Nature Through a Lens

          Last week Anthonny, Aldemar and Leandro came running up to our house in the middle of the day looking for a camera.  I went outside to find the three of them jumping with excitement at the beetle that Anthonny was holding in his hand.  It was a beautiful orange, red, black and yellow beetle that almost looked as if it had been painted by hand. image

          One of the programs we work with at Sustainable Roots is called PEAK.  This is a program that encourages photography as a means of educating youth and opening their perspectives in a new way.  We encourage the students to venture into nature and take pictures of insects, plants, animals, and anything else that strikes them.  With a camera in their hands, the students immediately become engaged in their surroundings.  Through a lens, everyday bugs become beautiful, interesting and important.  The PEAK program has cultivated an appreciation of nature that these students never had before.  As they work on taking better and better pictures, they notice more and more about the world around them, both the big and the small. 

          These gradual changes in perspective and moments of appreciation are hugely impactful in shaping how these students will interact with their environment.  They live in one of the most biologically diverse areas of the world – an area that is pertinent to the health of the whole planet.  An appreciation of nature and a mindset for sustainability is one of the most important themes we hope to inspire as an organization.  Anthonny, Aldemar and Leandro’s reaction to the beetle absolutely made my day! 

-Hannah

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Things

             This morning Toni mentioned that her ipod was gone.  It was a new ipod that her mother had mailed her in a package from the United States because electronics are awfully more expensive here than they are there.  She’d had it for just a few weeks.  “Oh no!  What do you mean gone?” I asked disappointedly.  Surely it had to be somewhere, just hidden for a while.  But no, she was sure it had been in her backpack, which means that if it was gone it had been stolen.  I tried to empathize with her, fully aware that I would be angry and frustrated if the same had happened to me.  There isn’t the money to buy a new one at Ecuadorian prices, and to mail another from the U.S. could take months.  But Toni seemed only mildly disappointed.  “It’s just a thing,” she responded.  “Things disappear here.  You get used to it.”  And then she carried on with her day. 

            “It’s just a thing,” she had said.  Yes, but wasn’t it a thing you cared about?  An expensive thing?  A thing that isn’t easily replaced?  A thing you used in your daily life for activities like exercise?  A thing that made you happy? 

            Especially in the U.S., we are very attached to all of our “things.”  They are valuable, they feel necessary, and it’s almost as if we are the sum of all our things.  We spend countless hours with all of our things, often in the absence of other people.  These things make us “happy.” 

            Toni emanated a sense of freedom that struck me.  It was a freedom from attachment.  But it isn’t as if she’s a person that has no attachments – she is incredibly attached to her husband, her stepson, the children and families of Cosanga, and the organization Sustainable Roots that she has put all of her heart into building and maintaining for the community here.  

            I suppose that what Toni has achieved is a freedom from the obsession that consumerism has ingrained within us.  An understanding that all of the things that often seem so important and so valuable and so necessary to our lives and our happiness really aren’t that important after all.  Not to say that many “things” don’t make life easier or sometimes more enjoyable or exciting, but the most important parts of life exist without them, and often even flourish in their absence.  I’m grateful for the opportunity to spend six months here, living with what many in the U.S. would consider “less,” but what might actually be more.  Overall, it’s just good to check our priorities every once in a while.  Remember what’s really important, and what can be let go.  A thing is, after all, just a thing.  

-Hannah

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Se Fue-ed

I got sunburned today.

Emma and I will leave Cosanga and return to the United States in just four days.

Which means that in just four days we’ll go back to winter. So we both went for a run up our favorite road today, storing up every ounce of warmth from these glorious, equatorial UV-rays.

We got separated, but I rounded a corner and found Emma pacing. Without words, we both sat down in the middle of the road. We sat there silently, listening to the birds prattle and taking in the ineffably beautiful landscape around us. We could have sat there all day, if Emma didn’t spot a blackberry bush calling our names. Our blackberry addiction ultimately won out over our sentimentality.

But leaving this blackberry paradise and going home to winter is hardly the most difficult part of saying goodbye.

Many a traveler has reflected on the gut-wrenching and heart-aching task of returning home. Many can relate to that sickening, hollow, gnawing feeling of knowing everything has to change.

And I could write hundreds of blog entries on the innumerable things I’m going to miss. Or of the people who’ve changed my life.

But, a friend reminded me of the simple truth that the beauty of it all comes from its fleeting nature.

“Time is music … [and] you cannot interrupt music in order to catch and hoard it … For look: you cannot grasp the melody’s flight until its last note has sounded.”

