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Summer Programmes

“It’s ok, don’t worry, he’s coming with his machete!”

3 August 2017
  “Today I’m leaving for the Amazon… I can’t read a map… I’m not particularly fond of flying… I’m going to the Amazon. What am I doing?” were my thoughts on the morning of our departure.

   Don’t get me wrong; I was so excited and was talking about the trip with everyone and anyone, but for a slight second it had actually dawned on me that I was travelling across the Atlantic with a bunch of people who I didn’t know that well (who would soon become life long friends) to a place I equally didn’t know that well (that I would soon fall in love with.)

Day 1

After being picked up by Gemma (the mother figure, red-headed Valley’s girl) and her parents outside Cardiff’s Student Union, we headed to Heathrow. Thankfully Gemma’s dad had an advanced SatNav, which meant we could avoid both M4 traffic and an accident… missing our flight would not have been the best start.

   I’d never flown from Heathrow before, so the sudden masses of people was a shock, but somehow both Gemma and I managed to find the other girls from Cardiff University who were on the one month plan like us. I’d met Sarah before, a hilarious girl from Essex studying medicine (which we were all secretly glad about considering we were in the jungle for a month where anything and everything could go wrong.) I’d never met Charlotte or Aleena up until then, and after a brief hug and quick introduction we headed off through customs and passport control and all the rest of it where we finally sat down in a café and had some food before the long haul flight.

   I found out that Charlotte was in her second year, going into her third, was fairly quiet to begin with but so sweet. Aleena was from Cardiff and was a Welsh speaker, coming from North Wales this was a treat and whenever we were together I took advantage of being able to speak my mother tongue. After the meal we went and stepped onto the flight, which would quite literally change our way of thinking for a lifetime.

   “Everybody please put your seatbelts on, we’re experiencing some slight turbulence at the moment,” were the words I woke up to halfway through our flight. It was an eleven hour flight, and being mid-air, tired, stiff and stuffy, turbulence was not what anyone wanted. This ‘moment’ as the air-hostess had falsely portrayed lasted much longer than anticipated, and having a squealing baby directly behind us wasn’t a fun addition. I tried to watch Suicide Squad, but even Will Smith couldn’t distract me from the nervous looking passengers and equally nervous looking air-hostesses. I tried re-adjusting the seats, our pillows and blankets because we were growing colder, and tried my best to sleep but physically couldn’t.

   Did I mention that the baby was still squealing?

   Finally we arrived in Bogotá, the Capital of Colombia, where we stayed for a few hours until our flight to Quito. I’d realised a bit too late in Heathrow that my mum had bought a European adapter and not a South American one, which meant I was phone less for the majority of the flight and now in Bogotá, when all I wanted to do was listen to Oasis. I walked around in hope for a shop that sold them, but between the language barrier, grumpy staff members and being merely 3am, I was being slightly optimistic. Needless to say, I didn’t find one.

   After landing in Quito, getting a stamp on our passports (which I got a bit too excited about) we headed to our mini bus that was waiting for us, and then it hit us. The heat. The humidity. Heat and humidity. It was intense.

   After unpacking and exploring our quaint hostel we decided we needed food. We had good intentions to find a cute, authentic Ecuadorian restaurant to satisfy our hunger, to try some foreign cuisine of guinea pig or some creepy crawlies. Where would you go after landing in a foreign country? But where did we end up? A Maccies, five minutes away from our hostel. My only reassurance was the fact that it was the second highest located McDonald’s in the world, which justified our visit there, surely?

   As we toddled back to the hostel, we arrived just in time for Nicole’s arrival, the 6th and final Cardiff Uni student on the one month programme. Nicole would soon become my tent partner in our first Camp, and I’d learn quickly that she is super sassy, edgy and so lovable.

   Adriana, one of Camps International’s representatives came to see us and gave us our itinerary for the month, plus another Camps International t-shirt, wristband and badge, and after she left we got ready for the next day, which was when our journey truly began. We were heading to the outback of Ecuador, Camp Esmeraldas and we were beyond excited. What I didn’t know is that I should’ve appreciated my bed a lot more than I did in our hostel. Wincing emoji.

