MIDDLEBURY — Carol Peddie was closing in on her 50th birthday in 2009 and decided it was time to make some changes in her life. One of the biggest changes was in how she would define the word “vacation.” To Peddie, a vacation now means traveling throughout the world improving the lives of strangers less fortunate than she.
“It makes my heart smile,” Peddie said this past Tuesday of her humanitarian activities, which most recently featured a trip to Ecuador. There she helped health care workers provide dental services and health care to more than 900 children and adults in 10 different villages in the canton of Otavalo.
And her heart has been doing a lot of smiling these days. During the past three years, Peddie has travelled to Bhutan, Mali, Haiti (three times) and Ecuador (twice), spending as much as three weeks either helping care for the sick or building infrastructure to make people’s lives easier.
She schedules her trips as part of her allotted vacation time at Middlebury College, where she works as associate dean of library and information services and director of Enterprise Services. She hasn’t taken a conventional, touristy vacation for more than three years and has no plans to do so in the future.
“It’s life outside the Middlebury bubble,” she said of her travels, which are often in Spartan conditions that have included no running water, the absence of a roof over one’s head and a communal latrine that is little more than a hole in the ground.
“It doesn’t feel right to stay in a fancy hotel when you are working with people who are so impoverished,” she said.
Peddie got her first taste of selfless travel in 2009, when she went to the Himalayan nation of Bhutan. During that trip, she and others hiked up to monasteries to deliver much-needed supplies to Buddhist monks. The experience only whetted Peddie’s appetite to do more — and she got her opportunity early in 2010, after a devastating earthquake ravaged the Caribbean nation of Haiti. She signed up to help in any way she could, first believing she would help with security. But while she possessed no formal medical training, she was pressed into service helping physicians tending to many Haitian citizens who had suffered serious wounds.
“I got some in-the-field crash training,” Peddie said. “But the role that kind of came naturally … was the role of a pharmacist.”
She proved adept at memorizing the names of drugs and their applications, and was able to quickly procure them for physicians in the field. She took a crash course in Creole that enabled her to become a translator.
Peddie found her work in Haiti so rewarding that she returned two more times in rapid succession, gaining diverse skills that were in high demand in pressure situations.
“I guess you could call me a utility player,” she said, using a sports metaphor to describe her skill-set.
After Haiti, she started looking for another outlet for her philanthropic energy. She found it through the Tandana Foundation, a nonprofit organization that offers cross-cultural volunteer opportunities, scholarships, and funding for small community projects in highland Ecuador and Mali’s Dogon Country. Tandana, according to its literature, “coordinates service projects and volunteer vacations that offer visitors to Ecuador or Mali the opportunity to be guests rather than tourists, to form cross-cultural friendships, to experience a rich indigenous culture, and to make a difference in the lives of new friends.”
She went on her first Tandana trip to Ecuador last October, helping extend medical care to people who couldn’t otherwise find or afford it.
“I was kind of the dental assistant — partly because no one else wanted to be,” Peddie said with a chuckle, noting some patients’ innate fear of the dentist. “It didn’t bother me to do whatever work needed to be done, and I also love to work with children.”
It certainly helped that Peddie has a way with children and was thus able to comfort them for some the occasional uncomfortable procedures — such as vaccinations and the administering of anti-parasite medication.
And afterward, Peddie gets a reward that can’t be measured in dollars and cents.
“To see the look of gratitude on people’s faces for very, very basic care — it’s amazing,” she said.
She enjoyed the Tandana experience and signed up for another trip, this time to Mali, in Africa. While there this past January, she worked in two small villages in the Dogon region, focusing on community construction projects.
“We went and built a cotton bank, a community latrine and did some work in one of their gardens,” Peddie said. “That was really an interesting cultural experience.”
The Tandana team lived in the village with the people they were helping. They slept on cots under the stars. There were no showers or other creature comforts. If you needed water, you would make the half-mile trek to a communal water pump and fill up a five-gallon jug, Peddie recalled. And since water was an essential ingredient in making the mortar to bind rocks together for construction, Peddie and her fellow volunteers made plenty of trips to the well.
“It was a lot of marching back and forth, a lot of physical exercise in the hot sun,” Peddie said.
You’d think she would have grown weary of travel at this point — but no.
BACK TO ECUADOR
Peddie packed her bags again this past October for her second Tandana trip to Ecuador, serving again as a pharmacist and dental assistant.
Between Oct. 6 and 21, the volunteer team went, in the mornings, to local elementary schools and community centers in rural villages to treat patients. The volunteers treated cases of hypertension, H. Pylori, ovarian cancer, dermatitis, osteoarthritis and dental decay. The volunteer team included three physician assistants, two doctors, three nurses and a dentist.
Peddie’s team treated 284 patients and 211 patients received dental care. The nurses conducted pediatric checkups on 496 children, who also received parasite medication. Along with assisting the medical staff, the other volunteers performed many tasks, such as taking vital signs and conducting vision screening. Besides the care offered by Tandana, the villagers have few options when it comes to obtaining medical care.
“People often ask me, ‘Aren’t you afraid you’re going to get sick?’” Peddie said of her work among people who are ill. “I’m not afraid, because I have the luxury of coming back here. I have American health care and can get vaccinations. If I do get sick, I can get treated, unlike a lot of the people out there who can’t. And that’s what we’re trying to provide to them — a little bit better way of life. If you’re healthy, you can get educated, and if you’re educated, then you can have a better life for you and your children.”
During downtime, Peddie and her colleagues learned about Ecuadoran culture, took cooking classes, visited a master weaver, hiked and went to a musical instrument workshop. They also got to see a World Cup qualifying soccer game and visited the world-renowned Otavalo market.
While Peddie only recently unpacked her bags, she is already looking forward to her next humanitarian trip — a third voyage to Ecuador with Tandana.
“Ecuador has found a place in my heart,” she said, noting she’ll be able to return to the same villages where she has forged some wonderful friendships.
Her experiences have left her with no yearning for a poolside seat sipping on an umbrella-adorned cocktail.
“I had 49 years of ‘real’ vacations,” she said.
Now her vacations have new meaning.
“It makes me happy,” she said, her voice betraying her emotions.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]