Chio, Gustavo and the Mountain House: Finding a Family in Ecuador

Homestay overlooking Quito

On my second day in Ecuador, I awoke to the sounds of three different people on Skype. Despite being dotted around the creaking wooden house in various good wifi spots, the walls and the ceiling of my room were thin enough that I could hear every word.

“Yeah, the family we’re staying with are really lovely… No, we haven’t eaten guinea pig yet!”

I turned over and closed my eyes.

“…I started my period on the plane and I had to ask the flight attendant if they had anything! It was so embarrassing…”

There was no chance of going back to sleep; the jet lag that accompanies a twenty four hour stretch of transit had well and truly done its work. Plus my bed was more than averagely hard, and the various clothing layers I’d zipped myself into before I went to sleep had come undone.

In hindsight, I think the lack of nighttime sock wearing may also have woken me. I get seriously chilly feet.

An evening arrival in Ecuador

Driving through the streets of Quito at dusk the night before, fresh off the plane and buzzing with adrenaline, me and my fellow volunteers had chatted excitedly about the house we’d be staying in for our Spanish course. The company we’re volunteering with had arranged for a two week home stay in Quito, as none of our Spanish skills are at all up to scratch for living and working in a Spanish speaking country like Ecuador.

The drive took us through the city and along the freeway, going higher and higher until our ears popped and the descending clouds of fog wrapped around our car. Eventually we lapsed into semi silence, peering through the darkened windows in an effort to spot a building, a block of flats, any kind of property that could potentially accommodate eight volunteers.

Crooked mountain door

There was a very slight (and somewhat unspoken) worry that we’d be staying somewhere woefully inept to cope with the likes of us Brits. But when we drove through an open set of gates and spied a beaming woman and a heavily moustachioed man in a sailor’s cap opening his arms towards us, all our fears were abated. I kissed his whiskery cheeks and was ushered by his wife by into the warmth of their house – and nearly fell over backwards at how lovely the place actually was.

The only negative aspect to our arrival was the time of night. We knew by the multitude of streetlights beyond the fence that there was a magnificent view of the city, but it was tantalisingly invisible.

Which is why I was rather happy to be woken up so early. It gave me a chance to pull up the blinds, and look out across the valley to the city of Quito in the morning sunshine – my new view and new home for the next two weeks.

Laundry day in Quito

This ridiculous view has also given me the chance to understand something fundamental about the country I’ve just moved to.

Sure, Ecuador is rainy. But rain is only a small part of it. As well as being foggy, chilly, and with occasional bursts of sun, Ecuador is stormy and tempestuous, liable to change its mood and its skies at a moment’s notice. And because Chio and Gustavo’s garden looks out over the entire city, laid out in front of us like a lifesize map, we can watch the clouds swell, listen to the thunder roll and debate which parts of Quito are due for rainfall.

The drama of watching the skyline brood over a thousand teetering houses is something I still haven’t tired of, even after a week of looking at it.

Living in the mountains

Our neighbourhood up on the mountain is calm and quiet though, in comparison to the crowded roofs below.

There are llamas in the field beside the house, who munch on grass and shy away when we get too close. There is a cautious dog, who appeared on our first night at the house and now sleeps on the front porch until we emerge for a leisurely walk around the neighbourhood. Then she follows behind us, occasionally stopping to face off with any one of the fiercely territorial and excessively-barking dogs who live on the roofs of the neighbouring houses.

We don’t know where she came from (and neither do our host family) but we’ve named her Esmeralda, and she’s clearly going to prove a heartstring-tugging problem when we have to leave her in Quito.

Esmeralda above Quito

Our days up here are slightly calmer too, with a few hours of Spanish classes each day, huge meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and evenings spent playing Pictionary and The Game of Life. Because we’re a fair way out of Quito, there have only been a few forays into the city – but while it feels somewhat frustrating, it’s also rather nice to bond with the group of people who I’ll be hanging out with in Cuenca for the next few months.

Initially I was a bit concerned; as recent school leavers, heading to Ecuador on their gap years before uni, the age gap between them and me is big enough to warrant various questions, from “how mature are they going to be?” to “what if they think I’m ridiculously old?!”

Playground overlooking Quito

The eager Skyping sessions on their first real day away from home really made me think too. When I first started travelling by myself, I think I sent the odd email to a worried mother from every third hostel’s sole computer – and yet things have changed so much over the last few years that it’s no longer strange to immediately look for a wifi connection when you’re abroad.

I can hardly talk either, to be honest. When I left for Asia last year, I didn’t take anything technological; this time around, I’ve already instagrammed, facebooked and tweeted numerous times in the days since I left London.

