In November of 2016, I joined All Hands Volunteers (now All Hands and Hearts) in northern Ecuador to help rebuild houses after the earthquakes earlier in the year. I also figured it would be an excellent opportunity to volunteer while traveling in Ecuador. Much like when I went to Nepal, I had finished working in Thailand and was looking for where to go next. I’ve always wanted to live and travel in Latin America because I love their geography and language. I had researched a few organizations to work with but All Hands Volunteers were very hands-on and could work with my time frame.
The project was based on the Manabi coast in northwestern Ecuador. It was ending in December so I could only volunteer for about a month. I joined to help with the construction efforts but I didn’t offer my photography as part of this assignment. The base was a hotel a few kilometers from the work sites. There was a mix of All Hands staff and volunteers staying there. Some people lived in the rooms inside the hotel, but most people slept directly on the beach not far from the shore. All accommodations and three meals a day were provided by All Hands Volunteers. Breakfast and dinner were available at the base and lunches were provided by the person’s house we were working on that day. The workday started when we left the base after breakfast, at about 7 am, until we finished working at about 3 or 4 pm.
Arriving in Conoa
Construction teams and assignments were organized based on task and skill level. The teams were divided into framing, foundations, walls, and finishing crews. Every week or so, we would rotate between teams to get some experience in each phase of building the house. The volunteers included a wide range of experience from construction professionals to people that didn’t even know how to hold a hammer. By the end of the project, everyone was much more well-rounded in bamboo construction than when they arrived. There was a mix of several ages and nationalities. It was mostly a mix of younger to middle-aged people who also wanted to volunteer while traveling in Ecuador.
I was put on the foundations’ team when I first arrived. We dug the foundations for outhouses, laid the plumbing, and poured the concrete foundations. Another team would come and add walls, a sink, and a toilet. The most challenging part was mixing the cement by hand. First, we would have to find water, usually from the local creek. Then mix the sand, gravel, and cement by hand on a mixing board. After mixing, we shoveled the concrete into the foundation frames and leveled it. Then we aligned the pipes and finished the foundation. After a week of this, I was moved to another team responsible for outfitting the main house with windows, a kitchen, doors, counters, stairs, etc.
Lunch was my favorite part of the day. It was mostly what I call “carb soup.” Consisting of potatoes, yucca, rice, corn, noodles, and the occasional surprise heart or kidney. The regular work schedule was Monday-Friday, with some people volunteering to work weekends to meet deadlines.
The regular work schedule was Monday-Friday, with some people volunteering to work weekends to meet deadlines. Outside of work, we would go to Canoa and sometimes San Vicente. Canoa was about a 15-minute walk from the All Hands Volunteers’ base. There, we had more options to eat and relax. Some of the best shawarmas I’ve ever had were from a husband and wife serving them from the back of a van in Canoa. There are also plenty of bars and dining options in the area. The base rules were to be back inside the gate by 10 pm. If not, you had to find somewhere else to stay for the night or be on grunt duty the next morning. On the weekends, we usually would go hang out in Canoa. The rooms were cheap enough so it was better to stay there than go back to the base.
We didn’t work all the time. The staff and volunteers would often have games and contests to raise more money or just have fun. We would hold auctions where people would donate skills, time, personal materials, food, or anything that could be auctioned. For example, I won tea brought to me twice a day (no matter what) for a week from an English guy for $30. I auctioned off my breakfast eggs since I don’t eat them. Other people auctioned off backrubs, language lessons, crazy haircuts, guitar lessons, massages, or anything that came to mind. One guy auctioned off an erotic novel written by his dad. I think that one received the most money. We would also have parties and dinners away from the base to change the pace and have some fun. We just sat around a bonfire on the beach many nights and drank rum.
Interacting with the locals
My favorite part of volunteering was the ladies and children who sold us snacks while working. Several times a day, people would come to the different work sites selling cheese and chicken empanadas, lemonade, fruit cups, ice cream, and anything else they could carry. This one boy would come around with cinnamon cheese empanadas and sell out in a few seconds. Everything was usually 25cents. A couple of cups of lemonade and a few empanadas and I was in heaven. To this day, I have yet to find better empanadas.
Living in Ecuador was also an excellent opportunity to learn and practice Spanish. As in most places, none of the locals spoke English so you had to speak Spanish. I learned Spanish in school and had a basic understanding of the language before I arrived, but it significantly improved from my time volunteering and interacting with the locals.
All Hands Volunteers is a rapidly growing organization and they have many people ready to volunteer and help them. I doubt I will work with them again, but I encourage people to do the research and determine if this is an organization they wish to work with. You can find more about All Hands and Hearts by clicking here.
Photos taken by Marlène Gourounas
The official All Hands Volunteers video from when I was traveling while volunteering in Ecuador.