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Culture Shock in the Rainforest

Oct 4, 2011
by Caroline Young, '11

Students thrive on service learning trip to the jungles of Ecuador

Ten Flagler students spent part of April pushed from their comfort zones when they hopped on a plane to Quito, Ecuador. They lived without clocks, quenched their thirst with licorice-flavored water, slept with monstrous insects and ate yucca for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Needless to say, it wasn’t your typical spring break trip.

Kristin Nelson, former director of student activities, led the 11-day alternative break to Ecuador in April to work with the Foundation for Indigenous Community Development in Pastaza, Ecuador. It’s a nonprofit organization aimed at creating sustainable development in indigenous communities of Pastaza. FUNDECOIPA manages the 2,200 acres of the Arutam Rainforest Reserve.

But the students relished their rainforest adventure, despite the culture shock. During the first week they lived in the Shuar community of Arutam, where they lived in a wooden shelter with a view of three volcanoes in the distance. They worked on several projects with the Shuar tribe, including constructing a cafeteria for local school children and working on a family garden in the jungle.

Liberal arts major Tina Hudzinski said they helped the community with daily tasks, such as collecting, harvesting, cooking and preparing yucca. She said it was a ton of work split up into three sections every day: work, a jungle lesson and a cultural session.

“We learned about the plants and how people live,” Hudzinksi said. “They talked about the history of the people, their customs, how they are different, and they showed us their traditional Shuar dance.”

Political science major Haleigh Smith said the trip to Ecuador left her thirsty to sharpen her Spanish skills and to become more proactive about making positive environmental changes. It brought to life the environmental issues she is used to hearing about from professors and textbooks.

“It makes it completely different when you go and see what’s happening … you see the people who need the Amazon, and they need the forest. That’s their livelihood,” she said.

Smith said she had a huge “aha!” moment in the jungle.

“I saw this is worth fighting for,” she said. “All of my research and my reasoning — there is a purpose for it, and I have got to do more to help.”

Nelson said the main goal of the trip was to do a knowledge-exchange program.

“Our students learned western farming techniques by working in local community gardens on and around Flagler College,” she said. “We then learned the farming techniques of the Shuar Indians while being completely immersed in their culture.”

She said being immersed in that lifestyle blew her away.

“One student said something like, ‘We think water is a necessity, but here, it’s like a luxury,’ ” she said. “The showers just dripped on you, it takes time to prepare water; they have to make sure it lasts the whole day … and here [in the U.S.] we just turn on the tap and drink all the time.”

Hudzinski was exhausted by the end of each day, but said it was well worth her energy.

“I loved the little things – like when I fell asleep in a hammock every night, and I was outside all the time, which I loved,” she said.

Hudzinksi’s greatest shock was the locals’ concept of time — it’s drastically different from the American lifestyle. Although the Shuars have a strong work ethic and are determined to get things done, she said she never knew what time it was or how long activities were going to last. But it taught her to stay in the present and to not worry about what would happen next.

“Since I have been back, I have been much more relaxed about time,” she said. “I learned to let go of time constraints, and to know that things will happen, and it’s good.”

The Flagler College Ecuador Alternative Break was helped by a $3,500 donation from the Don Ausman Foundation, which hosts a St. Augustine 5K run called Don’s Run in memory of a Michigan State student who died in 2009. The organization also gave $1,000 in 2010 to help two site leaders with stipends toward their trip. Nelson said leftover funds will help other Flagler students go on future alternative breaks.

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