By Clay Martin
When I opened the letter that told me I was going to serve 27 months in Ecuador, I didn't know exactly what to think. I just ran around my house screaming "ECUADOOOOOOR!" In February 2008 at the age of 22, I embarked on my mission as a Peace Corps volunteer. The first three months were spent with 40 other new volunteers in Ecuador's Sierra region receiving language, safety, medical, technical and cultural training. During my training, representatives from potential sites came and gave presentations on their communities.
When I saw Alejandro Aguavil (my current counterpart) for the first time, I thought he had a weird-looking red hat on his head. I later learned it was not a hat but his hair, which he has been dying with a tropical fruit almost his entire life. After hearing him speak in broken Spanish (his second language), I knew his site would be the most unique, diverse and challenging. And I was more than positive that I wanted to work there. I wanted the most foreign experience possible and later found out that I was the only volunteer out of 40 who requested that specific site.
So here I am, sitting pretty in Ecuador's western lowlands living with an indigenous people known as the Tsáchilas, which translates to "true group of people" in their native tongue, Tsafiki. The Tsáchila men are known for painting their bowl-shaped haircuts with a tropical fruit called Achiote. The men and women traditionally paint black stripes on their bodies with another fruit. These painting practices started around 200 years ago as a way to protect themselves from yellow fever that was taking out their population.
My village has 150 inhabitants, a small school and a small store that is attached to someone's wooden house. The community does not have running water -- I bathe in a creak -- but electricity was put in 10 years ago. No one in my community has finished high school; few have even come close, but they are smart in so many different ways. I live in a small hut that my Tsáchila host family members built for me with their bare hands and materials they gathered from the forest.
Technically I am an agriculture volunteer, but Peace Corps volunteers always end up doing a wide array of projects. I have helped with reforestation by building tree nurseries and have educated the Tsáchila in the areas of compost/organic fertilizer, proper trash management and the importance of boiling drinking water instead of drinking infested well water.
Working with a Tsáchila culture group that is fighting to maintain its cultural identity and cultural traditions has been one of my main projects. Ecuador's fourth-largest city, Santo Domingo De los Tsáchilas, is an hour away from the Tsáchilas villages. The city's rapid growth has created what my Tsáchilas friend considers "a serious and dangerous situation." Unfortunately, the bigger the city gets, the smaller the Tsáchilas' culture gets. For example, their painting traditions have taken a strong beating in the past 20 years. The group I work with opens up their home to tourists so they can share their cultural practices (traditional music, dance, shamanism, body painting, dress, etc.). This project is young but has provided an extra income source, and more importantly, it has helped maintain their customs and strengthen their identity.
Daily meals consist of fresh fish from the rivers, smashed banana (not our kind of banana), tree grubs, game, chicken and rice. The lack of fruit, dairy and veggies in my diet has been hard on my body. In my free time, I read, write, exercise, go on jungle hikes, spend time with the shamans, play with the kids, plant in my botanical garden, study the language and sit around the huts chatting the day away with the Tsáchilas to learn their legends and stories.
I couldn't be happier with my situation, but admit that times can be rough. I spent the entire month of November in Panama City, Panama, receiving treatment for Leishmaniasis, a tropical disease and flesh-eating parasite. I have found frogs, spiders and scorpions in my bed. I received stitches from a machete accident, and I make only $8 per day. My thatched roof leaks, and wild mushrooms are growing in my hut. I hear jungle animals scurrying outside of my hut at night. Sometimes I want to scream out and cry in frustration.
But the positives outweigh the negatives by a long shot.
The Tsáchilas treat me like family and have actually told me that I am family. They teach me so much and look after me. They are extraordinary human beings. I admit that my work at times is not very formal and is very sporadic, but I know I have made a difference. They are constantly thanking me for what I teach them, and I thank them for changing my life.
I have gravitated to this animated culture and adventurous way of living. Life is smooth at the moment, and I embrace the diversity of my days. I have 14 months left in my service, but I am coming home to visit for a few weeks in March. Many people ask me, "Are you excited to come back to the United States? Back to reality?" I tell them that I am living beyond reality here with the Tsachilas.
My Peace Corps service has been the most powerful experience of my life. I want to thank Ohio University as well at the city of Athens for guiding me in making this experience come alive.