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)

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