“Welcome to Ecuador,” I announced to 11 people as they walked through the door of the customs area in the Quito airport.
For several years, I have been asked if I would ever lead a trip abroad. This idea has held limited appeal; I like the freedom to move. I’m comfortable taking risks with my own life, not with others.
With persistence, the students of Sig Ep Fraternity from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln pursued the idea of having me lead them on a journey. Nine active members, one alum and one chaperon were now my traveling companions.
I agreed to this trip under three conditions: first, I am not a babysitter; second, understand this is not a trip to the Henry Doorly Zoo rainforest exhibit in Omaha NE; and third, and most important, come with the attitude to give.
We were going to places I’ve been before, so I knew the risks were minimal. But any time you climb into a small plane or step into a bus in a developing country, there is a certain amount of risk. It’s a question of how we wish to live our lives. One is safe and boring; the other is rich and alive.
We only had two weeks. This sounds like a large amount of time from the viewpoint of our U.S. culture, but it is really a small window. My intention was to have an experience that would normally take two months to create — authentic connections with a different culture and the natural world.
Ecuador is about the same size as Colorado. And like that state, it has a mountain range that passes through the middle. The beauty of nature and the people of 21 indigenous cultures who live there is incredible.
We were on our way to visit two different cultures. One group, called the Caranqui, lives in the community of San Clemente among the Andes Mountains. The other culture is the Achuar nation of the Amazon Rainforest.
Before we left the large city of Quito, we made a stop at a school supply store and filled several large boxes with notebooks, pens, pencils, rulers, soccer balls and whatever else was on the list that the Achuar had given me. The Sig Ep Fraternity members took to heart the attitude to give condition.
In San Clemente, the Caranqui taught us about their traditional relationship to the earth, which they call Pachamama. We stayed in people’s homes and learned how to connect with a different world. While there, the group planted more than 90 trees of a native species designed to help stop erosion and provide lumber. Included was a visit to the community school where the soccer balls were presented and an impromptu game was organized.
Watching the university students run and laugh with the young school children on the soccer field was a testament to the humanity that we share.
From 10,000 feet up in the Andes Mountains, we drove nine hours and dropped 7,000 feet toward the Amazon Rainforest city of Puyo. Our lungs were filled with tropical humid air as we stepped off the bus; it was such a contrast from the cold mountain air of the morning.
The next day we flew deep into the Amazon Rainforest of Ecuador. With each passing mile of endless green trees and brown rivers outside our plane window, time was turned back.
We left everything familiar behind and in the process gained something new.
After 45 minutes, the familiar Achuar village of Chichirat came into view on the horizon. In the middle of the village, I could see the brown dirt landing strip where our plane would safely land.
Once on the ground, from the window of the plane I saw familiar faces of people who were smiling and waving. My Achuar friend, Roman, had come to meet us.
Welcome back to the rainforest my brother,” Roman said.
The Achuar have been asking me for a couple of years to bring some young people to the forest. That day had finally arrived.
The Sig Eps from the University of Nebraska helped me fulfill the request.
The energy and excitement of the Nebraska students was palpable. Soon they were playing soccer with the Achuar children in the heat of the jungle, running and laughing just like they had done in the Andes Mountains.
The next four nights we stayed in the rustic camp the Achuar people had created in the village of Tiinkias.
As we walked into Tiinkias, I learned they had been waiting eight hours for us to arrive. Two rows of children dressed in traditional regalia formed a tunnel that funneled us to a banner that read “Welcome, Ecotourism Center of Tiinkias.”
Underneath the banner stood two teenagers who painted the faces of each member of the group to welcome them to the Achuar community.
My eyes welled up with tears; it was so clear they had worked so hard to prepare for our visit.
At the end of the four days, I wasn’t the only one with tears in my eyes. The Nebraska students and the young Achuar children they connected with also were teary eyed.
One of the Achuar mothers gave a stirring speech. Even though I do not speak her language, I felt in her heart the passion for her people and their way of life.
Our guide translated her words: “Please come back. You have helped us so much. We love that you play with our children and bring us school materials so they may learn and grow. We love that you care about the rainforest and our way of life. Please come back, please, for we shall not forget you.”
Nor shall our hearts ever forget a passionate mother.
All Photographs Are © Dean Jacobs
Dean Jacobs Photographer Bio
Dean was born in Wahoo, Nebraska and spent his early years living on a farm. When he was five, his family moved to Fremont, Nebraska. Growing up in the Midwest gave him an appreciation for the simple things in life.
Dean graduated from Wayne State College earning a degree in Biology, with minors in Earth Science and Art. After graduating, he worked in the administration of Wayne State College as the Assistant to the President before moving on to Purina Mills. Eventually this path led him to Pfizer Pharmaceuticals where he was employed in sales and marketing for 10 years.
After a great deal of soul searching, Dean left the security of corporate America and decided to pursue other dreams. This was the beginning of a process that would lead to a traveling adventure that would initially span twenty-two and half months and cover twenty-eight countries. He’s still traveling and has visited over 50 countries around the globe.
Taking photos became a natural expression of the journey for Dean as he documented and verified the common ground of our humanity. To Dean, photography is a discovery process where something extraordinary can be found within the confines of ordinary life.
Dean’s goal is to share his stories with hopes to change his audiences’ perspective about the people and cultures in the world, while also helping them remember their dreams. Ultimately, his mission is the same for everyone he meets; “Which story do you want to write about your life? It’s your choice. If you can’t find anything good, you be the change.”
These days, when Dean is not traveling, he keeps busy as a contributing newspaper columnist, photojournalist, children’s book author, and keynote presenter across the country.
Blog / Website: DeanJacobs.org