Sunday, July 8, 2012

Volcanoes and Sea Turtles

Well, here it is, the final blog.

I've decided to wait to cover our last couple of days in the Islands. On Isabella, we took an entire day to explore.

We woke early, breakfast at 6:30, and set out to climb 9 kilometers (there and back) to the apex of the second largest active volcano in the world. It was cold as we made our way up, wet, and muddy. As we neared the top, however, the clouds gave way and the sun began to come out, and the equatorial heat was back. From the rim, we looked out at the vast expanse of charred nothingness, seemingly endless—we couldn't even see the other side because of the low-hanging clouds over the islands. Toward the top, there was a cadre of horses, and Colleen, our resident cowgirl, gave rides to equestrian newcomers.

The way back down was quicker and even dirtier; Connor got his shoe stuck in the mud. After, we returned to the hotel, changed, and set out for an island filled with marine iguanas, the surface of which looked something like that of the asteroid Bruce Willis attempts to drill in Armageddon.

But the best part was what came next; we took the boats back into the cove, and, as we had many times before, put on our snorkeling gear and dropped into the water. After climbing over a couple rocks, we entered a tidal cove, and saw sea anemonies, penguins, and a huge sea turtle (he or she must have weighed 300 pounds). I swam down under it, around it, and could not believe just how absurd and incredible the entire experience was.

I'm so thankful we had the opportunity to go on this trip—until next time!

Joseph Gruenbaum

Thursday, June 28, 2012

What a Trip

Right now as I type from Floreana, the least populated of the habited Galapagos Islands, I realize just how rare the opportunity I’m enjoying is. Being surrounded by nature like I am now, while taking classes which try to aggregate the problems created by humans, I find myself in a freakish contradiction. For every fantastic story I can tell you about Galapagos, there is an equally depressing fact about the world that I have learned in the course. The mix of vitality from the atmosphere is stopped for about two hours of class while the discussion accentuates my cynicism which had already been growing after a year of college.
The clash that has stereotypically pinned class and the outside world has been especially true on this trip. Down here, when breakfast is at 7, you’re waking up early no questions asked. Since I already consider myself a professional procrastinator, the pristine beauty of this place after dark is detrimental for my habit of working after hours. A great highlight of this beauty was two nights ago. My good pal Phil and I walked up a road outside the town’s lights where the clear sky was only illuminated by the moon and stars. We then walked to the pier where we saw a school of sting ray in attack mode against some guppies. From here, I could notice the life surrounding me in a way that I never got growing up in a city. The moon soon set afterwards, ominous and red. I can’t give justice to how cool that was in words, just trust me. We then went back up the hill where there were now only the stars. Not knowing the next time I could see something like this, I didn’t care that this star gazing was in a gravel road and breakfast was in seven hours.
                Classes are different. Each time that our cohort gathers together for discussion, we tackle a world problem which tends to be insurmountable in terms of being changed. The end message tends to be that if we change our behavior in a few ways, our tragic fate could be avoided. But the complexities of the world and its consistent tendency toward irresponsibility lead us, or at least me, to pessimism. In this course, I’ve become more aware of loopholes that people, corporations, and governments use to disregard the environment. When the message of one of our major readings is that we already lost the fight to save the biodiversity in our planet, it gets to you.
                In this class, we get exposed to the state of the real world in a place where you have to step over sea lions.  Seriously, Nicholson? Oh yeah, not to mention that Lonesome George just died two days after we visited him. Witnessing an extinction in this course was especially intriguing. In the end, I’m grateful for the multi-dimensionality of the course because it shows that perhaps our problems and our dealings with them are not mutually exclusive. 
Sea Lions have become a personal favorite of mine (Conor's Photo)

