“Organize logistics for medical brigade, deliver charlas for the community, gather malnutrition statistics, help with administrative duties when necessary….”
These are my assigned tasks when I found out I was going to Napo, the main entrance to the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador, two weeks ago. During the elapsed time as I underwent further language and cultural training to prepare myself for the next seven months, these words likewise transformed to take on new meaning. I remember the initial excitement of reading those lines; the words swarming in my head as I jumped up and down screaming, “Napo! Napo! Napo!” The next day, reality sunk it. Here I am, a seventeen year old with no medical knowledge or experience, working in a rural health clinic where the answers to my Googlable “What is a macro-nutrient?” and “How do you say kidney in Spanish?” questions are a thirty-minute walk away to the nearest city with Wifi. Talk about contributing to the community when I could barely help myself.
Tomorrow, I am leaving Quito for Talag, Napo. Training is over. As I reread my assignment last night, trying to make sense of my future, I recognized the same overwhelming excitement; however, this next time, I am realistic. I feel empowered by the lessons that Quito has taught me, the most important one: being vulnerable.
That day when I accidentally drank a smoothie blended with the woman’s extra touch of protein and nutrient–a raw egg. As I clenched my lips to hide the pain from my whirling stomach in the twenty-minute bus ride home that seemed to last a millennium, I felt the men, women, children, pressed against my body as we swayed back and forth, left and right to the tune of the bus. “Keep a straight face. Keep a straight face,” I muttered to myself. “If you succumb to the pain and start wilting, that’s asking to be an easy target for the ladrons.” When I finally got to the door that gated my beautifully-lawned house from the young, uprising Quito with its masses of street vendors selling curried chicken kidneys for un dolar and un bolsito of quail eggs for fifty cents, I was ready to plop onto my bed…if only I could figure out which key opened the first of the three locks. As I shoved keys after keys into the lock under the windy, cold Quiteno evening, a school bus of children drove by. Their chorus of “chinito, chinito” trailing after them and the stream of black fumes. I felt weak. I felt like an easy target. I felt vulnerable.
Last Sunday, I sat in my host mother’s bed gluing bows to the fifty baby shower cards she was making for Matias, her expected new-born. While my fingers looped around the blue ribbon to produce the next bow, she said, “Sabes, no puedo visitar mi familia en Ibarra.” “You know, I can’t visit my family in Ibarra.” I looked up at her, into her sad, acknowledging eyes as they stared wistfully at the cards. “Yo se,” I replied. Lying in bed that night, I thought about her. Marlena, thirty-nine years old, embarazada and embarrassed. They will not condone her, not if she continues to stay single and give birth to the bastard child. Oh, the embarrassment of having her in the family! Those cards, she can make them, one by one; she can gracefully print the addresses on the envelope; she can paste the stamp and hope for the replies. She probably won’t receive many, if any. I felt her sorrow. I felt her struggle. I felt her vulnerability.
Last night, I found myself sitting around a circle of drummers. As the man sang and chanted, the woman danced and moved her feet to the slither of a serpent . The fire in the middle distorted their silhouettes as they swayed and beat their drums to draw energy to the group. I closed my eyes and bobbed my head to the rhythm of the music. Hot naranjilla drink in my left land, warm maiz tierno in my right hand, and the statue of Virgin Mary overlooking an illuminated Quito to my back, I felt right. Right because I felt our collective warmth, our shared passion for life, and our consolidated vulnerability. This is Nina Shunku—House of Fire—previously a morgue but has transformed into a refuge for homeless children, drug addicts, and drunkards looking for a space to discover a different approach to life: a space to be vulnerable about the past and optimistic about the future. Here, they look to art and music to heal themselves, opening up their wounds for the community to see and trusting with their hearts that vulnerability is the first step to possibility.
These instances of being vulnerable, seeing someone vulnerable, and embracing collective vulnerability gave me my answers. My task for the next seven months is to promote vulnerability, to give people the strength and space to let themselves be, to help them find the courage to tell the story of who they are whole-heartedly. When people have walked for miles on bumpy dirt roads to get the clinic, I will welcome them, tell them that it’s okay to feel weak, that being sick makes one more vulnerable to vulnerability, and that that’s fine because ironically being vulnerable take strength. When they worry about revealing themselves and the private details of their health, I will tell them these feelings are natural: we’re all scared to be vulnerable. It’s hard to give your whole heart because there’s no guarantee and when the love is not reciprocated, it hurts; the sorrow will overwhelm. “However,” I will say, “I have seen vulnerability cure. So please, be vulnerable. In the end, you will decide that it is worth it because being so vulnerable means you are alive and living. Vulnerability can cure you.”