You can’t possess the beauty.

Therefore I see two responses to the grief of leaving: one can either dwell in sadness because of what’s been lost, or live from the experience … live from the beauty and carry it on.

We can’t possess the beauty of our experience. We have to give it away. The first recipient being Christianna, the most recent volunteer for Sustainable Roots, and I know she will do great things.

But it has to be bigger than just giving it to the next volunteer. Hopefully we will be so saturated in what we have been given that it will spill over, giving perspective and hope to the students from our classes. Hopefully our families back home will see how we’ve been changed and no longer be numb to the beauty in their own lives. And hopefully from all our interactions it will ripple outward … a tiny Sustainable Roots pebble skipped across the river causing waves of change.

We can’t possess it, but we can store up every ounce of warmth that radiates from the heart of Cosanga and live from it.

“Let me learn from where I have been. Keep my eyes to serve, my hands to learn.”

 -Becca

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Cholo

A friend back home asked me to tell them a story from my time here. 
But, the best stories I have are the people. One of my favorites here is Cholo. 
Well, I guess his name is actually Johnny – but, everyone here has a nickname and he almost exclusively goes by Cholo. I’ve never had a little brother, but, after knowing Cholo – I feel it’s as close as I’ll ever get.
Cholo is 18 years old and a senior in high school. He knows all of our flash cards by heart and he can have whole conversations with us in English. He comes to our night classes more consistently than anyone else, and he is always in a good mood. It’s funny, Emma and I were talking the other day and we realized that if we’re ever in a funk it often depends on how long it’s been since we’ve seen Cholo despite the fact that he is so ornery. He always ties our clothes in knots when we have them drying out on the line. He starts paint wars, throws beetles in our faces, cuts our hair, draws on us with permanent marker, or throws us in puddles of water. His favorite thing is to pick us up and throw us down on the couch and yell “SMACK DOWN!” But, at the end of the day he is a loyal and amazing friend to us. 
And despite being pretty mischievous, he is often too sweet for words. He frequently comes over just to bring us popcorn. And If he ever sees us waiting for a bus when he gets out from school he’ll sweet-talk the driver into giving us a free ride. We’ve gotten him to buy us innumerable suckers (you haven’t lived until you’ve had a salt sucker) and the other day he brought me and Emma these beautiful porcelain birds from a trip he went on with his family. Emma and I know that we never have much to worry about because we have such a phenomenal brother. 
In our night class, we had the kids write down their answer to the question: “What would make the world a better place?”
Cholo wrote: “The world would be a better place if we were all more creative.”
In my life back home there are so many connections and mutual friends between everyone I know that I never feel too far from people. But, the idea of leaving these people and knowing that there isn’t anyone who will understand the depth of Cholo is too painful to entertain. 
-Beccaimage

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The Number Two

Two. Such a small, unintimidating number, right? Two. It’s the date today, the 2nd day in December? It’s the number of hours I have to wait in Baeza this morning before school starts, two hours. Its the number of cups of Nescafé I’ll probably drink while writing this in a local cafe in Baeza, two cups. It’s the number of peaks of the beautiful and mighty volcano, Imbubura, that Becca and I hiked over the weekend, two peaks. It’s the number of months Becca and I have left here in Ecuador, two months. It’s also the number of places I consider home and the number of places my heart is constantly torn between. Two places. How can my heart long for one place thousands of miles away and still at the same time be fully in love with the place I am. How can I long to be somewhere else while not knowing how I’m ever going to be able to leave this place? These are the questions I have been asking myself lately. Due to the holiday season, my family back home have all been together lately which has left me feeling like I’m missing out on things back home. Thanksgiving. Decorating the house for Christmas together as a family. Christmas. I look forward to all these things every year but this year I’m missing them. Then I take a second to think about how privileged I am to get to spend this holiday with my second family in my second home. I’m so looking forward to getting to spend the holiday season here with these people who have opened their homes and more importantly their hearts to myself and the other volunteers as well as Sustainable Roots as a whole. The people of Cosanga have been nothing but supportive and loving since I arrived here and I am so thankful for each and everyone of them. They truly are my family and Cosanga is my home away from home. I have two months left here and I can’t figure out how that happened. Where did the last four months go? How can my time here already be 2/3rds of the way through. Then I look back at all the things that have changed in the last 4 months. The kids in school and in the English course have come such a long way, they blow my mind every single day. I never thought I would see such a change in the level of their learning. I know that it’s hard to see change in such a ‘short’ period of time and I’ve read about how other volunteers have struggled with classes because they can’t see the change but these kids have learned so much since I’ve arrived and its so evident. There are several students that stick out in my mind that have come from about a 0% knowledge of the English language to a point where they can speak to me in almost all English. I do not credit myself with their success. It’s been all them. They’ve found a love for the language and have worked incredibly hard to get to the level they are. They are amazing students and I’m so incredibly proud of them. I know that I’ll continue seeing these changes in the coming two months and its so exciting to think about the future these kids can have with the extensive knowledge of the English language that they’re learning. Words cannot describe the amount of love I have for these kids. It’s hard to even go a weekend without seeing them. I just want to hug them all after like a day of not seeing them… And I do but they just tell me that I’m being silly 🙂 There is so much love here that my heart is constantly bursting at the seams. One heart is simply not sufficient to hold all the love I have for this place. It just isn’t enough. Somehow I need to figure out how to get one more. That’s what I need, more than anything. I just need one more.

