Saturday, April 9, 2011


"No vivo ni en mi pasado ni en mi futuro. Tengo sólo el presente, y eso es lo único que me interesa...La vida será un gran festival, porque ella sólo es el momento que estamos viviendo." - El Alquimista

Today I leave for Cuenca, a city in the south of Ecuador, where I will be doing my independent research project for one month. I will be studying hummingbirds and pollination in Cajas National Park (, which very close to Cuenca and is in the highlands of the Andes (3000 - 4000 meters above sea level!).

Leaving a place I have become so familiar with and have come to love is hard. I have been living with an amazing host family who I am going to miss a lot. They have been so caring and loving and want me to come back to visit someday! Quito has become like a home base during this program. We go out on an excursion for a week and come back for two weeks. I know how to take the buses, what parks are the best to run in, where to get the best ice cream and eat the cheapest lunch. Now that I have become familiar with all of this, it is time to leave.

It always seems that way. Once I get used to something, change happens. It ruins the predictability of life and makes me realize that I am not in control of everything. I am so glad that things are changing once again. I am excited, scared, sad, happy, nostalgic and looking forward to what is to come. I want to live in the present, like Santiago in The Alchemist. And then life will be a grand party where I don't know what will happen next, who I will meet or what I will discover.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Amazon Rainforest

I’ve always wanted to go to the Amazon rainforest and being there really was like a dream come true. It still feels like it was a dream looking back on it. Getting there was like it always is in Ecuador: a lot of waiting a lot of changing plans and a lot of fun! We took a plane to Coca, then a bus to a hotel where our boat was waiting on the Napo River. Then we had to go through a petroleum checkpoint and take an open-air bus for 2 hours to the Tiputini River where we got on a canoe (all 19 of us plus Canadian tourists) and motored down the river to the Tiputini Biodiversity Station. The trip took all day but I’ve been learning that travel always takes longer then you think and that it’s not always pleasant.

But all of the travel was so worth it. I don’t even know if I have sufficient words to describe what the rainforest was like. It was so pristine and hot and humid, but really not that rainy. When it did rain though, it really rained, and without warning. There was wildlife everywhere if you looked for it. Life around every turn. One of the researchers at the station told us that every day in the rainforest is like Christmas because you get a gift. This was so true. Every day we were there (all 7 days) was almost overwhelming because there were so many new sights, sounds, tastes and experiences. I swam in the Tiputini River (a tributary to the Amazon), climbed into a tower in a kapok tree, crossed canopy bridges, saw the sunrise over the canopy, ate an unidentified species of fruit, danced in the rain, learned the names and sounds of birds and learned so much more in one week than I would have learned about the Amazon in an entire semester.

It was so amazing seeing the wildlife too. I saw seven species of monkeys and heard their calls in the forest every day! The squirrel monkeys were my favorite. Three of us stumbled upon a troop of them on a hike and they were so curious about us. The youngest ones came down the trees, still sitting above our heads, and looked right at us, tilting their heads back and forth in confusion.

Also, I got the opportunity to accompany two researchers who are studying the reproductive success of manakins (a type of bird) and the distribution of their leks (the place where they dance to attract the females). We set up mist nets to catch the birds, take blood samples of the manakins, and just measurements of the other birds we caught. It was such a valuable experience to see what a day in the field is like. We had to hike through swamps, climb over fallen trees and slide down clay cliffs to get to all of the nets. It was really intense and I think that in order to do field work you have to be superhuman. The researches seemed to forget about eating and using the bathroom the entire day (5am – 2pm). They were like machines, and it was probably because they are so dedicated to their work and passionate about their study.

I had such an appreciation for field experiments and researchers after that experience. I also fell in love with the Amazon rainforest and would love to return some day. I keep carrying the lessons I have learned and keep seeing every day as a gift. Even if I don’t see an armadillo while on a night hike, or a hoatzin bird on an oxbow lake, I will still look for the gifts in every day, even when I’m in the city.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Mi Barrio (My Neighborhood)

I just came back from a walk in the neighborhood where my host family lives. I wanted to go exploring partly to get out of the house because my host family seems to stay inside playing video games or doing homework or watching TV, and partly because I want to see where I live and get a sense of what it's like here.

