In April this year, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit the coast of Ecuador. 673 people were killed and more than 27,000 were injured. From the moment we saw the devastation on the news from our apartment in Bogota, Colombia, we wanted to help. After some research and perseverance, our journey with All Hands Volunteers began.
We arrived in Quito, Ecuador’s capital on a mission. We needed a tent, work clothes and some safety apparel ready for our arrival at the All Hands Volunteers (AHV) base in Canoa, along the Pacific coast of the country.
The tent was proving difficult until we met fellow Aussie traveller, Dale. He’d been backpacking with his girlfriend and no longer needed the little two manner. Pre-warning us that it a) wasn’t waterproof, b) had issues with the zips, and c) a couple of the poles were broken, we took it off his hands anyway, determined to not have to sleep in the sand at camp.
After a long and sleepless night bus a few days later, we arrived in Canoa as the sun rose. We found coffee and then headed out to base. Entering the campgrounds was something I’ll personally never forget. By this time it was 7am and some of the volunteers had started working. The first person we met was Konnie. An axe-wielding German primary school teacher. Already she was sweating in the heat of the day as she chopped bamboo and I couldn’t help but think – what have we signed up for??
We drowsily completed some paperwork, took a camp tour and began setting up our little tent in the sand. We’d bought new aluminium poles to replace the broken plastic ones and using a tarp Dale had also gifted us, we created a little shelter over the tent to protect us from rain. Then it was time to start work.
Paired up with Danny and Ned, we learnt how to split bamboo to make runners. Just as we were getting into it though, we were called to orientation where we had the opportunity to meet other new people who’d recently arrived and find out more about the organisation we’d spend the next two weeks with.
That night, we danced and drank on the beach at a local bar before finally returning to our little home and getting some well-needed rest. Day 1 done and dusted.
Day 2 was much easier. Being a Sunday there was no work scheduled so we went wandering through town. It was evident that the earthquake had affected this small fishing village with several vacant lots and many buildings showing signs of much needed repair. We met Sandy a British lady who’d lived in Australia for 30 years that was running a small coffee shop and enjoyed a tasty breakfast, before doing some shopping at the local farmer’s market.
Back at camp, we braved the showers. Outdoors and open to the elements, these cold water showers constantly had me prickling with goose bumps. On the plus side, after a hot day in the sun, they were rather refreshing, just needed the wind to bugger off!
We also felt our first of several earthquakes. For someone with bad motion sickness, earthquakes suck, so luckily the ground stopped shaking after a few seconds. After waiting for news on whether we would need to evacuate or not, it was time for bed. Though admittedly I didn’t sleep well, anxious that the ground might shake again.
Day 3 was our first real day of volunteering and we’d been assigned to Madre Tierra, another NGO. Work days started at 6:45am so we ate a large bowl of porridge each and some bread with jam. Then we got on with house-keeping duties until the Madre Tierra team collected us at 8:30am and took us to their IDP camp, Camp Saman. At the time, the camp housed 30 families and had room for 20 more. We were quickly dispatched to different tasks, Justin to work on a pick-up and I was to dismantle and reassemble shelters. We actually worked out here a few times and the work was rather varied. Some days we were digging trenches, farming bamboo, building awnings for the shelters, whatever it was really that needed to be done, we did.
Lunch everyday was served on site and depended on the host. Our first lunch was tuna and rice with a large cup of fresh papaya juice. We would soon also learn that rice would be served every lunch and dinner for the entirety of our stay. Needless to say, we have tried to avoid rice in the weeks since we’ve left in an attempt to change up the diet just a little!
By 4:00pm, the work day was done and we were driven back to base. At 5:30pm, the daily meeting took place outlining that day’s and the next day’s work along with any other updates and information. Dinner was at 6:00pm and usually consisted of rice and some form of meat. On this particular night, dinner was chicken, rice and noodles before we all sat down to watch Cool Runnings on a projector. At 10:00pm, the lights were switched off and everyone returned to their tents. Another day in camp finished.
By day 5 I got a stomach bug and was sent off the job early. Luckily I was working on base so it wasn’t far to get to my tent and because Justin was based there too, he was able to keep an eye on me. I did decide that camp sucks. Dry crackers suck. Hydrolytes suck.
