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Ecuador: 1 Hour In – What am I doing?

This is the whole group before boarding the plane to Guayaquil

Like I said, this is a continuation of posts describing my disappearance from America. When I woke up at 5:45am on January 2, I considered going back to bed. I could easily just lay back into bed, fall asleep, wake up in a few hours, make an extravagant breakfast, drive to the gym, maybe visit the lady, maybe hang with some friends, grab a beer, write about some anecdotal story that I can draw some sort of message from which I may have encountered through the day and then fall asleep to the soft sounds of a playlist on shuffle. But whatever it was, morale, drive or something I can just not explain, I got out of bed, showered, pulled on a new pair of jeans and a new white t-shirt. I went into my closet and got an old rain coat. See I had my whole wardrobe for the week planned out. I had bought a couple of cheap shirts, boxers and socks. I packed two pairs of basketball shorts. I had no intention of bringing anything back from Ecuador. I went on a service trip to a Native American Reservation in Pine Ridge, South Dakota last year. I brought back bed bugs. The risk was not going to exist this time. I would leave all my belongings in Duran as if I never bought them.

I got my bags and got into the car. My mom and sister drove me to the bus station, which would bring me to the airport. The whole ride to the airport I was quiet. When I said goodbye to my family, my mom double checked to see if I was alright. I was unsure what to say. I knew it was going to be a big trip. I knew it was going to probably change me in one way another. God if I knew what I know now, I might have just stayed in bed considering the leaps and bounds of change which I would undergo. Alas, I got to the airport. I spotted a Dunkin Donuts and decided, my last meal in Boston…why not. I sat down on the floor and people watched. My mindset at the time was examining people. Wondering what their lives were. I wondered if any of them had any concept of simple living like I was about to dive into for the upcoming week.

As I finished my breakfast sandwich and ice cold coffee. I began to walk. I did not know where I was going. Figuratively and literally. I eventually found a friend and sat with her and her family for a little bit before the group showed up. The next few hours were pretty standard. Hopped on the plane. Got a few single serving snacks aboard the plane. Went from Boston to Miami in three hours. Upon arrival to Florida we found our next gate to Guayaquil and set up base camp as we waited for our plane to leave for about a 2 hour layover. We wondered around Miami Airport and realized something. We were in the international section of the airport and all around us was Latin American culture. The restaurants, the people. It grew intimidating quickly. We were looking for somewhere to eat and half the food service in the airport only spoke Spanish. If this wasn’t foreshadowing to upcoming difficulties, I don’t know what would have been.

Funny side note though. In walking around the airport I discovered Nathan’s. Nathan’s is pretty much the pinnacle of American obesity. But my friends on the trip suggested why not go all American before we dive into the deep abyss that is Ecuador. I got chicken tenders and bacon ranch fries. Bacon ranch fries might be the most beautiful thing to ever enter my mouth. Greasy, potato-y, crispy french fries smothered in ranch and then doused in chopped bacon. Just pure God in food form. My friend Jeremy and I downed a box of them each before the flight and agreed that once in Ecuador, this would be all we desired upon arrival. And we both got sick of them upon arrival, but I’m getting way ahead of myself. We all sat at the gate and waited patiently.

Side note. In my travels on this day I purchased two books, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell and Assholes Finish First. Both written by Tucker Max, both wonderful books which would give us much enjoyment and many laughs as the week proceeded.  I read the first in 3 hours and began the second on the second flight. We boarded the plane and prepared for our journey down below the equator. You know you are leaving America when the instructions for plane safety are read in English second. As we traveled though, we all started to prepare ourselves for entrance into this very foreign land. After a 4 hour flight, we landed.

Now here is a fun fact about myself. I absolutely prefer the cold to the heat. Many people would disagree. But I grew up in the cold and will always choose it over heat. So as we began our leave from the flight and I felt that first draft of hot, dry, humid air, all I could think was…shit. We all walked off and waited for our group at the end of the boarding tunnel. We walked off and were made aware quickly that we were in a foreign place. The signs were all in Spanish with English as a second language. It might not have been a big deal for some, but again, I’ve never been to a foreign speaking country, never mind one I had extremely minimal knowledge of the language, so this was terrifying. But I still walked with confidence through the airport. Couldn’t be that bad…right?

