Sally – Galapagos Islands
When I told people I was going to work as an English teacher in the Galápagos Islands for 3 months I had varying reactions. To some it was a dream destination, but others had no idea where the islands were, or even that people actually lived there. To set the record straight, the Galápagos Islands belong to Ecuador and are located 600 miles from its coast. Of the 19 islands, only four are inhabited and for most tourists the spectacular wildlife is much more of a draw than the human population. Visitors usually dine and sleep on cruise boats, rarely coming into contact with the locals. However on Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal, the two most populated islands, there are large communities largely dependent on tourism or fishing. And typically for a place where tourism makes money, the ability to speak English is a desirable skill.
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The Galápagos are a popular destination for ‘volun-tourism’, and although most of this revolves around the wildlife, there is also a need for English teachers. A word of warning though, it is extremely uncommon to find paid teaching work here and, unfortunately, very common to find volunteers paying unreasonable sums of money for the privilege of working here. I came across more than a couple of unscrupulous-sounding companies who extracted lots of cash from potential volunteers with the promise of wonderful opportunities. On arriving, these volunteers had the frustrating discovery that there was actually nothing for them to do, the school they were supposed to be working in was closed for the summer, or the position simply didn’t exist. That said, there are some excellent organisations that look after their volunteers very well and clearly value their skills. Some larger organisations may even pay for the flight from the mainland and provide accommodation and/or food. I was working for a smaller charity which couldn’t afford to do this, but helped me to find excellent inexpensive accommodation and organised for the $100 National Park Entrance fee to be waived.
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My position on San Cristóbal island was with a charity called New Era Galápagos which aims to empower the residents through education. They provide English classes so that locals can benefit from tourism and educate children about conservation to encourage them to protect their unique, and fragile, environment. I worked on a month-long summer camp for children of all ages (4-15!), and also taught adult evening classes. The kids were wildly undisciplined, in classrooms too small to accommodate them and in age groups too disparate to keep them all entertained – but these are common challenges of summer camps! Ultimately, the kids had great fun, learnt some English and gained confidence in using what they already knew.
The evening classes were more obviously rewarding. I was teaching fishermen, taxi drivers, full time mothers; busy people with busy lives who made the effort to attend an English class every day. Some inevitably dropped out, but of those who completed the course it was hugely satisfying to watch their progress. The final lesson was very memorable – the students transformed the classroom into a candlelit dining room and served up a meal caught by the fishermen in the class and cooked by the women.
Aside from the teaching, daily life in the Galápagos is something special. You walk out of school and the streets are covered with sea lions lolling about on the road and the benches. There are exotic birds swooping around the bay. At the local beach, you can snorkel with turtles a few feet from the shore. You can dive with hammerhead sharks at nearby sites. And apparently, it’s a surfer’s paradise, but I never sampled this, as the waves looked terrifyingly big to a novice.
There are frustrations to island life too. There is a distinct difference in pace of life that often makes it seem impossible to get anything done. Fresh food is hard to come by and you find yourself longing for a large, well-stocked supermarket as opposed to dusty tins in a corner shop. Some of the locals were deeply suspicious of ‘gringos’; others were just so used to the stream of volunteers passing through that they didn’t see the point in temporary friendships. But I’m glad to say there were many exceptions to this and some ‘Galapagueans’ welcomed us into their homes and their hearts with great warmth. I feel lucky to have spent three months in such a beautiful place and the connection I have with the place will last a lifetime.
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