Leap of Faith By Gabrielle Morton Written for her “Identity and Community” Class at MSU, Fall-winter, 2013-14
Suspended in the clouds, strapped to a rusted steel cable by only a few belt buckles, I stand at the edge of a mountain with a 500-foot drop below. Through squinty, teary eyes I can just make out my dad in the distant mist, waiting on the other side of this long metal cable. Unfamiliar men speak quickly in Spanish urging me to just close my eyes, lift my feet, and fall. I’ve never been good at this, the whole spur-of-the-moment-you-might-die-doing-this-but-do-it-anyway type of thing. I had been struggled enduring the relative comfort and safety of the seven-hour plane ride to Malingua Pamba, Ecuador, where I now find myself, frozen in place, strapped to an overhead wire but with the feet trying to extend roots in the hard rocky soil beneath. With an un-nameable, primal fear, I somehow rip my feet from the ground and let myself plummet through the sky, leaving any remaining sense of comfort on the mountainside behind. Suddenly I am skimming mere inches above the tree tops, my heart nearly pounding through my chest and overwhelmed with a new sense of liberation. Never before have I embraced the lack of control that comes from letting go to plummet towards a seemingly sure death. Reaching the other side, my feet scramble to settle amongst the roots and rocks, my mind begins to absorb my surroundings and I am suddenly able to cherish a reality that I am just now beginning to see. This is a new world to me, one with boundaries far outside of the hustle and bustle of the white, middle class suburb that I’ve grown up in. Just as my feet fought in giving up the safety of the mountainside, I am also hesitant to embrace the mud hut, with straw bed, and no running water or electricity that will be my new “home” for the next two weeks in one of the poorest villages in Ecuador. It seems so very far from the glamorous vacations I have been accustomed too. I am here to meet my Aunt Pam, who stumbled upon a tiny cluster of buildings perched along a vast gorge on one of her crazy biking trips through the mountains. She quickly fell in love with the people and over the last 12 years has put all of her efforts into building a school and community center here. I arrive exhausted on a ramshackle bus crammed between a crate of live chickens on one side, and a sleeping old man slouching on limy left shoulder. My view out of the cracked, mud-splattered window is of the bald bus tire wobbling inches away from the edge of the mountain trail. If things go wrong there is no railing to keep us from plummeting into the abyss. My world seems so much different from theirs, and on the surface it is. I am on the outside looking in, heading to a village without any formal education, the average family making just 20 dollars a month. My Spanish tongue doesn’t allow me to express myself beyond the words blue and the numbers one through ten. I am terrified to venture into this world that exists outside of my favorites “Teen Vogue” and “The Hills”. I had been so content to just hang from the wire, with my feet planted firmly on the platform. Luckily, again I am not allowed to wallow in that false sense of safety. Before I know it, I spill disheveled from the bus and into the arms of welcoming, loving, happy people, laughing and kissing my cheeks, calling me “Miss Gabriella”. In an instant, the sun weathered faces, yellowing teeth and fingernails packed with earth stop being so terrifying and foreign. I am immersed in the sounds, scents and sights. I begin to see these villagers for they are …people. The women have leathered, wrinkled skin from working in the fields all day. They look much older than they are, proving that they have had to fight to be where they are today. Despite the fact that they own nearly nothing beyond the clothes on their backs, they generously offer me anything they have, from plates of the Ecuadorian delicacy know as cuy (guinea pig), to hand knit, yarn bags. I pick up speed as I venture into the unknown. I am gong so fast and have no intention of slowing down even if I could. I began to love the journey. These people that I previously knew nothing about begin showing me what matters in life. The language barrier that existed between us does not keep us from communicating. I began to love the people just as my Aunt does. I develop a crush on a boy named William, who wears the same threadbare outfit everyday, and he kisses me on my cheek as I leave. Despite being unable to communicate verbally, he teaches me now to cha-cha and we dance all night long at the grand opening of the community center my Aunt Pam built. I learn so much about happiness even though the closest cell service is hours away, and I have had to learn to pee in a hole in the ground. I find myself with the privilege of helping these young women step off of their ledges on the same mountains that just a week before I so desperately clung to, unwilling to venture into the unknown and leave behind the life that was expected to me. I meet with girls, all my age or younger as they are preparing themselves to be married and then get pregnant as soon as they begin their menstrual cycles. They take for granted that their days will be spent working the fields to support their families. I fill their heads with the possibilities of getting an education and having a career before starting families. Planning for themselves is something that is never thought about in their village. I teach them that contrary to what they have been taught to believe, boys are no more important than them. I further attempt to knock down the gender barrier by teaching them to play soccer, a sport that until now is reserved only for the boys to play. The girls wide brown eyes light up as their muddy, plastic work shoes make contact with the tattered soccer ball, and I recognize in them the same feelings of exhilaration I had felt just weeks before as I stepped away from the rocky earth, into thin air to soar inches form the tree tops suspended on that rusted cable. So we all took a leap of faith, not knowing exactly where we’d land. When I began, I was so unsure of where the experience would take me and as the weeks slid by, despite my desires, I realized I couldn’t stay in the mountains forever. Like the zip line, life keeps on moving without an option to slow down. Looking back I realize that my final destination was traveling into the hearts and minds of the people I met. I live in a society where everyone strives to have the latest of everything from iPhones and Luis Vuitton handbags to collecting the most followers on Twitter. I envy the happiness that nothing can bring. At the end of the day, it is evident that we are all looking for the same thing…happiness. The people of Malingua Pamba just take a more direct route to find it. I’m so thankful I reluctantly stepped off of that first ledge. While life’s journeys do not always get easier, taking the first step does. If find comfort in knowing that while the destination is not always clear, being willing to take that step into space offers the chance to soar into the happiness that the journey can bring.