Here we were with 6 months' worth of bug spray, a mosquito net big enough for two, Valine's multitude of skin lotions and medicines, goofy big hats, long sleeved shirts, zip-off pants, swimming trunks, headlamps, water filters, binoculars, stacks of books, equipment that had been shipped to us to mule down, masks and snorkels, computers, tablets, back-up batteries, and all of the implements we thought we would need for living in the jungle laid out on the couch to pack about 24 hours before our 1AM Avianca flight from San Francisco to Ecuador. Valine had been under the weather for a couple of days and we feared that she might actually have pneumonia, a word I cannot possibly write or read without hearing my mother's terrible mispronunciation in my head. For an asthmatic, pneumonia would be a very dangerous diagnosis. She stomped into the kitchen, feeling terrible and definitely not feeling like she wanted to be packing at that moment. "I can't WAIT to get onto an overnight flight to the jungle tomorrow night." Then she painfully blew her nose.
I had sensed her reticence about Ecuador for a while. She had been put off months ago when we received an email from our potential future boss saying that "applications are pouring in" and that if we were interested we should get our C/Vs to her right away. That was disconcerting. We had already sent them in 3 months prior. I tracked down that email and forwarded it with an affirmative. Yes, we were still interested in going to Ecuador. An interview was scheduled. We discussed our positions, directing volunteers and interns on a variety of scientific research, community enhancement, and education projects. We were told that the living would be rustic and the location was really a "backwaters" kind of place. I was undaunted by that. I'm from Chocowinity, North Carolina. We were told that one issue is a lack of privacy, which we perceived was due to our occupying a living space with a large number of rotating volunteers and interns. Didn't sound too bad. We were slated to have our own room and we had just found a way to be happy sharing a room with 5 other people for 2 weeks back in Puerto Rico after all.
One of Valine's biggest concerns whenever she travels, particularly to an isolated reserve in coastal Ecuador without our own transportation, is peanuts. She's deathly allergic. As in she unwittingly took a sip of beer made with peanuts back in December and had her throat immediately started swelling shut. As in some Indian friends in Texas graciously hosted us during our roadtrip and made us several meals, and the residue from their usage of peanuts and oil on their pots and pans, though cleaned before they were used for our meals, gave her hives. She once had to make a panicked call from an emergency room in Buenas Aires to ask her mom back in the US what the Spanish word for epinephrine is. It's a problem. During the interview, we were told that people with peanut allergies had been to the reserve in the past without problems and that "there is one coastal Ecuadorean dish that uses peanuts." She was comfortable with that.
After that interview, we still debated Ecuador a while. We were continuing our roadtrip across the southern half of the country with our sights set on spending some time back in Valine's hometown before heading to South America. "What else are we going to do?" was kind of a common refrain. I should have taken that as a sign. I was excited by the prospect of continuing this traveling adventure and getting back into the tropics again. The last time I was there--a naive 23 year old in Panama--I didn't give a crap about birds. My buddy Phil still recalls my unusual disdain for them during and after college. Now I've got 11 years of experience not only looking through binoculars but also conducting scientific research on birds. Living in the jungle seemed like an awesome proposition. The work would be entirely different for me and that was exciting. For Valine, she's always had an interest in working on third world education issues, though she did frequently express some reluctance about being such an outsider. She feels like true change needed to come from within, that she would not have the time she would need to truly make a difference in that community. Still, I think she tried to think positively about the opportunity.
Several weeks later in the southern leg of the roadtrip, I was feeling the pressure getting our tickets before the fares began to increase. We'd agreed to get down to Ecuador at the end of April, that being a compromise from a request to come early in the month and our understanding from discussions a while before that we wouldn't be needed until the summer. We stopped in Alamogordo, NM, to get a hotel room with internet to buy our flights, make some contacts with folks involved with the projects in Ecuador, and generally put our feet into the water. We were going. Let's stop delaying things.
The next day a letter from the people we would be replacing arrived by email. It was 14 pages and very detailed of all the goings-on down in Ecuador, the good, the bad, and the ugly. I'm not sure they understood just how bad and ugly some of those things would sound for Valine. This letter was the first that we'd learn of a lack of electricity in the living quarters. We'd learn that it is essentially an indoor-outdoor sort of place and that dust and debris usually covered most of the surfaces throughout the facility. The humidity is such that they had a hard time keeping mold from growing on their clothes, clothes that I guess never really dried. They didn't mention mosquitoes, but a later email exchange confirmed that this time of year, mosquitoes are "pretty bad." The worst part was the section addressing Valine's peanut allergy. They informed us that peanuts are frequently part of coastal Ecuadorean cuisine and are likewise common on the reserve.