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Beautiful Floreana

Floreana was amazing. It’s what you picture when you think of a small beach town in the middle of nowhere. And in fact, that’s exactly what it was, a small beach town on an island with only 128 people. I can’t imagine a more peaceful place. It was perfect. I will always think of that island as paradise. The first day we saw giant land tortoises, rode on the top of a van, took a hike, and watched the sun set on a black sand beach. I couldn’t have asked for more out of that day. Our second day on Floreana was equally full and enjoyable.
            We started our second day on Floreana by going to the school. When we got there it was recess time so we joined the kids in their games. We played soccer and volleyball. And I played on a seesaw with a little girl. Then a couple of the other girls joined me playing on a piece of play equipment that was similar in concept to the merry-go-rounds that some people sat on while others ran to spin them. Unfortunately, before long, recess was over and it was time to go to class. I still think that recess is the best part of any school day. I miss recess.
            The children split into their three classes that were determined by age group. We divided into our three project groups who had all developed lesson plans for the students. My group made a lesson plan about water, it’s importance, and how the water cycle works. We tailored our lesson plan differently towards the different age groups. With the younger kids we did some interactive activities that allowed them to move around while learning about the different forms that water comes in. With the middle aged kids we had a more straight forward and basic lesson about the water cycle. And with the older kids we had an interactive conversation in which we discussed the water situation on the islands. After talking to all of the age groups we left them to continue the regular studies and challenged them to a soccer game later that evening.
            After lunch and a class with our professor we were on to our next adventure: snorkeling. We had to walk about one kilometer to get to the cove that was a good place to begin snorkeling from. It was a really rocky beach, but we weren’t there to sunbathe so it didn’t matter. While snorkeling we saw a lot of fish (a few that looked like Dorey) and a good number of sea turtles. A couple of people and I followed a sea turtle relatively far into the ocean. It was a tough swim back, but following the turtle was mesmerizing and entirely worth it. Once we were back to shore there were three sea lions playing in the cove that we were swimming out of. It was breathtaking how close they got to us.
            By the time that we were done swimming it was time for our soccer match with the school kids. It was all of us against the kids, aged about 5 to 16. Everyone got super into the game. And it was neat because a handful of people from the town came to watch us play. The game was close, and for a while it looked like we were going to win. Ultimately the kids beat us, by a lot. It was not for a lack of effort on our part.
            We separated from the kids to go to dinner, but we invited some of the older kids to join us for our bonfire that evening. After dinner we went back to the black sand beach where we went on our first night to watch the sun set, but this time it was to make a bonfire. There was initially some difficulty getting the fire started, but Phil saved the day and got the fire going. While the bonfire burned, we took the time to look at the stars. It was amazing how many of them that we could see. Whitman pointed out a number of the constellations that we can’t see from the northern hemisphere. Santos, a guy who lives on Floreana, told me that we were only seeing a portion of the number of stars that we would otherwise get to see, because the moon was so bright. We should have been waiting for the sun to set. As the night was coming to a close some of the Global Scholars took a starlight swim. The local boys who came to the bonfire called them “crazy” because the water was so cold, since it is winter in the Galapagos. Those who swam didn’t seem to mind and had a good time.
            It was an incredible day.
(Expect an update with photos)

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Follow the Food Trail

This morning started off with a water taxi ride around the harbor and an eventual stop at another point on the island. From there, we began our journey on foot over more rocks than I have seen in a while in order to find our snorkel location. It felt like we would never reach our destination, as most of us were wearing flip flops and attempting to do some hiking. After about twenty minutes, we reached the top of a rocky cliff and when we looked down, we saw our snorkeling venue. The giant walls of rock had created a perfect corridor that could fit a number of snorkelers through at once. The water was a bit murky, though still blue, but we were still able to see some big fish swimming around below us.
After a morning of snorkeling and a quick ceviche for lunch, Professor Nicholson began our lesson on commodity chains and a short history of agriculture. For starters, society has changed from a system of hunters and gatherers to industrial farming, which uses advanced tools and genetically modified seeds and organisms. Also, the process by which our food becomes available to us leaves a large carbon footprint when the factors of transportation, farming and cooking are considered. To help us understand these commodity chains, Professor Nicholson divided the class into four groups and assigned each group one meal that we had eaten previously on Santa Cruz. We then had to trace the origins of each ingredient until we could not go further back. My group was charged with finding the origins of a hamburger that was previously served to us. The ingredients that we traced were the meat, a slice of ham, the bun, lettuce, tomato, cheese, potatoes, bananas and chocolate sauce, which were part of dessert that day.
The first thing we did was visit the restaurant where we had eaten the hamburgers. We talked to the owner of El Chocolate and asked her where the produce and meat had come from. She told us that the meat, lettuce, tomato, banana, some potatoes, eggs and cream were from the highlands of Santa Cruz. Other ingredients, like the ham, some potatoes and oil were imported from the mainland. We were told that the ham was from Guayaquil, Ecuador and were given the names of the farms that supplied the restaurant with ingredients.
After taking a short gelato break to regroup, we decided to try to calculate the carbon footprint of eating this hamburger. Little did we know that a lot more goes into eating a simple hamburger. First, we had to take into account the transportation used to get the ingredients to the restaurant. The transportation can include trucks, ships or planes, and the amount of carbon dioxide released depends on the weight of the items being shipped plus the distance between the start and end points. In general, 10 grams of CO2 are produced for every one ton carried over one kilometer. A number of ingredients came from Guayaquil, so the distance from Guayaquil to the restaurant in Puerto Ayora is about 1167 kilometers.
Also, we had to calculate the transportation we used to get to the restaurant, though it does not just stop at walking. Instead, we calculated our carbon footprint coming from the United States to the Galapagos Islands. We started in Miami, where many people had connecting flights to San José, and included our stops in San José, Quito, Guayaquil and finally, Puerto Ayora. Overall, the Global Scholars had traveled 4250 kilometers by airplane, but the calculations did not stop there. We had also taken a number of boats and taxis to get to shore and to our hotels, which also count. Due to the complex nature of making this calculation, our group decided to give our best shot at calculating a rough carbon footprint and ended up with 106.22 kilograms of CO2 released in order to get the ingredients and the people to the restaurant, never mind the amount of gas used for the restaurant stove or the amount of fuel used in farming machines or slaughterhouses.
Following the commodity chain and calculating a carbon footprint is no easy task, as witnessed by the vast amount of factors taken into account. However, the lesson we can learn from this is that even the smallest actions, like eating a banana or sending an email, can have a tremendous impact on the environment through the release of carbon dioxide.     

