Vaya Con Dios

Every Monday through Thursday morning, I roll (sometimes unwillingly) out of bed at 8:00am, throw on shorts and a t-shirt, grab fifty cents, and head out the door to catch the bus to my volunteering site. Sometimes it can be easy to forget how big of a piece of my experience my volunteering has been. These past several weeks where I have been ignoring my blog (sorry) and struggling to find time to catch up with friends back home, I have repelled down a 150-foot waterfall, white water rafted, sang on the streets of a beach town, and much more. The things that are routine can sometimes fall to the backburner. However, today I was reminded just how important my community service has been here.

For the past several weeks we have been painting at the foundation where I volunteer. Quick refresher: La Fundación Padre Damian houses mostly elderly patients with Hansen’s Disease, many of whom have been turned away by their families and are left without fingers and toes or even limbs because of hiding their disease. In the men’s wing they were working on widening the doorways so it would be easier for the patients in wheelchairs to get in and out of their rooms. The walls of the foundation are covered floor to ceiling with beautiful nature-themed murals painted by the residents and past volunteers. Some of those murals were damaged while they worked on the doors so they painted white borders around each door. The directors of the foundation asked if we would be willing to paint over those white borders with colors to liven up the patio. Well we took that request and really ran with it. Quickly we began covering the white paint in abstract borders with squares that each had a unique design. Each door looks different. Throughout our days of painting, the men would watch our progress intently and tell us day in and day out how beautiful our work was. All the while we chatted and laughed with them while we worked. Germania one of the directors told me she would check in with the men periodically to make sure they liked doors and they always jumped at the chance to tell her how different and beautiful our work was. She told me, “you all have brought a new energy to the men.”

Volunteering at Damien’s House was a unique way to see Ecuadorian culture in a way I otherwise would have missed out on. Since I worked mostly in the men’s wing, my relationships are strongest with them. This group of amazing and joyful men are inspiring to me. They have reminded me that happiness can be easier than it may seem sometimes. When we arrived today we were brought to the men’s patio where each of us was presented with handmade gifts from the patients. Not only was I touched by the presentation of the peace birds but by the kind words that followed from each person. Each one of them commented on our hard work and big hearts. They wished our families and us well, explaining that they understood why we had to return to our countries but that they would never forget us and hope we will return. We were also given miniature wooden houses in boxes. Sister Annie, the director, told me, “Leon’s house is a little less perfect but it’s the last one he was able to make before he was unable to do the work with his hands anymore. He’s been saving it for years for the right moment.” When he handed it to me I could not have been more touched. He followed my painting attentively and was always giving me suggestions. He is the patient that has been there the longest amount of time. He has the most infectious laughter and a strong personality.

After we thanked the residents and gave speeches of our own (I even did mine in Spanish!) we realized one of the residents we were closest to, Cesario, was missing. We were informed that he was sleeping in his room because he had been on guard duty the night before. We decided we could not leave without saying goodbye to him so we went to wake him up for just a hug. Him and I constantly joked around with each other and I definitely appreciated his sarcastic attitude (I wonder why). He rubbed his eyes and sat up in bed. When we told him we wanted to say goodbye, the deep wrinkles in his face that I always assumed were there from his huge smile and constant laughter, seemed to sadden. He began to wish us well and tears began to roll down his cheeks. As we hugged him and got emotional ourselves, he told us he would hold us in his heart forever.

As the goodbyes begin, so do the emotions. Today was the last day of classes and many of my friends are leaving this weekend. I am heading to a national park on the coast to volunteer for a week and then will head out to the Galapagos Islands immediately after (rough life, right?). When words just seem to fail I remember Cesario, patting his heart as if to say that I get to take a little bit of it with me, as I will with each and every person and place I have come to know here.

Ojos Mágicos

After a 16-hour bus ride and a two-hour ride in a van, I was more than ready to start my journey into the Amazon. We still had two more hours to go by boat until reaching our lodge but we got to be outside and the view and the jungle air was exactly what I needed. There were stretches of green for as far as the eye could see and the river looked like a blackened mirror. I desperately wanted to soak it all in and remember everything. The boat slowed to a stop and the driver pointed up at a mess of trees in the distance. Somehow, while driving the boat, he had managed to spot a tuft of dark fur way up in a tree and know it was a sloth. Now don’t get me wrong, seeing a sloth is really cool, but what I became more fascinated by was the fact that the people in the jungle can notice the slightest difference of colorations in the plants and spot amazing wildlife. I deemed our boat driver, Ojos Mágicos, Magic Eyes.

We spent the next five days spotting wildlife, swimming in a big lagoon during every sunset, hiking through the jungle, eating some of the best meals I’ve had during my time here, learning about indigenous practices, and being completely and totally unplugged. My favorite animal we saw was the pink river dolphin. We saw them almost every day while boating down the river. The only word I can use to describe them is absolutely majestic. You can see just about the top six inches of their bodies as they come up for air then down the river they go and you see them pop up somewhere completely different. I think I was so entranced by them because they are so peaceful. The jungle itself is so peaceful. Every night we would fall asleep to the sounds of rain hitting the trees or cicadas chirping. My friend, Leela, and I joked that it was like setting a sound machine to “Amazon Rainforest” and then falling asleep.

