Steward travels outside her comfort zone on volunteer trip to Ecuador

Soddy-Daisy resident Annie Steward accomplished several goals while traveling alone deep into Ecuador’s Amazon jungle.


Contributed photo by Annie Steward

Soddy-Daisy resident Annie Steward is presented with gifts by the people she brought school supplies to in Ecuador.

“I wanted to prove to myself I could carry on traveling,” said the divorcee who had traveled extensively with her ex-husband. “To do that I had to 100 percent put myself out of my comfort zone. I knew if I could do this, I could do anything.

“It’s a different feeling traveling with a couple or a group. I wanted to do travel with a purpose, and I found a place in the middle of the jungle that could do with a bit of a hand up.”

Steward gathered school supplies from family, friends and Hixson-based pencil company Gold Bond. She then took the 100 pounds-worth to the Sinchi Warmi (Strong Woman) Foundation, a museum and art center in Ecuador built by six local women.

“I wanted to be able to live with a community and immerse myself in the culture, language and way of life 100 percent,” said Steward, a South African native who came to Tennessee in 1994. “It was just like something out of ‘The Jungle Book.’”

She said it felt strange to be the only white person around for miles, but she only felt scared once. She had crossed over a river to a zoo on an island, and when she wanted to cross back there was no one around in sight to take her. She started rattling the cage that took people over the water. After about an hour someone came to take her across.

The only time anything bad actually happened was on the first day, when Steward was robbed on an eight-hour bus ride through the Andes Mountains, she said.

“I didn’t even notice it was happening, thank goodness,” said Steward, whose bag was cut open sometime during the ride. “It was my stupidity — one of the basics of travel is ‘Don’t put your bag on the floor of the bus.’”

When she arrived with the supplies, she said each person in the community did a tribute dance for her.

“They couldn’t believe anybody would have taken that much stuff,” said Steward. “It gives you an appreciation for the things we have.”

She said this trip was an immeasurably deeper experience than her travels in the past.

“For everything I want to do I can think of 20 reasons not to do it,” she said, adding that she is thankful she finally convinced herself to go for it. “You just don’t know what’s around the corner, and there’s no reason not to do something you want to do when it comes to making a difference in the lives of people who are trying.”

Since her first experience was so positive, Steward said she plans to return to the jungle with more school supplies along with others who, like herself, are looking for a way to make a difference in other people’s lives as well as their own through travel.

“I came away feeling more whole, more happy, more fulfilled and at peace than ever before, and so incredibly grateful for all the opportunity this country has to offer,” she said. “I became a United States citizen in February this year and it was wonderful flying home from Ecuador knowing that this really is my home.”


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