Hiking through Ecuador’s terrain was quite literally breathtaking. Thin air meant we had to drink plenty of water, so we were familiar with whose water bottle was whose. I had my Klean Kanteen water bottle, Sara G kept and used her complimentary water bottle from Huasquila, and Maclaine and Sandra had very similar water bottles, the big difference being the stickers on them. Quotes, backpacker logos, names of mountains, things that you would see on the backpack of any traveler. However, Sandra had one sticker that always stood out to me that read “the mountains are calling me, and I must go.”
Maybe it was because it was the largest print, but if there was ever a quote to describe this trip, that was certainly it. The Andes were breathtaking, and engulfed the entirety of the space around us. I had personally never seen such an abundance of mountains. This range was no match for the Appalachia that I was familiar with. Every bus ride was spent jamming to Bob Marley or Simon and Garfunkel while gaping at the mountainous views out the window. Savannah would take out her camera, open the bus window, and capture the moment perfectly. We would all be “oohing” and “aahing,” as Clay caught both the views and our reactions in video. “For the montage,” he would say.
However, much more than mountains have the ability to allure people. It seemed that our trip leaders, Kristi and Maclaine were called by different places: Guatemala and Nicaragua, respectively. The two of them were more well-travelled than we, a group of 15-18 year olds, could imagine, and each felt a specific connection to those specific countries. I adored hearing stories about Maclaine’s work with the Peace Corps in “Nica” and about Kristi’s adventures in Guatemala. The countries called to them, saying “I’m here, I’m here. I’m filled with adventure just waiting for you. I’m here.”
I think we all had moments when something called to us on the trip. Butterflies called out to Bonnie. Every time we saw one, we would point it out to her, and her face would light up with joy. We joked that one day she would open a place called, “Bonnie’s Butterfly Barn in the Bayou,” as that was where she wanted to move to.
Film was Clay’s calling. His video camera was seen nearly every hour. Conversations during downtime revealed that he was a major movie buff, and he sent us all an extended list of documentaries to enjoy after the program ended. Of course, what adventure would be complete without a video montage? Clay made a roughly five minute long video montage of our trip to the tune of The Head and the Heart’s “Rivers and Roads.”
All of us had a deep caring for the environment, but Savannah’s passion for the earth could shine through the foggiest day. Her spirit was drawn to nature. She photographed countless birds and animals and picked up any unique wildflowers. Being vegan, she told us how it wasn’t just about the morality of the animals, but also how it made your body feel. Maclaine was always listening intently to what she had to say. He even went vegan midway through the trip, and some other group members became vegetarian. It was so intriguing to listen to them discuss America’s food systems.
Something that called to me on our travels was Arte del Mundo. I am passionate about self-directed learning and how children are natural learners, so seeing a free after-school program in a developing country that encourages reading and exploration warmed my heart. It was that day that I knew I was going to visit Baños again in the very near future. When we got back to our hostal, I immediately emailed my mom, “Hey, so I’m going to live in Baños next summer and volunteer at Arte del Mundo, okay?” I expected it to take some convincing, or for her to take it as a joke, but her timely response was, “Where would you live?” followed moments later by a “nevermind, volunteers can live there.”
Even though I hardly knew any Spanish, I communicated with the children quite well. I read slowly with one little girl, Emilie, as she went through a few books and patiently answered my questions of what the names of animals were in Spanish. She giggled at my failed pronunciation as I repeated the words back to her. She even proceeded to ask what the animals were in English. Then, an energetic little boy popped up, handing me book after book. The two threw their heads back in laughter when I mimicked the sounds of animals while reading.
After an hour of reading, we walked to a nearby playground. I adored watching the children play. They could spin for so long on the playground carousel. The other volunteers and I marveled at their lack of dizziness, even after we spun them as fast as we could. The little girls were delighted to chase and be chased by Clay around the playground as he put on his zombie alter-ego. That night, in a postcard to my friend Julia, I wrote “I swear, this place will be my livelihood someday.” My parents agreed that if I can afford it, then I can return there next summer and volunteer at Arte del Mundo. Maybe Baños is my calling. Ironically, it is surrounded completely by mountains. They are calling me, and I will return.