With my last few days in Ecuador slipping by like sand through an hourglass, I decided to look back on what has been the most incredible experience in my life. Eight weeks have vanished in the blink of an eye but the lessons I have learned here will last a lifetime.

Lesson 1: An Open Heart and an Open Mind

When I arrived in Quito, jet-lagged and clutching at my vague memories of Leaving Cert Spanish I couldn’t have imagined that by the end of my time here I could talk, joke and really connect with all the fantastic people I have met. From my host family, to new friends I met at work or while travelling, the generosity and kindness of the people in Ecuador never fails to astound me. The patience my family showed me as they repeated everything once, twice or as many times as I needed to understand and feel understood was amazing.

This experience has shown me so clearly that no matter where you live or what you look like, people are just people. We share hope, challenges, fears, loves and losses. Discrimination is blind to these things, just as it is blind to the fact that other people are just like you. Travelling to Ecuador and getting spend time with the people here has been life-changing, inspiring and kindled true empathy for those who live far from their families and friends. Being a stranger in a new country I was so lucky to encounter friendship and kindness wherever I went. I want to carry that message back to Ireland. Compassion, an open heart and kindness are so important for everyone and shouldn’t be limited to those of the same social groups, religions, or countries as you.

I was lucky that I never felt the whiplash of culture shock very acutely. Things here are very different from Ireland; the food, the language, the markets, the culture, the smells, the bus vendors, the music and mannerisms. But if you accept these things as part of the rich tapestry of this amazing country, it becomes part of the adventure rather than something to fear.

Lesson 2: Don’t Panic

I must admit I stole this one from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy. As with any experience, things go wrong. Buses are missed, miscommunication happens, there will be translation issues, you get lost, get found and then possibly get lost again.

The main thing is not to panic. No problem is unsolvable. Sometimes you just need to take that step back, close your eyes, breathe and think. Things are generally not as bad as they seem, and help is never beyond reach. With any type of travelling, you need to keep a steady mind and adapt to situations as they unfold. Always be alert when travelling and make sensible decisions that keep you safe.

A big lesson I learned the hard way on this trip is to expect the unexpected. Tell your family exactly where you are going and when exactly you should return. Don’t expect to always find modern conveniences like WIFI wherever you go. I learned this lesson by experiencing it. I went on a 5-day trip into the Amazon in my last week here. Between the hubbub of work, life and confused messages to the tour agency about whether they had cancelled my booking by mistake, I forgot to leave the exact address of the place I was going with my family. Assuming I could contact them when I arrived at the lodge, I hopped on the bus without too much worry. Unfortunately, when I got to my destination I discovered they had neither WIFI nor phone signal. This left my family in a terrible state of worry while I was complete fine but unable to tell them that. I felt so guilty when I got signal and discovered their distress. This lesson was hard-won but one I will never forget.

Another thing I need to add is to have patience. You will not learn a language in a day or understand everything from the get-go. When I first arrived at my project, the women there all spoke much faster and with a much stronger accent than I was used to from my host family. As such, I spent the first week with absolutely no clue what anyone was saying. This can be frustrating, but you must listen and have patience. By the second week I started to pick the odd word or two. By week 8, I could have conversations and genuinely connect with the women. It was a long road to understanding, but one well worth walking. The first time I understood a full sentence gave me such a sense of happiness that it made up for any frustration I felt beforehand at my poor Spanish. These experiences were some of the most rewarding of my time here. So please, if you find yourself in that situation, don’t panic and be patient.

Onward to the Edge

Being here has taught me to be a better person, more open and kinder. I have loved every moment of this time, both the challenges and the joys. The people have been wonderful, the project was really inspiring, and I learned so much about how to be a better person by being here. Ecuador also has the most incredible landscapes. Sweeping highland deserts with wild vicuna and snow-capped peaks, lush rainforests filled with life and sound, high cloud forests ringing with bird calls and the flash of hummingbird wings, sweeping dry, cactus-studded coasts with humpback whales and sea turtles swimming in the sea while overhead frigates and pelicans wheel about like memories of a prehistoric age. All this diversity sits along side the history of the land and the traditions of its people. The various traditional outfits of the indigenous tribes can be spotted throughout the country and it is wonderful to see places where people are able to preserve and share the traditions and cultures of their ancestors.

Whatever I choose going forward in life, Ecuador and its people will always remain with me. I was so lucky to get this opportunity and I hope to one day return to repay the kindness of the people here.

The experiences I had here taught me so much more about the sustainable development goals as well. Hearing the clatter of macaws and seeing the slow stealth of a sloth moving though rain slicked branches gave me a new understanding on the importance of preserving biodiversity and all life on land (Goal 15). We are not alone on this planet and we must respect the rights of all the other creatures that live here too. Life should be about balance not conquest.

I learned how important to need responsible consumption and production was in Puerto Lopez (Goal 12). Every year humpback whales congregate along the coast by this fishing village to breed. While on a boat trip to visit Isla de la Plata, a local nature reserve, I saw something that broke my heart. Near the nature reserve we spotted the great grey lines of a humpback at the surface. As an animal lover, I was thrilled to see her. However, it quickly became apparent that something was wrong. She was lingering at the surface, long past what she would need to breathe. As we drew slightly closer, we saw the cause. Her great flipper was tangled in a fishing net, trapping her at the surface. The pink buoy of the net bobbed innocently, indiscriminate of what its trailing nets snared. It is difficult to express the sorrow and shame I felt at the sight. This female was here to breed and ensure the continuation of her species. Considering humans reduced humpbacks numbers to only 5,000 through hunting by the 1960s, every calf and every individual is precious. It is our demand for fish and our unsustainable fishing practices that lead to these situations. Not just in South America but globally, including in Ireland. In order to protect life below water (Goal 14), we need to be responsible consumers. We need to demand sustainable and responsible fishing methods that don’t result in the deaths of other innocent species. Healthy oceans and terrestrial ecosystems can support people and the planet. The choice to protect that possibility lies with each of us, with every euro we spend and vote we cast.

We are global citizens. It is our responsibility to ensure the balance of nature is restored and that we incorporate nature into the future rather than destroying it, accidentally or not. Biodiversity loss and climate change are not limited by arbitrary borders on a map. We need to work together as a global community to solve these challenges. We need to take on a stand on these issues and unite to tackle the problems urgently. History has taught me that humans are capable of great change if we unite behind a cause. In my time here, I have learned that so much more unites us than divides us. So, I hope from the bottom of my heart that we can stand united now.