Now I’m sure you’re all wondering, “But Hannah. What about the bugs???” Yes, there were bugs. Lots of them. And they were really fucking big. On the night hike we basically just spent an hour looking at really humungous spiders. There was a tarantula in our dining room. There were giant centipedes. I accidentally put my hand on a moth the size of a bat. So I didn’t love absolutely everything about the jungle but my friends said I did better than they expected when encountering the Amazon insects. (Can’t forget to mention that they are very good to me in terms of getting rid of bugs for me.)

Despite the bugs, I truly fell in love with the Amazon. It was so refreshing to be completely unplugged. I imagine that part of the reason the people in the jungle have magic eyes is because they don’t spend any time staring at a screen. They are so in touch with nature that instead of responding to a phone lighting up, they’re better at noticing a boa constrictor in the pitch black of night hanging out in a tree. I noticed that when I got off the 16-hour bus ride home, I felt in shock at the noises of buses and people around me. I had gotten so used to the sounds of nature. It felt like I had stepped out of a dream world and back to reality. In the days following, I spent the weekend at the beach with some friends and am starting class again tomorrow. Although I’m happy to get back into a routine again, I know I will return to the jungle someday.

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The view standing outside my room in the lodge

The view standing outside my room in the lodge

Ready for some hard core jungle stuff.

Ready for some hard core jungle stuff.

The sunset at Laguna Grande! Never got old.

The sunset at Laguna Grande! Never got old.

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My two jungle tattoos: jaguar print (it looks like bruises, I know, but my guide thought it was funny) and indigenous symbols on my face.

My two jungle tattoos: jaguar print (it looks like bruises, I know, but my guide thought it was funny) and indigenous symbols on my face.

Trees or reflections or both? Which is which?

Trees or reflections or both? Which is which?

The snake our guide put on his paddle!

The snake our guide put on his paddle!

Me and Ojos Mágicos!

Me and Ojos Mágicos!

A Little Photo Update…

“Traveling is like flirting with life. It’s like saying, ‘I would stay and love you, but I have to go.'”

More of Cajas National Park!

Cajas National Park!

Checkin' out the view!

Checkin’ out the view!

Just some yoga in some Inca ruins.

Just some yoga in some Inca ruins.

The breathtaking view at Cajas National Park on our way to a weekend trip in Cuenca!

The breathtaking view at Cajas National Park on our way to a weekend trip in Cuenca!

The beach in Mancora, Peru.

The beach in Mancora, Peru.

Yoga on the roof with my friend and neighbor, Sierra, and her host sister, Angie!

Yoga on the roof with my friend and neighbor, Sierra, and her host sister, Angie!

Just your casual Saturday afternoon in February...

Just your casual Saturday afternoon in February…

The Point Hostel in Mancora, Peru. Definitely one of my favorite places I have stayed in.

The Point Hostel in Mancora, Peru. Definitely one of my favorite places I have stayed in.

Hola Mi Niña

I walked along the crowded street to the bus stop and passed the numerous flower shops that line the sidewalk on the way to my volunteering site. Valentine’s Day is approaching and the colorful roses caught my eye. My host mom, Patricia, had been telling me it was great that we were single for the holiday because, “men are dogs and we don’t have time for them!” I knew I would make friends here but I had no clue how much my host mom would add to my experience. Every day I enter the house I wait for the footsteps to come rushing toward the front door where I am greeted with a hug and many repetitions of, “Hola guapa! Hola mi niña! Mi amor, mi amor!” It is common for Ecuadoreans to use terms of endearment and it is something I absolutely adore about the culture. It brings people immediately closer and never fails to bring a smile to my face. I’ve never been one to be bitter about being single on Valentine’s Day. It can be a day to show love to anyone. So I stopped at one of the shops and paid $9 for 24 pink roses. I came into my house and the usual sound of footsteps approached from the kitchen. When she saw me carrying the roses for her I swear she just about jumped into my arms. She could not have been happier.

Happy is something I have been noticing a lot lately. I volunteer at a place called Fundación Padre Damian. This foundation houses about 50 people with Hansen’s Disease, which some know as leprosy. There is a lot of stigma surrounding this disease especially in a Catholic country. Their families and social circles have turned many of these people away. My friend, Clare, and I go four times a week for three hours each day. We play dominos, do arts and crafts, and just talk with the men and women there. It’s a great way to practice my Spanish but there are bigger lessons they teach me as well. To see people who could be so bitter welcome me with a smile and a hug every day is completely inspiring. Many of them have lost their fingers or cartilage in their faces and even limbs yet I have never seen that stop them. Most days Clare and I are part of some pretty serious domino tournaments with the men who are always making me keel over with laughter.

