Florham student volunteer blogs Ecuador service trip

Editor’s note: Twelve students and two staff members from Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Florham Campus dedicated their time and energy to an alternative winter break service trip in Ecuador in January 2015. While working with the indigenous Shuar people, the students experienced life and culture abroad in Ecuador for 12 days. Senior and marketing major Haylie Morales reflects on the trip in this blog:

Tuesday, Jan. 6 – Travel Day 1

And finally, we’re off (after three flight delays from Newark Airport in New Jersey)!

Wednesday, Jan. 7 – Travel Day 2

It was a very hectic 24 hours, to say the least! The team had already gone through a lot, but I could tell that it wasn’t going to hurt the work that we were about to do. There were still smiles and laughs coming from the entire team. We were already creating a bond with one another that would only get stronger.

Our first stop was a four-hour bus ride to Cuenca, Ecuador. We stopped by a church called Turi and were able to see an amazing view of the entire city at sunset. The first dinner as a team was at El Raimy. Here, we had our first ever “shout-outs” where we would all go around to give a shout-out to any team member that we felt did something that should be recognized. Some of the shout-outs that I remember from that dinner were given to Anne Miksza, assistant director of study abroad, for getting us to Ecuador and also to Elizabeth Espinal, one of the only members who spoke Spanish fluently, for helping us with lost luggage. And lastly, there a was a huge shout-out given to the entire team for staying positive regardless of what we already endured.

Ecuador team

Above: These twelve students from the Florham Campus volunteered in Ecuador for 12 days over winter break. Below: The cultural center in Yunganza where the students worked to build steps, garden plots and more. (All photos courtesy of Haylie Morales)

Ecuador cultural center

Thursday, Jan. 8 – Work Day 1

Today was the first day at the work site. After breakfast, we all hopped on one of the town buses to Yunganza. The scenery along the way was breathtaking. There were so many mountains, trees, horses and cows to look at. It was nice to see some of Mother Nature for a change, rather than office buildings and storefronts.

Once we arrived at the cultural center, Don Carlos Chiriap, the leader of the Shuar community, started the opening ceremony alongside his wife, Donna Leticia. Both were dressed in traditional Shuar clothing, wrapped in cloth held together with pins and wearing necklaces and jewelry made of bright beads and shells.

Don Carlos welcomed us and said that if ever in the future we are in Ecuador again, we are all welcome to stay. Afterwards, we were all given the option to take a sip out of a homemade drink called chicha de jora that they passed around in a large bowl. They also went around using a plant called achiote to paint our faces. It is a common ritual amongst the Shuar people, symbolizing the relationships that they have with their visitors.

Almost immediately following the ceremony, we were given our project. Rather than teaching English lessons and building a Shuar home, which we expected to do, our team would build garden beds for the Shuar community to plant medicinal herbs in, so they can continue their practice of traditional healing. We also were to build stairs for tourists and visitors to use to get to the pond to fish and spend a day at the cultural center. There was much to be done!

The backyard of the cultural center used to be home to tons of trees — so many that even our Friendship Ambassador representative, Victor, didn’t even know there was a pond! (Ed’s note: Friendship Ambassadors Foundation helped coordinate the trip) We could already tell that it was going to be one tough week filled with a lot of manual labor.

We had to transform a large backyard of dirt, weeds and roots into a beautiful place that the community and tourists would be able to enjoy in just a matter of days. We strapped on our boots, put on our gloves and got to work. Many on the team started to weed out the five gardens-to-be. We had limited tools, so many of us were on our hands and knees trying to dig out deep roots of plants and dead trees.

While we were working hard on the garden beds, Mat Argudo and Brent Hasko were with two members from the community helping them cut pieces of wood and also making stakes in order to build the stairs that would lead down to the pond.

By lunchtime, we had finished weeding out all of the garden beds and the stairs were almost finished. Victor told our group that we had finished work in one day that they believed would take us three days to finish. It was honestly so great to hear that. While working that morning, team members were in a great mood. You could just tell that we were excited to be there and were all working really.

For lunch, we were served a traditional Shuar meal on bamboo leaves with chicken, yuca and plantains. Yuca is a popular crop there that is very similar to a potato and plantains were part of every meal. It looked really intimidating when it was first served, but it turned out to be a great meal.

After we finished lunch, some local children stopped by. We brought out the soccer ball and played some music. Two of the little girls, Doris and Ladara, taught some of our team a dance, which I later learned was a Shuar dance. The song was called “Nunka Japam Ikiukip.” Our little friend Romeb was also hanging around, kicking the soccer ball with Brent while also helping us while we worked.

