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Ecuador: Be Humble

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.

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Ecuador: This is Wrong

I woke up the next morning to a rooster on my window sill screaming at me. Shock doesn’t convey my emotion. It was more just perplexity to the point of speechlessness. I turned over in my net. I felt the accumulated sweat against my sheets rub against my dry skin. I pulled my net up and crawled out, doing my best to maneuver my way down the metal bed frame. I put my sandals on and went to the bathroom. Billy our leader was walking in as I went to the bathroom with a bag and a group member followed him with a bag of equal size. When I walked out of the bathroom Billy had everyone gathered around the kitchen counter. He opened the bags and we looked in to see what looked like hundreds of rolls of bread. The sizeable amount of bread definitely awakened our appetites. We hadn’t really eaten since the meal on the plane. Everything they say about plane food being subpar is true. Billy told us we each got 3 rolls. That sounded sufficient for breakfast.

We had been preparing for simple living for a few months. 3 rolls was a simple breakfast right? Well…not exactly simple enough for where we were. It turned out that it was 3 rolls for breakfast and lunch. So we could split it up accordingly. We asked if there would be other food at lunch besides the rolls and he said yes. So a lot of us chose 2 rolls for breakfast. The woman who is the director of the entire program stationed in Ecuador came in to talk with us about some more orientation type details for the week. When she strolled in Billy asked if he could get the bananas. She allowed it. A few moments later, Billy came back in with a large crate, overfilling with bananas. He told us that we had this crate for the week and could eat them whenever we wanted but once it was empty, that was it. So now we realized that we would be getting a max of 2 rolls for breakfast, a handful of bananas and all the warm water we could imagine…splendid.

Megan, the director, had us all sit down.

Side note. I am hoping to send this portion of my blog out to the members of Rostro de Christo when I am done. I know that I have group members from my trip reading this as I post it. I hope that it will be a resource for the Campus Ministry department and the SEND program at school. After saying all that, I fully apologize if I butcher names of people, locations and/or other things I may talk about in this blog. I have a feeling when I start describing Spanish titled things, the spelling may be a bit off. So I apologize but encourage looking past the minor spelling errors and seeing the bigger picture.

We were sat around the table preparing for our day. Megan sat us down to briefly discuss some orientation things. But as we would quickly learn, she, nor any other volunteer, was going to tell us much about our week. They liked the surprise aspect. But more importantly, they wanted us going in without judgments or expectations. After about a half hour of chatting about respect, we headed out to meet Aide. Aide was one of our main Ecuadorian contacts. She was such a sweet, beautiful Ecuadorian woman. We met her in front of the local church. She introduced us to the area. It was a town called Arbolito. We would come to learn about how it was an invasion community. But we’ll get to that later.

Aide gave us a little background of the town and told us that we were going to meet our first neighbor. Before coming to Ecuador, we heard that we were going to have neighborhood time. This confused me, but after our first stop, we quickly understood the importance. Our first neighbor was about a 5 minute walk from our house. We kept in a close group and watched as the members of the community starred at us. It is very unsettling to be the minority, but also very awakening. We reflected a bit that night about how significant an experience it was to be placed in a situation where being the minority felt awkward and uncomfortable.

Nonetheless we kept moving forward and approached a wooden fenced in home. This home belonged to a woman named Lupe. Aide poked her head over the door saying, “hola”. A curvy woman with a huge smile appeared in the door way of what seemed to be a house made of clay like material. She ran right out and unlocked the fence door. As we proceeded in she opened her arms to all of us saying, “hola”, and offering a hug. As she hugged each of us with such a warm smile she gave us each a kiss on the cheek. You would never find that in America with a stranger, probably not even with most families.

