In a post back in July or August (“Así es la vida”) I wrote about how my time in Ecuador had already made me reach a greater acceptance of life’s fortune and misfortune, and I feel that, as my departure from South America draws near, my experience has come full circle. My three weeks in Quito in March (one of them in a hospital room) recovering from cellulitis, reminded me that we often cannot control the circumstances that shape our lives but we can always choose how to respond to them. I left Estero on the night of February 28th concerned about my leg but completely unaware of how serious my condition was. I left Estero assuming that I would be returning soon to spend my last six weeks with my friends and families there. But in life, plans often go awry, things happen, circumstances change. I ultimately learned a great deal from my experience in Quito about the importance of treating even seemingly minor medical issues seriously; about how fortunate I am to have all of my limbs; about the vast discrepancy between the health care available for most Ecuadorians and that available only for the elite few; about using positive and proactive thinking to turn setbacks into challenges to be overcome; and about how hard it can be to sleep one wink in a hospital.
The hardest part of being bed-ridden in Quito was being forced to recognize that my time as a volunteer, project coordinator, community organizer, scholarship program administrator, and teacher in Estero was essentially over. I realized that whatever remaining days I might be able to spend in Estero would be few. A couple of days to say goodbye and pass the hours with my friends was all I could hope for. There would be no more problems to solve, ideas to implement, or projects to tweak and improve. In my Minerva Fellowship interview over a year ago I told the committee that my greatest fear in considering the fellowship was that, when the time came to leave my placement, I would feel that I had not done enough. Though I am very proud of the work Shelby and I have done in Estero, I couldn’t help but be reminded of this fear while in Quito, as I watched my time in Ecuador disappear.
However, while my work in Estero was over, my responsibility to the community and to the families that had taken me in over these months had not gone away and never would. When, on Saturday, March 24th, I was finally able to return to Estero, I decided to commit myself fully to being the best possible brother, friend, and son to the people who have become such an important part of my life over the last nine months. So during the two weeks I had in Estero, before Shelby and I left on Monday, April 9th, to go to Peru, I did my best to maximize every moment of every day; to relish every hug from the handful of little kids whom I have grown to adore; to fully appreciate every swim in the ocean; to remember each conversation that I would never want to forget; and to savor every bite of fresh fish or seafood that I ate. Though March was full of events that I could not control, I decided that I would leave Estero on my terms, without regrets.
My last two weeks in Estero were memorable. From playing soccer for the last time on Estero’s slanted and overgrown field to leading a trip to the town of Mompiche with a group of high school students, the days were busy but wonderful. Shelby and I created a “semana de juegos” (week of games and activities), and played sports and games every day during our last week with the students we had worked with throughout the year. And, in saying my final goodbyes, I received countless gifts from the various families I had stayed with and from friends of mine. Everyone told me that they hoped their gifts would remind me of them when I was back in “mi país.” But I do not think I could forget Estero, or the people who were so important to my experience there, even if I tried. Estero, even in its laziest, most disorganized, and dysfunctional form, has a raw charm that is irresistible. There is a quality so unique about that tiny little town that even when traveling elsewhere, as I am now, I am only directly reminded of Estero when I encounter a moment or a place that sharply contrasts with Estero’s unpretentiousness.
We ended the final week with a despedida, or farewell party, on Saturday night, to which we invited the entire town. We bought a huge pig (over 140 pounds) from our friend Lucho and, with the help of the women’s cooking group, served pork dinner with rice and fried plátanos to everyone in the town. From 9 that night until 7 the following morning we danced and celebrated with our closest friends.
Today I am sitting in a hostel in Cusco, Peru, and I already feel worlds away from Estero de Plátano. Leaving Estero was extremely difficult, as I will detail in my next post, but it is a testament to the work that Shelby and I have done that what I feel now is not regret or disappointment, but rather a strong dose of nostalgia. My final days in Estero, though very sad and emotional, convinced me that Shelby and I have had almost as significant an influence on the lives of many people in Estero as they have had on ours, and recognizing this has brought feelings of both gratification and guilt.