I have always been wary of the “service trip” designation because I think that people with “service trip” mentalities often view such trips as one-way enterprises—an opportunity to fix or improve upon something that is perceived inadequate, something to be documented by way of before and after pictures. The truth is, however, that our trip to Ecuador cannot be captured in the before and after pictures of the schoolyard in La Merced—even though we have plenty of them. More meaningful and representative of our time in Ecuador (albeit less tangible) are the relationships we built and moments we shared with our host families and the children at the school—moments such as one in which our host father Daniel, told us on our last night that if we ever came back to Ecuador, we would have a family and a home waiting for us in San Clemente. Moments like the one Elaine and I shared with Daniel transcend the level of material give and take, which makes them harder to share with other people, but they are what will stay with us long after the before and after pictures fade.
I remember walking the distance the people in San Clemente walked daily (which happened to be very long!) and over the course of 10 days, I observed their way of life. And it was incredible what I saw. The people in San Clemente define the word tranquility - they are at ease with themselves. Where we come from - America - things are always moving. In San Clemente, I was able to catch a glimpse of life without strings attached. These people lived, and loved each other and when we came, they opened their arms and truly cared about us even though we just met. I will always remember their peaceful understanding of life...
Hopeful. Optimistic. Believers. In the community that we served, the people dreamed big regardless of their current situation, their past, or their background. They set big goals and not only believed that they could achieve them, but also strived to achieve them. In my eight days of living in San Clemente, Ecuador I learned to admire the positive attitude of our community's members even when they were struggling financially. To them, happiness is simple and dreams can never be taken away. I hope that one day I could achieve these same values.
Before going on this trip I would joke with my fellow ASB members that by the end of ten days, I would have fully submersed myself in Ecuadorian culture and I would blend in with the rest of the indigenous people. Deep down, I did not have high expectations to have an experience in Ecuador that could even compare to experiences other people would have when they studied abroad for a semester. Honestly, how far could a few years of Spanish classes bring me in ten days? It wasn't until my fifth day of translating songs like "Milkshake," "Hot n' Cold," and "Lady Marmalade" when one of the indigenous site workers turned to our members and said, "I have no idea what he's singing, but his translating is really good." The rest of the trip passed, and I became more and more confident with my ability to speak decent Spanish and actually get a strong grasp of what it was like to live as an Ecuadorian.
The very last night we were in our home village, one of the trip leaders came up to me and told me, "Do you see that woman over there? She says you look like you're from around here. She says you could be her little boy's son. And considering you looked like such a tourist before you came here, well, that's a compliment."
How much did I really let myself get absorbed into the culture and lifestyle? How much did I really blend in with the rest of Ecuador? When I think about it, I'm not sure if it had anything to do with any of my efforts. I think about the families who looked after us, the friends we made, and the beautiful culture that we had the opportunity to learn about and I realize one important detail: we didn't blend in, submerge ourselves, or even absorb the culture. Ecuador welcomed us, let us see its true beauty, and most importantly, allowed us to be a part of its family.
A particularly striking memory of our trip to Ecuador came on the last day. As dozens of children happily swarmed the playground, a small boy of about four with rosy and sunburned cheeks stood off to the side with a frown. He was smaller than most and looked as if he were upset and sulking. One of the teachers explained that the boy had to walk two hours to school each day, and that he was probably exhausted. I tried to coax a smile out of him with a few words in Spanish but he didn't respond. I picked him up and placed him on the trampoline. He didn't seem to mind if I helped him bounce a little. I took a picture with him and although he didn't speak or even smile, he put his arm around my shoulder. I like to think that he enjoyed the attention. I hope that, even though he struggles to make it to a poor school in rural Ecuador everyday, I was able to make a positive impact on him in some way. This boy is a stark reminder of the privileges that we have in the United States, especially at Bowdoin. In my life I have never struggled to get to school or been unable to express joy at simple things such as playgrounds. I feel a little guilty in going back to my relatively carefree life with my myriad of resources and opportunities. It gives me a little pride though, to think of what we were able to accomplish in Ecuador, even if it was only a small accomplishment.
There I was, on an ASB trip to Ecuador. I had never been to South America before, never been below the equator. This was a place I have dreamt about going to as a child. We travel to Quito, to the markets in Ottovalo, to the jungle in Mindo. When we come back to our host families, my roommate and I show them our pictures of Ottovalo and Mindo. My ten year-old host brother looks wistfully at our pictures of the jungle. Our host mother tells us that Kevin has always dreamed of going to Mindo. Then I realize, he may never zipline through the jungle in Mindo, even though it is only a five0hour drive and a fifteen dollar fee, something which any one in our group could easily do in our own country, represents perhaps an insurmountable barrier to him. I watch him as he gazes at the photos of our weekend outing and I feel guilty that there should be such a big difference in what I dreamt about doing as a child and what he dreams about now.
On the very last day of building the playground, there was a little boy, probably no older than six, who was standing there watching all the other kids play. One older boy was holding his hand so I approached the little boy to see if he wanted to play. The older boy said he wanted to play but the younger one didn't. The older boy didn't let go of his hand (in a protective way) until I asked another ASB member (who spoke some Spanish) to come talk to the boy and see if he wanted to play. At that point another boy had showed up trying to convince the little boy to come play and only when the ASB member carried the boy onto the trampoline did the other two older boys go and play.
This memory stood out because I just saw how protective and supportive these children were for one another. I also understood that the language barrier made me a complete outsider to this little boy. Later, we were also told that this child walks 2 hours to school everyday. Because of the language barrier and the fact that I am a complete stranger to the boy made it difficult to understand why the boy did not want to play on the new playground we had built for him. I realized I that it could have been several possible reasons - maybe I was a stranger to him, he was tired, too many people on the trampoline, and many more. But it made me happy to see that while he was playing on the trampoline, I saw a little smile creep in, and that alone satisfied me.
A playground often serves as an alternative to indoor recess, an escape that some schoolchildren take for granted. But to the young indigenous Quechua students of La Merced, Ibarra, Ecuador who have never seen one in their lives, it delivers a new, eternal opportunity of joy and fun. For us to accomplish building their playground ground up from scratch in less than a week, using our bare hands and simple materials and tools, was an unforeseen feat. A sense of satisfaction and completion overwhelms our hearts as the children frolic on the trampoline and carelessly sprint across the bridge. I may forget the exact design of the playground and the names of these students, but I will always remember their uncontrollable laughter and warm smiles.