Sunday, March 28, 2010

Ecuador: Day 5

Today was our last day in Shell, but instead of visiting Casa de Fe or working at the construction site, we drove to a small town called Mera, about fifteen minutes away. In Mera, we worked at a church called Iglesia Bautista Cordero de Dios—it’s the home church of the Bartons and a few other missionary families, in addition to many Ecuadorians. Our main task was to repaint the dilapidated church building, although we also dug some drainage ditches around the foundation (I got to spend some time doing this with a dear old man introduced only as “Abuelo,” meaning grandfather…my Spanish has gotten better and better over the course of the week, so I was able to talk to him a bit). It also required a lot of preparation—cleaning the walls, stripping off old tape and glue from where they used to hang bible verses, and spot painting over discolorations that might have required a second coat. By the time we actually started painting, it was late morning. However, we went at it with a will—and the will of fourteen Princetonians is nothing to be scoffed at. By lunch, a large portion of the church had been painted.

Some of the ladies from the church cooked lunch for us—a delicious combination of vegetables, rice, and chicken. Someone commented on how good the chicken was, and one of the ladies commented that it had been alive a few hours ago. Fresh meat, indeed: when we went to dump our trash, we saw a large bucket of chicken parts and blood. I’m glad my research on meat production in Ecuador was proven to be pretty much accurate! No sprawling factory farms here—just chickens in the backyard and cows on the farm.

After lunch, I left with Allie to teach music for the 4th-6th graders at the Nate Saint School. We didn’t find out that they wanted us to do this until our Tuesday evening meeting, and everyone just sort of assumed that I would do it. Which was fine, since I love music and I love to teach. But this sort of thing is much more up my older sister’s alley than mine—I can barely remember what I did in elementary school music class, much less come up with a 45 minute class that would actually be productive and educational for these kids. Moreover, how on earth could I teach them for 45 minutes without them getting bored and fidgety?

Most of my lesson was composed on the fly; we did some singing first, with songs that had fairly involved accompanying physical motions so that everyone was up and active. Then we played some rhythm games; I’m not entirely sure what I accomplished, but they were definitely clapping some complicated patterns in unison by the end of twenty minutes or so (except for two sulky boys who clearly did not want to be there). However, everything I had planned out lasted only about twenty-five minutes. On the fly, I improvised a lesson about rounds and canons—what they were, how they were important in music, even a brief mention of Pachelbel’s canon. We ended up learning two rounds and singing them together (thank you, Tom Chapin) until the end of the class.

After the lesson, Kim picked us up and ferried us back to Mera in the midst of a thunderous downpour. By this time (thankfully) they had finished the outside of the church, but the power had gone out so it was difficult to see where they had or hadn’t painted on the interior walls. But after a few more hours of hard labor, we proudly pulled back the dropcloths to reveal a church that looked brand new. The pastor and his wife, David and Carmen, were very thankful for our work.

Dinner, since it was our last in Shell, was at a beautiful restaurant called El Jardin—accessible only by a swinging bridge across a swollen, rushing river. Here we actually had multiple choices for our entrĂ©e, rather than simply being presented with food. At the encouragement of the Bartons, who come to this place for special occasions, I received and devoured one of the most delicious steak dinners I have had in my entire life. If I wasn’t convinced in Argentina, I am now—South America knows steak. Dinner was also a chance for us to debrief a little and share some of the highs and lows of the week, and to hang out with the Bartons one more time.

After dinner we went to a souvenir shop called Casa de la Balsa, which supposedly specialized in handicrafts made of balsa wood. To me, balsa means model airplanes, so naturally I was very excited. However, it turned out to be more of a tourist trap than anything else. Which was fine; I bought a few things, but I’m saving my big shopping spree for tomorrow’s excursion to Quito. Satisfied with our purchases, we headed back to the Hosteria for one final devotional and sharing time before our last night together (we’re taking a red-eye back to the States). Tomorrow we finally get a chance to be tourists—Quito, here we come!


go team go!

mmmm. chicken.

We WILL paint this church.

Abuelo and the ditch we dug together

Standing in front of our handiwork!

little Isaac Barton playing outside the church

View from the church in Mera

an impromptu soccer game with the Barton boys


Thursday, March 25, 2010

Ecuador: Days 3 and 4

I couldn’t bring myself to write last night, as I was pretty miserable and in a lot of pain. Turns out that two hundred bug bites below your waist, although it’s kind of funny, actually messes you up pretty badly; my legs were swollen to about one and a half times their normal size and I’ve barely been able to walk for the past few days. I’m still in pretty bad shape but I’ve got to write all this down or I’ll forget everything.

