Walking amongst giants

The next day I set off with another member from the Department of Agriculture and a handful of men from the community to take soil samples. I was told that it would be about a half hour walk through the forest. I was amazed at how intricate the trails were that existed, in addition to how well the people knew them. To any Minnesotan (my home state) they are what we would call a deer trail, which is nothing more than a depression in the leaves going in a specific direction winding through the trees where countless animals have walked, and are easy to lose. The sun quickly disappeared as I continued beneath the canopy walking deeper and deeper through the forest. It wasn’t long before we came up to a tree of immense size. The trunk was at least 12 feet wide, tapering off as it climbed to the sky breaking through the canopy. This is what I had been hoping to see. The deeper that we traveled the more and more frequent they became, some bigger than the first. Not paying attention, I got hung up on a vine that was draping down over the trail. One of the thorns stuck me and put a pretty good size hole in my shirt. I’m very lucky that it was just my shirt as the thorns themselves were as large as a dime in diameter. The trail kept breaking off until we found our first destination, which was marked with a GPS. A group of men began digging through the clay dirt, breaking through the dense roots as best as they could. They had a box of specific dimensions at least a meter and a half deep. I left with another group to find the second location. If it wasn’t for the men that I was with I would have been lost in no time at all, several times I got off of the trail and quickly realized that I was going in the wrong direction. A little off the trail I saw a tree unlike any that I had seen previously. It was one of the largest trees that I have ever seen in my life. Wood has a very high price in the Amazon, which unfortunately means that giants like these are highly sought after. We all worked together in digging the second hole, which took quite a bit of time. As soon as we began working, we were attacked by thousands of bugs (mostly small bees that wanted our sweat) others were mosquitos and flies. At one point I was stung by an ant after touching a tree that it was protecting. It was comparable to a bee sting.

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I was told several days earlier that when in the jungle, on must know that they become part of the entire system that exists there. Just because we are humans, it doesn’t mean that we are above the system. As I am quickly learning, the jungle can be ruthless. I later took a break with one of the men and we took off to walk a little further down the network of trails to look for more large trees. It felt so good to be in the forest, especially walking where I wasn’t being constantly bombarded by bugs. We later went back and visited the biggest tree that I had seen, which was even more impressive up close. I was very grateful to have the opportunity to be able to stand in its presence.

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I was surprised at how little direct sunlight actually made it to the forest floor; in most parts of the forest the majority of it didn’t even break through the canopy. It reminded me of when I was in elementary school learning about the rainforest and about the different levels of vegetation that grow, where the little bit of sunlight that does make it through the giants that dominate the top levels is often caught well before it reaches the forest floor leaving it in shade. I saw solitary rays of light shooting down through the branches from high above me, reaching the plants that were fortunate enough to fall within their path. In the jungle, everything is fighting for survival from the little ants defending their tree to the numerous species of vines that cover the larger trees in an attempt to climb their way high enough to reach the direct sunlight.

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By the time that we got back to the dig site the bugs had quadrupled in amount, to the point that I could hear them swarming. It was mostly the bees, who would land on every part of our bodies. They weren’t aggressive, although they were very persistent. I remember looking over at one of them men helping dig who literally had hundreds of them covering his shirt and arms. We worked quickly to finish the holes, and then took some pictures of the various layers of the soil as well as some samples. Afterwards we headed back to the other site, and once finished we left the forest. After a quick lunch we took off on the river once again, to meet with the rest of the group who had left a day before us.

