Hola from Las Tolas, Ecuador!
I am one week into my month in the beautiful Cloud Forest–a small barrio very high in the Andes Mountains, surrounded by dense jungle and a constant misty presence of clouds, from hence it derived its name.
Arriving late Thursday night by bus, it didn’t take long for me to figure out that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. I couldn’t stop staring out the window at the incredible jungle mountain views.
Honestly, the best way to describe my experience here so far here is to compare it to the movie Avatar. Now that might sound a bit dramatic, since that is a movie about aliens on a different planet…but truly, I am in a new world here. A new culture to learn, a new language to speak, new food to figure out how to eat… (do I peel this first? Cook it? Eat the seeds or spit them out?) Within three days of living here I have seen, eaten or heard new plants, animals and music of which I never have before. And remember the scene in the movie where they fly past the floating mountains? The view from my bedroom reminds me strongly of that clip, as the low-hanging clouds give the illusion that the mountains are floating… I still have yet to see a dragon though.
My host parents are extremely friendly. Magdalena has lived in Las Tolas her whole life, and her husband Antonio is from the coast. He works as a driver, butcher, and businessman (buying and selling chanchos, or pigs) everyday of the week, while Magdalena works the chagera (farm), manages the house, and is an active member of the community board. It sounds like a busy life, but it is all carried out in a very tranquil manner, with a lot of sitting around in front of your house, conversing with neighbors, and people watching.
Allow me to give you the grand tour:
|This quaint volunteer casa de host familia is located in the beautiful barrio of Las Tolas.|
Included is a host father that owns a vehicle, (see truck), convenient for traveling between barrios on those steep and muddy mountain roads.
|With a spacious living room large enough to store your motorcycle or do your workouts in…|
|…and a kitchen that meets all your culinary needs.|
|Conveniently located right in your back yard is your bathroom, where you can brush your teeth and wash your face while enjoying the fresh mountain air and the next-door neighbors.|
|Other amenities include a washer…|
|…and a beautiful view.|
But seriously, all sarcasm aside: I love it here.
Weekdays I volunteer at la guarderia (public daycare) three barrios over. This gives mothers a chance to work during the day or take care of the rest of the family. (It is not unusual to have an upwards of eight or nine children here, and to start having them in your late teens).
I catch a ride every morning with the milkman,
and hitchhike home with a passing truck or motorcycle. There are few vehicles here, which makes owning one a very communal thing. In fact, I’ve never had to flag anyone down; I am usually asked to where I’m headed and if I want a lift.
Psst, I will let you in on a little secret:
I am not so great with babies. In fact, I’m downright uncomfortable with them.
So many of my friends and family seem to have been born with a natural affinity for the little bundles of joy, but I was always perfectly content with admiring their drooly faces and poopy diapers from a safe distance.
So when I found out that my organic farming project got changed to the daycare one, I wasn’t exactly thrilled. After having worked long hours in the ER and lived six weeks in the busy city, I was looking forward to quietly serving on a rural jungle farm.
But instead I found myself surrounded by 18 screaming kids ages 0-5 years, climbing, jumping, drooling, and asking why I spoke funny.
I couldn’t help but ask myself what the heck I was doing here.
That question was still on my mind when I opened my Bible that night. I really didn’t want to spend four weeks dragging my feet to work or counting the days. I had come to Ecuador trusting God to use me in whatever capacity He wanted, so why was I throwing myself a pity-party for being stretched a little outside my comfort zone? It’s funny anyways how I was willing to come to a new country, learn a new language, get blood on my scrubs, and eat cow stomach, but wasn’t willing to work in a daycare.
What jumped out at me that particular night in my reading was Jesus’ simple response to the Pharisees’ question of which was the greatest commandment: “To love God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength, and to love your neighbor as much as you do yourself.”
Now this was by no means my first time contemplating or meditating on this passage. But that evening it struck a cord with me. I realized that a big reason I don’t like young children is because… well, I’m selfish. Taking care of kids, especially when their not your own, is an incredibly selfless act of love. I’ve always said that it takes someone special to work in daycares and in nursing homes, and that is because you have to truly love the people and little people that you are working with. How else can you wipe snot from runny noses, spoon feed open mouths, pick up that toy for the umpteenth time, and have grace with the kid who bites or is always pulling Alejandra’s hair or talks back or cries about everything.
Through it all, God has been teaching and growing in me a servant heart. Sometimes, when my patience starts to wear thin, I have to pray for Him to give me the eyes to see these little ones as His creation, to care for them the way I would care for my own children. To love them as much as I do myself.
And gosh darn it, have these kids really grown on me! Once I started worrying less about my clothes staying clean and unstained or understood that these kids don’t and can’t ever appreciate what you do for them, I began to truly fall in love with them. Their vulnerability and their little personalities… The way they seek out your attention or crawl into your lap.
It makes me think about what the world would look like if we all learned to love the way Jesus commanded us to. And not just the little ones, since they turned out to be easy to love… but the harder-to-love people of this world. The ones that are messy, broken, with their problems, issues. The prideful, the deceitful, the annoying, the enemy. All these kinds of people are difficult to love, but Jesus tells us to love them as much as we do ourselves.
And the neat thing I’ve learned about this commandment is that once it’s applied, it not only calls us into action (giving, forgiving, caring for, spending time with and looking after), but it changes us as well. I think Christians tend to overcomplicate what it means to follow Jesus. We get caught up in the religious, legalistic, traditional way of “doing Christianity,” (I.e. take our kids to church, pray before meals, give 10%, etc…) But when it comes down to it, Jesus said the greatest commandment was to love God and love others. Out of those two things flows everything else. You start to read your Bible, go to church, obey God simply because you love Him. And your life–how you spend your time, where you spend your money, how and who you interact with–starts to change dramatically because you’re truly loving others.
I’m thankful for my time here so far in Las Tolas. I figured I was coming to make a difference in a community that is poor, but I’m finding that it is rich with lessons that I will take away with for a lifetime.