The cobbled path from the Quito/Santo Domingo highway winds steeply up from the small community of La Esperie. Once through the flowercovered stone archway, you enter a domain of abundant trees and humming birds, startlingly coloured butterflies and huge iridescent flying beetles, snakes and well-hidden monkeys. It was about half-an-hour's climb up to the reserve, I was told, and so I set out with determination, 20kg of pack on my back and front. A lot of weight, but the contents have to last me till May or June 2008, and I can leave some things behind when I leave here at the end of November.
Some 30 minutes later, I was wishing I had taken the advice of the volunteer coordinator in Quito, and left my backpack in the little shelter just inside the arch. It's not as high as Quito here in the western flanks of the Andes, but my body was still acclimatising and the afternoon heat and humidity was not helping me. When I thought my heart was bursting, I gave up the challenge and dropped my pack at the side of the path. Lighter physically and mentally, I went on up into the forest. At last I came on a welcome sign, with handpainted butterfly, and found myself approaching the hidden farmland and forest hacienda paradise of La Hesperia.
Words cannot do justice to the beauty of this place. Months of research on where exactly to volunteer in South America have paid off, as this must surely be heaven on earth. There was nobody around that hot afternoon, and I later learned that every Wednesday at 4pm the volunteers take on the staff and local kids in a game of football at the reserve. Juan Pablo, the owner/manager, and his wife Alexandra were in Quito at an important meeting about a hydro-electric power plant planned for the area, and so there was nobody to meet me or to collect my pack. However, volunteers soon began to appear, and soon I was surrounded by friendly faces and began to feel at home. As darkness and the inevitable nightly downpours descended, there was concern about the stray pack, but this was later picked up in Juan Pablo's jeep, with me shining my torch out the window, desperately searching for it in the dense darkness and vertical rain of the selva.
Ten days later, I am part of La Hesperia's furniture (of which there is precious little). There were 16 volunteers when I arrived, but people come and go on a weekly basis, which is difficult, but part of the routine here. We are a truly international community of diverse ages, backgrounds and experience, but socially we work extraordinarily well together. I have made friends from Ecuador, Australia, New Zealand, England, Norway, Germany, France, Denmark, Canada and the U.S. in the short time I've been here.
I share one of the smaller rooms with an English woman and an American student. The volunteer house is a five minute walk from the main hacienda and our kitchen and eating area. In the house we sleep, shower, do our laundry and generally hang out.
Everything here is semi-outdoors, so we are breathing pure forest air every minute of every day. There is only one jeep on the reserve, so there is no pollution. The walls of our house are half Cabuya fibre, half window, so the air constantly circulates in the rooms.
The showers have ceilings, but little in the way of walls, and our eating area is the same. The kitchen, where we wash up after meals, is completely outdoors, with a shelter overhead. It's the most wonderful kitchen I've ever worked in.
There are three women who cook for us. Lolita, the main cook (yes, my cat's name - it's got to be good sign) cheerfully presents us with simple, mainly organic food (which I'm learning to grow in our fantastic veggie garden) three times a day.
I was never one for breakfast, at best grabbing a banana or apple to eat in the car on the way through the traffic, but here I'm hungry for our first meal at 7.30am, and starving by lunchtime. The work is hard, though the hours are short compared to my Dublin workday. The jobs change every day, so we get a chance to try everything. For the first two days, I worked in the veggie garden with Eleanor, my room mate, who knows a lot about organic and sustainable farming.
It was so interesting, and provided plenty of opportunity for hard labour too. The hoe is officially my favourite tool, but not your pathetic little city garden hoe - no, here we have real hoes; huge, strong handled implements with broad sheets of sharp metal to swing and uproot the ubiquitous 'devil weed' from the soft, brown, humus-rich soil. I love using the hoe - it acts like an axe too; can hack through thick wood.
Another tool high on the popular list is the machete, although I have not used it yet. This is for the jungle, the selva, or forest.
Last thursday, a group of seven of us walked up to the high forest reforestation lines (a 40 minute uphill hike just to get to work) and Raoul, Juan Pablo's right-hand man, started to carve a path through the under and overgrowth. When I say a path, you may imagine a level track through soft vegetation. Not so - this 'path' dropped straight down from the main track at an angle so alarmingly steep that if you slipped, you fell several metres, and the growth was mostly dense, hard wood with some bamboo (stems thicker than both my hands can encircle). Raoul is a superb machete man. He merrily swung and hacked his way down impossible, impassible terrain, drawing swiftly far ahead of the other macheteers until the only evidence of his whereabouts was his cheery whistle and melodious song. Raoul is 42, looks 35, is fit, slim, strong and healthy. Like his colleagues Pablo and his wife Freda, Raoul is always laughing and telling jokes, and I look forward to improving my spanish sufficiently to understand them, because they must be hilarious, judging by the Ecuadorians' reaction. I have conversation classes in spanish most days (4 dollars an hour) and speak as much as I can with the Ecuadorians, so, it's slowly improving.
Meanwhile back up the mountain, my job was to follow in Raoul's wake with my ridiculously heavy 'digger', a tool I have since fallen in love with and want for my little garden, although I know it would be sadly out of place. Having taken most of my energy just to carry the damn thing up to the tree lines, I was then expected to clamber and slide down this mountainside, avoiding overhanging branches and vines (perhaps with snakes or spiders, and yes, there are poisonous species a-plenty), taking extreme care not to trip and fall, or step on anything living, lug my digger, AND dig a perfect hole every five metres (the lads claim this is five steps; it is not five of my steps, so some confusion reigned).
The job is hard - first, find a level site (everything's relative and standards slipped after 30 minutes, but hey, this is Ecuador and things are gentle and laid back); clear the ground of creepers, weeds, small seedlings and other invasive species, making sure there is no fire-ants' nests around); then lift and poise the extremely heavy digger (basically two long wooden pole with two sharp conjoined metal spades facing each other at the end, and a mechanism for closing them when full of soil, to remove same); thrust it with all your might into the earth, clamp soil and release in mound beside hole. The joy of this, once started, is immense, because the soil is soft and clean and workable. After five or six minutes, you have a perfect, cleanly outlined hole, 2 feet deep, for the baby trees, raised from seeds in the nursery, to begin their new lives in the forest. And muscles - you have muscles too.
The idea is simple: clear invasive species and reforest with threatened species, carefully nurtured at La Hesperia. We plant a different tree in each hole, repeating only every six or seven holes, so biodiversity is encouraged as much as possible. The seeds are collected by volunteers too, so the process is a complete and wonderfully satisfying one.
Having worked so hard that morning, I thought the afternoon would present an easy task, perhaps some pottering in the medicinal garden or collecting some green beans and basil for dinner. I was wrong. Eight of us went up to one of the high fields to roll dry scrub down the steep slope, where it will slowly decompose when covered with a light layer of earth, then can be used for fertilizing the same field. It was a searingly hot afternoon and the scrub was dry and dusty, so before long our eyes, noses, throats and mouths were filled with stinging dust. Between that, the heat and the bugs which persist despite copious quantities of Deet, we were completely shattered when the job was finished. The scrub had been cleared to grow a special tall skutch grass for the farm livestock. It may seem a little ironic that the farm has cleared land in an area of conservation, but firstly, this has been a farm for generations, and secondly, it is necessary to grow food to sustain the animals and hence the workers on this project. The bigger picture is happening, and I am glad to be even a tiny part of it for a tiny amount of time.