Final words…

July11

It’s 11 pm and I am sitting on my bed re-reading the old entries of my blog. It’s really fun and yet uncomfortable to read these entries again; I feel like I am re-reading my diary, a diary that I have decided to share with you guys as well.

It’s 11 pm and my body keeps telling me that I should go to bed. After weeks of going to bed at 8 or 9 pm and waking up at 5 am, I can’t seem to readjust. I’ve stopped putting an alarm on my phone because I know that I will wake up before it goes off.

It’s 11 pm and I can’t stop thinking about Ecuador.

I know that I am going to miss floating down the river, attempting to speak Kichwa (one of the indigenous languages of Ecuador), eating lunch for $2.50, taking buses everywhere I go, watching the birds, and so much more. It’s definitely going to take more than a few days to readjust to being back in the United States, especially after traveling in Central and South America for 6 months (before going to Ecuador I took trips to Guatemala and Brazil). This is why I told myself that I would be patient. Take it one day at a time. And as I start to pick up the rhythm of how life is at home, then I can start to revisit my memories.

As they say, all good things come to an end, right?

Wrong.

Yes, one may study abroad for a semester or a year. But the experience doesn’t end the day that you get on that airplane; it continues for so much longer. Now I have new friends that live all over the country as well as friends and family that live in Ecuador. And I am also fortunate enough to have these new experiences and knowledge that will serve as resources for me to utilize in the future.

And for this reason, I am inclined to say that not all good things come to an end. Yes, the program ended and I had to return to the United States, but as I return, I also bring back what I learned in Ecuador. And what I bring back from Ecuador can be completely different from what the other girls in the program bring back with them. It’s not a formula. You only take away as much as you want to get out of any experience in Ecuador. And that’s why I absolutely loved this semester. As I was sweating in the Amazon, almost not being able to breathe while hiking up Cotopaxi, watching the waves roll in on the beach, and going off trail in Yasuni National Park to chase after Spider monkey calls, I realized that it was going to be really difficult to explain to any person about my semester just because it was characterized so much by my own personal perspirations and decisions. Yes, I learned from the lectures we had in Quito, but I learned more by talking to the locals, taking out my binoculars, and tuning my ears. After a few weeks I realized that I could learn about anything that I wanted to learn about in Ecuador. I just had to look for it. And in the end, I think that I found it. I am happy to say that I’ve learned about ecology, human ecology, resource conflicts, a bit of indigenous history, soccer, culture, food, and so much more. However, above all, I learned about myself. I’ve learned how uncomfortable I can be in a foreign environment while still able to be productive, how much I still want to pursue a career pertaining to environmental issues even after seeing the reality of environmental projects in these countries, and that I really like to become friends with just about anyone. I wasn’t seeking to learn about myself during this process; I wanted to learn about the plants and the people. But it’s interesting how through engaging in someone else’s culture you can learn so much about your own.

And for these reasons, I know that the essence of this semester cannot die with the end of this program. I want to continue to share what I learned with people who ask me questions, to be actively involved in the issues that matter to me, and to stay in touch with those who have contributed just a little bit to my experiences. Every single student that studies abroad goes back to the United States with the potential of being a grain of yeast for their communities. I want to fulfill this potential. This way the memories won’t be forgotten. This way the ideas won’t be buried. This way I can continue the essence of what my program was all about. And on the days that I start to miss Ecuador, I just have to remember what I told my host mom from the rural Amazon as she started crying on my last day:

“No es adios para siempre. Es solo un cayagama.”

“It’s not goodbye forever. It’s just a see you tomorrow.” (“Cayagama” means see you another day in Kichwa).

yanacocha

Finally, I just wanted to say THANK YOU for all of those who have read my blog this semester! If you read one entry or all of them, I really appreciate it. You guys are the best and I couldn’t have done it without your support!

Last day in the Amazonian life

June19

Tomorrow is my last day of my month-long adventure here in the Amazon and words cannot even describe what I feel right now…. Our group had been to three different places in the Amazon before me and another friend from the group, Dina, came to Arajuno, but somehow this experience has been completely different. This time, we had to learn how to live like the locals. We took the buses, we learned to hike the trails, we carried around 5 L jugs of water everywhere we went, and we had to go into the closest city, Tena, just to get internet and put credits on our phones so that we can call (prepaid phones!). Moving around between the local community called Campococha, Tena, and the Arajuno Jungle Lodge (which is where I went to go work on a turtle conservation project) was extremely tiring but so much fun.

For those of you that don’t know, I came to this part of the Amazon primarily to write a management plan for the Arajuno Jungle Lodge so that they may get their turtles approved legally and use them for reproduction. The hatched eggs of these turtles will then be released into a local river in the attempt to repopulate it with the Yellow-Spotted River turtle (commonly known as “Charapas”). The worry is that lots of local communities practice harmful fishing techniques such as dynamite fishing and fishing with nets that extend from one end of the river to the other. Through these habits as well as the over-hunting of the species has led to a dramatic decrease in the turtle population in the Arajuno River.

Well anyway, tomorrow I need to head back to Quito to write my final research paper. I should’ve probably started writing it on Monday but didn’t have the time to do it before due to the five other things that I couldn’t leave without doing before leaving first. Hopefully through a brief description of these five things, I can paint a very blurry picture of what really happened during this project that I embarked on at the end of May.

