Jon Brandt volunteered to teach English in Ecuador for 11 months. He used WorldTeach to find and organize his teaching position. Jon shares his experiences living, traveling and teaching in Latin America in this interview.
How did you find your volunteer teaching job in Ecuador?
I volunteered with a program called WorldTeach, which is a non-profit based out of the John F. Kennedy Center for International Development at Harvard University. After applying for the program and being accepted, we were given choices for where we would like to live. The directors then did their best to assess where we should be placed. I was originally placed in a small city on the southern coast called Machala, but because of a couple of incidents I wound up switching my site to Cuenca, a city high in the Andes. So long story short, no one really knew where we would be placed or why we wound up somewhere, but the directors tried their best to put us where they thought we would fit.
Why did you choose to volunteer and why Ecuador?
I chose to volunteer because after being fortunate enough to attend a university in the United States for 4 years, I wanted to give back in some way that had to do with international service. I’d done some volunteer work in Montevideo, Uruguay for a spring break my senior year and decided that I wanted to come back to South America. I was interested in WorldTeach, but the only program in South America that really interested me was Ecuador. I’d heard that their Spanish was very easy to understand and learn, and since I knew nothing about the country, I thought it would be a perfect way to learn and become an expert on it in my own way.
How easy is it to find volunteer teaching opportunities?
I’ve met a lot of people who volunteer is some way or another. You could literally visit a town while traveling and wind up staying as a volunteer for months. You probably won’t make money and will likely have to spend your own, but if you really want to do it you can. In bigger cities it might be easier to find jobs but in smaller towns it will be harder, but perhaps more worthwhile.
How did you get your visa to stay for 11 months?
WorldTeach arranged and took care of all of the visa applications. Aside from some things we had to do like signatures, our directors handled it all, which saved us a lot of hassle.
How much did WorldTeach Charge?
It costs around $5000, plus some other little expenses like the injections. There are cheaper WT programs, and this is one of the more expensive ones.
Are there many paid teaching jobs in Ecuador?
There are a lot of paid teaching jobs, but they don’t pay much. Generally, you make just enough to get by. In cities like Quito and Cuenca you might get a little more, but that is to match the cost of living. In other places, you get paid less but the cost of living is significantly less.
Is it possible for teachers to arrive without a work visa and look for a job?
I think it’s possible to show up in a city like Quito or Cuenca and find a job, but it will be time consuming and most likely involve a lot of work on your part. I have friends in Cuenca who just showed up and found jobs at institutes, but they had to get someone to vouch for them for a cultural visa, which can be difficult if you don’t know anyone. Other people started the search before coming down and had a job waiting for them. But getting the visa in the country can be hard if you’re not in Quito or Guayaquil. You will have to travel to those cities to take care of it.
What is the cost of living in Ecuador?
Cost of living depends on the city and region. I lived in Cuenca, which is one of the most expensive places in the country. Rent there could run from $70-220 on the higher end, depending on how many roommates you have. Things are generally cheaper on the coast–a big bowl of ceviche or encebollado (local dishes) could cost between 80 cents-$1.25. No matter where you are in the country, a lunch shouldn’t cost more than $2.50 or it’s a rip off. A liter of beer in a store could be 80 cents-$1.50, but in a bar could be more expensive. Living in Cuenca, I rarely spent more than $20 a night, and if I did was pretty upset. In other towns you might only need $5-10. But in Quito you need more, especially for taxis which cost more.
Did your school cover most of your expenses?
We got monthly stipends (when they paid us on time) which covered our rent for a host family and meals with the family. The remainder was ours to spend, but I never really had to dip into my own account unless I was traveling. The stipends depended on the site placement, but mine was $400 per month (though they originally only paid us $380 for about 6 months until we realized the problem). $200 had to go to our host families for food and housing, and the rest was ours.
How much savings should you plan on having to be able to volunteer for a year?
Save at least a couple thousand dollars as a back up, but as long as you live within your means, the monthly salaries should be enough to get you by.
What was the work like?
Everyone’s hours were different depending on their school, but we all worked no more than 20 hours a week and had vacations while receiving the stipend. I worked at a university, so I had mostly college aged kids, which was fun at times but also meant I had to deal with apathetic students who were tired and only took the course because they had to. So it was challenging in that I had to offer them something to bother caring about.
Did you have a lot of free time and holidays to explore the country?
I traveled a good amount on long weekends and vacations and saw a large portion of the country, as well as the Galapagos Islands. With our visa we were able to pay the Ecuadorian national price, saving us a lot of money. Transportation in the country can be difficult, so longer trips were usually saved for longer vacations.
Did your employer provide you with medical Insurance? If not, was it expensive?
WorldTeach provided us with Global Underwriters insurance, which was part of the fee for the program (the program fee was $4995 or so). Other things like Yellow Fever and Hepatitis shots, or Malaria pills were paid out of our pockets, at high prices.
Did you have computer and Internet access to blog and keep in touch with family?
My host family had an Internet connection so I was able to blog frequently, and the university had a computer lab also. But most families did not have Internet, and not all schools had it either. If that was the case, a volunteer would have to go to an Internet cafe when they had time. But the connections in Ecuador are generally slow and can be lost frequently.
Do you recommend volunteering and Ecuador for other English teachers?
I think volunteering was a good experience, though I know other people who went to Cuenca without paying for a volunteer agency and simply got a job. The same can be said in Quito. But if you want to get out of those cities and into smaller communities, volunteering is a better option. Ecuador is a great place to see some amazing cultures and diverse people. Though less traveled by tourists, it’s definitely worth spending time in.
What advice would you offer for others thinking of volunteering to teach English abroad?
I would recommend getting some experience at home, but not expecting a classroom overseas to be anything like that. I also suggest learning as much about a culture before you arrive–everything from history to etiquette at the dinner table, this way you can more easily assimilate into the society and truly learn about the place you’re in, rather than just scratching your head for 12 months and feeling like an outsider. Read books by local authors, watch the local news, and talk to people. Accept what they tell you, but ask other people for more information as well. Everyone has a different opinion in some way.
Travel Guy Jon Brandt’s blog
La Vida Idealist Jon contributes to this blog about Latin America travel and volunteer opportunities
WorldTeach The organization that arranged Jon’s volunteer teaching experience