Cheap, Wanderer

Free Lodging In the Galápagos: Volunteering on an Island Farm

When I was planning my visit to the Galápagos Islands I knew it would not be an economically-friendly trip; that’s when I decided to put my Workaway membership to the test.  I wrote a bit about Workaway in my South America prep blog post, but it’s basically a website that allows an exchange of free accomodation and volunteer work around the world.

After emailing six individuals I received a response – there was a family farm on Santa Cruz island that was willing to take me!  I would be helping to take care of the animals and in exchange would receive five nights free accomodation.

So how was my first Workaway experience?  Well, it commenced with a somewhat rocky start.  After arriving at the entrance road to the farm I finally figured out that everyone on the farm was intently talking about something in Spanish.  It turned out one of the power lines was down, which meant no electricity at the farm. Now, this was not my first experience with South American power outages.  However, in the past when the power had gone out I had been living with an Ecuadorian family in a busy residential neighborhood in Quito, Ecuador’s capital.  There were lots of people, buses, and food around, and the power usually came back within a day or so.  Here I was a 20-minute bus ride from anything resembling civilization, with buses running only every 45 minutes.  I also faced the prospect of spending the night by myself, as I had just learned the family often returned to their apartment in town during the night, as I was supposed to be the main animal caretaker.

I fully expected to be told I would have to return to Puero Ayora, Santa Cruz’s main town, since the power was out.  Maybe we could try again tomorrow.

¨Well, what do you think?¨ asked Janet, the matriarch of the family.  ¨Would you like to stay here?¨*

My mind raced in an attempt to answer her question.  ¨Sure.  I mean, the power will probably come back on tomorrow, right?¨ I inquired.

¨Yes, it may,¨she responded.  I internally sighed with relief.  One night.  I could do this.  ¨Or it may not,¨ she added.  She then went on to explain that the damaged power line was a private line, unlike most power lines on the island, which were public.  This meant that in order to have it repaired, the owner of the line would have to pay the utility company to fix the damage.  The owner was her husband, who was at the time working on a boat in the middle of the ocean set to return on Tuesday…. six days from then.

You can do this, I reassured myself.  This is the exact reason why you’re taking this trip – to challenge yourself and step outside of your comfort zone.  People lived for centuries without power.

I took a deep breath and agreed to stay.  As the sun sets year-round in Ecuador at 6:00pm, we then commenced a tour of the house and farm essentially in the pitch dark, aided only by my cell phone flashlight and an LED headlamp.  Unfortunately, it seemed every aspect of the farm was in some way related to the electricity.

¨In this building lives a gentleman who helps us out on the farm,¨I was told, ¨but he probably won’t be coming back for awhile because the power is out.¨  Sigh.  When I inquired about running water I was told it would still function without the power…. but there would be no hot water for a shower, which I badly needed.  And the washer and dryer I saw and internally rejoiced about since I was out of clean underwear?  Yes, that needed electricity, too.  However, all this paled in comparison to my biggest issue.  While the kitchen stove ran on gas and thus would still work without electricity, I would have to light it myself with a cigarette lighter – a tool I had steadfastly avoided ever using in my 29 years of life due to my pyrophobia.  And now they wanted me to not only put my fingers near the lighter flame, but also put that flame near a bunch of flammable gas?  Learning experience, I reassured myself.  This will all work out.

¨I’m headed back into town,¨ Janet explained.  ¨I may be back later tonight.¨  As I waved goodbye, I resolved to put on my big girl pants.

And guess what?  It all eventually worked out.

Janet did come back that night to spend the night with me at the farm and show me my morning animal care tasks.  The next morning, while waiting to catch the bus into town to drop off my clothes at a lavandería, Janet’s neighbors picked me up and drove me into town, offered to let me charge my cell phone at their office, and told me they would take care of the power issue since they, too, were affected.  Low and behold, when I arrived at the farm later that evening power had been restored!  I’m still not 100% sure the exact turn of events, but I did never questioned how the electricity sweet electricity running through the walls returned.

Things rapidly improved after that first night.  Each day I would wake up around 7:00am to feed the group of 50 chickens and ducks and unchain the three adorable and friendly dogs from the night before.  I had the day to explore the island as I pleased, and then returned to the farm via a $1 bus at 4:00pm to open the coop door to let the fowl roam free, start cooking for the dogs, and eventually feed the dogs.  The hardest part of my day was chasing after seven adorable baby chicks, or pollitos, who had to be captured and placed into an elevated box each night to ensure they would not be eaten by mice.

The work totaled about 3 hours per day in a serene, quiet, wi-fi free and vividly green environment.  There were always people coming and going, which provided the perfect opportunity to practice my Spanish, as none spoke English.

Upon waking at the farm the morning after I arrived I was awarded with this gorgeous view.

Further, when I told Janet of my plans to travel to Isabela and San Cristóbal islands she set me up with a discounted room in a hotel her friend’s daughter owned, and offered me lodging on the night before my flight, as I would have to return to Santa Cruz to fly back to Quito.

We had long talks about life and relationships, and by the end of my short time there I really did feel like part of the family.  I was sad to say goodbye, but was assured that if I ever came back I would have a place to stay.  All in all it was a perfect way to spend a week in Santa Cruz island.

*All conversations occurred in Spanish, but for ease of story-telling I have taken the liberty to paraphrase and translate into English.  Names have been changed.

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