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Volunteering with Planet Drum in Ecuador, May 2009

By Aaron Kase

It seemed like no one ever wanted to leave. Volunteers talked about leaving Thursday or Friday, but always pushed their departure date back through the weekend, to Monday or Tuesday. Nicole was planning to stay for one week and stayed for three. The Swedish people also planned to stay for a week and stayed on for a whole month, except for super-volunteer Brigitta, who stuck around for two months, keeping the rest of the crew well-stretched and in good spirits. If it wasnít for her plane ticket back to Stockholm I donít think she ever would have left at all. Then there was Paula, who finished her volunteer stint, flew home to California, and missed Planet Drum so much that she came back a month later to teach bioregional education classes. What was it about the place that no one could bear to say goodbye to?

Maybe it was the other volunteers. People from all over North America and Europe come to work and live together, almost everybody friendly, fun to work with, and fun to hang out with around the house. The international aspect added flavor and I learned how to say new curse words in French, Spanish, Czech, Swedish, and Canadian. The Planet Drum house itself was a big selling point. There was ample living space, a big window that looked out over the always interesting happenings on Montufar Street, and a dynamic, ever growing music collection that covered every genre or artist imaginable. The house was well known and well liked in the community and local guys would come over every day to hang out, play cards, and plan the next surfing trip.

Or maybe it was the city of Bahia that kept people around. A small, extremely laid-back town, it lacked serious night life and craziness- but if that was what you wanted, you could just hop on a bus to Canoa for the night, and still come back to Bahia afterwards to recover. Otherwise there was little to do but play frisbee on the beach, wander the streets, go out for ice cream, or climb up to La Cruz, but somehow these activities filled up every day and there never seemed to be enough time to get everything done.

And what about the work itself? We worked hard, but it was fun, varied, and felt meaningful. There were the basic tasks related to tree planting: clearing trails, digging holes, planting and watering the trees. Other days we would go to the greenhouse and weed, water, dig seedbeds, and fool around in the compost pit. We went on frequent field trips as well, to San Clemente to pick up a truckload of river sand, or on hikes through the spider infested woods behind Ricarditoís farm to collect seeds for next yearís trees. Once I even got to wander the streets of Bahia digging through peopleís garbage looking for three liter bottles, accompanied by a Frenchman in a neck brace. How many jobs let you say that? Every day was something different, new skills to work on, and new things to learn.

On a final note, Planet Drum is a good organization for people who have become cynical about international aid and development work. It takes the role of volunteers seriously: We pay $10 a month rent for house upkeep, and all chip in for communal dinners. Thatís it. Compare that to other so-called volunteer organizations that charge hundreds of dollars per month for questionable returns. One volunteer came from an organization in the Galapagos that charges $225 per week to chop raspberry bushes. Notice I didnít say to chop raspberry bush roots, because those are left in the ground. How else will the bushes grow back to provide more busywork to the next group of volunteers willing to come and pay? 

I also compare Planet Drum to huge NGOs who have million dollar budgets that are spent on air conditioned offices, air conditioned white SUVs, and fat Americans with masterís degrees to sit in the offices and SUVs all day. They may do some kind of work in the field, but I never could figure out what it is. In comparison, Planet Drum has nearly no budget, no luxuries, and we travel around by bus, but we saw visible, quantitative benchmarks of success, in the form of trees. There were the trees we started in the greenhouse, the trees that we planted at the sites, and the trees at previous yearsí sites that we visited, thriving, many of them already taller than we are. Step back to see a hundred year Ceibo tree towering over the forest, which could be the future of one of the trees you planted yourself, and start to understand what it is that is so attractive about Planet Drum, and why nobody ever wants to leave.

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