A week of life-changing experiences

Our blog this week comes from our current Pachaysana intern, Elizabeth Fuhrman. She is an international student spending a semester at our partner institution, Universidad San Francisco de Quito. After spending a week immersed in Pachaysana projects as part of a week-long educational experience comprised of a “Toxic Tour” and community home stays, Elizabeth applied to be an intern. In this writing she captures the impact one experiences when first engaging the joys and pains of the work we do. Enjoy…

(Getting my face painted with traditional berry-type fruit called Achiote.)

It’s been a dream of mine since I was twelve years old to go to the Amazon Rainforest. Thus, when I came to study in Ecuador and found out we would be doing just that for a week, I was beyond excited. Yet never in my life could I have dreamed up such an amazing experience as this.

We had seven days of wonder, a full week of life-changing experiences one after the other. We visited two waterfalls, the first smaller but so strong that simply standing within 100 yards guaranteed being sopping wet: I climbed some rocks right at the base, threw my arms out and my head back, yelled my exhilaration, got soaked to the skin and felt more alive than I had in a long time. The second was the largest waterfall in Ecuador; after a rainforest trek to reach it I could do nothing but stare for long minutes. Watching thousands of gallons of water frothing through the air every second reminded me of how small I truly am and how miraculous this planet of ours is.

We partook in the Toxic Tour, which took us to different sites of supposedly cleaned oil pits (operated by big-name American oil companies like Chevron) that are still poisoning and killing the people living near them. My heart felt like a stone in my chest; I’ve never been more ashamed to be an American and never felt so passionate about righting a wrong. We saw a well whose water was oil-tainted and caused 27 miscarriages in the women who drank from it. A couple let us into their home and their lives to explain how they’re dying of petroleum-caused illnesses. Nothing can be done for them, but they bared their souls to us in the hope of helping others escape their fate. There were very few dry eyes that day. You will be hearing more from me on this subject, believe me. I have found my fight.

(Two people sharing a chunk of toxic sludge. It is right in the open.)

The next day we traveled to Dureno, an indigenous community that had been one of the hardest hit by the oil contamination. They welcomed us with traditional dances before we had a dialogue about the oil- the community leader had lost two sons to the tainted water- and toured the construction site for the modernized houses they’re building. We then took a canoe ride to the other half of the Dureno community, ate lunch, and played some reflective games. One was to say what we wanted for our community; the international students mainly replied with abstracts like respect and trust but all of the locals’ deepest wish was for clean water and no pollution of their land. After that, we went swimming in the river to cool off. It was a bittersweet day.

Next on our route was another waterfall overlooked by our lunch spot and the Caverns of Jumandy, which was a crazy awesome experience. We wore only our swimsuits and rubber boots, and they gave us headlamps. That was true spelunking people. We had to bend, crouch, walk through a river, and at one point swim and haul ourselves along a rope. Our guide took us to a waterfall INSIDE THE CAVE and showed us how it unexpectedly and unpredictably dropped off into holes 4 meters deep or more. I dunked myself into the 4 meter hole and was completely underwater underground; ¡que chevere! (That’s local lingo for ‘how cool!’)

Finally that evening we arrived to Mariscal Sucre, the community where we would pass the second half of our voyage. We met our host families and went home with them, uncomprehending of the adventures we were soon to have.

(Giovanny helping me in the hike... this was the easy part.)

The next morning was what I’d been waiting for: a hike through the Amazonian rainforest to see (yet more) waterfalls. What they neglected to mention was that the hike would last four hours and most of it was- hilly, to say the least. However, I don’t think I could have loved it more. With the help of the local guides, everyone survived the trip- even when we were scaling rock faces in the rain!- and the view was more than worth it. It was everything I hoped it would be, and our time in Mariscal was just starting.

(Making traditional food... and that last waterfall.)

The rest of the trip passed so quickly, I felt like I blinked and then it was just over. Blink! Visiting the animal rescue center where we fed monkeys and they sat on our shoulders. Blink! Seeing an artisan work his magic with balsa wood and buying plenty of hand-carved souvenirs. Blink! Visiting the community of Tzawata where we learned their story of exploitation by a mining company, toured their farmlands, participated in a traditional dance, and had our faces painted with ----- berries. Blink! Racing my sisters from Mariscal (ages 6, 9, and 11) and always losing but laughing. Blink! Going on a night hike in the forest where the guides showed us stick bugs, jungle grasshoppers, beetles, lots of varied little spiders, and memorably a venomous tarantula over our heads. Blink! Family day where we made empanadas and played hide and seek. Blink! Going tubing down an Amazonian river, lying on my back and watching the exotic scenery float by. Blink! Having a delicious farewell dinner and lovely dance party where I never stopped moving, eventually getting swarmed and chased halfway across town by the little kids when I tried to halt, them shrieking that I had to keep dancing with them. Blink! Getting up and realizing it was our last morning there, my last chance to eat breakfast with my sisters and call bye to my parents while pretending I didn’t have a huge lump in my throat. Blink! Making melcocha (a traditional sweet from the area similar to taffy) and saying our goodbyes. Blink! Crying as we boarded the bus, unable to pull my nose away from the window until Mariscal was well and truly out of sight. Blink! Arriving in Quito six hours later, realizing how truly fortunate I had been to have such a profound journey. I wiped my tears away and realized that I shouldn’t be sad to be leaving, just be grateful for the opportunity to have been there. It’s an opportunity I wouldn’t have missed for the world.

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