The second day started the same as the first. I woke up to obscenely loud animals filling my room with noise and the mid equator sun filling my body with heat and blinding me with light. Nonetheless, I got up. I stumbled out of my room as did everyone with such stressful nights of sleep. We gathered around our table and Billy strolled in with a big grin on his face. He announced to us that today instead of 3 pieces of bread, we would get 4. Now I know that we had barely been in Ecuador for 24 hours, but already we were jumping for joy as if we had just been liberated from the poverty we were immersed in. It might sound sad, but 4 pieces was a big deal to us. Imagine the suffering that other individuals went through in the area if we got excited over 1 extra piece of bread. We had begun to appreciate our food a lot more after just 1 day. I could think back to American dining when bread was nothing but a precursor to a meal. I scarfed it down not considering that it was even really food. But when bread is your meal and there are no free refills on the bread basket, you begin to ration your bites and take your time eating it. Every bite became significant.
Billy told us to all get ready and put on some nicer clothes. Nicer clothes consisted of jeans and a t-shirt. We filled up our water bottles and headed into the tightly crammed van. We drove around Arbolito for a little bit and then we realized we were leaving the area. We started going back towards the airport. It was interesting to drive back the way we came because this time it was light out so we could see the city. The first thing we noticed, there were people, everywhere. Unlike American cities and small towns that we were familiar with, there were people outside, congregating and being with one another. We need to incorporate more sidewalk sitting into our everyday life. Keep people informed and happy. It’s the healthy version of Facebook.
As we drove we passed the airport, the curiosity crept into our minds. Where were we going? Well soon enough we figured it out. We pulled up to a long wall on the street with a gate that opened into what looked like a mini town behind the wall. This was this establishment’s security from the world, a huge wall around it. As we unloaded from the van and walked in, all we knew based off of context clues was that we were at a place called the Damien House. It was a hospital ward for people suffering from Hansen’s disease. Also known as leprosy. Excuse me? You brought me to a leprosy house? My American ignorance kicked in as I quickly grew fearful of if I would be leaving Ecuador as a leper. I looked upon the faces of other’s in my group and it seemed clear I wasn’t the only one with this fear. But they quickly reassured us that while it is a common belief that leprosy is transferable by touch, it is very much a false fact. It is actually known as the disease of the poor. People who suffer from the disease have lived in circumstances so stricken by poverty that the disease becomes common and transferable because of high bacteria levels in the area.
We met with many different patients. But what was a nice realization was that while at first we looked at them as lepers. By the time we left, we looked them as beautiful people. We met a man named Raul who was 101 years old. He was such a sweet heart. But when we left the nurses warned the girls to be careful because he was handsy. This 101 year old man was handsy. What a playa. This man was so cheery to be alive and happy for visitors. I have unfortunately had to visit family and friends in the hospital with terminal illnesses. When I visit, one of the hardest parts is being around the gloomy feeling that is death. Everyone is sad. The patients, the nurses. People know that they are going to the hospital for their last stop. Nurses are not happy because their jobs are constantly dealing with people who pass away. Who can blame them for seeming a bit dreary. The have to watch grieving families, that is their job. At Damien House, it is not the case. While these are possibly the sickest people I have ever been around, they are happy. Because despite the fact that this is most likely their last stop in life. They do not perceive it as such. They look at it along the lines of a new chapter opening up. The medical professionals there are not sad because of the patient’s outlook. By looking at what is left of life and trying to make the most that they can with it, they can be happy until the end. This provides a pleasing outlook on life for those working there as well. And again, these are the sickest people I have ever met.
After that we went back home and started cooking. I may have mentioned this before, but we lived constantly on tuna, bread, warm water and a vegetable base. Vegetable base consisted of diced tomatoes, peppers and onions. The second day was my cooking day on the chore list rotation. I stepped up to the counter and as the girl’s feared away from the onions in hopes to avoid tearing up, I manned up and took a few. After about 5 slices into the onion, I was crying like a baby. Something we learned about food in Ecuador was that there was no form of it being processed. It was all fresh. If we ever went to the market, the food we bought had been picked that morning. The vegetables were much more potent, specifically the onions. After that meal, I cowarded away from them as well.
After lunch, Billy had us all gather at the table and introduced us to a volunteer who was new to us. Her name was Julia. She was a small, very sweet girl. He told us she would be taking us to our next site but was going to talk with us a little bit first. Her talk was about invasion communities. The community that we were in, Arbolito, and the one we would be going ASJ, were invasion communities. What this meant was that these were lands that the people that were housed on them had literally invaded them. The land was no good. Most of it was either swamp land or old landfills. These were towns literally built on trash dumps. She explained how these people were constantly living in fear because technically at any time the government could come in and take them over, wipe them out, and do what they wanted with the land. Arbolito was a much more progressive invasion community. When we heard this it shocked us a little. We had been living in a mud based community with falling apart homes and hungry citizens. How was this a more progressive town? Well we found our answer.
When we loaded into the bus for our next stop, Julia told us that similar to when we first arrived in Ecuador, at a certain point in our journey, we would have a silent van ride to look at the community we would be working in that afternoon. As we drove into the community and Julia instructed the silence to began, we witnessed a much worse community than could have been imagined. Arbolito was built on swamps. This community known as ASJ was built on trash. The homes were much more tattered than the ones we had been seeing so far. They were just roofs. The merest of shelter for an individual to survive. In between the houses we would see massive piles of trash. Many of which were on fire. After 10 minutes of driving through the same scenes over and over again, we came to a stop. Julia told us we had arrived.
We all unloaded the van to stand in front of a massive concrete wall with a tiny gate door. Julia walked over and let us in. We stepped over a bar which the door was locked to and went inside to see a large area with some concrete stands for sitting and some barred up rooms along the walls. There was a small jungle gym looking apparatus in the corner with rust and greenery growing off of it. I had walked in first and so I walked around and what caught my attention was a raise in the ground over to my left. I walked over to see a pool. It was empty. At first I was surprised to see a pool at all. Then I sadly laughed to myself because it was just one more sad sight. In the midst of all this heat, a swim sounded amazing, warm water or not. But even though it was built for such a use, it sat there empty.
Until Julia walked up and proclaimed, “Oh God, the kids are going to want to go swimming today.” I quickly became confused. She said it in such a tone that can be related to by any camp counselor. When they know their kids are going to love something, but the second they see it they will go crazy making their job harder. But I didn’t understand, the pool was empty. What were they going to go swimming in? I did a double take and starred into the empty pool. It wasn’t exactly empty. There was about an inch and a half of collected rain water resting at the bottom.
Everyone knows that phrase, optimists see a glass half full, pessimists see it half empty. These kids saw an inch of water in a large concrete hole as a swimming pool. I saw it completely empty. What does that say? That moment quickly would be one that would change me forever. Because while I still was hesitant to fully believe Julia that these kids were going to swimming, the second they got there it was like the pool was Justin Beiber and I was holding back every American tween girl to make sure he was not touched. But the fact remained, I wasn’t protecting some overrated American pop star, I was trying to prevent some kids from going into this tiny pool with dirty water in it. And that didn’t feel right. Regardless, I had to do it, but I would be lying if I said I was strict. The kids would throw their shoes in the pool and say they needed to go get them. I would quickly step aside and let them jump in and splash around. To see their giant smiles as the relief of taking a step into the small bit of water, was the most humbling moment of my life.
I know this is coming almost four months late. It is something that had been saved in the draft section of my blog for a long time. But it deserved to be published. Because someone once told me, no matter how small, every attempt to do good counts.