Enough with the grunge

It seems that over the past month, we have unwittingly managed to sink deeper and deeper into the grunge and dirt of Ecuador.  This is the dry season along the coast and as a result, everything – plants, trees, roads, houses – is covered with a thick layer of dust and dirt.  The landscape is dreary and drab.  The predominant color is the color of dirt.  Now and then we will pass through an agricultural area that is fertile; the vibrant colors are a shock to our dulled senses.  To make matters worse, Ecuadorians are prolific litterers and garbage is everywhere you turn.  For example, a new road is under construction along the coast, parts of which boast an adjacent bike path.  One day Chris and I went for a run along this bike path and we were simply disgusted by the garbage that covered the path the entire length of our run.

The grunge and dirt were starting to get to me by the time we had reached Canoa.   After three weeks of hostel living, we were really looking forward to staying in a house with all the associated comforts. I don’t think I had overly grand expectations – I knew the house was still under construction.  I was looking forward to some simple pleasures like having a living room to relax in (instead of just a bedroom), having access to a kitchen, and home cooked food.

When we met Andy and Leo last Friday night, we hit it off with them immediately.  We had exchanged emails for about 10 days prior and had already established a pretty good rapport.  Andy is a Brit who has settled in Ecuador with Leo, an Ecuadorian from Quito.  Together they are building a house on the ocean about 10 minutes south of Canoa (that’s a half hour walk along the beach).  The two-storey, brick house is designed as two separate units.  Each floor has a kitchen, bathroom, living/dining area and bedroom.  The major work on the house has been done – walls, windows, exterior doors, roof, plumbing, electrical – are all complete.  Now they are left with the finishing details.  And that’s where we came into the picture.  The plan was for Chris to work on cabinetry in the kitchen, and I was to work in the garden.

Constructing kitchen cabinets without the proper tools did not seem to deter Chris.  At his disposal were: a power drill, a circular saw, one hammer, a motely collection of screwdrivers, a dull hand saw, a hand plane, a few used rusted nails, a measuring tape that was almost illegible, glue, and some small pieces of rope.   And he had access to the “wood man” at the sawmill who could apparently cut wood to order and to specification.  The idea was for Chris to design the kitchen cupboards, come up with all the measurements and give these to the “wood man” who would whip everything up on demand.  Then Chris would only have to glue the pieces together and install the finished product.  And so Chris began…..

Once the design was complete, the first order of business was to buy the hardware for the cupboards and drawers as these would impact the final measurements.  Off we went to San Vincente and Bahia – two larger towns within about a 20 minute drive.  The first hardware store had door hinges and 12 screws – yes, 12 individual screws, and hardware for one drawer – yes, one drawer.




This was not Home Depot, let me tell you.  And so began the run-around to try to round up all the hardware required.  Four stores later, Chris had what he needed.





Then it was off to the saw mill to see what type of wood they had and what type of cuts they could do.  They could do some of the cuts but not everything.  Chris then needed to adjust his design to accommodate the hardware and the wood.  We ate ice cream as Chris did his calculations. Then it was back to the sawmill, only to find it closed for lunch.   Killed some time doing errands, returned to the sawmill only to find out they had no electricity for the rest of the day and the wood man would not take any more orders.  So we went to another sawmill down the road.  He too was without electricity but promised to take the order and have it ready for the next morning.  After much discussion and many explanations – Chris explaining to Leo who then translated it to the wood man – the order was given and we headed back home.  The wood was ready the next day, and cut to specification, although they couldn’t do all the cuts needed for the doors; they couldn’t cut the lengths, nor could they cut the “tongue” part of “tongue and groove” – they could only cut the “groove”.

