My study abroad organization, SIT, prides itself on excursions and field learning and our most recent trip was incredible. Only two hours of flying total link the capital city of Ecuador with the beautiful Galapagos Islands.
Well. The journey isn’t so simple. The three hour boat ride between the airport on the island Baltra and the island Floreana was… a nightmare. I thought I was immune to seasickness but the waves between the archipelago that forms the Galapagos proved me wrong. Dramamine was necessary for that trip.
But the turbulent waves meant nothing in the face of beautiful black beaches. The sea lions basking on the coast greeted us as we finally got back to solid land. Among their ranks, we saw lizards trying to keep warm and absorb sunlight into their cold bodies.
The Galapagos Islands, known as Ninachumpi or “fire belt” are similar to Hawaii in that they are the result of slow and recent volcanic eruptions. I was constantly shocked by the transition from a desert-like rock to a near tropical rain forest as we ascended into the highlands surrounding volcanic cones of each island.
And so many incredible creatures have made this nearly inhospitable land home. I will never forget swimming with massive sea turtles or taking selfies with their cousins on land. My favorite memory is of a sea lion swimming toward me while snorkeling as if saying hi only to abruptly spin and dash away inches from my face. Or the school of fish dashing in front of my goggles followed by a penguin darting after them.
The life on the Galapagos is so dear, and I return to mainland Ecuador with the knowledge that ecosystems such as these islands are so vulnerable. They are also so important. The Galapagos aren’t in existence for us. They exist for the people that live there. They exist especially as homes for animals endemic only to that place on Earth! I am so thankful for the chance to have gone and I can only hope that the beauty which exists within Ninachumpi remains until the distant future.
The shining lights of Quito in the distance at night and the jagged mountainscape visible during the day are unlike any view from my room I have ever experienced. It is from the small town of Puembo, that I look out at the big city which is 7 miles away and about a thousand feet farther up. The views at Rincon de Puembo hostel aren’t the only things to speak highly of; we also have access to a pool and a staff that takes such good care of us. Unlike most study abroad experiences, we receive all our meals inside the hostel even with a snack to break up the day.It is so nice to be able to lean back into the vacation feel of the hostel sometimes.
And yet, the beauty of our home also is one of the most challenging parts of this trip. Within our little bubble of Rincon de Puembo, where we take all our meals, have all of our classes and there is so much to do, it is so easy to become separated from the host country in which we are living. In the vacuum of a host family experience, it is so challenging to find real connections with local Ecuadorians. It is for this reason that I wish we could catch public transit and have a commute to class. I wish we were encouraged to eat more meals out and meet locals.
Among these challenges to get out and explore though, I could not be more proud of our cohort! In Puembo, we have made the most incredible connections with small business owners and community leaders. There is a café/bar which threw us our own mini party. The local café FloralP has become my personal homework hub almost every day. We have also gone to Quito to explore and summited a volcano. My favorite connection so far though has been with the local library here in Puembo.
One day I walked in to rent a book and that simple experience has led to so many wonderful connections with the volunteers that keep the place running. We are in fact planning to help ourselves through coordinating programs with local children! It is in this little library on the corner where I have realized that small communities have so much more going on than what appears at first. This town of Puembo has so many individuals who care deeply for its future and it is an honor to be slightly involved.
The beauty of the SIT program is also that we get to explore and move around so much. Already we have gone on excursion to the Upper Amazon Basin and soon we will be going to the Galapagos islands. Further, my days will change so much once I am doing my Independent Study Project alone somewhere in Ecuador. After a month though, I am happy that we have made the most of our chances to explore each day.
Don’t get me wrong. I love a sandwich or wrap with chips for lunch. But the Ecuadorian guarantee of a soup every afternoon is a traditional staple that I will rave about once my days eating in Burwell dining hall start over. Lunch in Ecuador takes the place of American dinner as the heaviest meal of the day, and I have no complaints. Whether it be Sancocho, Encebollado, or cream of asparagus, I look forward to the liquid complement of every meal.