And it’s an eye opener to spend my time around people who’ve never travelled before, yet who’ve chosen, as their first real experience abroad, to spend five months teaching English in a country where they barely speak the native language.

Travelling with fresh opinions

These eighteen year olds are full of enthusiasm, exuberant in everything they do, and seemingly constantly happy. Even when there’s a moment of difficulty – when they’re worried about being pickpocketed or they don’t like the food – it’s accompanied by laughter, and clearly doesn’t register as a problem in their eyes.

Playground above Quito

There are the occasional tells, though. They have issues with things you face when travelling that I don’t even think about now, like being obliged to put toilet paper in the bin instead of flushing it; like not knowing how to unblock the toilet when the former invariably does happen. Because they haven’t yet lived away from home, and haven’t spent years in different houses filled with students, where you’re forced to get to grips with how to refill a cistern simply because nobody else will do it.

On my end, it’s a rather lovely throwback to be living with so many people again. When my Asian adventures finished and I finally got back to London, I moved in with my dad again – a very quiet household of two people and a cat. But since eight volunteers moved into the family home of two Ecuadorian grandparents, I’ve been happily remembering what it’s like to be surrounded by noise; the wake up call of early morning conversations, the clatter of cutlery, too many bodies squeezing into the small kitchen – and, yes, inevitable queues for the bathroom.

Ecuadorian hospitality

And as for Chio and Gustavo, our adopted grandparents? They’ve taken us into their lives without a moment’s hesitation – and their welcome has been so genuine that it’s somewhat hard to believe we’ve known them for less than a week.

Sunday barbecque

Since arriving we’ve met both their sons, their respective wives and children; enjoyed a Sunday afternoon barbecque with various work colleagues and old friends; even chatted to their England-dwelling daughter and her one year old son via Skype. After a few days spent gauging the possible opportunities to help, we now spring into action with laying the table, loading the dishwasher, stirring the occasional simmering saucepan on the stove – anything to help Chio, whose constant exclamations of “gracias, mi corazon!” are music to my ears.

Plus, they’ve given us the opportunity to begin our discoveries of Ecuador in a place so beautiful and welcoming that I couldn’t have imagined it.

And raising the blind every morning to look out over the city in whatever state of weather it may be in – cloudy, sunny, covered with rain – is only furthering my excitement to see what else this country has to offer. Because so far its sights, sounds and its people are setting the bar pretty damn high.

Lattitude volunteers group

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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12 Responses to Chio, Gustavo and the Mountain House: Finding a Family in Ecuador

  1. Coti February 15, 2013 at 7:47 pm #

    It amazes me that you take such wonderful photos with a point-and-shoot. Maybe you should sign me up for lessons! I love the photo over the grill. You captured a great moment!

  2. KaraBlythe February 17, 2013 at 9:21 am #

    I just wanted to say thanks for the consistently high quality writing. I’ve been following your blog for a while now and really appreciate all the effort you put into each post — it shows :) Enjoy Quito!

    • Flora February 22, 2013 at 3:33 pm #

      What a lovely thing to hear – thanks so much Kara! I much prefer putting more time and effort into my writing than rushing through an article, so I’m really glad it’s noticable :)

  3. Ceri February 19, 2013 at 2:55 am #

    I want an experience like this. This kind of experience is what I dreamed of when I planned to come to Mexico but, the truth is, I’ve been in Mexico City for the last year and it’s just as materialistic and capitalistic as the UK. That’s why I hope to do something like you’re doing when I do return to this part of the world. :)

  4. Jonathan Look, Jr. February 19, 2013 at 10:11 am #

    Ecuador looks amazing! Seriously considering it for LifePart2.3 !

    • Flora February 22, 2013 at 3:26 pm #

      You should definitely give it a try – it’s a stunning country and the people here are so friendly :)

  5. TammyOnTheMove August 22, 2013 at 6:11 am #

    Loved reading this as I am very likely going to Ecuador for three months myself early next year. I want to learn Spanish and then volunteer. So how is your Spanish coming along then? Any better? And also, you mentioned the cold weather. Should I leave my T-Shirts at home and pack some more long-sleeve shirts instead? Will probably stay in Quito for the entire time. Thx!

    • Flora September 6, 2013 at 12:35 pm #

      Ah great stuff, good to hear Tammy! The Spanish is thankfully a great deal better now – still a long way to go but the current conversation I’m having with a group of Argentinians in my hostel would suggest I know enough to get by now!

      I’d say hang on to your tshirts – Quito is a lot warmer than Cuenca, and even though neither places are skirts and shorts weather, when the sun is out in the daytime it’s definitely warm enough for no sleeves. That said, make sure you’ve got a mix of stuff as it rains in Quito (well, the whole of Ecuador) from time to time :)

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