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Day 7: A Whale of a Tale

June 24, 2012

By the Alpaca Dames and Llama Luis

If a picture paints a thousand words, then our experiences today would need at least a million.  After a breakfast surrounded by a tropical forest of flowers in a dining room decked out with hand-crafted woodwork and Ecuadorian colors, we set off.

We boarded our boat along with Machalilla National Park Ranger Limber and headed out to Isla de la Plata.  As our boat cut through the waves, it didn’t take long before we saw our first moment of “Wow,” as a humpback whale breached a mere 100 feet away.

Humpback whale breaching

Humpback whale breaching

 Humback breaching

Seventy or so minutes later, we arrived at the park where we were given a brief overview of the island’s trails and what we could expect to see.  After climbing 150 steps to reach the top of the island, we observed blue-footed boobies, along with other fauna, as well as a myriad of flora.  We saw how loofah grows on a vine, and Mary Ann and Luis were treated to a contemporary hairdo, thanks to the liquid produced by Moyuyo  berries.  Another interesting plant we saw is called Palo  Santo tree and learned that its sap is used as a shampoo and twigs for incense.

 Mary Ann Brittain

Hiking along the top of the cliffs, we circled back, watching several pairs of blue-footed boobies as they displayed their unique mating rituals.  Too soon for us, we returned to the boat, trawled about and witnessed numerous green sea turtles swimming around us.  We also observed pelicans, red-billed tropic birds, frigate birds, and blue, red-footed and Nazca boobies circling the island.  We had not traveled far before we observed another whale breaching. As our excitement rose, we spent considerable time following different pods, and were rewarded by multiple whale sightings, including one group that included a calf and swam within 20 feet of our boat.  The captain quickly steered away from the whales to keep a safer distance.

Blue-footed boobies

Blue-footed boobies

After our amazing day, we were saddened to say “Goodbye” to Ecuadorian colleagues and friends, Luis and Adalberto as they departed to go back to their respective schools.

Teachers on Isla de la Plata

Day 6: Green Hectares is the Place to Be

June 23, 2012

By the Tr1plet$

This morning, we enjoyed a beautiful breakfast at Cumbres de Ayangue.  The ocean breeze complimented the fruit and balloon bread, made of cheese and plantains, and was appreciated by all.   The wind speed, collected by Amy and Terry, was a perfect 1.9 mph.  It didn’t even mess up our hair.

Testing the windspeed

After an hour of driving, we arrived at Dos Mangas, the birthplace of Ecuadorian agriculture.

Fausto, the main person for Heifer’s coastal projects, prepared us for the day by explaining Heifer’s role in agriculture. He also told us about new laws that made the waters surrounding Ecuador open for international fishing.  The 200 miles that used to be governed by Ecuador was greatly reduced to only 18 miles.

We learned that Heifer is supporting agro-ecological solutions that include empowering people, partnering with local non-profits, and providing loans that aren’t necessarily monetary.  These loans are often plants that are harvested and their fruits are sold to repay the loan. Vision Integral has helped farms prepare for harvest by providing the farmers with quality plant material like grafted lemon trees and pineapple starts.

farmer samples out fresh cacao

Farms use the profits from their plants to hire more workers, often family members.  The farms are 100% organic.  Heifer networks between communities that use young adults to spread the word about healthy, organic, sustainable farming.  Part of the mission of the family farms is diversification by inter-cropping.

We proceeded to visit two farms.  One belonged to Tito and Josephina Mendoza.  The other belonged to a neighbor. At Tito and Josephina’s farm, the couple walks the trail three times a day to harvest and maintain their farm.  For our group, the trip was a 15 minute drive, plus a steep 45 minute walk … One way!

Entering into the tropical dry forest, we saw bromeliads that are endemic, found only in this part of the world.  We even saw a tagua tree and nuts, which we later learned from Sonja are edible for up to 8 weeks after the nuts have fallen off the tree.  The animals that roamed the farm were much more exotic than Old MacDonald’s.  We were within two feet of a llama, chickens, tilapia (in a pond), horses, and several dogs.  Between the two farms, we tasted sugar cane, tangerines, oranges sliced by a machete, stevia, red peppers, raw chocolate, cherry tomatoes, and yucca.  The farmers were extremely generous in sharing their crop, as all of the produce is sold at market. Unfortunately, we never got to try the other crops that were being grown, like corn, bananas, papaya, mangoes, lemons, pineapple, chaya-like coriander, and neem, with leaves that act as an organic pesticide and insecticide.

