Most of you have likely heard at least a little bit about the deadly earthquake that hit the coast of Ecuador this April. It was a 7.8 magnitude quake that killed more than 660 people and injured nearly 30,000. Having lived in Cuenca since January (in southern Ecuador), I have been keeping fairly well informed about the quake and its aftermath. Not long before I left Cuenca, I even took part in a benefit for one of the areas hit hardest by the powerful quake, the beach community of Canoa. It was reported that 10% of all deaths from the earthquake happened in this small town. No other area lost such a large proportion of its inhabitants. Recently, I had the opportunity to spend time in Canoa and help with the ongoing relief efforts.
Arriving well over two months after the quake, I was surprised at the extent of lasting damage. The need for continuing help was painfully obvious and I felt grateful that I could offer some time and energy to the cause. Many lots around town sat vacant, littered with scraps of lives and businesses lost. I could feel the wounds in these spaces. Various buildings stood in shambles, some leaning, propped up with bamboo beams preventing unplanned collapse. An Army Colonel claimed shortly after the quake that 98% of Canoa’s buildings had been destroyed. Although locals told me it was probably closer to 90%, the once-bustling resort town was nonetheless decimated. Even many of the remaining structures were simply waiting for more organized demolition.
A three-tier inspection system had combed through town in the days following the quake, declaring which buildings were safe and which ones had to come down. As I walked around, I saw stickers posted on the front of all remaining buildings; green stickers indicated structures that had been declared stable; red stickers indicated unstable structures that had to come down; and yellow stickers indicated the occasionally ambiguous middle ground between safe and dangerous. Meanwhile, people had been stripped of their livelihoods in the matter of an evening.
As I arrived, many locals had still yet to return to Canoa, having rushed inland fearing a tsunami, seeking sanctuary in the hills. Some were too scared to come back, others unwilling. In the midst of this chaos, various health issues seemed to get overlooked, or at least diminished in priority. When simply surviving the quake was already such a gift, otherwise serious health risks suddenly lost their apparent severity. A handful of severe mosquito-borne viruses are still ravaging the area and little is being done to address them. With the often oppressive heat and humidity, it’s hard to ask people to dress in pants and long sleeves, and many locals can’t afford the perpetual investment of bug spray.
On my first night in Canoa, I ate at a small local restaurant and noticed a regional newspaper claiming that 77% of people in Manabí province had been infected with at least one of three viruses; Zika, Dengue or Chickungunya. Word from the volunteer camp was that between a third and a half of volunteers were getting hit by one of these. Even after taking more vigilant precautions than most locals could afford, many volunteers still got sick and had to be quarantined during their recovery in an effort to limit the spread of these viruses. Few knew for sure what they had, as accurate diagnoses proved difficult. Medical professionals were in short supply and not highly motivated to deliver speedy or complete test results. Simply knowing which virus you might have wouldn’t change the fact that you could only ride it out through plenty of rest and water.
I was a bit nervous when I heard about this, and skipping town did cross my mind, but I remained determined to help. So despite my reservations, and a shallow sleep after killing a couple of mosquitoes in my bedroom, I hopped aboard ‘the big red truck’ I had been told about and was carried twenty minutes inland with a bunch of volunteers to the encampment at Rio Canoa. Sitting in the back of the pick-up as we bumped along a winding dirt road, I happened to find myself beside Sarah Coppler, who I had yet to meet but had actually house-sitted for in Cuenca during the first two weeks of June. We recognized one another through photos and common friends and got chatting along the way. It was a very warm welcome. Following a few decades of disaster relief work (primarily with Habitat for Humanity), Sarah jumped up from semi-retirement in Cuenca to respond to the need in her recently adopted nation after the earthquake.
Sarah was pulled in as the senior advisor to a project I first heard about through friends in Cuenca – Proyecto Saman. This project was born in the wake of the quake’s devastation (essentially arising from Colectivo Madre Tierra). I was amazed to be welcomed into the fold so effortlessly. Proyecto Saman is coordinated by Diana Moscoso and another Sarah who I met through friends in Cuenca (Sarah Hanen Bauer). I was excited to show up and jump right into the project, having my energy directed to the needs of the camps’ 30 families. Alongside the coordination of local resources and donations that flooded the coastal area in response to the quake, Proyecto Saman has been focused on building long-term housing for displaced families. The project was named after a large tree native to the area, the beautiful and broad-canopied saman tree.
