Thursday, April 24, 2014

My days are numbered

There are only 1 and a half weeks left here in Galapagos! Well for everybody else. I am lucky enough to stay on the island for 2 weeks after to help a USFQ professor do research on Darwin's finches. He does phylogenetics, or evolutionary genetics, work on the finches. Since the Galapagos have been becoming more and more populated, the finches have been beginning to eat more human food and evolve closer together morphologically. This is really interesting because the finches are famous in Biology for being the poster-children for evolution as they are have adapted different beaks to their specific food type. Now, they are beginning to look the same, and this is another interesting evolutionary change that I will be helping scientists watch. I will be banding the finches and measuring their bodies as well as taking blood samples for genetics work. I am really exciting that I get to be a part of a research project on the Galapagos--I feel like a real scientist!

The only thing that isn't so great about staying here is that I will miss my graduation ceremony and my roommates moving out of our apartment at CMU. The finch project is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of opportunity so I couldn't turn it down, but I am a little upset that I won't really get a sense of closure from college. I am currently in my last class of my undergraduate degree, which is pretty shocking. I am glad I get to finish here, but I also wish I could give CMU a more proper goodbye.

I've been up to a lot lately, which is why I haven't had time to post. I have gone on two dives, went back to Santa Cruz island for a field trip, watched a lunar eclipse from a cliff over the ocean, and have been enjoying the islands as much as I possibly can as this is probably the last time I will ever see them.

Our first dive was at Kicker Rock or Leon Dormido (sleeping lion). This is a huge rock that juts out of the ocean a few miles away from San Cristobal. I saw incredible fish, corals, sponges, sharks, and sea turtles here. It was so beautiful.
Me underwater!

A huge school of fish next to the rock.

Our next dive was a night dive, and it was my favorite one. The bottom of the ocean looks so different during the night, where you can see tons of spiny lobsters, sea cucumbers, scorpion fish (which are super poisonous), and other unique fish. We even saw a moray eel under a rock which was awesome! When we were coming up from our second dive of the night, the bioluminescence, which is caused by microscopic animals that light up when you disturb the water, was incredible. The only apt description I can think of was that it looked like I was swimming through the galaxy with little points of light swirling all around me. I will never forget those moments when we turned off our flashlights and swam around in the stars.

Now that I've been in Galapagos for almost three months, I can really see what this place is all about. Most people come here for a week or two, see the incredible wildlife and gorgeous landscape, and remember it as an enchanted place. I certainly am going to take that away from this trip, but having been here for so long, I see that there is a lot more to Galapagos than meets the eye. Socially and environmentally, there are a lot of big issues with the islands. For instance, there is a lot of corruption in the government here that makes it difficult to preserve the ecosystems as well as many people would like them to. As the population on the islands have grown so fast, the government hasn't been able to keep up with all the changes to the islands. For instance, the beautiful beach I went to on my first day here is actually a dumping ground for untreated sewage in the ocean. You can't see these things on the surface, but underneath there are a lot of problems that make the islands a little less enchanted. Additionally, something that really frustrates me is the "machismo" culture in Ecuador. Women are very marginalized on the islands, and there are incredibly high infidelity rates among men, divorce rates, and number of HIV/AIDS infected people. This is something that comes along with the culture in general, but it is difficult to accept it when I come from such a privileged point of view. Men here simply harass women for fun, which is very scary and uncomfortable being a foreigner.

I'm not going to guarantee too many posts very soon as I am going to pack these last days with as much as I possibly can. Galapagos has so many amazing things to offer, and I want to take it all in, despite its inevitable flaws.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Spring Break

Last week was our spring break aka island hopping tour. The whole thing was planned out for us; first we went to Santa Cruz, took a day trip to the small, uninhabited Bartolome, and then went to Isabela. A few of my friends went with one friend's host mom to Santa Cruz again for the weekend. It was by far the best spring break I have ever had.

In Santa Cruz, we did a bunch of snorkeling and went to the beach. It was all really beautiful and we saw some sharks, pelicans, and a couple of penguins. My favorite place in Santa Cruz is called Las Grietas, or the cracks. It is a place where two cliffs border a "crack" full of brackish water. The best part is you can climb the rocks and jump into the water. It was pretty terrifying but so much fun when I finally got myself to jump.

When we went to Bartolome we swam with a penguin! The Galapagos penguin is the only penguin that lives north of the equator, and it is adorable. At Bartolome, we snorkeled around this beautiful beach that ended in this gorgeous projection called Pinnacle Rock. We also hiked up one of the hills to see an amazing view. Like a lot of what we saw, there was mostly lava rock with sparse vegetation. The Galapagos was made completely from a hot spot in the ocean, and as the tectonic plate below them moves, so will the islands, with new ones being made. The islands move to the east about 7 cm every year.
Las Grietas


Pinnacle Rock
After three days in Santa Cruz, we went over to Isabela Island. This one was by far my favorite. There was a beautiful beach (and beach bar) where you could watch the sunset behind a mountain in the distance. In Isabela, we snorkeled and also hiked up a huge shield volcano called Sierra Negra. This volcano has a huge caldera, or crater on top. It felt like being in prehistoric times to see all of the lava rock and no life up there. After that hike, we went into a cave made of a lava tunnel where there was complete darkness. The water from the surface was dripping through the rock and bringing minerals to the roof of the cave, making it look like gold. There are fewer people on Isabela, and it feels a little more peaceful and laid-back than San Cristobal and Santa Cruz (which is saying a lot because every island is really laid-back). I would love to go back to Isabela and maybe dive or do some more snorkeling, and definitely spend more time on the beach. Being here felt like I was truly on vacation in paradise. In Isabela, we saw tons of white-tipped sharks, penguins, marine iguanas, and flamingoes, which was really exciting. The wildlife here is unbelievable. 
Sierra Negra

Inside the cave
I'm so thankful that I got to spend my spring break doing such amazing things. These islands are so unique and I couldn't think of any place better to spend this time. They are so gorgeous and full of awesome people. I hope I can come back here someday and I hope that these islands never change at all.