Kissing a llama

We ate lunch in the community near the farms.  To start off, we enjoyed albacore soup with yucca, corn, and other vegetables.  The main entrée included plantains, rice, slaw, and fried trumpet fish.  For dessert, we gulped up some freshly squeezed orange juice.

The government wants to be an agro-exporter of bananas, chocolates, mangoes, etc., but this type of farming is called monoculture, which reduces biodiversity.  Local farmers know that this type of production requires chemical pesticides, insecticides, and causes the land to deteriorate much quicker than farming with traditional sustainable methods that have been around for centuries.

We left the farms and commuted to Puerto Lopez safely.  We stumbled upon the annual Festival of Whales, Festival de Ballenas, which included indigenous dancing, music, and an artisan market for shopping.

Day 5: A Lesson in Humanity

June 22, 2012

IguanasThe early morning departure led us down a yellow road to a waiting airplane to Guayaquil. The arrival landed the group in a fast moving metropolitan scene, with familiar fast food restaurants and less traditional dress. Fausto, the Heifer representative in this area, met us at the gate. We rode to a coastal rural area at 522 feet. We enjoyed learning about the candelabra cactus everywhere, and spotted several vultures on the way. Everyone shouted with joy when we first sighted the ocean! Soon, Alex and Luis were telling us about their ocean communities. It was concerning to learn that the fisherman are no longer able to make a living here because the larvae all became diseased. They are attempting tourism to replace the fishing economy. We passed several shrimp farms which, unfortunately, are part of the problem. They kill all the native mangroves, endangering local endemic fauna and damaging the water health. Therefore, ironically, the shrimp farms are one of the reasons the ocean shrimping is no longer viable – and way of life destroyed. The desertification from the industrial farming (such as the shrimp farms) of this area is sadly evident — a huge contrast from the rainforest! The resilient people of this area do the best they can.

We arrived around 11:30 for our visit to Alex’s school, Escuela de Formacion Artesanal Pichincha in Palmar. Goats and pigs were outside the school gate, and a vermillion flycatcher was in the school yard. After traveling with these men for days, it was so wonderful to see their community and even meet their families. Excitement filled the air as we arrived ready to interact with Ecuadorian Teachers in grades 3, 5, and 6.

Teachers and students

The children and community of Palmar greeted us with lots of smiles. The students worked hard to prepare a dance to welcome us. Unfortunately, the electricity was out today, and they couldn’t play the music for the dance, so the teachers sang and clapped. The students wowed us with a traditional dance dressed in vibrant traditional dress. The children performed enthusiastically.
We split into our groups to work with our respective teachers to collaborate on lessons created by the 2010 Ecuador Team. We carried boxes of materials all the way from North Carolina to give to the school for these lessons. Our group worked on life cycles with the third grade, one did an inquiry-based lesson on whales to the 5th grade, and one group engaged in an experiential activity on the water cycle with the 6th grade class. The teachers were enthusiastic and students were super engaged in the lessons. The third grade teacher was brilliant. He was upbeat and animated as he read the book, The Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, and students sang and danced to a butterfly life cycle song. Students then put pictures of the butterfly life cycle in order and we placed them on the wall to display their work. It was such an honor to be welcomed into this community. All of us, as teachers, have a desire to make a difference in the lives of children, so today was incredibly rewarding. We knew the materials we were leaving behind would be greatly appreciated. Soon, the school day ended. Many of the children were greeted by parents or sibling outside the walls of the school, gathered under a large ceibo tree.
Participants with Ecuadorian students
Several of the children were carrying home old desks and chairs to be painted over the weekend. It was hard to leave behind the sweet smiles and hugs of the children, but soon we were on the bus and headed for the beach! After a seafood lunch, we checked into our hotel. This place is beautiful — right on the seaside. We were greeted by a green pacific turtle, about 5 feet in diameter,  swimming and feeding in the reef below! We also spotted a huge marine iguana clambering on the cliff. Pelicans, swallows, and frigate birds circle and swoop above. Hundreds of huge crabs cling to the rocks. Oven birds and mocking birds scoot across the ground.

Day 4: Welcome to the Jungle

June 21, 2012

By The Alpaca Dames:

Culebra Verde (Liophis Reginae) Snake

Culebra Verde (Liophis reginae) Snake

After a delicious breakfast of homemade breads and native fruits, we donned our rubber boots, called Wellingtons in Ecuador, and left our hotel to explore a portion of the cloud forest near Banos de Agua Santa.  Traveling through rock hewed tunnels, we arrived at our starting point, led by our intrepid guide, Miguel, and a local herpetologist, Juan Pablo.  With these two pioneering the path, we set out to see many of the flora and fauna that are endemic to Ecuador.

