Final Article

Final Article


Photo Blog 3

Here’s the last batch of photos I have from my trip from my last two weeks in Ecuador. Looking back to the beginning of this blog, I realized how lucky I am to have achieved everything I wanted to this summer. All of my interviews came through; all my excursions went (almost) perfectly; I made friends and contacts that will last. I’ll be going back to Yale with a new perspective about my studies, my future and my own abilities.

This is probably going to be one of my last posts on this blog. I’m still working on writing my final article and I’ll let you know where it is eventually published.

Thank you to everyone who helped and supported me on the way.

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An Ungraceful Departure

I’m waiting in the Mariscal Sucre airport to travel home after a missed flight, several runs (dragging along four heavy suitcases) between the national and international counters, about 100 dollars in extra costs and the possibility that I might not make my connection in Guayaquil at 2 p.m.

Of course I’m pretty angry (never again, LAN Airlines!). But, really, I know it wouldn’t be a proper departure from Ecuador without some sort of mishap or glitch. (NOTE: Just found out that my dad also missed his flight, while helping me sort out my flight.)

The last two weeks in Ecuador went by so quickly that I barely had time to register the events, let along blog about them. Here’s a quick set of points:


1) I succeeded in speaking with someone from REPSOL, the oil company responsible for building the road leading to the increase in wild meat sales. I did what any good journalist would: got a name, went to the main offices and acted as though I had an appointment already. I spoke with Remigio Rivera, the head of community relations with the Waorani in Yasuni. While I took much of what he said with a grain of salt, he made some good points about the role of the oil company in the trade.

Choice Quote: “It’s hard for [Repsol] being in [Waorani] space to try to control them.”

2) Juan Carlos Armijos: One of few non-Waorani who can speak the native language, Juan Carlos has been informally and formally working with the Waorani in Yasuni since 2000. He had a lot of inside information about the market and introduced me to some youth from Dicaro (a community close to Guiyero) so I could interview them about the sales.

Choice Quote: “The young people see [the wild meat trade] as a business. If they want something, they tell their parents and their parents have to hunt to get it for them.”


My dad came to visit last Saturday and we traveled around three cities in Ecuador: Otavalo, Quito and Cuenca. It was strange to be a tourist after nine weeks living with an Ecuadorian family and traveling like a native, but fun to show my dad what I had learned.

His favorite place was Cuenca, a beautiful city with many museums and other opportunities to see art. Among the interesting things we did in Cuenca: buy Panama hats from the Barranco factory and learn how they are made, eat roast guinea pig or cuy (tastes like chicken) and visit the Incan ruins of Ingapirca. I’ll try to post pictures once I’m back in the United States.

Thank you to everyone who has been following my blog! Hopefully I’ll see most of you soon (if I ever make it on this plane)!

I Finca Better Go: Knowing When to Re-route a Journey

I had wanted to WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) since I had decided early sophomore year that I was not going to go for a traditional internship or job this summer. With its network of free or cheap hosting options on different farms, WWOOFing seemed like the best way to travel for an urbanite looking for something a little different.
I had a week of unscheduled time during my travels through Ecuador, so I signed up on WWOOF Ecuador’s site and contacted as many host farms as possible. Options ranged from rainforest oases in the east to coastal eco-lodges and reserves, each including gorgeous descriptions that made my heart race in excitement.
But the only farm that gave me a definite response was Finca Vrindavan, a small Vedic orchid farm just outside Baños, a few hours southeast of Quito. “You are very welcome to us whenever you are around,” wrote someone named Madhu mangala das “(or Patrick)” in a cheery e-mail. The farm’s website showed photos of smiling people in the midst of a variety of actions: sitting in hammocks, doing pottery, holding paintbrushes, standing amongst plants, climbing wooden structures, even doing yoga.
I wanted to be one of those smiling people—I was sold. So I hopped on a bus on July 30th and arrived at the farm the next day, catching a camioneta or truck from the nearest town. The premises looked even more beautiful than on the website, with lush mountains visible in the background and a river audible in the background. I looked around wonderingly with a giant hiking backpack and walked down some steps under a small wooden roof — an outdoor dining area. In the building up the road, there were people practicing yoga and two puppies chased each other and yipped happily. Picture perfect.

