The grown-up gapper: lending a hand in the Galápagos

Ruth Holliday takes charge of a classroom and mucks in at Isabela’s Giant Tortoise Breeding Centre.

By Ruth Holliday
12 Nov 2008 – (Go To Source)


Gap-year volunteer work is not always an altruistic choice. In my case, it had more to do with giving my days some structure – preventing a year-long slide into late boozy nights and slothful lie-ins till lunch. Besides, after a decade of career-chasing and homemaking, setting myself up to do nothing all day would have felt very naughty indeed.

There are other benefits to volunteering too. While staying in one place for weeks at a time means that I cover fewer miles and see fewer sights than conventional backpackers, I find that becoming part of the scenery is no bad thing.

My current placement involves teaching English at a school on Isabela Island in the Galápagos. I get to spend three-and-a-half- weeks in this tiny community – local children shouting my name when I pass, running up to cuddle me in the street. Parents, shopkeepers, bar staff and restaurant owners recognise me too, so that a walk from one end of the town to the other can require the exchange of 20 or more “Holas”.

By week two I know whose dog is whose, can identify and avoid the local Lotharios and have started speaking Spanish in the island dialect. Living and working with fellow volunteers is another boon. Making friends in a volunteer house is effortless. There is an immediate assumption that we should function as a group – eating, drinking, sleeping, sunbathing and exploring the island together. No one is excluded, not even the socially inept and the downright irritating.

There are economic pluses as well. All our accommodation, meals, flights and transfers are included in a one-off fee and in Galápagos that is a huge weight off the wallet. Here a sandwich, a beer or a mojito can cost almost as much as in Central London. As a volunteer, you can get by spending just a few extra dollars a week.

As for the work itself, it is a mixed bag. I arrive to find a small, scruffy-looking school complex with around a hundred well-fed, well-groomed and generally well-behaved children aged from six to 12. My brief is to support the English teacher by helping devise new classroom activities, correcting everyone’s pronunciation as I go.

It takes just a few seconds to spot the elephant lurking in the corner of the classroom. The English teacher speaks no English. Not even the odd scrappy sentence. And although my Spanish is respectable, this fact remains a mighty handicap.

What the teacher does have is a dozen or so A3 posters showing lists of English words – one with numbers from one to ten, another with a handful of adjectives.

She teaches a list a week, repeating the same lesson until we have covered every class in the school.

The upshot is that in my first week I am expected to read out a list of 10 numbers once or twice each lesson. The rest of the time the children copy them out and colour them in while I sit at the front trying not to look useless.

There are no reading, listening or comprehension activities. The children do not practise speaking the language and it seems the teacher is not keen for them to learn more than the few dozen words she knows herself. I ask if I can introduce a reading or conversation activity.

“It is not possible,” she tells me in Spanish. “We are very limited in what we can teach.”

After complaining to my volunteer agency and the headmaster, there is a rapid change of tack. All of a sudden I am taking the lessons while the teacher patrols the aisles keeping the children in check.

I manage to ad lib with a fair degree of success – aided hugely by the children’s desperation to learn. Even at their age, they know that speaking English pays dividends in a tourist hotspot like Galápagos.

With things improving at school, I decide to spend my day off helping out at the Isabela Giant Tortoise Breeding Centre. This is where most of the island’s incoming volunteers choose to work. Their job is to help create the perfect setting for endangered tortoise romance.

As I quickly discover, this largely consists in raking out the enclosures, keeping them clean and pristine. Whether this is entirely for the benefits of tortoises, or to impress the boatloads of wealthy American tourists who visit the centre I am not sure. But I grab a rake and a wheelbarrow and set to work. The job is hampered somewhat by the curiosity of the animals. While they move as slowly as you might expect, they do have an uncanny knack of sneaking up on you, usually making a beeline for the barrow. Maybe it looks a little like an upside-down tortoise, waiting to be wooed.

As well as the amorous adults, there are also the resulting babies to take care of. All the tortoises, regardless of age, are fed twice a week and cleaned out every day. And while working with the hatchlings is predictably popular, scooping up the green, slimy mess they produce is not. I manage to avoid this stomach-churning task but still wangle a chance to handle the new arrivals.

A day working at the tortoise love ranch was a great experience. But I came away with no regrets about my choice of project. I have three conservation based-projects still to look forward to on my itinerary, but working with Isabela’s charming children was a real spirit-lifter.

Ruth with one of the new arrivals at Isabela's Giant Tortoise Breeding Centre

Ruth with one of the new arrivals at Isabela's Giant Tortoise Breeding Centre



'While they move as slowly as you might expect, the tortoises do have an uncanny knack of sneaking up on you'



Ruth finds the school children well-fed, well-groomed and generally well-behaved


About Rene

About Ecuador, Galápagos, the Hospitality & Tourism industry, Conservation and personal Tidbits from a Swiss Hôtelier working in Ecuador & Galapagos and committed to supporting and encouraging local youngsters in Education, Sports and Environmental protection via my Foundation "Nova Galápagos."
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