As we journeyed, we experienced many sights and sounds.  Of these, we saw several species of the more than 4000 orchids along with several types of bromeliads.  While trekking through the mud and muck, we also saw and heard several animals including an Inca jay, a coati, a native snake called the Culebra Verde, and a black tamarind monkey.

Convergence of Rivers

Convergence of Rivers

With viewing and seeing these amazing animals, we listened to the mesmerizing and melodious sounds of the converging Tigre and Zuna Rivers.  These two rivers help form and shape part of the Amazon River basin.  To conclude the hike, we were treated to a dazzling display of butterflies, as they danced around mountain rocks in a myriad of colors.

Butterflies Puddling

Butterflies Puddling

After parting with our muddy Wellingtons, we left the cloud forest en route to Quito.  We stopped at a quaint hacienda in a small town for a delicious lunch of avocado soup, chicken and asparagus enchiladas, topped off with passion fruit mousse.  The hosts of the restaurant are a husband and wife team, who cook and serve the meals along with maintaining the property.  While the rest of the day was spent on the bus, it was still filled with bittersweet moments as we had to say goodbye to two of our new friends and Ecuadoran guides, Marta and Maria Fernandez, but then we were given a stunning and memorable view of a snow capped Cotopaxi mountain.

The day began with the humbling sights and sounds of the rainforest but ends with the music and flavor of the capital, Quito.  Adventure awaits us again…tomorrow!

Day 3: One with Nature in the community

June 20, 2012

Written by the Tr1plet$

We spent the day in awe of the sense of community and Heifer’s work here in the Andes. The local people we spent the day with shared their lives with us, including their deep connection to their land and their way of life. We no longer felt like tourists, but instead, part of their community. Minga is the Spanish word used to describe how the community always works together. Heifer helped this community restore their natural resources and increase their ability to return to their ancestral way of farming. This community values local, organic, sustainable food production so they can continue to live on their land.

Our day proceeded as follows…

Ate breakfast in the clouds at Wirachocha (13,775 feet)
Maria Fernando, a Heifer representative, held our attention as we climbed the mountain on the bus. She told us all about the struggles and realities of geo-engineering taking over the country. Can you believe that Ecuador is the 4th largest producer of broccoli, but the people don’t even consume the vegetable? Here’s what really goes down. Ecuador is a large producer of broccoli and flowers. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough fertile land to produce these products. That’s where big businesses come in to help. Or do they? Nanotechnology allows for silver to bomb the clouds above the broccoli and flower fields, so the clouds don’t release hail. Then, the crops can continue to grow. A few kilometers down the road, Mother Nature shows Ecuador who’s boss and pours down hail from all the clouds that were affected by the blasts. This hail lands on unsuspecting farmers, kills the plants, and harms the land. Yeah, we know. We enjoyed a homemade breakfast thanks to Marta and Patricio “Pato,” and continued to digest and discuss solutions to this unjust situation.

Travelled to Quilotoa Volcano and craft market
Renee prepared us for the Quilotoa by telling us that it is a caldera, or cauldron, that was formed about 800 years ago when the highest peak of a volcano imploded because of the weight of the magma flowing out. It has since filled with beautiful azure water. The views were incredible, and the makeshift market set up outside the viewing area gave everyone a chance to mingle with the locals, take pictures, and purchase gloves, hats, and souvenirs. Later, we happened upon a group of children that were involved in a project supported by Heifer. What a small world.

Endured bumpy roads and possible cerebral edema (kidding!) and viewed the paramo in Communa Maca Grande
You know when you have to close your eyes and recline your seat while driving around the curves of the Blue Ridge Parkway? Imagine a six-year-old driving the car, and hitting every stump, bump, and pot hole. Despite our experienced driver, Roberto, we all felt a little queasy driving up the “under construction” road to get to the paramo. Once we arrived at 12,281 ft, almost everyone was looking for some cocoa tea. Our group size tripled, thanks to the community and all the children, and we packed ourselves into the back of 3 pickup trucks to get to the paramo. Once we arrived, we exited the bus right before it nearly overturned, and took some incredible photos of the landscape, people, and the magic that came next!

