I’m not the kind of girl who devotes every waking hour to “the cause.” I shop, I waste time online, and more often than I’d like to admit, I sit at home wishing my life were different yet never seeming to do anything about it—or at least I did.
I wish you could have seen the look on my parents’ faces when I told them I wanted to spend $6,000 on a high school volunteer abroad program in the Galápagos Islands. First thing they said? “Well, it sure isn’t going to be our money that gets you there.” And let me tell you, it wasn’t.
At a very minimum, I spent twenty hours per week during my summer vacation babysitting to the death. I signed over every paycheck to a seemingly insatiable debt that was my trip. At times, I nearly became convinced that it had become nothing more than a figment of my imagination. Yet, somehow, nothing had ever felt so right. Even now, when people ask me why I decided to go on this trip, I find myself at a loss for words. Perhaps a story will do justice.
It was our fourth day on the Islands and a peculiar man named Jefferson had apparently requested that my group take the day off of our usual volunteer work and come help him instead. We were told that Jefferson was an employee of the Galápagos National Park and that he manned the enormous greenhouse that services the entire island of San Cristóbal. We learned that because of park budget cuts, all of the other workers at this greenhouse had been laid off. Jefferson had been left on his own to tend to and distribute the thousands of plants that were growing in that palace of a greenhouse.
That particular day, he needed us to accompany him to a place on top of an old volcano called El Junco Lagoon. We were to be planting seedlings of the miconia plant—an endemic species that had been nearly wiped out of the area by invasive plants and animals. When we arrived at the base of the trail, the weather was miserable. High winds, rain, cold, mud, you name it. As we hiked up, the conditions only got worse. Most of the group was put off by this and begrudgingly carried on up the slippery trail. I, however, could not seem to help the euphoric sensations that were erupting inside of me. I felt so lucky and humbled to be of aid to this man who was so clearly in need of it.
As we began our work, I quickly fell into a rhythm with José, the man with whom we were both living and working for the rest of the week. As he dug, I transported and planted the miconia, carrying more and more back with me with each trip I took to the receding bins in which the plants were stored. Somehow, I could always find my way back through the bushes and fog and there José would be—shaking with laughter with his goofy and nearly toothless smile at me, slipping and stumbling up the lava rocks to meet him. His absolute joy and determination made the hours pass quickly that day. I soon found that our time at the lagoon was almost over and we had even worked straight through the group’s designated break.
Rarely have I ever felt as in synch with a person as I did with José that day at El Junco. It amazes me even more as I recall that neither one of us knew more than a few basic phrases in the other’s native language. Though this must seem like a glaringly obvious barrier, at the time it could not have felt more insignificant. Indeed, there was next to no verbal communication between the two of us—or, for that matter, between myself and so many of the locals I met on the Islands throughout those two, sublime weeks I spent there. Despite this, these relationships that were formed through such bizarre circumstances turned out to be infinitely more deep and powerful than I ever could have expected.
I had found my cause. And that life I’d always longed for? I’m living it.