For six hours, the bus meandered through the Andes Mountains, then along the river, and then deep into the Amazon rainforest of South America.
They were heading far off the grid in Ecuador, beyond electricity and cell phone towers and just about everything.
When the road ended, they hopped in a canoe and traveled another 30 minutes before finally reaching their lodging.
Among the 25 people on this remote trek in mid-July was Joey Santana ’21. Santana was a part of a service project coordinated by the WE.org international charity (“a movement that brings people together and gives them the tools to change the world”) and sponsored by Dow.
Santana had been invited along with other top finishers of the ExploraVision national science competition, high school students from around the U.S. and as far away as Thailand. Though it was their brains that got them there to Ecuador, it was their bodies and resolve that would provide much-needed service for the remote village of Bella Vista. Their task: to lay the foundation for a new cafeteria for the school.
Each day they would bring wheelbarrows down to the river banks, load up rocks and push them up to the school. Then they would mix a crude cement in with the rocks and begin to create the foundation.
Santana is familiar with hard training from participating in football and wrestling at Jesuit, and this was serious labor.
“It was hard work,” Santana said. “We did five days of this. We would assemble teams each day, the foreman would say what needed to be done, and we would figure it out. We each had roles.”
It seemed like slow going at first, “but once we could see the progress, we were inspired.”
In the savage humidity, hydration was key, as was advance preparation. In order to go on the trip, Santana first had to receive yellow fever and typhoid fever shots, update his tetanus, and take malaria pills.
“No one got sick,” Santana said.
While manual labor and service was at the core of the “mission learning” trip, there was much more. Santana made numerous friends with both fellow participants and local children, playing lots of soccer. Each night the WE organizers would set aside time for reflection and self-evaluation for the group, and one particular side trip resonated with Santana.
They met a local farmer, who gave them an extraordinary education on the process of producing chocolate: the variety of cacao pods, the effects of different trees and soils, how the journey from cacao pod to chocolate occurs, how to make the different types of chocolate, how he collects rainwater because the nearest river is too polluted, and how he exports his product directly to big companies.
And the day they arrived in Ecuador, before they traveled into the rainforest, they explored the capital city of Quito. There they saw the Jesuit church, Compania de Jesus, which broke ground in 1605 and was completed 160 years later in 1765.
It was an extraordinary experience for Santana as well as his mother, Monica, who served as one of the trip chaperones.
“We outsiders came in and showed that we cared, and made an impact,” Santana said. “It’s a unique thing to go to a different country, to help people you don’t know, who don’t speak the same language as you.
“We made a big difference that will be remembered for a long time. I definitely want to do something like that again.”
See below a photo slideshow of Santana's trip to Ecuador.