On day 6 I was feeling weak but much better, and I was ready to start making a difference. (Everything had stopped sucking). That was until I poured boiling water over my arm trying to make porridge. I ran my arm under cool water for a long while but the blisters were already popping up on my skin. I was devastated when it was mentioned I should stay back at base for the day so instead I wrapped my arm in gauze and headed off anyway. Again I was working with Justin but this time we were in San Vicente building a bamboo storage facility.
We had a great team led by Cody who had us doing all sorts of things bamboo. While we were both anxious to build a house, we realised that without the storage facility, the bamboo would deteriorate. Without pre-fabrication, there would be nothing to build with. So even though these jobs were not the most attractive on the project, they were necessary for the smooth daily operation of things.
By day 8, I had managed to sign up for my first demolition. With hard hats on and armed with crow bars, our team dismantled a small casita and another larger house. There were some pretty strict safety rules on site (not as strict as back home though) and even then we still had a couple of dramas. First, AJ stepped on a nail which would later get infected and then his lovely wife Alice got a bought of what we believed may be food poisoning. She battled on like a trooper though and the two us managed to pull down both houses with practically no assistance. Ok, Shaun helped on the second house but otherwise us girls had it nailed.
In the process of tearing down the houses, we also saw a tarantula, a couple of bats and hundreds of cockroaches. While I was slightly creeped out, I carried on. After all, I was Australian and from what I knew, nothing in Ecuador could kill you like an Aussie animal so what was there to be afraid of?
Doing demolition, you have to be socially aware on site. It’s someone’s house you’re removing. Its memories you’re piling up against the fence. It’s personal. But, it’s also very rewarding.
On day 9, our first week was already gone and it was Sunday again. We made Roza’s Polish Pierogis and were gifted a free mattress by some Dutch girls who were leaving. It was brand new and they’d only stayed 4 days. No more sleeping on the ground! But that’s when the zip on the tent broke. After several failed attempts to get the zip back on the runner, we sewed up one side of the tent. Could have been worse. Could have been on fire. That’s what Justin says anyway.
Day 10 was the day I was introduced to cana abierta. I hate it. My body hates me. I somehow have a blister on my ass…
Day 11, 12 & 13 went by in a blur. I’d been assigned to the bamboo team for four days straight and everything hurt, but I was starting to get good at it. The process involved splitting the nodes around the bamboo, then opening it as one piece or a sheet to be used as flooring or walls in the houses that were being built. While this technique was all the rage when we first arrived, by the time we left, AHV had found a guy who made 120 pieces in a day by himself and it was good. Like really good, flat, straight abierta. I could make 5-6 a day myself and Justin could make 9+ but 120?! Just amazing.
By the time day 14 rolled around, we’d already extended for another week. I’d spent the day at our new base tidying up and Justin had begun working as a Team Leader in pre-fabrication. That night we had a not so silent auction to raise money. Everything was sale and I mean everything. People had committed to sell their favourite dreadlock, shave or colour their beards, cook fancy dinners, massages, piggy-back rides, even a skinny dip was on offer! Justin and I put up a vegemite sandwich and it sold for $10! I also helped Travis and Dan sell hotdogs. It was fabulous.
On day 16, Justin was suspended from camp for 2 days. The whole situation was highly controversial but he was late home from curfew so he packed an overnighter and headed into town. It was the hardest 2 nights I had on camp.
Days 17 to 21 though were awesome. I’d finally signed up on a temporary house. I was going to help build a home for somebody. The first days consisted of marking out the base of our house, digging holes and loads of lashing. By the end of the 21st day, we had a roof on, windows up and the door in place, ready to sign the house over to its new owner.
The temporary housing project was a series of 20 temporary bamboo homes, designed to last around 2-3 years, giving the beneficiary time to set aside some funds to build something more permanent. The roof was made from tarpaulin and the windows were adjustable from a rope pulley attached on the inside. They really were a work of art.
Before we knew it, the weekend had rolled around again and it was time for us to say our goodbyes. As I went to stand, Justin kindly informed me that we’d be staying one more week.
The next day was the Mini-Man Ironman race. Volunteers had chosen to run anywhere between 15 and 5 kilometres from our new base at the Coconut Beach Hotel to the San Vicente sign. I’d been asked to be a Team Leader and keep everyone on time so with the lovely Marina on water duties, we had a sneaky beer or three and started the party while we yelled encouraging words for our fellow volunteers to run, run, RUN!!
That afternoon though was the most memorable day for both myself and Justin at AHV. We got married. Fake married. Following a conversation the night before with Jo, it was decided a wedding would be a grand thing to have so, Laura and Katie went about making veils and bowties from things they found in the free bin and I continued drinking – after all, I would be the groom in this wedding and I needed to make sure I was in character.