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“Hare Krishna,” a young man greeted me happily.
“Ummm…hola,” I replied in awe.
“Chocolate?” he asked, still smiling happily. I nodded speechlessly and he handed me a cup filled with brown liquid. The hot chocolate tasted different, almost earthy, and I could feel my spirituality increasing already.
There was a large tour group from Quito staying for the day and I mingled with them during the day, even going on a relaxing two-hour hike on a trail on the property.
“Sweet!” I thought. “Yoga breaks, hikes along a babbling river, puppies? What more could a gal need?” But then everything went downhill.
The tour group left for Quito on Sunday and I was left with four volunteers — a couple and two men, a younger one named Vida and an older one named Krishna. The first sign of trouble was the fact that the older man kept leering at me. I would take a bite of food or finish petting the puppies and look up to see his eyes fixated on my chest, his tiny mouth grinning behind unruly gray stubble. But it was OK—the others were there, nothing would happen and I was determined to learn how to plant orchids.
But then the couple announced on Monday that they, too, were heading to Quito. Something to do with getting visas sorted out. I was a bit more worried at this point and decided to shorten my trip—to leave on Wednesday instead of Friday as I’d planned. Before leaving, the man in the couple, named Yajña, gave me and Vida an enormous list of tasks, including cutting down some banana trees in the back of the property and weeding the bed of aloe vera.
Soon after they left it started to rain and Vida gave up the idea of working for the day. Instead he told me stories about past volunteers who had come to the farm and hated it, told me that no one in charge really cared about taking care of the farm, told me that he wouldn’t blame me for leaving early either. And just as I was starting to feel comfortable with this querulous companion, he, too, made a pass at me. (“You’re young and you’re nice. You should have expected us to be attracted to you,” he explained simply when I protested.) I knew my time at the farm was over.
That night, I asked if I could change rooms, to sleep in a different building from the two men. And on Tuesday morning, I packed quickly and announced that I was leaving for Quito within the hour.
Throughout my travels this summer, I’ve prided myself on never taking the easy way out. I’ve taken 10-hour bus rides in the dead of night, hiked through the rainforest till my feet burned, stayed in questionable residences when necessary. But I realized that more important than pushing through difficult situations is knowing when to leave a potentially dangerous or even just uncomfortable one. It’s always important to weigh one’s options: I decided that my desire to not be violated way overpowered my desire to plant flowers. For me, the choice was easy.

Photo Blogging Part 2

Back very early from my farm adventure–another post for another day. I’m back in Quito and attempting to tackle writing this article. It is just as difficult as I thought it would be, but great to see how far my research has come. I’m trying to organize a few more interviews in the next week and a half to fill some gaps I’ve noted.

I have few words to spare, but photos and captions to share. Enjoy!

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One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

It´s sad to think I probably will not return to the Amazon for at least a year. It feels as though I stayed for months total, instead of weeks. I´ll miss walking along the trails in the forest with nothing but a backpack and my thoughts, accompanied by the constant whine of mosquitoes and crashing noises of monkeys through the trees. I´ll miss learning to pick out the brown blurs of frogs hopping by. I´ll miss driving down the Pompeya Sur-Iro road and waving to the Waorani walking by with blowguns or shotguns for the day´s hunting.

I left from Tiputini this morning a little after 7 a.m. in a canoe, which took us to a truck, which took us to another canoe to Coca. As we rode in the truck in the middle of our journey, we picked up several Waorani and dropped them off further along the road. Two of the Waos who hopped on were from Guiyero and they shook hands with me after they got on, remembering me from a few weeks ago. Behind on the road were at least ten Ecuadorian soldiers clamoring after them.

As I finished shaking hands with the Waos, I noticed that the one sitting right behind me had a small cayman (an alligator) in his other hand. It was about two feet long and alive, though unmoving, and with its mouth bound with rope. (Pics in a week, when I can use my own computer.)

¨What are you going to do with that?¨ the soldiers asked urgently, hinting that they thought he might sell it at a market.