  1. Visit lagoons: On my birthday (the 15th of June) we went out on an adventure to go visit a salt lick in attempt to see parrots, but it was raining unfortunately. Then we went to go visit a lagoon to see if it would be a good site to release the baby turtles that the conservation project at Arajuno Jungle Lodge proposes it will do. This lagoon was too far from the river, though, so we voted no on that one. So I decided to stay an extra couple of days so that I could go visit another lagoon with my advisor and see if it would be adequate for the liberation of the baby turtles. I think that it will be a nice spot because it is already pretty protected by the surrounding community, but this will be something that I will find out tomorrow morning right before I take the bus home. The aspect of my research project that has to do specifically with the biology of the turtles has been fascinating. I have learned so much about these little critters not only by observing them in the lagoon at the Lodge, but also through talking to a veterinarian, a biologist, a leader of another turtle project in another part of Ecuador, reading about it in books and online, and in general by having discussions with the locals about them. Through this, I was not only able to make several contacts, all of which have been so great to me, but also was able to learn more about how a species can indicate the health of its ecosystem. In this case, we are talking about the Yellow-spotted river turtle and its relationship with the river that it inhabits. If the river is contaminated or badly taken care of, the turtle won’t be able live there. These reptiles are smart creatures and I have definitely learned a thing or two from them
  2. Finishing my management plan and following up with communication with the Ministry of the Environment: at first the idea of even writing a management plan was a bit overwhelming to me. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to write it well, if at all. What kind of information would I include? How formal should I make it? And indeed, in the first week or so I thought that I wasn’t going to write a plan at all. This was because after talking to a representative from the Ministry about certain laws that have to be followed with this kind of plan, I wasn’t sure if the Lodge was going to be able to follow through. But the days passed and my advisor and I called more people and asked them for information and documents and soon enough it started to look like things were coming together. In the last week I started writing the document and didn’t want to leave until I had it done up to the point where I couldn’t write anymore. 15 pages later I finally feel confident enough to leave it so that it may be finished by a real biologist. (Sometimes I have to remind myself that I still don’t have a degree… but we’re still working on that!)
  3. Spending more time with the community: I can’t get enough of this. Many nights I was supposed to do work or write in my journal, or whatever it may be but I just couldn’t. I was either busy playing with the kids or talking to the adults. I wasn’t really sure what kind of impact I was leaving for the kids when I taught them about natural sciences and English at the school nor was I really sure if I was going to leave the families that I lived with and the others that I talked to with anything worth remembering. But yesterday when I took three turtles to the school to teach about its anatomy and ecological function, many students and adults alike were interested. Word that I had brought turtles spread like wildfire and all of a sudden people were having discussions with me about their interest in the project and their wants to help with it as well. This response made me really excited and I must remain realistic that this might not ensue in anything major, but it’s an important first step and I am really glad that I have been able to at least plant the seeds in one of many communities around this area of the Amazon.
  4. Get some rest and do laundry… yes everything smells all the time. I wash something and within a half hour it’s dirty again… but having no clothes isn’t exactly too fun either.
  5. Birdwatching with Dina: I am not sure what happened with our month but Dina and I were never able to both get up at 5 am on any day to go birding together. Between traveling, talking to people, and trying to gather information I think that we were both really too tired to get up before 6 am. But I don’t know what this experience would have been like without her. Like the day that we tried walking back to the Arajuno Jungle Lodge from Campococha by ourselves when we didn’t know the trail and it had just rained really hard and the river was too high but we didn’t want to pay for a canoe…. So we took the trail anyway. And we thought we were going to die (well at least I thought I would) when we crossed one of the sketchiest bridges I have ever seen and then we started taking the trail to the left or to the right when we didn’t really know where the trail was going to take us… or the time that we both got healed by a Shaman and smelled like cigarettes for at least three days afterwards. And I gave her a hard time that we had to go through that uncomfortable experience but in the end I’m glad that we had it. It was definitely a cultural experience and a good addition to Dina’s project. But above all what was the best was the hike that we had to make into the primary forest to find the one spot that got cell phone service. From there Dina and I would make our “conference calls” as I called them, whether that be during the day or at night, it didn’t matter. Without this girl I don’t know what I would have done; it wouldn’t have been a true Amazon adventure! SAM_1108

Teaching experiences in Ecuador!

June9

This is my last full week in the Amazon (at least for this project) and I can hardly believe it. I have been trying to conduct something like my own research project here and part of this project is trying to analyze community-based conservation in small communities of the Amazon. What works and what doesn’t? Are people into conservation or not? I figured that one of the main ways that I could reach the individuals in the community would be through the school so the first day that I arrived I went to the little community school to ask if I could help teach English. Eventually I also worked my way to Natural Sciences and am now helping teach both. The process has been an incredible experience, but also the most frustrating at the same time.

Why frustrating, Paloma? You ask.

I walk into English class the first day and the class is learning to count to fifty. They should have already known the material, the teacher says. But when she makes them count only a few of them actually know what they are doing. The teacher gets frustrated herself and tells the kids that they have to know their numbers before the end of the year or else they can’t move onto the next level. This at first just shocked me because learning numbers shouldn’t take that long. A couple days or a week max. She was saying that they had to have it down by July. That was when I realized that the rate of learning here is extremely low. Material that I pass to the students one day has to be repeated at least twice and since they don’t study at all, information isn’t retained very well. However, this wouldn’t concern me so much if the teacher knew what she was doing and I could somehow teach her so that she can teach them later on. But when the teacher has troubles herself with basic pronunciation and spelling, it’s a problem. I wasn’t really sure what to think when the teacher couldn’t spell some basic words like “apple” and “swimming” and then confused “who” for “what.”