Very little in this world makes me nervous. I am a pretty secure and confident person. But one thing that does scare me is airport security. What scares me so much is that these are people whom if you have a conversation with, you will quickly realize that something went very wrong in their lives and that is why they are working in airport security. Lewis Black, one of my favorite comedians, likes to speak about people in this profession very often. While some might thing he is looking for filler in his routine, I can assure you he is not. These are not the most intelligent of people. As a college student, I am very used to having the only thing standing between me and something I want or a goal I am working towards to be someone of reasonable intelligence. But when the only thing standing between me and getting out of the airport without problems is a person with very little intelligence, it makes me very nervous.

Now going into a foreign country, I knew all this. I have had this fear for a few years. To make it worse, I had to handle this situation with people who do not speak English making it even more nerve racking and frustrating. When I walked up to the customs officer and handed him my passport and customs form. He starred at it and then me, then back at the forms, then back at me. I could feel my fear grow inside. He then to this moment said something in Spanish so quickly that I could not hear what he was saying never mind process it. I assumed, since he was a customs officer, he was asking my reason for being in the country. I responded,

“El tripo de servioco”

Never have I had someone look at me like I was a bigger idiot. Usually when I say stupid things, I know they are stupid. But this was a genuine moment of stupidity on my part. Sorry for failing to represent America. But despite my own ineptitude, he stamped my passport and pointed to the exit. He clearly knew in our 60 second encounter, I would not be able to understand him. I walked through and waited for the group. I then made two great life decisions. As I could feel the Ecuadorian heat sneaking through the airport and activate my sweat glands, I pulled off the under armor long sleeve which was sealing in the inevitable all day funk that comes from riding on planes. I then applied some deodorant because though I had failed with the customs officer, I wasn’t about to make a miserable first impression with the rest of Ecuador by being smelly as a they probably assume most Americans to be.

We walked through baggage claim and then through a second customs checkpoint which did random searches. I couldn’t tell if this was to be taken seriously. A man screaming what was gibberish to me, flashed each of our tickets to a machine which flashed an X or ->. If it was the X you had to go through a bag scan. Otherwise you could walk through…that’s safe. When we left the checkpoint, we entered full on Spanish speaking airport. We shunned ourselves to a corner. After a few minutes of straight up fear and confusion of what we would do next, we were approached by five very cheery individuals. The main thing we noticed, they were white and SPOKE ENGLISH. In the ten minutes I had spent in this country, I was so excited to find someone who understood me. The individuals were Molly, Lindsay, Madison, Chris and Billy. They were all recently graduated college students doing a year of service with the Rostro de Christo program located in three different locations in Ecuador. Billy was our group leader and would be our director for the week.

They told us that if anyone needed to go to the bathroom we should go there before we left because it would be about a half hour bus ride. We all took advantage of the opportunity. This would be our second awareness lesson that we were not in America. Like the customs officer, we knew that the bathroom situation down there would tricky, but unlike the officer, this was a health concern. After doing my business and walking to wash my hands. I got nervous. When being offered advice from random individuals back home about keys to surviving in Ecuador, like they knew everything, the one thing everyone agreed upon was don’t drink the water. I starred at the sink. My ignorance tricked me into thinking if I turned it on, some kind of disease water would kill me as soon as contact was made. I scrubbed quickly and dried my hands off on my jeans. I think some point later on in the night I touched my lips and thought I was done for. Not the case.

The next moment was one of many that would make an imprint in my mind. The volunteers who would be shepherding us through the next week had to ask for security escorts to our bus which was parked not a stone’s throw from the airport entrance. White people or, in Ecuadorian terms, Gringos are most likely to be mugged leaving the airport. Now in America security guards, no matter what their position, tend to be well kept and appear professional. Very different story down there. The guards walking us to our cars sported some dark khakis and clean button downs. But unlike an American cop, their weapons were not holstered. They held their weapons. Also unlike American officers, they did not have a handgun or pistol, they showed off their sawed off shotguns and 12-gauge rifles, they weren’t ready to arrest someone, they were ready to kill them. As we packed out belongings into a truck bed with a custom built cage over it, we looked around and the question started to grow…where have we gone and what are we doing?

