This happened two days ago. You know that Facebook feature that randomly posts photos of your past life? Facebook posted this. This actually happened six years ago and it made me laugh as hard two days ago as it did when Patch Adams (that’s him on the right in the photo) and his merry band of clowns tried to kidnap me in Ecuador. When I didn’t go willingly they insisted on a group nose-picking pose.
It happened because I was traveling with my peregrine son through Ecuador which found us passing through Quito for an overnight stay three times during the trip. We stayed in the Mariscal area, a touristy but easy place to find cheap food, a good latte and information from fellow travelers. It also had La Casa Sol, an inexpensive guest house that let us safely leave bags of non-usable stuff as we ventured on multi-day trips that took us from the tropical jungle to the chilly mountains. When we arrived the last time late at night after a day long bus ride, the guesthouse was filled with clowns. Lots of them. Uber enthusiastic, red-nosed, horn-honking clowns. My peregrine son looked about and announced he was leaving to find another hostel. I stayed. I was too tired and too curious.
It turned out my charming hostel was hosting a Go!Clown mission, part of Patch Adam’s global outreach program at his Geshundheit Institute. I’d seen the 1998 movie based on his life starring Robin Wlliams so I knew something about the back story. But when you’ve just come out of a week in the remote Amazon jungle to discover you’re the only non-clown in a hostel full of them (always in costume and character….always!) it requires some re-entry time no matter how famous the sponsor. Which is what I was doing the following morning contemplatively sipping my coffee in the breakfast room when blown soap bubbles landed in my cup. I moved over a chair to let three clowns join me and sat on a whoopee cushion. I had inadvertently become an audience of one for their rehearsal of the day’s activities. What I discovered in between their magic tricks and making of balloon animals was that the group was headed to the Quito Womens’ Prison for the day to bring joy and happiness to the inmates. Later that afternoon I happened upon them on the main drag of touristy Mariscal performing for confounded backpackers. And even later in the evening in the sitting area just outside my room earnestly debriefing the day under the guidance of Patch Adams himself using the Institute’s educational philosophy about problem solving. And that is when I quit being disgruntled that I was surrounded by constant clowns. This was a volunteer humanitarian mission born out of a philosophy that spontaneous play in sad places (prisons, hospitals, clinics, orphanages, places that have been ravaged by civil war and trauma) incrementally heals the mind and body.
The next morning Hunter “Patch” Adams wandered into the breakfast room before the rest of his volunteers and I had a chance to meet the person underneath the clown costume. The 1998 movie never did produce the dream he had when he allowed the rights to his life and mission to be made into a movie. He wanted enough attention and funding to let him build a hospital that implemented his model of medical therapy on the 300 acre West Virginia Geshundheit Institute. He wanted the Go!Clown missions, which were annually in Ecuador, Guatemala, Peru and Russia to expand to other countries despite the fact that he was already traveling 300 days a year doing lectures and leading the missions. And he had a new idea – to include traumatized U.S. military veterans on the clown missions to provide a healing opportunity for them.
The rest of the exuberant clowns honked, tooted and danced into the breakfast room to leave for their day’s work at two Quito hospitals. They tried to get me to join them but we had a flight home that morning and so the photo op happened. Two days ago when Facebook memory prompted me, I checked the Geshundheit Institute website. He’s still fundraising for that hospital. He’s taking Go!Clown missions to other countries. And last year a group of military veterans donned clown costumes and joined a mission.