“Hit! Hit!” a young girl shouted, gesturing towards the deflated and muddy volleyball resting precariously in my hands. I tossed the ball upward, poised my hand to spike, and missed completely. Everyone in the vicinity, including the children playing with us, my peers, the mothers with their babies wrapped in hand-woven blankets, and the men in their tattered jeans and work boots erupted into laughter at my obvious faux pas.
Coraline, a nine-year old clad in too-short jeans and a tattered Little Mermaid t-shirt who had been attempting to coach me, smiled as she took the volleyball from my hand and executed a perfect spike, successfully winning us the game. My legs ached from hours of trekking through winding trails, my hands coated in a layer of dirt from performing check-ups on water filters placed around the village of Uncallamaya. I was freezing and soaked to the bone due to an expected rainy season, but I still sprinted towards Coraline as our team rejoiced. In that moment, there was no language barrier. No cultural discrepancies. No complaints and no pessimism. Just unadulterated, unaffected, untainted joy.
My name is Marandah Field-Elliot, a 16-year-old at Santa Barbara High School. Two summers ago, I had the opportunity to travel alongside Educational Safaris to the Amazon Basin of Bolivia for a three-week volunteering, language, and cultural immersion adventure. Since then, I have gone on to found the Under-Served Medicine Club at my school, raising funds and awareness for the cause.
My inclination towards the medical field started as an over-enthusiastic eighth-grade student who was thoroughly inspired by my biology teacher. He told me tales of his days as a New York City EMT and even allowed me to perform a mock-tracheotomy with a straw and balloon during our fetal pig dissection. My curiosity and incessant desire for new information has only heightened since.
The Bolivia trip initially appealed to me because we would have the opportunity to assist the Rio Beni Health Project in the town of Rurrenabaque. There is hardly any volunteer work someone underaged without a medical degree can do in the field, so the idea of observing physicians performing medicine in the clinic sounded uniquely captivating. The trip was split between time in the clinic and journeys to surrounding rural villages to install and check on Bio-Sand Water Filters. These filters are easy to construct, made with inexpensive materials, are self-sustaining, rarely require upkeep, and are incredibly effective. Since the number-one cause of death in Bolivia is waterborne illness, the filters are vital.
I’m not going to say that this experience changed my life, because it didn’t. It made me respect and appreciate the life that I live. My eyes weren’t opened to the fact that there are far-away places with very different people, but to the idea that there are moments and emotions that connect us all. In every village we visited, we were greeted with the utmost gratitude and respect; I was able to play “Cabeza, hombros, rodillas y pie” (head, shoulders, knees and toes) with giggling toddlers and held fascinating conversations in broken Spanish with adults.
I have never felt more in the moment, and I learned that humanitarian work is about connection, not drawing a barrier between who is being helped and who is doing the helping. That distinction is always relative.
Educational Safarais 10th annual El Puente mission into the Bolivian Amazon to work with villagers and benefit the Rio Beni Health Project happens this summer, but there is still time to sign up for one of the last available spots. See edsafaris.com/el-puente-2013 for details.