Construction day 2 was easier than the first one—it was a bit cooler, and the work was not as back-breaking. In the morning, we rode to Casa De Fe in the official orphanage vehicle (a truck with a tarp over the top) to pick up several small wooden chairs and desks that needed to be painted and lacquered in bright primary colors. While Freddie, Washington, Herman, and Luis led the boys in glorious power-tool projects, the girls painted and chatted in the bodega (what they call the tool shed, which has a substantial patio area). After lunch, I went with a few other students to help teach P.E. at Casa de Fe (or rather at the big arena a few blocks away). Dwight was the one actually leading, but he says it’s very helpful to have “big kids” there so that the kids can have an example of listening and following instructions. So we played tag and kickball with the bigger kids, and simple cooperation games like Red Light Green Light and a variant of Sharks and Minnows with the kindergarteners. It was easy to really get involved and enthusiastic about the games, almost like being a kid again, and it was even more rewarding when you could see the kids becoming more engaged and active because of your participation.

After the last class of P.E., we returned to Casa de Fe to tutor some of the older kids in spelling, reading, and their times tables. However, before too long it was time to head back to the Hosteria for a quick shower before our tour of MAF—the Mission Aviation Fellowship. This was one of the parts of the trip I was most excited about . . . how cool would it be to be a missionary pilot! MAF (also known as Alas de Secorro, meaning Wings of Help) flies to remote airstrips in the middle of the jungle to pick up medical emergency cases. They serve the Quechua, the Shuar, the Ashuar, and the Waodani tribes. MAF also flies missionary teams to the jungle at discounted rates, which is how they fund their medical airlifts. We got a tour of the airplane hangar and training room, plus a rundown of how the organization worked. Unfortunately, it takes 7-10 years to become a pilot for MAF—and, due to interference from the Ecuadorian government, they are no longer allowed to hire pilots from outside the country. We also got a tour of the Nate Saint house—where one of the famed five martyred missionaries had lived and hosted numerous ministries.

Tonight’s dinner was at Casa de Barton—the home of Kim and Paul Barton, the doctors who have organized and planned our whole week. We had a traditional Ecuadorian dish called “vocaterra,” which is apparently Spanish for “dump truck.” It’s a mix of plantain chips, sweet tomato/onion/cilantro salsa, beans, tuna, and toasted corn, in whatever proportions you want. To that, Kim added some take-out empanadas and delicious fruit salad. Other dinner guests included the Umbles, another missionary family that lives next door to the Bartons. Both the Umbles and Bartons shared their testimonies with us, including an account of Paul’s recent trip to Haiti for emergency medical relief there.

After an extended stay at the Barton Home, we retired to the Hosteria for the night. I had been volunteered to teach Art at Nate Saint and Casa De Fe, much to my dismay—my grumbled protests that I would accidentally glue the kids together were laughed off. However unqualified I felt, it turns out that you don’t have to be that artistic to teach kids how to make masks out of paper plates. In fact, my engineering skills soon became useful, and the other two team members that were helping soon regarded me as a wizard with pipe cleaners and popsicle sticks. We taught at Nate Saint, then got lost walking to Casa de Fe. After wandering around Shell for about forty minutes, we finally found some landmarks and collapsed, delirious, at the orphanage with only a few minutes to spare.

It was here that I had what I think was my most rewarding experience of the week thus far. While we were teaching the 1st-3rd grade children Art at Casa de Fe, the teacher from the neighboring class (4th-6th grade) came over looking distressed. She informed us that one of her kids was having trouble with math, was crying, and would not be consoled, so would one of us like to come over and try to help? Always eager for the chance to abandon Art for Math, I volunteered. The child in question turned out to be a girl named Talia, whose story we had heard a few days ago from Patti Sue. At about twelve, Talia is one of the oldest girls at Casa de Fe; she’s there with her sisters Abigail and Alondra. All three of them were sexually abused at home before being placed in the care of the orphanage; they were returned home after testifying against their attacker at trial. However, the abuse continued. Talia took her two younger sisters and ran away to Casa de Fe and Patti Sue, pleading with her to take care of them. Her story almost broke my heart, and meeting the three of them in person was a privilege. According to Patti Sue, Talia is among the most difficult children at the orphanage, simply because she can’t accept the idea that people might love her.

