"For once we English speakers were making a leap of faith". Ed Stocker, Journalist, 29
I had to admit it; I was struggling with the drink. The food had been delicious: crisp yams, rice, tuna and freshly harvested jungle potatoes. But the drink was a problem. The teachers were eagerly gazing at our table, smiling and trying to gauge the group’s reaction. I’d taken my first sip of the yellow liquid, thinking it was a delicious cup of freshly squeezed passion fruit juice. Instead, a warm, yeasty liquid stung my lips. Eager not to offend our hosts, I forced a grin and gulped down a couple more mouthfuls of the strange brew.
While our lunch might not have been to every Western palate’s taste, it felt like a real privilege being invited to eat with the community. I have the Book Bus to thank for that. Having decided to volunteer to be part of the mobile library project, I had arrived at a school in Tena, south-east of the capital Quito, and this lunch was by way of a thank you from local Ecuadorian teachers.
The Book Bus is a British-run project operating a mobile library that travels around the country with volunteers teaching in local primary schools and helping kids get excited about reading through drama, games and drawing. In a country where books are expensive – a luxury reserved for the elite – the project donates reading material to schools and fosters an interest in books often missing from the traditional teaching curriculum.
Although the bus visits areas that have a sizeable influx of tourists, the project offers a chance to see an alternative side to the country, beyond the often superficial exchanges that visitors have with locals. “I think we’ve got a lot to learn from these communities,” explained David Gordon, founder of VentureCo, who run the initiative. He was out in Ecuador ensuring the Book Bus ran smoothly in its debut year in South America. “As well as becoming aware of day-to-day issues of life in Ecuador,” he continued, “volunteers see how much things cost when they go out shopping for themselves and they see what the local people eat. It’s a real plus, because they get below the surface.”
The Book Bus was originally founded by Tom Maschler, a British publisher and founder of the Booker prize. He teamed up with VentureCo and rolled out the project in Zambia two years ago, operating a London-style bus that travels around the schools. After the success in Africa, they decided to start a project in South America. I spent a week around Tena before moving on to Puerto López on the Pacific coast. The plan is for future Book Buses to operate through the year with 12-week stints in Tena, Esmeraldas in the north, the coast around Puerto López, and the Andean region of Riobamba. Volunteers complete a minimum of two weeks volunteering but can stay as long as they like (visa restrictions allowing).
Our days started early: waking at sunrise and eating a quick breakfast before hopping onto the Book Bus and travelling to one of the schools. Teaching began around 8am and finished at lunchtime, usually with an hour’s break at ten. The afternoon was free to explore town or, when we were on the coast, head to the beach. In my case, however, it seemed to involve stuffing myself with as much delicious Ecuadorian food as possible, mainly patacones (fried plantain) and ceviche (fish marinated in lime).
Stepping into a classroom of inquisitive kids, I hadn’t expected to teach students with such familiar-sounding names. Yet here I was reading with Kevin, Wendy and Washington. Naming children after los yanquis is all the rage in this tiny corner of South America, and US soldiers, politicians and presidents have left a permanent mark.
The group of volunteers I worked with ranged from fresh-faced 18-year-olds on their Gap Year to 30-somethings taking a career break. Gordon said he hoped retired teachers and university students would also join the project in future years. Unlike in Zambia where English is an official language, teaching in Ecuador throws up linguistic challenges and those perhaps best suited to the voluntary work here have at least GCSE or A-Level Spanish. Yet several people in our group who’d never spoken Spanish managed to get by. The Book Bus makes sure volunteers have at least the bare rudiments of communication beforehand and optional intensive language courses can be organised in Quito, if needed.
Some struggled at first, but it was amazing both how responsive children were, despite the sometimes limited language skills of their gringo teachers, and how game volunteers were to try and communicate. Those who spoke Spanish best were entrusted with the older children whilst the most limited took the younger children where the emphasis was on games.
Kids, of course, can be a tough crowd. We were teaching children aged between five and 11 and we needed to be prepared. Books had to be picked with students’ abilities in mind and, for the younger ones in particular, the more pictures the better. We soon found that El Libro de la Selva (The Jungle Book) was a particular winner, and getting the students to act out the book, complete with animal face masks, proved a big hit. Even Kevin, a shaven-headed six-year-old who liked to terrorise the other kids, settled down when we wheeled out Mowgli, Baloo and Bagheera.
But despite Kevin – and one kid who thought it was funny to paint the rear of my t-shirt with felt-tips every time my back was turned – the children were, in truth, wonderfully well behaved and welcoming. We discovered very different characters and personalities during our travels, and it was fascinating how widely schools varied. Even those a few kilometres apart had completely different traits, especially around Tena. Here the communities kept to themselves: small jungle villages of low-rise wooden shacks set around the obligatory concrete football/basketball court. Often there was only one school for the community’s children, some well equipped but others seriously lacking. In Tena we were teaching indigenous communities where their first language was often kichwa.
At one school, the teacher explained, most of the children’s parents spoke the indigenous language as their mother tongue, but the children now preferred to speak Spanish with each other.
Shandia was my favourite school without doubt. On arrival we were swarmed by a mass of excitable kids in school uniform and showered with hugs. In fact, several of the group’s young men received girlfriend propositions from a giggling chorus of girls. Wherever we went, though, teachers and students wanted to be involved and, in the case of the Puerto López schools, kids came into school especially, even though it was the holiday period. Pablo Grefa, headteacher at Bajo Ongota’s school explained how the community felt. “With the overseas support,” he beamed, “it’s as if the children have another family!”
I returned to the cool altitude of Quito feeling touched by the reception we’d received. While it was important to help the children read and to donate books, the project had been important on so many other levels. Whether it was teaching the children an English nursery rhyme translated into Spanish or us attempting to count from one to ten in kichwa, we were sharing our cultures. One volunteer neatly summed up what made the project so special. English-speakers are used to the world falling into line with them, she said, but on the Book Bus it was the other way round. For once, we were the ones making the leap of faith.
The Ecuador Book Bus is currently in the Amazon, but roams around the country visiting Puerto Lopez, Esmeraldas and the Andes – to check its itinerary visit the website. Other Book Buses operate in Zambia and Malawi.
Volunteer trips aboard the Book Bus start at £635 for two weeks (you can stay for up to a year), plus a local payment of US$200 (covers local transport and accommodation). International flights not included but can be arranged separately through VentureCo. To book visit the VentureCo website or call 01926 411 122.
Language classes in Quito are an optional add-on, from £180 per week,
including accommodation and 20 hours of lessons.