My time in Ecuador has clearly shaped me in ways that i was never expecting. Unfortunately these changes are nearly imperceptible and, even if i could put them into words, they are too complex to explain in my entire blogging experience, let alone this final post. Instead, if you are finding this, I suggest you start at the beginning and read through my experiences in Ecuador; even if changes aren’t obvious, you still get to read about the dog that lived through a washing machine and an encounter with “wild pigs”. Really you win either way.
Regardless, this is likely my last post on this blog - maybe in the future i will be inspired to reflect publicly on my time abroad and use concrete examples from the states, but who knows. Until then, thank you for reading this and making this experience all the better.
Tambien, mil gracias a la gente Ecuatoriana por todo su apoyo, hospitalidad, y ayuda durante el semestre pasado. Nunca voy a olvidarla.
Jumping off and Diving In
You find yourself standing on the high-dive looking down on the glassy water of the local YMCA pool. You notice the way that the water messes with the lines on the bottom of the pool and as you stare at these black lane markers you can’t help think to yourself, “What the fuck am I doing so high up? How the hell did I think this was a good idea?” Of course these second thoughts are tempered by the joy you know plunging into the water will bring you. It’s your first time on the high dive, but you have seen other people do it before and you’ve heard it’s the best experience at the pool.
So you jump.
In your brief moment of free fall a sense of wonder comes over you, “This is actually happening; I’m doing it.” You have only a short amount of time to feel proud of your courage to take the dive until you land in the water with a splash. It’s much colder than you were expecting and it exhilarates you. The sudden change in temperature slows everything down – you feel the embrace of the water around you, you taste the chlorine that they’ve just added, you can hear a faint crackle in the water like static on a radio, in front of you is a wall of blue that seems endless. As you breach the surface you’re able to assess your situation: you’re cold, uncomfortable, and wishing you were out of the pool on a lawn chair watching as other, more capable individuals jump off the diving board. But no, you told yourself that you would stay in the water, and, as cold as you are, stubbornness wins out. Soon you become accustomed to the frigid waters and it becomes almost a second skin; you don’t mind that you’re covered in goosebumps as it only adds to the sensation. You grow used to the dryness in your mouth and chemical taste from the treated water. But, soon, it becomes too much and your fingers and toes begin to prune. Not to the point of pain, but you know if you don’t get out soon, it’ll start to hurt.
As you swim over to the ladder, you dip underwater one more time to extend the experience as much as possible. Sunlight streams through the surface and dissipates underneath creating an ethereal effect. You had jumped expecting it to be an open-and-shut case: “I wonder what this feels like…oh like that. Well, that’s nice.” You weren’t expecting that, in these final moments, you would be thinking of ways to not only jump again, but in different ways – spinning, flipping, or, better yet, jumping off a different board.
You make it to the ladder and slowly you hoist yourself out of the blue water and as you dry off, wiping away the remnants of your time in the pool, adrenaline is still coursing through your body. The memory of the jump, the unexpected cold, the acclimatization, all becoming stored in your mind; vestiges that you can bring back whenever you want to. You look around and see people lounging, some aren’t paying attention, but others have seen you jump and look at you wide-eyed and in awe. They ask you, “How was it? Were you scared? Why’d you do it?” and you try your best to think of an answer to describe the immense amount of joy, frustration, fear, elation, awkwardness, humbleness, self-discovery, stressfulness foreignness, isolation, togetherness, anxiousness, contempt, contentedness, and wonder that you just went through. Instead you answer with a short response, “Oh, it was great! You should really try it if you get a chance.” As the swimmers leave and the pool closes, you realize that now, more than ever before, you feel alive.
The birds are dead, and we have it on tape!
The reserve I’m living on attracts a lot of research projects because it is super biodiverse and has a few endemic species. One of those species is the El Oro Parakeet named for the province, and a researcher from a German university has an ongoing, long-term project that involves artificial nest boxes, genetic sampling, video monitoring, and population studies with these birds in the reserve. A group of 2-3 German students come every year for a few months to collect more data about this rare and esoteric species. They don’t live in the same lodge that I do, but they visit every week to do laundry and check email and what have you; i’ve seen them a couple of times and would have conversations with one of the girls about the study and her past travels.
Before coming to Ecuador she spent quite a bit of time in South Africa living in the bush and doing field studies there about elephant populations. She’s been at the reserve for a little more than 2 months and from her I’ve learned the following:
- The parakeets practice infanticide (parents killing their chicks in a shortage of resources)
- Snakes can climb up and into the artificial nest boxes and eat the parakeets
- The videos from the artificial nest boxes have very good quality such that you can watch the infanticide and snake attack
- White rhinos and Black rhinos get their name from a mix-up in translations. White rhinos have a wider mouth whereas their counterparts have a more beak-like mouth. In Afrikaans the word for wide sounds like white and the word of beak sounds like black
- If living in the African bush you should NEVER make chase with a hyena; unless, of course, it has taken your “bucket of hot chocolate”
- While camping in the African bush for months, you end up getting used to (and, to a certain extent, enjoying) the sounds of lions, hippos, and rhinos strolling around your tent after dark.
