Cotopaxi, Active Volcano Visit

Good stories typically don’t begin with food poisoning, but this one does.

For the WorldTeach Ecuador End of Service trip, our cohort visited the cities of Mindo, Otavalo, Quito, and Cotopaxi. I knew that all of the cities were going to be amazing, but I was especially excited to visit Cotopaxi National Park, home to a huge active stratovolcano that all Ecuadorians adore as a landmark of their home country.

The volcano is located between Riobamba and Quito and acts as a landmark for those traveling between. The beauty of Cotopaxi does not transfer in photos. It is huge and snowcapped and is in stark contrast to the nearly barren landscape around it, dark and scrubby with bushes thanks to previous volcanic eruptions. Even Ecuadorians take every opportunity to stop and photograph the mountain — a phenomenon I witnessed twice while traveling with members of my community.

Unfortunately, on our last night in Otavalo, I made a bad impromptu decision to order fish at a restaurant, and knew pretty much instantly that I was a goner. I spent the long bus ride to Quito drinking water mixed with a Pedialyte packet and willing myself not to be sick. During our one day in Quito, I rested and willed my body to recover so that I could enjoy our very last trip as a cohort.

In typical style, the journey from Quito to Cotopaxi was not as straightforward as a foreigner might expect. Our WorldTeach directors had scheduled a van to drive our group, 6 volunteers and 2 directors, to our hostel. We met outside our hostel, Secret Garden Quito, early in the morning with our things packed. For sake of space, the driver strapped most of our backpacks to the roof of the van. As I was one of our members least likely to feel carsick on a typical basis, I sat in the back of the van. The journey was bumpy and windy and I tried my best to stare straight forward and breathe deeply. I had hardly eaten in 48 hours, but I still felt awful.

About halfway to Cotopaxi, our driver randomly pulled onto the side of the road and we saw 2 backpackers running towards our van. Confused, our director asked the driver why we were picking up more people when we had booked a private van. The backpackers soon piled in and we sent more of our belongings to be slung up on top of the vehicle. Space was now tight, but we embraced the moment and began chatting with the couple who had joined us. Soon after, we began off-road and spent about 45 minutes bouncing and jolting down a rocky dirt road towards our hostel — seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

I think that the only places we passed in that 45 minutes of off-roading were a couple lone farms and a passing truck or two. Somehow, I managed to contain my sickness and we pulled up at the Secret Garden Quito’s brother hostel, the Secret Garden Cotopaxi.

The Secret Garden Cotopaxi is like no other hostel I’ve ever experienced before. It consists of several buildings spread across a hill and looks as if it would belong in Alice in Wonderland or The Hobbit, which makes sense as some of the rooms are built to embody Hobbit holes. In the center of the small spread of buildings is the communal cabin located directly behind sprouting gardens and two large trampolines. On either side of the central building are cabins that house large groups with bunk-beds. Further up on the hill, visitors can find composting toilets and hot tubs covered by greenhouse roofs. Check out the drone footage video of the hobbit holes, housing, and Cotopaxi and prepare to be amazed.

Upon arrival, the entire hostel staff greeted us out front near the garden and helped unload our belongings into our shared cabin. We then entered the central communal building, passing through a bright sunroom filled with colorful hanging hammocks, giant bean bags, and 5 or so lounging dogs on our way to the main room. We plopped down on sofas and the staff began to welcome us and explain the daily happenings of the Secret Garden.

Included in your stay at the hostel is a guided waterfall hike the afternoon of your arrival, home cooked meals that suit dietary restrictions, and roaming access to the property. The hostel also offers excursions for guided horseback riding tours, a Cotopaxi summit, various hikes in the area, and a visit to the national park. Since our stay was a short one, we opted for the horseback riding tour.

