An Ode to Ecuador

This is going to be a blog. Or a love note. Because the world is SO big. I will never know it. All of the photos I see and all the roads I travel and all the faces I encounter have their own story. Spending 6 months in Ecuador is only the tip of the iceberg. I could stay twice as long and still feel like a novice. I met dozens of friends from around the world who touched my heart in different ways and I hardly even know them. And I probably never will. It breaks my heart to part with them, yet I’ve learned so much. I pray that our lives will cross in the future.
Nothing lasts. Change is inevitable. I think that idea is hard to grasp and fully understand the implications, nevertheless it is one lesson I have been forced into learning. Saying goodbye to this life that I have created, so that everything I have been becoming just disperses, might help me come to know and understand what is left that is me. Also, I’m struggling to know how much to let go and what to hold onto. Because while things do change, living a life without any attachment or permanence would be a distant and lonely one.
Living in Ecuador has giving me the humility not only of my undeserved, gross affluence but a glimpse of wealth that dwarfs mine. Living in Ecuador has allowed me to let my hair down and realize my destiny as a free-spirit. Living in Ecuador has shown me that more than ever, that I have no clue what life has in store for me. Living in Ecuador has taught me to keep my eyes down and doubt my trust in people. Living in Ecuador has given me a full appreciation of Latin time that places a greater value on relationships, quality, and going with the flow than punctuality and productivity. Living in Ecuador has planted dreams in my mind that may grow into amazing things. Living in Ecuador has devastated my reputation as a cheap date that gets drunk after 3 drinks. Living in Ecuador has reinforced my desire to be multilingual and demonstrated the value of multilingual communication. Living in Ecuador has forced me to see that I am stronger than I imagined and yet more vulnerable than I was aware. Living in Ecuador has shocked me by how inaccessible the developing world is for people with handicaps. Living in Ecuador has given me the travel bug. Living in Ecuador has made me appreciate the green spaces, clear air, and regulations in the US. Living in Ecuador has made me miss public restrooms, sanitation laws, and clean streets. Living in Ecuador has taught me a new meaning of family that inextricably binds people together from womb to tomb. Living in Ecuador has created space for me to step back and think about life. Living in Ecuador has assured me about certain aspects of myself and put others in doubt. Living in Ecuador has challenged me to stay above the degrading culture of machismo and endless sexual harassment. Living in Ecuador has introduced me to the complexities of what it means to be a developing country. Living in Ecuador has brought me great joy, inner peace and true love.

Living in Ecuador is just the beginning

Alora

Galap

The past week on the Galapagos was a whirlwind. I barely remember leaving the airport seven days ago! I guess my tan and the 500+ pictures that I managed to fit on my iPhone by deleting numerous infrequently used apps will have to serve as mementos to spark my memory.
Based on what I do remember, all in all, I’m very pleased with my activities where Charles Darwin and The Beagle had their ground-breaking adventures almost two centuries ago. I started off with a bit of a hiccup because my insanely cheap ticket ($160) unfortunately put me on the wrong island. I did get to meet up with a friend who is studying in San Cristobal to send her off on her programs’ tour of the islands. Unfortunately, because of their unusually large group, all the boats from San Cristobal to Santa Cruz were full- where I needed to be! Taking a page out of the book of a German friend of mine I thought, what the hell, why not just ask if I can join my friends already oversized group on their journey to Santa Cruz? Low and behold, the asking thing really worked! Not only did I get to hang out with a bunch of cool kids from the GIAS program, bum a free inter- island ride (usually $30), but their boat left an hour early so I even got to join up with my group in Santa Cruz to go to the Charles Darwin Center to see some giant tortoises and iguanas before dinnertime.
After the research center we took matters into our own hands and went looking for German Beach and Las Grietas (crevasses) for some potential cliff jumping. Unfortunately the water was pretty low so we only jumped from halfway up the cliffs, but the water was perfectly clear and all was well. As you might imagine, I considered my first day a success.

