Tuesday, June 7, 2011

¿Dos Meses?

Originally our volunteer gig was to span three months. December through the end of February. Imagine our surprise when an Immigration officer stamped our passports with a departure date for early February!? How could this be? Our return airline tickets, we pointed out, were for the 1st of March. Her eventual response was, with the wave of her hand to move on, "don't worry about it". We weren't sure what she meant by that but we DID worry about it. Eventually we sorted out that our tour in Southern Ecuador earlier in the year had counted against our 90-day visa limit. Who would have thought? We certainly hadn't factored that in nor had the Tropical Birding staff. The Tropical Birding staff also told us not to worry. Extending a visa was a simple matter and would only cost us a few extra dollars per person to do so. However, one of the Tropical Birding guides shared a different experience. He had recently investigated extending a visa for his girl friend who would be in Ecuador for four months volunteering at another lodge. Instead of just a few dollars, Ecuador was now charging $240 per person to extend a visa. Yikes!
Upon further investigation we learned that changing our airline ticket for an earlier departure would cost about the same. The volunteer host who was to replace us would overlap our stay for the latter part of January and all of February. Clearly, three volunteer hosts would be overkill. In the end we opted for changing our tickets knowing we still had to deal with returning to the RV park a month earlier and dealing with getting a site. Love these ripple effects...
Carol in the kitchen with Ryan Merrill, the volunteer host we replaced
So how was our stay at Tandayapa? Would we do it again? December turned out to be a slow month (it typically was we learned) with just a handful of guests coming and going. There was to be a week lull with no guests so we took advantage of an invitation to be house guests of Iain and Christina, the lodge owners, in Quito for three days. A nice diversion which gave us the opportunity to play pure tourist, visit old town Quito and tour several old churches and museums. Oh, yeah. And there was pizza and McDonald's...!
José and his son Casey
Christmas and New Year were very quiet. One highlight was having José Llanos, our guide during two previous Tropical Birding Ecuador tours, spend Christmas at the lodge with a small tour group. José's wife and young son had also arranged to be at the lodge to help celebrate. The staff outdid themselves helping decorate the lodge with Christmas lights and a somewhat dog-eared fake Xmas tree. How odd to be listening to Christmas music with hundreds of hummingbirds buzzing around outside!

Rosa, Isabel, Richard, and Angel
Speaking of the lodge staff, they were delightful. It worked out that most of the time we shared our meals with them in the small kitchen. Not that we didn't enjoy dining with guests - it really was more of a practical solution since we frequently helped bus tables. Besides, it allowed us ample opportunity to work on our Spanish. We never realized how much body language played a role in speaking Spanish.

Pablo was also handy in the kitchen!
The lodge staff consisted of a lodge property manager, Pablo, two maintenance men, brothers Richard and Angel, and two housekeepers/cooks, Rosa and Isabel. Pablo, the only one fluent in English, was usually only on the property Tuesday through Friday. The rest of the time he was in Quito. Angel and Richard, principally responsible for building and trail maintenance, lived on the property. Richard in a house next to the Car Park with his wife and two small children. Angel stayed in the lodge.

Tom learned his way around the kitchen, too. Here brewing up another batch of hummingbird go-juice.
Rosa and Isabel lived with their respective families in the tiny hamlet of Tandayapa (population give or take fifteen). Everyone's work schedule revolved around the number of guests present and their needs. For example, if a tour group required breakfast before departing the lodge at 5:00 a.m., Isabel or Rosa would have to trek up from the village in the dark to make sure breakfast was ready for the group to make their 5:00 a.m. departure time. For groups requiring early departures several days in a row, a spare bed was in the rear of the lodge to avoid the treks from the village.
Isabel, the younger, and Rosa the elder, took turns covering the morning and afternoon shifts. Most mornings it was usually Rosa. She would leave around 2:00 p.m. when Isabel arrived to handle preparation for the evening meal. Dinner was typically at 7:00 p.m. but sometimes sooner or later depending upon a guide's requirements. Before anyone could leave for the evening, the kitchen needed to be cleaned and if there were box lunches required for the next day, they were to be prepped and ready the evening before. Suffice to say these folks were very hard workers! But they always seemed to have a smile on their face!
guests Jennifer and Peggy from so. CA w/José and their driver
As volunteer hosts we were not required to wait tables but we still often helped fill in the gaps when things got busy. Whenever we could (usually most every day) we helped bus tables and do dishes. Besides, remember, it gave us more opportunities to practice our Spanish! It also gave us more opportunities to interact with guests. And while we were not obligated to help with breakfast, when there was a large group early morning outing, we always pitched in, specially when guests had an early departure time for their last day at the lodge.