- If living in a small African hut and you are visited by an elephant that is trampling everything in its path, then it’s best to stay inside; unless, of course, said elephant is heading straight towards your recently repaired septic tank.
- If you can’t tell the difference between hyenas and wild dogs, then you are stupid
I have a feeling that none of these facts will ever come in handy as if I do end up being in the African bush it will be on a Safari truck and there’s no chance i’ll be getting off of it…
As I’m writing this I’m afraid that she’ll find the blog for two reasons, (1) then it’s the whole awkward thing of me writing about her without her knowing, but more importantly (2) she’ll read about my “pig” encounter and will likely, and rightly, judge the shit out of me. Regardless, watch out for those elephants!
Mi Companera Chiquita
remember her? she’s Elmyra Duff the character from Tiny Toons that LOVED animals, but a little too much as her hugs were like vice grips. Of course she has only the best of intentions, but she can’t hold back her love.
Basically I’m living with the Ecuadorian version of the character. Her name, here, is Diana Carolina and she’s three. On the reserve we have a little pet named Timu, Timu is a coati, basically a small, slender raccoon found in the Andes (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coati). Diana loves Timu. Diana will run to Timu and grab him by the stomach to carry him around, much to Timu’s dismay. Also whenever Diana sees other coati or agouti (medium equatorial rodent, a little taller than your average shih tzu) she will run to it yelling, “Mi chiquitachiquitachiquita!!!! Holaholaholalalalala!!!!” of course the animal runs away; hell I’d run away from that…but she is SO sweet and loves to play.
Timu on the lookout for Diana Carolina
She has a seemingly endless store of energy and is always ready to be chased, picked up, spun around, or tossed in the air. I thought this would be fun, so on the first day I played with her for a little, and the next, and the next. it seems that this is going to become a trend, which should be super fun as long as I don’t get too too exhausted….here’s hoping
On my own!
After a 14 hour bus ride and 2 hours of waiting for the road to clear from a recent landslide, i arrived at Buenaventura nature reserve in southern Ecuador yesterday afternoon. The people here are super nice and it’s absolutely gorgeous, and even though it’s considered a cloud forest (which is typically overcast and rainy all the time), it’s a lower cloud forest meaning that it’s been super sunny and had a little bit of rain each day. But it’s just as diverse (if not more so) than the other cloud forest. Anyway it’s beautiful. I’m living in staff quarters of the lodge here and in the sitting area they have 4 feeders for hummingbirds and there are so many birds at each feeder. The lodge is basically a large deck with a concrete building attached. The deck looks out on to a mountainside covered in lush trees and vegetation. During clear parts of the day you can see three different peaks, but as soon as it starts to rain a cloud covers the top making it feel as though you’re in the bottom of a crater. It’s something else and really interesting. Also to give an idea of the animals here, today i saw two small mammals, a thousand hummingbirds, a toucan, some weird looking chicken thing, and nearly a dozen frogs.
I’m in my own room but share the lodge with 2 guards, one of guard’s wife, their 3-year-old kid. Also until thursday there are two people from the foundation making an inventory of the reserve and tomorrow there’s supposedly a group of tourists coming by. Also in and out is the park administrator who is SO funny - you only need to do something slightly showy and he’s on you with a quick one-liner. The mix of people and scenery it’s shaping up to be a great month.
Just some small background info, SIT (the “school” behind all of these abroad programs) has a thing called Independent Study Projects (ISPs). In each country, foundations and people give the academic directors lists of possible projects that need to be done. Students then pick their favorite and do it up for their last month. My project is about insect diversity in a nature reserve and each night i set up light traps to observe and measure the diversity and richness at different parts of the reserve. If i get any cool pictures they’ll end up here!
Dog in the washing machine
Yesterday at breakfast my host mom Tamy got a phone call from her dad and this is what I could overhear:
Tamy: Hello, Dad, how are you? We’re fine, thanks….Uh-huh….yea…well, Dad, we don’t really know what happened…she was just sitting there, in the washing machine…she’s ok, luckily, but we have no idea how Sasha [the family’s shih tzu] got in there…Uh-huh…yea see you later.
It took me a couple of minutes to (1) trust my Spanish as normally “sasha the dog” and “washing machine” aren’t in the same sentence and (2) begin to see the implications: Did they find Sasha before or after they washed their clothes? How did the dog get into the washing machine? Was she hanging out on the lid and the wind pushed her in, as my host brother contends? Or was Tamy too lazy to wash her properly, as my host sister suggests? Whatever the reason the dog was hanging out in the washing machine.
