From a remote farm in the cloud forest in north-west Ecuador, Ned Cresswell has set up the Intag Project, a volunteer programme through which he hopes to introduce sustainable tourism to his local community.
‘People travelling to Ecuador don’t want to visit Intag. They want the Galápagos, volcanoes, Quito.’ Ned smiled, and took a sip of his tea. Sadly, I knew there was some truth to his words. I was curled up in a cosy corner of his kitchen looking round in awe at the cloud forest we were immersed in. His wife, Patricia, had just whipped me up the best breakfast I’d had in months. Their horse Juguete grazed outside the window, chickens ducked in between the lemon trees and Benji the dog sat at my feet, his eyes focused longingly on the last chunk of freshly baked pan de yucca on my plate. The silver mist hanging in the valley added a touch of magic to this hard-to-reach location and I sat back, trying to make myself remember this moment forever.
View from Ned and Patricia’s guesthouse, San Antonio
I had stumbled upon the Intag Project website (www.intagtour.com) several months earlier, whilst working long hours in a high-pressure job in London and looking for a change of pace. In my case it was Intag that brought me to Ecuador, not the Galápagos, the volcanoes or Quito. Five months later a beautiful 3-hour bus journey had lifted me above the market town of Otavalo to San Antonio, and I found myself in Ned and Patricia’s guesthouse. I’d come to volunteer, and after Ned talked me through my options, I decided I’d be working as a teacher in Magdalena, one of the many tiny farming communities that make up the parish of Intag.
Ned (or ‘Eduardo’ as he is known to the community) had the idea for the Intag volunteer project in 2007, from his remote 70-hectare farm. The nearest village, Cuellaje, is a three hour walk away. He has since received visitors from all over the world, both as volunteers who work in the schools and stay with local families or as guests to stay on their finca.
An English farmer who moved to Intag seven years ago, his tall, skinny frame, pale complexion and polite, pronounced Spanish are the only giveaways that he hasn’t lived here all his life. He met and married his wife, Patricia, whilst living in the community ‘Her family grew avocadoes, so for a while I bought a lot of avocadoes’, he twinkled. The two of them now work together, running the farm, the guesthouse and organizing the volunteer project, through which they hope to share their passion for the beauty and simplicity of life in Intag.
Ned and Patricia’s home and guesthouse, and Juguete their horse
Whilst Ned remains clear about the benefits and skills that volunteers can offer the community, he is frank in explaining that the main aim of the project is to safeguard this part of the cloud forest. ‘No tourists ever come here – until recently there wasn’t even a road. The principle idea behind the project is simple. The government want to clear parts of the land to exploit copper reserves. I’d like to propose an alternative source of income, that of tourism. If more tourists come, perhaps people here will appreciate that we have something special that is worth preserving.’
I am struck by Ned’s humility, and his passion to see the project succeed. Having worked as a volunteer himself for two years previously, he is also adamant that volunteer placements should benefit both parties evenly and carefully matches volunteers with families, whilst being on hand to provide support to both throughout the placement. He explained how this is a first for a lot many volunteers, as well as many of the families, and is keen for it to be a positive experience for all involved.
Familia Quinchiguango, my hosts
Ned and Patricia’s consideration for the local community and gratitude towards those who make it here shines through consistently, and this has no doubt played a large part in winning over the local community. They are only too aware that change has to happen gradually, in a way that would not adversely affect or unnerve people here, some of whom have never ventured beyond their villages.
‘To put it into perspective, many here have never even been to the nearest town, Otavalo. There are some big obstacles to overcome in convincing people of the benefits that tourism can bring to us.’
That evening he calls my designated family to suggest that they might host me, and I hear him reassuring the anxious lady on the end of the line. I could see that behind the comprehensive website was a local community trying to get their heads around a somewhat bizarre concept – they called me teacher, voluntaria (volunteer) or viajera (traveller). ‘The local families are always completely in control’ he tells me. ‘There is absolutely no pressure for anyone to host volunteers, though I hope the additional income it will generate and a considerate approach will encourage them to do so.’
Tour of the tomato farm with my host family
Unlike with ‘WWOOOFing’ (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms), volunteers here pay for their placements, paying $45 (£30) per week as teachers and $50 (£33) per week to help on the farms – the difference in cost to try and attract more teachers, though this requires some knowledge of Spanish. The cost includes a private room in a home with a local family and three (in my case, delicious) meals a day. Ned explained that by having volunteers give a small contribution it was much easier to get families on board, and the quality of the food shot up. It certainly seemed a very small price to pay for my time spent there.