There have been some days, though, when I feel like I have made significant process. With the older kids I have been able to teach some lessons without the teacher, which I prefer. This is because then I can fully enact my own style and teach them what I think is important. They are more into it and some students even ask questions. When a student asked me a question for the first time I swear I was the happiest person in the world. And when students get a concept I get so excited that they all laugh at me. But I think that is what makes them comfortable with me. A student in the highest level of high school (18 years old) told me that in two weeks with me he could learn English. That is the greatest compliment I have received from a student whom I am teaching English to. I was really happy. Teaching natural sciences sometimes can be really challenging as well, but sometimes it can be really fun. For example, on one particular day I was teaching the 9th grade. I wanted to teach them about biomes, something that they had already learned but completely forgot what it was. I then decided to only teach them about their own biome, the tropical rainforest, and give them a kind of local ecology lesson. They got so into it that we started to talk about where nutrients come from (the mountains) and then how mountains are formed (plate tectonics) and then the importance of volcanoes and so on. This lecture I will never forget. The students were actually into it and asking me questions, something that I have never seen happen during all the classes I had sat in at this school before.

In these aspects concerning teaching, it has been a really incredible experience without a doubt. But my frustrations don’t just lie with the teaching itself, but also just with the concept of there being a school in this community.

Wait a second, Paloma. You say. Why would you ever feel conflicted about there being a school? You of all people would definitely support it.

Well sometimes I feel like I don’t.

And I am going to tell you why.

This town is today the way that it is because some missionaries from the United States came in and converted everybody into Evangelists, built a school, and “civilized” them. Don’t get me wrong, I love the concept of a school, but not as comfortable with the fact that this small little group from the states came into this small little place in Ecuador and changed everything about it. The influence that just a few people can have is amazing and scary at the same time. When I go into a foreign place I try to understand the culture and live in it. I have no idea what it would feel like if I went into someone else’s home and told them that they had to live a different way because the way that they are living now is not “civilized.”

In this area there used to be Waorani people. If you read some of my previous articles about the Amazon, you will know what I am talking about when I talk about the Waorani. And the Kichwa people, which is another indigenous group in the area, rarely ever came in. They would only come in sometimes to hunt. This was because they were afraid of the Waoranis because they killed people who came into their territory. But one day these missionaries came into the area and helped the Kichwa people establish themselves on this land that was not theirs originally. They helped the Kichwa people build a school and motivated them to work the land and change what it looks like from the jungle it was into cultivated land today. This did two things:

  1. It forced the Waorani people to retreat further into the forest, to the other side of the Curaray River essentially.
  2. It “civilized” the Kichwa people. In this process, they learned Spanish and now some young people don’t even know Kichwa or are embarrassed to speak it in public. They also lost a lot of their traditional knowledge. Many people go to the doctor before consulting traditional medicines. They are now getting a taste for other types of foods and some are leaving their habits of preparing some traditional foods like the famous “chicha.” Chicha is a really powerful drink made out of yuca that they would drink before going out into the fields to work. It doesn’t taste very good, but it is very filling. I have seen some families still make this drink, but it’s not as popular as it used to be. Also, with the kids in school, the kids help out with the field work much less. They are living in nature but not really. They just go to school from home and after school they go out and play with friends or they go back home. I have rarely seen kids hiking around in the primary forest and I know that if it wasn’t for school they would have a lot more contact with the nature. I’m not really sure how much school teaches them, but as far as natural sciences is concerned, I think that they would know a lot more about nature if they were actually walking around more in their own forests than learning about it in school. This is because teaching quality is poor and teaching materials also don’t concern the local ecology. In natural sciences class they talk about different types of energies, the ecology of the Galapagos, and other topics like this. In the whole natural science booklet of the grades that I teach I have not seen one page dedicated to the local ecology, or at least more specifics on Amazonian ecology. In this case, I wonder which situation would be best. Is it really necessary that these students learn about the ecology of the Galapagos when they live in the Amazon? Yes, I do believe it is important to have a well-rounded education, but in the situation of such a small little town of 300 people, most of which will never leave, I think that the most important is teaching them what they need to know to be able to live well in the place where they are living right now. Sure, it’s nice to know about these extra things, but when the education level is so low already I feel like when it comes down to it the teacher is just throwing information at them that they don’t understand anyway. And I know they don’t understand because when I ask them questions about material they should already have learned they all look at me with a blank face.

Anyway, these are all random thoughts and I hope that at least a little bit of it makes any sense. Teaching at this school has been an amazing experience despite all the internal conflicts I have experienced while doing it. But after all, this experience has taught me much more about how I want to go about doing environmental education with kids when I am older, which is definitely one of the projects that I want to take on in the future. The kids are the future and the ones that I have worked with in this community are amazing individuals, whom I am going to miss utterly when I leave. For this reason, I plan on enjoying my last week teaching to the fullest!

5 top bests and worsts of Ecuador

May28

So I feel like I have been publishing lots of deep thoughts recently and while I love to write about those things, I thought that maybe something lighter would be good for today. I feel like I have been in Ecuador long enough to discuss a little bit the things that I absolutely love about Ecuador…and the things that kind sometimes can drive me crazy.

Best 5 things about Ecuador:

1. The landscapes. There are so many different types of landscapes in Ecuador that sometimes it is hard for me to believe that I am still in the same country. Just last weekend I was at the beach where I saw ocean and a drier forest. This week I am in the Amazon where I see lush green and coffee-brown rivers. I have seen glaciers on top of volcanoes. Dry, shrubby habitat dominates on top of the Andes mountains, but more toward the bottom you will find cloud forest. The diversity is incredible.

