Friday, March 16, 2012

Ventures in Ecuador, Part One

It's really hard to sum up an adventure like this in words. Especially when people ask me in person, "Oh, you went to Ecuador right? How was that?" The reflexive responses shoot out, like "Yeah, thanks! It was amazing!" and then I'll throw something out there like "Yeah, it's a totally different world down there." All of this is true in my opinion, but I avoid trying to really elaborate because a] it's really hard to know where to even START to describe the trip, and b] most of the time I feel like people ask out of politeness, not because they really want to have a two hour conversation about the environmental/economical conditions of coastal Ecuador.. Or even hear stories about me and my group and all of our funny stories, it's just difficult to know where to stop, where people are going to become disinterested. I hold most of it within, and just smile to myself thinking about the memories and the experience, but I feel like it's about time that I share it on here, for myself, and for whoever is curious and wants to read :).

The Beginning:
These first couple of photos are blurry/bad quality because they were shot from the bus window when we first arrived in Ecuador and were being bused to our hostel (a five hour bus ride, mind you.. on top of 8 hours of flying, and many more hours spent waiting in the airport and for me, taking a bus down to JFK and walking around the city before my flight..) Needless to say I was pretty exhausted.
                                                                               These bicycle-powered "eco taxis" were pretty popular where we were. I never took one, we became pretty used to walking and hiking long distances. A lot of places did look "run down" like this, Ecuador is a third world country. But that isn't to say that there isn't some beauty in that. Colorfully painted signs and buildings, intricate thatched roofs and homes, people made good use of what they had to work with. 

"Coco Bongo" Home away from home.

This place, Coco Bongo hostel, was where we slept for roughly a third of our time in Ecuador. Managed by a lovely Australian woman, Susie, it's a real jem for travelers. When I say this I don't mean it's loaded with amenities---there are no whirlpool tubs/fitness facilities/what-have-you, but it was a beautiful, exotic place to stay, and a good introduction to the Ecuadorian way of life. A common architectural style was to have big front doors, that remained open to the street during the day. You can see that in the photo, the big metal green door pushed back against the wall. I felt like this put out an inviting vibe. She had a little table set up in the doorway most days, and people would stop by and talk. The photo shows the downstairs lounge/dining area where we ate our meals and waited for the rest of the group to come down from their rooms in the morning. The bedrooms were nice too, much smaller of course and we slept with three bunk-beds and six girls in my room, but it was pretty comparable to the dorm experience, and I enjoyed being with all of these girls, so it was fine with me :). Oh, something about Ecuador and probably most third world countries---water scarcity is a big problem. You cannot take normal, full showers, and you are expected to refrain from flushing when possible. ie: If it's yellow, let it mellow. Also, you aren't supposed to flush toilet paper at ALL.. But I did it sometimes out of habit, but you aren't supposed to. Hand sanitizer became a pretty big necessity, to conserve water and just for functionality out in the outdoors, especially when eating at our beach campsite.  

                                         First picture with the Pacific, a five minute walk from the hostel.

Some kids playing soccer in the skate park, wearing their school uniforms.

Santa stopped over in Ecuador ;). There were many paper mache characters throughout the country.

Also a lot of eco-friendly/sustainability oriented art.

The walk to Punta Gorda:

Dead puffer fish washed up on shore.
 The name of the city[town size, really] we were in :)

 Mr. Crabs, is that you? These were so hard to photograph, I literally spent an hour trying to capture this.

 One of the advantages of camping on the coast---fresh crab! A couple of the guys from our group had a time of it, hunting these crustaceans, who scrambled up large, porous rocks trying to escape them. Most of these were let free, but a couple of the bigger ones became seafood breakfast.

Eel! Another creature washed up to shore, but this one was alive so we used a stick to help transport it further into the waves.

The Work:
Planting trees at Punta Gorda, the area of our beach campsite, was one of the best things about the whole trip. Mostly because it's what we essentially went there to do, to do our part. The trees we planted were ones indigenous to Ecuador, and we made sure to plant in a way that promoted biodiversity, as in planting different trees next to each other, so two of the same would not be competing for their resources. As you'll see below, we weren't planting on flat ground either.. Our area was a dried out riverbed, and we incorporated hillside planting to try to bring the environment back to lush area it once was. This involved a lot of climbing and exertion of the leg muscles. I was in pretty good shape when I returned. (Although the new college semester has set me back a bit now..sigh) We used tools like post-hole-diggers and MACHETES! I had so much fun just whacking the bushes, and it was such a good arm work out. It was tricky coming back down the steep hills though, you had to be extremely aware of your footing, especially if you were carrying a machete... Cacti are plentiful there, so if you slipped you had to remember not to just  reach out and grab something---chances are it's going to be a cactus plant that you grab...Youch. I got used to it though, and I kind of liked having to be kept on my toes and so aware of my body and surroundings. We camped in tents on the beach and the actual planting site was about a 2-3 mile walk. This became tricky once the rainy season picked up on the second day, and made the clay path the equivalence of a slick, horizontal waterslide :P. We still made it though, and had fun doing it. 

The Ceibo tree. This became my "favorite" tree on the trip--just look at it, it's awesome ;). We planted a few of these and got to see them up close on one of our hikes. Their trunks are green and have spikes--how much more awesome can you get??

That was a fun hike.

Snails on a log and a whale bone we found in a ravine.

Playing Bananagrams at the dinner table here was a common occurrence ;)
Seveche (cold fish with lime) white rice, and plantain chips ♥ and WATERMELON JUICE! Seriously one of the best drinks ever, and I'm pretty sure all it is is pure watermelon juice, seeds included, and possibly some sugar. It went so well with everything we ate. We did eat a lot of white rice, rice is a huge staple in Ecuador, and lots of seafood, including a hot fish soup for breakfast---surprisingly delicious. There were very few things I didn't like, and I tried pretty much everything that was offered. The cocoa powder for hot chocolate was ah-may-zing, I even brought some back to the states ;). Punta Gorda definitely had the best food because we had the fantastic Rosa to cook for us. Ramon and his wife Rosa own the land where we camped and reforested, and while Ramon would teach us his ways with the machete and seedlings, Rosa would make sure we were all fed and happy. 
RAMON! This man was the best. I wish my spanish had been better, but it was still priceless to hear "Hola chicas" on a daily basis, and to see him swing that machete and take down bushes like a boss.

"Hey little guy.."

No make up for about two weeks and salt-treated hair. Guess this is what I would look like on Lost.

The hammocks...ahhh. I'm getting sleepy just looking at them. After five hours of work, these were the best things ever. Just lay back, read, and look out onto paradise. 

A day spent at the local University, working on the vegetable garden. Peanuts, beans, watermelon, and I can't for the life of me remember what else, were planted here.

It was legal, and awesome. 

I had intended to cram everything into one post, but I realized that if I did that, it would take me forever to post it, so I decided to break it up a little. I'll write the next one soon. Enjoy!