As I write this blog post I am sitting in the Chicago airport trying to process the past 48 hours. After we left the Amazon on Thursday, things began moving very fast regarding the coronavirus situation. Within a day three people in my program were directed to return home from their home university. By Sunday our whole program had been cancelled and we had all booked flights back to the states. It still has not hit me that this miraculous adventure that me and 16 other people had embarked on has been cut so short. We were supposed to have more time. More time to spend with our host families, more time to explore Quito and Ecuador, more time to connect with our peers. More time to go to the Galapagos. I feel like I was just getting comfortable and feeling a part of something. I was comfortable talking to strangers and navigating the city and now I must start all over. I want more time and I do not want to go home.
It has been hard to even reflect on all this because for the past 48 hours we were so worried about just getting out of the country. With borders closing, flights getting canceled, and more restrictions in place, there were some moments where I wasn’t sure if we would make it. This morning we got on one of the last flights out of Quito. Behind us was a long line of people whose flights who had been cancelled and were trying to get on our flight. On the flight information board there was a long list of cancelled flights and it was then that I realized that we were just barely getting out.
During this time, I have had such a whirlwind of feelings. On one hand I don’t want to leave and all I want is the program to go on; on the other hand, I was worrying that they wouldn’t let me leave and I would be stuck in Ecuador. Another thing I have been thinking about is that there aren’t many people that know what this experience was like. It is common for study abroad students to find it hard to explain their experiences to people when they return, but now I feel like even those people wouldn’t understand how it feels to leave something so unfinished like we did.
I do know one thing; I have unfinished business in Ecuador and I plan on returning one way or another. Until next time, Ecuador!
In this post I would like to first address the global pandemic that has become worldwide. We were alerted of this as soon as we got back into service after being in the Amazon for a week. The hours following have been a blur of events and as of now Whitman has chosen to have school online and are sending all study abroad students home that were in Europe. Three people on my program are being forced to return home by their universities. I almost wish we had just stayed in the Amazon… As of now this program will continue because the virus itself isn’t too bad in Ecuador but things are developing very quickly and there are increasing worries about being able to travel.
In the light of current events it seems weird to be blogging about my newest excursion experiences but I think it will still be important for the next group to be able to read.
All coronavirus events aside, the Amazon was amazing. The first three days alone were so full of new experiences. After arriving in Coca, a city in the Amazon, we did something called the toxic tour in which we drove around learning about petroleum extraction in the Amazon. Once the pipes that carry crude oil were pointed out to us it became hard to miss them everywhere we went. They snaked along the roads for miles and miles. Apparently, they have a leak once every week, but it seems like it should be much more than that with how many miles of pipe we saw. We went to a “machero” which is where companies burn of the natural gas that comes up with the petroleum because they don’t want to spend more money to process it. You can see the machero from the road and as we walked closer you could feel the heat coming from the flames. There was a chemically smell and the whole area just seemed like a health hazard. The heat was so intense we could only stay for a few minutes. On the way back our guide collected some insects from the below the flames to show us. Because these macheros produce light thousands of insects fly towards them and then die when they get close. It seemed crazy to me that this was all allowed to happen. For lunch we went to Loma del Tigre, a Quichwa community, and listened to their stories about how the petroleum industry had affected their lives. In areas of petroleum plants and macheros, the incidents of cancer are THREE TIMES that of Ecuador’s national average. It makes me mad that the effects are so obviously hurting people, yet nothing is being done.
After Loma del Tigre, we went to Limoncocha lake and took a boat ride around the lake, identifying birds and looking at the wildlife. We saw monkeys and some really cool birds! We also saw sloths, although I have no idea how the guides spotted them because they look like blogs of moss even through binoculars. As the sunset we began to look for caimans and one of the guides caught a baby one that we got to hold. As soon as the sun had disappeared, tiny pinpricks of light began to appear on all the leaves and lilies. These little larvae were like fireflies of the water lilies. On the rest of the ride we saw two more adult caimans. After the boat ride we piled into trucks that took us to another boat that took us to our lodging for the night. I could used to this type of traveling! It was a really busy day and I was happy to fall asleep, safe in my mosquito netting.
The next day we boated to an island that is a monkey sanctuary which like everything else was amazing. Our guide lives on this island and has been running the place and organizing research on it since he bought it. We saw pygmy monkeys and woolly monkeys. I am grateful one of the guys on our trip brought his really nice camera so we got some really good pictures of them. I also have been perfecting the picture-through-the-binoculars method which works with varying success. These were just the first couple days in the Amazon, there was so much in store for us!
