First Person: Education in Ecuador

by Sarah Brylinsky ’09

It was difficult for me to breathe by the time I’d reached my room in Quito. Ten thousand feet above sea level, the fourth floor seemed more like the forty-fourth floor, and the backpack which had weighed under 30 pounds in Pennsylvania now weighed at least 655. In the next ten days I would hike higher above sea level, tread carefully through untouched rainforest, carry much more than 30 lbs on my back, and remain out of breath for most of the waking day. Little did I know in those first breathless moments how greatly that lack of breath would fill my soul.

Until August 2005, I had never even heard of the word “sustainability.”   Nine months and several exhaustive classes later had brought me further south than I’d ever traveled before, and pushed me closer to finding an honest calling than I’d ever imagined possible. Fundacion Maquipucuna (FM), the cloud rainforest conservation organization at the center of the I.C. Ecuador abroad experience with which I worked and traveled, managed in those ten short days to capture my heart, my thoughts, and my imagination like nothing else ever has. I have traveled to 16 countries, 4 continents, 368 cities and approximately 9,127 hotels, and never felt more at home than I did in the Choco Andes region of Ecuador.

With 15 others, I found myself more vividly living than I ever had before. We spoke to the locals as though they were kin, we drank their juice and beer, and we ate their taro and plantains and lemons. I felt passion fruit drip from my mouth, still warm from the tree from which it was plucked, the smell of lychees and plantains and coffee seeping through the heat drenched air. Wood floors and thin pads became my comforting bed, 100% deet my amour (and often worst enemy, when a bottle soaked into my backpack and burned holes in everything it touched).  The persistence and vision of the people of FM were at the center of it all, the focus of my appreciation and gratitude. Up until all hours of the night, awakening by our own will to hike the forest before breakfast at 8am, we were a group of people determined to live and work together more fully than any of us expected. The drive the people of FM had for the future of their communities, their land, and their culture was palpable.  That frenetic and whirlwind energy which seems to drive American business was nowhere to be found. In its place were meetings carried out hours later than expected, business ventures sometimes began at 1am or 1pm, siestas and brief conversations accomplishing much more than any high powered, Starbucks-fueled luncheon ever would. We were creating the second and third bottom lines, the people and the planet so easily outweighing the profit margin when raw earth and hospitable families were but an arms length away. When I opened my eyes in the morning, it had never been easier to feel glad to be alive.

I won’t say that I ever came home. Exhausted and fulfilled I left home in May of 2006 to come to America, to finish other jobs and educational requirements. Each step I take here is filled with the sounds and textures of bonfires and tilapia and deep-black coffee, and a will to share the true worth of our work- it is a drive I cannot escape. When I return to Ecuador, it will be, I hope, with others who will realize their bags and lungs which felt so full in America were only empty spaces waiting to be filled by the promise of a better future for the earth, ourselves, and Ecuador.

Sarah Brylinsky is an OCLD major in the Roy H. Park School of Communications.