As I approached her home there was a metal roof set up over the ground to create a porch type area. There were some wooden benches, a hammock and some plastic chairs. Another side note that we picked up on very quickly on in Ecuador. There is not one comfortable chair in Ecuador. Everything is hard. There are no cushions and no supports when we would sit in different homes including ours. At first glance, a bench does not seem too bad. But after a few hours, few days, a week, my ass hurt. Regardless we took our seats. Aide looked at me searching for a seat and suggested I take the hammock. I asked if it would be rude but she insisted. Another lesson I learned early on in the trip was after a night of very poor sleep, don’t take a hammock for a seat. Like I said, there are no comfortable seats. Well hammocks are the comfiest you are going to get, so if you take that as your seat after very little sleep, you are going to find yourself dozing.

But back to Lupe. She proceeded to start talking to us. It was confusing at first. Billy sat with her and translated the majority of what she was saying with Aide occasionally filling in. Her first questions to us were what our names were, what we were studying in college and if we had a boyfriend/girlfriend. At first this seemed a bit personal, but in Ecuador, they are very open. Again we would come to learn how personable the people there were. I can only really speak for myself when I told her I studied writing and art and that I indeed have a girlfriend, she responded that I had one because I was so handsome and that I looked like someone who she could have an interesting conversation with. It is an interesting fun fact that the people we met are much more in tune with individuals. They make it a habit to read the people they meet and have a pure genuine interest in anyone they meet.

Lupe proceeded to tell us a bit about her story. She had a difficult story about how her children had left her to pursue careers and better lives. But despite how alone she felt she was more than happy that they had grown and bettered themselves from the poverty stricken life she was stuck in. She continued to talk about how she has an abusive husband. We learned that in Ecuador men have a lot of hang-ups and act with a lot of machismo. The negative aspect of this lifestyle came with heavy drinking which led him to come home and verbally and physically abuse her.

We had not known this woman for more than 10 minutes and she was in tears confessing and explaining these things to us. She proceeded to talk about how she was soon leaving Arbolito because her husband, despite his poor lifestyle choices, owned the house and wanted her out. But despite all of this, she was so happy to see us. She saw that we were young, smart students with a lot of drive. She enjoyed us feeling welcomed by her and talked about some more history of Arbolito. After a lovely conversation we bid her ciao. We quickly learned that we do not say adios. It comes off more as a good bye forever. Ciao was more “see you later”.

As we walked back to the house, we passed by a school. But it was not a school like the ones that we are used to in America. It was a huge stadium type roof. There were rooms that stood along the sides with no actual walls. Billy told us that this was the school program that we would be working at later. While we walked along all of a sudden we heard a little scream. We turned around to see a little boy had run out of his home and jumped on a girl in our group. She was a bit startled but in a good way. We turned to see 3 or 4 other little ones run out. They all jumped on us wanting to be held. It was so cute. The smallest little girl walked over to me and smiled at me. Her beautiful smile and smooth skin shined in the sunlight. I bent down and picked her up and she giggled. She was adorable. Billy was laughing at us and told us we had to keep moving but we would be back later and said the same to the kids in Spanish. I put her down and we kept walking. We all thought that was the funniest thing. Little did we know we would soon become human jungle gyms.

We got back to the house and Billy prepared us for lunch. While a group of us prepared lunch, one of the group members made a schedule for the entire group as to who would go on bread runs, who would go to the market when necessary, who would cook and who would clean. Lunch got old really quickly. We asked Billy if he had to suffer eating this same thing every day like we had to, but he snickered and said no. He had his own diet which was minimal but varied so he didn’t get sick of it. Lunch consisted of however much bread you had left, a spoonful of tuna straight from the can and a few spoonfuls of a veggie base which we made every day consisting of diced tomatoes, onions and peppers. After a week of this I am surprised I can eat tuna so easily. Alas we forced it down, still hungry, but satisfied for now.