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San Mateo

We finally arrived to the community of San Mateo, the last community on the river before entering Brazil. We were greeted at the shore by a handful of children and adults all very excited to see us. Several of them were in a fruit tree hanging over the clay embankment along the river. One child dropped down a piece of fruit for me, which was about the size of a pear and bright red. If you were to try and imagine what a rose would taste like, but sweet- that is what I would compare it to. I later found out that the name of the fruit is Pumarosa (rosa meaning “rose” in Spanish). After meeting some of the members of the community and being shown around a bit, we headed to the field to play soccer. The community was small, from what I could tell containing no more than 40-50 people in total. The houses were made of wood and were held up on stilts, with palm thatch roofs. Each house contained one enclosed area, and an open area usually with a hammock or two hanging from the support beams. Chickens and ducks ran freely with dogs all throughout the community. I stood out in the field and admired the community surrounded by thick jungle as we prepared for our game. This is the farthest that I had ever been from civilization, and it felt great. The air had a fresh, sweet aroma to it. I watched a flock of parrots fly by- and then I heard the sound of the bird that I have been waiting all of my life to hear in the wild: macaws. I turned around, and on top of a large palm tree saw two of them perched on a branch chattering with each other. I was the first time in my life that I had ever seen them flying and living as freely as they were. Shortly after I heard the familiar sound once again, and watched a flock of eight bright emerald green macaws fly above me across the blue sky. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them. All of my life I have been wanting to experience what I just did in those ten or fifteen seconds that I watched them fly over me.

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That night we had dinner with the community, which was soup and spaghetti noodles with a piece of venison (deer) along with a drink that they made out of fermented yucca, a plant that grows indigenous to the Amazon- which is basically prepared as you would a potato. It was prepared in a large plastic tub with water, and then served. Normally I will try anything, although I wasn’t sure of where they got the water. Many people in the forest drink from the river, and it could possibly cause some stomach problems if you aren’t accustomed to it- or you could get a parasite. Beside me was a small girl with a baby monkey on her head, clinging to her long dark brown hair. It squealed every time that someone tried to touch it. I wondered what had happened to the mother, although more than likely she was eaten. The area where they prepared their meals was held under a tin roof supported by six large beams. In the center was an iron grill sitting on four small legs on the ground, with hot charcoals underneath. They would put their pots on top of the grill to cook and prepare their food. Several chairs and benches were underneath the canopy as well as a hammock, where the adults sat comfortably chattering amongst each other as we ate.

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Later that night we had a meeting in one of the buildings to discuss what it is that we had planned to do for the community. They were able to get a generator going so that we had power, and were able to set up a laptop and projector so that we could give a PowerPoint presentation. Everything was explained with how the different steps are necessary to help a community gain rights to their land. With us we had several members of the Peruvian Department of Agriculture, who would be working with the land as well as taking soil samples.

The next day I set out with one of the members of the Department of Agriculture to document the process. With us were several people from San Mateo. We traveled in a small wooden canoe equipped with a good sized motor. The majority of the motors that I had seen since then are unlike any that I have ever seen in my life. Rather than the propeller dropping down straight below the boat, instead it is connected to a long pole about eight feet in length, with the propeller at the very end of the pole. On the opposite end of the motor is a long steel rod that that continues for another two feet which is used to steer the motor. The motor rests on a short steel rod that sits inside of a wooden hole on a board in the back of the boat. It is made this way so that the motorista is able to raise the propeller as high or as low in the water as they would like so that they won’t hit any debris. We went to several different locations, exiting the boats and trudging through the mud while hacking our way with a machete through jungle thicker than I have ever seen. Led by a GPS, once the edge of the territory was found a 15 ft parameter was cleared and the area was marked with a wooden post (which was made on site) and then spray painted with the name of the community, and then documented. This was the process until mid-afternoon, when we returned to the community. I took some pictures of the community as well as gave several interviews to the people who live there in addition to members of our own team where I was able to learn a little more about the agriculture within the community and the length of time that people have been living there. It really was a beautiful place, far from the chaos of the city and all of the pollution.  I climbed one of the fruit trees with a group of children and then spent some time speaking with the adults, who were near the cooking pot where we had dinner. They gave me some grief about being 27 and not married or having any children, and jokingly tried to give me several of their children to bring home with me. I glanced over at the forest just behind the palm thatch houses which I so badly wanted to explore to search for the giant trees that I knew existed there.

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I spoke with one of the members of the team that night about the river, and he told me several stories about things that he claim live at the bottom of the river and only come out at night. He said that there are fish that exist in the rivers that are larger than the river dolphins that I had seen several days ago, fish large enough to swallow a human. He said that some time ago he had a run in with several of them while traveling at night with his boat. There was a time when he hit something that wasn’t mud, sand or a tree- and stopped them in the water. When his friend put his foot in the water to push the canoe he felt skin on his bare foot, the type of skin that one would expect to come from a fish. I took the opportunity to ask him about other native species since he was from the area. He told me about anacondas that were large enough to eat a person, or crush a canoe by wrapping itself around it. There are few places in the world where there are animals that exists of this size, and I consider myself very fortunate to be able to travel to a place where they live.

