The Ecuador trip was planned to make the most of every minute for learning, exploration and work but Dexter James found time to make a few unscheduled memories.
“I got up early one morning to walk on the beach and watch the fishermen putting the boats out. They rolled them on logs and there was one man who had only two young children, maybe about five years old, who weren’t strong enough so I helped him. His daughter spoke a little English and he wanted her to practise with me. He was so proud of her,” said Dexter James, 20, a third-year UBCO biochemistry student who spent May in Ecuador with a student group.
“I walked back to help him with the nets and he saw I had a Coke so he poured me a drink from his bottle to thank me and offered to take me out on the boat but there wasn’t time to go. I would have loved to go and spend more time with them. What I noticed everywhere was that people wanted to learn English or have their children learn English so they could get better jobs.”
Another great memory was going out to a local bar on his own to watch a soccer game and speaking a mixture of English and Spanish to well-trained oil engineers who could not get jobs with U.S. companies because their English was not good enough.
The first 10 days of the trip were to get to know the country through activities like hiking and rafting and while James enjoyed these, he would have liked to spend more time with the local people.
“I can do those things at home. I wanted to do something to make a difference, there is so much need in the rural areas” he said.
In the next part of the trip, he did just that. With a group of students from Canada and the U.S. — all considering careers in medicine — he went to Cameronas, a shrimp fishing village of about 2,000 people on the coast with a mostly African population.
“There is racism there, the only jobs they can get are with the fishing boats,” he said.
The group, which takes three groups of students for a month each over the summer, was building 20 houses for families in the village. The new houses, for families of up to eight or 10 people, are built on strong foundations with electricity, plumbing and good roofs.
“We had raised money at home so we could provide the building materials, which were bought locally. We worked with the families and each family that was going to get a house had to have at least one member working on the houses so we got to know them. It was hard work. We bent the rebar for the foundations into squares by hand,” said James. “I felt this was making an important difference. With better housing the people will be in better health and get a better education. Some of the people were 60 years old and worked hard all their lives yet never had a house of their own.
“Each house cost about $5,000 and any money left over went to the hospital to provide surgery for people in immediate need. There is public health care but there are long waiting lists.”
James, who plans to start medical school next year and eventually specialize in orthopedic surgery, took a special interest in the last part of the trip which combined night classes and volunteer work in a hospital during the day.
Ecuador has private and public hospitals, which he thought seemed up to Canadian standards in the buildings, equipment and staff. He noted that it seems that people there will often not go for medical attention as soon as they should and he saw things like people working with broken bones which then had to be rebroken and reset.
“We were able to do things we couldn’t do in Canada, like see surgeries, even see the equipment, all under supervision, of course,” he said.
“I liked doing the check ups on children. We had a translator who was a resident and answered our questions really well. It was really eye opening and we all learned a lot. It made me rethink what I wanted to specialize in. I would like to go back next year, especially to the village and see the people, if I have the time to do it.
“I would like to say thank you to all the family, friends and businesses who supported me in my fundraising, to the Vernon Soccer Association which donated soccer balls which were much appreciated — the village had one soccer ball — and to Barrita Durward.”