Discovering the Meaning of Help in Ecuador

I had the unique opportunity to travel with eleven Northeastern Honors students and an Honors staff member to the amazing town of Otavalo, Ecuador as part of the Alternative Spring Break program. We left the melting snow behind to discover a world of adventure. As soon as we got a couple of minutes in the Plaza de Ponchos, a traditional market, I got myself a nice wool sombrero that would reflect the daring and bold Pablo I wanted to be for the rest of that week. Even more than helping, I was here on a personal quest for freedom and peace. And with just one week in Ecuador, I found myself raising my arms against the wind on top of a dormant volcano, getting covered with mud from head to toes, and bending over in a little circle to rapidly count till twenty with three kids while the others hid frantically. Freedom and peace can be found in the quietest and in the loudest of moments, but there is nothing like being inspired by the freedom and peace in others. That is what I found on my trip to Ecuador.

As we walked up the green hills of the Gualapuro community, a half-built school stood right in front of our eyes. It was our task to help complete that school as much as we could. However, there was as much building of walls as of relationships. On Tuesday we got to be a part of the Carnaval traditions. Celebrations began on top of a daring hill that looked down on us, as we stood intimidated with heavy boxes and buckets of food that had to be carried up. My friends found strength in carrying heavy bananas, bread, and oranges, but Honors student Akash Shah and I found ourselves creating the most efficient team ever constructed with a native member of the community, Don Cesar, who would take turns with us carrying a bucket of two gallons of morocho, a traditional Ecuadorian drink. Filled with a sense of achievement, we stood on top of the world. This was a place for the community to ask God for food, rain, or sunshine. Their prayers sounded almost like a song. Although the community is mostly Catholic, they allowed the Protestant members of the community to say their prayers. After a moment of silence and seriousness, chaos broke loose. Children and adults alike were running around, having the time of their lives, spraying foam and throwing paint and water at each other. For a couple of hours, we all spoke the same language. It did not matter if you spoke Spanish, English, or their native tongue Kichwa, as long as you threw yourself into the game. Through laughter, I bonded with community members, and my fellow Honors students in a flash.

We also got to know diverse sites and aspects of Ecuadorian life. Next thing I know, I am sitting on a 90 year old woman’s lap who is curing me, getting my soul back into my body and praying for me to raise up. “Did you fall? Did you fall?” Abuelita, a famous traditional healer, asked me with her sweet smile. She looked as if all of the wrinkles on her face could tell a story. She was an example of an old Ecuador, rooted in tradition. In Gualapuro, there was a sharp contrast between the brownish water they had to drink and the touchscreen cellphones on their hands. There is something striking about seeing a woman wearing a long black skirt and a hand knitted traditional blouse and a man wearing an Angry Birds beside her. The future and past collide, constantly reflecting a worrying perspective of how globalization could bring clean water to these people yet pollute native cultures.

Looking back at a week of discoveries and challenges, I remember the first day we stepped in Gualapuro. I was looking at the figure of an old woman carrying a bag of sand up the school’s stairs. She seemed small, and fragile, but her strength was startling. A part of me thought we were here to stop her from working, to give that poor woman a rest and do the carrying ourselves. However, this trip taught me a whole new concept of helping. Helping did not mean that I should have taken that bag of sand from the old lady and carry it myself. Helping means that I get to carry another one besides her. Helping meant to hug kids hungry for love, spin the wheel they use to play; to stir a giant pot of morocho as the cook tells an emotional story about her father; to chase a teenage boy with a bottle of foam after he attacked us by surprise. I am no one to know how the wall is supposed to be built; all I am is an extra pair of hands to put cement in between the bricks, and hopefully a smile to give at the maestro when he tells me what to do next. The community’s hard work, warmth and spontaneity inspired in me freedom and peace, and I found how true human connections lie at the core of helping.

Pablo Hernandez Basulto, Theatre