2. The people. One time I was hiking with a friend and we met a family on the bus ride up to the entrance of the park. Their son hung out with us during the whole hike, they invited us to eat picnic with them, and overall were so generous and full of life. These types of things will happen. Lots of people are so excited to just get to know you and if you put on a smile on your face, they will put one on theirs. Of course, there are exceptions, but overall Ecuadorians are really open and lively people.

3. The Birds. I have seen sooo many amazing birds here. In fact, so many that I have been convinced to buy a bird book to feed my obsession. 😀

4. The food. This doesn´t need much of an explanation. It is just fantastic. And yes, yucca!!!!

5. Affordability. I feel like for the amount of money that I have spent in Ecuador I have been able to do quite a lot and if you are willing to live like a local, you will have no problem at all traveling for less.

5 things that I sometimes just do not understand…

1. How at the bus stations they will tell you that a bus arrives at a destination at a certain time, but it actually arrives a whole two hours later. I am not sure if they stay that it will arrive at 1 pm when it actually arrives at 3 pm to convince you to buy the ticket or what, but it can be very inconvenient.

2. How when you are in the bus there are a million vendors that come into the bus and do not stop advertising their products until someone buys something.

3. How crowded the buses are when it rains and no one wants to open the window because it is raining and so you feel like you are in a sauna and a little lightheaded.

Notice how so far most of my negatives have been related to transportation…. which I think is kind of funny.

4. How I will tell people I am Brazilian and people just stare at me and say I dont believe you. (I guess I´m super white, but still.)

5. How a $20 bill is pretty much useless because it is really really hard to get change in Ecuador. And since everything is on the cheaper side, it´s hard to break a big bill.

Well, those are some really great positives that have accumulated from this trip and some minor negatives (just really funny in general).

I hope that everyone is having a great start to their summer and is having loads of fun! We all deserve a little break 🙂

 

Taking a canoe deep into the woods

May28

Hey everyone! Sorry I didn’t write for a while. I actually had this written in my journal but can now finally upload it while I have internet. The other week we were on our last Amazon excursion—one where we went really deep into the forest. We were really close to and met some of the contacted indigenous people in the area, but at the same time were pretty isolated—about seven hours from the nearest hospital more or less. But it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life without a doubt. A couple times we went floating down the river and I remember just not being close to anything—no houses, no people, no man-made noises. Being able to merely look up and see a toucan or look down and see a turtle was amazing to me. This is what we think of when we think: Amazon. This picture perfect experience was definitely something I will cherish forever. But it’s so easy to keep this pristine, picture perfect picture in mind. It’s harder to conceptualize that the picture of a little Amazonian girl with a parrot on her shoulders but with no clothes on is no longer as much of a reality for Amazonian Ecuadorians. Yes we did see a few little kids running around naked there but all the parents had clothes on. The women had hand bags and a couple even wore make-up. But they are still building their traditional houses made with palm leaves and keeping monkeys as pets (I was able to play with one-so cute!) What does this mean then? Are they accepting society or rejecting it? It seems to me that they are not completely willing to accept many things and are still trying to preserve some aspects of their culture. However, with every new modernity that presented, a little bit of traditional knowledge is erased. Are those diapers they burn really necessary? Why don’t they keep living their nomadic way of life instead of settling down in one place, which throws off their hunting system? These are interesting questions to consider, but also kind of ignorant questions to ask from my person. Who says that these indigenous groups don’t have the right to enjoy all the things that we enjoy utilizing in this modern world? I would still like them to not use diapers, but if it makes their lives just a little bit easier, who am I to say that they shouldn’t? This is the kind of ethical dilemma I have been struggling with. No matter how much I care about the environment, I still wear clothes, consumed fuel to travel to Ecuador, and used a tree when I bought this notebook I’m writing on (even though I am very proud that it is made out of recycled paper). In the end, I am a consumer. I enjoy to travel, I enjoy to study. How could I ever deny that to someone else? Yes, I think that the indigenous groups in the area we visited should preserve their traditional knowledge because they are some of the last ones in Ecuador that still have it. What they know how to do is incredible. How did they walk along flooded forest with no rubber boots on before? How did they make spears out of palm wood? How did they know what fruits to eat? All of this leaves me in awe. Traditional knowledge is powerful and beautiful. But the world is changing and so are its cultures. I am obviously hoping that these cultures may be conserved in the future but at the same time I have come to understand if they aren’t. After all, cultures are extremely dynamic. And that definitely keeps things interesting.

Some Reflections

May9

It has been a few days since I have been back from our second excursion to the Amazon now and I am still thinking about it. I am still not sure if I understand everything that we saw still, but I think that it’s better to not try to understand absolutely everything. As I was talking to one Ecuadorian friend after coming back from excursion, he told me: “well, Paloma, that’s just the way life is.” So right now I am still not really sure what to think, much less what to write down, but either way it’s worth to jot something down.

I want to start off by saying that this Amazon excursion was just as amazing and unbelievable as the first. We visited Yasuni (finally!), Limoncocha, Panacocha, and other places along the Rio Napo. In case you are totally lost I have included a map so you may localize. The Rio Napo feeds into the Amazon River and, thus, is a very important river in Ecuador.

Map_napo

 

Note #14, 5, and 10. Sorry the map is so small! Couldn’t get it to be any larger. Click on the image for it to appear larger.

