Think about your home, wherever and whatever that home may be. Walk your mind up the walkway, if there is one, and open wide the front door. Make it a sunny day. Look around at all that you own, all that you love: there may be things you’ve been meaning to get rid of, there may be bookshelves filled with titles still to be read. Lead your mind to the small details: the place on the wall where you marked your children growing tall, the one well-worn pan that you use for cooking secret family recipes. There’s your bed, the mattress curved perfectly for your back. The favorite mug with the owls. The collection of spices that has taken years to grow to perfection. Let your mind wander for a minute, and cherish each of these things, these nooks and crannies that are so uniquely you.
When the earthquake rumbled underneath the home of Rocío and her family in Canoa, Ecuador, all she could think about was escaping. There was no time to grab the pans and skillets, take the photo albums, or get the documents that were hidden away in file cabinets somewhere. When you live on the coast, a few hundred meters from the ocean, you not only fear your house falling down during an earthquake but you also fear the tsunami that could follow. Rocío and her family ran.
They ran from the paved roads to the dirt roads. They ran and they walked, looking back frequently, terrified of returning to where the waves could reach them. Six kilometers they traveled, all the way to a pumpkin patch up in the hills beneath a Samán tree. There, they found refuge. They sat and waited. It took Rocío three days to return to her house. Fear held her hostage, waiting by the roots of the tree. She didn’t know what would happen when she returned. She didn’t know what to expect.
When Rocío’s husband finally went back to their home, he didn’t just find the foundation shattered, the walls collapsed inwards. He also found gaping holes in what was once his comfortable life. Possessions were gone. Not just the expensive things, like the television or kitchen appliances, but the little things as well. Everything, stolen.
One of the unexpected consequences of earthquakes is that they bring out the desperation in people. Looters, men and women who had lost everything, had taken to excavating the abandoned homes in the hours and days after the quake struck. Taking advantage of the homeowners’ absences, these thieves were taking what they could to start rebuilding their own lives. Perhaps they, too, had lost everything.
During times of disaster, empathy is abundant yet nearly impossible . There are thousands of individuals trying to imagine what it would be like to lose everything, writing their messages of solidarity on cans and bags of oatmeal and sending them to the coast. There are stories of survival and resilience. There is seemingly unending generosity, at least for the first month, but in the areas most affected one can also see the human need to survive ruling the land. The men who held up cars with guns on the highways were thinking of themselves, their families. The thieves who broke into shattered homes were thinking of themselves, not the family that lived there three days before. Rational thought is not always present in the wake of a disaster. The need to survive takes precedence.
When I met Rocío, it was in the dispensary at Proyecto Samán exactly four months after the earthquake. I had just laid sheets of plastic on all the wooden shelves, protecting them from rot, and had organized the cans, bags, and boxes that were left. Rocío estimates it is enough for three months, given those three months would see some odd pairings of food: cranberry sauce with oatmeal, SpaghettiOs with beans. The members of the community are planning how best to secure more food, be it through accepting donations or using funds to buy in bulk. Let it be noted that canned fruit, though initially detested, became a hot commodity, so hot that every can has been consumed.
Rocío tells me about the fruit, and other preferences of community members, as we sit on the wooden bench during a rest. She owned her own tienda before the earthquake. It was a little store, similar to the dispensary, where she sold the necessities: rice, cans of food, toilet paper. The store was destroyed on April 16, and the shelves were empty when she finally went back to see what remained.
The dispensary at Proyecto Samán operates on a system of points rather than money. Eight points for every adult, five points for babies, three points for children. Families use their points to “purchase” items every week: rice, cooking oil, cans of beans. The community has evolved with every new decision, from creating the dispensary to distribute donations in this organized manner to holding English classes and theater shows on site. Proyecto Samán is redefining what it means to live, share, and be among others. Thirty-two families currently live in high-end tents where the pumpkins used to be, gathered in rows near the Samán tree.
These tents are temporary, though they are not what you might imagine. They are not camping canvases from REI, big enough for two. Instead, they are more like the tents set up for events or functions. Every family has two spaces, a closed off tent for sleeping, some of the spaces holding up to six people, and an open tent for cooking and living. Even though the living situation has drastically improved since Proyecto Samán first started, everyone remains acutely aware that this is transitional.
