Touching the Stars

By Renee Noordzij

It’s always hot here. And when it isn’t hot, it’s downpouring. So I’m either sweaty or soaked with rain. It’s just a little bit different than the snow of my hometown near Boston. There’s bugs. Everywhere. On the walls, the floors, in the shower, in my bed. My legs are covered in bug bites. My main source of nutrition is rice. For breakfast, lunch, and dinner I always have a huge serving of rice. All of this topped with the typical culture shock produced from living with an indigenous family in the Amazon region of Ecuador would spell a panic attack for anyone. But it’s worth it. To be here in Tena, I’ll be sweaty and bug bitten for a bit longer.

Just to prepare you, my volunteer placement is a little bit confusing and hard to explain. Technically I’m a public health volunteer, which works perfectly for me because my dream is to become a doctor. But my placement involves three very different jobs. On Mondays and Wednesdays I work with a team of female physical therapists. With them I travel to the indigenous communities surrounding the small city of Tena and we visit the homes of people with disabilities. Our patients range from blind, crippled old men to young boys with Down’s Syndrome. If our patient has a physical disability, we do exercises with them and give them massages. If they have an intellectual disability, then we play brain games with them and help them with skills they want to learn. I accompany one therapist per day, and each day we visit about three patients. We will be out all day, and won’t eat or use the bathroom until we get back to Tena. To get to the communities we either take the bus, ride in the back of a truck, or ride in a canoe. Half of the adventure is just getting to the patients. But this work has taught me more than I can say. The therapists have shown me how not to just take care of a patient physically, but also emotionally. Sometimes we will spend a visit just talking with the patient, giving them a listener to their problems. And their problems are no small matter. Extreme poverty, incurable illnesses, dead children. I’ve learned that life isn’t always pretty. It’s gritty, real, and painful at times. Ingrained in my head are the tears of an already grieving mother for her son with an incurable heart disease. The extent of this ocean of grief seems impossible to cross, but we can always give our compassion to create a raft of compassion.

On Tuesdays and Fridays I work in the blood testing lab in the Red Cross stationed here in Tena. I spend all day in the company of the young lab technician, Mariuxi. I prick people’s finger and figure out their blood type. We draw blood and test for the many components of the blood. We also work with pee and poop. Yup that’s right. I’ve basically lost all sense of being grossed out. I get confused by Mariuxi’s fast paced Spanish, and have a little inner celebration whenever I get something right. And during our many hours of downtime, we watch soap operas on her desktop. I can now easily say that I’m well versed in the world of overly dramatic, badly acted Spanish soap operas.

On Thursdays I take the bus to a farm maintained by indigenous midwives. There I assist in the medicinal plant garden and spend hours listening to the knowledge only a midwife can impart. With an air of security and tranquility, the farm is one of my favorite places here in Tena. There I’ve discovered a new passion for natural remedies. What’s the point in buying pills when you can walk into nature, pick some leaves, boil them into a tea, and cure yourself? Seems better to me! Thursdays are my days to surround myself in nature. I touch the leaves, the dirt, and roots with reverence. Within those stems is an ancient knowledge incomprehensible to me or any other human.

And that’s it folks! That’s what I do in Ecuador. Except I’m missing a tiny, tiny detail. Well actually it’s a huge detail. And that’s my host family. I’ve now just dubbed them “the fam”. With three moms, two sisters, and two brothers, I’m never bored at home. Although I have my own room, there’s always someone walking in to chat and hang out. And that doesn’t exclude the two kittens that have marked my bottom drawer as their home. If I described every family member, this blog would be a novel. So instead I’ll just say that I love each one of them. The three moms are sisters, and the youngest is my “main mom”. Karla is 27, about two feet shorter than me, and the sweetest person you’ll ever find. She’s the one that cooks me food. So that’s an automatic reason to love her. And boy do I love her!

With my family I’ve gone to play in the nearby rivers, I participated in Carnaval, I’ve danced in Ecuadorian parties, I’ve taught them English, gone to a fair, and created innumerable memories. They are my main source of joy here. All the two-year-old Adrian has to do is give me a wave and I’m giddy for hours. And most of the time I barely even understand their Spanish. But I’ve come to learn that language is not necessary to show love. Through little presents, smiles, hugs, and kisses we show our love for each other. I’ve only been with them for two months, but they are already my family. I can’t even imagine the day when I’ll have to leave them.

There is so much to be thankful for here, I can barely express it. The kindness that has been given to me is overwhelming. The extent to which I’ve learned about myself and other people blows my mind. Before this gap year, my world was so small. I barely ever thought outside of myself. Now I barely have room in my head for vain thoughts. I’ve spent most of my time here feeling useless in the grand necessity of human suffering. How in the world can I help? But I’ve also come to realize that a big part of helping is listening and understanding. Listen to the blind old woman who lives in a wooden shack lament over her lost son. Listen to the child asking you if she can touch the stars. And tell her that she can. Anyone can, but especially you. So forget that constant sweat and bugs. Because learning, experiencing, and listening to the wonders of this world is worth all of the little inconveniences.

Saludos from Tena, Ecuador,
Renee Noordzij