What makes a mid-50 year old, professional woman become a Trundler?
A little over three years ago I was sitting at my desk and staring at the blank screen of my computer. For over 20 years I had diligently caught the tube from Finsbury Park, to travel 40 minutes to the Angel through the rush-hour traffic, and made the same journey home from work in the evening.
I had written over a dozen well-received publications on various aspects of contemporary design and architecture and I was well thought of in my field. I had a failed marriage behind me but was still friendly with my ex, and together we had a beautiful, intelligent grown-up son. I had a few close friends, but spent too much time on my own, or if not, too many Prosecco-fuelled nights in the bars of Soho, too many mornings struggling to wake up, too many lovers that didn’t mean anything to me, and one who did but who fate had decided should die prematurely at only 48.
It was a life like any other, full of rich incident both good and bad. That particular morning I had a new book to start, I had a strong concept and a co-author lined up. I would normally have felt enthused but suddenly it just wasn’t important. I had a night out planned and a city break weekend coming up, but it all just seemed pointless. Of course it wasn’t just ‘that morning’. I’m telescoping events and feelings, which in reality spanned months if not years. A gradual onslaught of ‘is this all there is’. Maybe what I eventually experienced could be classified glibly as a breakdown. I tried to struggle on but couldn’t. I drank more, I cried, I railed and eventually I took the bull by the horns, gave up my job, and after a couple of months of watching day-time television with a full ashtray by my side, pulled myself together and started to think of alternatives.
I considered selling up and moving to rural Wales, buying a dog and keeping chickens but knew in my heart ‘The Good Life’ wasn’t for me. I needed a nuclear option, far more ‘other’ than a bucolic retreat and a pair of wellies. That’s when hours of trawling the internet paid dividends. At first I thought that I would finance a few months abroad but did I really have the courage to set off on a whim, alone? I didn’t have a bucket list of places I wanted to visit, and, although I had traveled extensively with work, it was always with an aim and an agenda. So my logic was to find a reason. I wish at this point I could put my hand on my heart and say my motives in researching volunteering were altruistic but, if I’m honest, helping others was at best secondary to finding a selfish purpose to pack my wheelie suitcase and head off. My ‘mission’ turned out to be an under-funded orphanage in a small patch of rainforest, on the semi arid coast of Manabi province, Ecuador.
As my plane made its final approach into Quito’s Mariscal Sucre Airport, my old life was packed up and in storage and all I knew of my future was that I had, a year’s visa, an open-ended ticket and a pre-booked two-week language course to try and at least acquire the rudiments of Spanish. Then there was to be three months dedicated to looking after eight children with ages ranging from four to seventeen in a remote and rural area of a country I knew absolutely nothing about. This would have been daunting in itself but I was still blissfully unaware that the children were not in fact orphans but forsaken, and all had a history of sexual abuse. No-one spoke English and to make matters worse the couple in charge would leave a week after I arrived putting me largely in charge of a bunch of severally disturbed kids with only occasional help from the religious foundation that ran the charity. But that afternoon as I looked down at the seemingly endless white buildings that climb the slopes of the towering volcanoes that surround Quito, I knew nothing of what lay ahead of me, and my head that swam as I left the airport did so as much from excitement as it did from finding myself in the thin atmosphere of a world over 9,000 feet above sea level.
Being a small country one of the unique aspects of Ecuador is its diversity and the relatively short time it takes to travel from one of its borders to another. No matter how many night buses you take you will never get used to going to sleep in view of the snow-capped peaks of the Andes and waking, for example, to the desert-like southern coast. Or by day, slowly watching the low-lying tropical plains of the Amazon basin change to the mist-shrouded rugged ridges of the mountainous cloud forest.
A fortnight after my arrival I traveled from the bright, dry chill of Quito, eight hours through the night, arriving in Manta at 6 O’clock in the morning. It was still dark but already hot and humid and I could hear the waves as they pounded the beach and smell the fresh saltiness of the sea. I was met and driven the hour that it takes to reach Pacoche a remote micro-climate of rainforest in which the orphanage nestles overlooking the aqua-marine Pacific ocean. Hidden away behind a Colditz-like fence and approached through a locked wrought-iron gate, the Fondacion was at once my paradise and my prison.
Over the coming months I lost count of the times I wanted to escape, and of the times I wanted to stay forever in isolation with my eight damaged children. I got used to the sounds of the forest, the ghostly screams of the Howler Monkeys, the eerie hisses and grunts of the prehistoric-looking Huazin bird and the cacophony of the nightly frog chorus. I became acclimatized to the heat and the torrential rain. It didn’t faze me to find tarantulas in the undergrowth, and armies of ants in the kitchen. I became expert at cooking and cleaning. I could feed all nine of us on one chicken and a bag of lentils. I could sieve through the black bin-liners of donated food that arrived weekly to find things that were not completely rotten and which we could actually eat. When the water that arrived in a tanker every Monday ran out, which it inevitably did, I could ration what we had. I could go without showers, I could flush the toilets with buckets. I could wash our clothes early in the week to make sure we had enough to last. I could rise with the children at 5am and go to bed when they did. I existed without wifi or phone signal. What I found harder to deal with were my emotions. By turns I wanted to kill my kids or protect them like a mother hen. They broke my heart and my endurance daily. I had never experienced such need and been tested so acutely. They wanted acceptance but didn’t know how to ask for it. They did everything to push me away but would then fight to be upper-most in my affection. We lived together for 90 days and nights with tantrums and tears, with laughter and love, and then like everyone they had ever known, I abandoned them. I was told that the time I had spent with them was better than nothing but I’m not so sure. One little boy whose life had been particularly cruel and with whom I had had daily battles wouldn’t look at me when I left. The same little boy whose eyes full of amazement I had caught on camera when I baked him a birthday cake. The same little boy who, clumsy and rough, would grab me around the waist and hold on as if his life depended on it. I’ve since returned twice to Ecuador. I have been back to the orphanage once but the children have all now dispersed and are lost to me.
These days I have a TEFL qualification and give English lessons to the staff in high-class resorts. I have taught on a cruise boat in the Galapagos, in a spa in the cloud forest about three hours’ drive from Quito and in a lodge deep in the heart of the Amazon, and am now in the process of planning my next visit. I have traveled extensively in South America. I have seen the wonder that is Machu Pichu and swum in the Caribbean Sea.
I have crossed the salt flats of Uyuni and lived with an indigenous family in the middle of Lake Titicaca. I have felt the hot, dry atmosphere of the Atacama Desert, walked the glaciers of Tierra del Fuego and watched as penguins hunkered down against the fierce winds of the Antarctic. I’ve felt the chill of Pinochet in the bullet scarred walls of Santiago and sat in my mind with Pablo Neruda in his beach house in Isla Negra. I’ve toasted the sunset over Valpariaso, a full moon on the battlements of Cartagena and watched dawn break over the canopy of the Yasuni National Park .
But more important than all these wonderful experiences, I know now that life need not be predictable or stifling and that I had it in my power to change its course. It has not always been easy but it was worth it.