That set off alarm bells. Valine said out loud, "I am going to die down there." The reserve is hours away by bus (because we would not have a vehicle) from a hospital, which could mean life or death for her upon a peanut exposure. We wrote a panicked email saying this was a dire problem. The organization responded quickly and decisively, saying they would clean the kitchen thoroughly and that there would be no peanuts at the facility for the duration of our stay.
This satisfied Valine's fears, though I would later learn that she still harbored a fear of peanut exposure down there. It was common to the cuisine, after all. So what about when we wanted to go away from the reserve? What about other people going away from the reserve and bringing something back that might cause an exposure because of cross-contamination? We're pretty sure some form of cross-contamination had just happened back in November at a Greek restaurant in Brooklyn. We asked before we ate and we know from experience that Greek cuisine does not have peanuts. Something was in that falafal wrap, though, because Valine woke up during the night with eyes swollen shut like she'd said insulted Mike Tyson's mom. She has a bunch of allergies, but only peanuts affect her like that. We'll never know what happened. It's as simple as someone dropping an individual peanut into the fryer, handling them before stuffing lettuce into the wraps, or really any number of possibilities.
We also learned from the letter that our duties would in no way be limited to directing these volunteers, developing projects, and collating data. We would be purchasing food and equipment for the reserve, and paying locals for labor and materials. This would all have to be conducted with cash because it's "backwaters," after all, and that had to be tediously tracked because this is a non-profit organization with strict oversight. We would be responsible for maintence, including keeping the non-potable water supply system running and trying to fix the filtration system to provide potable water at the living quarters. The porch support would soon need replacing, which would mean we would need to track down laborers and oversee the job. It's not just the volunteers we were managing, it was the entire reserve.
I dont think either of us was necessarily daunted by the prospect of either these other duties or the prospect of living without lights. We've spent about 20% of our nights over the past 8 months in a tent after all. The dusty, moldy, mosquito-y conditions, though, definitely daunted the hell out of Valine. She had visions of constantly being sick and itchy all of the time with only cold showers for respite from the discomfort. During our last 6 months or so in San Diego, her health had declined to the point of constant hives because of her living environment and diet--she had developed new allergies to beef and milk at some point and had continued consuming those products for a while before being diagnosed. She had zero interest in having anything like that experience again.
Had we known then that you can cancel your flight within 24 hours of making the purchase—exactly the time frame we were in when we received the letter—we would have probably made different plans right then. In hindsight, that is one of many moments in which we wish we'd been better informed, communicated better, and made better decisions about this whole Ecuador thing. Valine remained hopeful, thinking that we could just bail if the conditions really were as bad as she was envisioning down there. Plus, we had purchased these flights, a BIG investment. That committed us financially. Besides, again, what else were we going to do? I repeatedly voiced my excitement about living on a reserve with a bunch of howler monkeys and tropical birdlife.
We had scheduled the end of our 8 month roadtrip around an itinerary that put us back in Monterey for the last 10 days before heading out to Ecuador. After a few days back home, Valine flatly told me that she was ready to be home, ready to be here for her family. When we returned from Ecuador, we agreed, we'd stay in the area. She took her neice to the elementary school one morning and met the principal. "Oh, you're a teacher? Do you know Spanish? I could use you right now!" Valine met with her cousin who's October wedding she would be officiating and learned that her bachelorette party could absolutely not be scheduled for after our return just before the ceremonies. No, that'd be an event she'd miss, her cousin/best friend/essentially younger sister's bachelorette party. Seeing how happy her mom, niece, cousins, uncle, etc. were to have her here and in their lives, Valine started feeling like she didn't want to wait until after Ecuador. She didn't want to miss the planning of her cousin's wedding, much less that bachelorette party. She didn't want to miss her other neice's high school graduation, the opportunity to take a cousin on a college tour that she'd promised a while ago, evenings at the beach with her young neice, hikes with her cousins, etc., etc. She didn't want to wait until after Ecuador. She wanted this right now.
Then she got sick. She stayed that way for a while after we decided to not go to Ecuador. So was I for that matter. That set in just as we started gathering ourselves for departure. Sniffling, sneezing, and coughing, we sorted through our dusty boxes trying to figure out the minimum amount of clothes and materials we needed to keep ourselves happy down in the jungle and beyond. I could sense Valine's dread through the whole thing. We made a list of everything we thought we might need and couldn't acquire down there. Saturday night, purchases made, couch inundated in materials, I looked up at Valine after she blew her nose and started to think about alternatives to making her get on that flight 24 hours later. That definitely is what it would've been, me forcing her to go. She was in no shape to be flying, particularly with a 1AM departure, 2 layovers, and a destination of Quito at 9,000 feet. A doctor would tell her as much the next morning on the phone.