¨Nothing,¨ the young Wao replied defensively. ¨I just found it and I am taking it back home.¨ This explanation seemed to satisfy the soldiers, and after taking a few pictures on their phones, they let our truck go. When I asked him, the Wao told me he found it in a hole in the forest and was going to release it in a laguna nearby. It was unclear why he felt this job fell to him or was necessary in the first place. When I later asked Kelly Swing, director of Tiputini about the incident, he said, ¨I bet that cayman is going to end up in the market in Pompeya tomorrow.¨

Later, in the last leg of our journey, an older Wao named Nambai along with his wife and child met us at the Repsol checkpoint to board our canoe to Coca. ¨I´m going to Quito,¨he announced, though he had little money and few contacts there and his wife had no shoes. He and Kelly argued for a while and eventually, they decided they would set him up with a Waorani contact in Quito. When Nambai boarded the canoe, he brought with him a plastic bag smelling strongly of meat.

¨What´s in the bag?¨I asked him casually.

¨Huangana,¨ he answered matter-of-factly, as though he had said ¨candy¨ or ¨shoes.¨ When I asked him what he would do with it, he said without hesitation, ¨Sell it in Coca.¨ And since no one stopped him between the canoe ride and Coca, that is what he probably did.

The market at Pompeya is a natural focal point of the issue of illegal wildlife trafficking, but more important are the activities that slip through the cracks. The policing of this trade seems half-hearted at best, with each responsible party making a show of some great effort without actually acheiving much. Now that the trade is going underground, there will be no need for the Ministry or the police to try to do much more about it. Out of sight, out of mind.

Tomorrow I´m headed to a Vedic orchid farm near Baños, where I will stay for about a week before returning to Quito. No Internet, but as usual I will take lots of pictures to post later.

People-Watching-Monkey Watching

For the past couple of days, I’ve been watching people watch monkeys in the rainforest around the Tiputini Biodiversity Station, a research station two hours away by canoe from the first one I stayed at. Tiputini belongs to the University San Francisco de Quito, the top Ecuadorian university, and maintains many strict standards to protect the forest in which it is located. There is no hot water here, only electricity for six hours a day, and laundry service only available for those staying for more than 10 days. Internet access is limited to encourage visitors to enjoy the nature around them. (That’s why I have no pictures for you, though I have taken some.)

Most importantly, there is no hunting allowed in this part of the rainforest and the Quichua tribes living nearby respect this rule. This part of the forest is more diverse and contains more wildlife, proven primarily by the fact that there are priates to research in the first place.

Anthony Di Fiore, recently a professor at New York University, helped start Proyecto Primates a couple of decades ago, providing a solid framework for the study of the large primate diversity around the station. I spoke with Di Fiore in New York about his work, and I’m here now to actually see it in person.

Di Fiore had left for the US already but I met with scientists Laura and Amy, who have been researching primates for years. Laura studies spider monkeys, which are a threatened species, and Amy studies saki and titi monkeys, neither or which have been studied in depth previously. Behavioral science in the field is much different than in captivity. I followed Laura and Amy each for a day as they followed their respective primate groups and recorded as many actions as they could.

Laura’s spider monkeys moved quickly but slept often. We would scramble through the jungle, climb over vertical walls of mud and risk getting stung by ants in pursuit of the monkeys, only to find them asleep in a tree by the time we got there. We usually had to wait about an hour or more for them to wake up and start moving or feeding again. Spider monkeys are larger in size, and so are hunted more often.

In contrast, Amy’s smaller saki monkeys moved at slow or moderate aces, but almost never rested for longer than a few minutes. Saki monkeys are one of few monogamous monkey groups and we followed a family of four through the forest.

I began this project with a focus on primates, inspired by my course in primate ecology two semesters ago. I have since realized that it is not possible to talk about the illegal wildlife trade in depth without including all wild animals. No major organization specializes in saving just Yasuni’s primates.

But primates do play a special role in the ecology of the forest. As scientists Di Fiore and Diego Tirira separately explained to me, and according to the dozens of scientific papers I read before coming here, large primates are important dispersal agents for large seeds in the rainforest. If the primates go extinct, the seeds will not be dispersed, and the larger trees will disappear, leading to the extinction of other animals and meaning the entire shape of the forest will be changed forever.

It is fitting that Tiputini will be the last major trip for my project — it represents an ideal for the rest of Yasuni and the entire Amazon rainforest, one that my research shows will be nearly impossible to achieve.

I’m WWOOFing next week so I can’t promise any more posts for a while, but I hope to write a couple more before I leave Ecuador in mid-August. Thanks again to everyone who has been commenting and subscribing!