I live in a small section of Quito called Kennedy and there's two or three main streets, a few parks and markets and a ton of peluquerias (beauty salons). My host mom, Ximena, works all day as a secretary at a law firm and my host dad, Xavier, is a retired dentist. My oldest host sister, Carolina (25 years old) is studying to be a dentist and just got engaged to her boyfriend on Valentine's Day, the day after I arrived at their house! Nathaly, 20 years old, is a student at a university here studying civil engineering and my host brother, Xavier Antonio (14 years old) is a sophomore in high school and loves to play video games and go on facebook. They're all really nice but they also have their own lives and friends so they usually do things on their own. This means I am left at home a lot to fend for myself. I live next to Claire, one of the other girls in the program so we hang out sometimes.

Today, after I went to church (which was an experience in itself... my ride, a cousin of my host siblings, came about an hour and a half late and we ended up going to a different church than I thought. It was in Spanish and I actually understood all of it!), my host family was busy and so was Claire so I decided to go out on my own. It's very safe here. There's a policeman on about every corner. So I started walking toward the main street and just walked and looked into stores and observed the people. There were crowds of people at the ice cream shop for obvious reasons. I went into a little tienda (store) to buy chocolate and talked with the two old ladies who were sitting gossiping.

I then walked by the fruit market, full of little blue covered stands where people sell all their produce. There is so much delicious fruit here! I eat fresh papaya almost every morning! And fresh fruit juice! Also, I walked by a lot of restaurants, most of which are only open for breakfast and lunch (the two biggest meals of the day here) and saw people eating a typical lunch of soup, rice, beans, plantains and meat. That's pretty much what I have every day for lunch and it is delicious. Then dinner consists of coffee or tea and bread and cheese.

As I walked I came across a park full of kids playing with their parents and siblings and couples napping on the grass together. I sat and ate my chocolates and just watched the people and enjoyed the scenery too. From the park you can see the mountains and the city of Quito sweeping down the slopes. It was a sunny, warm day today and luckily I didn't get caught in any rain, which is very likely to happen here. I sat for a bit and just watched the people play and laugh and enjoy each other. I didn't feel like a gringa for once and I felt like part of the community here. As I continue to live in this neighborhood I hope to build friendships and become part of the community.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Scientific Learnings

This past week we went to a cloud forest in an area called Intag. On the way, we passed rose plantations, which we've been learning about in classes. The rose industry here is huge, but it also uses large amounts of pesticides, which not only affect the rivers and surrounding plants but also the health of the people who work there. We also stopped at the páramo, which is the high grassland ecosystem and learned about how it was formed by human use of fire. Quite interesting after learning about the history of fire in Professor Strick's class.

In the cloud forest we lived on a self-sustaining, organic farm where there were no flushing toilets (only outhouses), no hot showers (the heater was solar powered but it was always cloudy), and no electricity in the cabins. It was amazing hiking through the forest every day, learning names of plant families and getting to see and touch them (taste some of them even). The one morning we went out to find the cock-of-the-rock lek and we found it and got to hear the loud, boisterous squawks of the males and see their bright red feathers. It was kind of hard to see but still absolutely amazing. We also got to do some mist-netting and caught a strong-billed woodcreeper, a green violtear, a russet-crowned warbler and the golden-headed quetzal! It was the first time anyone had caught a quetzal in the nets at this place! It was so gorgeous (attached is the picture). I got to handle to russet-crowned warbler after it was measured.

Also, in Intag, there is a long interesting history of mining companies trying to construct open pit mines in the cloud forest because it is rich in copper. Rather than letting the companies in, the people living here have been putting up a fight and have so far successfully stopped the mining. I have also attached a copy of an article that one of the director's wrote about the mining problems there.

