Ecuador ’14 Week 3: Star-Struck and Altitude-Dizzy

Read about the Ecuador team’s action-packed Week 3, in which we summited a 4,700m volcano, bunked with TECHO’s global Constructions Director, survived two moderate earthquakes, and kick-started our collaboration with the government!


We’re a little starstruck this week! 

Firstly, TECHO’s global Director of Construction, Eduardo Bustos (Edo), is living with us as he visits Ecuador to work in the TECHO offices here. He’s an inspiring person and a lot of fun to be around; we’ve introduced him to (good) English food and discussed everything from the differences between TECHO’s operations across Latin America, the challenges faced in different countries, and original roots of the organisation in Chile. He’s shown a lot of interest in the EcoHouse Initiative and our projects, so we’ll be keeping in touch after he’s gone and from Cambridge when our placement is over.

Secondly, the incredible power of social networking has put us in contact with the Ecuadorian government; my first blog post – entitled ‘Earth Toilets and Raspberry Pis’, if you’re crazy enough not to have read it yet – was retweeted by TECHO Ecuador and hence read by Andrés Delgado, an official at Ecuador’s Ministry of Higher Education, Technology, Science and Innovation. He wants to know more about our information systems, technology and education projects – particularly in relation to open source software, which Ecuador is keen on using – and we met him yesterday to discuss the potential for a government-backed EcoHouse info-sys project. More about this at the end…

From left to right: Archie looking dashing as he sets up our first Raspberry Pi with Khan Academy Lite; Our hacker team hard at work in the TECHO office; Archie looking very green as he does the grocery shopping for his Sunday roast at the local mall; Eduardo, TECHO’s global Director of Constructions, enjoying wine and dinner at our apartment.


Bamboo Lovin’

This week has been a jumble of conquering mountains and conquering meeting rooms (both may be slight exaggerations). On Wednesday, we split our team into the ‘bamboo specialists’ (Max, our one fluent Spanish-speaker, and Archie) and the ‘community officers’ (Karan and I, who visited one set of TECHO homes, while Alex and Sarah visited another). Max and Archie joined TECHO’s directors in a meeting with INBAR, the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan, to discuss the prospect of a new bamboo house design to suit the Oriente jungle region.

INBAR, an intergovernmental network founded by a group of countries with a particular interest in exploiting their bamboo and rattan resources, does a lot of research and design work with these two materials, and is responsible for promoting their wider use globally. Our meeting with them took place at the Ministry of Agriculture in Quito. After quite a lot of discussion and deliberation in Spanish (most of which wasn’t in Archie’s phrasebook), we made significant progress concerning the bamboo house design, and we hope to be visiting the city of El Coca with TECHO soon, which is located on the outskirts of the Amazon jungle. We plan to explore the area and meet the local community, in order the assess the practicability of bamboo housing there when compared to alternative materials.

The First TECHO Home

While the others were flipping through dictionaries to find the Spanish word for ‘sustainable bamboo cultivation,’ Alex, Sarah, Karan and I drove up to northern Quito with other volunteers to visit some of the oldest TECHO neighbourhoods and check whether the homes had been damaged by the previous day’s magnitude 5.1 earthquake. Andrés, who was TECHO Ecuador’s Social Director for two years and who now volunteers daily, told us that the communities in this part of Quito are what is known as ‘invasive,’ having settled on the land years ago without owning any legal rights to it. Many of the families here had intended to live in the area legitimately, but were scammed into buying false title deeds.

Today, this section of Quito has become fairly integrated into the city’s formal infrastructure, and the land dispute has largely died down. Most residents commute daily to the centre of Quito for work, but some make a living as rubbish-sorters and recycle-workers, sifting through discarded paper, metal, wood and plastic and selling what they can. The houses we visited were the first built by TECHO in Ecuador 4–5 years ago, and were thankfully not damaged by the earthquake – whose epicentre was located extremely nearby – thanks to the flexibility of the wooden panels. The families living there had made modifications to the homes, boarding up windows or hanging up curtains, setting up extra panels to serve as room dividers, and re-painting the walls. TECHO encourages such changes – so long as they don’t interfere with the house’s standards of safety or structural stability – because they mean that families are empowered to make the house their home, and to modify it to suit their specific needs.