A group presenting their findings.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Equinox at the Equator

Spending the summer solstice on the equator is not an everyday occurrence, but it is even more special to be spending it in the Galapagos Islands, where some of the world’s most interesting species can be found.  

The day started off like any other day we’ve had in the islands: a morning visit to the Charles Darwin Center, the Ministry of Tourism office, and then a day at Tortuga Beach.

While at the Charles Darwin Center, we learned about very similar things to what we had heard before about tourism and the Galapagos Islands.  The biggest threat to the islands is invasive species such as goats, rats, and ants, which were brought over by ships over the various years.  Although many of the eradication programs have been successful – especially the goat eradication program – there are still many invasive species on the islands today.

After our discussion at the Charles Darwin Center, we went to see Lonesome George, the last existing tortoise of his species.  Lonesome George is an internationally known tortoise, so seeing him was a truly extraordinary opportunity!  Although efforts have been made to have him mate with other tortoises, he initially refused to mate with them.  When he was finally willing to mate with a tortoise at the ripe age of 90, none of the eggs were sterile. Ever since then, he has not mated with any other tortoise, making him very lonesome indeed.

Lonesome George

Later in the morning, we went to visit the Ministry of Tourism, where we learned about tourism plans in Ecuador and the Galapagos.  Some of the plans for eco-tourism to help make the Galapagos Islands more attractive through better regulations and higher standards make this place seem like even more of a paradise to visit, especially since the target length of a visit is expected to become longer!

The delicious bread at El Chocolate
After a delicious lunch of homemade bread and chicken and rice at El Chocolate, we were headed off to Tortuga beach for some beach time!  Except this wasn’t just an ordinary beach – it was a calm hidden beach through a pathway behind the main beach after a 40 minute walk on a beautiful path through the natural flora and fauna of the island.  On the way, we saw dozens of iguanas soaking up the sun in the sand!

The pathway to the beach
Some of the iguanas laying in the sand!

After walking through some trees, the path opened up to a beautiful beach that was secluded and calm.  It made for some relaxing swimming and laying in the sun!

The tranquil beach at Tortuga Bay

All in all, although it was an overcast day, realizing that it was the summer solstice while sitting on the beach made me realize what a special experience I was having to be able to spend it in paradise.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Trip to Santa Cruz, Turtles, and Tuna on the Rocks

Leaving San Cristobal was very sad -  I'll miss the sea lions laying on the playground equipment, sidewalks, benches, rafts, and well everywhere.
Under the house are about three sea lions 
The actual act of leaving was the interesting part.
Starting my day at 2:43am waking up to a cricket on my face should have been a sign for things to come. By the time I finished liberating all the crickets from my room and packing, I made sure to double check all the closets - I was lucky in Quito and did not want to try it again.
It was definitely a new experience having your luggage looked through for anything organic - I was half afraid they'd find a cricket and think I was smuggling them to the mainland...... The part that was somewhat surprising was when the lady checking was bit by a baby sea lion who thought it should sleep under the checking station. How can something so cute be so violent?
When we finally got on the boat and left the dock it looked to be a great time to relax. Somehow mother nature and bad balancing placed me right in front of a continuous spray of water. By the end of the boat trip I looked like I dove into the ocean with my clothes on and took my sunglasses, ipod, and shoes with me. The dock was beautiful and the water was clear - it was the epitome of paradise in my book. I felt like I should be looking for a band playing on drums and dancing the salsa.