We started out the next day on another 2-hour island hopper towards Isla Isabela, the largest of the islands. From there we hopped on a chiva (an open-air bus) to check out a lagoon with some of the few flamingos that have blown over to the Galapagos. Dinner was delicious and we took a bit of a walk on the beach afterwards, although the guide told us that there were sharks at night so we couldn’t go skinny dipping 😦 The night came to a cozy ending with a beer in hand at a bonfire at the hostel across the way from ours where I made friends with Fernanda, a fashion designer from Brasil.
Our third day was dominated by a massive hike in the highlands to the Volcán Sierra Negra. The climate was a confusing mixture of wet/cold and extreme hot/dry. I believe that the walk was 18km (~12miles) round trip over a lava flat, exhausting! Here’s a shout out to my wonderful mother who bought me hiking shoes with a metal rock plate that made the trek infinitely better! The journey was a cruel sort of beautiful and we all came back with gnarly shoulder burns. Despite the high intensity of the hike we still had a full afternoon planned. Possibly my favorite part of the trip: we toured around the bay on Isabela to see the tintoreras (white-finned sharks) and marine iguanas. That was followed by some of the best snorkeling I have ever done. I saw three spotted eagle rays, some other kind of ray, an eel, a sea turtle, parrot fish, urchins, sea cucumbers, and so many other species that I don’t know the names!

Day four we were all exhausted. Luckily we were headed back to Santa Cruz and we got to spend the morning resting before our bay tour. On the tour, we took a small boat and looked at birds along the rocks, including blue-footed boobies, did some first class snorkeling, and attempted to swim with sea lions in the loberia (pretty much a fail that ended with some major scraped knees and sea lions laughing at us from the shore).
Halfway through the week we decided it was time to splurge and take ourselves out for lobster. Four lobster-virgins tried the seasonal rock lobster of the Galapagos at a fancy restaurant called Garrapatas (fleas). They were exceptionally large and even more expensive, so we decided to share two. We also tried some of the best shrimp. Ever. It was cooked with coconut and passion fruit. Yum!
On our fifth day, we adventured inland to visit the twin volcano craters, Los Gemelos. It is shocking how much the climate and vegetation change as you go towards the center of the islands. The coastal zone is mostly rocks and mangroves, the arid zone is all brush, cactus, and succulents. The transition zone. Next up the scalesia zone is very moist and full of lichens and scalesia trees (that’s where the Gemelos were). The last three zones weren’t very clear, and the dominant vegetation found there classifies them. Most of the islands don’t have a high enough altitude for them anyways.

The Gemelos were some pretty awesome collapsed craters. Everything was misty, covered with lichen, and quite chilly. On the way back down, we stopped by a tortoise ranch where giant tortoises hang out so tourists can pass by and pirates won’t pack them on board as nonperishable, low maintenance food stuffs like the used to back in the day. In general the turtles are pretty low key and even boring, but I really love watching them eat! Next we hiked through a lava tunnel (not for the faint of heart or claustrophobic). It was a good way to geek out a bit on geology though. It also went well with our week-long motif of the Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (there were 8 of us, and only one guy)
The afternoon activity didn’t go quite as smoothly, for me at least. We went to Tortuga Bay, the notorious, white sand beach on Santa Cruz. The biggest setback was the weather: pure clouds and wind the whole time! We were shivering on the glistening beach. Besides the weather, I went and got all sorts of sick and I’m honestly surprised that I made it all the way back on the 30-45 minute walk. I barely made it to the hotel, and passed out at 6 pm and slept until 7 am the next day. I definitely had a fever and was tossing and turning all night.
Fortunately, I came around to the land of the living once again by the next morning. This was our last full day without anything planned for the tour (free day) and I decided to check-out one more island. I took an all day tour to Isla Floreana (previously Santa Maria or Charles). I ended up sleeping on the boat ride over there, the chiva up the mountain, on the beach, and finally on the boat ride home. The things that I was awake for included: a tour of another tortoise reserve, a historic site where we learned about the pirates that used to run the island, a bit of snorkeling with a sea turtle, a super cool post office where people can leave post cards for others to pick up an take home to their home country and send, and some penguin sightings along the rocks. Even though no one else from my group came, I had a good time getting to know the Polish/Spanish newlyweds, the old guy from Germany, the two Scotsmen, two fellow Washingtonians, and the journalist from Beijing on my tour.
We ate out on the local vendor street to celebrate our last night on the Galapagos and save what little money we had left. Annie and I bought 2L of sprite and drank almost the whole bottle between the two of us! The street food wasn’t quite the same as the lobster we ate a few nights before but it did the trick. And try as we might, no one had any energy to go out or even hang out upstairs on the terraza because we were all so wiped out from a long, eventful week.
The seventh day, last day, día de salida, was not quite a day of rest. I had to get up nice and early once again to catch my last island hopper back to San Cristobal. A huge pod of dolphins stopped by to send me off and they were jumping all around our boat. On San Cristobal I made a beeline for Playa Mann to catch a few more rays of sun before calling it quits. I was pleasantly surprised by the clear skies and the beach full of playful sea lions. They came so close that they were nipping at my feet in the waves, which was a bit unsettling because I was in their element. Fortunately it was all fun and games and I thoroughly enjoyed my last minutes on the beach. On my way to the airport, I stopped for an obligatory ice cream- my last after a week of snagging sweet treats at every opportunity. Even though my flight was delayed about an hour, all I could think about was how much I wanted to spend just a few more hours on the beach or a few more days in the archipelago. I realize that this might be my only trip to the Galapagos and it sure was amazing, by I also hope that I will come back someday and get to know even more of these lively islands. I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to take this trip- best birthday present ever!