Billy then told us we would begin to get ready to go to Semillas. This was the school area that we had passed earlier. Again, we did not receive much information before going so that we could go in without perception. We got used to this pretty quickly. Had we gone into Lupe’s with some sort of perception it would have ruined our whole time with her because it is human nature to establish a bias. All we were told was the set up of the program. When we got there, the kids would be lined up. They would all be in lines based on sex and age. The first half was a constructive activity. The second half was recreo or recess. The last part was a bit difficult for us to understand. It was a talk to the kids about different values. The value of that week was spirituality. They would then pray and then receive a vitamin, a piece of bread and a banana. For a lot of them, this would be their first and only food of the day. Haunting.

We all filled our water bottles, put on some shorts, lathered ourselves in sun screen and bug spray and shipped out. Along with another group member, I grabbed the large crate of bananas which was identical to the one we had for the week but for the kids at Semilllas. As we started down the street to the school which was not a 3 minute walk, kids started just appearing out of nowhere. And they all wanted to be picked up. You might think I exaggerate. ALL OF THEM WANT TO BE PICKED UP.

It was a sad realization when it dawned on us that these little kids don’t receive this kind of love or attention at home, so we agreed to pick every single one up. BIG MISTAKE. When you lift them up once they want it again. And again…and again. Nonetheless when we got inside the gate of the school a little boy named Leontel ran over to me and jumped. Luckily I had put the crate of bananas down because it was so unexpected that I was glad I caught him.

He was small but a tough kid. He had a revolver belt buckle which made him awesome in my book. He pointed and shouted something I didn’t understand but I just decided to follow in the direction he pointed and it seemed to please him. When we walked into the stadium area, there were kids, EVERYWHERE. They all just starred at us. Pointing and whispering as if they had little secrets about the aliens that just walked into the room. We were asked to line up so they would follow our example and they did. Then we had to introduce ourselves, our favorite color and our favorite food. When it got to me I said,

“Me llamo Nicholas, yo favorita colore es rojo y yo favorito food es burrito.”

I immediately realized that again, I sounded like an idiot, and it was really stereotypical of me to think that since I am in South America saying burrito would make me sound cool…it didn’t it made me look like an ass. Regardless, we finished and the man running the program whose name was Ricardo, who would end up being awesome, released everyone to the big kid’s activity, the little kid’s activity or the homework room. The Rostro volunteer named Molly came over to explain what was happening and told us that she would split us into groups to help facilitate the kids in each area. She had us all sit on the bleacher where the little kids were assigned to go to and the second I sat down I had Leontel on my shoulders and two other little ones in my lap. The kids were beyond the cutest little beings I had every seen.

What we didn’t know when we would walk in was that each of the kids would watch us walk in and immediately choose a favorite without knowing anything about us. So when we all started getting split up into groups, the little kids would chase after their favorites or cry out in desire to be with them. When the other Rostro volunteer began splitting the kids up to get into groups with each of us, the little kids clutched on to the arms of the Gringos that they wanted to stay with. When she got to Leontel he literally attempted to tackle my upper body. I guess this was body language for wanting to stay with me because when she allowed him to stay next to me he put out his fist for a bump. This kid was awesome.

Our group had about 10 little ones in it. It was the leader of our trip and me. We were given a book to read to the kids and have them pick out little fun facts in it. Finally my 3 years of Spanish started to kick in when I was able to read to them. After which we gave out paper and crayons. They begged for more crayons but we had to restrict them to 4 each. Do you know how hard it is to say no to a small child that you know has nothing in their life and all they want in that moment is one extra crayon? It is impossible. Sorry Rostro volunteers if I left the kids wanting extra crayons, but I gave them the entire bag and watched their smiles burst and their little hands fight for the ones they wanted.