Two. Two is the number of hearts I would need to have to hold all this love, two hearts.

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My heart is too full for words

Every blog I write here I talk about how much I love this place and reading them from the outside it must seem like I’m talking this place up or trying to paint a picture of this place and this organization to make people want to volunteer. I know it must seem this way because my own mother, a woman I love and adore and would never lie to asked me one day, “Are things really as great as you say they are or are you just saying it all to make me worry less.” If I was back home reading the blogs I write I don’t even know if I’d believe them. I know other volunteers in the past have wrote about different things they’ve struggled with while volunteering for Sustainable Roots and I don’t deny the fact that there are some days that are challenging. Some days you just want to lay down in the street outside the school when you’re done with classes… Okay, Becca and I might have done that yesterday after class with the wawas (3 year olds-1st grade). But even with all the day to day challenges, this place and this organization is straight out of a dream. Every day I fall more in love with this town. It truly is the little things too that makes this town so, so special. Like this morning, I’m currently sitting at one of the bus stops in town waiting for the 6:00AM bus to get here (it’s 6:50) and I could get easily frustrated with the fact that I’ve been waiting here over an hour but as I’ve been waiting I got to see so many of my favorite people. I got to see Don Luchito out picking grass for his rabbits and Guinea pigs, I got to see Don Felipee out for his morning bike ride, and I got to see one of my students Jhon riding to school on his families motorcycle along with his entire family of four and as they rode by he saw me and got the biggest stinking smile on his face and gave me a giant wave. Now add all of that to the beautiful setting of the sleepy town of Cosanga nestled down in it’s valley in the Andes as the sun rises and burns off the morning fog and you no longer have a frustrating wait for a bus, you have a beautiful, heart-warming morning worthy of writing a blog about.

I’ve been here in Cosanga for almost exactly 3 months and have 3 months left. I officially have fewer days ahead of me than I do behind me and already the thought of leaving this place and these people is terrifying. I literally feel sick when I picture myself stepping onto the plane that will take me away from this place. I keep having to remind myself that I still have three months and they’re going to be even better than the last three. At this point, I have all these beautiful relationships with the people of this town, have finally got my daily routine down, have a better grasp of the Spanish language, and can hold my own on the soccer field (a very important thing here). It’s also an exciting time for the organization as its flourishing here. The new house that we moved into my first day has turned from an empty, forgotten building into one of the cutest, homiest places I’ve ever lived. We’re constantly being amazed by how far the kids in our English classes have come this school year. We have almost 20 kids showing up to our English night course on a regular basis. Plus, on top of all of this, Toni comes home to Cosanga in just under a week and everything is better when Toni’s around!

I don’t know everything that is going to happen in the next three months but I know that this is exactly where I’m supposed to be and I can’t wait for the crazy twists and turns that are ahead of me. This adventure is bound to get more exciting and this gringa is ready for it! Bring it on, Cosanga. Bring it on.

Side note: The bus finally came at 7:00 AM.

-Emma

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History

The Sustainable Roots volunteers have recently moved into a new home here in Cosanga. This new house is exciting because it offers more space to accommodate the growing organization. Robert, Emma and I have been the first volunteers to christen (what we fondly refer to as) the Bungalow. However, we still frequent the old apartment because it houses much of our teaching supplies. It is also houses a hodge-podge of odds-and-ends that have been left by previous volunteers. All of the objects are small puzzle-pieces of the greater story that is Sustainable Roots. One of my favorites is a photograph of a black cat that is tacked to the wall in the kitchen. It’s a beat-up picture of cat looking up at the camera while lying on a snow mound outside.

