When you’ve been waking up at 5:45 all week, 7:30 feels like a luxury.
Morning came with a leisurely delay on the seventh day of our mission trip to Ecuador. After a week’s worth of early mornings and hard work, the team was treated to a day filled with some great opportunities to experience life in Ecuador in a whole different way.
Jeff Hunsucker and Phil Schwartz opted to stay behind at the Jungle Kids campus to put a few finishing touches on the project, while the rest of us headed out at 9:30 to take the bus to a small port on the Napo river. There we boarded a motor-powered canoe and headed up the river to the little village of Pusuno. We ran the canoe aground on a rock-laden bank that served as the entryway to a grass and gravel trail that led up and over the hill away from the river. Leaving our lunch coolers and bottles of water, juice and Coca-Cola in the boat, we made our way up the hill along the waist-high grass that bounded the little trail on either side.
It was hard to know where the trail ended and the main street of the village began because in reality, it was all the same thing. No sidewalks or pavement here. No shops or hostels or cafes, only a little line of ramshackle buildings with raggedy paint jobs and open-air windows. A couple of street lights stood guard over the pueblo, as if there would be any reason to be out after dark, and a public bathroom stood broken and abandoned midway through the village, a monument to poorly executed help from well-meaning, but misguided, outsiders.
Being from the United States, it’s almost impossible to imagine the type of conditions in which these people live. Their problems aren’t about having slow internet or being too busy. They struggle to stave off malnutrition for their children and find clean water for the necessities of life. We worry about paying our car insurance, while they walk or take a canoe to almost everywhere they need to go.
We only spent about an hour in Pusuno, time which we spent looking around at the various areas of the village. There was the little one-room school building where visiting teachers and missionaries try to make an impact on the kids, and the public meeting building where some sort of gathering was happening when we arrived. In a field in front of the schoolhouse was a group of small children playing Frisbee with a missionary group from Azusa Pacific University in California and it was a delightful thing to watch. In the midst of poverty and a dim outlook for the future, these little ones knew how to find joy in the midst of the circumstances, and joy like that is contagious.
A few of us got the privilege to be invited in to the home of a woman who lives in Pusuno, an older lady with eight children. Some of them played nearby in the village, while others, she told us, had gone to Quito to try and find work but had so far been unsuccessful. She was quiet and reserved, a woman of small stature with skin the color of mahogany. Her hands were callused and strong, yet still agile enough to weave together bracelets and necklaces of grass cord and beads which she sold to us for a dollar each. Her smile was tired, but genuine, and though she had so little to call her own, she kept it well, even taking time to straighten up her modest home before we trapsed up the stairs to visit.
There is often a quiet dignity among those who live on little, and with her honest eyes and gentle hospitality, the woman in Pusuno was a reminder that even in poverty, there are still riches to be found by those with open hearts.
By the time we left the village the day was getting hot, so we were grateful to board our boat and get moving down the river once again. After about fifteen minutes, we pulled off onto a dirt embankment that opened into a small clearing in the jungle underbrush, a clearing that would serve as our lunchroom for a bit. We spent about half an hour on the shore, swatting away bugs in between bites of tuna sandwiches and fried plantain chips. We expected another stretch of boat ride, but to our surprise, our after lunch trip was only to the other side of the river, where we docked and prepared to enter the wildlife refuge center called Amazonica.
One of the things the Ecuadorian authorities have to do on a regular basis is confiscate jungle animals from people who illegally keep them as pets or tourist attractions. Whether monkeys or macaws, orangutans or ocelots, all are welcome at Amazonica. After a long, long stair climb up the hill of the river bank, we found ourselves at the main center for tourists, where Christian, our German volunteer guide, started off our tour at the toucan area. He explained the story of each species and how they came to the center, and, of course, why they couldn’t be released into the wild. With stringy, thinning hair dyed red and clumped into an attempt at dreadlocks, an anarchy symbol tattooed on his wrist, a Soviet star on his upper back and a couple of infected piercings, Christian was himself an interesting sight for many of us. He did a great job, however, and gave us just the right amount of talking to explain and silence to explore so that we had a great experience at the wildlife refuge nestled in the jungle on the bank of the Napo river.
After a morning filled with visitation and sightseeing, the team made our way back to the bus and returned to the campus of Jungle Kids for Christ in the mid-afternoon. There we found Jeff and Phil, tired out from their last hurrah of building on the site and glad to see us and get packed up. With just the two of them, they had done incredible work to put a few last details into place, and it was such a joy to see the fruit of our labors and theirs. We had been asked to do the floor and roof, and had added to that the framing of interior and exterior walls, plus a good amount of siding, that in the words of Jeff and Phil, “should give the next group a pattern to follow so they don’t mess it up.”
You have to love good quality confidence.
With all of our building complete and our tools collected, the team hopped back on the bus for one final adventure on Day 7, the waterfall hiking destination called “Cascadas.” After our interesting but grueling walking tour of Amazonica, a shower of waterfalls and a dip in the mountain stream seemed like a great idea. What we didn’t know was that to get there would involve not just a 30 minute hike, but an uphill journey sotted with mud.
The mud we experienced on the job site in the days before was nothing compared to the stuff we trudged through as we spent all our effort trying not to slip or lose our sandals and shoes. Yet, after all was said and done, not only was the waterfall so beautiful and refreshing that the hike was worth it, but the mud made it that much more epic a story to tell.
From the boat ride to a river village, to the hiking challenge of an amazon wildlife refuge, to a final visit to the Jungle Kids campus and a waterfall excursion to top it off, Day 7 was an experience unlike any we had the rest of the trip. For many, it was likely an entirely new type of adventure altogether, and a great way to wear ourselves out for one final night at Hostal el Paisano.
Though there was no rain to lull us to sleep this time, the jungle gave us cool breezes flowing in from the banks of the river, as our last day in Misahualli faded from experience into memory under a bright Ecuadorian moon.