I have next Monday and Tuesday off of school for Carnaval and am heading to Mancora, Peru early tomorrow morning. As I pack for my trip I realized I’m really going to miss Patricia. When I came down for lunch today she told me in Spanish, “I’m very happy with my flowers. And I’m very happy with you.” It’s in these moments that I realize why people told me going abroad would change my life.

Los Grillos

Update: I found the crickets (los grillos). Honestly, you’d have to be blind not to find them. No exaggeration, it seems to rain crickets here. And they are huge. At least in my opinion. Last night I was trying to let my friend, Sierra, out of the house. There were so many crickets when we opened the door that we immediately shut it and stood inside the house in fear. My host mother, Patricia came downstairs yielding a broom. I watched as my five-foot-tall, Ecuadorean mother swatted every cricket that tried to get in, wishing I had a little of her fearlessness. Sierra and I ran and screamed every time a cricket would come jumping out of nowhere and the rest of the night I found myself anticipating a cricket at every turn.

Thankfully, the crickets only come out at night so I can walk freely during the day. Good thing, because most days I walk to and from school. Right now, I take three classes: Spanish, Cross-Cultural Perspectives, and a course on Ecuadorean history. My cross-cultural perspectives class is the most fascinating to me because, as an American, I am part of the minority in the class. I study at an Ecuadorean university (UEES) that also offers classes in English. These classes are open to Ecuadorean students as well as the international students. I have taken many classes about culture before, but never with so many people from another culture. There are two Americans in the class (including me), two French people, and about twenty or so Ecuadorean students. And the teacher is from Belgium. During the first week, we spent most of our time analyzing collectivist and individualistic cultures. Although I have done this in a classroom environment, I’ve never been able to do it in a collectivist culture. Not only do I get to analyze it with Ecuadoreans, but I get to be living it outside the classroom as well.

I am extremely lucky to be experiencing this culture with such a loving host mother, Patricia. Although no one in my house speaks English, a laugh and a smile are universal. Not to mention, the amount of Spanish I am also learning. She teaches me words all the time and repeats everything until I understand it. She is extremely patient but has some fire in her as well. Just five minutes ago, I was talking with my host cousin and his friends. They are all 19. A cricket landed on one of their backs and all four of us ran around the room screaming until Patricia came to the rescue and squished it in her hand. I do believe it was a match made in heaven to be placed with such a strong, independent Ecuadorean woman.

Greet Everyone with a Kiss

“There are crickets EVERYWHERE in Guayaquil! I was standing in line at a store just the other day and there were crickets all over my back,” exclaimed my program director, Andrea. Oh, great. I had arrived at the hotel in Quito at 2:00am the night before and it wasn’t even ten hours later and I was already hearing about my biggest fear. The humidity makes the bugs come out in Guayaquil where it is 90 degrees every day and gets down to about 80 at night. “Well,” I thought, “at least I have six days until I get there.”

I spent the next six days getting to know people from my program, visiting indigenous Ecuadorian communities, learning about Ecuadorian cultural norms, climbing the tallest volcano/mountain in Ecuador (Chimborazo), exploring a mercado (market) in Otavalo, observing a Shaman demonstration, and much more. I did not realize that not only would I get the chance to learn about Ecuadorian culture but many other cultures as well. There are people on my program from France, Korea, Australia, Canada, and Mexico; I am one of five Americans, which I definitely was not expecting.

Already, I am experiencing the warmth of Latin American culture. Ecuadorians kiss upon greeting each other as well as when saying goodbye to one another. I was welcomed into wide open arms by my host mother at the university where I’ll be studying (UEES) last night and was greeted by another enormous hug from her mom when we reached their home. No English is spoken here at all but my host mom led me around the kitchen last night, teaching me the words for all the items. I told her, probably with many mistakes, that I would need un examen (an exam) for all the words she taught me.

I haven’t seen many bugs yet (SCORE) but either way, just like everything else, it will just take some getting used to. I did find a tiny lizard on the wall, but lizards I can deal with.

Quito, Ecuador

Quito, Ecuador

Cartwheel on the Equator!

Cartwheel on the Equator!

In one of the indigenous communities, a little boy tried to give me a puppy and a handful of berries. He speaks one of the indigenous languages so we couldn't communicate but he's probably my favorite person I've met so far.

In one of the indigenous communities, a little boy tried to give me a puppy and a handful of berries. He speaks one of the indigenous languages so we couldn’t communicate but he’s probably my favorite person I’ve met so far.

The Americans!

The Americans!

Lago Cuicocha!

Lago Cuicocha!

Lago Cuicocha!

Lago Cuicocha!

Hiking up Chimborazo! (Can't tell from the picture, but I felt like death.)

Hiking up Chimborazo! (Can’t tell from the picture, but I felt like death.)