Let me just say that ECUADOR WAS AMAZING. Now we can get on with context.
This past spring break, I participated in a Northeastern University program called Alternative Spring Break (ASB), in which groups of 11 students and 1 faculty member travel to towns and cities both domestic and foreign to work with a volunteer organization for a week. I was accepted into the Honors program travelling to Otovalo, Ecuador, to work with the Tandana Foundation, a group focused on increasing international ties and learning about non-Western cultures, as well as helping rural communities increase educational opportunities.
Our team focused on building walls of a school in the Gualapuro community, which would increase the number of classrooms available to them and open opportunities for a more balanced educational environment. The twelve of us–and our amazing Tandana guides Jordan and Rachel–worked alongside locals to haul dry cement mix and buckets of water up and down stairs, mix cement with shovels (the locals are absolute pros at this), and build brick walls up from the ground. It reminded me a lot of LEGOs, and it was just the coolest thing to see these walls go up around us. It was also cool to learn how to build with little instruction in English (my Spanish is quite poor and for all intents and purposes, useless); we learned to watch, match movements, and follow nonverbal cues (like rapid head-shaking and pointing towards or away from the wall).
In addition to our main work, our group helped pick beans in a [giant] corn/squash/bean field, taught the children English for a day, learned to make delicious Ecuadorian food, ate too much bread, climbed a mountain carrying too many pounds of bananas and colada (a warm corn soup), and hiked up a volcano. The kids were adorable, the food was amazing, and the hikes in high altitude inspired me to get back into shape upon returning home.
I think what I gleaned most from this trip were the similarities between our people. There was a large focus on cultural differences and understanding cultures, but I really feel as though I gained an insight into our general humanness. It made me think about human nature and bias and judgment, and ask all sorts of questions I hadn’t asked before, questions that matter but that can be overlooked in a society of superficiality and modernity. We tend to forget that people outside of the US, outside of the Western world, are still people just like us. I don’t want to forget that anymore. Oftentimes we take for granted the veils that define our society and obscure the individual, and when you break down the outside layers and see people through a lens that is unfamiliar and unbiased, it reveals only what is constant. Our perceptions are not everyone’s realities, and a shift in perspective can offer a surprising amount of lucidity. I can’t put into words what these constants are and I could not possibly tackle the question of how our biases influence our perspectives, but I know that among bricks and wet cement and people working towards a common goal, I felt a human bond, a commonality that transcends surface diversity.
I strongly encourage any Northeastern student to take advantage of the ASB program, and for any non-student to travel with an open heart and mind; I was only able to glean the knowledge I was open to. A thousand thanks to the Tandana Foundation, my talented and inspiring teammates, the community of Gualapuro, and my sponsors, who donated to a cause I could not have fathomed having such an effect on my life. You are all wonderful and I cannot thank you enough!
Photo captions highlight some of our best moments during the trip. Enjoy 🙂