I have no idea how to begin this post – or even the words to use to describe the amazing experience that was Ecuador. It’s been two months since I’ve returned, but I know I left part of my heart over seas.
Some days, Most days it feels like a weird, wonderful dream – that trip I took. It doesn’t seem real. I can not believe that I left my comfortable home for the uncomfortable truth. That I saw such joy amidst such despair. That I actually hugged my sponsored children. I heard their voices with my own ears. I felt their presence, held their hands in mine – and utterly left my heart with them.
There’s no way I could convey the full range of emotions felt from this trip in a single post – so I’m attempting to share in a series, breaking it down day-by-day; but bear with me, these words are hard to write and even harder to share…
Ecuador 2013; Days 1 & 2: Traveling 2,630 miles in 2 days.
My trip to Ecuador with Compassion International started out with just over 27 hours of travel time. Long before I actually took off, I decided that I wanted as few flights as possible – solely for the purpose of reducing the risk of lost luggage. You see, I had 2 checked bags, 1 carry-on, and 1 “personal item.” I packed all the important gifts in the carryon, shoved the bare necessitates of clothing and hygiene items in the personal bag, and had the other 2 checked bags stuffed to their max capacity with gifts, clothes, gifts, shampoo/conditioner, gifts, and more gifts. I wanted the risk of losing a bag to be as small as possible – which means I’d need a direct flight to Miami and that’s easier said than done when you’re flying from rural Arkansas – but it’s not impossible.
I ended up taking a small regional flight to St. Louis, MO; where I was able to catch a direct flight to MIA, but booking that regional connecting flight was a nightmare. The airline was in the process of redoing their flight-times and until 3 weeks before I needed to fly they were telling me they couldn’t book my ticket. I actually ended up buying tickets from two different airlines leaving from two different airports for this trip. It was a mess – and honestly, I was praying it was not an indicator of the luck ahead of me. It was clear to me that the Devil was doing his best to fluster my senses and hinder this trip. But sometimes, knowing that becomes a fierce motivator for pushing back – if there are forces that strong trying to prevent me from going – there must be something incredible waiting for me – and boy was there ever.
The down side to booking a direct flight out of STL? The flight was a 6:30am – meaning I had to fly into STL the night before, then wake up at 4am to be at the airport at 4:45am to catch the 6:30am flight. To the makers of 4am – you are not my friend. (and clearly I am NOT a morning person). But, I dragged by drowsy butt out of bed and hauled my 4 bags to the airport.
That being said, If you find yourself traveling with Compassion International, and you are by yourself, AND you have a ton of bags, by all means PLEASE invest in a baggage cart. I spent a measly $5 to rent a cart to transport my 4 bags from the pick-up to the drop-off and it was worth every penny. My bags were heavy and I mean HEAVY – they were as full as I could get them without going over the weight limit. Have you tried navigating a busy airport with 4 maxed-out bags, 2 of which do not have wheels and the other two don’t really want to cooperate? It’s a mess. On the upside, about halfway through the airport in MIA I realized that one of my checked bags did indeed have wheels, and that I could strap it to the larger bag for a slightly easier transportation experience.
Once in Miami, all I had to do was wait… and wait… and wait. I arrived in Miami around 10am and the flight to Quito left at 3:30pm. So, I did what any good traveler does – I explored the airport, ate my last “american” meal, and bought a few last-minute “oops I forgot to pack” items. …including this cute elephant pillow – which was awesome. I quickly learned on the flight from STL to MIA that a neck pillow was definitely needed and when I left my gate to get my baggage and re-check it for the international flight, I spotted this cute fellow at a shop. I didn’t know how much time I had to claim my bags and recheck them so I made a mental note of the price of the pillow and decided to compare it against other pillows on my way to claim my bags. Once I claimed and then re-checked my bags, I was completely turned around and spent the next hour trying to relocate the ONE shop with the elephant pillows – turns out they were the cheapest option & the cutest! Thankfully I finally found the shop, purchased my new buddy, and located the gate where I was supposed to meet the rest of the group traveling with Compassion.
Honestly, despite being a total, 100% introvert, I never felt reservations about traveling with this group of strangers; and from the minute I met them all I felt welcomed and excited to be traveling with this group. There were several “single” travelers, and a ton of Compassion workers. There were travelers from all walks of life and all backgrounds – and it was wonderful to interact and share this experience with each one of them.
Initial introductions and one 4 hour flight later, we caught our first glimpse of Quito – mountains! Which is quite a shock if you’re used to flat, just-above-sea-level farm ground. Let me tell you, it’s a bit disconcerting to see the snow-capped mountain peak just outside your airplane window before you’ve started a real descent. Once we landed, regrouped, claimed all our bags, and went through customs, we boarded a charter bus bound for the hotel. Surprisingly, it was a chilly 60°F (especially when it was 90°F at home) when we landed; and quickly dark. The charter bus was nice, but, like all buses in Ecuador – had no air conditioning (and you didn’t need it – the weather is notably temperate year-round).
The drive from the airport to the hotel took about an hour, and along the ride we were introduced to our local guides, and treated to some of Ecuador’s finest exports – chocolate! We were also peddled bottled water like it was going out of style. (Which was a good thing – especially when you find yourself going from an elevation of 279 feet to 9,350 feet. Elevation sickness is real folks, it’s totally real. Drink lots, and lots, and lots of water – starting about a week before you leave your house. Drink a bottle of water every chance you get (and pack camping toilet paper). Also, over the counter migraine meds helped me and are worth sticking in your bag.On a positive note, the hotel was easily the nicest hotel I’ve ever stayed in – we were treated to local fruit juice when we checked in (if you ever get the chance, guanabana is seriously amazing (an pronounced Wah-Nav-Ah-Nah – think “rhymes with Phenomenon”)… and now I’m seriously craving it. Great….) Another Ecuadorian export: roses. Big, beautiful, amazingly fragrant roses. $2 a dozen. Seriously. And we got a free rose every night – right there on the pillow – right next to a piece of chocolate. Roses and chocolate – um yes, please! At this point, it’s also worth noting that I’m an introverted only child – which boils down to: I don’t share rooms well for extended periods of time – But I had a roommate on this trip and it was a perfect match. How could I tell? The first thing my new roommate, Becky, asked me was “how do you feel about white noise?” And what ran through my mind? “Yes! I found my people!” Seriously, Becky was great. She was clearly a fellow introvert and that was perfect. We could retreat to the room and know that it was a safe, quiet space. I could not have picked a better roommate if I had tried. It’s amazing how much you forget in a few short weeks. I honestly do not remember much about the time spent in the hotel that first night. I know we repacked our bags – we were heading to Riobamba the next day and would not need to take all of our bags with us. Compassion had arranged for us to be able to leave any unnecessary luggage in storage until we return to Quito a few days later – which means I halved my bags; leaving all the gifts for my sponsored children, and about half of my clothes in Quito. Other than that, I’m at a loss. I should have journaled more while I was there – but I couldn’t find the words. I don’t even remember if I slept well – but I’m thinking I did. The bed was super-firm and sooooo comfortable. Firm beds for the win!
I remember being excited for the days ahead and wishing they would both come fast and pass slow – this was an experience that I couldn’t wait to have, but didn’t want to end; and thankfully, it was just beginning.