Each subsequent day presented its own challenges; for example, two days we had no power at the house.  Chris took matters into his own hands and went back to the sawmill and arranged to use the saws himself to make the necessary cuts.  Finally all the pieces were cut and ready to be assembled.  In parallel to this, Chris was teaching Andy and Leo basic carpentry skills as he knew there would be plenty of work left for them when we left.  They were willing and appreciative students.  Under Chris’ direction, a frame was built and installed in the cement cupboards to which the doors would eventually be attached.


You might be wondering what I was doing all week long.  Well, I painted the pillars in the front of the house, weeded and cleaned up the back garden and some of the front yard, cooked a few breakfasts, assisted Chris when necessary and did most of the dishes throughout the week.  Unlike Chris, I found it difficult to embrace the tasks at hand.  The front yard was full of construction debris and required some serious machinery to get it cleaned up before you could even consider starting a garden.  The only garden tool at my disposal was a plastic rake with no handle.  Leo attached a flexible piece of plastic to the rake head to create a rather flimsy, bendable rake.

The exterior of the house was still very much a construction zone with materials and tools all over the place.  It seemed rather premature to be focused on the garden, in my opinion.

The inside of the house was also in a state of disorder – the result of months of construction and just making do.  There was no furniture in the house yet except two beds (ours was very comfortable, in fact the most comfortable bed to date), a plastic patio table and two plastic patio chairs.  Their dog, Lucky, was recovering from cancer and had some open wounds.  Their cat, Daggy, also suffered from some mysterious open wounds.  These animals were indeed lucky to have owners like Andy and Leo who were tending to their ailments and sores with a variety of medicines from the vet.

We ended each day with cocktails at sunset.  Andy prepared his house speciality – Tequila Sunrise – with freshly squeeze orange juice.  Chris prepared our summer time favourite – Vodka and Tonic with Lime.  Andy fed us well with home cooked meals each day.  One morning I made my infamous pancakes (that are now being served at CocoLoco I might add), and I made French toast another morning – a little taste of home.

By the end of the week, one cupboard door was completed and installed, another one was glued and drying, and the remaining cupboards were ready to be glued together.  A template for a drawer was also created and was ready to be duplicated for the remaining three drawers.

One day we went horse back riding with the owner of the hostel we had stayed in.   Neither of us are comfortable on a horse and it took a while to find our groove and our balance; although we never did quite manage to go faster than a trot.  Chris went barefoot – not by choice, but by necessity because his sandals did not fit into the stirrups.  It was a beautiful ride – two hours traversing hills and valleys of lush, picturesque farmland and then returning along the beach.  Our muscles are still hurting from that ride!

What is the final verdict on our first HelpX experience?  We couldn’t have worked for a nicer couple.  Both Andy and Leo were kind hearted, hospitable, and fun to be around.  They certainly didn’t push us very hard, in fact, we probably pushed them harder than they may have wanted.  We have a deeper appreciation for the challenges of getting anything done in Ecuador and found the experience to be an eye opener.  After working pretty hard for a week, we’ve come to realize that it’s much more fun to stay on vacation and so we aren’t planning any more HelpX jobs for the foreseeable future.

As we travelled on the bus from Canoa to Puerto Lopez I struggled with my feelings.  I was tired of the grunge and dirt and grime that surrounded me and didn’t see any respite from it while we were in South America.  I fantasized of ways we could leave this continent.  Yes, I know, I was feeling pretty negative.  I fully expected Puerto Lopez to be more of the same and so you can imagine my surprise, my delight, my relief when we found our current hostel.  Tucked away on the north edge of town, directly on the ocean, Hostel Mandala is an oasis of serenity, beauty and cleanliness.  We’re going to stay here for a while.

Category: Ecuador, South America
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One Response
  1. Neil & Michelle says:

    Hey, nice to hear from you again – missed you this week! Those look like pretty nice cupboards – good job, and we’re glad you found a nice place to rest up. My parents are in South America now, for a couple of weeks, on a very different kind of trip so it’ll be interesting to compare points of view when they get back.
    Happy Thanksgiving and happy travels,
    Neil & Michelle