This past week has been mostly work after coming back from the cloud forest last Saturday. We had two essays due and a presentation about the Amazon which is where we are going tomorrow. The work load is definitely heavy, but not as much as I would do at Whitman. From the very beginning they told us that we are “students first” and that this was not just a vacation. I do love how much we are learning but sometime I wish we had some free time to explore a little more. Speaking of exploring we did go to the cloud forest last week which was incredible!
We went to the cloud forest for five days. The forest was filled with incredible diversity and was overall amazing. It really felt like you were in a jungle. We stayed at Santa Lucia which is an ecolodge that you have to hike in to. They carry your stuff up on mules! It was interesting to learn about the creation of the place and their relationships with scientific groups and the local community. It is also amazing to think that everything except for some local resources were brought up my mule or hiked up by people. All of the kitchen supplies, glass for the windows, also all the food that is there… it is pretty incredible! They lodge is also very ecofriendly, and they have cool composting toilets to save water.
During our stay we did a lot of bird watching. We saw and identified more the 60 different bird species and saw a lot of orchids as well which are a common epiphyte there. A lot of the birds were brilliantly colored and were the first wild tropical birds I’d ever seen. During our time there we learned how to do mist netting to catch birds for identification and measurements. We set out the nets and got up at 5:45 am to open them. After waiting for 15 minutes we would go check the nets for birds. Our instructors carefully took the birds out of the nets and taught us how to take measurements and release them. We also learned about insects and how to collect them in streams to use as bioindicators. We hiked down to a series of three beautiful waterfalls where we did our collection. This was a good intro to my long term group project in which we are comparing stream quality of cloud forest and amazon streams, which we did at the base of two of the waterfalls. The project is interesting, and it was a ton of fun to wade around in streams collecting insects, but I can tell the project is definitely going to be a lot of work.
Another investigation we did involved light trapping of moths and insects. One of the nights we put up a sheet outside and shined a giant light on it. Within half and hour it was coated in moths big and small, including hawk moths. At one point we were all covered in moths which may sound gross but it was honestly so cool and the moths were beautiful! The insects in the cloud forest were large in general and throughout the trip we tons of cool insects and even found a tarantula next to the lodge!
Overall, our visit to the cloud forest was amazing and I didn’t really want to go back to Quito. It was a forest like nothing I had ever seen before and I would love to go return.
I have been in Ecuador for about three weeks now. Due to some delays I am just now able to start blogging so I would like to do a summary post before I review our most recent excursion to the Cloud Forest.
It probably took a week or so for it to really hit me that I was in Ecuador in a foreign city like one I had never experienced. Most everything here is different, from the cultural greetings of a kiss on the cheek to the food. My first week was an orientation in which the group got to meet and get to know each other and we went over logistics of the program and safety. We did a few day trips and got used to the Quito lifestyle. In general people here are welcoming and friendly and were understanding of my choppy Spanish. Our program group is amazing too. From the start everyone seems excited to be there and the 17 of us got acquainted quickly.
So far I have liked living with my host family. I am living very close to the school with a woman and her niece Christina, who I call my host sister. They are both very nice and we have done some sightseeing around Quito in my free time. I went to the Basilica with Christina which was really cool! I ate coca leaves which are traditionally eaten to combat altitude sickness at high elevations and the view from the top was a beautiful 360 view of Quito. Being on a schedule and having to constantly communicating definitely takes some getting used to. I am not used to not making my own food or having things done for me and I had to learn the cultural norms and personal preferences of my family. However, living with them definitely improves my Spanish and it is an experience I am grateful to have.
Our first big excursion was to the páramo, the highlands of Ecuador. At around 13000 ft elevation the páramo was breathtaking in multiple ways. Almost as soon as we got there we saw condors, one of the largest birds on earth with a wingspan of 10.5 feet. Throughout the trip we ended up seeing 38 bird species, many of which were humming birds. I had never seen so many hummingbirds in my life! One day, we went to La Mica which is a lake that Quito gets 26% of their water from. At the reserve, you got a stunning view of Antisana, a stratovolcano. Throughout the páramo trip we learned about botany, conservation of condors, the páramo, and the geology of the ecosystem. It was an incredible experience and I was sad to have to return to Quito and do school work.
The way the program works is we do a week long excursion then stay in Quito for a week to work on projects and homework. It’s a very busy schedule and has taken some getting used to. But is also makes sense considering the program is only 3 1/2 months and one of those months is your independent study.
Before heading to the Cloud Forest we decided to make a trip to Baños, a city in Ecuador known for its hot springs. We managed to cram in a hike to a tree house, waterfall viewing and hot springs into 24 hours. It was exhausting but amazing and totally worth it! It was great to get out of Quito and with Baños in the Cloud Forest we ended up getting a preview of the climate we would be returning to as a program.
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