Our volunteering with All Hands was simply amazing. We had the chance to meet incredible, beautiful people, work in something that made us wake up every morning feeling great, helped these lovely families who fed us lunch with truly delicious treats, learnt loads and loads of new things, laughed our asses out, worried to death when an accident happened, got bitten like crazy by mosquitoes, wore fancy baggy pants from a volunteer that got dengue and the security guy at the hospital wouldn´t let me in in shorts to give her her bag, played football with the locals, gained enough digging skills to start working for the Italian mafia cleaning up their messes, ate amazing brownies, contemplated what Godzilla would look like if it were a pig, couldn´t believe it when a truck driver brought his wife to a work trip and expected me to pay for her lunch, got equally amazed and pissed every time a cop stopped a truck just to get the 5$ bribe or asked the driver for camarones (shrimps) or if the the driver didn´t have money simply screamed at him ¨give me something!¨, loved those unbelievable sunsets, the bonfire at the beach, the water, the sea. We helped build this beautiful puzzle with truly amazing little pieces, each of which will stay with us as a great memory of an experience we´ll definitely repeat in the future.
So how did this all start?
We were still in Wroclaw, Poland, when Ecuador’s coast was hit by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake. Thousands where injured and more than 600 people lost their life. Severe damages where caused to buildings and infrastructures, especially in the Manabi province. But to some degree, almost all regions of the country felt the tremor, as well as some areas of Colombia and Peru.
We decided then that it’d be great to give a hand in the reconstruction tasks when we’d be in Ecuador.
With this idea in mind, at the end of our stay in Colombia, Kasia found out about All Hands Volunteers and the project they were running in Canoa. We got in touch with them and arranged our stay for a month.
We arrived to Canoa couple of days earlier than the start day we had agreed, to rest from our previous volunteering in Mompiche and to celebrate Kasia´s birthday. So we had a nice little rest in the great beach that Canoa has to offer and felt fresh and ready to start working with All Hands.
The base camp was truly nice. A sandy camping area, nice big meeting table, cool and chilling sofa zone, amazing views from the rooftop, and not to forget the whole thing was in front of the beach. Pretty damn cool location it was.
As an added plus, we had camp dog, this amazing little fella that run around the place day and night.
The local government assigned All Hands a particular area to do their work, and that was San Miguel de Briceño. Initially they built temporary shelters for the families that were beneficiaries of the project, and then they started building final homes for all of them.
It was almost 60 volunteers on camp at the time we arrived.
So here was the deal: Every day the trucks left at 7 am in the morning direction to the different construction sites. We´d wake up at 5:30 am to cook our breakfast in peace and not with 58 people around us in the little kitchen. Help load the tools to the truck and get going.
I was part of the walls team and later the toilette team, and Kasia did some fittings, treated bamboo and then moved to floors. Pani Agnieszka showed me all about building walls with caña abierta (opened bamboo), which was a really funny and great experience.
Open bamboo cuts like a freaking knife, and the pieces that are 7 meter long and around 40 cm wide, well, they are pretty heave as well. So moving them around and up to build the walls, especially the outside ones, could be tricky but it was always fun.
The organization bought 2 different types of bamboo, treated and untreated. Only the open bamboo used at the houses was untreated. All Hands had a storage facility where they treated bamboo using a pipe system that pumped a mixture of water and boric-borax solution at high pressure, if I remember correctly. Here’s how that looked like. It was hard as some sawing was involved and then you would need to put some sort of elephant size condoms to the bamboo that would keep the pipe attached to the bamboo piece while the mixture flowed.
I was also part of the two-people toilette team. Collin and I did some nice digging indeed. It consisted in building the trenches where the pipes that comes out of the septic tank went. 3 trenches of 5m each while digging uphill = a hell lot of fun. Add some nice fancy Ecuadorian sun to it and there you have it, the perfect work out. Get rid of your gym card, get a shovel and start digging, I guarantee you’ll get results in less than a week!
After trying few other tasks Kasia asked to be assigned to one type of work to have a chance to learn about it as much as possible. So from that time she was part of the floors team. As almost everything else in the houses, floors were also made of bamboo. It wasn’t an easy task to make the open bamboo firm and stable so sometimes after installing few pieces of bamboo we had to remove everything and start over as we were not happy about the result.
After some time we got some practice and got rid of our perfectionism (doesn’t matter how hard you try bamboo won’t be perfectly straight or flat) so the work was less frustrating and more effective until one day the main architect of the project came and told us that this is the most sexy floor he has ever seen.
In some houses beneficiaries wished to have their floors made of wood instead of bamboo. In theory this should be great news for all as on one hand wood is much easier to work with with than bamboo and on the other it is stronger and prettier. I guess some of you may have had a chance to put the floors in your apartments so here the technique was basically the same. The only difference was that you don’t install it on the flat cement but on, guess what – bamboo joists! And you don’t buy wood in the shop where each piece is the same size and perfectly smooth, but you take whatever survived from the house that collapsed in the earthquake. So it was quite difficult to find the pieces that could fit to each other (and were not eaten by termites). But at the end the results and smiles on the faces of the beneficiaries walking on their new floors compensated all the difficulties and hard work.
It was all a great deal of fun and an amazing way to gain construction skills and learn about new tools while helping families in need. The local workers also had a lot of construction skills to share and a great sense of humor. Oh yep, I forgot to mention. The construction teams were formed by both volunteers and local workers. It was a great way to both get a helping hand from volunteers and contribute to the local economy by empowering the community members with a job, while at the same time helping other members of that same community get the house they so much needed and deserved.
It was exhausting but felt incredibly great. Just getting in the trucks every morning, knowing we were up to doing something nice, useful, so much needed, was just too good of a feeling. We got addicted to it pretty quick.
After a couple of weeks, I was approached by Miguel, the logistics coordinator for the project, who asked me if I´d want to cover for him for 2 weeks while he´d be out. This meant staying in the project 2 weeks more than we had planned, but considering that working at an NGO would be a dream come true, we said yes oh yes. There was a chance the position would become permanent in case Miguel decided not to come back, so it sounded all pretty sweet.
For two weeks I shadowed Miguel and got to know the daily bits and bytes of the job. Basically it consisted in acquiring all the necessary tools and materials needed to build the houses, from tiny little screws to toilette parts to bamboo pieces. It was truly great to have the chance to see this other side of a humanitarian project, to deal with the providers, negotiate the prices, look for things around. I was also in charge of the truck drivers and the local workers, and that was a great experience too. From the guy that pretended me to believe that he had agreed with Miguel that I´d help him bring a new stereo system from Colombia to the sudden holiday requests from many workers to truck drivers whose trucks apparently seem to had broken all at the same time and needed time out for fixing it, it was a pretty funny scheme to handle. During those two weeks, All Hands also moved the storage facility to a new location, so it was a pretty intense time, but I´d do it all over again without hesitating for a second. The staff at All Hands were amazing people, who worked I don´t even know how many hours a day, killing it every day. The good thing about this NGO is that there’s no boss sitting at a fancy office, neither he had his own room, he shared one like the rest of us. It was really easy to see the money was going where it needed to go.
We would have loved to stay longer, but considering that Miguel decided to come back and that our visas were coming to an end, we decided to get moving to be able to see some other places in Ecuador in the little days we had left before having to leave the country.
A truly incredible experience, highly recommended to every one! All Hands is running a project in Nepal, so who knows, maybe our next destination after South America?
If so, we hope to see you there!