Ecuador is a small country, but there is no way I can even begin to squish it or this experience into ‘a couple of pages’ and trust me: I want to. Fresh off the plane I started scribbling in a notebook which soon held an obscene mess of precious moments, funny scenes, and anecdotes. I took note of the children laughing in the back of the pickup truck, the collage of sounds and scents on the buses when the vendors packed themselves on board, of the looseness caused by poverty, and my bare-naked feeling of being so… different.
After 6 weeks, none of those things turned my head. The smells of the food carts were comforting, familiar, and the wild tangles of graffiti tickled at the corners of my eyes. I could bargain for a good price in a taxi, ride a packed city bus with ease, and make jokes in Spanish without even trying. I could talk with people in Spanish and connect.
For this newfound confidence, many thanks to the Simon Bolivar school and my persistent host-mother, Ruth. A million thanks to all the teachers of these past weeks, and really, there were too many to count. Every moment was spent absorbing and learning something. Even the tough moments.
My project consisted of truly exhausting physical labor. I arrived each day at 8:30 and hauled barrowful after barrowful of wet shavings from the horses stalls while exchanging banter with the other volunteers in a variety of languages. At 9:30, the therapies began. There were the kids I knew by name, and always a few new faces. Each therapy takes about 15 minutes. It was back-to-back therapies until 1:00.
Two times a week, a blind school would come for therapy. This doubled the number of kids waiting for a turn. Each child would ride and then take a walk with a seeing-eye dog. The dogs teach them how to walk with greater confidence. These kids were brave. They strode out stoically behind the canines. Volunteers walked with them, guided their hands to the dog’s harnesses and lavished encouragement whenever possible. My body ached every day from all that walking.
There is a girl of 4 or 5 years who has problems walking. Her eyes don’t focus and she gets distracted by everything. I ride with her, steadying her body and reminding her to look forwards. It takes a few gentle words every two minutes or so. She reaches out to the trees, to the dangling fingers of the eucalyptus. When she sees her father, she whimpers and extends her arms to him. After four circuits of the park, she’s tired. It takes a lot of effort, but it’s making her stronger. I sing a bit, and she giggles. She grabs my thumbs and clings tight. When we return to the center of the park, she refuses to let go. As she’s carried away, she waves goodbye to the horse: a new friend and a new source of strength.
I don’t think that this project is for everybody. I don’t think that travel is for everybody. But I think that you should try. Because you have more strength than you will ever know until it’s tested, until you can keep putting one foot in front of the other. You have a deeper sense of humor and compassion than you can imagine, until you’re hungry and homesick and everything tastes different. I promise that this experience will twist every expectation and habit of your daily living. I promise that you’ll make friends with people you’d never imagined befriending. And I promise that when that little kid shows you what you’ve taught her, you will know you’ve come to the right place.