"What if..." I said out loud. She turned and looked at me, eyes and nasels red from the constant rubbing and wiping. I did some quick math in my head. What would it cost to delay our flights? At least $200-250 each for the change fee + the difference in the fares. For when would we delay the flight? Next week? What if Valine did have pneumonia? She didn't think she did, but she was being hyper-aware of how well she's breathing for fear that it might set in. Any suspicion of it would mean a trip to the emergency room. What if I was still sick the following week? What would tickets to Ecador purchased a week ahead of time cost? I looked today and it would've added another $400-500 to our expenses. If we got down there and bailed earlier than we'd commited, I'm certain we would've been expected to give back the $1200 we'd been offered to assuage our travel expenses. I was envisioning a bank account that had already taken a hurting from 8 months of travel draining even further. No, I didn't think a flight change was reasonable, not in our pay grades.
"What if we don't go to Ecuador?" Valine sat down across from me. And so would start about a 12 hour long conversation. What are the consequences of going? Valine expressed her health concerns and her strong yearn to be with her family. What are the consequences of not going? I expressed how important commitment and obligation are to me. In truth, that was a primary driving factor for a while, something that caused me to counter Valine's negative thoughts about the mold and mosquitoes with fanciful visions of monkeys, birds, and beaches.
Internally, I had some reticence that I had yet to express. I am 35. I am a decently-published scientist with aspirations of getting back into my career. While I always tell people that I don't like to assume that I'll be alive for retirement (hence the 8 month long roadtrip that a lot of people wait their entire lives to take), what the hell was I doing taking this job that had so very little in the way of financial incentive or benefits? Was taking my family history of cardiovascular disease to an isolated place in the jungle for 6 months to a year the wisest of moves?
Okay, what are the benefits of staying? Valine could be with her family. I could certainly move to worst areas in the world to seek sciencific employment. We had always talked about eventually coming back to the area anyway. What are the benefits of going? We had flights schedule, jobs lined up, and the reserve really did seem like a cool place to spend a little while if we could handle the living quarters. I'd finally get to do some intensive birdwatching in the jungle. Those were my points. Valine could not come up with any reason she wanted to go. "Nothing. I see no reason to go."
She was done. Still, we hashed it out over and over. The right thing to do, we agreed with our lunch buddy that last day, would be to go down, check things out, and just bail if it sucks. At that point, we were sick to the point of feeling like we shouldn't get on that taxing flight. Our buddy didn't experience that. I was convinced that we would have to incur the expense of changing our flight until we were healthy enough to hit the ground running down there, as was expected of us. That was a correct assessment given what I experienced with Valine the night we were supposed to leave. Something was going on in her lungs that kept her hacking all night. Had that happened on that terrible flight, arriving in Quito at such a high altitude, and then taking those unhealthy lungs down to be exposed to that mold, she probably would've ended up in the hospital at some point along the way.
The wisest move for us, it became clear, was to bail on the whole thing all together. Financially, it was the best move. For Valine's health, it was the best move. For my health, it was not. I hated it. I wrote an email spelling out our concerns and reasons for not going and stared at it for about an hour. Driving away from the coffee shop, email sent, I was emotionally distraught to the point that the room got a bit dusty. I kept reliving all of the moments during which we had the opportunity to bail on the job on a more reasonable time frame. Back in December when we were disappointed to learn that they needed people not in summer, as was originally implied, but in May. In March, that became not May, but the end of April. You sure you cant come earlier? Maybe one of you could come? No, absolutely not. We had a potentially once in a lifetime roadtrip to finish up after all! Plus of all of the compromises Valine would be making to go down to Ecuador, missing another one of her mom's birthdays was not one of them. What about when we got that 12 page letter? Yeah, that's the moment when we should have bailed.
But that was just 3 weeks prior to departure. My senses of obligation and commitment were already developed to the point that I was blinded to understanding the height of Valine's fears about the living conditions and the consequences for her health. So instead we did the absolute worst thing that we could do. We waited until the day before we were slated to arrive and immediately start being coordinators with lots of people counting on us to be there, and we bailed.
Sending that email was probably the worst feeling thing I've ever done. Not only was I not living up to my commitments—something that is very important to me—I was letting down some people I consider friends. Those friends are not very happy with me right now, as evidenced by an unfortunate Facebook post one of them made and a flurry of emails I received soon after I hit send. I certainly felt like I was in no place to get into any sort of sniping match, though I also certainly took issue with some of the things said in that post and those emails.
We are still getting acquainted with this new reality. We are not going to Ecuador. We are in Monterey and we're staying here for now. That's that.