Day 2

After requesting the strongest coffee they had in the hostel and devouring breakfast, we mentally prepared ourselves for the five-hour bus journey to Camp Esmeraldas. Thankfully everyone apart from myself had the correct charging adapter so I was able to listen to a soothing playlist for five hours, looking out of the window as the people, vehicles and buildings lessened, and the trees, waterfalls and mountains increased.

Our toilet stop was not your average pit stop.

We strolled into a dilapidated garage and went into the toilets, and to our horror (bear in mind this was our first day) an enormous beetle the size of a child’s fist was moving from one cubicle the other. We were petrified, even a country bumpkin like myself didn’t know what to do, so we took it in turns to watch the movement of this beetle incase it suddenly headed towards the cubicle in use.

If only we knew what was ahead of us.

We arrived Camp Esmeraldas at four o’clock. I’d be lying if I said that I’ve never felt so loved in my life, literally. Being white, with long blonde hair and green eyes I, aswell as everyone else, stood out from the crowd to say the least. We were surrounded by hugs and stares from the local children, genuine smiles from the parents, while others helped us carry our huge rucksacks from the bus into Camp.

   We were welcomed so warmly and felt like royalty, it was incredible how excited the locals were to have us. We were introduced to the elders of the village, had a tour around Camp and then after a few photos we spent time getting to know the children. The kids were asking to take selfies, we played rock paper scissors and tag for hours and then we were told what would be happening over the course of the fortnight at the local school. At the end of the talk we had to down a shot.

Now this shot wasn’t your classic shot.

It included crushed scorpion, some dodgy plants in it and the rest I didn’t want to know. It made sambuca seem pleasant. Afterwards we had dinner and said goodnight to the children for the night. And that’s when we met the other group, the three monthers.

   Without a word of a lie, we clicked almost immediately. At first we really did feel like the newbies with our matching, clean and ironed Camps International tops. They’d already visited Camp Costa for a fortnight, looked a bit worse for wear and knew what was ahead and were probably thinking, ‘look at these new dim wits.’ But as I said, we clicked ridiculously quickly. There had been hardly any separation of them and us, it was just one big group from the very beginning.

   After Nicole and I settled into our tent we both realised how surreal it all was, within 48 hours we’d met so many new people, travelled around the world and were in Ecuador in a tiny village without any wifi or signal, sleeping in a tent probably surrounded by spiders and goodness knows what else. It was bizarre.

What was even more bizarre was that it already felt like my temporary home.

Day 3

My alarm went off at 6am. This was going to take some getting used to.

   We were introduced to the dreaded bucket showers the day before and the three monthers knew what was ahead of us. We collected cold water in a bucket from a huge tank and took a little jug into our shower (which was made of bamboo and had reasonably big gaps between each shower – luckily we all felt comfortable with one another.) It was an experience, to say the least, the cold water was actually quite refreshing after a hard days work. But on that first morning, at 6am, it was not appreciated.

   Breakfast consisted of toast and cereal and coffee, and even though we were meant to start project work at eight o’clock the heavens decided to open, an extremely heavy downpour headed our plans. Once the rain stopped we headed towards the river, went on a boat ride to the other side to find out what we’d be doing over there. This was the region of Cacha, where we’d also be working on the school. It took a solid quarter of an hour to reach the school in Cacha and on the way we got to try the cacao fruit, which is used to make chocolate.

I’ll be honest, I prefer chocolate.

   While we were there we also befriended a little pup, which we named Precious. Most of us on the trip were dog lovers, so having her around was so much fun. Sadly, on our month we saw a lot of stray dogs and Precious was just one of the hundreds and thousands, but while we were with her we fed her, loved her and made her our own.

   Another animal we saw in the area of Cacha was this ginormous turkey. None of us liked it at all, in particularly Iain, who carried a pocket knife with him at all times and many a time threatened to kill the animal if it didn’t back off. Iain’s bark is worse than his bite though, so the turkey had nothing to fear.

After carrying large pieces of wood to the boat to recycle in the school on the other side of the river we had lunch and then spent some more time with the kids. Our work didn’t start until the afternoon after lunch, which consisted of mainly hammering the old tables in the school, saving and re-using the bits of wood and nails that were in good condition. Sounds easy, right? Think again. None of us had ever sweated so much in our lives. To make matters worse, I was then absolutely destroyed in a hula hoop competition by Diana who was ten years old. So to make myself feel better, she suggested I get some chocolate, which was the best decision of the day. Ecuadorian chocolate is quality chocolate.

