Teaching music and English

Where: San Cristobal island, Galapagos
When: May 2017
Duration: 2 weeks
Tour operator: Projects Abroad, Creative & Performing Arts Programme


It was a great privilege to be have been part of the volunteer team teaching music and English in such a special place as the Galapagos. Being hosted by a local family, I really felt part of the community and even though I was only there for two weeks the place quickly felt like home. Sadly this programme is no longer available, but there are plenty of others to choose from.

*NEW* Whilst I was there I composed and performed a short piece – watch on YouTube!

This is my ‘volunteer story’, written for the Projects Abroad website

I am sitting here writing this volunteer story at home looking out of the window at the swirling snow, thinking it couldn’t be more different from when I stepped off the plane on the sunny island of San Cristobal in the Galapagos. I was actually two thirds of the way through my 2017 round-the-world-trip, and really excited about my two-week volunteer placement with Projects Abroad.

Why I decided to volunteer in Ecuador

Having been to Peru a few years earlier I had wanted to fit in Ecuador as well but there wasn’t enough time, so when I found the Creative & Performing Arts programme it was like it was meant to be. Music has been a lifelong hobby; I started learning the flute at an early age and studied music at undergrad and post-graduate level. Music and performing is very much still part of my life so I was looking forward to being part of the Galapagos project to spend time with the local people, learn about the history and way of life on the islands and to share my knowledge with the community.

First impressions of San Cristobal

Meeting me at the airport was a friendly Projects Abroad staff member, we got into a Toyota pick-up (which I soon learned was the favoured vehicle for taxi drivers on the island) and 5 minutes later we arrived at my host family’s house where I was warmly welcomed and shown my room. She then took me out for an orientation tour where I marveled at the sea lions who wandered up and down the promenade and sat on the benches, and of course congregated on the beaches around Playa do Oro and the other beaches in the vicinity.

The actual town of San Cristobal is very small and logically laid out so you can’t really get lost, and everyone we met was very friendly and I soon felt at home. Arriving back at the house my house mate, and fellow musician, invited me to go down to Playa Mann to meet some of the other volunteers to watch the sunset. It was a Sunday, and therefore no work, so I got to meet most of the volunteers I would spend the next two weeks with. As I watched the sea lions playing in the sea as the sun went down I knew I would enjoy my time here.

Sea lions on Playa Mann, San Cristobal Island, Galapagos
My work on the Project

I had met with William, the director, on my arrival day – Sunday – prior to the orientation tour and he had given me an overview about Projects Abroad and my work on the project. The next day I was up bright and early and another member of staff took me to the school opposite Playa Mann beach, where I would spend the mornings with the music teacher doing a full school day from 7.15am to 12.35pm.

As I don’t speak Spanish, my Projects Abroad colleague was invaluable in translating things like the songs we sang, and she stayed with me for the first couple of days. She was really friendly, supportive and encouraging and I appreciated her kind help as I navigated my way around, and taught the recorder to enthusiastic and sometimes very boisterous students! I also assisted the English teacher for a couple of days and ended up taking a Year 1 class on my own, which was slightly chaotic but fun.

The afternoons found me at the office working with my housemate (who spoke Spanish) and another volunteer teaching English to a small group of 4-5 year olds, and then doing an art activity with them following on from what we’d covered in the English lesson. For example, one lesson was teaching them Z and words beginning with Z i.e. zebra, and then we went into the art room and made pictures of Zebras.

Teaching the recorder at school, San Cristobal Island, Galapagos
Teaching English at the Projects Abroad offices, San Cristobal Island, Galapagos

It was quite challenging at times but also rewarding when we’d had a successful creative afternoon. My housemate and I were leaving on the same day, and after she had explained that the following day would be our last one of them sat down and drew a lovely picture of us all having a goodbye party with balloons and even a piñata! I was quite sad to say goodbye to them all.

The volunteer community and my host family

The host family I stayed with were amazing and it really felt like it was a home from home. The home-cooked meals were simple yet scrumptious and we sat round as a family and ate together for lunch and dinner, and in the evenings they helped us with our Spanish and we helped them with their English homework.

My Galapagos family!

At the weekend my housemate visited another island so our host father took me out on his scooter and we visited the highlights of San Cristobal such as La Galapaguera, the giant tortoise sanctuary, some of the amazing viewpoints and a pristine beach called Puerto Chino (where I could have happily spent the rest of the day) and then went back to his farm for a rustic lunch and to admire his orange trees and very noisy pigs!

