My favorite spot is at the front of the truck. I sit on a block of wood that I suspect is really there as a tether for transporting supplies. Stretching my legs over the cab, my feet dangle at the top of the windshield. From there, I watch the expanse stretch before us as we drive to our work site. Sometimes, I cease to watch and instead feel the expanse within, closing my eyes to enjoy the sensation of barreling down the main road.
We pick up the students from their respective homestays between 7:00-8:00 every morning. Once we’ve collected everyone, we head to the fields. The students stand and brace themselves with the railing on the perimeter of the truck bed. Community members often balance on the rim of the truck, standing with bodies parallel and tight against the cab. Winding through plotted land and seemingly obscure trails, we take turns jumping out of the truck to walk up hills or reduce the weight when caught in a particularly thick patch of mud. Frequently, someone calls out “duck” and we all bend our heads to avoid the scathe of a branch.
The ride is always adventurous. And– as with so many experiences here in Bua– there is a choice as to how to receive it. I could call it miserable and experience it as such, wincing with every bump and thud and counting the minutes until we reach our destination. Instead, I try to lean into it. To call out and focus on the positive parts: the beauty of the surrounding fields with the symmetry of the lines of yuka and chaos of the cacao; the feeling of cool air on my skin with the refreshing kiss of every drop of water; the humor of navigating potholes and wayward tree limbs.
That is one of the most salient lessons for me here: I have the agency to shape my own experience, as my framing creates the extent of my misery or pleasure.
How I’ve discovered so much of the latter! This morning journey brings us to our project site here in Ecuador, building trees with local Tsa’chila¬ people, an indigenous community known for their traditional dress and red-painted hair. Never having planted a tree before, I am still quite moved by the experience of seeing a new sapling in the ground, firm and poised to root.
Most days, I find the experience quite spiritual. As I plant, I talk to the trees and listen to the wind’s whispers. Mostly, I reflect on Life– marveling at and connecting with the energy flowing through the crowded jungles and stretching fields. Quite perfectly, I began a book with body prayer exercises just before our project commenced and I find tree planting an ideal space to develop this practice.
When the jungle’s sting threatens my serenity–bug bites mounting and rain pounding in quantities I question my capacity to endure– I resort to other mental tactics. Sometimes, I choose humor and silliness. There is ample comedic material as we search for stakes marking where to place each plant. Navigating the forested “paths” carved with machetes days before, we stumble over roots and sink into pools of mud. Packing the soil around the saplings’ roots invites biting ants to swarm and then there is the question of what to do about the sweat dripping from my face when my hands and cloths are covered in mud. Singing, laughing, and dancing through this labor always makes it more enjoyable. A lesson in positivity, I’m committed to the experience being nothing less.
Other times, I am in a more reflective place and I think about the many women and men whose livelihood comes from physical labor. I remember the folks at home and abroad whose daily work makes it possible to live the way that I do. An impetus to push myself further, these are the days I serve as tree distributor or post-hole digger, playing with physical limits and building an endurance that my privilege rarely necessitates.
We conclude our work when weather demands it or we’ve planted all of the trees at the site where we worked. Piling back onto the truck, this ride is always more pungent than the former. Perhaps in anticipation of the hammocks awaiting us at the cultural center, or just a concession to the winds, a quiet often passes over the group on our way back.
Though a cultural center, the hammocks are actually a fabricated part of the experience– brought in with the knowledge that tourists enjoy them and associate them with this part of the world. This makes me ask, as so many things do here, how else our presence influences Tsa’chila living.
We explore questions such as this over a delicious lunch and then take time to rest before seminar or the students’ work on their media projects. The unit here is on Environmental Sustainability and Natural Resources, prompting other questions of consumption, responsibility, and policies and approaches to sustainable living.
Our seminar space and lunch destination, the center is also my home for these five weeks. With open structures that boast a beautiful view of the trees, it is one of the most charming places I’ve ever lived. My room is elevated with a ladder to get you there, giving me the allusion that I live in a tree house (a childhood dream since the days of reading and watching Swiss Family Robinson). When the community has visitors like us, women come and stay at the center. It is a joy to get to know Adela, Cynthia, and Lizbeth while we all work on our Spanish, a second language to Safiki for the Tsa’chila. The women provide incredible food and abundant hospitality while I attempt to offer warmth, relationship, and cultural pursuit.
When the students return to their homestays, there is often a window to practice yoga or bathe just before night falls. The property is right on the river, our bath. Venturing tentatively down the path, I test each step before trusting it with my full weight. My caution comes from the multiple sliding splits that the mud has prompted.
I make my way to the rocks where water flows with varied strength based on the rain’s fall. Often, its force is powerful and I fight to brace myself in the heart of the current. Dipping into the cool pool, I revel at being this connected to the earth. Pulling out my biodegradable soap (irony noted), I lather my body and enjoy the rushing river curve over the contours of my body. My hair comes last. When I am finally ready to fully submerge, I duck below the surface.
I feel infinite. Remembering a meditation introduced to me in Sri Lanka, I observe my thoughts and picture them floating along the river. I then join the flow, One with thought, water, and source.
The evening concludes with dinner and a game or conversation with my co-workers and fellow volunteers living with us. Along with my Spanish, my Bananagrams and Set skills continue to progress.
I retire to my tree-house after spraying my toothpaste as thin as possible so not to disturb the plants. Living rustically while studying the environment is a compelling way to conclude our trip. I reflect on practices and choices at home where my urban ways create a false sense of separation between choice and impact. What chemicals do I thoughtlessly wash down the drain that I would never dare to dispose of here? How much more waste do I produce when I am not packing out my trash? Where is the limit to this life of excess? What are the costs of that line?
The rhythms of my days are ones of connectedness. Contentment and challenge present themselves in equal measure as life in Bua teaches me about Life itself.