In July 2017 I went to Ecuador with Help Learn & Discover. I had a fantastic and memorable experience!
I didn't know what to expect from the medical rotations at first, but they turned out to be super interesting. I participated in the 28-day premed program, so I had two weeks of medical rotations. We had morning sessions from 8am-12pm, followed by lunch, then some days we had afternoon and evening sessions from 3-6pm and 6:30-9:30pm, respectively. In the morning sessions, we shadowed doctors in the ER and OR, gaining insight on interesting patient cases and sitting in on surgeries. The coolest surgery I saw was a cataract removal, viewing the surgeon’s work directly through a microscope lens. In the afternoon sessions, we learned how to do stitches using a cow's heart and studied cases related to abdominal pain. The evening sessions took on more of a lecture/tutorial format. We learned how to do CPR, withdraw blood, and read an ECG. In my second week of rotations, I was able to conduct a full clinical history on ER patients (with the help of the tutor’s translation) and give them a physical exam. Additionally I learned about radiology and sports medicine, which I had not expected to learn going into the trip. One of my favourite fields was emergency medicine, taking great interest in conducting clinical histories and diagnosing patients. I also really enjoyed learning about electrocardiographs and doing stitches.
It can be intimidating going into rotations not knowing what to expect, but it helps to get a good breakfast in each morning (as these are long days) and to bring your notebook, pen, and ironed lab coat to the hospital each day. The tutors are very educated and welcome questions from the students. They are 5th year medical students at the university in Quito, so they were very thorough and patient with us students. I learned so much over these two weeks, and I am very grateful for the tutors' expertise.
The volunteer portion of the trip was also very memorable. Our project was to build 20 homes for the community of Pujilí with the help of 3 HL&D volunteer groups. Over 5 days, we split into smaller groups to work more efficiently on the project. Some days were spent digging holes (to lay the foundation for the cement pouring of the homes), scraping, sweeping, priming, and painting interior and exterior walls of these homes. It was important to wear sunscreen and a hat to protect yourself from the heat. We had music playing while we worked, which added a fun element to the teamwork atmosphere. It was really special working on these homes with members of the community. The men and women were so hardworking; they worked from sunrise to sunset, only taking rest on Sundays. Their efforts were truly admirable.
There were a few occasions when we got to spend time with the community away from the work site. The community treated us to a welcome dinner on the first night, where we danced tirelessly with the children. I had never eaten such a hardy homegrown meal before. I also got to practice my Spanish here, learning new words to interact with the kids. After our week of work, we also got to play soccer with the community.
The accommodations while we were in Pujilí were very different from the rest of the trip. Some rooms did not have running water, and the hostel did not have heat. As such, we relied on baby wipes to clean ourselves after a day of work. I wore the same clothes each day, and left them and my runners behind for the community once we were done. In all, working and spending time with the community was so profound- I feel so fortunate to have helped build 12 homes for them and to have experienced their lifestyle. I will never forget starting off our workdays with a team huddle, chanting “H-H-HLD, HLD IN PUJILÍ”, and seeing joy and graciousness in the faces of the community members.
The travel portion of the trip was also incredible. Between exploring waterfalls in Banos and Mindo, hiking through the jungle in Misahualli, horseback riding in Cotopaxi, and shopping at the market in Otavalo, there was truly never a dull moment. With the way our schedule turned out, we had almost a week of beach towns lined up in Manta, Puerto Lopez, and Salinas after a week of hard work in Pujilí, which was a perfect way to relax a bit.
My favourite travel destinations were Banos, Manta, and Mindo. Banos is a town known as the “gateway” to the Amazon. Here we went zip-carting through the Andes Mountains, which was absolutely mesmerizing. We then went to the “swing at the edge of the world”, where we were given a great photo opportunity. We also went hiking up to a waterfall, followed by a relaxing afternoon at the spa where we had an unobstructed view of the Andes.
Manta came after a week of work in Pujilí. This was a beach town on the coast of Ecuador. We went banana boating, paddle boarding, drank coconut juice, and played in the ocean. Our hotel was very comfortable, with great space and hammocks on our balconies. Many people got sunburnt, so it was important to reapply sunscreen frequently there! Nonetheless, it was a perfect two days with all my favourite people.