Gifts from the Community

Gifts from the Community

Experienced Paramo Magic
After a short hike, with plenty of marsh like areas and “squish shish” sounds, Wendy taught us the true definition of a paramo. A paramo is a high elevation wetland with unique plants that are typically grasses and rosettes, and the soils are very acidic. There’s plenty of peat moss, too. We viewed the headwaters of the Amazon, and splashed around the creek with the locals. We used our senses to listen, see, smell, and feel the moisture in the plant life, scat, and quaking bog. To our surprise, the community had woven hand made bags, or bolsas, with our names and Ecuador 2012 tailored in beautifully for us to take with us.

Rachel holding young alpaca

Rachel holding young alpaca

After receiving our gifts, we were unable to continue our journey, due to the storm approaching. Maria filled the time by reading our auras. She doused anyone with a lack of energy with mountain essence water to fulfill their void.

We scurried over to view the alpaca farms, too! There wasn’t any fencing, and the caballeros rounded them up, carried them over, and let each one of us hold one.

They’re lighter than you would think. What’s more surprising, is the connection between the alpacas and the caballeros. Maria told us that each alpaca had been baptized through a ritual naming ceremony, and the children act as godparents to one alpaca. This is a great activity to teach them responsibility. According to Terry, the alpacas don’t impact the paramo as much as cows because their feet are padded, they graze carefully by not pulling out the plants, and they leave their manure in one location which makes it easy for the owners to clean and harvest for the crops.

Mount Rushmore of alpacas

Mount Rushmore of alpacas

The Ecuadorian community honored MaryAnn and Kim by giving them the opportunity to choose and name two alpacas. Can you guess the names they gave them?

Enjoyed a celebratory lunch at the community’s school
We were honored guests at a local celebratory feast. Our thoughtfully prepared communal meal included local varieties of boiled potatoes, tubers, barley soup, potato soup, sheep cheese, tomato onion salad, corn on the cob, and … cuy (guinea pig). Amy taught us that guinea pig has been prepared for special guests at celebrations since pre-Columbian times. The flavors were simple, hearty, and delicious. The head of the community closed the meal with gratitude for our presence and we were extremely honored to share this time with them.

And treated ourselves to a good night’s rest!
We dined on an incredible trout dinner with views of a smoking volcano.

All in all, we had a wonderful and eventful day. We learned about the community of Maca Grande and we are inspired to enhance relationships and work on issues in our own communities.

Closing Haiku by Sharon
Sea of greens and browns
Alpacas grazing in the field
Gift of love and hope

Day Two

June 19, 2012

We woke up in Quito for 7am breakfast this morning. The day began with fresh eggs, toast with homemade blackberry jam and cantaloupe juice. Miguel, our gifted and energetic guide introduced us to Luis and Adoabierto (who is going by Alex), two Ecuadorian teachers who will be traveling with us.

Teaching Boxes for the coming workshop

Teaching Boxes for the coming workshop

After a simple breakfast we headed to Heifer International’s Ecuador headquarters in Quito to assemble our teacher boxes and developed a plan to co-teach at Alex’s school on Friday. Maria Fernandez gave an inspirational presentation on the incredible work Heifer is doing here.  Thanks to the initiative of the Ecuadorian people and Heifer’s partnerships and work, poverty is being reduced using sustainable methods. Food sovereignty is one of the major goals of Heifer — helping people gain control of the land and resources, so they can grow their own food and eat nutritiously.  There are multiple strategies to this end, including empowering women, making farm-urban connections (such as farmers’ markets), and preserving natural resources.  The latter is especially important in this country that contains every major biome and the most environmental diversity in the world.

Several people from Heifer are joining the group: Monica, Maria, Marcelo, and Marta, plus our patient bus driver, Roberto.  Heifer has ingeniously planned our trip to be a true partnership between Heifer, the Museum, and teachers (of both countries).  Together, we can do so much: the power of relationships!  Most of us are trying to communicate in a mixture of Spanish and English, while Miguel translates (when necessary) with great patience and expression.

Teachers at the foot of the volcano

Teachers at the foot of the volcano

Our diverse and excited group left Heifer International at 9,000ft and ascended to 11,986ft in the Paramo (highlands). We stopped at a Hacienda for a fresh four-course delicious meal and viewed a variety of birds, alpacas, llamas, burros, horses and farms with livestock staked out in their fields to eat the lush green grass. One of the highlights of our day was the viewing of Cotopaxi, the highest active volcano on Earth. We learned that the glaciers on the mountain have dramatically receded in recent years, due to global warming.  Nonetheless, they were magnificent to behold.  In addition, we roamed Boulder Field identifying volcanic rock and taking pictures of the awesome views.