Photo Credit: www.rainforestcruises.com

On this trip we saw a lot more animals, too, which was the best part. At Yasuni we heard lots of birds, but what was really cool was seeing a ton of parrots and parakeets eating the clay at a salt lick right before the entrance to the park. They do so because they need the salts in the clay to help them digest the unripe fruits that they eat. We also saw anteaters (tamandua), sloths (perezosos), monkeys (including the pygmy marmoset, the smallest monkey in the world!), caimans, pink river dolphins (delfines rosados), spiders, snakes, tons of birds such as ospreys, woodpeckers, screaming pihas, macaws, parrots, and much more. (Just within two hours of birdwatching we saw 50 species of birds.) Needless to say, the trip was like paradise. As I sat on our boat, I enjoyed naming the trees I recognized and the birds that flew by. Kayaking and swimming around for a few days was also just absolutely incredible.

tatiana_duskyheadedparakeet

Dusky Headed Parakeet at Salt Lick

SAM_0531

 

Tamandua (Anteater) in Yasuni

caiman

 

4.5 m black caiman! 

 

But there was always something that made me a bit uneasy.

I’m not sure if our presence there, which made several heads turn, or our witnessing different realities of the region made me more uneasy. I’m usually able to adapt pretty well at this point to a place that I travel to in Latin America. However, upon coming back from this trip, I realized that this adaptation may only really happen when I can incorporate myself into the community by talking to individuals and participating in activities. And this trip was not like that at all because we didn’t have enough time. On this trip we were just observers. We learned about how petroleum extraction works in the area by visiting the sites, saw huge plantations of African Palm trees, and visited a town that was trying to be modernized by the government when the local people just want to keep living the way that they do now. In this sense, being an observer was a great experience. I was able to really get a sense of some of the issues that we have been learning about for a few weeks now because we were right there. We saw it firsthand. But also, sometimes this thought makes me uneasy because, yes, we saw it but how close were we really? We were still learning from a distance. The fence around the oil separation stations and the police men driving past us made that very clear. In this sense, then, I wonder how the people living in the area must feel. Do they feel like outsiders in their own land? Have they just gotten used to it by now? Are they worried about the future of their water supplies and land, which gets polluted from extraction? These are all questions that I wish I would have had time to explore, but due to lack of time, I could not. I am assuming that because this petroleum topic (as well as the smaller issues in the area) is constantly present in their lives, at this point, they have gotten used to it. For me it was hard to process, though. I remember last semester in Biogeochemistry class when we had a lecture concerning petroleum. For 50 minutes I was really disturbed and provoked, but after that I went off to go do something else and forgot about the lecture. Last week, though, we learned about petroleum one day and went to Yasuni the next. Despite as much as I just wanted to do my birdwatching and enjoy nature, I couldn’t. As we were watching the birds at the salt lick (along with two other canoes of tourists), a huge petroleum boat drove past as close to the lick as they could and they honked at us. The birds all got scared and flew away. And as the petroleum men drove away I realized that was what they wanted. They wanted to aggravate us, to show us that they are the ones in power, not us. Eventually the birds came back, but our guide told us that there used to be a lot more birds feeding at that lick and he guesses one day they will have to relocate. And that was the kind of thing that stuck out to me like a sore thumb. That I couldn’t separate learning and experiencing. The two were very much intertwined and the fact that the reality was always present, I was always thinking about it. I realized that these issues are real and they are affecting every single person that we met during that trip every single day. This is such a simple idea but sometimes so hard to grasp in the lecture hall.

I keep asking myself what school will be like next semester for me. I wonder if it will be at all difficult to sit in lecture all day, everyday for another two years. After seeing the environmental and social issues that I am passionate about in even more detail than I ever have before, I want to just start acting now. However, I know that it’s so much harder than just packing your bags and leaving to work. It’s going to take a lot more knowledge and resources to get to the place that I want to be. However, I am really grateful for all these experiences I have been having because they have been really making me think about the person that I want to be. In June we will be heading off to do an independent study project for a month by ourselves. I will be going back to the Amazon for this project, specifically back to the community that we stayed with a couple of nights during our first Amazon excursion. I hope to be able to interact a lot more with the community that we met that week and start to answer some of the questions that I have  in my head. I hope to be able to give back to the community by helping a conservationist in the area with his turtle rehabilitation project. He needs to write a management plan for his turtles so that he may be approved to have these turtles and release them into the river. I then hope to talk to the communities to set up some turtle educational programs as well as small turtle nurseries for them. The goal is that if they consume the turtles grown in the nursery, they won’t have to kill the ones in the river. And at last, I will be working with a Kichwa man in his tree nursery to learn about reforestation with native seeds and how this is done on a local level. This might sound like a lot, but I am really excited to get started with it and I know that it will be a really amazing way to end my semester here in Ecuador!

An inspirational struggle of the Yasunidos

April27

“Está usted de acuerdo en que el gobierno ecuatoriano mantenga el crudo del ITT, conocido como bloque 43, indefinidamente bajo el subsuelo?”

Are you in agreement with the Ecuadorian government keeping crude oil from the ITT (inside of the block 43) indefinitely under the subsoil? For the past six months a very inspirational and determined group of people (they call themselves Yasunidos, which are mostly young adults) have been walking the streets of Quito and other places in Ecuador to collect signatures from the general public if their answer to this question is “yes.”

