottles of water?! Stunned would be an apt word to describe the atmosphere at the time. The cheeky piggies deceived us; they were actually $20 a head. We knew they were an expensive delicacy, and in all fairness $20 is still relatively cheap for the little buggers, but it was a blow. Nonetheless, we have tried them now, and it was for the birthday boy! James, you better have enjoyed them!
Natasha's Lattitude Gap Year in Ecuador

Natasha - Community Worker in Ecuador Part 9

Natasha's Lattitude Gap Year in Ecuador
You know you’ve loved when saying goodbye breaks your heart

I wouldn’t be lying to you if I said that I feel like I’ve lost a part of me. How do you say goodbye to people, and places that have become your life? It is definitely a tough task. I am now officially no longer a volunteer in Cuenca, Ecuador. Whilst I still have two more days in my second home, I have said farewell to my beautiful placements. Anyone who knows me will know that these farewells were conducted half drenched in my own tears. Today, at my final day in San Jose de Calasanz I biked away from the school for the last time. As I pedalled I looked over my shoulder at the place that had shown me such love, happiness, and acceptance. I looked back with an ambiguous feeling in my heart. I am so blessed and thankful that I was able to have this experience, that I got to meet all of these incredible people, and visit these amazing places; and while saying goodbye was difficult, and painful, I know that this only goes to show how amazing the experience was. I left with a heavy, yet overwhelmingly happy, heart.
Natasha's Lattitude Gap Year in Ecuador
At both of our farewells – Wednesday at Centro Aurora, and today at San Jose de Calasanz – Lucy and I said goodbye to children, students, and teachers that we don’t know if we will ever see again; people that have taught us so much, and have a precious place in both of our hearts. Today, students had be balling when they hugged me with a smile on their face, and said “hasta proximo año” (“see you next year). I didn’t have the heart to correct them. They will never know how much I love them, how much I respect them, and how much I am going to miss them. It was especially difficult to say goodbye to my amazing painting teacher, Belinda, and my group of primarily Down Syndrome Chicos. They will always be a part of my family.
Natasha's Lattitude Gap Year in Ecuador
This experience has truly been the best experience of my life. It has, of course, had its’ low and tough times – everything good and worth it does – it has also had its fair share of odd/weird times (I won’t go into detail, but Ecuador is definitely a strange country!!). But, it has never, ever lacked in smiles, laughter, and happiness. There have been days when I was tired, and slightly irritable. On these days the kids seemed to be extra crazy (I swear they have a 6th sense). Yet, all I needed to do (apart from stop staying up late watching movies with my gorgeous host sister) is take a deep breath, look at the precious children and students surrounding me, and remind myself of what I was here to do – love on them unconditionally, no matter how I felt. There have been days when my students in San Jose de Calasanz have made me laugh so hard that my hidden abs hurt – Jose, you crazy chico! I have, more than once, worn a look of shock/amusement/disbelief when something so randomly strange happens that would only happen in Ecuador: watching horror movies as afternoon entertainment with 5 year olds, serving chicken feet soup – claws and all, clowns on the bus, cats and dogs on the bus, y mucho mas. ECUADOR ES LOCO, PERO LE AMO MUCHO!!
Natasha's Lattitude Gap Year in Ecuador
Natasha's Lattitude Gap Year in Ecuador
Apart from saying goodbye to amazing staff and students I now have to say goodbye to my incredible host family. At lunch today I gave my host mum and búho (owl) that I had made in my placement. It’s mounted on a wooded board, and is now hanging proudly across from her seat at the dining table. She has put it there so that every day she can look up and think of me…. five months creates these kind of bonds; bonds that are unbearable to break, but oh so sweet. She started crying when I presented her with the gift. Those tears were proof of the love; proof that we’ve created a connection that neither time nor distance can break. Gracias por todo mi familia – Mama, Papa y Rafa. Ustedes son increíble, no voy a olvidarse.

Apart from love, I have also learnt Spanish! Yo no sabía nada de español antes de venir aquí, and now I can say that! I will admit that I am not as good as I hoped I’d be (fluent), but all expectations aside I am proud of myself. I will continue to pursue the beautiful language, and I am excited to see where it takes me. If anything my learning gives me a valid reason to come back!

So this is where it changes, from a volunteer blog to an amateur traveller’s blog. From Monday I have 2 months of amazing, crazy, exciting travelling through Peru, Bolivia and Chile!!! Our first stop in Peru is Cordillera Blanca where we are doing a 4 day hike through some of the most beautiful scenery in South America. I can’t wait!! I am ready for more adventures, with a backpack on my back, experiences in my heart, and grand company by my side. Wish me luck, and I’ll see you on the road!

Fue una experiencia muy increíble. Voy a nunca olvidar toda la gente, y todos los lugares. Ecuador tiene un lugar muy cerca a mi corazón. Yo aprendí mucho, pero especialmente amor y español. Quiero decir muchísimas gracias a Lattitude Global Volunteering, Centro Aurora, San Jose de Calasanz, y mi familia increíble. Estoy sin palabras. Amo a todos.

Volunteers in Cuenca - Video

Volunteers in Quito - Video