Cotopaxi volcano

Cotopaxi volcano

We have arrived in Latacunga, a busy and beautiful colonial town, with elaborate architecture.  Everyone checked into rooms in our charming hotel, which is centrally located and very old.  Our evening team meeting ended with Maria Fernandez speaking about how the traditional people here see the mountains as living spirits — like a grandparent.  She emphasized that it is important to respect the mountains.

The First Day

June 18, 2012

Day One

Group leaving from RDU

Group leaving from RDU

Team R.A.P.S just arrived at Raleigh International Airport. The team is super excited about the trip. In the first 20 minutes of getting together we examined each others packing and talked about what they packed for the trip. Sweet Doni baked delicious and healthy muffins for each of us.  The energy level is positive and optimistic.  The check-in lady commented on what a fun group we are!  Everyone cleared security without a hitch, so we had plenty of time to sit at our gate, providing time for our first group activity: creating UV bead necklaces, which will turn colors in the sunlight.  We received a wonderful send off from Sonja’s daughter with her Alpaca doll and stylish attire.

—Team R.A.P.S.

Participant´s child shares her toy alpaca with group

Participant´s child shares her toy alpaca with group

We’re in Miami!  We actually arrived early, despite our unanimous decision (minus Kim and MaryAnn) to take the $500 voucher in exchange for our seats on the overbooked flight.  As we await our flight 4 hours from now, we take over the outlets to write to you…

Our flight was officially awesome.  We flew on a brand new 737.  Imagine… Flip down TV’s, an elated pilot who thanked us from the bottom of his heart, and enough time to learn a few key words in Spanish.  Really the flight was just normal and safe, with a noticeably bumpy runway.  Unfortunately, there weren’t any Horatio sightings or Kardashian entourages.  But our crew from NC Museum of Natural Sciences is turning some heads with our outdoor fashion gear.

We’re building up our excitement as we near Quito by sharing our intentions to be actively engaged, present during the experience, and making connections with each other and our foreign friends.  Tonight we’ll meet our trip leaders, Monica, Adalberto, Miguel, and Luis, who already have plans for us.  Hopefully, their plans include a map to the hotel and some Ecuadorian music.

—Team Tr1plet$

Talk about the inside scoop:  we have met a wonderful young woman from Quito who has given us pointers on where to go to see the most awesome sights, what not to eat (pork and pork products), areas for tourists to avoid (not on our planned agenda), and confirming that our itinerary is set to take us to “amazing” places!  We are feeling welcomed – as if we already have met a friend.  We are looking forward to all the other new friends we will make once we land in Ecuador.

Wendy and Rachel hard at work creating part of this first blog entry.

Wendy and Rachel hard at work creating part of this first blog entry.

Though we plan to arrive nearing midnight in Quito, we look forward to other team work – taking physical measurements with a “Kestrel,” a nifty device that will give elevation, wind speed, humidity, temperature, and the like – and completing a page or two in a group journal.

Adventure awaits, and our group is excited to begin our expedition throughout Ecuador!  We know that many new sights, sounds, and tastes await us.  So, let the journey begin!

—The Alpaca Dames

We arrived safe and sound at our hotel after midnight eager to see Quito in the light of day.

More about Ecuador Culture and Ecology Institute

June 17, 2012

The Ecuador Culture and Ecology Institute is part of the Museum’s Educators of Excellence Program, which strives to provide exceptional educators with staff development opportunities that transform the way they view and teach the natural sciences and more.

The Ecuador Culture and Ecology Institute has a special focus on the connections between environmental sustainability and poverty while experiencing the incredible biodiversity of Ecuador.  The Museum’s partnership with Heifer International provides access to Heifer projects in local communities which are improving their own standard of living through environmentally sustainable practices.  A workshop at a school includes North Carolinian and Ecuadorian teachers working together to create and implement hands-on science lessons using materials that will be donated to the school.  Opportunities for natural history observations range from alpacas and orchid-rich volcanoes in the highlands to whales and blue-footed boobies off the coast.

It’s a trip of a lifetime.  It has changed the way I look at life.  All teachers, especially younger teachers, should have an experience like this!”  1st Grade Teacher, Wake County

“This is the best program that the Museum does.”  4th Grade Teacher, Onslow County

Kim Smart

Blue footed Booby and Chick

Blue footed Booby and Chick