Once we got settled in, our guide, Whitman brought us to a group of sink holes that were roughly 100 meters deep. The craters were caused by the lava flow. A short bus ride later and we were at a lava tunnel. Previously he mentioned a bit about others collapsing, but I didn't really put two and two together until we were inside it and he said this one is collapsing too....... The tunnel reminded me of a natural version of the metro - size-wise and kind of the shaping. It was interesting, but I definitely maintained a sense of direction to where the exit was and took careful steps. 
Next we saw the tortoises. Unfortunately my camera died and my video of the big guy eating is on my phone which is being very annoying when I tried to hook it up to the computer. However the pictures I have are enough to show the size of these guys. The downside, their "natural habitat" was more like a turtle farm or zoo and not "the wild." Then again what can we expect, shipping a bunch of tourists off into the wild? That's a law suit waiting to happen.  It doesn't detract from the chance we had to see them in a semi-natural habitat.

Dinner was a first, first time I've heard of Yellow Fin on the rocks and first time I ate off of a Lava rock. Unfortunately, my camera died and I don't have any pictures to show. I tried snagging a photo, but the internet access is not helping at all. Hopefully I can update this later with a picture. 

The funniest part of the day was when we were locked out of the bus. Took a few people to open it, but we did. :D

Only qualm: the need for fast internet connection seems to be something entirely American, even in Costa Rica the internet was iffy. However, I'll take the beaches and these experiences over quick internet.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Last Day in San Cristóbal

June 19, 2012

Kathy presenting the CDF office
Today started the same as any other day on the islands.  I fought the good fight and lost to my alarm clock before hurrying down to breakfast with my friends (today's battle took longer than normal, so I didn't have time to shower).  Once we arrived for breakfast, we ate the usual: a plate of fruit, two pieces of toast, scrambled eggs, and a glass of juice.  We briefly talked with other members of our group before going to our respective rooms to pack our stuff for today's adventures.  

Our first stop of the day was the Charles Darwin Foundation's office on the island.  It was about a 10 minute walk to the station on this rather hot day, but I was excited to hear about what the organization had to say.  Once we seated ourselves in the tiny wooden building, we started our discussion.  During our brief stay at the station, we talked about how the organization started, what projects it performed, and what its future goals on the island were.  We also targeted some questions to try and give us some more feedback on our final projects (my group is focusing on biodiversity and tourism).

Once we finished our talk at the CDF, we trekked back to Whitman's (our guide's) house where we had a class period.  The first thing we did was break into our groups so as to discuss what we had learned yesterday during our interviews.  After finishing our group discussions, we shared our topics with the rest of the class (my group is looking into tourism's effect on biodiversity on the islands and how it can be improved so as to minimize the negative effects).  After finishing this, we had a discussion about the different theories behind human-environment interactions, and then we broke into our groups to try and branch out the key actors of our topics.  Finally, we ended class by having a brief discussion on energy and climate change.

Sea lions sleeping on the beach

Class being over, the Stephs and I decided that we needed some time to relax after our busy morning and fast-paced interview day.  To reward ourselves, we went back to our rooms, packed up our gear, and headed to La Playaman--an amazing beach.  Once we arrived, we met up with other members from our group and enjoyed ourselves with sun, waves, and soda.

Although we were greatly enjoying ourselves, we had to head back to town to go on an adventure in the highlands that evening.  After cleaning ourselves up and grabbing our travel gear, we headed back to Whitman's house where a bus waited to take us to his land.

Joe standing in front of the
In the highlands, we first stopped by a tree house built to entertain small children.  A bridge connected the main level to the actual tree house which contained a bathroom and two beds.  Within the tree, a small ladder went below ground and brought us to another bedroom.  We concluded that this was a wonderland for children, and then we traveled to Whitman's land.  While there, Whitman showed us various plants--mosses, trees, bushes, grasses, etc.--located on his property.  Finally, we found a nice flat location and watched the sun set.   We ended the evening by travelling to a nearby restaurant where we dined on some delicious food.  Once we finished, we bused back to our hotel where I promptly fell right asleep to prepare myself for tomorrow's journey to Santa Cruz.