This is probably my last post in Quito until the month of May, and that’s bizarre. I’m leaving tonight on a bus to the city of Pinas to start my ISP (more on what that is later). Yesterday was my last full day with my host family and it was super surreal; my little brother and I went to see the Lorax (which heavily advertises the fact that it has Danny DeVito’s voice despite the fact that it’s dubbed over in Spanish…), then we all sort of hung out at the mall. It was really nice to just sit with them and not have anywhere to go. When we got back I was sitting in the kitchen and my eye caught the calendar that hangs there; it’s one of those that has an entire month, but extra days at the bottom that spills into the following. That is to say that their calendar has all of April in bold, but it extends until May 12. May 12. The day that I leave Ecuador. It was SO bizarre to see where we were in the month and then, a short 35 days later, the day that my semester ends.
My time in Ecuador has already taught me an immense amount about a million different themes (nature, human nature, greed, rich and poor, conservation efforts, family, myself, spanish, culture, ecology, field studies, science, food, drink, lunches, soup, oreos, jokes, pains, struggles, triumphs, “the genetic lottery”, evolution, biology, history, economics, and the list goes on). It feels like i just got off of the plane in Quito and was ushered over to Sylvia for the first time wondering how this semester is going to turn out. I just can’t believe that the past two months have passed so rapidly.
Anyway i think i’m rambling now. In a couple of hours we’re heading to my grandmothers for my final lunch and shortly after that I board the bus that will take me to a new place. As usual, I have no idea what to expect, but here’s hoping the next month is as good as the past two!
UPDATE: The dog was definitely in the washing machine while it was doing it’s thing.
UPDATE: Danny DeVito apparently recorded his voice in a number of languages including Spanish. So the ads were right….whoops, sorry ecuador
Cook Out and Crabs - Ecuadorian Style
This past weekend my family and i had SO much food. starting saturday with a front-lawn grill out. In my head, when i think about a grill-out i imagine a astroturf-covered wooden deck in the summer overlooking a large pool and even larger back yard. I’m there with friends and family and we’re draped in towels trying, desperately, to not get our hamburger buns wet. This is not the same kind of grill out.
Where we used to use a propane grill to cook, my family has a charcoal grill. “But hey,” a reader might interject, “i know plenty of people that use charcoal grills instead of propane.” Though this is true, it is only the tip of the iceberg of differences. When using a charcoal grill people normally opt for either lighter fluid or use a “chimney” to heat the coals in the bed of the grill. Ecuadorians, or at least my family, would rather put three charcoal bricks directly on their stovetop and then spread the heat around with a vacuum cleaner set on reverse. Also where you might expect a burger of ground beef, salt and pepper, and (with luck) blue cheese in the states, here you get a burger with garlic powder, cilantro, ajiote (an ecuadorian spice), and breadcrumbs mixed in with the beef. One similarity, however, is that every burger is better with bacon; a point that the Ecuadorians have learned with ease. Though we made upwards of 12-15 burgers for 8 people, there were still many, uncooked patties remaining - here’s hoping that bbq take two happens soon.
The next day, Sunday, we went over to my host mother’s parents’ apartment. This is a weekly tradition that I’ve grown to enjoy. Normally we’ll leave around 1, stay for lunch, watch a few movies, have a light dinner, then head home. This week we left a little earlier in order to, as i soon learned, to pick up crabs. Now i’ve never bought live crabs back in the states but I imagine that they don’t come ten to a bunch, hanging off of a tied piece of twine, just barely living. Nor do i imagine that you buy them for $5 out of the bed of some man’s pickup truck on the side of a major roadway. Anyway, we get to the grandparents’ apartment and immediately the smell of cumin is saturated in the air (for me a welcome sign as cumin is one of my favorite smells in the kitchen). We make it to the kitchen where my aunt is cleaning crabs with a toothbrush over the sink and my cousin is trying to keep the lids on boiling pots as crabs are trying to escape. We put our bunch of crabs on the table and wait until Sol (my aunt) is done cleaning the crabs she’s working on now. Sol finishes up her group, but instead of taking our string of crabs, she reaches into another bag on the floor and pulls out a different group. She breezes through those and I’m about to pass her the bundle that my family had brought, but before i can she has yet ANOTHER string out and ready to go. By the end of it all we had upwards of 40 crabs cooking for 8 people. That seems like a lot to me, as i was only able to eat 2 crabs before reaching my limit. in contrast, my host mom ate 6. Happy Palm Sunday!
On a more general note - our program is in its last week of classes and this weekend we all leave to perform our independent projects in different parts of the country. I’m going to the southern portion of Ecuador to a nature reserve and I’m going to see if the lighting system there has any effect on insect richness or diversity. It’s crazy to think that its already april and that there’s only a month and a half left of the program. the time has gone by so fast, and i’m sure the next month is only going to be faster. also can not believe that i’m this close to leaving my homestay family which is making me more sad than i was expecting. The past weekend was super fun and tonight we may be going to a symphony concert; i think this week is going to (1) go by so quickly and (2) be a whirlwind of emotions. regardless, really looking forward to ISP and seeing what the week has in store.