March 26, 2001 11:00 pm

By Bob Rainville

Special to The Observer

We begin loading the bus that will take us to Planchaloma at 7:15 a.m. Just a three-hour bus trip separates the cultures of Eastern Oregon from the remote indigenous people of Ecuador. Im excited and anxious all at the same time. The culmination of an effort involving many generous people is about to occur, and I want to represent my community in a manner that makes them proud.

Ive been practicing my Spanish for two months. But my command of the language is still poor, and I am feeling especially unprepared for our arrival to Planchaloma. During the ceremony, when the leader will offers his thanks, I plan to deliver a short address in Spanish. I want to do well.

As we leave Quito, views of crowded streets are replaced by green valleys dotted by small stone homes and circled by three volcanoes. The thick smell of diesel fumes remains. After two hours, we leave the main highway and begin winding up a narrow stone-and-dirt road. People and one-room cinder block homes can be seen in the small fields of corn, potatoes, beans and onions that border the road.

The bus stops to navigate a small trench. People of Planchaloma have chosen to display their disappointment with their government by digging out a piece of the access road. The bus sinks then emerges from the dip. Planchaloma is directly ahead.

The people of Planchaloma have been waiting since 9 oclock. The village center is filled with adults and children who appear as excited as I am. As I prepare to step off the bus, I am wiping tears from my eyes. As soon as I set foot on the ground, I am surrounded by children. In my best Spanish, I ask their names and the questions lead to smiles. I ask if I can take their pictures. They are thrilled and some begin to push for center position. Members of the Eastern Oregon University Chamber Choir are equally engaged and overwhelmed by curious children. Smiles are everywhere.

The program I had anticipated begins. Villagers gather for this special day. The leader of the village association introduces guests and offers thanks for the medical supplies and music. My turn comes. I admit my limitations with Spanish and begin. The people encourage my effort and seem to enjoy my attempt. I will trade acceptance and understanding for fluency any day.

The ceremony ends with songs by the choir. The peoples appreciation is obvious. Children crowd to get closer. Men and women are smiling. Local Rotarians are moved to hear the choir sing Spanish music.

Medical treatments begin after the concert. Children readily form lines. Signs of their skin diseases are obvious and emotionally reinforce the significance of my communitys and Rotarian Clubs generosity. My feelings of anxiety are replaced by feelings of satisfaction and fulfillment that I wish I could share with all those who could not attend. I feel so fortunate to be here, and I know my pictures and descriptions will never convey the depth of fulfillment I feel in my chest.

The choir engages children in workshops, games and songs. Footballs and beach balls make their debut in Planchaloma. Small circles of children and choir members are dispersed in the small village. Mothers watch and offer encouragement. The appeal of music is obvious, attracting villages wherever it emerges.

I try to do everything. I meet with local Rotarians and the village leadership. We discuss future cooperation that would promote the self-sufficiency and health among people who live in 32 villages surrounding Planchaloma. We are excited about the project, and language does not prevent the establishment of friendship and the sharing of hugs.

On the trip back to Quito, I reflect on the day. Over 250 children and 60 adults received medical exams and were treated for worms and skin diseases. As we were leaving, more people were arriving, so final total numbers treated will be much higher. The music, workshops and cultural interactions will provide lifelong memories for all those involved. For the Rotarians and people of our community who contributed, our trip clearly demonstrated to people who we are and what is important to us. My personal gift was a deeper appreciation for the goodness within all people and the ultimate fulfillment that comes with touching others with our love.

This is the first in a series of stories on the Eastern Oregon University Chamber Choirs trip this week to Ecuador.