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Day 1: Hasta Luego US of A!

June 18, 2014

By: Julia, Tara, Melissa, Lindsay (Team Malarone)

The Educators of Excellence Team arrived promptly at RDU with our expertly packed luggage in tow. While we each thought we were the lightest packer of the bunch, to our dismay, we all had various standards of “packing light.” Before the security check, we redistributed teaching materials that will be used on Day 3 when we go to the school in Comunidad Cumbijín. Once on the other side of security, without filled water bottles or sharp objects, we settled in at our gate. The time passed quickly with discussion of what medicines we were taking, convertible pants, and that Nordstrom just released fashion-friendly Tevas!

We boarded onto the plane bound for Miami and were rushed to sit down, but relieved to find out the bathroom facilities were back in working order. Two hours later, we were in Miami … with five hours to spare. We found a quiet corner to have a team meeting where we reviewed the itinerary, how we were feeling, and the goals of the trip, and got to know each other better.

Our team was privileged to be the first bloggers and are happy to introduce the team photo, complete with two stowaways that we would like to further introduce. First, we have Acrocito (little Acrocanthosaurus) who is joining us from the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. Our second friend is Olinguito, a newly-described mammal from the South American cloud forest. You may see them pop up in future blog photos. 🙂

We now have two hours remaining before departure to Quito! Thanks for joining us in the Ecuadorian experience and please remember our Internet access will not always be reliable, but we will post when we can. Please comment and ask questions and we will do our best to respond.

Ecuador Route

The journey we will take over the next 10 days!

Team Photo

All of us in Miami Airport; photo-bombed by Acrocito and Olinguito.

About Ecuador Culture & Ecology Institute

June 18, 2014

Alpaca looking at cameraSince 2004, select groups of North Carolina educators have joined a special collaboration in Ecuador, South America, between the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and Heifer International. On June 18, 2014, a new group of NC educators will explore Ecuadorian ecosystems, from the high altiplano to the Pacific coast, and learn about the animals and people who live in these places.

Day 8: Beyond the Sea

June 27, 2012

Somewhere, beyond the sea, await our lives back in North Carolina.  Here on our last day in Ecuador, we traveled to Los Frailes National Park for some reflective time on the preserved, pristine beach.  A few years ago Ecuador became more diligent about preserving its natural resources through the national park system and ensuring that the flora, fauna, and geography are intact for future generations.

Upon arrival at the park we were greeted with breathtaking views of sand, beach and crashing waves, bordered by mountain rock cliffs.  Seeing this remarkable spot truly made our group appreciate once more all of the natural beauty and biodiversity of Ecuador.  Each person took about 30 minutes to quietly reflect on their experience over the past week and find one object from the seaside to bring back to the group.  As each person came back to our starting point,  they added their object to the seaside collage and reflected on how this symbolized all of our many experiences and adventures. In a group circle, we shared our final thoughts and feelings about Ecuador and our experiences.

After our time on the beach we headed back to Puerto Lopez for lunch at the Hostel Mandala, before departing for Guayaquil.  We then boarded our bus for one last ride to our departure city, stopping for a final shopping trip at ProPueblo.  This unique store supports local women and their handicrafts trade by selling natural fiber baskets, paper goods, ceramics, and tagua nut jewelry or artwork.  We said our final goodbyes to Roberto, our fearless bus driver, and Miguel, our intrepid interpreter.  It was another bittersweet moment as we realized that our time here was coming to a quick close.

Despite our sadness over parting ways with Roberto and Miguel, we had a luxurious evening at our hotel in Guayaquil, enjoying a final dinner in a private room (meaning we pretty much took over the whole restaurant).  We left our hotel at 5 a.m. for the airport, saying final goodbyes to Marcelo and Monica, our tour guides, knowing that this was now the final chapter of our Ecuadorian adventure.

We arrived at Raleigh-Durham Airport one week ago as a group of strangers, embarking on a unique adventure; however we are leaving Ecuador as a group of friends and colleagues who will always treasure our time in this amazing natural wonder, creating a sisterhood which will only continue to grow and blossom.

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!