When I was 17, my parents sent me on a service trip to Ecuador. Basically, I was a terrible teenager and going through some toxic stuff, so it was either do a month of community service in South America or go to boot camp. I’m not an idiot, so I picked Ecuador. It ended up being one of the most amazing, fulfilling, and exciting experiences of my life. Here are some highlights from that trip, and why I have determined it is The Coolest Thing I’ve Ever Done™.
If you have never seen the Amazon rainforest I highly suggest you fly, drive, walk, whatever, and get down there immediately. It’s beautiful and big and very, very hot. You are constantly sweating because the air is just so humid, which sounds disgusting but you stop noticing it after a while because you’re too busy dodging bugs the size of your hand and staring at the river, hoping to see a dolphin or a piranha. I stayed in the belly of the forest for about a week. We were put up in these thatched cabin-like structures and helped an animal sanctuary with their chores.
Now, this sounds much more fun than it actually was. Animal sanctuary? Sign me right the fuck up. Except that what we were doing was hauling rocks. I am dead serious. They wanted to extend a rock path from the top of the sanctuary down to the river. When I say “top”, I mean that the sanctuary was on top of a big hill. Like…really big. So not only were we hauling bags of rocks in muggy heat, but we were doing it by going up and down a giant slope 65 times a day. This got old very quickly. However, there was another catch: the animal sanctuary housed a good number of monkeys. The monkeys were not kept in cages. This actually made some sense; they were eventually going to release the monkeys back into the wild so they didn’t want them to get used to being inside structures or being unable to roam around. Unfortunately for me, this meant the monkeys could run right up to you and smack you in the head or try to bite you. And there was also a hard and fast rule: the monkeys could touch you, but you were absolutely forbidden to touch them. One day, one of the monkeys, who I shall refer to as Demon, decided that grabbing my hair from the trees wasn’t enough for him anymore. He was ready for bigger and better things. So, as I dragged 15 pounds of rocks with my skinny twig arms, Demon raced up to me, grabbed my rainboot, proceeded to bite the crap out of it, and then wrapped his arms around my legs and started to climb me. Naturally, I started screaming. Demon, having gotten the reaction he wanted, gleefully scurried off. The animal sanctuary worker who was supervising us then scolded me for screaming. I told him next time Demon could attack him instead. Then I went back to our cabin and promptly got a hornet caught in my hair and had to be held down by one of the boys so they could remove it. The Amazon was not kind to me. Didn’t stop me from loving it though.
The highlight of the trip by far was when we went to the Galapagos Islands. It was unlike anything else I’d ever seen before and I would love to go back. The best part was the nature, and being around so many different animals. But once again, they were animals that wanted to kill me. We were able to go snorkeling, which was incredible, but they do warn you about the sea lions. Sea lions can be aggressive, even if they’re being playful. In the water, they don’t understand that you are a puny human and your body cannot take being hit with 600 pounds of pinniped. This did not stop me from attempting to befriend ever sea lion I saw.
Once I got in the water, I realized the instructor had not been joking. The sea lions were very happy to see this gangling pale creature in the ocean with them, and they would whiz by me excitedly. They were interested and curious, but luckily were not displaying any hostile behavior. I did get nudged and bumped a few times but I was not rammed by any of them so I considered that a win. Emboldened by this, I decided I was an Immortal Animal God and I was not scared when we were taken on a boat and driven out into the middle of the water to do some deep-sea snorkeling. It was amazing. We saw some more sea lions, as well as sea turtles, pelicans, and a myriad of beautiful fish.
We also saw sharks.
Now, let me say this about sharks: I absolutely adore them. When I was a child I was obsessed; I could recite every shark fact you could ever possibly imagine. I once gave an impromptu tour of the National History Museum’s shark exhibit to full-grown adults who were amused by this squeaky-voiced child discussing sharks’ diet and cartilage. Because of this, I do not fear sharks at all. So when we were snorkeling about 20 feet above a group of hammerheads, I was in heaven. Except then they started looking larger, clearer, closer. I was thrilled. I was getting a better look at them. And then our instructor motioned for us to lift our heads out of the water and said, “Okay I need you all to calmly board the boat right now. They have seen us and are coming to investigate.” The hammerheads were getting larger because we were intriguing, snack-sized shapes on the surface. We boarded the boat, although I did so very reluctantly. Monkeys are a no-go for me, but sharks? It’s cool, y’all can bite me.
The final service activity we did was to paint a school nestled up in the mountains of Ecuador. The name of the mountain escapes me, because it was ten years ago and also I was a teenager and didn’t much care about mountain names. However, this is what the school looked like:
It wasn’t really anything more than a couple of small buildings and a giant stretch of pavement. Stray dogs hung out on the property, and because it was in the mountains, it got pretty cold at night, despite being mid-summer. Our task was to repaint some of the steps and buildings, so that the school would look lovely and welcoming when the kids came back in a month or so. This was the first time I realized that mountains, while beautiful and picturesque, do not agree with me. Altitude sickness is a real thing, and I suffered from it badly. I know if we had stayed there longer I would have adjusted, but since it was only a few days I was vaguely nauseous and very dizzy for the majority of the time. But I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I had declared myself the resident artist and I designed, sketched, and helped paint a mural on the wall of one of the buildings. I took everything I had seen during the trip (okay, I didn’t see a hot air balloon but I have a hot air balloon obsession, just check out the giant tattoo on my leg) and recreated it on a plain blank white wall.
I ended up being really proud of the work we did, and was surprised to find that it was a great bonding experience. I’m not sure if that mural is still there, on the wall of a school way up in the mountains of Ecuador, but I sort of hope it is. I hope it was able to be a source of comfort for those kids. It felt really good to do something for people who would appreciate it, and who needed it.
That trip changed me. When I returned to the states, full of rice and beans and like, 40 different kinds of soup, I was different. I got myself out of a poisonous friendship, I realized I had more to offer the world than just angst and depression, and I started branching out and meeting new people and doing new things. Yes, I got attacked by multiple animals. Yes, I dealt with the extreme heat of the rainforest and the cold of the mountains. But I also learned, and grew, and helped others. It was an experience I will never forget. It was definitely the coolest thing I’ve ever done. So far.