When I first heard about the Alternative Break trips with the college of engineering, I knew immediately that it was right up my alley. I love adventures, and this trip was definitely a wonderful adventure I will remember for the rest of my life.
We arrived in the capital city of Quito and stayed for two nights to visit some wonderful tourist locations. We then embarked on the two-hour journey to the indigenous community of San Clemente, where we would be doing our service work.
We first unpacked our things, then went to visit the site where we would be doing the service work within the community. Or so we thought; we ended up going on a hike through the forest where the people of the community gather herbs. That was my first real experience with the language barrier we faced, but it ended up being very enjoyable and educational.
On the nature hike, we tried blackberries, smelled berries used to make shampoo, and saw the place where the community used to preform rituals. The two dogs who lived at the house, Toby and Chester, accompanied us on our hike, and we met another dog on the way who followed us back and visited the house a few more times during our time in the community.
Over the next two days, we got to work on the actual projects. We first leveled a patch of ground so the community can later build a brick oven there.
After it began to rain too much to finish that project, we built a bench with the help of two members of the community.
The next day, we went down to the community school to help put grass on the viewing area for the soccer field next to the school. We dug our own sod squares out of a patch of grass next to the building then carried them over to the side of the field. The viewing area was on a very steep hill, so when we placed the squares, we drove sticks into the mud between each one to keep them in place.
The service projects were rewarding but learning about the culture of the community was just as interesting, if not more so. The first day, Edison, our host, brought us to a sort of sundial built next to his house. The shadow of the pole would fall on a different section of the pattern on the ground in each month, and the community used this dial to know when to plant and harvest their various plants.
After explaining the sundial (through our in-country guide and translator, David), Edison brought out some ceremonial costumes donned by important members of the community for a celebration during the Vernal Equinox. My fellow traveler, Phillip, and I volunteered to wear the items. Mine included pants made of leather and alpaca fur, an instrument made of animal hooves used to keep the beat of the music, a horn, a whip with a goat leg handle, and a mask made by members of the community. For the ceremony, Edison stood in the middle of the sundial and played a Bandolin to the beat of my instrument while Philip, Megan, David, and I walked/hopped around the outside of the circle.
We also learned about the culture inside the house. We experienced the foods which people in the community ate regularly, much of which they grew themselves; they also taught us how to make a few of the dishes. Embroidery is a large part of their culture: they hand-embroider shirts and other things to use themselves and sell. With careful instruction through motions, since we could not communicate through words, we were all able to embroider a pattern of our own design onto a small piece of cloth. I fell in love with embroidery. I’m still working on my original design and I plan to do many more.
Overall, this trip was an amazing experience that I will remember forever. I would go back to San Clemente in a heartbeat and I would encourage anyone considering foreign travel to take the leap of faith. You will not regret it!