Me standing in the sunset 

Starting Group Projects
June 18th

            Today we divided up into groups for our final project in order to start learning more about our topics. Although there were some logistical problems with guest speakers, the day still flowed nicely. I know that my group certainly learned a lot! My group is focusing on Biodiversity and we started the day talking to a local fisherman. Marco Escarbay represents the four fishing cooperatives in the Galapagos. He was very friendly and helpful. We learned a whole lot of things from a new perspective we never would have expected. For example, we found out that the great goat eradication project credited for removing this invasive species from the islands was not as great as people say it was. In fact, not all of the goats were successfully removed. In addition, the removal process also hurt local species that should have been conserved. This was also the first time that we heard that eradication of invasive species may actually be bad for the local species that have already adapted to the newcomers. Our talk with Mr. Escarbay helped open our minds to the disconnect between the Ecuadorian government and the realities faced on the islands.
            In the afternoon, we tried to talk with more Galapagenos to get as many perspectives on biodiversity as we could. We decided it would be more efficient if we split up into two groups.  Kate and Steph Van Den Berg targeted tourism and had some enlightening talks with local tour guides. Connor, Steph Peng and I decided to approach the local government. Unfortunately, we were not as lucky as our other group members. When we first entered the small government offices that were hidden above the post office, we were politely turned away because everyone was on their lunch break. When we returned after lunch there was still no one to talk to and we were instructed to take a taxi to the more central government buildings on the island to set up an interview with the governor. No one at this small office was willing to talk to us. Unfortunately, we did not have the time to do this since we are leaving the island so soon.
            After this failed attempt, the three of us tried to speak with the Ministerio de Inclusión Económico y Social (MIES). Although they do not focus on environmental issues, we thought they might have some thoughts about how development may affect biodiversity on the islands. The woman who greeted us said that the person we wanted to talk to was out of the office but would be back in fifteen minutes. We waited an hour before we had to leave. She never showed up.
            Even though we did not get to talk with anyone from the government or MIES, we came away from the day with a lot of new information and new questions. We decided to focus on the impact tourism has on biodiversity. This felt fitting since we are tourists ourselves and because tourism is such an important part of the Galapagos. We are excited to learn more about this topic!

Here is a link to the website for MIES.
We did not actually know anything about it when we walked in. We just passed it and thought it was worth a try!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

life is the bubbles, under the sea:
snorkeling off San Cristobal

Sunday, June 17th
This morning started off with cloudy skies and a steady, light rain, as we left the cover of our hotel’s restaurant. Our only plans for today were typical tourist activities on the Galapagos: snorkeling. Each of us was outfitted with a snorkel and fins by Whitman, our guide upon our arrival to San Cristobal, and those new to snorkeling had learned the basics exploring the beach yesterday. 

Frigate Hill in the rain
The first stop on our boat tour at Frigate Hill was met with a strong downpour of rain. From the boat, we observed birds throughout the high cliffs overlooking the water. At a small bay, there was a rocky outcropping with a simple statue of Charles Darwin. The rain tapered off and the clouds began to clear and blue skies took over as we made for Puerto Grande beach.

We waded to shore from the boat to the beach, a lonely turquoise inlet in view of Kicker Rock. Here, we learned about the impacts of the recent tsunami - a natural disaster the islands had never had to deal with before. Dozens of red mangroves had died, leaving graying skeletons of trees on the pristine, white sand. Whitman showed us the endemic wildlife, and the crabs, puffer fish and mullet that made up the sole inhabitants of the water. As we moved back towards the main inlet to take a swim and relax before lunch, massive pelicans and other birds swooped in and landed on the small, rocky coast line, eying the fish for their snacks. There was not much to see here, and after a quick lunch on the boat, we moved to the most exciting stop of the day: Kicker Rock.

Kicker Rock, as we approached by boat
Tourists around the world know Kicker Rock for the exotic animals that populate both the rock itself and the surrounding waters. As we got closer, we were able to spot sea turtles heads and shells in the waves, and the odd nose of a sea lion or two. We circled the rock, Whitman told us that initially, Kicker Rock had been a volcano. Now extinct, it had gained its flat table top and sides from constant wind and water erosion. 

