I recently participated in the volunteer programme run by ELEP ("Experential Learning Ecuadorian Prgrammes", www.elep.org). This organisation is supposed to find you a work placement depending on what discipline of work you`re interested in, and also provide food, accomodation and general support while you`re on the placement, such as airport pick-ups, directions, help with booking onward travel etc.
I recently participated in this programme and found it to be a huge waste of money and more importantly, time! I recently graduated as a veterinarian and wanted to travel in South America before looking for work. I found the ELEP website offering veterinary placements in Quito so signed up. Sadly what with the stress of Final Year I didn´t have time to do a lot of research and didnt see the many bad reviews of this organisation, some of which are here on Tripadvisor (tripadvisor.com/ShowTopic-g294307-i2253-k144…) and also here (abroadreviews.com/experiential-learning-ecua…). My fault entirely!
I paid $850 in total for my work placement, food and accomodation. According to the website, volunteers stay with families. However I was placed in a house run by an elderly woman who rents out rooms to college students and occasionally ELEP volunteers like me. I didnt mind this so much but it shows that the website is not entirely honest. In addition, I was paying $850 for food and accomodation. I found out from the Ecuadorian college students that they were paying $300 a month for the same food and accomodation. In fact they received three meals a day as they came home for lunch from college which I could not do as my placement was so far away. I imagine the lady received more for having me, perhaps $400. Therefore the extra $450 went to Patricio Fernandez, the man who liased with me on behalf of ELEP. I know this as the vet who took me on as a volunteer didnt receive any money for having me.
There were some issues in the house- the elderly woman who owns it was nice but very much your typical "grandmother" type who got rather sniffly when I didnt finish all my food or when I asked for something different, such as cereal for breakfast (I walked for an hour to reach the vet clinic and I felt a bread roll and jam wasnt quite enough to keep me going!). But I felt whenever I asked anything like this I was annoying her or whenever I used the kitchen even just to make a coffee I was in the way and it made the stay very awkward. I didn´t much want to go to the supermarket and buy my own food after paying so much for food and accommdation so I stuck with what I was given and often felt hungry (this was totally my choice, I understand that). I often heard the lady talking about me in Spanish to her friends as if I couldnt understand, and saying rather nasty things: it didnt really make me feel welcme! When I asked Patricio about this, he just told me I had to be open-minded and that the lady in question had worked with their organisation for years and he didnt want to make her angry. Therefore he was no help in liasing with the lady and resolving these problems.
In addition, as I mentioned, the work placement was on the other side of the city to the accomdation. I chose to walk there and back every day as I didnt want to spend any more money than I already had on public transport, plus the buses are noisy, crowded and I would have had to change buses halfway. I was annoyed that ELEP ddnt even provide me with a transport allowance for the bus. In addition as the house was so far away I had to buy or bring my own lunch to the clinic every day. Again this was more money to spend, despite the fact that three meals had been promised. Had there been even some bread, cheese, fruit etc provided at the hosue so I could make a packed lunch, I would have appreciated it. But there was not, and when I asked Patricio he said I would have to just buy my own food. It is cheap in Ecuador but as I am a vegetarian it was a bit difficult to decipher what I could and couldnt eat in the local outlets!
The vet clinic itself was also a disappointment. The staff were all lovely, I have to stress that, especially the boss of the practise who was so good to me. But it was so so quiet- some days there would only be about 5 or 6 dogs or cats coming in for vaccination or an ear-clean. This made it very boring and I spent hours with literally nothing to do. There was always about two or three other vets and an assistant so whenever any patients did arrive I felt more like I was in the way than helping. In addition, a lot of the simple routine procedures I need to practise such as catheter placement, blood sampling etc are done in front of the owners (this is different to in my country) so I couldnt do it as the vets obviously didnt want a foreign person who probably looked like a student "practising" in front of the pet owners! Therefore I think that despite the vets being lovely, this really isnt a suitable location for a placement for a new graduate. Maybe a vet student would benefit but not someone who needs to increase their practical skills. I feel the vet in charge perhaps didnt realise this- he was so generous he just wanted to welcome people into the practise. This is great but practically-speaking I didnt find it a very useful four weeks.
Patricio was also very keen to get my money. He brought me to the ATM as soon as he met me at my hotel. I could only withdraw $300 due to my bank limit when I am abroad, so for the next three consecutive days he met me at at ATM at a gas station and watched as I withdrew more money to pay him, and counted it in front of me. This felt a bit horrible!
In addition, he was often late when we arranged to meet and didnt reply to my texts. In fairness he did take me to buy my bus ticket on to Peru, but the first company we went to didnt have a bus at a suitable time so we had to organise another meet-up go to a second, which was closed when we reached the office. It just felt like he really hadnt done his homework. As I had paid so much money to have his support, this was really frustrating. In addition sometimes he wopuld pick me up and sometimes not, and once we had to take a taxi which I had to pay for. It all just felt really disorganised.
The worst thing however was that on the way to meet Patricio to get my bus ticket, I started to feel really ill. My vision went blurry and I knew something terrible was happenning to me. I managed to take my cellphone out and ring Patricio and tell him I was feeling sick, somewhere on Avenida Colan (I couldnt even read the signs to know for sure where I was). I then collapsed. When I wke up I was in a car with Patricio and a paramedic. He told me I had fainted which I believed. We went to a doctor who chekced my blood pressure and looked in my eyes then sent me n my way. Patricio reprimanded me for not eating enough and for walking to much and made me some tea with sugar, and that was it. But I had bitten my tongue very badly and my memory was extremely hazy- I couldnt remember really someple things like where the house was, or the supermarket, or what i had done earlier in the day. It later transpired that I had actually had a seizure when I collapsed, which would explain the memory lss and bitten tongue. A lady who was on the scene and found me was coincidentally a friend of the vets I wrked with, who told him I was convulsing like an epileptic fit. Therefore I needed a lot more than a blood pressure check, I needed a EEG and an MRI! In fairness perhaps Patricio hadnt arrived while I was convulsing but he could have easily got the story from the woman who was with me.
In the end the vet helped me organise a brain scan with a local neurologist- not easy to do yourself when youre in a foreign country! Im now on anti-epilepsy meds as there was a focus of irritation in my cerebral cortex- I didnt have a sexiure because I wasnt eating enough! If Patricio had had his way my health issues would have been completely ignored for the sake of a quiet life. He obviously had no interest in looking after us volunteers, only in taking our money and doing as little work as possible. I felt utterly abandoned and neglected by this ELEP organisation and I would advise anyone considering to work with them to avoid it at all costs.