Tabuga is a small town with 75 families located on the northern coast of Ecuador, in the province Manabí. Manabí is the poorest and most illiterate province in Ecuador. There are no conventional phones; there is no cell phone signal nor television signal. There are two stores. They sell basic things like canned tuna, rice, sugar, soda, beer and Caña Manabita. Caña Manabita is a sugar cane alcohol that compares to ever-clear in the US and is sold for only $1.20 a bottle, a beer costs $1 and doesn’t get you to the point of falling over drunk sleeping in the dirt road. [A bottle of water is almost $2] Given the choice, the men in Tabuga choose the cane alcohol and some don’t make it home until Sunday night… if they leave on Friday. (Women do not usually drink alcohol.)
The majority of people live in traditional wood houses and many live in even more traditional flattened bamboo (called caña) homes. The majority of the income in Tabuga comes from machete work done for other large land owners. In addition, many families have small parcels of land where they grow bananas, passion fruits, java beans and yucca. The machete workers earn $5-7 per day. The average number of kids per family is 6 and their diets are almost solely plantains and rice. Plantains are a starchy, chewy, banana look-a-like that has almost no nutritional value. I don’t understand why plantains are so popular when Ecuador is the banana capital of the world. The more well off families buy eggs and chickens.
My volunteer experience here is very different than my time at El Pahuma, the rain forest, or what it will be like in the Galapagos. Lalo Loor Forest is located about 2 km from Tabagua, but since I am the only volunteer and they don’t want to completely isolate me, I will split my time working at the reserve and then helping out a former Peace Corps volunteer with various community projects. I will still stay at the reserve as that is really the only place in town for visitors. (No hotel or guest houses in Tabuga). The volunteer house is a bamboo and palm frond creation that can house up to 25 at a time. It doesn’t have electricity or running water. No heat. No air. No indoor plumbing, no hot water. When there are more volunteers, there is a cook too. When there is only 1–no cook, but I do get to go to Pendernales to shop for my breakfast and weekend food. I get to eat lunch and dinner in town. In the forest, I monitor animal behavior, go for hikes, search out birds, snakes, and insects. I am also helping to construct a staircase on one of the closed trails. I call it La Escalera de Michelle.
It gets dark about 5:30 pm…maybe a little earlier at the house due to its location in the forest. From about 6p-9p, I read by candlelight. [I found a Spanish language copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It’s slow going, but I am making my way through it, and its improving my Spanish language skills.] It also gets light about 5:30am. I wake up a bit earlier than that due to the howler monkeys that start their screaming about 4. Thank god for the siesta.