Into the lion’s den

 

I woke in complete darkness to the sound of a boat passing down the river. Thoughts passed through my head of men with guns and cocaine making runs in the middle of the night. It made me realize why it is so difficult for people to receive help in the jungle- because it is composed of a very intricate system of rivers that only a professional could navigate without getting lost, hours and hours from the nearest city. Out in the jungle anything goes, and you have to be prepared for the worst.

An alarm went off at 5am, which was our key to get up. I packed up the tent that I had been sleeping in on the hard wooden floor of the thatch roof house. The tent was mainly for protection from mosquitos, which were horrendous. We left right around 6am. A man from the community warned us of a location which we would pass after about an hour on the river where they mine gold.

I couldn’t believe how beautiful that the forest was. A heavy mist engulfed the land, making it possible to only see the massive trees for a certain distance down the river. As we continued older growth forest became more and more prominent along the river, with massive branches looming over the water. Rafts constructed of large logs tied together and held in place by smaller trees were sometimes seen floating down the river, or laying along the shore abandoned by whoever constructed them. This was the method that some of the loggers used to try and get wood out of the forest and to the city. I soon saw an area washed away by water in the otherwise dense shoreline of the river, and behind it a relatively large area of jungle that had been hollowed out. Floating in the water was a raft with a steel barrel on it, as well as a machine with several hoses. It was explained to me that this was a gold mining location, and that we had to be cautious while passing by. I watched a flock of parrots fly over the river, something that I had been waiting to see all day. The sun came out quickly burning away any bit of fog that had remained- and with it came the heat. My coworker that was next to me earlier had moved to the bow of the boat to help distribute the weight better, and was once again hit by a flying fish. We had been traveling for 15 hours up river, and were finally getting closer to our destination- which was right next to the Brazilian border. From time to time I would see canoes tied off on the river bank leading to trails that would disappear into the forest. Other times I would see men in their canoe on the shore that would simply stop what they were doing and stare at us as we passed by. We eventually passed a boy on a long wooden canoe who whipped it around after being greeted by the driver of our canoe, and stopped to speak with us. He was from the community of where we would be staying. He picked up my coworker and I to help lessen the weight of our canoe, and took off. I couldn’t believe how fast that the canoe traveled, gliding over every tree or sandbar which would have undoubtedly stopped the much bulkier metal canoe that we were in. In hardly any time at all, we had arrived.

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The beginning of a new adventure

 

We took a mototaxi to the busy shore of Puerto Reloj, weaving in and out of other vehicles on our way with our luggage strapped to the back of the vehicle. This was finally the moment that I had been waiting for, the moment where I was going to get to travel into the Amazon. I sat waiting on the shore while our boats went to fill their tanks. Dozens of boats of all sizes were pulled up along the river. A little girl of about nine or ten sat in the shade underneath the canopy of a wooden canoe waiting to leave, with a green amazon parrot perched on her hand. She gently stroked its head while watching the people loading and unloading the boats. The shore itself was very dirty, covered in trash both in the water and on land. People everywhere were walking around selling clothing, food, batteries or whatever else to those preparing to leave. I took a few moments to buy some fishing hooks from a man in a store close to where the boats were, hoping that I would have a chance to catch something while being gone.