Having heard about the plethora of sharks and other creatures the other cohort had seen, most of us were excited for the chance to observe these animals in their natural habitats. Ultimately, our hopes were dashed when we saw that the water conditions had been severely impacted by the earlier rain. The water was much colder and deeper than our previous expeditions, and we were unable to see the bottom. A few people turned back, but the majority of us swam on, eyes peeled for shark fins in the murky water. We saw rather large “Dory” fish, held starfish and sea urchins and schools of fish surrounded us. Small crabs latched on to those closest to the base of Kicker Rock. A few of us spied sea turtles in the distance, but we missed any that were feeding in the coral areas. Diving down was a shock for the ears, but I could not believe the things I was seeing. Everything from National Geographic and the Discovery Channel came to life in front of my eyes, in the most amazing of colors. Despite the missing sharks, it was a truly unique experience. But this was not even the best part of the day! 

Our last stop was in a bay sheltered on the coast of San Cristobal. Whitman promised us a treat - younger sea lions were known to swim in these waters, friendly enough to circle around snorkelers and play with us. We were not disappointed at all - as the first of our group reached the rocky shallows, those of us still on the boat heard cries of laughters as the pups swam up to masks and tugged on fins. I got to be face to face with a sea lion and essentially play with it in the wild. It was astounding how almost tame the animals of the Galapagos are, never really hesitating to interact with the human life that surrounds them. 
A group of Global Scholars swimming by our boat

One of the sea lions followed Conor and I as we headed towards the mouth of the bay, darting to and fro in a strange game of tag. The three of us swam into a school of what had to be several thousands of fish, and the sea lion took off trying to catch a quick snack.

The most adorable moment came when he gave up on fishing by himself and grabbed a shell off the ocean floor, repeatedly dropping in back on some rocks to break it open and get a quick snack. Later, as Amaya, Kathy and I swam more towards the middle of the bay, we passed over several small rays, gliding like hovercrafts several inches off the sandy bottom. Angel fish with electric purple and yellow stripes on their black bodies swam in circles, as smooth striped puffer fish looked at us with their beedy red eyes. Life was everywhere, and even diving down to swim at the bottom we were able to see everyone else a hundred feet away.

On our way back, we crashed back in the large school of fish - but this time we had company. To our shock, blue-footed boobies suddenly began to torpedo down in graceful, bubble-filled arcs and shot back up to the surface. Coughing water and freaking out slightly, we could not believe what we had just seen. That was not even the end of it - the largest pelican I have ever seen swooped down as we got our bearings on the surface, snatching a mouthful of water and fish and taking off again for the water. After a few hours of fun in the water with our new sea lion friends, it was time to head back to Casablanca and the relative calm of the harbor. Who knows what the rest of the trip has in store for us - but my time on San Cristobal has already made the Galapagos Islands an unforgettable experience.

Jackie, me and Colleen on the boat at Kicker Rock

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Goodbye Quito, Hello Galapagos!!

Today was our travel day and our first day on the beautiful Galapagos Islands. After getting an early start, saying goodbye to our wonderful guide Connie, catching our flight, and feeling the anticipation build during two quick layovers, we finally arrived at San Cristobal Island. Here we met our Galapagos guide Whitman Cox, a third generation Galapagonian, who led us to our beautiful hotel, the Casa Blanca.

After a quick change and application of sunscreen, the group met in front of the hotel where we were immediately distracted by one of the many sea lions in the area who had chosen to take a nap on one of the boardwalk benches. We had a briefing from Whitman about the rest of the day and then headed over to his house for a quick snack and to pick out some snorkeling equipment. Yes that’s right, today many of us, including myself, had our first snorkeling experience!

The distracting sea lion (lobo marino)
The mine we passed on the way to the beach
Before I delve into the details of that adventure, I first want to share some of the hidden learning we had today. I call it hidden because unlike in Costa Rica where we spent hours every day in a UPEACE classroom, and unlike Quito where we had many guest lecturers and visits to various institutions, our learning in the Galapagos will include some class time, but is largely mixed in with getting to know the islands. For example, one of the themes we find studying international environmental politics is the clash between human development and the conservation of the environment. On our walk to the beach where we snorkeled, we passed a mine, the airport, the soccer arena, and more litter than I had expected to see. San Cristobal is one of the four inhabited Galapagos islands and has a population of approximately 7 thousand who are concentrated in the main town. In Quito we learned about the many initiatives, laws, and organizations that focus on preserving the biodiversity of the Galapagos and negotiating with the local people, but once here we see the development and the potential difficulty of implementing protectionist projects. We can see on this island the clear signs of a clash between human economic interest and the protection of the environment.