Now I am in Quito, living with a host family and taking classes at el Experimento de Convivencia Internacional. My Spanish is improving and I am hoping to write most of my papers, even the scientific ones, in Spanish.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Orientation Week

I’m in Quito safely and super busy with all the orientation things that my program has for me. It’s been a bit overwhelming with so much information and meeting new friends and already starting two long-term projects. It’s also really different living with “gringos” than living with a family of natives in Guayaquil. It has its ups and downs. At first I was so happy to meet people who speak English as their first language and with whom I could communicate effectively without anything being lost in translation. But now I think I’ve already lost some of my Spanish. Although I did buy “The Alchemist” in Spanish and I’ve been reading that every night and according to my roommates I’ve spoken in Spanish in my sleep the past two nights! So I guess my subconscious still knows it.

I am learning so much already and we’re already getting started on our ecology projects. This first week we’re based at a hostel called Hostal de Maple and it’s a really cool place in the Mariscal area of the city of Quito. Mariscal is the touristy area of the city so it’s kind of hard to find cheap places to eat here. The first day though I went out with my friend and asked an older woman where is a good cheap place to eat and she walked us there! We got a full lunch of soup (with some sort of meat in it), rice, fried plantains and chicken for one dollar and fifty cents.

I’ve enjoyed these past few days of orientation, but right now I just want to get started with the real deal. I’m sick of being with other gringos and I’m sick of being stared at on the street and I want to make friends with natives and get out of my comfort zone. I also am so excited for our trip to the Intag cloud forest this coming week. We’ll be there for the whole week so don’t be surprised if I’m out of touch for a bit.

The city of Quito is absolutely amazing, though we haven’t gotten to spend a lot of time out in the city. You can see the mountains wherever you go and it has been surprisingly dry even though it is the wet season. We’ve gotten lucky and have had amazing views. Especially on our drive up to Yanacocha cloud forest! I forgot my camera… oops! But the views were breathtaking. I’m going to LOVE living here.

Thursday, January 27, 2011


I've been loving it here ever since I got off the plane on Monday night. I feel like family because Luis, the family friend I am staying with, has welcomed me into his family and treats me like one of his grandchildren. Family is so important here in Ecuador. Everywhere we go in the city or the countryside, Luis has family. I still don't know how everyone is related but I really don't think it matters. I am family now too and when I leave Guayaquil for Quito everyone here wants me to come back and visit. I am also already getting better at speaking and understanding Spanish! It's still hard and frustrating at times to try to express myself, but I am embracing the challenge.

The weather here is so hot and humid, but I love it. Everything is so green and when we drove to another city the other day, I was just mesmorized by the plants and birds and mountains that we passed along the way. We passed so many banana plantations and even saw planes fertilizing the plants. I talked with one of Luis' family members about the banana platations and how they affect the local environment. It made me think a lot about eating bananas at home. I actually saw a platation that said it was owned by someone in Pennsylvania and that they ship their bananas there. We also saw gold mines on the mountainside and I heard about how it contaminates the rivers. All the rivers here are so dirty and there is so much litter floating in them. It is interesting because as we drove there were signs that said things like "the earth doesn't have much time. take care of it" and " dont' litter," but right next to one of these signs I saw someone throw three plastic bottles out their car window. Can signs change people's mindsets about the environment? I guess not... So what can? Also, it is interesting that none of the tap water here is drinkable. Everyone buys bottled water.

The culture here is definitely different than in America, and maybe this is part of the reason why there is a different mindset about sanitation and envrinmental protection. I'm learning to just go with the flow and enjoy every moment. Time here is so laid back and even some of Luis' family members have commented on how fast I walk and they have to keep telling me to slow down. So, I'm slowing down my pace of life. Most of the time I don't even know what time it is. And it doesn't matter.

So, as I keep learning to be flexible and blend with the culture, I will keep building relationships with people, with my family here.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


There is a funny little "coincidence" about the title of my blog. I chose "Through the Wilderness" kind of arbitrarily, but then later found a really cool connection. Earlier I had found a prayer in the book "Common Prayer" by Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Enuma Okoro that was a perfect blessing for leaving places and people for a time.

"May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you : wherever he may send you;
may he guide you through the wilderness : protect you through the storm;
may he bring you home rejoicing : at the wonders he has shown you;
may he bring you home rejoicing : once again into our doors."

Maybe it was my subconscious remembering the particular phrase "through the wilderness"  from that prayer earlier, but I think this was a gift from God.