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We left the port, with countless other boats traveling up the Ucayali River. The river was at least three quarters of a mile wide, possibly more. I quickly discovered how important it is to have a boat driver that knows what they are doing on the water (down here they are called motoristas). There were numerous trees, branches or stumps floating independently down the muddy river, all of which could possibly end your trip. It wasn’t long before we stopped for lunch at a small community along the shore who had tables set up to sell food to people traveling along the river. I ate piranha for the first time with rice, beans and plantains. The meat was white and flaky, and absolutely delicious. We soon continued, seeing boat after boat traveling back and forth in the river. Some carried heaping mounds of sand, although most had either passengers or produce such as bananas. Most of the boats were far different than any that I had ever seen back home. Essentially they were canoes, ranging in length from fifteen feet to forty. Most had a canopy, stacking bananas and materials on top. The majority were made out of wood. Along most of the shore at this point grew river cane, most of it around 16-20 feet tall. I spotted something large and gray appear just above the surface of the water, and then quickly disappear beneath the surface. It took another breath, and then once again returned to the murky depths. I couldn’t believe what I had just seen. After years of watching documentaries about the Amazon, I had finally seen a river dolphin. Our motorista made a right turn down a smaller river, and then several more times as the large river branched off into smaller versions of itself, disappearing into the lush green forest. We saw fewer and fewer boats, although there were still quite a few small communities along the shore with their clothes hanging on lines to dry in the sun. Each community had one or two wooden canoes tied up along the riverbank. These canoes were smaller and not made for carrying large loads and didn’t have canopies. While watching the forest I watched a fish startled by the boat launch out of the water and hit my coworker, bounce off of a white supply sack sitting in the back of the boat and flop back into the water. It gave us all a good laugh. I couldn’t believe the amount of trees along the shore, many covered in vines draping down into the river. Now that the river was smaller I was able to really get a better look at the forest. I commented on it to one of my coworkers on the boat, and he remarked that it was all second growth. We passed men dragging logs behind their tiny wooden canoes slowly down the river, I counted one towing at least twenty. Yellow butterflies and many species of birds crossed the river, becoming much more frequent the further that we traveled from civilization.

We had to make several stops along the river for one reason or another. There was quite a bit of erosion along the banks of the river, resulting in a tremendous amount of trees littering the shoreline. Navigating through the river became significantly more difficult as the water level was much lower than the significantly larger Ucayali River that we had been in earlier. Several times we hit either a submerged tree or a sand bar, so we made a stop to raise the motor. In total we had two canoes, five people in one and six in the other. It soon began raining, making it significantly more difficult to navigate around the trees in the river. I’m sure that for anyone not from the area, it would have been almost impossible. We passed a man and his son in a smaller canoe making their way up the river. The son was driving while the father sat in the front. They kept watching us, but never waved- something that I noticed with a lot of people in the area as opposed to those closer to the city. As soon as we passed them, I watched the father reach down and pull out a rifle. I told my boss and one other person in the boast about the gun, and they didn’t seem concerned in the least. They responded by saying “todo tiene arma” or “They all have guns” also that it is necessary to have one out here because of how dangerous that it can be.

We eventually caught up to our companions in the other canoe, which had passed us earlier when we were first hit by the rain. They were parked along the shore; we pulled up next to them to discuss what was to be done. We had about a hour to go to reach our destination, although less than an hour of daylight left. One of the men said that the river can be dangerous at night because of the “cocleros” or men who produce and traffic cocaine in the forest. We decided to stay with a community near where we were parked, after getting the verbal confirmation that it was ok with them. We stayed on the top floor of a wooden, palm thatch roof house. The community was very nice, although very small with no more than seven or eight buildings- one of them being the school. I spent some time on the first floor playing with one of the children who was eager to show me his wooden top, which the adults fired up a generator and watched TV. I eventually wound my way through the people and onto the wooden walkway leading to the back of the building and to the small kitchen and visited with the mother who prepared our food. She spoke about her husband, and how he has been gone for over a month. He had a bacterial infection on his foot that ate away a big hole. He had to be treated for it in Lima, leaving her alone. A large pot boiled on an iron grate in the corner of the room, fueled by a bed of coals beneath it. I asked her about what it is that she was preparing, and she spoke to me about an animal that lives in the forest that in Spanish means “false cow” mostly because of how large that it grows- I later found out that it was tapir, and what we would be eating for dinner. After a quick meal I spent a little more time speaking with the mother, when the boy who had the top came up to me and wanted to show me his turtle. He reached down on the floor next to the cooking pot and proudly showed me a beautiful brown and orange box turtle that he said he found in the woods, and had kept it for quite a while, feeding it fruit.  After taking a few moments to look at his turtle and say goodnight I walked up the wooden stairs to the area where we had all set up our tents, and quickly fell asleep.