Global Scholars in La Loberia
We also got a peek into the biodiversity that environmental politics are trying to protect when we went snorkeling in La Loberia (Sea Lion Reserve). There we saw respect between people and the sea lions when the animals were given about half of the beach while the humans kept their distance. We saw volcanic rock, a seemingly undisturbed Pacific Ocean, and giant sea lizards. Laughter filled the air as we watched each other try to navigate the beach with flippers, but sound dropped away to a dim and soothing roar as we dived into the water with our masks and snorkels allowing us to see the plethora of tropical fish sharing the water with us. Using our flippers to head out a bit deeper, we encountered a sea turtle resting on the ocean floor and floated in awe above it until it decided it had business elsewhere. We had some free time to snorkel and explore and contemplate that we are really in the Galapagos Islands.

Our day finished up with a group dinner of melon juice, vegetable soup, delicious fish or chicken, and peaches at Whitman’s restaurant, La Playa. Afterwards we leisurely walked back to our hotel and my roommate and I enjoyed writing our journals and working on our reading on the balcony watching the sunset over our first day in the Galapagos.

A wonderful place to journal about our first day in the Galapagos :)

Friday, June 15, 2012

Last Day at 9,350 feet

Our last day in Quito was spent learning about various NGOs that operate in Ecuador.

After a delicious breakfast at our hotel, we went to the conference room where we heard a presentation from Kate, a representative of Sun Mountain International. Sun Mountain is a small NGO based in Ecuador with the goal of promoting best practices in Environmental and Disaster Risk Management. In focuses on four broad areas: environmental management and assessment, risk management and climate change adaptation, institutional strengthening and capacity building, and sustainable agriculture and livelihoods. Sun Mountain is often contracted by other NGOs to conduct environmental impact assessments or development projects. One of the major themes of our class is the tension between economic growth and the well being of the environment, and this tension is what Sun Mountain is trying to resolve by mitigating adverse environmental impacts in aid projects. This NGO also has a very close relationship to USAID.

After our enlightening meeting with Kate some of my friends and I went out for lunch near our hotel. For $1.75, we got juice, soup, and an entree of chicken and rice. This sure is one thing I will miss about Quito! 

My friends at lunch!

Soon after finishing lunch, we hopped on the bus and went to the offices of Conservancy International, one of the largest and most influential environmentally focused NGOs in the world. It operates in all 50 states and 35 countries world wide. At their Quito offices, we met Galo Medina, the head of the Ecuador Branch, Daniel Cordoba, the project coordinator in the Amazon basin, and Ana Guzman, coordinator of the Latin American water fund.

Mr. Medina outlined the mission of the Nature Conservancy as "to conserve the lands an waters on which all life depends".  He also stated that they are dedicated especially to conserving the biodiversity of ecosystems. The Conservancy works with other NGOs and local and national governments to achieve its goals. It also works to promote the capacity of the Ecuadorian Ministry of the Environment.

Next, Mr. Cordoba outlined the problems facing the Amazon Basin. In Ecuador, those living in the Amazon Basin are poorer, face greater chance of tuberculosis, and experience higher levels of gender inequality. Furthermore, much of the area is being exploited for oil. There are two programs that the Conservancy has undertaken to protect this vulnerable environment. The first is to protect indigenous landscapes to conserve biodiversity. The second is the net zero deforestation project, which focuses on at-risk forests and improve land-use planning policy processes.

The class at The Nature Conservancy
Next we heard from Ms. Guzman, who runs the Latin American water fund. This fund takes money from public and private entities and funnels into preserving areas upstream of waterways to ensure quality of water for all. Here is a video about the water funds that Ms. Guzman showed to us. 

The Nature Conservancy: Water Funds Video

After leaving The Nature Conservancy, we went back to the hotel for dinner and to begin packing for our next adventure. Tomorrow, we say goodbye to Quito bright and early and say hello to the Galapagos Islands!

Grad Student Meet Up + Canelazo

Yesterday, Thursday, June 14th,  our group had an incredible opportunity to have dinner with a group of American University Masters students who are also studying in Ecuador.   Their program consists of a three week set of classes, followed by a five week internship, over the course of which they can practice their Spanish and gain invaluable work experience. 
Our trip up part of the mountain to get to our arranged meeting spot was quite an adventure! After taking an incorrect turn, we were forced to take one of Quito’s treacherous side streets. Luckily, our bus driver was in top form tonight, and we all survived with inches to spare.   A little confusion met our arrival at the place where we were to eat.  Not only had we thought that we would be eating at a nice restaurant, we also thought that we must be lost, because we didn’t see any places that could be what we were looking for.  Suddenly, a gate in front of us opened, and we were allowed into a beautiful courtyard. 

