“Can a person who has been brought up in the heart of a thick dark forest, where one had to beat a path through multiple layers of trees just to take a letter to the post office, have any conception of what it’s like to spend one’s entire childhood waiting for a single tree to grow?”
There lies a significant difference between a tourist and a cosmopolitan. Their motives are different, their beliefs are different, and their actions are different. When I first went to Zaruma, Ecuador during the summer of 2016, I was mesmerized by the incredible views, the communal culture, and the work ethic of the people. I knew if the opportunity ever presented itself, I’d love to work on a developmental project in the region. But the idea seemed so distant. Heck, even I seemed distant. I was nothing like them.
Or was I?
Arturo and I trekked up and down the side of the Andes, looking for different farmers in the region. He told us the trips would only be a mile or two long, but that wasn’t the case. We walked for what seemed like forever. I was thirsty, hungry, and tired. He wasn’t. I struggled to walk the steep slopes. He didn’t. I complained. He wouldn’t. I was 21… Arturo was 65.
I knew the value of hard work. I learned it from my father at an early age. I began cutting grass when I was 7, helping Ricky, one of my father’s employees. Eventually, I started building my own client base outside of Dad’s work. I had ten yards that I cut in my neighborhood. No matter how many yards I added to the list, my dad never left my side. He always helped me cut grass on the weekends. He said that his father always did the same for him, so he was paying it forward. But I knew the real reason. My father and I are identical. We live to work.
Arturo told me stories. He told me how he became so accustomed to walking the steep slopes of the Andes. He’d walk 10 miles a day with 100-pound sacks on his back, hoping to earn a tad bit more than the typical $20 a day. No one else was willing to make the long-distance hikes, but he was. He told me stories of his days in the mines as well. He’d pick at the side of the mountain, hoping to strike gold. For years, he walked away empty-handed, but one day he finally came across a few ounces of the prized metal. He reached down to pick it up, but it was quickly snatched out from underneath him. He walked away from the mine that day like he had every other one– with a mere $25 dollars in his pocket.
The 3-week long Mercer On Mission tour during the Summer of 2016 came to an end, and I was forced to leave. Arturo had asked me the night before to exchange WhatsApp numbers. He wanted to stay in touch, and I obliged, assuming nothing would really come out of it. These realizations, these friendships, and these events will end up as memories that I recollect one day… Mere stories that I get to tell my children. I’m a tourist. I’ve marveled and I’ve witnessed. I’ve experienced– but, I never became. I returned to The States on June 5, 2016. I stayed in Macon a few days to complete our assignment for Mercer On Mission then I returned to Pooler, Georgia, my hometown. That was that.
“There are no great people in this world, only great challenges which ordinary people rise to meet.”
-WILLIAM FREDERICK HALSEY, JR.
It was June 10, 2016, and I’d spent all day outside playing basketball with friends and helping Dad with a few projects. Dinner time rolled around and as I always have, I returned home. Mom had a hot meal waiting on me– chicken, rice, and broccoli. My favorite meal. I sat down, said grace, and ate.
After dinner, I called Arturo, hoping he had a decent enough WiFi connection to talk on the phone. After a couple of rings, he picked up. We talked about the past few days. He told me that Roseangela, his daughter, was hoping to start college in August… But he didn’t think it would happen. It’s too expensive. He told me that she wanted to be a fashion designer. She had the same love for clothes that her mother, Anita, did. I asked Arturo about his job at the local greenhouse. He told me that the plants were looking great! He was excited to see how they turned out!
As we talked, I caught myself thinking about my time in Ecuador. I thought about the incredible views and wonderful people. But I also thought about the poverty and poor conditions– the young boys laboring out in the fields, the cups of water I was instructed to turn down because it would make me sick, the donkey who had multiple 100-pound sacks on its back and struggling to walk along the side of the mountain. I forced myself to think positively. Don’t worry about what you can’t control, Shane… Before hanging up the phone, I asked Arturo what he had for dinner…
Over the course of a year, Arturo and I became really good friends. He told me stories that I’ll never forget– some good, some bad– but no matter the story, I found myself caring more and more about him and the people of Ecuador. Most surprisingly, I found myself longing for a return to simplistic ways, a return to the narrow streets of Zaruma.
By June of 2017, Arturo had fully convinced me that the problems I kept telling myself that I couldn’t control, I could actually control. He showed me that even the smallest of contributions would make a big difference. He assured me that it wouldn’t be easy, but he believed in me. I never understood it. Why me? Why did Arturo have so much confidence in my abilities?
JULY 8, 2017
I returned to Ecuador. This time, alone. My touristic mindset had just about left. I only had one more hurdle to clear– the bus. Before leaving for Ecuador, I was looking at the costs of transportation from Quito, the capital, to Zaruma. By plane, it would cost me nearly $100– but by bus, it would cost me $15. It seemed obvious. Why would I pay $85 more? When I got to Quito, my friends who live in the city thought I was crazy. They told me the $85 was just peace of mind. It was safety.
I refused to second guess my decision. While I originally made the choice based on reason, it became a rite of passage– a hero’s journey. Before I could begin to help the Ecuadorian people, I needed to understand their way of life. You can read all you want and watch all you want, but you’ll never truly understand a people’s culture until you immerse yourself in it.
The bus trip was more than I could have imagined. I believe I had a taste of every aspect of Ecuadorian culture on the 12-hour ride. Initially, the A/C was broken but after it was fixed, it was extremely cold. There were folks that were well-off, dressed in suit and tie, and there were others who asked for spare change. People laughed at the comedy show playing on the small TV at the front of the bus and people sighed when the TV cut off after hitting a pothole in the road. There were times when the bus was traveling 70mph, and there were times when we were barely moving, struggling to navigate the broken roads. But through it all, one thing never changed– the love the people had for one another, including an outsider… Someone who looked nothing like them, who had every opportunity in the world that they never had, someone who never had to worry about food being on the table the next day…
I stepped off the bus at 8am on July 10 no longer a tourist. I was a cosmopolitan ready to make a difference. When I arrived at Arturo’s house that morning, it all hit me at once. I realized why Arturo had so much confidence in me. He knew it from the times we started trekking up the mountains together during the summer of 2016, from the times I returned his phone call when I got back to The States, and from the times I asked him questions about his childhood. We’d both been waiting on the same tree to grow. We’d just been waiting from opposite ends of the forest.
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