The people I spoke to in Magdalena seemed to fully support Ned and his project. To them, any negative impacts of tourism are unknown or outweighed by the destruction that mining would have on the natural surroundings. The teachers have become reliant on the small amount of support they are receiving – in my case I was able to help the only teacher of an entire primary school, left alone due to governmental budget cuts.
Ned’s goal now is to attract more visitors: there is a website, a Facebook page and a blog (more details how to get involved below) but being a busy man with a 3-hour walk to an internet connection, he’s only receiving an average of three people a month at present. If you visit it’s highly likely you’ll be the only person there, which lends itself to a very bespoke and special experience.
Colouring with Cristina, my host family’s three-year old daughter
Though I know that tourism will benefit the community in the long run and vowed to spread the word, rather selfishly I’m glad to have experienced Intag before it gets ‘discovered’. There’s no denying how remote this place is, and flashpackers need not apply. TV and internet don’t reach here, and there is no hot water or, in many cases, electricity. ‘A few years ago, one of the volunteers got out of the taxi and checked the signal on her phone. She looked up at me, looked down at the muddy path and got back in the taxi. I never saw her again,’ Ned said with a grin.
Teaching at Magdalena Primary School could be a whole other article in itself, but I will try and summarise. I went to school for 7.30am each day and worked until 1pm, with a one-hour break at 10am during which I usually played football with the kids. Before arriving I had read a few blog entries from volunteers who had been frustrated by the large class sizes and the children’s bad behaviour – I can empathise but I feel those volunteers are missing the point entirely. Keep in mind that just by being there you are a huge support to the other teachers, the children, and as a result to the parents and the project as a whole.
To say the children misbehaved would be an understatement, but before I came their teacher was so overworked that they would go days without even opening a book.
We did some work every day and I was able to give each child time and attention which I know they appreciated. We laughed a lot, and after a few days I learnt the tricks and bribes that worked – to the extent that on one of the days they asked if they could finish their work over break time. Even playing with the children and taking an interest in their lives, talking to them a little in English and giving them a hug can help them to be more positive about attending school – attendance at schools here is precarious given the large number of children who are taken out to help on the farm or to raise their children, with teenage pregnancy being extremely common in this rural corner of the world.
There were 17 children in my class from ages 5 to 13, which made things a little crazy, but always fun and very rewarding looking back. And the children here taught me a huge deal, not least about the challenges that the community faces. There were a lot of tears on my last day, mostly from me, wondering what the future holds for these bright, eager children. When I left there was talk of the government closing the school completely, which is a difficult thought to consider.
What will the future hold for the children at Magdalena Primary School?
As for my host family – I’ll always treasure the time spent with them. At first seeing me as the all-knowing ‘teacher’ who had come to enlighten them the illusion was promptly shattered when they discovered I couldn’t identify a taxo or a naranjilla fruit! They were so generous with their time, conversation and food. I was their first guest, and was the first person to show them a map of Ecuador, which they marvelled at.
Their two beautiful children sat on my bed watching wide-eyed as I unpacked my big old backpack, and Piedad overcame her anxiety within minutes, delighting in watching me gobble down the food she had at first been embarrassed to serve me. Their main crop was tomate de arbol, which they all helped to harvest on Wednesdays. Their week revolved around this harvest and their Sunday trip to Cuellaje, to attend church, go to the market and watch some volleyball in the square. We soon learned that we’re not all that different, and shared some really memorable evenings questioning each other to this effect.
Before hitching a ride with the milk truck back to town on my last day, I had one final stand-back-and-stare-in-awe at my location.
The milk truck, or the daily ‘bus’ to school!
There are 35 beautiful, funny, resilient children there that I miss dearly, and the families behind them who welcomed me so warmly. I think I even miss the puzzled chicken who watched me grimace under the cold shower each morning (one thing I won’t miss!). Ten days in Intag made the common backpacker tendency of hopping from one hostel to the next seem bland and ironic – I only wish I could have stayed much longer. Come with an open mind, a huge smile and be ready to get stuck in. The focus must not be on what Intag lacks, but on everything you will find there.
For more information visit www.intagtour.com or email Ned at firstname.lastname@example.org. Email is the best way to contact him, though he only checks this on Sundays. You can also visit the blog: https://ecotouristadventure.wordpress.com or the Facebook page: IntagTour Project
If you have any questions at all please feel free to contact me on email@example.com.
About the writer: Lily Khambata is a freelance editor and Latin American enthusiast from England. In 2008 she travelled through Argentina, Bolivia and Peru and is now back to explore Ecuador, Mexico and everywhere in between. She likes to stay off the beaten track and as a solo traveller has fun making up new answers to the question ‘¿Dónde están sus amigos?’. Follow her on Instagram: @lilykham