October 5, 2012

My inspiration for climbing Cotopaxi

Climbing the Summit of Cotopaxi Volcano was one of the hardest challenges in my life.  At the top of the mountain I broke down from exhaustion and exhilaration.  All I could think about was the amazing people in my life that had brought me to that point.  I made this video at 19,000 ft elevation in 15F degree weather at 6am after a 8 hour climb to thank the strongest women in my life for their inspiration. I love you!

Click the link to view my video:   Tribute to Mom & Busia

April 15, 2012

On San Cristobal Island

I really missed Easter at home this year.  The Galapagos does not have an Easter Bunny or Easter turtle for that matter.  They do not eat Polish sausage, watch Lily of the Fields, or color Easter eggs.  Good Friday was actually a much bigger event than Easter.  On Friday they invited over all the extended relatives and ate a funny dried fish soup.  It was very salty and not very yummy.  Then they went to church in the evening and had an Easter parade/procession around town.  I tried to get my mom to hang some egg shells on the tree outside our house but she just thought I was crazy... o well...

In other news, I wanted to talk about my host family here in the Galapagos. They are AMAZING.  I have a very big family.  I have a host mom and dad, a 13 year old brother, a 2 year old brother, and a 21 year old sister.  My sister Rosa is engaged and just moved in to the bedrooms downstairs with her fiance and 2 year old daughter, Fina. My little niece, and my 2 year old host brother, Morfin, are very good at waking up early and coming into my room to play... My 13 year brother, Estiven, loves to surf/bogey board at the beach.  He asks me every day to go surfing with him.  My host dad is named Victor just like my real dad.  Victor works in petroleum, but they also have a tourism agency.  My host mom Maria coordinates the tourism agency when she is not working as a high school teacher.  There is also a nice man named Gabriel who lives with us.  He is the best friend of Victor and works on their boat, and helping with the little kids. Below from left to right: (Back row) Sister Rosa, Brother Estiven, Mom Maria, Dad Victor, (front row) Rosa's daughter Fina, Gabriel, and little bro Morfin.

It really impresses me how my host mom runs her company.  She works with a Norwegian travel agency communicating via email to contract tourists.  The most interesting part is that she only speaks Spanish and the company only speaks Norwegian.  The two parties use google translate to translate the messages that they send.  Apparently it works really well, because Maria says they are very reliable, always send the same number of tourists, and pay on time.  Technology really amazes me!

As far as my living situation, I have my own room with a refrigerator, TV, and air conditioning (the best part!).  I think I am the only student in my program that has air conditioning, and it is wonderful!  In general the islands are very poor, the electricity usually goes out once/day and sometimes we don't have fresh water. I am lucky to have a family that has air conditioning and internet access.

I really feel part of the family living with the Changotasigs.  Every weekend they invite me to do something fun with them.  I have been up to their farm in the high lands, out fishing on their boat, and swimming at the beach with them.  I was even invited to be the photographer for Rosa and Javier's wedding ceremony at the municipal building.  However, my favorite thing to do with my family are the walks around town that they take in the evenings.  The two little kids ride their hotwheel tricycles and the dogs come.  We walk down to the pier, visit friends in the town, and stop to buy ice creams.  This is the best time to practice my Spanish, as my host dad always has a lot to ask me.  Also, we always see really cool wildlife, like this one time we saw an entire school of baby sting rays down by the fishing pier.

I wish I had more time to update my blog, but I am staying busy with classes and all the activities there are to do here!  Just last week I was on Santa Cruz island swimming with sharks, climbing volcanoes, visiting giant tortoises, hiking through lava tunnels, and exploring pirate caves!

Miss you guys, wish you were here!

February 28, 2012


To emphasize how truly remote of a location the Tiputini reserve is, I will begin by explaining the process we took to get there.  First we traveled 30 minutes from Quito by plane to a small village named Coca, then we took a 2 hour canoe ride along the Napo River, followed by a 2 hour truck ride through the jungle, and finally another 2 hour ride on the Tiputini river in canoe. Being deep in the Amazon was both a surreal and frightening experience.  During the journey I remember my incredible excitement at seeing a river dolphin, and then soon afterwards seeing a Caiman crocodile and remembering I was hours away from any sort of emergency medical care.  All the travel had tired us out so the remainder of the day of arrival was relatively relaxed.  I spent some time fishing at the pier and wondering in the size of the plants and animals. In particular, the colors of the birds and giant bugs intrigued me the most.

