“In the beginning of life, when we are infants, we need others to survive, right? And at the end of life, when you get like me, you need others to survive, right?’ His voice dropped to a whisper. ‘But here’s the secret: in between, we need others as well.”
Morrie's words couldn't have felt more true as I gasped for breath, eagerly trying to make my way to the 4,696 meter summit of Pichincha. As the downhill option of turning around and heading back tempted me, the encouragement of my friends motivated me to make it to the top of the great volcano. And as a wise man once said, "After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb."
Over the following two months my experiences in Ecuador continued to underscore the importance of the people in our lives. Living in South Quito which is riddled with crime and poverty, violence is common and graffiti expresses the discontent with government, pollution, and society. The buses speed by and spew out clouds of black exhaust. And after witnessing two separate incidents in which people were indifferent to the injuries they unintentionally inflicted on other people, I questioned whether Ecuador was really a place I wanted to live. But with the unbelievable friends I was living and working with, I realized that it was exactly where I was supposed to be.
From Tuesday to Friday we traveled to different markets around Quito. Vendors work long hours to try to make as much profit as possible, and unfortunately this means they have little time to get their children to and from school each day--so that's where we come in. Anywhere between five and fifty children come to our area where we have toys to play with, water and soap for drinking and teaching hygiene, and educational activities to ease the kids into an academic system. We teach them songs, play games and sports, and do arts and crafts to help develop their fine motor skills.
Many of the kids are too young to understand that working with their parents rather than attending school is a difficult card that they have been dealt, and you wouldn't be able to tell that because of the smiles they flash, the kindness they show, and the energy they radiate. Getting to alleviate some of their parents' stress each day and brighten the children's lives was a very rewarding experience, providing 300+ kids with new opportunities and positive role models. The children grow up in environments where many adults have drug or alcohol problems and are physically violent or abusive; we help make sure they have people to talk to, care for them, and teach them that where they come from does not dictate where they will go.
As the mountains, oceans, waterfalls, and rivers made Ecuador and the rest of the world feel so vast and unconquerable, the people around me showed me how closely we are all connected. Meeting James who lives thirty minutes away from me in Ohio, Bjørn who is going to university ten minutes away from me in Philadelphia, and Kaylin who also shares an impenetrable bond with Nepal, I realized how small the world really is. The people I befriended made me believe that we were all supposed to end up there together, to help one another learn and grow, and to become the family that we had each left at home as we went forward on our own personal journeys. Maktub.
To everyone I met in Ecuador: Thank you for all the memories and I can't wait for the ones that are still yet to be made. From cycling in the Andes to rafting in the Amazon, swinging on the edge of the earth to hiking mountains, celebrating Carnaval to bumming out in Baños, voting for Bernie Sanders to getting haircuts from Full Records, sometimes eating lettuce to always making guac, surprise attacking me with sunscreen to playing soccer, getting piercings to playing salad bowl, beaching in Canoa to saying quite a bit, you have all made the biggest impacts on me and I am so lucky to have you in my life. Hasta pronto.