Transition. Thinking about that word implies a starting and ending point. The individuals at Samán started their lives in Canoa, living and working on the coast in one of the best-hidden tourist gems of Ecuador. And now, they are en el camino, headed somewhere different. Somewhere unknown. What is the end goal for the pilgrims of this transitional path? What do you hope for when everything you owned is gone?
Rocío told me about how the mentality of community members has evolved, and how everyone has widened his or her definition of what the end game actually is. The reality is dawning. The government will not be able to help, or isn’t willing to help, everyone who lost a home. Rocío tells me that many of the families, especially in Canoa, won’t even have the opportunity to rebuild.
Lands are often passed down through generations without actually changing the title of the deed. If there are no papers showing that you are the rightful owner of this property, the government is much less likely to help you rebuild. Papers don’t always survive earthquakes, and with over 30,000 people displaced, the government is overwhelmed enough with how to rebuild homes for those who still, miraculously, have documentation proving there are the land owners. Rocío is one without the proof that she owned her land, where her mother and grandmother had lived decades before.
I ask her what she wants, what she hopes will be at the end of this transitional path. She says that the camp has been life changing, a sanctuary, for everyone here. Because, quite simply, where else would they have gone? Where else could they go? You can stay with a family member for a day or two, she says, but to live with them for months? No. She tells me about the goals of the camp, how there are plans to secure small lots of land on this expansive farm property for each of the families. There are fundraising plans in place to help rebuild in Canoa. But many don’t want to return there. It’s scary, she says. It holds fear for many of us still.
As I sit in the wooden dispensary, slats of light sneaking through the boards, my feet on dusty earth, it actually hits me: there is no return to what was. I knew this in theory, but to feel this realization is a dramatic shift from the rational mind to the unpredictable reality. These families, Rocío, will never have what they had before. There will never be a moment when they have secured every single object that was lost. There will never be able to erase how fear has rewritten their memories. Though it is not easy to go to a camp and volunteer for a week, or a few weeks, or a few months as many of the volunteers are doing, it is still a choice. For some, like the founders of Proyecto Samán, it feels as though there was never really choice to devote your life to this work. “I think we always knew, we were just trying to figure out a different way,” says Sarah Hanen Bauer says of her commitment to move to Canoa. Sarah and Diana Moscoso, directors of Colectivo Madre Tierra in Cuenca, helped start Proyecto Samán, and both are integral parts of running the camp, along with Sarah’s son Leif, the resident jokester and babysitter.
To help and volunteer takes commitment and empathy. To set up a camp that cultivates new beginnings for over one hundred individuals takes courage and immense heart. But to lose your home, your possessions, your sense of security, and to continue walking the path forwards, that takes strength beyond what I know how to describe. The strength must come from somewhere bigger than humanity, because in comparison to this world, this earth that can shake when she wants to and roll tall waves towards coastal towns, we are so small, so weak, so easily broken.
The survivors in Canoa and elsewhere along the coast, they are strength, a commitment to living, to moving forwards. Survivors of any catastrophe, of natural disasters or man-made terror, refugees leaving Syria and immigrants seeking refuge, they are this same strength. I don’t think anyone really knows what he or she is capable of until they’re forced to respond, to react, to move forwards. I don’t know what I would be like if it had been my home, my memories. Would I be able to sit here like Rocío, the boss of this new dispensary, getting by day by day? Would I just shut down and cry, shedding tears for what I had, for what I’ll never have again? I don’t know.
The survivors of the Ecuador earthquake are looking forwards. Their homes, built to protect, were shattered in three minutes, and still they continue. Their possessions were taken, stolen, scattered, and still they continue. Their hearts shake with every resounding ripple in the earth. They have lived through scenes of terror that could not be captured by the best directors of movies, nor explained in words penned by the most creative of writers. The survivors carry their fear with them as they keep moving forward, from a place of transition into a place of permanence. They carry their fear just as they carry the knowledge that nothing in this earth ever stays the same.