The last day of my trip to Ecuador was spent in the touristy city of Banos. I clambered over a railing and stood on a bare, wooden platform attached to the side of a bridge. Hundreds of feet below, a small river snaked its way through jagged rocks. Only a harness hooked up to a system of worn-out ropes kept me from falling to certain death. In honor of the occasion, I had decided to wear my Superfan shirt for what was probably going to be my next Instagram post—and as a favor for the search and rescue team that would have to identify my remains on the ravine floor.
For such a small country, Ecuador is a land of extreme contrasts. It’s a place where traditional and modern fashion brush past each other on the street, where bustling urban centers pale in comparison to waterfalls that have carved out natural sanctuaries since time immemorial, and where the lonely Andes Mountain Range wraps around the people in a welcoming embrace.
I spent the last week of Winter Break in Riobamba, Ecuador, on a medical mission as part of the Boston College student chapter of MEDLIFE, traveling and working in mobile clinics in isolated communities with little to no access to health care. We were assured that we wouldn’t be going to the Galapagos Islands on this trip—instead, we’d come face-to-face with the most extreme cases of physical hardship and economic poverty. It’s one thing to hear about life in developing countries and see pictures of such communities, but another thing entirely to actually find yourself in the middle of it all.
Right away I felt a disconnect between us American college students and the Ecuadorian mountain folk. We made a spectacle every time we walked down the street. While we were used to the way we looked, we were gawked at by locals used to cultural homogeneity. We couldn’t speak Spanish well enough to communicate with the locals as much as we wanted to, with this linguistic inadequacy amplified by working alongside bi- and trilingual students from Puerto Rico and Montreal, respectively. We couldn’t even use the tap water to brush our teeth for fear that unfiltered water could harbor bacteria and parasites that would wreak havoc on our delicate digestive systems.
For the first time, I felt self-conscious about every move I made and its implications. On the streets, it meant either perpetuating or debunking the stereotypes of being an American tourist. In the mobile clinics, it meant trying to explain to locals who have never had adequate health education that the proper way to apply topical cream was to rub it on your skin, not eat it. For myself, it meant accepting the fact that I was definitely not in Kansas anymore.
Yet we strove to break our mind-forged manacles, going outside of our comfort zones to find common ground. As it turned out, a smile helped a local as much as a prescription for ibuprofen. A pick-up soccer game brightened up the children’s day as much as giving them their own toothbrushes and toothpaste. Nature’s handiwork at creating cascading waterfalls and towering mountains was as awe-inspiring as the artisans’ handiwork at creating colorful crafts and traditional clothes. In the end, we were able to be immersed in a different culture and forget about ourselves for a little while.
It’s reasonable for you to assume that we were on a medical mission because we wanted to check off the boxes next to “clinical experience” and “awareness of global health” on our list of things to do before medical school. Part of me knows you’re right, but another part of me wants to tell you there was so much more to it. I never thought I’d be able to form meaningful relationships with people from all around the world. I never thought I’d be brave enough to eat roasted guinea pig or jump off a bridge. I never thought I’d find myself standing at the top of a mountain with a view that stretched as far as the eye can see. I never thought I’d feel so small. So I guess the whole point of my medical mission was not to add to the inflated ego of the pre-med student, but to accept the fact that I know very little of a very big world.
As Boston prepared itself for the first blizzard of the year, I couldn’t help but think of the word “nieve,” the Spanish word for snow. The locals I met in Ecuador know the word “nieve,” even though the only snow they’ve probably seen is on the tops of the distant Andes. The snow-capped peaks are as far away from them as my experiences in Ecuador are now far away from me, but it’s important to remember that even though the mountains are mere outlines in the background, their omnipresence is a testament to the fact that they’re not going anywhere any time soon. I hope my memories of Ecuador’s rich history, welcoming people, and vibrant culture stay with me like the steadfast mountains—maybe in the background, but always there.
As I waited for the signal to jump, I thought that though paying $20 to jump off a bridge was a huge risk in itself, I had already taken so many risks in Ecuador and had changed as a result. If I could make it through all of that, this time would be no different. So I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and jumped for an eternity.
Featured Image by Kayla Fernando / Heights Editor