“Awww, is this your cat Toni?” I asked the first time I saw the photo.

“No. I actually don’t know who’s cat that is.”

But, it’s a part of the history of the house, so no one dares take it down.

Our new house doesn’t quite have that same history yet. Though, we have started to add some personal touches. Now that we’re settled, we have recently started inviting families from town over for dinners and we enjoy getting to show off our new home (our green house out back, our classroom, pen to anyone) 

Emma had the idea of inviting families to dinner as a way to get to know the community even better and to return the hospitality that we are so frequently shown. From these dinners, I’ve learned that many of these families have lived in Cosanga for 30, 40, or even 50+ years. It’s incredible to hear their accounts of how this small town has changed over the years. They tell stories about the days when the trees used to be crowed with monkeys, and about the days when electricity was first brought to the town. They tell stories about when the “new” bridge was built and when the currency was first switched to the American dollar. But, they also tell stories about when they first met Toni and the other directors. And they tell stories about the first volunteers and the first green house constructed. Sustainable Roots has officially become a part of the history of Cosanga.

Robert sadly left a week and a half ago. With his departure, came the first collection of objects added to the history of our new house. It got me thinking about how one day the Bungalow will be filled with a history all its own. It’s exciting to imagine the future of the organization and how Sustainable Roots will continue to change the history of Cosanga. We dream of changing it for the better.

-Becca

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1 Month Left

I have one month left in Ecuador. One month of consistent rain, inconsistent internet and the ongoing struggle of convincing myself that I have made an impact. I recognize the disability of the school system in Cosanga and the crippling pressure that students have to perform without any guidance or direction, and the struggle comes in trying to teach in a place where the teachers don’t encourage creativity or spark any desire to learn. It hurts when we begin a lesson with extremely basic English and halfway through the lesson, we realize that the students can barely even write in Spanish, let alone in a different language.

            My Spanish has gotten much better, of course and my ability to see the world as a whole, not fragmented Countries and States, but as one united group of individuals just trying to live and make their lives worth living. Circumstances are different in every corner of the world, but what have I done here to make those circumstances better for anybody other than me? My eyes have opened a bit wider to the light of the world, but have my efforts here opened the eyes of our students? If they can feel more inspired by something I have said, or anything I have done, if their motivations and reasons for pushing forward everyday have grown stronger, than when I get on my flight next month, I will be able to smile.

            There are times when I sit in my unstable, creaky bed and look out at the well maintained greenhouse. I think about the past volunteers whom constructed the greenhouse with the community, and showed and taught how to create a sustainable way to eat healthier. I work out of the curriculum that the two volunteers before me created. Hundreds of pages of English lessons for all levels of students with the intention of driving their desires and interests for the English language in a structured, well-constructed focused manner. I think about the very first volunteers whom stopped in Cosanga with a hope and an intention of possibilities to make this part of the world a better place to live, love and learn.

            So, I thank all of those volunteers because I have personally seen the impact that they have made and I have heard some of the students whom have taken a serious step or two at learning English and I applaud what has been created, the impact that they have made in the students and community.

            I hope that my efforts will and have been as impactful to this community. It’s difficult to picture what this place will be like when I leave because I want it to have changed slightly from when I got here, but I am the 15th volunteer to roll through and I won’t be the last, but hopefully I have created a lasting impression. When I look at my reflection in our broken mirror, there are days that I wish the people in town could see somebody different, somebody whom connected with every person here, somebody whom brought a small bit of light and passed it on to numerous people until there are little pieces of light glowing just a bit brighter in Cosanga.

            There are days when my reflection is exactly how I want it to be and I have the confidence to spread what little I know to a town that knows little about me.

            I came with the idea that Cosanga will be a starting point to change the world. I came with desire to impact everybody, but even if I only impact somebody, I will feel like I spent my time correctly. I wish to spread the idea that even when a school system cripples the learning process at a crucial age, there is still the ability to overcome and create great desire to push forward for those students. I wish to spread the idea that the world is amazingly beautiful and infinitely open to anything that any of these people that I have met and became friends with whom have impacted my life forever, could ever hope for.  

            With one month left, there is still plenty of work to do, plenty of people to meet and hundreds of ideas to spread and when these students are older, they will hopefully realize that those ideas aren’t original or groundbreaking, but just the ideas of somebody trying to do the best he can to change the lives of just a few people forever. 