Giant tortoise at La Galapaguera
The pristine beach of Peurto Chino

The other volunteers were also very friendly and we used to meet up most days after work at one of the restaurant on the sea front for a coffee or a beer, and sometimes played pool and had a cocktail or two in one of the bars. There were also opportunities to visit the bakery to sample the cakes and also treat ourselves to ice cream once in a while!

Cocktails and pool
Ice cream!

As we were on a variety of different projects the Projects Abroad team also encouraged us to get together by organising social events, one of which was a ‘cultural’ evening held at the house where the Conservation volunteers lived.

I was asked to play something at the cultural evening but I had no music and the only instrument I had was a Nepalese wooden flute I had bought in Kathmandu to present as a gift to Projects Abroad. I felt I wanted to contribute so one evening I composed a piece of music, drawing on my Galapagos experiences, and performed it on the Nepalese flute (click to watch on YouTube). My housemate also performed on her Trumpet, a dance volunteer treated us to some ballet and one of the staff who sang a couple of songs. It was an evening I will never forget!

Performing my piece at the cultural evening
Meeting the island’s other inhabitants

I was allowed a day off and decided to go exploring. Armed with a rudimentary map I first paid a visit to the cultural centre (Centro de Interpretacion) to learn more about the Galapagos, Darwin and the plants and animals, many of which are endemic to the islands. On the way I met the conservation volunteers and mentioned that I intended to walk in the direction of Playa Baquerizo (estimated to take 1.5hrs). They commented that it was good I had my hiking boots on, which got me slightly worried!

There are very few roads on the island and soon I was in the wilderness. The ‘path’ was basically a series of small wooden posts with white paint on them and soon I was scrambling up and down boulders, fighting my way through large spiky cacti and thorny bushes, and trying to avoid getting my boots filled with sand when the path took me close to the shore. While there were no people around, I met some slightly scary looking crabs, speedy lizards and large marine iguanas.

Cacti along the rocky path

I finally got to a place where the path was all overgrown and decided to stop at the beach there and have a snack and read my book. I saw some movement out of the corner of my eye and saw a sea lion making making a beeline for me! It sniffed my rucksack, checked out my boots and clothes and then decided to sunbathe next to me for a while. Sea lions are very friendly in the sea but you’re told not to get to close to them on land as they can be a little aggressive. Confident I could out-run it if it decided to get more inquisitive I stayed put and continued with my book, and after a while it slid back down the beach and plunged into the sea to cool off! With that, I decided it was time for a refreshing drink and made my way home.

My friendly sea lion
A marine iguana
Swimming with sharks (the best and worst time of my life)

On my final day a group of us decided to take a 360 tour, which was a boat trip around the whole island. I am not great with boats, or snorkeling, but it was an opportunity not to be missed. We got kitted up with our wet suits and snorkels the night before and set off early in the morning. There are two main seasons in the Galapagos and I was there around the change of season.

We sailed out to a place called Kicker Rock and went snorkeling, it was one of the most amazing things I have ever experienced, looking down you could see all sorts of different tropical fish swimming at different depths, the ever inquisitive sea lions and Galapagos sharks! I counted 8 below us at one point, luckily they were minding their own business – these sharks usually feed at night so we were safe.

We got back in the boat and continued our tour. Unfortunately the weather started to turn as the day went on and I got very seasick! I’ve never actually been seasick before and it was one of the worst things I have ever experienced. The crewman had to hold onto my t-shirt and shorts so that I wouldn’t go overboard whilst hanging over the side of the boat – at one point I really hoped the massive waves would swallow me up and it would all be over …. Luckily I lived to tell the tale and it was a memorable end to my time on the island.

Kicker Rock
Our teeny-tiny boat!
Beyond the Galapagos

My time on San Cristobal was very special and I wished I could have stayed there longer. Now that I have experience of volunteering for Projects Abroad it has inspired me to do more, and I’ve already signed up for my 2018 adventure: a Journalism project in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia!

Elizabeth Mooney
14 February 2018

N.B. This volunteer story was originally on the Projects Abroad website but as the programme has been discontinued it has been taken down, it has been slightly expanded and edited for publication here.