The trip to Ecuador couldn’t have been any longer even if we all had asked for it. We took a delayed 6 hour flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport to Guayaquil, Ecuador. Our arrival to Guayaquil was once again delayed due to the hour long wait through customs. Once our flight finally landed in Quito, we needed to take a 5 hour bus ride to our hotel near Tena. On top of all the traveling we did, we found that night that we needed to wake up at 4:30am for our first work day in the small village of Linares.
Linares is the near the larger town of El Chaco, a town about 60 miles east of Quito. We spent Thursday and Friday working at makeshift clinics in both Linares and El Chaco. In Linares we worked in a government-type building, setting up stations in different rooms throughout the building. Students were involved in working in various stations: triage, basic health care, dentistry, pharmacy, gynecology, and health care education. Our group saw approximately 70 patients throughout the morning, including elderly, pregnant women, and children.
In El Chaco, our group saw a larger number of patients, including more children. Besides common colds, which are due to sweeping changes in weather patterns at this time of year — hot followed by cold from rains –, there were many children with parasites. These ailments are unfortunately all-too-common here due to contaminated drinking water. Also common were fungal infections, again due to the poor water.
After our brigades on Thursday and Friday, we spent our Saturday at the Jumandy Caves. Throughout our journey into the dark caverns, we waded through water, saw stalactites and stalagmites, and climbed up boulders to exit the caves, almost in an Indiana Jones-style scene. Unfortunately, no golden statues were present. But we did learn about the indigenous people of the area, the “Quijos”.
Following the Spanish conquest of the region in the 16th century, the Quijos, led by Jumandy, rebelled against Spanish rule, using the caves as a hiding place to plan their rebellions. According to the guides, the Quijos burned down some of the original Spanish colonies in the area, due to the fact that they witnessed the exploitations and murders of the indigenous people. Another use of these caves was a sanctuary: the natives would go into the caves and infuse a sacred plant. This sacred plant would provide hallucinations that would come in the form of a serpent. These practices helped the Quijos guide themselves through life and reincarnation. Today these practices are in decline, mainly because of the Catholic Church and Western medicine, but do still occur within some villages in this area. Many natives still know of many forms of plants that are used as medicines, and used to understand our afterlife.
Since we are on a medical mission here in Ecuador, providing Western medicine to people in these rural areas, an interesting question to ask is: Is Western medicine really superior? Many, of course, would give a resounding “yes” to that question. But the natives are still using many plants in this area as medicines. And if these plants indeed work for their ailments, isn’t there something to be learned from them as well?
-Steve and Marie