Alora

Work at day, Play all night, and the Most Beautiful Place in the world

Work at day, Play all night, and the Most Beautiful Place in the world

My new host family is a huge improvement from before. They actually eat meals with me, and we discuss things like yoga, religion, travel, and the like. Marta and Jorge are an older couple that were the grandparents of the host family of my friends from the summer (Colleen!).
Another big change is my new job in a café near campus called Bigoté. I only work a few hours a week, but it’s an awesome way to practice my Spanish and try lots of tea, coffee, and smoothies in the process of learning how to be a barista. Not to mention all of my awesome co-workers, especially the bosses, Cody and Andrés, who are the best!
The past two weekends, I hung out here in Quito. At first I was bummed about it, because I had been planning to visit the rainforest and then go to the beach this weekend for my birthday. It turned out that it was for the best: I met an awesome group of friends that I hope to spend more time with, and got in some quality time with the lovely CISabroad intern, Frances, before she went back to the states. I did some real rock climbing with my Andinismo class on a natural rock wall near Cuyuja. Furthermore, I got to know the local Santa Clara market and find miracle cures like Chuchuwaso and Dragon’s Blood. And I went to a BBQ/house party with a mixture of Ecuadorians and exchange students that reminded me of being home in Seattle.
Before all of that, I had one of the most amazing weekends that I have had so far in Ecuador. As part of my surprise birthday present from CISabroad, I spent two full days at the Tiputini Biological Reserve located in the heart of Yasuní National Park. A group of about 20 of us met at the Quito airport early in the morning on Friday, September 20th to start the journey. Our 20 minute flight to Coca was delayed about 2 ½ hours, but the view of the Andes Mountains our the window of the plane was breathtaking. We headed out of Coca (a small town on the edge of the Amazon), in a riverboat for two hours before arriving at the government controlled petroleum checkpoint at the entrance to Yasuní. From there we took 2 more hours on a chiva (open-air bus), and finally another 2-3 hours on a boat in the Tiputini River to reach the remote biological station. The first night was a quiet one, preparing us for the early morning hike on Saturday.
My smaller group went to the lake on our first hike. It was a waterhole, overgrown by wild Amazonian shrubbery and prehistoric birds with clawed wings. Some highlights from our walk back to the reserve were leaf-cutter ants, flowering fungus, trees that ere 500 years young, and a dozing frog or two. After lunch, we ventured over to the hanging bridges munching on leaves that turned our mouths blue, lemon ants that tasted like citric acid, and swinging around the tree houses full of Capuchin and Spider monkeys! That night, we did some late night animal watching on the river. We saw a tapir (the largest animal in the rainforest), caiman, a capybara (world’s largest rodent, which looks like a cross between a pig and a dog), and some birds from the riverboat.
On our second day, we climbed into the lookout treehouse and spent the morning spying on birds and howler monkeys we heard rumbling in the distance. On the way down, I did a mini experiment by dropping an apple 100m to see what would happen: FYI it exploded and turned completely to mush. Somehow our guide tracked down the howler monkeys and we had a small conversation with them. He also told us about a bark that cures arthritis (the guide not the monkey) and an oddly shaped vine called monkey ladder. In the evening, we saw a presentation of all the animals that they have captured on film as part of their photo-capture program at Tiputini. And at the end of our second, and last day, I took a self-guided nighttime tour of the reserve with a few friends (one of which studies entomology) and saw more different spiders (!!!), bugs, and reptiles that I think I have witness in my whole life combined.
We took the reverse trip on Monday back to Quito, with a few main differences:
• I left the reserve with more friends than I started with
• I can confidently name the most beautiful, diverse location I’ve seen
• I got to ride in the bow of the boat on the way back
• And, it rained cats and dogs during the final stretch on the river, giving me a new appreciation of my poncho

The majority of my pictures in the CISabroad folder on Facebook are from my weekend in Tiputini, and they are definitely worth checking out.

Alora