So when Talia was in tears over her 6 and 7 times tables, I ached for her. We worked together to learn, and after ten minutes or so, she was multiplying like a pro—and, more importantly, was smiling and laughing and happy. Those ten minutes were worth the long flight, the bug bites, the sore shoulders, and more.

The afternoon was spent lacquering the chairs and desks that we had painted the preceding day—all in the shelter of the bodega, since it was pouring all afternoon. Despite the rain, a few of us took some time to climb the nearby water tower for one last view of the jungle surrounding Shell. High above the canopy, soaking wet and covered with mud, I felt like the king of the world as I surveyed the misted mountains, dense jungle, and the seemingly tiny piece of civilization that is Shell.

After a shower at the Hosteria, the Bartons announced that they wanted to give us a taste of the “real” jungle. So we headed just outside town to the Ecoparque, which is a sort of nature sanctuary. We saw plenty of wildlife, but it wasn’t confined at all—the Ecoparque was literally a path through the jungle. Our guide pointed out leafcutter aunts, several species of monkey, land tortoises, a small rodent similar to an agouti, a rainbow boa constrictor, small alligators called caimans, and coolest of all—a young ocelot (a member of the big cat family that is reminiscent of a jaguar). We ate dinner at the Ecoparque and heard the testimonies of several other doctors at the Hospital Vozandes. Along with all the other missionary stories we’ve heard this week, they were extremely powerful testaments to the omnipresence of God and our attempts to follow His call and His plan for our lives. While walking back to the cars, the majesty, brilliance, and utter clarity of the heavens took my breath away—truly I serve an awesome God!

Entrance to the CdF construction site... a.k.a. JURASSIC PARK

a man selling goats' milk in the streets

Teaching P.E. to the kindergarteners at CdF

at MAF headquarters

delicious Vocaterra ("dump truck") at the Bartons

Art class at Nate Saint

Alex brought a toad, evoking cries of "sapo! sapo!"

Teaching art at Casa de Fe

Javier and his bat ears

the construction crew!


View from the water tower at the construction site

soaking wet and about to fall off?


About to enter the Ecoparque

monkeys in the ecoparque

Our tour guide. Fearless.

Liz the tribal warrioress

Diego the ocelot (center, in the tree)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Ecuador: Day 2

Things I learned today:

- Hacking through the jungle with a machete may look cool in movies, but in real life it’s hard work and tires you out really quickly. Also way more difficult than you might think.

- Never wear shorts into said jungle. Current bug bite count: 218. 146 on my left leg and 72 on my right.

- Doing God’s work is often unglamorous and/or seemingly unhelpful. Like moving one big pile of dirt to another big pile of dirt, or squirting water at a wall for three solid hours.

- How to conjugate three Spanish verbs.

- One can get by without knowing Spanish, simply by using the following phrases: “buenos dias,” “gracias,” “lo siento,” and “esta bien.”


- Little kids are adorable.

Today we led chapel at the Nate Saint School for about twenty missionary kids. I led worship, which was pretty nerve-wracking since I had no idea what I’d be playing until about five minutes before chapel; we also had a lesson drawn from the story of Zaccheus (a skit, in which the title character was played by the short-statured but big-hearted Alex Hwang). After chapel, we traipsed out to the worksite for our first day of construction on Casa De Fe’s new building.

Right now, the orphanage is located in central Shell in a dilapidated old building that is far too small to house 30-40 children. A few years ago Patti Sue, the founder of Casa De Fe, managed to procure about 7 acres of land just outside of town (about a twenty-minute walk from where they are situated right now). Construction is underway of a multi-use building that’s about three times the size of the current setup; it should be finished in about four months. The children will move into this building temporarily as they complete construction on the rest of the property, which will contain fifteen small houses, the multi-use building, and a school building. The eventual vision is for the children to live with house parents, with ten to fourteen kids per “family.” Right now, Dwight and four local construction guys (Freddie, Washington, Luis, and Herman—all strong Christians who really believe in the mission of Casa de Fe) are pretty much raising this huge building from the ground up. We spent the day sifting concrete, shoveling dirt, moving boulders, spraying down bare concrete walls, and yes, clearing dense jungle with machetes. Some of us went to both Casa de Fe and the Nate Saint School in the afternoon to teach P.E., as well.