-Robert

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Mi Familia

In my life there are many things I love. I love to travel, I love to bake, I love to hike and explore nature, I love to spend an afternoon wrapped up in a blanket watching the rain, but more than anything else, I love my family. We are, I’m sure, one of the strangest, craziest families out there but when we get together it’s just a great time. Everyone brings different characteristics to the family but somehow all those different characteristics and perspectives are what make our family so wonderful and so complete.

Being here in Cosanga you would think that I would miss that tight family feeling seeing as my nearest family member is over 3,000 miles away but I don’t feel like I’m lacking that at all. Now don’t get me wrong, I miss my family like crazy, but being here I feel like I’m part of a new family, the family of Cosanga. I realized this just a few days ago as I was eating a sucker that had been started by a student of ours, then shared with me, and as I ate the sucker I also shared it with Naomi, my three year old best friend in town. I later started another sucker that was then taken and finished by another student. Now in the States this would be totally unacceptable, random people sharing a sucker, but here it’s completely acceptable. It’s not weird at all here because we are like a family. All of the towns people, our students, the other volunteers, and, of course, Mama Toni, we all make this huge, beautiful family. We, too, all bring different characteristics and perspectives to the family but when we put it all together it’s something so beautiful words cannot describe it. Every piece of my family here is important and the family wouldn’t be the same if even one piece was missing. Mama Toni brings the life and the passion to the family. She is by far the most passionate person I’ve ever met. She will do anything for the town of Cosanga and is constantly giving everything she has to keep Sustainable Roots moving forward. Robert brings the laughter and can always be counted on to cheer you up with his silly faces or inappropriate jokes. Becca brings the love, and not just a simple love but a beautiful, unconditional love. Fernando brings the deep thoughts, Gladiz brings the insane, craziness, Cholo brings the orneriness, and so on. I could go on like this about every person in this town.

Every person brings something special and unique to our family and I can’t help but think how truly honored I am to be a part of it all. Every day when I wake up I have to ask myself, “Is this really my life?” How could I be so lucky as to have stumbled upon an organization as great as Sustainable Roots?  This complete joy I feel every day I spend here is something I can’t even put into words. This is a truly beautiful place full of truly beautiful people and I’m so glad that I get to call this place my home and these people my family.

“The purpose of our lives is to be happy” –Dalai Lama

 -Em

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People

September is here. In the states this season is usually characterized by “back-to-school” ads, colder (and apparently rainier?) weather, and the return of all things pumpkin spice. For us living on the equator, the weather gives us no signs that anything is different, seeing how seasons don’t exist, and the cuisine remains consistent. But a marked difference is that the school year is in full swing again. And not just for the students, but, for us volunteers too. We’ve already had two weeks back in the class room with the students again.

Monday through Thursday we teach in the schools here in Cosanga, and twice a week we teach in the neighboring town of Baeza. Emma and I feel so lucky because we’ve already gotten to know so many of the kids we teach through the summer school program and from around town. It hardly feels like we have to teach, but rather, like we get to hang out with our friends. They just happen to be in 5th/6th grade.

Yesterday we were helping a class with introductory phrases, like “Hello, my name is…” I was helping one girl, Anahi, with how to spell the words. Then, I had her practice saying the English words out loud. After I gave her a high five, and she gave me the biggest hug. All the kids give us huge hugs every time we enter or leave the class room. It touched me deeply to think about easily these kids accept you into their life.

Then it had me thinking about how everyone here readily accepts you into their life. The people here aren’t just people you merely interact with. You come to know them. They become not just someone in your life, but, a part OF your life.  

One of my all-time favorite things about Cosanga is how there are no businesses here. Only people. For example, if you need to go buy eggs, you don’t go to King Soopers, but rather to Don Lucho’s. You can count on Enmita to have the best Chorizo, and Roxy is thankfully always stocked with yogurt. Even when you go to the small market in Baeza, the people there remember you and can even remember how much you spent a week prior.

Everything is about people. Maybe this kind of relational living is only different for me because I didn’t grow up in a small town. I guess in small towns, it would be normal for kids to see you on the street. But when they ask to come over for homework help, when they talk to you about their dreams for the future, when Maria wants to exchange recipes, when you fish with Gladiz, when you’re invited camping by Don Luchito,  it means that you’re not just in this small town, but, that you’re part of it.

These relationships are invaluable.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

The quote might be cheesy, but, it’s true. It means that the end of the day, the “changing of the world” starts with people who become friends. And oh how immeasurably grateful I am for the friends in Cosanga. 

-Becca

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