So what exactly is the conflict here? Some of you might have heard about the issue because it has made international news and right before coming to Ecuador, I had actually read an article about this. There is an area in the eastern part of Ecuador called Parque Nacional Yasuni (Yasuni National Park). It is inside of the providences Pastaza and Orellana. There is an incredibly diverse hotspot that scientists argue is the most biodiverse in the world. This is because it has incredible biodiversity of not just plants, birds, mammals, and amphibians, but all four. I would love to sit here and talk about the history of the creation of the Andes mountains and how this subsequently led to an incredibly rich Amazon forest to form in the semicircle area to the east of the Andes mountains, which includes Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru, but that might take up too many pages. So to make things short and simple, I will just say that because this area did not dry out during the Ice Age and also because of the formation of the Andes mountains, which allows moisture to gather in the area instead of going to the Pacific, Ecuador has some of the richest Amazonian land.

However, Yasuni possesses more than just an incredible variety of ocelots, tapirs, jaguarundis, pink dolphins, paiches (these are fish), and many other living organisms. It also has a lot of crude oil under its soil. Granted, this oil isn’t of the best quality, but because the oil market is now changing and starting to accept lower quality oil, Yasuni is now a target of interest for exploitation.

The Ecuadorian government is, of course, pro-exploration. This is because they are in a lot of debt to China and want to use the money they could make from Yasuni to pay them back. Last year they told the international community that if they paid Ecuador 350 million dollars a year (which is about half of what they would get if they extracted the oil), then they would leave the 846 million barrels under the ground. However, the global community could not really believe the government because while the Ecuadorian government was asking for the money, they were simultaneously negotiating with China to make plans to extract the oil. For this reason, there were no takers. Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa then declared that he was no longer going to negotiate and ordered the start of exploration in Yasuni. Many Ecuadorians were really angry with the government for taking action without consulting the people of the country, even if they were pro-exploration in the first place. And the individuals that were the most bothered by this issue (whether Ecuadorian or foreigners) joined forces to create this group called Yasunidos. Yasunidos know that they cannot do much about the areas that have already been exploited, but they are working very hard to save a special part of the Yasuni National Park that is argued to be the most biodiverse part of the whole park. This is called the ITT or “block 43” because the park is divided into sections. Check out the map below.

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What I really love about this group is that they are protesting the actions of the government, but everything that they are doing is perfectly legal. They are a peaceful group of people and do not use violence to prove their point. Sometimes I am not too interested in protests because the people who partake in the activity use more pathos than logos and it does not convince many people from the outside that they should change their ways. However, this group has done an amazing job at making an agenda, distributing tasks among members of their group, researching the effects of the indigenous communities by creating direct contacts with the people in the Amazon, etc. And what I find most incredible is that the Yasunidos have utilized their constitutional rights to protest. In Ecuador, freedom of speech is not really protected and the government can freely keep tabs on the people that they see as a “threat.” However, the Yasunidos found a way to use the constitution to their advantage. In an article in the Ecuadorian constitution, it says that a group of people may protest any issue if they get 5% of the voting population to sign in favor of their cause. 5% in Ecuador is about 600,000 people. This doesn’t seem like much, but it took them 6 months to do it, so you can only imagine how much effort it took them. In the end they got about 757,000 people to sign in favor for keeping the crude oil under the ground. This is an incredible amount!

The other day two Yasunidos came into class to talk to us about how the process was and what the next steps are for the group. On the 12th of April they delivered all of the signatures to the Ecuadorian government, which was a huge event, but it seems as if now they have more troubles than before. The government is trying to nullify as many of the signatures as possible by now making rules saying that the papers that are folded in half and that have any mud stains cannot be accepted. Also, about a hundred papers mysteriously went missing and the other day just a few were recovered. It is obvious that the Ecuadorian government, especially Correa, will not let the pressures of the Yasunidos get in the way of their resource extraction plans. It is really sad to see that such an amazing constitution exists, but it might as well not exist because the government doesn’t stick to it. Something might be written down, but when the time comes and something isn’t in their favor, they aren’t going to just give up their plans because the “constitution says so.” For this reason, I have come to really respect the United States and their constitution. Even though it is by no means always followed, I can at least safely feel that my rights and I are protected by a document that is actually enforced.

So what is the next step for the Yasunidos? It is really hard to tell and really difficult to even think about because the Ecuadorian government can essentially do whatever they want, but there is hope. There is hope because the people of people have a history of speaking up for themselves. If a Kichwa community from Pastaza could hike all the way from their community to Quito in two weeks and get granted passage into the Presidential Palace to demand their rights as indigenous peoples, I am sure that the Yasunidos can succeed in some way. This week I will be traveling to Yasuni as well as some other parts of the Amazon. I am really excited to see what it actually looks like there and how life is like there as well. After hearing from the Yasunidos and reading several news articles about the issue, I am ready to learn about the issue firsthand! It’s hard because right now we are only learning, learning, learning, and there are very limited opportunities to participate and help out with the issues that we are learning about, but I still feel so fortunate to be able to be here and witness these things, these issues that are so real. It only keeps inspiring me each and everyday!

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Yasunidos presenting all their signatures to the government on April 12, yasunidos.org

First Amazon Excursion!

