Life as a Volunteer: Teaching English in Ambato, Ecuador

Our third volunteer position on our tour was tutoring English at the South American Language Center in Ambato, Ecuador, for 3 weeks. This consisted of spending 25 hours a week (each) having conversations with students, just so they would have a chance to practice English with a native speaker. We could talk about pretty much anything we wanted — and in the process we got acquainted with these students, many of whom were fascinating individuals.

They ranged in age from 9 to early forties. Some were doctors, some were engineers, some were accountants, some were students, some were violinists — several of them, actually. (And an eerie statistic that perhaps only Dennis would pick up on: of the dozens of students we met, more than half wrote left-handed. Perhaps it’s a South of the Equator thing.) And we chatted with them all in sessions that averaged 15 to 20 minutes, but sometimes could last an hour. There was one particular couple, Lorena and Juan, whom we became good friends with in a short amount of time.

The most difficult thing about the job was finding a comfortable and quiet place to hold our little chats. Normally, there would have been plenty of rooms available, but at this time the whole school was undergoing a renovation. So different rooms would be off-limits at different times. We were constantly getting shuffled around, and often ended up having our discussions in rooms that were already full of students holding a group class. And the construction noise was pretty constant. Add to that the difficulty of hearing the students through their masks, accents, a few mispronounced words and some timid speakers and we had quite a challenge at times. One day, we were interrupted by a loud crash that sounded like the building beginning to implode. Turns out that a construction worker had caused a brick column to collapse — in the process of enlarging a room — and it had smashed a window.

Life at South American Language Institute

The kitchen we shared with the fulltime staff was on the same level as one floor of classrooms. On the floor above it — the penthouse level, one might call it — was our modest living space, with a bathroom that produced hot water only sporadically. (We learned that the cleaning lady, who arrived about 7:00 a.m. downstairs and started working her way up scouring the whole place, used hot water for her chores; and if we wanted to be assured of getting any for our showers, we’d have to beat her to the draw.) This could be problematic, given that the outside temperature was usually a bit chilly.

Incidentally, tap water in Latin America is dispensed from plastic rooftop tanks that look like flower pots with lids. And it’s almost never potable; while some households have water filters, the vast majority get their drinking water delivered in 5-gallon jugs. You can arrange delivery whenever you need it, but you may also spot trucks loaded with the jugs coursing through the neighborhoods and honking their horns in case anyone might need some. A similar system applies to propane, which is sold in portable canisters rather than in the huge holding tanks so common to homes in the U.S.

There was an honest-to-goodness washing machine on the patio outside our room, and plenty of clothesline space. It was the first time our clothes had received a machine laundering since we left New Hampshire in early November. Oh, and also on the patio was a rabbit pen, containing a gigantic, extremely furry bunny named Clover, who was quite cuddly, but enjoyed chewing on shoelaces (and anything else he could get his teeth on) and occasionally nibbling at ankles. From up here, there was theoretically a splendid view of the mountains, including a volcano or two, but they often were shrouded in clouds or fog.

Clover the attack bunny living on the roof

Monday through Friday, we had lunch at the home of Carla and Martin, the owners of the school, a few blocks away. Lunch was prepared by Joanna, the same woman who would clean the school earlier in the day. (From what we’ve seen it’s common for even Latin American families of modest means to hire cooks and maids.) And she was an amazing gourmet cook, who even managed to wow us finicky vegetarians; she easily could open her own restaurant. While at the house, we also had a great time playing with Carla and Martin’s 8-year-old daughter Amy, a dynamo with no off-button who inveigled us into games of Uno or leapfrog or soccer or zombie or anything else that came to her inventive mind. She even was able to communicate with us despite knowing almost no English. We foresee a bright future in theatre if she’s ever interested in pursuing it.

Around Ambato - January 17th, featuring some photos taken at Parque de Flores, a local park

The neighborhood around the school had pretty much everything we needed. There were plenty of produce markets, farmacias, and bakeries to buy our pan (specifically the yeasty rolls Dennis has become so addicted to). There were also two malls within a few blocks. Both of them, like many other businesses in Ecuador, required you to show your COVID vaccination card before you could enter — and of course you also had to be masked. Furthermore, upon checkout we had to show our I.D., even though we were paying cash. Not sure what that one was all about.

Shopping in Ambato, Ecuador

One of these malls included a store called Hipermart, which is somewhat like a Wal-Mart Supercenter, but without all the cheap stuff from China. We found it to be the best place to buy groceries, as it offered almost everything we needed. We were convinced to try pan de yuca (rather salty, but tasty) and quail eggs, which are almost as abundant as chicken eggs. They’re tiny and a bit of a bother to de-shell, but they taste rather similar to hen eggs.

Our diet generally includes an abundance of nuts, of many varieties. But we’ve sometimes had a hard time finding them in Latin America, and Ecuador is no exception. Peanuts are everywhere, as are roasted fava beans, which make a delicious substitute for nuts. And generally you can find almonds (almendras), but walnuts, which for some reason are merely called nuts (nueces) can be tricky to find; pecans (pecanas) and cashews (nueces de India) are even more scarce. And amazingly the South American product nueces de Brazil seems to be the most uncommon of all. (By the way, although in Guatemala we saw people eating tortillas three times a day, in Ecuador, we never saw anybody eating them at all!)

We also went to the other mall, Mall de Andes, once, and encountered a Batman with a really super costume. Alas, he seemed to be there just to promote a fast food joint — guess that’s how he stays fed, what with zipping around to fight crime and all. At this mall we finally, finally, snagged two items we’d been searching for in countless stores, many cities and towns, and three countries. In one outlet, we found a tea infuser — you know, one of those little things you use to brew tea in from loose leaves because you don’t like teabags. We bought one for each of us. Now, we just have to continue our (nearly equally difficult) quest for the tea leaves to put in them. And in another store, Kimberly secured a yoga mat. It’s been very hard to find one in stores at all, much less one that’s compact enough to fly with. (She has one at home, but it was too bulk to bring along.) At last, blissful success! And it was on sale for 10 dollars, as opposed to the usual 40 or 50.

As for Ambato itself, we found that there was really not much there there. Somehow it reminded us of Denver — it’s not quite as big, but it’s similarly situated among scenic mountains. It even has a comparably thin atmosphere which, if you’re not accustomed to it, can make you feel winded from the exertion of just getting out of bed. And while it’s a pleasant enough city and has really no major strikes against it, there’s no compelling reason to go out of your way to visit it.

One day we took a walk all the way downtown — about 3 miles — on a mission to find what promised to be a decent health food store, but turned out to be an overhyped vitamin shop. And the most interesting thing we saw during the whole experience was the series of trash cans, all over the city, painted to look like cartoon characters, clowns, and so on. Our students who grew up here concur with us that they look downright creepy.

When we asked our students what they recommended doing or seeing in their hometown, they all told us the same thing: Los Baños de Agua Santa. Which is another town about an hour away by bus. The main draw of Ambato is that it’s an access point to somewhere else. So it became clear that our time in Ambato would not be complete without an excursion to Baños. And we resolved to undertake it on the weekend of our first week on duty.

Ode to creepy and colorful trash cans in Ecuador that were literally collecting liter everywhere
January 15th-21st 2022

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