“Gracias” I replied, as a dinner of unknown fruits and vegetables rolled in a banana tree leaf was placed into my timid hand. I flashed a reassuring smile as the native Ecuadorians anxiously awaited approval. At the conclusion of the jungle meal, Chicha, the local drink traditionally made of chewed root and spit, was presented to the group. I brushed aside my queasiness. To refuse the traditional drink was a refusal of the people. The cup was passed from one person to the next, each partaking in a ritual that connected two worlds. Deep in the Amazon Rainforest of Ecuador, I was accepted by a people and a culture very different from my own.
Participating with Maranatha Volunteers International enabled me to experience Ecuador from a completely different perspective than if I had gone solely for my own enjoyment. For two weeks in the summer of 2009 I assisted a medical team and helped construct a ten-classroom elementary school in Puyo, Ecuador.
It was with the Maranatha medical team that I traveled deep into the jungle to hold a clinic for the native people. Before proceeding to measure blood pressures, my cheeks were adorned with crimson tribal paint. They were incredibly thankful for our presence, and in gratitude offered us their native cuisine. Their culture had preserved itself in the modern world. One jungle village had a store, in which many men crowded around a small, fuzzy television deeply involved in a soccer match. Excited children ran to greet us when we arrived, thrilled for the opportunity to play soccer with Americans. Enthusiasm radiated from their faces as we retrieved the ball and began the most memorable game for both the children and myself. Despite any language barrier, smiles and laughter are well understood no matter where you travel.
We rejoined the construction group to continue working on the school that would benefit the children I had gotten to know in the jungle. Understanding the people we were serving personalized our efforts. I began to lay the heavy cement blocks with a new vigor. By the end of two weeks, we had completed the cement walls.
As my stay in Ecuador was quickly drawing to a close, I realized that even though we were serving them, the residents of Puyo helped me understand that I do not need life’s luxuries to be cheerful. The Ecuadorian people lead simple, poverty-stricken lives, yet joy shines on their faces. Strangers waved to us on the streets and smiles and laughter filled the dusty air. It was hard leaving the culture and its people that had engulfed me.
En route through the Andes Mountains back to Quito, where the incredible journey had first begun, we went white-water rafting on the Rio Negro and shopped for souvenirs in BaÃ±os. Familiar peaks speckled with farm plots loomed overhead, while stunning waterfalls cascaded through rainbows to a river far below. For six hours our bus wound through the mountains that I had grown accustomed to seeing in the distance, farther and farther from the rainforest I had grown to love. Our last day was spent at Mitad del Mundo, the center of the earth, where I stood in the northern and southern hemispheres at the same time.
As a volunteer with Maranatha, I had made a difference in the lives of many. The children with whom I loved to play games will now enjoy an education. I saw the country just like any tourist, but in a way that is unattainable on a typical vacation, I came to understand its people.
Dear Reader: This page may contain affiliate links which may earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. Our independent journalism is not influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative unless it is clearly marked as sponsored content. As travel products change, please be sure to reconfirm all details and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.