Photos of some of the first TECHO homes to be built in Ecuador and the families living in them, taken on the day after a 5.1 magnitude earthquake struck the area. The houses were mostly intact.


The 3-Mile-High Club

Early the next morning, on August 14th, we set off (driven primarily by Alex’s enthusiasm) to climb a volcano on the northern outskirts of Quito: Mt Pinchincha. Carrying water bottles, leftover construction-week cereal bars, windproof jackets and (hugely unnecessary) sunblock, we rode the TelefériQo cable car for over 1,000 metres up Mt Pichincha. Archie and I did about 20 minutes’ worth of trekking before we turned back, coughing and spluttering (laugh now, but breathing at that altitude ain’t easy), so I’ll hand over to somebody else to describe the summiting-the-4,200m-peak bit [they’re not as conscientious as I am when writing up blogposts, but watch this space].

From left to right: Our team of serious mountaineers; Danilo appears to be carrying out an assassination attempt against Max (we were all considering it); view from the TeléferiQo; trekking up Mt Pinchincha

While we wait, here’s a photo of Archie enjoying honeyed tea and donuts as we sit comfortably in the warm café next to the TelefériQo, where we entertained ourselves for five hours with a Spanish reader and the Ecuador 2013 Placement Report. 


From left to right: Archie warming himself in the TeléferiQo café; View from the bottom (not too shabby!) of Cotopaxi in the distance


TWO Prototypes

Back to work on Friday 15 August, we spent the day designing a survey for the residents of TECHO homes, which we want to use in order to assess the quality of life in the houses and how it can be improved with small modifications to the design. Upon completing the questionnaire, we thought it was crucial to test it on someone living in dismal conditions in an extremely remote region – so we chose Alex’s accommodation in Girton. Here’s an excerpt.

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Afterwards, we visited the Brazil prototype which the Ecuador team built in Quito last year. Painted a bright and cheerful EcoHouse-green, the design was really interesting to examine and compare to this year’s updated version, and we’ll be continuing last year’s work by using this prototype to test some new technologies, like plastic bottle lighting, over the following month.

Photos of the team examining last year’s Brazil design prototype in Quito, and a sunny EcoHouse selfie!


Like true gringos

We spent the weekend chatting with Edo in Spanglish, eating Archie’s famous English Sunday roast, and then enjoying the sight of Archie strutting around the apartment in a dressing gown. On Saturday, Sarah and Alex got up at 7am and set off for the Otovalo market, while the rest of us opted for a lie-in, intending to leave by 10. When we arrived at the bus station, however, we discovered that the minor tremble we’d felt at the house earlier was actually a magnitude 4.7 earthquake which took place squarely on the Pan-American Highway which linked Quito to Otovalo; although everyone was safe, a landslide had blocked all the routes to the market, and we were forced to turn back. Instead, we spent the day touring Quito’s old town and its beautiful cathedrals, enjoying pizza on the cobbled pavement of a local restaurant, and drinking banana milkshakes at the city’s ‘urban park’. Alex and Sarah returned late that evening, and at midday on Sunday we hopped onto a bus to ‘El Mitad del Mundo’ – or the Middle of the World, where the equator line is located – and strolled through the Ecuadorian Ethnographic Museum where we learned about Andean tribes and shrunken heads.

From left to right:  Ecuadorians pray at The church of San Francisco in Quito Old Town; A close-up photo of the San Francisco church dome; The interior of another church in Quito whose name I have forgotten (!);  A lopsided photo of the solar clock and monument at El Mitad del Mundo.

Finally, yesterday morning we met with Andrés Delgado from the Ministry of Technology, where we discussed our Raspberry Pi project and our idea of implementing a programme similar to that tried by EcoHouse’s academics in rural India. We’re off to a promising start and hope to receive government backing; we’re working on introducing Raspberry Pis to local schools or “infocentros” – newly-built government info-centres which provide internet to people living in rural Ecuador – so keep posted!

– Eleni Courea