At almost precisely five o’clock, after a hard day’s labor, those of us at the construction site boarded a truck for home—seconds ahead of a torrential downpour. Kim says it’s not unheard of to get a full foot of rainfall in just a few hours; this area of Ecuador receives about 24 feet annually. After getting thoroughly soaked in the back of the almost-but-not-quite-covered truck, we settled back in to the Hosteria Shell, where we could shower and relax before dinner. Tonight we feasted on pinchos (a sort of shish kebab), French fries, corn on the cob, and fresh watermelon, spending a good deal of time playing with the Barton’s four sons (Isaac, Josiah, Nathan, and Samuel) and the two older orphans that live with Patti Sue (Jessica and Jennifer).

Each night we hear testimony from a different missionary, and tonight’s was absolutely mindblowing. Patti Sue, as I’ve mentioned, is the founder of Casa De Fe and a thoroughly remarkable woman. She spent twenty years as a mechanic in the Army, and when she retired she felt God’s call to missions. In the late 90s, she moved to Quito and began to repair donated wheelchairs; she felt it was a good combination of her mechanical skill and her heart for the disabled. However, as some doors closed and others opened (including her decision to foster two disabled Ecuadorian children), she felt God strongly calling her to Shell. Although it was difficult for her to believe at first, God wanted her to begin something that had absolutely nothing to do with her previous background as a mechanic. However, soon the idea and vision for Casa De Fe became clear.

The number of children at Casa De Fe has grown exponentially since then; right now they have 56 children and just took another today. The kids come from a variety of backgrounds but are often abused or disabled or both. Many of the older girls have been sexually abused, and almost none of the children have a normal or healthy conception of what family really means. At Casa de Fe, however, they are loved extravagantly and constantly. I can’t count the number of times a CdF staff person has encouraged us to come by and play with the kids whenever we want, or nonchalantly mentioned an experience with a child that just tugs at your heart like nothing else.

The oldest kids in the orphanage are now around 12, and Patti Sue’s hope is to eventually see them off to college or to jobs within the area (perhaps some of them will even continue to work for Casa de Fe). This means that they will soon be needing teachers for a high-school level. Something to think about?

our version of the story of Zaccheus. Nate is a tree, in case you were wondering.

Our commute from Nate Saint to CdF

The streets of Shell

construction site for CdF's multi-use building

john lin has a grudge?

sifting dirt for concrete mixing

the aftermath. this is what my legs look like now.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Ecuador: Day 1

For a country that is supposed to be in the middle of the jungle, Ecuador sure has a lot of mountains. Soaring pinnacles and deep rocky ravines make up most of the landscape around Quito—one of the tallest cities in the world, at 10,000 feet. Nestled in a valley high in the Andes, Ecuador’s capital is home to over 2 million people. When viewed from above, it’s hard to believe; at its widest point, Quito is barely two miles across. However, the city spills over to span an impressive length, stretching as far as the eye can see in both directions.

We arrived in Quito at approximately 11:00pm local time last night (Ecuador is in the same time as the East Coast, but doesn’t follow Daylight Savings so we are currently one hour behind), and were met at the airport by Kevin Skillen ’96. Kevin works in the State Department as a cultural affairs minister, promoting American culture in Ecuador by hosting music groups, speakers, and other events. As soon as we got through customs, we were joined by Kim Barton ’93, who works at the Hospital Vozandes del Oriente with her husband Paul (as a pediatrician and an anesthesiologist, respectively). Kim and Kevin shepherded us to a guesthouse run by another missionary organization, where we thankfully collapsed into bed, still delirious from a long day of traveling.

The sunshine that woke me up this morning was unbelievably welcome after endless weeks of New Jersey winter. The kitchen was full of activity, as several other missionaries were staying in the guesthouse with us; some were stationed in Quito, some in Shell (our destination). Delicious fresh melons and pineapple were sliced and waiting, along with fruit juices I had never heard of (Mora? Guanabana?), a sweet nutty cake, and much-needed coffee. At 8:45 sharp we headed to the English-speaking church a few blocks away, where we worshipped with a mixed group of Ecuadorians, Americans, and Canadians—expats, missionaries, and who knows what. It was a lovely service, and we even met another Princetonian, this time from the class of ’98. I still haven’t decided whether I believe his life story, but it’s too good not to repeat: this guy was born in Ecuador but moved to the states when he was 6, grew up immersed in gang life and became the boss of the Latin Kings (he showed us his tattoos). He wised up, went to Princeton (which is where I assume he became a Christian), majored in Econ, graduated, and set up his own business as a professional bodyguard, which he did for 15 years. After a stint as Steven Seagal’s bodyguard (does he NEED a bodyguard?) he moved back to Ecuador. Needless to say . . . quite a character.

