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For the Love of Nature

The sunlight shot through the blinds and into my tightly closed eyes right at dawn. Instead of fighting the early morning wake up call, I welcomed it. Yet another day in Santa Lucia Ecolodge; I rejoiced! Silently, I slipped out the wooden door passed my sleeping roommate. Pots and pans clanged from the kitchen as the boys started preparing breakfast. I quickly slid by them with a quick "Buenas Dias" and met with the cold cement floor of the shower. Three months ago you'd of never found me out of bed before 8am but these days my habits have changed.

I de-robed and allowed the brutally cold cement to sting my feet once more. Then I turned the hot water up as high as it could go. Nothing like a hot shower at almost 2,000 feet elevation. While letting the cascade of warmth rush over my body, I peered out the large window carved at my side. Cool breeze met with the hot water at my back. Hummingbirds revved up their engines as sweet pungent nectar filled the air, beckoning them to breakfast. Ahh this is heaven, I thought. Hovering stratus clouds melted into the sky, opening the horizon. Another clear day, I smiled. The layers of blue and green mountains revealed themselves like a stack of cards fanning out before a Las Vegas dealer. Each one offered something special to the scenery. At no other time in the day could I waste so much time in the shower. Deep in the valley, lush trees dotted the feet of the mountains and climbed to their knees. I held my head under the water another two seconds then turned off the shower.

Inside I found the visiting school of Sussex University students trickling down the stairs for breakfast. A sweet tropical medley of bananas, papaya and pineapple scented the air. Everyone filled up their cups with freshly ground coffee, courtesy of the Santa Lucia organic coffee farm and the hard work of me and the other volunteer Hahn. Once all of the students received their meals of fruit salad, granola, yogurt and pancakes, we took some to fill our own bellies. Each day brought a new delicious meal prepared by Marco and Marecio and all the food traveled from the town of Nanegal in truck 15 minutes to Santa Lucia's base and then mules carried everything to the lodge. Talk about local!

Following breakfast, Eduardo, the chief of operations, informed me and the other volunteers of our tasks for the day. Each day varied depending on the projects at hand and the needs of the workers. The first several days we dedicated to coffee. I joined Hahn, the other volunteer, who already picked the coffee berries and peeled them down to the bean. Then after drying them in the sun for many days, we peeled them for hours in a grinder. After peeling, we cleaned and separated the beans from the flaky peels. Once they were all clean we roasted them over the fire until their color transformed from periwinkle to black. Finally the roasted beans met with the grinder and turned to fresh coffee. Watching this entire process from plant to cup showed me how much work goes into each cup of coffee. Another reason to support fair trade!

My other tasks included clearing trails of leaves and debris as well as making and leveling trails to beautify them. One day, the new volunteer, Brittany and I joined Eduardo down the snaking path to groom the trail. Our hoes swung overhead as we chopped away at the thick wall of soil. With each swing my muscles tightened and sweat tickled my brow. For five hours straight we smoothed out the path, spreading rich black soil across the once arid brown path. Fluorescent blue butterflies fluttered around our heads savoring the salt dripping from our pores. Raindrops pinged on the umbrella leaves above us but never once reached our heads. There's nothing like the protection of a dense green forest. After multiple breaks, a bottle of water each, and soaking our clothes so they clung to us like wet suits, we decided to head back for lunch. Along the way Eduardo paused to point out a red and yellow beaked toucanita with a fluffy black body. Ecuadorians are amazing when it comes to knowledge of the forest and species. Every hike turns into a lesson on types of trees, medicinal plants, birds and animals.

When not working on the trails, we helped Milton collect rocks from a tranquil place in the forest where the mountain rocks crumbled. Then mules carried the rocks back to the lodge, where we helped construct a new science station and extension to the kitchen. At home, I barely ever engaged in manual labor, but here it is apart of life. Men and women work hard from a very young age in their family farms, building their family houses and helping their neighbors. Before visiting Ecuador, my idea of a long day at work meant sitting in front of my computer typing all day. Now I've gained respect for the culture that truly uses their hands when working hard.

Picture a community of poor farmers, trying to survive by producing crops along the steep slopes of the cloud forest. They cut down trees and planted bananas, papaya, coffee and other fruits and vegetables. Slowly the soil began to degrade. Then they discover two years after the fact that their land is part of the Land Protected Act. So they are without land and without a livelihood. Instead of giving up, they develop an idea to start one of the first ecotourism lodges in Ecuador. Farmers transfer their energy to building a lodge and slowly the scientists, volunteers, students and tourists come. After years of reforestation and returning their love to the land, they are able to survive alongside the forests. This story urged me to visit and the people and scenery urged me to stay.

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