What happened next was one of I think 3 major moments during the whole trip which will forever be imprinted in my mind. The volunteer Molly came over to check on us. She asked how we were doing and we told her that despite the language barrier, we were surviving and seemingly doing well. She smiled and said “good”. All the kids wanted was attention. This was the only place they really got it. I looked over to see a little girl sitting on a bleacher alone. She was in a pretty little dress and was just sitting with her elbows on her knees and her chin resting on her hands starring at a little boy who was running in circles in front of her. The little boy was tiny. He had an adorable little striped shirt, a tiny had and tiny little shorts. Neither had shoes. I asked if I should get them to come over and join the group. Molly said, “It’s ok, we kind of let them do their own thing”. I asked why. She told me it was a difficult story.

My first thought, “shit, here it comes”. She explained that there were three of them. The tiny boy was 2, the little girl was 7 and they had an older brother in the homework room who was 9. The older sister and brother took care of the 2 year old because they had no family. I asked her to explain and she said that was it. They have no family. They have a mother that stops in once maybe twice a week and drops off a little bit of food. But the three of them are alone the rest of them time. When they would come to Semillas, the 7 and 9 year old would take turns doing homework and watching their little brother. Then afterward, they would walk home, in the mud, without shoes, make dinner for the little one, sometimes they got to eat and go to sleep. Then do the same thing the next day.

I fought back tears hearing this. But Molly continued on. They usually do not let kids under the age of 5 to come to the program because they keep it as constructive as possible but these three little ones they made an exception. Especially what had happened a few weeks before. We asked what had happened. She told us that a 7 year old and 4 year old were in the exact same situation. About 3 weeks before our arrival, the older brother was making the younger brother dinner and a fire started and burnt down their house and the two adjacent houses. The 7 year old got out.

The 4 year old did not.

Three weeks before I was at a Christmas party eating cookies and opening presents. Puts quite a few things in perspective. This 7 year old was now homeless and without a brother. I never got the chance to meet him. But I wish I could have. I don’t know what I would have said, but maybe just to give him a hug would have made some kind of difference.

A few moments later we started hearing screams. RECREO!!! This meant all hell broke loose and again, I was a human jungle gym. I ran around with little kids slung over my shoulders. All I could hear were their tiny laughs and giggles. If I picked them up once, they wanted one more. If I tossed them in the air and caught them their eyes would grow large and their smiles even bigger and say higher. If I held onto their arms and spun them around, they would scream over their own laughs and say faster. I never could have been trained or explained to the extreme and deep significance of ministry of presence. These kids did not want us to build them a house, give them food or provide better clothes. They were better than material processions. They just wanted love.

After eventually growing tired of tossing kids in the air and spinning them around, I needed a break. I drank some water and tried my hand at soccer. I had no clue that this would lead to a week of constant soccer. Really is huge down there. Something I noticed was the endurance of the kids. I’m 6 feet high and weigh just over 200 pounds with a decent amount of muscle. When I would run towards these little kids and snag the ball, they chased me until they caught the ball. If they fell, they got back up. Hell we were playing on concrete and they didn’t have any shoes and they were better and tougher than us. American kids are so whiney.

After what seemed like an eternity of small children craziness, they called for what I believe is called Shakra. Again I apologize for misspellings or names. But it was the prayer and talk of the afternoon about spirituality. The kids all prayed and as they were silent, we noticed something. There were little pieces of material drifting into the stadium. We couldn’t tell what they were but off in the distance we saw black smoke. Fire. Some of us grew nervous feeling the need to alert someone but figured wait till the kids are gone. When the kids got their food and left we pointed it out and asked what it was. The volunteers explained that it was the locals burning trash. We would start to see fire a lot more often.

But I had a quick realization. These little kids play in an area where the ashes of trash being burned drifts in and they breathe it in. I studied the atmosphere around me. I turned to see the 2, 7 and 9 year old leaving with no shoes but with ashes raining upon them which began to cloud my vision and the stadium around us. The locals and volunteers didn’t react, they were used to it.

This was pretty much the end of our day. We had dinner and a quick reflection. But overall, it was done. All I could think as I laid in my metal bed that night with the screams outside and occasional gunshots, this was wrong.

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