As much as food represents a cultural exhibit in any foreign place, cultural differences are best navigated through conversations with local folk. I was originally very sad do be in a small town forty minutes from Quito, but the individuals I have met here in Puembo have quickly become friends. In this way, our group has begun to integrate into the local community.
One of the coolest local connections we have made is with a local handyman. He has about three different careers a week, but for us, he is the taxi driver with capacity for thirteen people… in other words when the whole group needs to go somewhere, he is the man. Not only does he drive us around, but he also tells us where we need to visit and patiently waits while we explore. His generous patience allows us to be spontaneous within our constraint of no public transit. Last week he drove us to the Teleferico, a cable car which takes you to the top of a volcano right next to Quito!
It is not just the driver who is so helpful, but the entire community I have met so far here in Puembo. There is this genuine desire to help which is so refreshing and different from my experience in the United States. One of the receptionists at our hotel had trouble directing me to the local library, so the next day she brought me five books herself to borrow. Another friend who works at the local library, immediately reached out to her daughter who bicycles frequently when I asked for a place to rent one. In the vacuum of robust online presence for businesses and places to visit, it is wonderful that individuals are so willing to share. In the US where we can simply search for places online, there is an absence of similar experiences. I am so excited to see where else I can interact with locals and learn more about Ecuador and its culture!
Have you ever prepared for something so long that you forgot what it was like to breath? Well, 9,500 feet up in the Ecuadorian Andes, I am not quite sure I have gotten my first deep breath, but I can guarantee that the thin air is no obstacle for finding peace.
For three months, I have scheduled vaccinations, obtained malaria prophylaxis, packed, questioned myself, and anxiously analyzed the progression of Covid-19 variants.
And now I am here.
These past three days, I have felt nothing but relief. Nestled amongst these peaks, I am finally in the place where I will live for the next four months.
Traveling during Covid-19 is stressful, but it is such a privilege.
Nestled amongst these peaks, I am finally in the place where I will live for the next four months.
The beautiful grounds at Airport Garden Hostel in Tababela
However, I am not here to be comfortable. I am here to grow, to speak Spanish, and to learn. Our stay with a host family has unfortunately been cancelled but hostel life has been surprisingly beautiful and relaxing. We will soon move once again, and I am excited for our semester to keep us on our toes as we change where we are staying and leave on excursions.
Without the host family component, immersing into the culture is not as easy, but so far, some courage to speak to strangers and the effort to explore new places has led to incredible experiences. I have seen a Virgin Mary that draws a procession of Ecuadorian Catholics each year. I have been fortunate enough to meet the director of a school and receive a tour. More than anything, I have met generous, friendly people and I cannot wait for what happens next.
Engaging with my Latinx culture has been a perennial challenge for me. For the longest time, I assumed that being Puerto Rican was a burden, or somehow inherently made me less capable. With this assumption, I lost my desire to speak Spanish and as a third generation Puerto Rican, for most of my life I only knew simple commands (and a couple of curse words, but you would never catch me using those around the house).
Posing for a photo in Rincon, PR in June 2021
I say all of this because the passion for study abroad came to me when I finally realized the beauty of my own culture and identity through the National Hispanic Institute. Through exploring my own culture, I grew excited to learn about other peoples. In this way, my schooling for the past five years in Spanish has led to this moment. It is now that I embark on a journey which one quarter of my twenty-year life has built to.
the passion for study abroad came to me when I finally realized the beauty of my own culture and identity
My friends and I in Tampa during a National Hispanic Institute Program Excursion in June 2018
Surprisingly, I do not feel so much pressure. Wofford has helped me to find opportunity after opportunity to study abroad, whether in Mexico or Ireland, and I could not feel more prepared for my three months away.
Looking forward, I fully believe the rest of this year will change my life, with the sole requirement that I be present. I am awfully scared of the changes Covid-19 will make to my trip. I am worried that my peers and I may not get along. I am not sure how friendly Ecuadorian cuisine will be to my vegetarian diet. But the chance to travel is such a privilege, especially in 2021 and I am so excited to get going. Next stop… Quito, Ecuador!