It seems that us students had misunderstood what we had been told.  We were getting dinner, but it was going to be at the house of a lovely German expatriate couple.  The place was truly incredible, with well-kept gardens, incredibly beautiful architecture, and a stunning view of a huge portion of Quito’s valley.  Surrounded, as we were, by the shroud of night, the city lay below us like a galaxy might appear in the clear night sky.  Sparkling lights, great whites, yellows, and the occasional blue or red from flashing signs in various parts of the city blended together for a veritable sky-scape laid out at our feet.


After we hurried inside out of the cold, high altitude air our group of Global Scholars cordially introduced ourselves to the fine folk of AU's Master’s program here in Quito. After introductions were made, we all began to mingle, eventually being served a delicious warm drink called Canelazo.It tasted somewhat similar to apple cider, but wasn't made with apples, and contained a delicious serving of cinnamon.  As far as I'm aware, there was no one that disliked the beverage. 

It was  a fantastically relaxing evening.  In a program with relatively little time just to sit and talk outside of a classroom setting, this little trip up the side of the mountain was a wonderfully potent nectar, that probably helped everyone to relax a little bit.  Not to mention, the conversation with the graduate students was fantastic.  
And then dinner was served! Hot tamales, served with an optional Ecuadorian hot sauce was the main course, and we all dug into the deliciously prepared dish. 

All in all, it was a good night.  Now we have the Galapagos to look forward to, and everything that comes with it, most particularly packing.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Wednesday at Otavalo

Today we took our first expedition outside the city limits of Quito. We were exposed to the Ecuadorian lifestyle in the more traditional town of Otavalo. Heading north out of the city this morning we passed through diverse landscapes. From the crowded streets full of commuters in Quito, we passed through small towns, then both arid and lush stretches of countryside. Since Quito is located in a valley surrounded by volcanic mountains, we had to drive along the roads that snake through the mountains. As the elevation fluctuated, so did the scenery. For sometime we drove past sandy, dried-out looking towns  whose small cinder block buildings were flagged by cacti. The landscape evolved into green patches of sloping, aggregated land that appeared to extend out of the luscious volcanic slopes. We stopped at a scenic overlook to take photos in front of one of the worlds largest volcanos. Cotacachi stands 4,995 meters tall and overlooks a volcanic lake. During our photo shoot, we made friends with a local alpaca and llama.

Otavalo is a small city where  various local indigenous peoples bring their handmade craft products to sell at the market. Otavalo is famous for its handmade crafts such as jewelry, bags, ponchos. The majority of the products are made of wool from alpacas. The biggest days for the market are Wednesday and Saturday's, as it was Wednesday  we were in luck! I think we all got carried away with buying, bargaining and exploring the rows of stalls. We all ended up with some great souvenirs.

For lunch we stopped at a three hundred year old hacienda which has been converted into a restaurant and hotel. A three course meal overlooking a beautifully landscaped garden of exotic flowers. There were even a pair of peacocks that freely wander  the grounds.

We ended the day at the equator, where we encountered a small tribute to place where the hemispheres divide. We all piled out of the bus for a photo opt as we spanned both sides of the equator.

Another fabulous day well-spent in Ecuador!


On our second day in Quito, we got to have a unique experience: a salsa lesson in Spanish! Nearly everyone (including our professor, guide and teaching assistant!) packed into a small dance studio off of Avenida Rio Amazonas for a private lesson. Our slightly eccentric teacher started us off with basic but energetic bodily warmups for our arms and legs. After the first song, we were already a little tired out!

We then moved to learning "el paso básico" along with the beat: "¡uno dos tres, cinco seis siete!" our teacher yelled. (Whatever happened to counts four and eight is still a mystery to me). While we didn't get any videos of ourselves dancing, here is a video of the basic step for you to try at home:

We then paired up, boys on one side (as well as some girls willing to take the lead for the night) and the girls on the other. Things got tricky when the "boys" had to now learn the steps backwards! After "el paso básico", we moved on to side steps ("el segundo paso") and turns, all to the count of "¡uno dos tres, cinco seis siete!" I was a lead for the night, and I definitely had some trouble keeping up with all the directions (¡"el segundo, básico, segundo!")! Things got even more complicated when we started to incorporate the turns--definitely turned in the wrong direction several times.

All in all, despite having two left feet and very little concept of a beat, I can now say I know the basic steps of salsa! Will I be able to do them on my own to my own music? Probably not, but I'll definitely be pulling out my moves at the salsa clubs in the Galápagos!

To end, here's a video of some world-class salsa dancers!