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Returning to the jungle

So here I am. Sitting at my gate in the Lima airport after what seemed like hours of figuring everything out that went wrong with my ticket, battling the long lines, getting through TSA, searching for my gate and making certain that I had everything in place. Everyone is talking, fanning themselves or on their phones. It’s 4:35pm, and the flight was supposed to depart at 4:50pm, although it was delayed for an hour. Ever since I’ve been a little kid I’ve wanted to do exactly what I’m about to do- work with the indigenous of the Amazon. All of the emails, making preparations for the trip,  buying equipment, quitting my jobs..everything has led to this final moment. I’m certain that to many others what I’m doing seems a bit crazy, since I’ve never met the people who I’m going to be working with. I’ve heard stories of people waking up in their hotel bed without any of their possessions, or worse- getting kidnapped. However I really believe that sometimes in our lives, if we are to do something great there will be often be some risk involved. Some chance of everything going terribly wrong. A time when we must make a decision to either trust that everything will work out without knowing the actual outcome of our decision, or back away and accept never knowing what could have been. I happened to meet the President of the organization before boarding the plane, who was also on the same flight as me. We talked about the different types of work that they are doing to help the people, about anthropology, indigenous cultures and much more. It hardly seems real that what I’m about to do is actually taking place. I couldn’t be more ready.

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As the plane began its descent, I took a moment to look out the window. I didn’t see any lights on the ground as I usually would when flying into a city, but rather darkness. The only thing that I could see was a river snaking its way across the land, illuminated by the moon. Eventually I saw a light, and then they became a little more frequent as we grew closer to the city- always alongside the river. It’s the first time that I’ve ever flown this low to the ground and seen so few lights. We landed on what seemed like a very short runway, and had to make a ground descent from the aircraft. As soon as the door of the plane popped open we were hit with a wall of heat and humidity, even with it being at night. We walked across the ramp to the small airport, which was covered with a tin roof. After we picked up our things, we left the secure area and found a man that had both of our names on a sign and led us to a large white passenger van. He brought us to our hotel, where we rested briefly then met up with two other members of the team to go get dinner.

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The next morning we met up at the office located in Pucallpa, where I had an opportunity to speak with another anthropologist who is part of the team. We talked about what types of work that we will be doing, what supplies will be needed, and the overall objective of the trip- which will be to work on the process of establishing land rights to the Indigenous that live in the forest. The Indigenous of the Amazon are currently suffering greatly from illegal logging in the forest, while there are also issues such as animal poaching and and drug trafficking.

 

Les saltaron

I rushed to the window with another just as two more passed through the door to make their way down to the first floor of the building. “Les saltaron” or “They jumped them” one of them quickly said before disappearing.

It was late at night, and we had just said our goodbyes to several members of a group that had just left the house. I remained with the person that I had been watching out of the window with for a moment before heading down to see if I could be of any help, leaving the safety of the large metal doors guarding the parking area beneath the building complex. A small white car was parked along the curb of a dimly lit cement street with the yellow emergency lights flashing. There was a man and a woman standing next to the car with their daughter of whom had just left the building, while a young man paced back and forth near the car- all of them looking very, very upset and shaken. He explained to me that as they were leaving the building and getting into the white car two men who had been waiting patiently for them to exit the building sped up to the driver’s side window of the car with a gun pointed directly at the mother’s face. They had their faces painted as to hide their identity, and they demanded the girls purse, cell phone and the car keys. The girl threw the keys so that they wouldn’t get them, however they were able to make off with her purse and phone well before the police arrived. The mother whom I had been with earlier left with the mother who had just been mugged, her daughter and her daughters’ boyfriend in her vehicle to bring them home. I stayed with the father as well as the sister near the car to continue looking for the keys as well as to make sure that he wasn’t left alone. I was a little concerned that the robbers would return, and every time that a motorcycle came by I was a little nervous that I would see a gun pulled on us. The father tried to make small talk with us while we waited, while I made it my mission that I was going to find the keys. I searched along the wall of the compound as well as all throughout the cracks in the cement right outside of the exit. It wasn’t long before the van had returned, to my surprise with everyone still in it. She arranged her vehicle so that the car lights would shine in the area where we assumed the keys would be, but even then we didn’t have any luck in finding them. I spent some time thinking, and next to the building was a large steel door around nine or ten feet tall. There was an intricate design of metal loops and swirls on the door which I figured I could probably climb. Getting my footing right, I climbed up enough to get my hands on the top of the door careful to check if there was anything that could potentially hurt me (electric wire, nails and broken glass are a very common use as a preventative for burglary). I peered over the top, and to my surprise saw the keys about 15 feet past the door. I was overjoyed to have found them, and let everyone know. After ringing the doorbell, someone eventually came down and let us in to recover the keys. The family then said their goodbyes, and left.