Mindo was also unforgettable. There were many stray dogs there, but they were all friendly and well behaved. Here we went water rappelling; the waterfalls were 8 m, 20 m, and 40 m in height, in that order. We descended down each waterfall, the water rushing over us with every step we took. It was scary at first, but once you got a handle of the technique, you appreciated how amazing this activity was. Afterward, we went rafting down a river. With 6 people to a raft, I don’t think there was a moment where at least one person wasn’t screaming. Hitting rocks and nearly flipping backwards as we went, the experience was like Splash Mountain at Disneyland, except on a raft and in nature instead, and thus 10 times more exhilarating. It was also a great way to learn that my watch was waterproof.
Bus rides between the travel destinations were typically 2-3 hours, although there were two occasions where we rode for 8 hours. I felt the long rides were to my advantage, as I had the opportunity to catch up on my journal entries. They played movies on every ride, and we discovered an aux cord on the bus, so there were a few dance parties on our commutes.
I also paid extra to go to the Galapagos Islands, which I would definitely recommend. My experience on the islands was unbelievable, and compared to the cost of visiting the islands away from HL&D, we really got a good deal. This portion of the trip came in the first week for me, but it varies between the beginning and end of the trip depending on the month you travel.
There was a small group of 9 people during this week. Olivia was our tour guide on the islands- she was amazing. She had worked as a tour guide on the islands for 2 years previously, so she was very informative about their lifestyle, culture, and all the places we visited. The food there was unreal- we were eating seafood that had been caught and cooked that same day. The wildlife was incredible- there were sea lions and marine iguanas on all the boardwalks and benches, making it very difficult to stay at least 2 m away from all animals. The beaches were beautiful, with the softest sand I had ever touched. Snorkeling was absolutely wicked. One of my favourite days was when we rode out on a boat to two snorkel spots, seeing sea turtles, all kinds of fish, seahorses, sharks, blue-footed boobies, penguins, eagle rays, manta rays, and golden rays- the diversity was insurmountable. We also got to hike Sierra Negra, which is a caldera with the second largest diameter in the world of 10km. The hike was 5 hours in total, and afterward we still had enough energy to play 5 sets of volleyball on the beach, watching the beautiful sunset after our game.
The rooms were very safe. We did not have access to any safes, but I left my belongings in the room without a worry. I would recommend bringing about 300 USD for this portion of the trip to account for food, souvenirs, and additional costs. I also recommend bringing binoculars to the Islands to see the distant wildlife better. Some of the boat rides can be rocky, so I suggest bringing gravol too.
It may seem overwhelming to pack for all kinds of weather- sunny and hot, cloudy and breezy, rainy and humid- but try to pack the necessities, and if you happen to forget something, you have access to malls there where you can buy things. Try to pack light by bringing one of most things i.e. one rain jacket, fleece jacket, hiking/sweat pants, jeans. There are opportunities to do laundry when at Hostel 593 in Quito. I brought a duffel travel backpack with me, and I am so happy I did. For two weeks you bring this travel backpack with you instead of your suitcase (which stays in the hostel in Quito), so ideally everything you want to wear in these 2 weeks of travel should fit into the backpack. I also brought packing cubes, which were a great way to keep my belongings organized despite my bag getting tossed around. Bring a couple bottles of sunscreen. Bug repellent is only necessary in Banos, Misahualli, and Mindo (anywhere with low altitude)- one bottle is sufficient. I recommend bringing a journal to document all your amazing experiences.
I also always felt safe in Ecuador. There was never a time where I was worried for my personal safety or about whether my belongings were safe. The country is beautiful, in part because of its amazing citizens.
The trip was pricey, especially with the CAD to USD exchange. Yet I had the time of my life, and it was certainly money well spent. Juan, Jose, and Olivia are wonderful, doing whatever they could to make us happy. The students were very down-to-earth, and I am so grateful for having travelled with them. This trip was the definition of “work hard, play hard”. We learned so much from the medical rotations, and I gained so much perspective from working in Pujilí. There was never a dull moment when travelling either. Thank you HL&D for a trip to remember!