Mackenzie Hedge - 2016 Program Participant

What inspired you to go abroad? 

I was really inspired to go abroad because I have a deep passion for traveling. For me, the importance of traveling is not simply visiting a place for the touristy attractions. Anyone can find these pictures on the Internet or in magazines. Going abroad gives a person the ability to be embraced by and immersed in the culture of others. There are thousands of cultures around the world, and traveling to places I have not yet visited sounds like an adventure in itself. Another reason I really wanted to go abroad was because of the possibility of volunteering in another country. I had already studied in another country, so this was the perfect opportunity to practice my Spanish and gain skills while helping those who need it.

Mitad del Mundo in Pichincha, Ecuador
Mitad del Mundo

Why did you choose Spirit Cultural Exchange?

I chose Spirit Cultural Exchange for a couple of reasons. First, there were tons of flyers hanging around my campus to apply for this volunteer program. I also knew of someone who had participated in this volunteer program and absolutely loved every second of it. I also chose this program because it was exactly what I had been looking for. I knew I wanted to travel and volunteer, but I wasn't sure where. I had never been to Latin America, so now was my chance.

This was also a wonderful program because I was able to choose the specific dates I wanted to volunteer, and the program found a volunteer site and times around my schedule. Spirit Cultural Exchange is partnered with Fundacion Simon Bolivar, a Spanish school, and they offer daily activities and opportunities to meet other volunteers and students at the school. I was a little worried I was going to go abroad and not know or meet anyone to travel with.

What was your favorite part about Ecuador? 

This is a hard question because I liked a lot of things. I really enjoyed the friendliness of the people in Quito, Ecuador. Of course, anywhere you go, there will be some people that you would keep walking past, but there were many friendly Ecuadorians who were kind, helpful, and really liked to talk. Another part I enjoyed about the country of Ecuador is the food. It was delicious everywhere I went, and inexpensive to say the least. They eat tons of vegetables and fruits. There is a crazy selection of fruit!

What made your experience abroad unique? 

The reason my experience abroad was unique is because of the not-so-good things that happened to me. First, I experienced my first earthquake. It wasn't a bad one and didn’t do any damage. I was awoken by the shaking of my bed, and my host mother said that it was the worst one she had felt. I thought it was a little terrifying at the time, but afterwards, it was pretty neat.

Another not-so-good experience that I had, that also made my experience unique, was that I was pickpocketed. I was not hurt, nor was anything important taken, such as my passport or credit cards. Of course they took my phone and wallet. But, through this experience, I was able to learn that the police there were very helpful and made sure I made it back home safely. One of the staff at the school came and got me from the police station where I wrote a police report on my stolen items. And I found appreciation for not having a phone. I found myself experiencing and enjoying even more of my time.

How did local staff support you throughout the Volunteer in Ecuador program?

The local staff were very helpful and friendly. They were there to answer any questions that I had. The school also had various activities during the evenings to meet other volunteers and students.

La Casa del Arbol, Ecuador
Swing at the End of the World at La Casa del Arbol

What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?

I wish I would have stayed for a couple more weekends. The weekends were the only times I was really able to travel, and I wish I had been able to explore more of Ecuador.

Describe a typical day in the life of your program.

A typical day was spent waking up and enjoying a nice breakfast with my host family. I would then take the buses to my work site (a nearby hospital and clinic). Most of the days were spent in the laboratory helping draw blood, write on vials, and various other tasks they needed help with. There were a couple of other days where I would observe the internal medicines doctor, or the pre and post operative care. After work, I would head back to my host family's house and eat a good lunch. Depending on the day, I might have gone to the school where they offered cooking classes, salsa dancing lessons, or other activities. I would also spend time walking around the city and exploring different parks.

What did you enjoy doing in your free time?

In my free time I liked going to the nearby artesan market to see the different products that were well known in Ecuador. I also went on occasional walks with friends. When the weather was bad, or there wasn't anything else that I was interested in doing, I would stay at my host family's house and write in my three different diaries and journals.

What was your accommodation like? What did you like best about it?

My accommodation while in Ecuador was with a host family. My host mother had two children (in their late 20s and 30s). We lived in a condo-like house off of the main tourist area. It was nice because I was very close to restaurants, the supermarket, and the school. The only downside was that during the weekends it got very noisy at nights, but that was alright because I was still able to fall asleep fairly easily. I really liked the location of the house and the closeness to the main attractions. I also really enjoyed the company of my host family. They were all so very friendly and helpful as I was trying to get accustomed to Ecuador.

What is one thing every participant should know before participating in the Volunteer in Ecuador program? 

Every participant should know that this experience will be a life changer.

Before this, I had never really traveled alone. I didn't know what to expect and I didn't know how I would meet others. I was worried I wouldn't have any friends to travel with around Ecuador. However, this was not the case at all. I met so many people who were all avid travelers like myself. The school made it really easy to meet new people, as new people would come and go from volunteering.

Now that you're home, how has volunteering abroad impacted your life?

Now that I'm home, I would say that I have many new comparisons on life. An example would be realising how much more expensive food is here back in the States. I miss having a $2 full meal for lunch. I also gained so much experience and confidence in traveling alone, and now I’m not afraid to meet new people. I wasn’t necessarily afraid earlier, I'm just much more confident in myself.

Would you recommend Spirit Cultural Exchange to others? Why?

I would definitely recommend this to others because of the support and organization of the program. They know how to make volunteering abroad comfortable and efficient.