After church we walked back to the guesthouse, packed up everything we needed (and a variety of odds and ends that the missionaries wanted to send to Shell), and boarded a bus that would take us 120 miles southeast of and 7,000 feet below Quito. Despite the seeming closeness, the mountainous terrain forced the roads into terrifying hairpin turns and tight tunnels, making the journey take about 5 hours. The scenery was absolutely incredible, however; Kim, who was riding with us, was constantly pointing out waterfalls, active volcanoes, old lava flows, rivers, and more. The Andes remind me of a combination of both of the U.S.’s major mountain ranges: tall and craggy, like the Rockies, but thickly covered with trees, like the Appalachians. Most of the journey kept us at a very high altitude, but by the last hour or so were starting to see more jungle-like flora. When we entered Shell, it was very clear that yes, we were in the middle of the rainforest.

Shell is a not-insignificantly-sized town with an interesting history. It was founded about fifty years ago by the Shell gas company to explore oil possibilities in the region; however, the indigenous people killed so many Shell employees that they were forced to flee the area. They left behind them a fully functioning airstrip, which made it much easier for missionaries to access the territory. The missionaries didn’t fare much better—this is precisely the area of Ecuador where missionaries Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, and several others were killed by natives who didn’t understand their message (the basis for the movie “The End of the Spear). However, those same tribes later converted to Christianity, realized what they had done, and became determined to help spread the gospel in their homeland.

Today, Shell is a thriving hub of missionary activity. I had always thought of missionaries as being very solitary, serving God in complete isolation. However, there is a community of missionary families here, with enough children to populate an entire school (The Nate Saint School, commemorating those that died decades earlier). We will be doing some work at this school throughout the week: we’re leading chapel tomorrow and will also be teaching Art and P.E. However, our primary work spot will be Casa De Fe (“House of Faith”). This incredible institution serves as an orphanage and school for about forty children from Shell and the surrounding jungle, all of whom have different stories and backgrounds. Some are there due to abuse in their homes; some were abandoned; many are physically or mentally disabled; some have families that can’t care for them and made the hugely sacrificial decision to place them at Casa De Fe.

At Casa De Fe, the children are clean and well-cared for, with several Tias (literally “Aunts”) who cook for them, clean up after them, and love them. Three young American women serve as teachers, most just out of college with little training or education. A young couple from Texas, Tandy and Dwight Martin, run the administrative side of things, bringing in short-term missions teams and coordinating other necessary efforts. Dwight is also in charge of construction at their new site, a few miles from the current cramped setup in the heart of Shell. Some of us will be doing construction work at the site, while others will teach, tutor, and help with the children at Casa De Fe. The entire organization is the brainchild of a woman named Patti Sue; we met her briefly this afternoon, but I am looking forward to talking to her later this week. She lives next door to where we are staying, and keeps six babies who are not yet old enough to be at Casa De Fe on a regular basis.

Right now, we are staying at the Hosteria Shell, within walking distance from all three sites (Casa De Fe, the construction site, and the Nate Saint School). I was expecting a rough hostel or guesthouse; however, the luxury of our accommodations surpassed all our wildest imaginations. It’s like a big, airy hotel, with a huge kitchen and sitting room area and a tiled back porch. The backyard has a pool, a hot tub, a sauna, and a swingset for kids (the Bartons’ four sons, all seven or younger, will frequently be around the building and playing with us). Each of us has our own bed, and each room has its own bathroom attached. Everything is clean and well-kept, and they are feeding us very well (for those of you that care, I will probably be temporarily abandoning my vegetarianism; I did some research last week on meat production in Ecuador and have decided that it is almost certainly consistent with my ethical constraints on meat-eating).

Sorry for the very long post—there has been a lot to process over the past 36 hours! I don’t have internet access right now, so I will plan to post this whenever that happens (maybe tomorrow, maybe not till I am back in the States!).

(Quito and the scenery around it)

(mountainous drive on the way to Shell)

(Ecuadorians on a gondola across one of the numerous canyons)

(children at La Casa de Fe, and also two of the Barton boys, Sammy and Josiah)