By Melissa Ruttanai
Volunteer Travel Makes a Difference to You Too
“We’ll sing the Preposition Song to the tune of Yankee Doodle Dandy.” My husband Neil passed out copies of song lyrics. In a tight semi-circle, twelve people from around the world congregated inside the Biblioteca Interactiva de Baños for the weekly language exchange called intercambio. A guest volunteer, Neil led the session with an activity geared toward learning English and Spanish prepositions. We introduced ourselves, practiced translating, and sang aloud on our feet without shame that we might be off key. Volunteer travel rocks!
Each Monday, the Biblioteca Interactiva de Baños or BIB begins its week like a well-oiled machine. Coordinators Karl and Mazz sit at the head of a large table, welcoming new volunteers and reviewing the previous week’s accomplishments.
Though technically not volunteers, Neil and I had become good friends with the staff and were invited to attend their weekly meeting. Laughter mixed with serious brainstorming as Karl eyed the clock and Mazz kept minutes. From all over the world and of every age, volunteers commit to a month of community service: running English classes for local youth, holding cinema nights, and participating in the popular language exchange. They live together, share household chores, and help local Ecuadorians learn English. International and domestic travelers stop in Baños on their way up and down the Andean Mountains, and like Karl and Mazz, many stay.
Volunteering in Baños, Ecuador
In general, Baños de Santa Agua is a major stop along the tourist trail. With hot springs and fusion foods, Baños offers a getaway from Quito and mountain retreat beside the Rio Pastaza. Package tourists soak in mineral waters and return to the capital within the week. Long-term backpackers camp out in local hostels. But BIB volunteers are different. Immersed in the community, they get to see what real Ecuadorian life is like. They read to school children and shake hands with thankful parents. At night, people wave “hola” to volunteers and often—because they know Karl—their drinks are discounted at popular bars.
Each weekday at 3pm, the BIB’s painted shutters open and young children begin calling out for their favorite teacher. Karl knows each child by name, hugging one and rustling another’s hair. On beanbags and benches, the volunteers sit with Ecuadorian children. They read Curious George, Star Wars, and Cinderella in Spanish and English. During Halloween, they parade through town in costume, handing out flyers for the BIB’s programs. As Karl stated, “We’ve lots of volunteers, but we can’t have a BIB without the children. So sometimes we have to remind the town that we’re here.”
During meetings, I can see that each volunteer loves this program in a different way. “Listening to [the kids] read in their own language has helped me learn Spanish quicker,” said Drew, a volunteer from Massachusetts. “They pronounce every syllable carefully and it helps me too.” In many ways, volunteering in Ecuador is symbiotic. Both volunteers and students benefit. Kids receive language lessons and role models from overseas. Volunteers become part of a mission to help the local community and experience Ecuador differently than most travelers.
Living as a Volunteer at the BIB
One multi-story building and a large courtyard comprise the BIB property. On the second and third floor, double and triple rooms line the shotgun hall. A large kitchen and living room offer common areas for reading and relaxing. On the first floor, a learning lounge opens to the street and welcomes students with shelves of Spanish and English books as well as comfy beanbags. Off to the rear, a crafts center has long tables and painted murals for art and group projects. Through a generous donation, the BIB also has a movie projection and sound system for Wednesday’s cinema night.
While living at the BIB, volunteers work together and care for the house, courtyard, and sidewalk. Each week during the Monday meeting, chores are divvied up so that floors are mopped, the street swept, and bookshelves organized. At night, volunteers enjoy each other’s company with walks around the basilica and drinks at the bars. Life is relaxed and fulfilling.
During Neil’s intercambio, the atmosphere continued to be laidback and welcoming. Four Ecuadorians sang the Preposition Song and several foreigners translated phrases into Spanish. The hour and a half ran quickly as participants chatted with each other and joked about strange diction. By the end of the session, we laughed about the singing competition that turned into rap songs about prepositions. Karl closed up the BIB and we waved “Hasta luego!”
“See you in an hour.” I said to Mazz, who smiled and waved back.
“Yep, see you at the bar.” She turned to ring her boyfriend and get ready for a nightcap in town. Unlike an office job or regular internship, volunteering at the BIB is about an expat lifestyle centered on social living.
Details & How to Become a Volunteer
To become a volunteer at the BIB, applicants should contact Karl and Mazz at email@example.com with a letter of introduction and ability to commit up to 3 months in Baños, Ecuador. Volunteers do not pay for the program. However, participants are expected to pay a monthly donation for their room, starting at US$120 per month that includes bedding, utilities, laundry access, WIFI, and cookery. Accepted applicants should inquire about paying in advance in order to receive a discount. Baños de Santa Agua is located in Tungurahua, 3.5 hours south of Quito, 9 hours east of Guayaquil and 7 hours north of Cuenca via bus.