April23

Hello everyone! It has a been a couple days now that we have come back from our first excursion into the Amazon and I am still itching! Yes, I did get bitten quite a bit, but maybe I was asking for it since I only put on bug repellent about twice during the whole trip. However, it was a great experience to be out there among the trees, the flowers, the fruits, the birds, and the people. I felt at ease there despite my constant sweating and itching. Time passed by slower, thus allowing me to take things just one step slower and observe everything in greater detail. I learned that detail really matters when you are in the jungle. You could hike a trail almost not noticing anything at all besides just big trees and bird sounds. Or you could hike a trail and be overwhelmed by everything that there is to see—the Azteca ants on the Cecropia tree, the ear fungi on the trees, the colors of the birds, and so much more.

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Strangler fig tree. One of the wonders of nature!

So where exactly in the jungle did we go? We went to a place inside of Napo providence called Arajuno. On our way there from Quito we first passed the continental divide, which is the place in the Andes Mountains that separates the water that goes to the Pacific and the water that makes its way to the Atlantic. Our professor told us that the official beginning of the Amazon was at that spot, which is really interesting because the vegetation was not lush Amazonian jungle, but rather still the highland scrubby grasslands of the “Paramo.” As we worked our way down the eastern slope of the Andes, we passed cloud forests and finally reached our destination, which was at the “foothills” of the Amazon. Elevation is still relatively high there, standing at about 400 m. It was hot there but we were told that our next excursions will be a lot hotter. Bring on the heat!

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Paramo at Continental Divide

There was one particular experience that I had during my time in this area that really stuck out to all of the girls in my group and myself. This experience was very short—just two days and one night—but definitely one of the most unforgettable moments of my life. On Friday we went to visit a small 350 person town called Campococha, which was very close to the river and to the jungle lodge that we were at during the other days. Upon arriving, four families came to pick up two girls each and then took them to their respective homes. Me and my buddy Sara were chosen by the most adorable little girl named Maite. She seemed to be a bit shy, but I knew that within just a couple of hours that she would be playing with me and showing me around. Indeed I was right! The first thing that we did upon getting home was play with the tree swing and then later start a game of soccer with her and the other kids in the neighborhood. Shortly after meeting Maite, I also met her older brothers Robinson (10) and William (13), which were equally sweet and welcoming. I have never known what it is like to have siblings because growing up it was just my mom and I, but if I did have siblings I would want kids like them to play with and learn from. I’m not really sure how much they learned from me because we were there for such a short amount of time, but one thing is for sure—I learned so much from them.

It is really hard to describe in words exactly what I felt when being with them, but most of all I was really affected by their humility. They don’t have much at all; they bathe with a bucket, rake their fields with sticks, and sometimes don’t even have money to buy food. However, they allowed me to play with their soccer ball, had no problem allowing me and Sara to have our own room to sleep in, and always gave us something nicer to eat than they had to eat themselves. They never asked me about my stuff, which has happened to me before in Brazil, and never acted like we were not welcome because we were different. Instead, they asked us if we wanted to help out clearing the cacao field and later the father allowed me to watch as he and his son killed the chicken that we were going to eat for lunch 45 minutes later. Being able to shadow them and on several occasions participate in their daily activities was by far my favorite part of this Amazon trip. It can be so difficult to obtain a local experience as a tourist sometimes. I can’t be sure if the tour guide is trying to tell me what I want to hear and it’s always so frustrating to me when I speak in Spanish and they respond in English. But here my tour guides were the children and they even taught me a bit of Kichwa (used to be Quichua), their indigenous language. They were determined to tell us how it is and I am really happy for that. What is really funny is that once I got back to Quito, I went into a shopping mall to use the restroom before heading home. I’ve never really been into shopping malls, but this time going inside was mostly just really repulsive. Everything that I saw was things and signs telling me to buy these things. The outdoor store didn’t turn me away so much as the furniture store, for example, but it all seemed so foreign to me. Wasn’t I just with a family the day before whose beds and kitchen table were made with their own hands? What did we need the furniture store for? And yet, I have the store bought furniture at my house because I wouldn’t know how to make a bed by myself. These kinds of contradictions really bothered me that day and still continue to make me think about the different ways one can live life. However, one aspect that I am sure of is that the families that we met in Campococha are by far happier than other people who are able to buy these “things.” Their possessions are their fields, their forests, their land. It’s interesting to think that we have digressed so much from this kind of basic lifestyle that experiencing it now seems a bit strange and can even take a long period of adaptation for us outsiders. I loved being able to slow down, take two steps back, and observe what our fundamental needs really are as human beings. And for this reason, the way that they live is not necessarily worse just because they don’t have high speed internet and cable. It’s just different. At Campococha I found uniqueness and ingenuity and I can only hope that they, as well as any other indigenous community in Ecuador, may have the resources and the empowerment to conserve their social identity for generations to come.

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My family!

A short journey to the beach…

April14

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Puerto Lopez, fishing dock

This past weekend I had an amazing time at this small little fishing town called Puerto Lopez. Our whole group decided to take a small trip to the beach and I am so glad that all eight of us decided to go! We decided to keep things pretty simple during the weekend by just visiting a few different beaches and taking advantage of all the surfing, dancing, and swimming activities that come along with a weekend at the beach. But even though we only spent two days there, it feels like it was more than a week.

According to what I gathered from these past few days, Puerto Lopez used to be just a really small fishing town. Overfishing was rampant, which led to high rates of poverty. But one thing saved this town: tourism. Well, specifically whale watching. As soon as fishermen saw that they could make a lot more money by leading whale watching tours, they would convert their boats into little tourism boats and take anyone that wanted to pay money to see the whales mating out in the water. This million dollar industry really helped the town boom and now one can see all sorts of different tourism activities that one could do inaddition to whale watching such as surfing, birdwatching, kayaking, general hiking, etc.

