I've remembered every song
And now I've learned to sing them all
Tell me now what is going on
See the ground that I'm standing on
How it crumbles at my feet"
- Oh My Captain, by Rayland Baxter
We drove all night. It was safer that way, we were told. In the chaos after the earthquake, looting had broken out. Vehicles bringing supplies to people in need had been stopped and robbed along the road. My roommate was so worried she offered me a knife and a machete. I took the knife.
Phil arrived at midnight, pulling a trailer full of bottled water, food, hygiene items, clothes, and other supplies which had all been donated by people in our missions community of Youth World. I got in the car along with two Casa Gabriel boys - Paulo, who is new, and Jesus, who graduated nearly two years ago - plus Phil's dog, a Boxer named Hatchet, and two other men and a woman who were going. They are the brothers and sister-in-law of Evelyn, an Ecuadorian friend who works in the Youth World office. Most of her family lives along the coast where the earthquake struck, so we had gathered supplies to bring them as well as to assess the possibility of future teams going to help.
"Okay," Phil said. "Jesus and Paulo, you both have baseball bats. I have a taser. We have Hatchet. If anything happens, we're ready."
I fingered the long, heavy knife in my pocket. All day I had been telling myself, "It's okay, we're going to be fine," even as concern for the very real danger gnawed at me. Yet in that moment, I suddenly felt at peace that everything really would be fine. I felt certain that we weren't simply prepared, we were protected. This proved to be so.
Close to 1:00 am we met up with three other vehicles carrying supplies. The police were waiting there to take down Phil's name and our destination. The authorities had made it so that anyone traveling to the coast must have a permit, so we had partnered with another organization which provides global disaster relief, traveling together as a caravan.
When we stopped to get gas at 4:00 am, Hatchet began panting in the seat beside me. I couldn't find a bowl for him so I poured water into my palm. He lapped it up so I kept pouring until he had drunk enough. Eventually he lay down with his head in my lap.
The sun rose around 6:30 am as we drove through the jungle. At 8:00 we stopped to get breakfast at a tiny family-owned restaurant. We stretched and drank instant coffee and ate balones - balls of plantain with cheese or meat. Along the road, other vehicles filled with supplies whizzed by.
As we continued on, we began to see more and more destruction. I snapped a photo of a family sitting on the steps of a home which had completely collapsed.
Finally we arrived at Evelyn's family's home. The roof of their bamboo home had completely collapsed. Located along a stretch of road still in the jungle but nearing the coast, it was one of many homes which had probably been built on a shoe-string budget; concrete with too much sand, bamboo lacking the best foundation. I met people with fresh cuts and bruises from walls collapsing on them. People with so little, and now even less. They had a small property which they had opened up to neighbors who had lost even more than they, helping them build temporary plastic-tarp structures where they could sleep. With permission, I photographed the destruction, documenting the loss.
Later that day we drove to Canoa, a small beach town. Phil has taken the boys camping there many times, and I’ve had weekend trips there with friends. The drive there had an eerie feel: there had been landslides everywhere, barely cleared, and fissures of varying sizes had appeared in the road. A couple of fissures ran on and on and on along the yellow line of the street, threatening to split open completely and pull everything down with them in the event of another quake.
The town was destroyed. Canoa, the once friendly, colorful beach town with its hostels, surf classes, and artisans, was a wasteland. Driving slowly down the street, there’d be a building with a collapsed roof, one with large cracks running all through it, and finally a huge pile of rubble that had likely claimed several lives. Before we got to the town, we saw people standing alongside the road, waving white flags and empty water bottles, shouting, “Help us, help us!” In Canoa, people barely looked our way. They could have run up to us and tapped on our windows, but no. They walked among the destruction like zombies. Even the Red Cross workers seemed to be operating in shock.
Driving back, we handed out water and food to people along the road. It was impossible to tell, in such limited time, who truly needed it, and who was simply there trying to cash in on free stuff. Some families would hold out their hands for more, more, more, grumbling that maybe we weren’t being as generous to them as they’d like. Some people received a single jug of water with huge smiles of appreciation, calling, “Gracias! Bendiciones!” after us.
That evening, Phil and the boys set up a tent while I sat among a group of children and answered questions of “How do you say___ in English?”. As soon as it was dark, mosquitos began to bite. It didn’t seem to matter that I was wearing bug repellent. I was too tired to think about Malaria or Zika or the rain which started to fall. I had been mostly awake for 38 hours by the time I got in the tent to sleep. As soon as I lay down, I began to sob. I was dead tired, physically and also emotionally from everything we had seen. It would take me two days before I looked at all the photos I had taken.
We left for Quito the next morning. We left Evelyn’s sweet family with food and water, candles and matches. Phil left them his tent. We left them with their plastic-tarp structures for sleeping under, with their fear that future aftershocks would cause even more destruction, and with their spirits of survival and endurance. I slept in my own bed that night, not immune from a disaster yet safer than they.
When I saw Evelyn the next week, she hugged me and thanked me for helping her family. She told me how thankful they were, and how they plan to slowly rebuild.
We’re all connected, you know. We see the news about the hurricane or tornado or flood, the train accident or the mass shooting or the planes hitting the twin towers. Sometimes we know someone who died, mourning their loss. Sometimes we stare in shock and wonder why. Sometimes we can’t do anything, not a physical thing except to remember those who are gone. Sometimes we can drive all night and know that it could have been us, we could have lost our homes or lives or people we love. It could have been us, so easily, but this time it wasn’t, so this time we give and go and pray. We drive all night.