The next morning was when things really began.  We dove right into the jungle with a hike through the forest to the canopy bridges.  The canopy bridges are a special system of trees where researchers can climb several stories off the ground to system of 5 raised platforms connected by rope bridges.  Researchers use the bridges to observe life that does not touch the jungle floor. I have been in sky scrapers and gone zip lining before, but this was a new high altitude experience unlike any I had experienced.  The trees where the platforms were constructed were gigantic!  Literally, nature made sky scrapers of tremendous strength.  Up in the canopy, was an entirely different living world from what was below.  I saw flowers, birds, monkeys, exotic fruits, and insects.  What really impressed me were the small organism like lizards and ants that were somehow living 200 feet above the ground.  It made me think that, more than likely, these lifeforms had been born above and probably never touched the earth below.

Later in the day, we got to go to the bird watching tower, an even taller and more gigantic observation center.  My first observance, incredibly funny but also a reminder our isolated position in the forest, was that one of the workers of the camp had climbed the more than 12 flights of stairs to get to the top of the tower, and then climbed even further up the tree to make a cell phone call.  This natural cell tower served as the only place workers could use to get a message to their family.  My next experience was an awakening to the jungle.  Initially, I used my binoculars without much success.  I could hear plenty of birds and rustling of tress branches but was disappointed that the animals did not just jump out and show themselves.  However, our professor Dr. Andres Leon, is a professional bird watcher, and taught us where to look for birds on the tall branches and how to distinguish their calls. Rapidly the entire scene changed.  My newly trained eyes and ears began to see wildlife everywhere.  We could not go more than 30 seconds without spotting a new bird.  I saw things I had never seen before like the deep red squirrel cockoo, black fronted nunbird, yellow tailed macaws, and plenty more. Then after about an hour, the real treat came! An entire family of over 30 wholly monkeys began to course through the trees below us as they traveled through the tall branches below us.  It was incredible to see the different sizes, the mothers carrying their young on their backs, one monkey even stretched from one branch to another and allowed a smaller monkey to scurry across his back like a living bridge.

Later that night we heard an excellent presentation about the Camera Trap project that has helped fund the reserve.  The project has been going on for over 10 years and consists of several heat and motion sensing cameras placed on trails around the station to catch glimpses of rare animals.  The station manager Diego, gave us a very informative presentation showing us pictures of large mammals such as peccary, sloths, jaguars, and other mammals that had been caught on film.  This project is extremely valuable to the Tiputini biodiversity station because they have been able to identify new species, and capture never before photographed animals on film.  This has helped to the success of the station and provided sources of funding for Tiputini.

The third day is when we really got to work.  We broke into two groups and each took separate trails around the station in search of animal tracks.  When we found good mammal tracks we worked to identify them, take pictures, and then set up a quadrant around the tracks.  The quadrant was a 1m x 1m square marked by red tape.   After setting up 10 of these quadrants, we continued to the Tiputini lake for a gorgeous canoe ride.  The lake was bursting with wildlife.  I saw turtles sleeping on logs in the sun, a caiman hiding in the reeves, an entire bush of yellow rumped caciques, and these gigantic turkey birds.  My favorite by far were the animated yellow rumped caciques.  There were dozens of them flying about in a very busy manner.  Also, they had the most interesting nests.   The nest was made of twigs and branches but had the shape of a tear drop that hung from low branches, and there were lots of them, almost like a group of condominiums.

Later that afternoon we did our bird census along the river.  We tried to count and identify as many birds as possible in five 100m sectors.  This is where I really learned that you can totally miss all the wildlife around you if you are not trained to look for it.  I learned that small birds like sandpipers tend to hop along the sandy river banks, large birds like hawks prefer to circle above in the clear blue sky, and medium birds like flycatchers enjoy darting between the tall tree branches.

The best part of that day was floating down the river in my bathing suit and life jacket.   This experience let me observe nature while being inside it.  The experience was surreal laying back and looking at rainbow macaws fly overhead, and hearing monkeys call through the trees, all while knowing that piranhas and caimans were swimming in the same water.  There is no way I could have been more one with the Amazon if I had tried.  Later that evening we had an informative lecture on bats.  We learned that not all bats sleep in caves, some sleep under leaves, or in the cover of bromelias.  I also learned the different types including insect eater, nectar drinker, seed eater, fish eating, and blood sucking bats.  Fun fact: the largest bat in the world has a wing span of 1m and can be found  in the forest around Tiputini!

The following day we retraced our steps to observe new mammal tracks in our quadrants.  Also, we took some time to learn how to survive in the jungle.  Our guides showed us how to make animal traps from vines, and build shelters from palms.  Additionally, we learned to identify trees capable of healing stomach illnesses and arthritis pain.  The afternoon consisted of another bird census upstream, another river float.  We stopped at a special point in the river where the black water stream meets the sandy Tiputini river.  This was really cool to see because there was a visible different between the clear darker water flowing into the larger faster river.  Also, we were blessed with an incredible surprise.  As soon as we stopped the boat, someone spotted a very rare turtle.  