   Hammocks – the function is to rock from side to side in a soothing manner, and is meant to be relaxing. Well – they’re not. Not in our case anyway, the amount of times people fell from them was laughable, and boy did we laugh at people trying to get into them gracefully. I’m talking about myself here, I was one of the worst. I’m ungraceful at the best of times, so after a long day of work, with walking boots on, I was a sight for sore eyes.

   This was our second night as a group of 14, so we decided to play a card game to bond which was called Werewolf, which would soon become a favourite of mine, mainly because as you got to know people better you knew how they’d react with a certain character in the game. Surprisingly, I remembered everyone’s name, and after a few rounds of the card game we went to bed at 9:30 and were asleep by 10.

And that was a late night.

Day 4

Alarm goes off at 6am again. Still trying to get used to it.

   Today we were working in the school on our side of the river, and carried all the utensils we needed from Camp to the school. Today was also a memorable day because this is when we met the Maestro (who was an absolute legend, who then became Guru) who could do absolutely anything, even with two fingers missing on his left hand (one after an incident with a bus collision and the other with a machete.)

   The lads started by digging a hole which would become a tank that would hold any waste (the school didn’t have a functioning toilet,) and us wee lasses learnt how to weave enormous leaves to create a roof on one of the shelters in the school. It should’ve been an easy task, but somehow me and my butter fingers couldn’t get the hang of it, I found out along the course of the month I was more of a manual about gal.

The amount of photos that were taken of us on this day was absolutely insane, we were forced to pose in Bolt and Mo Farah signature poses, and whatever we said the kids just laughed at us. At least someone found me entertaining, even though I hadn’t a clue what was so funny. We took it as a compliment anyway. I had chats, which were extremely vague due to my appalling Spanish and her limited English, with the Headteacher of the school often, who was the bubbliest Ecuadorian you’ll ever meet. Her eyes had a cheeky tinge to them and whenever I said something that was a bit too complicated, she’d hug me and rub my head and just start laughing hysterically. She was a legend.

   Then it was lunchtime.

   I wish I could say that food wasn’t that big of a deal in our group.

   But that would be the understatement of the millennium.

   Because we all. Loved. Food. So. Much. As in, it was a rapid race for the queue. When we heard the call for lunch and dinner, or the pang of the pans, we resembled the animals surrounding us more than humans. So yes, we were big eaters, and had seconds more often than not, and sometimes thirds.

   After lunch, post re-applying more bug spray even though I already looked like I had leprosy, we headed back to the school and concentrated on the walls. We had to adjust the walls because they weren’t strong enough to withstand bad weather, therefore we needed to nail heavy pieces of wood onto the tops of the walls which would help stabilise them.

   Another thing you should know about Ecuadorian weather is that it’s very moody.

   So as me, Nicole and Maddi (more about her later) are on one side of the wall, rotating from holding the ladder as the other is nailing the wood in from a height, I felt a speck of rain on my forehead. We were sweating that profusely I was convinced that it was my own, but then I felt more and before we could find shelter we were drenched. We all looked at each other in pure hysteria and just started, quite literally, dancing in the rain. We couldn’t stop laughing, and plowed through with the work, hardly able to see because the rain was so heavy. Just as Maddi was nailing her last nail into the wall, the sun suddenly appeared… then there was light!

   The funny thing was, throughout this whole time we were in one of the local’s back garden, adjusting the wall from outside the school grounds. At one point the father of the household came out and offered to help us with his machete because we were sliding down the bank due to the rain. He sliced effortlessly at the ground so we had a solid footing beneath us, and when Paula (our absolute favourite person) asked what was going on on the other side Maddi shouted at the top of her lungs, “It’s ok, don’t worry, he’s coming with his machete!”

If you heard that in the UK, it wouldn’t go down too well, but Paula just ‘hmm’d’ in agreement and shouted ‘carry on!’ Priceless.

After some DMC’s, and some more plantain for dinner (which is incredible if you’ve never had it) we headed off to bed, ready to face another day, with no clue what tomorrow, or the day afterwards, or after that would entail. After all, we were in Ecuador.

TIE. This. is. Ecuador.