I volunteered at CENIT, an organisation working with street children in Quito, Ecuador. Every morning we’d lug a bag full of crayons, stories and a giant set of plastic teeth named “Señor Dientes” to our room in Camal market, where we played with kids aged about three to five who would otherwise be selling sweets or fruit.
The market is a strange sort of place. A short stroll around it forces you to take in row after row of pigs´ heads, strings of menacingly black sausages and baskets laden with live crabs. The best bit, though, is the fruit section, where it’s possible to purchase 25 mangoes for a dollar or take your pick from hundreds of papayas balanced skilfully in pyramids.
Nevertheless, the middle class Quiteños who never venture into the South of the city, dismissing it as dirty and dangerous are making a mistake. Among the people at Camal market are some of the friendliest Ecuadorians you’ll ever meet, who always make time to greet you with a smile. Naturally it took time for the families to trust us to take away their children, but before long they were presenting us with free empanadas, crowding around to watch us sing and asking us whether we could teach the kids English.
On countless occasions we’d have to stop what we were doing to go and watch a protest or parade, usually with hundreds of school children, drums and balloons. Those at Camal market may be poor, uneducated and neglected, but they know how to have a good time.
The children were not always easy to work with. But there are naughty kids everywhere, and the children of Camal market are essentially no different. They often made me angry, and occasionally upset, but above all they made me laugh, smile and sing- I am now an expert at Spanish nursery rhymes. I will never forget how their clothes got drenched in water as they tried to brush their teeth, their demands to read the same book over and over again and their pride in their completed Lego houses.
The kids, however, will probably forget the time we took them to watch a strange mime show aimed at warning them off alcohol, they will probably forget the actions to the Hokey Cokey and they will probably forget their trip to the reptile house- although I certainly won’t, what with having a boa constrictor around my neck! They almost definitely will forget us. But I hope somewhere they might remember our attempts to get them to share, to colour and to learn instead of selling fruit.
I already miss my Ecuadorian host family, who introduced me to friends as their English daughter and who knitted me scarves after I complained Quito was too cold- it’s on the equator; I didn’t expect it to be!
I already miss the opportunity to speak Spanish all the time, and how easy it is to escape for a weekend away- only in Ecuador could you wake up to the howl of monkeys deep in the jungle, have lunch overlooking snow-capped mountains in the sierra and fall asleep on a hammock to the crashing of the waves. Admittedly such a journey would require many hours on a cramped, erratically-driven bus, but this is all part of the adventure.
I consider the five months I spent there time well spent. Without Lattitude, without my mornings making finger puppets and pasta necklaces in Camal market, my bike rides through the Atacama desert and snowball fight in the Bolivian salt flats, I doubt I would have acquired such a range of skills, stories and memories.