TB guide Gabriel Bucheli with guests Linda and Jimmie from TX
We also assisted with room scheduling, room assignments, answered guest questions about billing and payments for laundry, T-shirts, beer and wine purchases, and any additional transportation arrangements, etc.. For those guests without benefit of a guide we introduced them to the trail system and helped with bird I.D.'s around the lodge. And when guides arrived with tour groups we offered them any pertinent information on unusual recent bird sightings.
TB guide Sam Woods (rear center) with group
The mission of the lodge in both it's physical layout and operation was to make guests feel as though they were as welcome at Tandayapa as they would be visiting the home of an old friend. We did our best to help folks assimilate into the lodge's relaxing atmosphere - dead easy. Just point them to the hummingbird deck! And we acted as liaison's between guests and the non English speaking staff. Guests arrived from all over the U.S., Canada, Europe and beyond. Greeting and engaging guests in conversations wasn't all that different from what we had experiencing during our RV travels. It would be nearly impossible to relate all the wonderful stories and friendships we experienced - the guests were surely the highlight of our stay at Tandayapa.

a birding/photography group with nature photographer leader Glenn Bartley (lower right)
Perched at an elevation of 5750 feet in subtropical cloud forest, the climate for the most part was comfortable with an average mean temperature of 67 degree. Definitely cooler than we had anticipated. No wonder the staff in Quito smiled when we initially inquired about the need for a fan in our room. And while we were smack dab on the Equator, the elevation kept the temps down. No need for those shorts we had packed. And, it was also the start of the rainy season so there was no shortage of wet weather.

Steve from Ohio had an eye for finding the smallest of critters on the trails
The lodge's location relative to other nearby (within an hour and a half) birding opportunities at higher and lower elevations were enticing. But, lacking immediate personal transportation, difficult to get to. We did manage a few trips off the lodge property to Rio Silanche, Milpe Reserve, Pedro Vicente Maldenero, Mirrador Rio Blanco, and Mindo-Loma. This was in great part thanks to Tropical Birding guides Andrew Spencer, Sam Woods, and Gabriel Bucheli (and various tour group participants) for allowing us to tag along when there was room.

Luke, at age 17, was our replacement volunteer host. A very talented artist, the first piece he did at the lodge will grace the cover of Tropical Birding's 2012 catalog.
Still, birding around the lodge was nothing to sneeze at, with the possibility of over 300 bird species to be seen or heard. The Tandayapa Valley is home to the Choco Region which has more endemic species than anywhere else in the Americas. Tom kept a daily spread sheet of bird sightings. On average 64 species were seen daily and for the two months we were in Ecuador we tallied 318 species, often times with excellent and frequent views. This included several life birds we had missed during our 2008 tour.

Carol, guests and TB guide Andrew Spencer (far right) on Nono Road
The montage of hummingbird feeders located around the lodge were huge hits with the guests. Nesting species like Powerful Woodpeckers and Golden-headed Quetzals were dead easy. And near daily hummingbird incursions into the main lodge always made for exciting up-close-and-personal bird encounters.
After two months of near daily walks on the trails and road, and in spite of eating what we felt to be a lot, we managed to collectively lose 25-pounds. A diet of fresh vegetables, fruits, fish and poultry (very rarely any red meat) was effective. The homemade soups especially were a big hit. We were constantly amazed at how both Rosa and Isabel could whip up a variety of meals (and yummy deserts) at a moment's notice in such a small kitchen!

Nelson with some of the TB staff loading up supplies in Quito
All food supplies were delivered by truck. Nelson, a local who lived in Nanegalito (a twenty minute drive by car) was responsible for most supply deliveries. Some vegetables and fruits (mainly those used to stock bird feeders) came from Nanegalito. The bulk of shopping, however, was done in Quito by Tropical Birding staff at Quito stores. Once a shipment was ready, Nelson would drive to Quito and deliver supplies at the bottom of the lodge steps. All supplies were then schlepped up the steps by staff and yours truly. This included all drinking water used at the lodge. No doubt this factored into our weight loss program as well. Nelson made multiple trips to and from Quito on behalf of the lodge so his trips were also a convenient way to ferry folks when there was room. Nelson was the person who originally delivered us to Tandayapa and who then drove us back to Quito when it was time to depart.

You never quite knew what to expect when exploring the trails each day
By the end of two months we discovered we were ready to head home. The utter lack of any reliable Internet or phone service had been wearing. And besides, the Packers would be in the Super Bowl and we'd be able to watch the game in the U.S.! We have no regrets about our experience and would highly recommend volunteering at Tandayapa to anyone who has the time and inclination. Would we return to Tandayapa for another volunteer stint? Probably not with so many other volunteer opportunities in the world. Our experience, though, has certainly whet our appetite to seek out other locations. But, a visit to Tandayapa Lodge during a future return tour to northern Ecuador? It isn't out of the question!

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