Ecuador 2001

I think most people would balk at doing a school trip with their high

school. 50 of your peers stuck in the same hotel rooms and tours for

two weeks could be a recipe for hell. But when my high school Spanish

class started raising money to go to Ecuador, I was more than willing to

put aside the high school antics to make it happen.

We started

raising money the usual way; we sold chocolate bars, had bake sales, I

think a magazine or wrapping paper scheme was involved too.

Fortunately, this was a student trip, not a five star trip, so besides

the plane tickets the on the ground costs would be fairly inexpensive.

We

left soon after school let out for holiday break in December. I don't

remember much about the long flight to Quito, but that's probably for

the best. As an adult today a plane full of teenagers is daunting

enough, I hate to think of what it was like then I was one of the

teenagers.

While the bulk of the trip would be spent on a cruise

through the Galapagos, we had a few days to explore Quito and some of

the surrounding towns. As with any good high school trip, we were

shepherded around the city with a tour guide. Stopping at all the

important churches and monuments the tour guide tried to educate us on

the history that was surrounding us, but mostly we were just maintaining

idle chatter with our friends. I regretfully look back at those

moments, thinking that I should have paid more attention.

Once we

began to get out of the city my attention was finally snagged. On one

day we went up into the hill side villages where we explored the local

market, shopping for trinkets and local items. While my classmates were

busy buying kitch, I was quick to learn about the awesomeness that was

their delicious and cheap bread. This is what I and my friend, also

named Erin, would be spending some our pesos. Warm, steamy, doughy

rolls were the perfect bus ride snack. But weren't we in for a surprise

when we were told that we would be eating lunch at local homestays!

Now Erin and I could be nice houseguest and bring a dish to share. ...

Seeing that the bread rolls cost only $0.02 each, we had plenty to

share. As it turned out, the rolls were a perfect item to be soaking up

the meat juice on our plates of roasted... guinea pig. Yes guinea pig.

And yes, it does kind of taste like chicken. Speaking of chicken

though, one of our classmates was unsure about the guinea pig and chose

to have chicken instead. The chicken was so large, I could have sworn

that the family killed the prize hen out back.

The climate of

Ecuador is very diverse for such a small land area (in relation to the

US, or even Colorado for that matter). Our group would be driving to

Guayaquil to take a plane to the Galapagos, so we made a few scenic

stops along the way. As we drove south from Quito the land became more

arid and mountainous. In fact, it was a bit like Colorado's western

slope. Only, after a few minutes driving along poeticly flat roads

shadowed large by large trees, the magnificent Cotopaxi volcano comes

jumping out at you. At over 19,000 ft, this was not Colorado's western

slope anymore. Cotopaxi is not yet the tallest active volcano in the

world, but it begins the long spine of tall mountainous volcanoes that

form the Andes as it weaves its way down the Chilean and Argentinean

border.

As we drove closer to the coast, we stopped for two days

in Banos, Ecuador. A hilly, wet town, famous for its hot springs. It

is a cute town with water falls and meandering streets. Some members of

our group rented scooters to explore a bit more... some of those same

members also crashed their scooters and had to get stitches at the local

hospital. Remember folks, the number one cause of death for travelers

is automobile accidents.

After a couple of relaxing days in Banos it was off to the Galapagos.

Upon

landing in the Galapagos, you will go through an extensive custom's

facility. Because of the environmental sensitivity on the islands,

Ecuador is very strict about everything that comes through. For that

reason, we even had to dip the soles of our shoes on a bleach pad to

remove anything that might be trying to hitch hike a ride.

After

shuffling our group through customs we traveled to a dock to board our

ship. Now, this wasn't a magnificent Norwegian Cruise ship of anything

of that magnitude. Remember, we're student travelers. But there were

flat beds and most of our time would be spent on the islands anyway. My

friend Erin and I along with our friend Anne would be sharing a cabin

was about 5'x6' in area.

Now, I cannot fully recall to order or

names of which islands we visited, but now recall one passing an island

that looked like it had been scorched only to later read that when 18th

century whalers from Massachusetts were in search of an elusive, large

whale, they had eaten all the turtles and accidentally torched the

island. The island's ecosystems are so fragile that nothing ever grew

back, ever.

As I remember hiking along the various islands, I'm

taken back to the image of large albatrosses. They made their nests on

the rocky ground of windy ridges and I laugh at thinking about how ugly a

baby albatross is. I remember how close the sea lions let you get

while they lounge on the soft sand. They seemed to not even notice the

huge Marine Iguanas sun bathing next to them. Now, when I say huge

iguanas, I mean that the males can be over 5ft long!

If I close

my eyes to remember the iguanas, I can't help but vision the waves,

forever pounding the coast and the smell of the sea and the constant

breeze that accompanied it. I remember the feeling of the skiffs,

taking us from ship to island and back. The undulating motion from the

ocean and the blue footed boobies diving in the water. I can almost

hear the frigates, with their loud calls echoing in my memory. ...

Frigates are also an ugly bird in their adolescence....

One day

we went to a sanctuary for the Galapagos Tortoise. Now there is a cute

baby animal. Baby Galapagos tortoises are about the size of an

grapefruit and plod slowly around with awkward steps. Their much larger

parents seem to move with more intent. Their long necks reach far out

to the bark on nearby shrubs, snapping off pieces with their sharp,

powerful jaws. The plight of the Galapagos tortoise breaks my heart.

Due to hunting and species (especially goats) the tortoise has dwindled

in population and several of its subspecies have gone extinct. A sad

example of this is Lonesome George. He is the supposed last of his

subspecies and already over 100 years old. I only wonder what sort of

changes he has seen in the world through is old leathery face.

On

New Years Day, we went into a small island town. We were momentarily

shocked to find dozens of piles of smoldering rubbish that were still

hot with embers from the bonfires the night before. We later found out

that this is part of the New Years tradition here. On the eve, people

gather the items that were negative from the year before and have

celebratory burnings in the streets. It marks the erasing of the bad

from the last year to clear way for the good for the new year.

It

makes me day dream if Lonesome George ever thinks about the years. If

he could just burn a bad memory or mistake. But then I think that

animals don't live that way. They don't think about regrets or think

they should have done something differently. To them, live is the

moments they live. But I'm sure George is lonesome. What must it feel

to be the last of your kind? Can he even know that?

Those sorts

of thoughts never really crossed my mind on that trip. I found his

presence mysterious and marveled in his size in magnificence. I laughed

at the sea lions playing on the beach and watched the birds dive into

the ocean. I got lost listening to waves roll in on the beach and

watching the clouds rolling in over Cotopaxi. I enjoyed the tastes of

new foods and fresh bread. I enjoyed traveling around the world with my

friends. But it is only 11 years later that I think about all of the

rest. I think about how we represent our countries when we are abroad.

I think about the hospitality of other cultures and how open and kind

everyone from around the world is. I think about the magnificence of

the planet with its towering volcanoes and isolated ecosystems. I also

wonder at the magnitude of what it means to visit the last of a species.

To witness something that might never exist ever again.

It's an eye-opening experience to travel. It's a sobering experience to remember it.

*pictures will be loaded as soon as I get around to scanning the images into digital form.


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