Everything went off without a hitch. Justin, my beautifully hairy wife, was attended by Jo, Laura, Carole and Marina. Chris got him dressed and Lily and Campbell assisted with his train, while Sean was marvellous as Father of the Bride. Katie and Phil scrubbed up to play page boy and flower girl and I was attended by Jezza, Rami, Travis and Dan but then Dan got too drunk and Ben had to step up. Moonie delivered a totally dope speech about love and Tom and Heather knocked out some tunes including Wonderwall, which was aptly changed to ‘Wootton-Wall’ reflecting mine and Justin’s new marital status. We were fake married on a white sand beach, in Ecuador, among the palm trees, in 15 minutes flat. It was perfect.
On day 25, I started working at Escuela Olga Madrid. The school had been affected by the earthquake and their boundary fence made of brick was badly damaged. Parents had removed their children from school for safety reasons so we went in first, to demolish and rubble out the old fence, and then rebuild a new fence out of bamboo. This project would take 3 weeks and 2 days and become my special project as I was chosen to take over leadership on the second day when Chris pulled out with a health issue. So you guessed it, we extended another 3 times so I could finish the fence before we left.
Working at the school was at most times, rather relaxed. We would arrive by 8am, tools down at 10:30am for recess to play soccer or whatever else was on the cards that day. Our lunch would be served at 11:30am and by 4pm we’d be locking the gate and heading back to base. It took a week or so before the kids were comfortable with us, but soon we had soccer challenges and cheeky little ones chasing us around the playground.
We built the front and side fences in a similar fashion to our temporary homes, using cana abierta horizontally, and the back fence was built using vertical pieces of bamboo which, when finished, looked very artistic and creative.
On Day 46, Justin and I had both been pre-signed to temporary house #19 with Rocky, Josh and Sam. It was our last week and we’d be spending it together, building the second last home in the project for a family of 14. They’d been living in a tent and from what we saw one day, they needed this house. The kids, the adults, and even the livestock were all sitting on the ground sharing the afternoon meal.
We got to work, marking out our lines, digging holes, and getting the posts in. We even laid and lashed the floor beams on the first day. On the second, we had the floor fitted and had started on the walls, and by the end of third the only things remaining were the windows, the roof and the front wall.
The house was finished in 3.5 days and it was beautiful. I wasn’t there for the last day unfortunately, but Justin says the family was very happy with our work.
Instead of finishing the house, I was building a winner’s podium and co-hosting the 2016 AHV Bamboo Olympics with Jacobie. The idea was spurned as a team building exercise after a large turn around in volunteers and bit of a mood drop on base. We had coconut shot-put, bamboo javelin, an evacuation race, a hole digging competition, a human pyramid, long jump, and a ready for work relay.
At the end of the day, the winners got to stand on my gaudy podium and receive a medal (pieces of wood that had been cut into circles, drilled and hung with a piece of builders twine). The festivities carried on into the night and before we knew it day 51 was already upon us.
Day 51 was terrible and also very exciting. We had finally ignored the ‘one more week’ chants, we’d packed our bags, and we were on the truck being taken to San Vicente. Saying ‘see you later’ to so many wonderful people and friends was difficult but after all, we had come for 2 weeks and already stayed 7, so it was time to go.
Volunteering with All Hands gave us the opportunity to be a part of something amazing. We were surrounded everyday by incredibly talented individuals from all over the world, all who had come together to give their time and energy to this project. Things we didn’t think possible were achieved by all of us coming together to rebuild a small community after it was devastated by the April earthquake. You arrive here as a volunteer, but you leave a family behind.
Disaster relief however, is not for everyone. The work is tough. Those 8 hour days sometimes feel like 12 and even if you’re physically capable, the mental strain can be challenging also. You live in small spaces with so many different personalities it can be rather stressful, which we discovered more than once over the course of our stay.
While we’ve moved on, All Hands continues their important work in the Canoa region of Ecuador. They’ve begun their permanent bamboo home project consisting of 30 houses for displaced families. If you would like to donate to this project, you can follow mine and Justin’s link; http://give.hands.org/fundraise?fcid=704972. It takes only a few minutes and every amount (no matter how small) is greatly appreciated.
Have you volunteered before? Tell us about your experiences in the comments or send us an email; firstname.lastname@example.org
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