28 September 2010
post-project review: sumak kawsay yachay in salasaca, ecuador
I arrived in Quito for Project #4 of The Global Citizen project without much of a plan, except to make my way to Salasaca, a town of 12,000 people on the road between Ambato and Baños. I knew very little about Ecuador, its capital city and even less about Salasaca and the organization I’d be volunteering with, Sumak Kawsay Yachay. I arrived in Salasaca in the middle of a Friday afternoon and from the minute I jumped into the back of a camioneta and hitched a ride to the bibioteca, I found solace in not knowing what was going to happen next. At the biblioteca, I met David, a dry-witted, 30-something Brit who walked me up a dirt road, lined with agave plants and roaming farm animals of all varieties to Pachamama Hostal, comfortable digs to a dozen or so volunteers.
Pachamama Hostal is a quirky, A-Frame homestead built precariously into the side of a hill. It boasts the most amazing vistas of Salasaca and surrounding villages; many hours were spent on its terrace soaking up the scenery, sunshine and hoots and hollers of nearby soccer (I mean futbol) games. Interesting note: there are 48 organized futbol teams in Salasaca. There’s a main community area where meals are shared, right next to a commercial-style kitchen. The hostel is divided into six rooms and can accommodate around 15 volunteers at a time. Rooms vary from a semi-dank dorm style room to a cozy attic slash alcove sleeping area to a spacious suite for couples.
Sumak Kawsay Yachay is a Kichua phrase that means, “a better/more beautiful life through education.” SKY is run by American expat, Robert Jeffords, who funds the small organization with his pension. Jeffords is one of the most endearing people you will ever meet and even morning-phobic me looked forward to eating porridge (he made daily) with him and the other volunteers promptly at 6:30 a.m. In the evenings, volunteers teamed up in groups of two or three to make dinner for the group as a once a week duty. Cooking got quite competitive as teams tried to scheme up 3-course menus that cost roughly $1 per person (it was done quite successfully on several occasions during my stay).
Volunteers can get involved with Katitawa Escuela or the biblioteca in a variety of capacities. Longer term volunteers can take the initiative to create their own language and class programs (for example, David started a drum class and other volunteers helped teach local artisans useful phrases for conducting commerce). Volunteers work Monday through Friday, starting at 8 a.m. Classes at Katitawa Escuela go until 2 p.m. and there are opportunities to work later in the day, either teaching language classes or working at the biblioteca. Robert expects volunteers to work a minimum of six hours a day; many work more.
I took the route of “put me to work where you need help” and ended up working with the kindergarten class (which compared to U.S. school systems was preschool). It probably wasn’t the best fit for me, but I diversified my attention to other projects like helping to build a stone wall, covering nighttime biblioteca shifts, moving large amounts of fertilizer to the escuela’s garden and feeding the chickens. I can do pretty much anything for a few weeks – even wrangling short attention spanned preschoolers. And once we implemented a few helpful tricks, like locking the kids in the classroom during class, taking away all sharp edged implements (there was a box cutter incident), and generously using words like “cuidado” and “venga aqui,” things were smooth(er) sailing. (I've learned that I better connect with kids a few years older in age, but that's just a personal preference.)
Volunteering with SKY was hands down my favorite project so far. I loved the project, the place (both Katitawa Escuela and the small town of Salasaca), the other volunteers, the students (well, except for one we nicknamed "Rat Features," anyway) and Robert. I feel so lucky to have crossed paths with this perfect volunteer project storm, and hope to return for a longer period of time once I’m through with this year-long tour de force. I also hope to stay in touch with a lot of the volunteers I worked with. It’s rare to find yourself in a dynamic where everything clicks, and although volunteers worked their butts off Monday-Friday, we found plenty of time to play, explore or relax on the weekends and spend time getting to know one another. It was a very simple, yet satisfying way of living and I’m all for playing rural girl in Salasaca with SKY again.