In the week I spent on site, we finished building a long water table for the community to clean their clothes (including drainage and piping), we built eight private showers and finished off the awnings to several new tents, bringing the total up to 50 sturdy bamboo dwellings large enough for families. We also made a big fence to protect the land from grazing cows. The locals living in camp are also busily working, many trying to recover some sense of purpose and pride. I smiled as I saw a couple of industrious young kids collecting supplies to help their parents build a bamboo fence around their tent, outfitting their home in a more personal way.
In the early days of the project, the Saman team built a large open-air community centre with a full kitchen and seating space under a high and sturdy roof. We met there each afternoon as some of the residents prepared hearty lunches for us. We usually had about 12-14 volunteers on a daily basis, half of them coming from a nearby camp of All Hands volunteers that rotated through several different work sites in the region.
Right beside the community centre stood a large supply bodega that was built to hold tools and other donations which were being rationed and shared as needed. I was particularly impressed with the compost toilets that had been set up. They operated on a two-week cycle, separating liquid waste from solid, eventually producing dry odorless compost (with the help of a few scoops of chalky sawdust).
Even with the progress of cleaning up and beginning to rebuild, the area remains very tender. Tourism is obviously down considerably, despite many locals feeling ready to receive guests. The hotels that survived the quake are in good shape and awaiting opportunities to host. Local restaurants are also hoping vacationers will soon return. Even with a number of businesses reopened, the streets still seemed sparse to me.
Nevertheless, I appreciated people’s inclination to interact, even just in passing. I was told this effect had diminished since the quake, but it was noticeable to me (even for a small community) that many people were eager to respond to my nods and glances as I wandered about town. When I stopped to talk with folks in the street, almost everyone seemed keen to share their survival story. I sensed that this helped them process their pain and allow them to move on, making way to rebuild and work towards new dreams.
Despite the sense of optimism, the earth has continually been reminding residents of their vulnerability through a string of aftershocks. In the week immediately following the initial earthquake, there were three aftershocks each measuring at least 6.0. Even as recently as last Sunday, the night before I left for Quito, there were two significant aftershocks, ten minutes apart, measuring 5.9 and 6.4.
I was just leaving my second-storey room when the first one hit, and I felt the bamboo structure sway as I rushed toward the stairs. The earth continued shaking beneath my feet for almost a minute after I made it down onto the ground. Feeling mildly dazed, I stood out in the back alley behind my hotel with various locals who looked far more scared than I felt. I quickly realized that this relatively minor quake was not the source of their fear, but it had stirred up the all-too-recent memory of devastation they were only just recovering from.
I consoled the family who owned my hotel as best I could and then headed around front to the beach. I was trying to connect with some friends I had spent the previous week volunteering with. As soon as I got to the beach, spotting a young Belgian couple I had befriended on the Proyecto Saman site, the earth began shaking again. This time I had my feet in the sand and had no fear of anything falling on me. I think this allowed me to feel the quake all the more fully, not trying to run away from it. It was a deeply humbling experience. I could directly sense the reality of our earth as just another organism living and growing, changing day to day.
Looking out at the sea as the earth groaned beneath me, my instinct to live life simply was both clarified and reinforced. I felt the wisdom of investing energy more in people and dreams than in places or things. Nonetheless, there are a lot of people in this place who need new dreams and few basic things. Helping them can be pretty simple.
If you feel inclined to support this volunteer work (or if you’re even halfway curious), please have a peek at some of the links I have shared above (or here) and ask yourself if you can do something to help. Even though there is no shortage of opportunity to help people in our occasionally aching world, there is also no obligation. I sense that simply being ourselves is a great service to those in our orbit. So I hope you won’t feel any pressure. Maybe you can just feel your breath in your nose and your chest and follow your instincts. I trust love to lead.
* * *
After just over six months living in Ecuador, I am now on my way back home to Canada. My flight is due to leave in less than ten hours. While I am eager to see family and friends and have a fun last half of the summer, I will also hold close the people and experiences I have been exposed to here. Maybe I’ll even be fortunate enough to inspire others to lean a bit further out of their normal courses to explore more of what life is offering and asking of us.
With love and gratitude,