If anything, this entire experience has taught me the importance of remaining alert regardless of where you are. Not to be fearful, but rather try and identify a potential issue before it becomes a problem. In this particular instance nobody was hurt, and due to the girl throwing the car keys that is one less thing that they had to give up.

 

Spreading the light

Last week was my first week back in South America in about eight months. I spent it doing missionary work with a group from the US, Peru as well as Ecuador high in the Ecuadorian Andes. It was one of those types of experiences that makes you reflect on your life and think about the things that matter most to you, and what you want to be. We spent the majority of our time near a small city known as Guaranda near Ecuador’s largest volcano, Chimborazo. Our group was composed of around 50 people, who made up of of students, priests, doctors, nurses, interpreters, a nun, and others who simply wished to do a part in making a difference in the lives of others. After being picked up by a bus in Quito and spending the night near the capital we traveled for many hours until we reached a retreat center resting perfectly on the side of a mountain overlooking a green valley stretching for miles across the mountains. It was the type of place that you would envision if you were to think of a 17th century Spanish hacienda, with cows, horses and a pig eating just outside the towering white walls of the building.

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We spent our week visiting several communities that were high in the mountains. This is my first time that I have done missionary work in the mountains, and it was an incredible experience spending time with the people who have made it their home. The first language of many of the people is Quichua, a language that is has been spoken long before Spanish was introduced into Ecuador. Everyone on the team had a job to do depending on what they were good at. As for me, I took on the roll of a language interpreter for the medical staff. Although I am by no means an expert in medical interpretation, overall it went very well. I kept a notebook by my side so that every time a word or phrase came up that I didn’t know I would either ask one of the other interpreters if they knew it, or I would ask the patient to describe it to me so that I could write it down and would be able to recognize it in the future. Many of the adults were suffering from arthritis at a very young age (early 50s). Another common issue was stomach pain and headaches, which could have been caused by quite a variety of reasons- however parasites in the stomach/intestines was one of the major contributors. A lot of the water that is drank is not filtered nor is anything added to the water to assist in purification. We had a large supply of medication that we were able to give to the patients so that they could be effectively treated and kill any parasites that may be living in their system. Many of the people that we worked with were very, very poor. Some came from other villages and had to walk great lengths just so that they would be able to receive help at our clinic. The first few days seemed to be a bit scattered, but before long we were able to get in the flow of things. The patients would be administered the anti parasitic medication if they were able to take it, and then they would either see the dentist, optometrist, or go to one of several groups of chairs that were set up as a triage station- where the nurses and interpreters would work with the patients to try and evaluate what it is that they were dealing with. If it was something serious, one of the doctors would come and examine the patient to try and figure out what the problem was.

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Those who didn’t work in the clinic were out playing with the children, speaking with the elders, playing music, singing songs, and doing everything that they could to try and be a light for the people. Although a large part of the trip was focused on helping out with medical issues, we also worked with the people to help teach them about Christ. There were those who taught some of the children how to say the rosary, or taught them songs to sing. We held mass every day for the people, many of which were only able to attend once or twice a year. It was a lot of fun working with the staff as well as the students. For some this was their first year, others have been doing it for more than ten.

After a full week of working in the clinic, working with children, traveling to different villages on narrow dirt roads twisting around the mountains and doing everything that we could to help the people- it was time to leave. I’ve heard in the past that when doing missionary work, what the people do for you is actually more than what you are doing for them. Most of the people are simply grateful to receive help, or just to have someone there for them in their time of need. I think that many people often forget about others on their own road to success or personal gain, and fail to recognize how badly some people need help and if anything, simply inspiration. You don’t have to travel across the world and reach out to communities to change lives. Sometimes all that you need do is take time to help another, and show them the love that exists in the world.

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