In addition to a couple of permanent staff members, the Secret Garden Cotopaxi is run by employees who work for their room and board. I was fascinated by their stories. Many of the employees visited the hostel as guests and later decided to return to work for 3-4 weeks. However, nearly all of the staff that I chatted with had long outstayed their original plans. Some had even been there for 3-5 months and changed travel plans or job plans to stay and work for longer.

Their joy was palpable and I was intrigued by their lifestyle. After all, there is absolutely nothing in the vicinity of the hostel except for the surrounding mountains. They shared stories about the opportunity that the hostel provides to complete unplug due to their lack of wifi, the guests that they were able to meet, and about time spent exploring outdoors that the location provides.

For meal time, staff and guests alike gather at one large table in the communal center and talk over delicious homemade food. In the evening, guests and staff stay up talking, relaxing by the fire, playing card games, or enjoying a drink. I felt as though I was experiencing something really special surrounded by an international community of travelers. You had no choice but to experience the moment fully with no phones or internet and no where else nearby to rush off to.

Although I had to miss out on the waterfall hike due to my food poisoning, I was able to recover enough to join in for the horseback riding tour. Again, I was struck by contrast between the looming volcano, Cotopaxi, and the surrounding barren landscape. I don’t know how to exactly describe the landscape because I’ve never seen anything like it. I assume that after lava wiped some of the surrounding land, mosses and small plants began to grow. Today, the land is covered mostly by clumpy tufty grasses and small shrubs. It is also quite cold!

Cotopaxi was breathtaking from all angles and our 3-hour ride provided plenty of opportunities to stare and wonder. Moving uphill and crossing over small streams, I galloped on a horse for the first time and held on for dear life. I chatted with those on horseback around me and took moments to reflect on all that I had done during my 8 weeks in Ecuador. It was only fitting for the trip to end with another big step outside of my comfort zone. On our final leg of the journey I pushed through food poisoning, reflected on close friendships built over the course of the summer and got to know strangers over shared meals. I packed toilet paper in my backpack in case of emergency, I went faster on a horse than I would have thought I could, and I said goodbye to new friends not knowing when I would see them next.

My volunteer cohort


I understand now how visitors of the Secret Garden turn into short term employees who turn into long term family. It is hard not to experience this same feeling of aching to stay when you’re laying on one of the trampolines in the crisp air gazing at the stars witnessing Cotopaxi’s snow-topped beauty. I’m still not sure if the bravest choice is choosing to stay or having the guts to say goodbye.

Many of the photos in this post were taken by my fellow volunteer member and friend, Rachael Ferguson. Thank you for the amazing photos, Rachael!

The post above does not reflect the viewpoints of the WorldTeach organization or of the United States government.

 


Ecuador

What teaching in Ecuador taught me

When summer camp began, I was really focused on what I would be able to teach my students in the short amount of time that I had with them. This is not a bad goals to have, but I was definitely too caught up in how I was going to achieve this instead of thinking about the students. As one of my professors, Dr. Carpenter always tells us, when you begin teaching you are too focused on yourself and not focused enough on the students and their experience in your classroom.

As the weeks and classes passed by, I found myself being able to forget myself more and more as I was teaching and instead, focus on the students to make sure that their needs were being met. I realized that I had to really listen to them and get them invested in the lessons so that they would care. This realization was a result of many lessons I received inside and outside of my classroom here in Ecuador. Camp is now sadly over and I know that while I did teach my students, they also taught me. The lessons I’ve learned here in Ecuador have already impacted me as an educator and as a person and I’m so excited to begin my student teaching this fall.

Lesson #1: Going with the flow

Anyone who knows me well knows that I love having a plan. I look forward to the start of each new semester when I can color code my Google calendar and perfectly plan each day so that I can maximize my productivity. Here in Ecuador, things definitely did not abide to my color-coded calendar. If you arrive early here you’re early and if you arrive on time you’re still early. While camp was supposed to start at 8:40 each morning, we never started until between 9 and 9:15, majorly cutting into my first lesson plan every day. At first, I was frustrated by my plans getting messed up and I started to put in a little bit less effort knowing that I would not be able to perfectly execute what I had in mind.