This turtle is called the matamata, and looks like it is from the prehistoric age.  It has a triangular head and tiny tiny beady black eyes.  He was very vicious and would swing his long neck around wildly trying to snap at your hand.  After taking a million pictures, we released the turtle and began fishing for piranha.  The first thing we did was catch a small fish with a piece of bread to use as bate for the larger piranhas.  Another interesting factoid: yes piranhas eat meat, but they prefer smaller fish and are generally afraid of large animals; it would be unlikely for them to eat a human unless there was absolutely no other food sources around.

The journey back to civilization was a long one but came with surprises.  First off we got to see an amazing water snake during our canoe ride back to Coca.  Next we had some time to explore Coca before our plane left.  This is where the environmental issues really exposed themselves.  As we stepped off the boat we entered the courtyard of a hotel that used wild animals as tourist attractions.  There were peacocks walking around freely, then toucans and parrots in cages, and squirrel monkeys scurrying about the tables in the restaurant.  All of these animals were beautiful to see and adorable to play with, but it reminded me that they would never be able to be released again into the wild or reproduce in their current setting.  Furthermore, seeing the endangered Tarsier monkey among the caged animals, reminded me of my professors words, "Exotic animal trafficking is the most lucrative business in Latin America behind drug and weapons selling."

Walking around downtown Coca we saw other instances of wildlife being sold.  In the market there were fresh piranhas in buckets, small monkeys, and rabbits in cages being sold for food.  We also entered a handicraft store that was filled with jewelry made from bird feathers.  All of these animals come straight from the jungle, none are farmed.  The people that live in Coca and the nearby Pompeya market, where wild meat selling is increasing in popularity, have always used the jungle as their resource for survival.  In class, we learned that the recent increase in wildmeat use and animal trafficking has grown with the presence of the oil companies drilling deep in the jungle.  The new roads constructed by the oil companies provide access deep into areas of the jungle that were previously untouched.  Also, these companies provide technology and transportation that enable the local people to remove wildlife more easily from the Amazon.

Conflict has emerged between Ecuadorian officials and the locals in these towns.  The government has put in regulation to stop people from selling wild animals on the streets of the Coca market, but the police are afraid to enforce these laws.  First off many of the police are locals that come from these indigenous families that have been living in the region for decades.  These people are afraid to castigate their friends and family members who use the forest to make their living.  Furthermore, there were instances of police officers that actually did try to enforce these laws, and their families were attacked in the night in their homes by angry locals.  The local people were outraged that anyone would try to take away their means of living, when they have survived off of the jungle and its resources for generations. Thus the conflict continues to exist, and in Coca the rain forest continues to be exploited for wild animals, food, and oil with irreversible consequences.

 A final note in relation  the data that we collected at Tiputini.  When we returned to Quito we performed an analysis on our data to determine relative species abundance in these areas.  What we learned was that the areas we surveyed in Tiputini are rich in biodiversity.  However, in comparing the birds we saw in our census and the feathers seen in the Coca market it is clear that some of the lesser bird populations are being exploited by humans.  The question remains how to regulate using wildlife as a resource?

Specifically, what is the sustainable use of wildlife as a resource?  And is it justifiable to tell indigenous groups that have been hunting on these lands for generations to stop utilizing wildlife, when for many this resource is their only source of protein to eat, or only way to earn income for their families?

Here is a link to the papers that I read in class that provide insight to this topic:


November 7, 2011

Pictures posted!

Hey guys I posted pictures from my trip to Cotapaxi Mountain, Harry Potter Halloween at USFQ and my Fall break trip to: Cuenca, Guayquil, Montañita, and Puerto Lopez.  Check them out in the Gallery!

October 27, 2011

Celebrating Halloween today at USFQ!

 The school has been transformed into Hogwarts school of witchcraft and wizardry! Quidditch tournament today @ 12! lol
Events of the day:

1.     Laguna -11h30: inauguración campal: música, incantaciones, agenda, desfile de unicornios, presentación de reglas para concursar por la Copa USFQ por Colegios
2.    Cancha de futbol -12h00: Inicio torneo de Quidditch.
3.    Hall Principal -12h30: Exhibición de magia Hall principal
4.    Plaza D. Vinci -13h00: concurso de disfraces y premiación
5.    Cafetería -13h30: cocina ,magia,menú Hogwarts
6.    Teatro Calderón de la Barca -14h30: concurso de Trivia
7.    Hall Principal -15h30: premios y exhibición de trabajos participantes en el concurso de Ilustración y en el de Fan Fiction “Harry Potter en el Ecuador”
8.    16h00- Finales Quidditch, entrega de la Copa USFQ al Colegio Ganador
Cada actividad de la jornada entrega puntos.

October 8, 2011

American industries you wouldn't expect to find in Ecuador:

I have seen each one of these stores here, some may surprise you:

Papa John's
Pizza Hut
Radio Shack
Burger King
Forever 21
Victoria Secret