When we went back to work, most of the team did weeding out by the front. Mat and Brent finished up with the stairs and we were finally done with day one. It was a really tough day and we were more exhausted than we all expected to be. But it was all worth it!

Achiote plant

Above: Shuar use the achiote plant to paint faces during ceremonies. Below: Christina Legotti, Eve Seidman, Amanda Spence and Courtney Rendinaro work together to remove a tree from the site.

Tree removal

Friday, Jan. 9 – Work Day 2

We had an extremely long morning when we got to the cultural center. It was raining all morning and it felt like there was more mud on us then anything else. The team spent three hours moving stones of all shapes and sizes to use to line the stairs. Finally, by lunchtime we were done moving the stones. For lunch we had one of my favorite meals of the trip — chicken with plantain chips and rice with tomatoes and lettuce on the side. After lunch, more kids came by to play. We brought out chalk and some drew pictures and others wrote their names.

The second half of the day consisted of half of the team lining up the stairs with stones on either side. It took a longer time than we expected, but at the end of the day the stairs were really coming together. Other team members were busy digging out trenches that lined the edge of the pond in order to create a wall of stones. They really deserve a lot of credit. Working with mud made their job of digging out the trenches much more difficult.

Saturday, Jan. 10 – Work Day 3

On the third day of work, a large pile of gravel was delivered to the site. We needed it to layer the stairs. Some were in charge of filling the wheelbarrow with gravel while others were layering the dirt and packing the gravel in. Team members also cleaned the muddy stones that lined the stairs to prep for a layer of paint.

Monday, Jan. 12 – Work Day 4

Monday morning had to be one of the best experiences of the whole trip! We went to visit three different schools — a special education school in Limon, an elementary school and a school for kindergarteners. Each visit was special in its own way. We brought them school supplies and athletics equipment and it was as if we gave them the world. The excitement in the students’ eyes and the look of appreciation from the teachers and principals of each school was so rewarding for our team!

We spent the afternoon at the work site. The women painted the stones that lined the stairs as well as the wall of stones by the pond, while the men started making the flowerbeds.

Tuesday, Jan. 13 – Work Day 5

It was a slower day for us at the work site as we came close to the end of our project. We were able to finish all five garden beds, which had to be surrounded by planks of wood and stones. Toward the end of the workday, we started lining the entrance with stones and gravel. Our hard work was really coming together and it was awesome to see the project almost complete!

Alexis Banner

Above: Alexis Banner gives a thumbs-up as she and the other students put down a layer of gravel. Below: The finished outdoor space provides a spot for visitors and Shuar to fish, garden and spend time together.

Ecuador project

Wednesday, Jan. 14 – Work Day 6 and Final Dinner

Our last day of work was spent painting and adding final touches to our project. We finished within an hour. Everyone was happy with the work we had accomplished and already we could see how much it would impact the Shuar community!

We were told that we would have the honor to prepare and serve a final dinner to all of the people who we came into contact with throughout the week. Our group decided on burgers and salad. Fortunately, everyone enjoyed the meal we made for them and the festivities began!

Nine of the twelve students were lucky enough to take part in the closing ceremony. We were dressed in traditional Shuar clothing and took part in the ceremony with the children who are part of the community. They taught us a dance and the ceremony ended with us serving the chicha de jora drink to visitors. It was an incredible experience. The rest of the night consisted of a lot of singing and dancing. Finally it was time to say our goodbyes.

Closing Thoughts

Our team was able to give back to the Shuar community all throughout the week. Senior and psychology major Christina Legotti mentioned to us during our final group dinner in Salinas, Ecuador, that she saw several people from the community go to the back of the cultural center that night to check out the work we had done and that she could already see how important our project was for them.

 “This trip has taught me about teamwork and the value of pushing yourself harder for the good of others. It has also taught me that the love and support of family, friends and a community are the most important things to have in life,” Legotti said.

With a small group of twelve, we didn’t know the impact that we would have. On that final night, we were finally able to see how important our work had been and the effect our presence had on the Shuar community, but more importantly, how much they changed us and the way we look at the world.

“It was a rewarding experience to connect with a community outside of our own,” said senior and finance major Elona Bilovol.

Everyone on our team will forever cherish the new friendships that were made as well as the experiences gained.

Greatest thanks to the best team out there: Anne Miksza, assistant director of study abroad; Brian Mauro, associate provost at the Florham Campus; graduate student Brent Hasko; seniors Mat Argudo, Alexis Banner, Elona Bilovol, Dana Gatyas, Kerry Gorbos, Christina Legotti, Courtney Rendinaro, Eve Seidman and Amanda Spence; and junior Elizabeth Espinal!