However, I soon realized that this cultural difference shouldn’t affect the effort I give to my students or the effort I give for myself. In many ways, “going with the flow” and throwing the plan out the window can turn out better. This way of living forced me to forget myself and my perfect plans and focus on what was best for the students. When we were asked to come up with a final presentation for the parents in just a few days, I realized that I was now more confident and capable because I had been asked to think on my feet the entire summer. I also realize that being flexible and having back-up plans is important in any school anywhere in the world. Sometimes, the people higher-up than myself will have requests of me that seem last minute or challenging and I know that I am now more equipped to deal with those requests in stride.

Lesson #2: Overcoming communication barriers

Throughout my time in Ecuador, I was challenged by the language barrier. When I first arrived, I could barely order food and make basic conversation. In Riobamba, I had to communicate with Ecuadorian volunteers, have school meetings in Spanish, and eat all meals with the priests while only speaking Spanish. I learned to communicate my needs, be a better listener, and be very patient. I now am at a very functional level! I definitely have not completely overcome this challenge by any stretch of the imagination, but I make small gains every day by committing to daily study, being patient with myself, and celebrating all progress.

Lesson #3: Achieving a balance between caring and in control

This lesson really all boils down to my confidence in the classroom and as a person. Before any new classroom placement or teaching task, I am always the most nervous about classroom management. I want the students to be able to see how much I care about their learning and about them as people, but I also know that I need to be in charge of the classroom in order to facilitate and maximize learning.

The first few days of teaching, I was extremely nervous and I was in my own head a lot. After a few crazy events – a fight in my classroom, students showing up late, and some chaotic moments, I realized that I was handling the situations without even thinking about them because my instincts and the things I’ve learned at Elon were kicking in. My students knew that I cared about them partially because of my classroom management and because of my high expectations of them. I once heard a student grumbling as they walked in that my class was her hardest and I silently cheered inside my head.

My most fulfilling teacher experience was seeing the transformation in my students from passive to active learners. With my older groups of students (11-15), I saw the most change. At the beginning of my time, they were quiet and just expected to listen and give one “correct” answer and then be done. Each day, I pushed them to have more conversation and to discuss the “why” of their answer. On one of the last days of classes, I asked them how they would like to run their final presentation and present to their parents. I was shocked when nearly all of the students raised their hands and began to offer opinions on how to get their parents talking. The ideas that they suggested were activities that we had been working on the entire course of the summer. It was amazing to see my students take charge in the classroom and see the value in the young leaders that they are becoming! The more of an active role I asked my students to take, the less talking and side conversations I had in the classroom.

Lesson #4: People matter the most

Lastly, the most important lesson I’ve been reminded of this summer is that it’s the people, not the places, that matter the most. This is my first time ever coming to South America and I had no idea what to expect. Would the people be different?! Would I be able to communicate?! Would I make friends?!

Now, as I sit here with my 7 year old host-sister who somehow understands that I can only understand if she speaks slowly and manages to communicate with me perfectly, I can tell you that these fears were completely erased as soon as I arrived. Even without perfect Spanish, it is possible to communicate with smiles, with the attempt to speak in a new language, and with putting in effort to make friends and learn each day. My absolute favorite days here in Ecuador have not been big trips, but instead days spent with new Ecuadorian friends that I made at camp or with my director and host siblings eating long lunches or meeting more of their family members.

I would like to thank my host family, the priests at UESTAR, for being so patient with our Spanish level and for opening the community center to us and always making us laugh. I would also like to thank my site director and her kids (my host-siblings), for treating me like family and for always believing in me and giving me the support and encouragement I needed. A special  Additionally, I would like to thank all of my fellow WorldTeach volunteers and the WorldTeach office staff for providing me with friendship and with advice no matter the time of day. I hope that our paths will cross again!

Ecuador Reflections Trips