We piled into the van. Literally piled because it was too small to seat us all. But Ecuador doesn’t really enforce driving laws. They don’t really enforce any laws. Before we left, Billy instructed that we were going to do a silent van ride to our house. He instructed we take the opportunity to witness everything we were going to be living in for the next week. This van ride was very interesting. As we left the airport, we all started growing victim to the blistering heat. The first few things we noticed were not super impressionable. There might have been a bit more trash on the street than I would see back home. There would be more cars with improvised windows than I was used to. Gas was $1.45. Ecuador seemed great. But when we turned off the main highway, things started to change.

We would learn later on that we literally driving through worsening areas and the one we would live in would be the worst. The houses in the first area weren’t bad necessarily. They were just very plain. A few walls and metal roof. But something that caught my eye a lot was that every house, shop or building we passed had massive bars built around it to avoid break ins and criminals. The other thing we noticed so much of was stray animals. Dogs, cats, roosters, anything you could think of, just roaming around the streets. The next part of the town started to worsen. Houses started becoming more worn. There was a lack of metal bars and cage fronts and it became makeshift security systems. A house we would visit later during the week, but which a lot of initial attention was given, was a house with boards similar to common fencing built around the house with large nails and spikes and barbed wire sticking out and drooping around it. It was a disturbing site. But it wasn’t even the worst. As we got about 5 minutes away from our house, there was no street. We were now maneuvering through mud and dirt. The houses became shacks. Fires were apparent on the streets. They were utilized to burn trash.

Finally after a day of flying and driving, we came to our house. In the midst of this very very decrepit area, we came across a house surrounded by a metal cage fence with shrubs grown on it to avoid people being able to see inside. The entrance to the cage was guarded by a large Ecuadorian man sporting his own shotgun. He opened the gate to us and waved. We pulled in and stared at two houses. One had a hammock hanging from it. This was the house for the volunteers and the other house had a large metal door with a sturdy lock on it. That was safe I guess? We all began to unload and grab our bags. We walked into accommodations that looked decent at first. There was a front room with a musty sense to it. There was paint on the walls with words and images talking about the program’s mission. When one walked through the doorless doorway to the next area, it was three large tables with benches. Then a kitchen which had a fridge, oven, sink and a long counter top for preparing food.

They sat us down and expressed that we would have a chance to settle in after a little introduction. We all introduced ourselves and met the volunteers officially. They wanted to explain some housekeeping items before they allowed us to unwind and settle in. The doors to the main room were open and they asked, would we prefer heat or bugs. We all agreed, heat. So they shut the doors. We would soon learn that doors open or shut, bugs and heat would get in. The big thing they wanted us to know was bathroom etiquette. They followed military style for showers. This meant turn the water on, get wet, turn the water off, scrub up, turn water back on, rinse off, done. They explained that there was no hot water so the desire to keep the water on wasn’t that great. Other than that, don’t leave it running, don’t drink it and by no means DO YOU FLUSH TOILET PAPER. We learned that their septic system was so fragile that just the smallest bit of toilet paper would cause feces to rebound into the system. Translation? Shit comes out the shower head…great.

They said more instructions would be given the next morning for detailed living for the rest of the week. We were bid goodnight and myself and the three other males grabbed the quad. Our bedroom was about 10×8 ft. There were two sets of metal bunk beds with mattresses that could have been yoga mats. When you slept, all you could feel was metal bars in your back. As well after you got into bed prepared to sleep, a net hung from the ceiling which you would unfold and tuck into all the sides of your bed so to not allow bugs to get you while you slept…great.

As we all said chatted before falling asleep, we joked and commented on all the differences that we had seen in the one hour we had been in Ecuador. This conversation was quickly stifled by what would seemingly become the most frustrating part of the trip, sleeping. On top of sleeping on metal bars, there was no quiet or darkness. Lights that lit up the compound we lived on stayed on to allow the guard to walk around and see if someone were to ever sneak in. So our room was pretty bright. But what was worse than the light was the sound that filled our room. If it wasn’t dogs and cats screaming, it was a rooster crowing from our windowsill, directly into our face. But what made it more difficult was the occasional scream from some individual or a gunshot in the distance. So much fear can be instilled in attempting to sleep, these sounds did not help. 1 Hour In…what am I doing here?


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