However, with any type of unregulated business such as this one, there is bound to be unwanted consequences. Without regulations for the whalewatching industry, whale watching could be almost as dangerous as whale poaching itself. One has to be really careful about how this tourism is going to work so that the whales may be protected too. Luckily, seeing that it was important to conserve the whales for the sake of the economy of towns such as Puerto Lopez, the Ecuadorian government passed a law in 2007 to ban whaling on its nearshore seas. So ultimately, in this case, tourism did act in the favor of the environmental topic at risk because it brought attention to the topic of the poaching of these whales not only while they were in Ecuador, but also when they swam to other places such as Japan after mating in Ecuador’s waters.

It is really interesting because Ecuador depends in so many different ways on tourism. The tourist provides such a well-distributed source of income for the local population that is hard to beat. And in the case of the whales, tourism has also helped protect the local wildlife. However, for a tourist to arrive to a country it takes fuel and other resources. Tourists will need extra accommodations such as purchasing more bottled water due to their more sensitive stomachs and for this reason, I keep asking myself just how green tourism is. Sometimes I am inclined to think that all the traveling that I am doing in Ecuador must not be too beneficial for the environment, but then I think about the fact that most of the time I take public transportation and I actually am consuming less here than I would be at home. So in some ways maybe it’s actually better that I am in a foreign country? But then again, not all tourists travel so simply. For me, a person who loves to travel and to be a tourist, this is a really interesting topic. I often find myself asking myself: just how eco is eco-tourism? Does it bring more harm than good? The answers to these questions are still unclear to me, but one thing is for sure: based on what I have seen here in Ecuador, tourism is a solid source of income for so many communities, something that can provide people with a means of income without having to exploit their natural resources in ways that they maybe would have had to if it wasn’t for this alternative. Tourism may not be perfect but I believe that it has a lot of potential, potential that we should look into and always try to keep improving!

Ecuador: Land of Contrasts

April6

Just as I was hiking Cotopaxi yesterday, the second largest volcano in Ecuador standing at an amazing 19,348 ft, I wondered how it could be that a glacier could exist in Ecuador. Just last week I was in a cloud forest so how could I be touching ice this week? This kind of contrast was really amazing to me as I admired this majestic volcano. For any of those interested, Ecuador actually has a lot of different volcanoes, some of which are active and others are not. Cotopaxi is what many say the tallest active volcano in the world. I’m not sure if this is true, but it is certainly the tallest active volcano in Ecuador. Without ice climbing gear and a few hundred dollars one cannot climb the glacier to the top, but one can go up to the glacier’s height at almost 16,000 ft., which is officially the highest I have ever climbed in my life (definitely taller than any famous Coloradan 14er peak). In short, Cotopaxi is nothing short of breathtaking. No wonder the indigenous peoples consider it to be a God. Its overarching presence makes everyone look twice.

So glaciers can coexist with Amazonian jungles. Since hiking Cotopaxi yesterday, I have realized that Ecuador has actually perplexed me more than once on the topic of contrasts. It almost seems impossible that Ecuador is one of the poorest countries in the world and yet there are more shopping malls than I can keep track of just in the city of Quito. In this culture it is not approved of to wear clothes that expose too much skin, but yet you see women walking around in the tightest pants that you have ever seen. I fear taking my camera when going out at night or to the historic center so it doesn’t get stolen and yet many times locals will go out of their way to help you out even though they will probably not get anything out of it. There are several hospitals all over Quito, and yet many people still practice traditional medicine, some who even go to the curanderos and shamanes to scare the bad spirits out of their bodies.

What do these contrasts even mean? Are they significant? By seeing them, I have definitely experienced what Gabriel Garcia Marquez describes as magical realism here in Ecuador. Without a doubt, I hope that such magical realisms as the Godly presence of Cotopaxi with all its snow and red color may continue to exist forever.

However, sometimes I cannot be so sure. Ecuador, as many other parts of the world, is currently caught in between its largest contrast: urbanization and growth versus preservation of ancient cultures and the environment.

Ecuador is unique in the sense that because it has never gone through a full industrialization period, it has been able to continue to conserve many of its unique identities until today. There are many communities that are still heavily indigenous such as the Chimborazo province, which is where Chimborazo volcano is located. This is an inactive volcano, but the tallest in Ecuador (20,702ft) and once thought to be the tallest in the world until Mt. Everest was discovered. Kichwa (Quichua) is still spoken among many indigenous populations throughout the country and it actually also makes its appearance in many different ways in Ecuador’s Spanish. And, of course, Ecuador still has some of the most biodiverse regions in the world. The nature of its Andes, Amazon (or Oriente), coast, and Galapagos Islands are incomparable. However, slowly but surely Ecuador is catching up to the consumerism habits of the rest of the world.

Now Ecuador must make some definite decisions. To get out of its poverty does it exploit its rain and cloud forests for petroleum and copper for short-term financial gain or does it keep growing its coffee, producing its artisan crafts, and exporting fruits in the attempt to generate financial income while preserving its unique cultures and environments? I really do believethat Ecuador doesn’t need its glamorous shopping malls and imported cars to consider itself rich in so many ways. I do hope that it may preserve what it has for its future generations, but I know that these kinds of decisions are not so easy. In these next few months I hope to dive deeper into these conflicts in the attempt to better understand not only what Ecuador is going through, but what many other Latin American countries have to consider in this modern age.

View of Cotopaxi Volcano (19,348 ft)                          View from the Volcano of the surrounding area

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