In November of 2016, I joined the All Hands Volunteers (now All Hands and Hearts) in northern Ecuador to help rebuild houses after the earthquakes earlier in the year. 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 the geography and the language. I had researched a few organizations to work with, but All Hands Volunteers were very hands-on and able to work with my time frame.
The project was based in the Manabi coast in northern Ecuador, near Conoa. It was scheduled to end in December, so I would only be able to volunteer with them for about a month. I was joining to help with the construction efforts, I did not offer my photography efforts as part of this assignment. The base was a local hotel a few kilometers from the work sites. There were a mix of All Hands staff and volunteers staying on the base. Some people stayed in the limited number of 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. Breakfast and dinner were available at the base and lunch was provided by the person’s house we were working on that day. The work day started from when we left the base after breakfast, at about 7am and finished working about 3 or 4pm.
The construction teams and assignments were organized into sections based on task and skill level. The teams where divided into framing, foundations, walls, and finishing crews among others. Every week or so, we would rotate between teams to get some experience in each phase of building the house. The volunteers included experienced construction volunteers and people who 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.
When I first arrived, I was put with the foundations team. We dug the foundations for outhouses, laid the plumbing, and poured the concrete foundations. Another team would come and put up the walls, sink, and toilet. The most difficult part was mixing the concrete by hand. First we would have to find enough water, usually from the local stream or creek. Then mix the sand, gravel, and concrete 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 outhouse 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.
The lunches were actually my favorite part of the day. It was mostly what I call “carb soup.” Consisting of potatoes, yucca, rice, corn and the occasional surprise heart or kidney.
Normal work schedule was Monday-Friday with some people volunteering to work weekends to meet deadlines. Outside of work, we would mostly go to Conoa and sometimes San Vicente. Conoa was about a 15-minute walk from the volunteers’ base. There, we had more options to eat and relax. Some of the best shawarmas I’ve ever had was from a husband and wife serving them from the back of a van. There are also plenty of bars and dining options in the area. The rules of the base were to be back inside the gate by 10pm or you had to find somewhere else to stay for the night, or get put on grunt duty the next morning. On the weekend, we usually would go party in Canoa. The rooms were cheap enough, so it was better to stay there than go back to the base.
It wasn’t all work, work, work. The staff and volunteers would often have games and contests to raise more money or just to have fun. We would have auctions where people would donate skills, time, personal materials, food, or anything that was available to be auctioned. For example, I won tea brought to me twice a day (no matter what) for a week from an English guy for $30usd. 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 received the most money. We would also have parties and dinners, away from base, to change up the pace and have some fun. Many nights we just sat around a bonfire on the beach and drank rum.
My favorite part of volunteering were the ladies and children that sold us snacks while we were working. Several times a day, people would come to the different work sites selling cheese and chicken empanadas, lemonade, fruit cups, chips, ice cream and anything else they could carry. This one boy would come around with cinnamon cheese empanadas and would sell out in a few seconds. Everything was usually 25cents. A couple 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 a good opportunity to learn and practice Spanish. As in most places, none of the locals spoke English so you have to speak Spanish. I learned Spanish in school and had a basic understanding of the language before I arrived, but it greatly improved from my time volunteering and interacting with the locals.
All Hands and Hearts is a growing organization and they have many people ready to volunteer and help them. I doubt I will ever work with them again but I encourage people to do the research and determine for yourself if this is an organization that you wish to work with. You can find more about All Hands and Hearts by clicking here for more information.
All photos taken by Marlène Gourounas