Thursday, July 11, 2013

They wove themselves into the very fabric of my heart

It is with mixed feelings I approach the last few days of my time in Ecuador as well as the end of a three-week volunteering odyssey in Calderón. I left the comforts of home and stepped into the unknown on May 22, not always clear where my journey in Ecuador would take me. I made a conscious decision three years ago when I embarked on my first Global Volunteer post, that I would 'wing things' more in life (something about nearing the 60 mark at the time, perhaps) - plot, plan, and research less, linger longer, embrace surprises, allowing a new country to reveal itself at a more leisurely pace. At times this philosophy has landed me in hot water and I have had to tread quickly to beat the heat, but fortunately not too often. In fact, the only portions of my travels that I prebook these days are indeed the Global Volunteer postings!

My explorations took me from the stunning surreal landscape and wildlife of the enchanted Galápagos Islands to the 17th-century churches, monasteries, restored mansions, photogenic plazas, architectural colonial treasures, and cobbly streets of this UNESCO World Heritage Site that is old town Quito, where I sat on a bench in the Plaza Grande many times during my first week here, breathing in the atmosphere, sometimes just to catch my breath literally, acclimatizing to the breathtaking heights of these Andes Mountains.

Plaza Grande - Main Plaza in Quito

Statue in Plaza Grande

I explored north, enjoying a week at the historical and pastoral old Zuleta Hacienda, home of the Lasso family for the past hundred years and a working ranch to this day, now managed by the grandson of a former president of Ecuador. Taking in the vibrant Otavalo Market nearby where pigs, llama, cows, and the local delicacy, guinea pigs, are sold and traded alongside the colorful handicrafts of the region was an experience in itself! I flew south to walk the streets of colonial Cuenca, taking time en route to purchase some Panama hats (Ecuador has long had to endure the indignity of having their hats called Panama hats when indeed they are made totally in Ecuador. It is said that the name evolved because the hat was supplied to the workers during the building of the Panama Canal.) They are the prince of straw hats, made from the toquilla palm, grown on the coast and woven in the Cuenca area. I continued along, exploring the Inca ruins situated in the scenic countryside at Ingapirca, once part of the Incan royal road that linked Cuzco with present day Cuenca and onward to Cotacachi, home to the leather capital of Ecuador. By chance I ended up in this town for their annual indigenous cultural heritage festival! I was somewhat jostled about in the midst of this street scene by a rousing group of hundreds of indigenous folk celebrating - the men dress up in rather bizarre cowboyish costumes, marching down the main streets of town for hours, singing and chanting all the while. By all appearances, they marched themselves into a frenzy over the two day period, some fuelled by alcohol. Apparently fights break out regularly and every year a few get killed and dozens hospitalized in the process. That explained the police presence complete with shields on all street corners! So yes, after adventuring and exploring bits and pieces of this beautiful and diverse country, I arrived back in Quito and on to Calderón and my Global posting, an adventure in service.


As I approach the end of my three-week-long service in Calderón working with the ladies of FUNDAC - Elvita, Pilar, Margarita – our host,  Maggie, and my fellow tías - Ruby, Norma, Gaby, Alexandra, Karina, Diana, and Roxana, I know I will miss them all very much when I am back in Canada! We have grown into friendship and despite the language barrier, communication was possible. It has been a pleasure working with all the ladies and the children. Oh my, as predicted, they wove themselves into the very fabric of my heart. I never get used to saying goodbye to the little ones on these volunteer missions. On last year's posting in Romania, it was particularly tough to hug and kiss the children goodbye - little orphans who I knew would face the bleakness of the converted hospital rooms that are their home and staff that are far too overburdened to have much left to give to the children at the end of their day. They do their best, but still, the children are left in cribs after their evening meals. No siblings or mothers and fathers to love and care for them. The Global hosts do the best they can, but they desperately need a steady stream of volunteers to help provide love and care for these children.

The scenario and circumstances for the children of Calderón, could not be more different. Poverty and its limitations are a huge issue here certainly, and that is why we are here helping out. But the children all have mothers and some even have fathers at home, who love them dearly. This is very apparent to me as I observe the children being picked up at the end of the day. They appear well cared for by and large and are loved by the tías and volunteers during the day and by their families at night. This makes all the difference in the world when we go to say goodbye tomorrow.
We are a small team. Suzanne, Neal, Tom, Katie, and I all worked well together, finding our rhythm as the days passed. This morning as we drove to work, Neal, ever the entertainer, entertained us with his newest musical instrument, the Peruvian charango, as we practiced our Barney song for tomorrow's goodbye festivities to honor the staff of FUNDAC, the tías, and the children. Neal is a bit of a ham as it turns out, albeit, a very musically and otherwise very talented ham! He had me in stitches this morning with his Elvis renditions!

The team practicing their farewell song in the van

Thursday held its own special kind of poignancy. Suzanne, Katie, and I handled the day-to-day care of the children as usual. Katie also helped Roxana put some creative decorative touches to the children's playroom furniture that she had helped Tom paint earlier in the week. Tom was completing last-minute carpentry work on shelving and various odds and ends. Neal, as usual, was having fun in the kitchen cooking up a storm with Olga, Marisol, and Elisa. There was a special kind of gentleness in the air today as I went about my daily duties: play and puzzle time, feeding the babies, washing a million hands, combing hair, tying shoelaces, and yes, wiping noses. I know the children sensed something, having undoubtedly gone through this many times before, so those little hands lingered longer, holding mine just a little tighter. Katie, Suzanne, and I took turns taking pictures with our classes. Neal, our group professor, and I, his humble assistant, finished off our final English class with Karina, Ruby, Gaby, Norma, and her older son, Néicer. They have improved immeasurably since our first class together! The ride back to the ranch provided opportunity for another rehearsal of our planned performance at the farewell celebration tomorrow afternoon. As Neal played his charango, we laughed and sang our way home, in Spanish and English, amusing Pilar and Maggie no end!

Suzanne, Seija, Katie, and Neil enjoying the ride in the van

We have indeed come to think of the Sol de Quito as our home away from home! We enjoyed a delicioso dinner at the hotel with great conversation, sharing interesting travel stories among other topics. Funny how bonding with people happens. Sometimes it just kind of sneaks up on you, unawares. Ahhh, perhaps time to let go of reflections and head to bed. An emotional day beckons tomorrow.

Entry submitted by: Seija Webb

Message of the Day – Suzanne Pierce: “Without love, deeds, even the most brilliant, count as nothing.” - St. Thérèse de Lisieux

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