Monday, March 10, 2014

One month

So I have been in San Cristobal for about a month now. I think I have the island life down. Last week was Carnaval, or in the US, Mardi Gras/Fat Tuesday. This holiday comes before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. The premise is that people traditionally needed to consume all of their fats before giving them up for Lent. So in the US, we eat donuts and stuff, while in here in Ecuador we throw the donuts at each other.

Okay, we don't actually through donuts at each other, but the things that make them. At the beach outside our university, there were big parties on the weekend before Carnaval to Fat Tuesday. Everyone smeared one another with paint, flour, eggs, fish oil (ew), and water. It was a lot of fun because for a few days, a social barrier was broken down. Everyone in town is fair game. We made lots of young Ecuadorian friends by being painted and retaliating, and by the end of Tuesday, my neighbors and my host family had an all out war with water, flour, eggs, fish oil, and even chili powder. There was a mass of dough on my head by the end of the day and I was totally covered by paint.

Class has been pretty busy because this is our last week of Phylogenetics. It can be difficult to stick to work here because the beach is so distracting. We have a project due Friday in which we need to make a phylogenetic tree of the group of organisms that we chose. Our choice was big cats, so we found lots of data on the genetics and need to build a tree depicting the evolutionary relationships between the species. It's really difficult to use all this new software for it, but really interesting as well. Then, Friday afternoon we leave for spring break! We are going island hopping to Isabela, Santa Cruz, and Bartolome. I'm really excited for all the awesome snorkeling and hiking we will do, it's going to be amazing. The Galapagos are such a unique place with soo many things to see, I'm excited to get to see more of it!

Last week I also started my digital photography class. I really like it, the professor is from Quito and is a professional photographer with some really great work. Our class is based on landscapes and we needed to pick a theme to pull all of our photos together for a final project.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Coffee & fireworks

This week included a couple of field trips and a total of two extremely close-up fireworks shows. Also multiple parades.
San Cristobal is celebrating its independence day as well as a few other things I'm not 100% sure about. There have been lots of parties these two weeks, and I went to a parade last week when the queen of San Cristobal was being crowned.
The contestant from my neighborhood.
After the parade, there was a concert and fireworks. There were dancers from town that performed, food, and lots of people. It was really cool.
Last week, we went on a field trip to El Cafetal, the farm that produces Galapagos Coffee, and another farm in the highlands. We saw coffee growing in the understory of the forest, a more environmentally-friendly way to grow coffee as it protects the species who live in the forest habitat and is not a monoculture. We took the coffee berries right off the bushes and sucked on them. They definitely did not taste like coffee. We also went to El Junco, a freshwater lake. We volunteered on the farm and helped the owner do a month of work in a few hours. I'm glad that this was part of our class because farming reminds me of home and it felt good to be among a forest of tomato plants for a little while to help a local farmer.
Working in the tomato forest.
We went to multiple parties in town this week. One night, I went down with my family to watch the second fireworks display. Both displays involved a massive tower lined with fireworks that simultaneously were lit up, followed by extremely close up-in-the-air type fireworks. It was super impressive and dangerous, and one of my friends was hit on the head with a firework rock! We definitely learned our lesson to stay farther away from these over-the-top shows.
My sisters Dayana and Analia in front of our house.

Last week, I finished up my open water diver's certification! We went on a total of 4 dives in the ocean and 1 in the pool. It was such a surreal experience to be able to breathe underwater, and I've already seen some awesome things on our dives, including a shipwreck! The Galapagos are one of the best places to dive in the world, so I decided that this certification would definitely be worth it. Soon, I'm going to plan a night dive and a trip to Kicker Rock, a place a boat ride away from the island where you can see hammerhead sharks, Galapagos sharks, giant schools of fish, and lots of other amazing things. I feel so lucky that the first place I get to dive is the Galapagos. It's also a lot cheaper than a diver certification in the States, so I don't feel bad about spending all of the extra money. 
Next week marks the beginning of Carnaval. So the parties in San Cristobal will continue. I'll make sure I document that here.
I think I'm beginning to assimilate here. It's a lot different than Quito because Quito was fairly westernized and felt a little closer to the US. Here, there's more of a culture shock. It's a unique feeling to be on an island in the middle of the ocean with nowhere else to go but here. There is definitely that relaxed, easy-going islander attitude that is rubbing off on everyone. People who tended to be very organized and type-A at home have said that they are changing. I think my personality fits with this lifestyle; I've never been one to micromanage everything. However, it's still a big change to be restricted to one 558 square kilometer piece of land. I guess I've never before realized my continental privilege. 

Monday, February 10, 2014

First week in Galapagos

So now I am writing from San Cristóbal, Galapagos. San Cristóbal is the island closest to mainland Ecuador, and we flew in on a one and a half hour flight from Guayaquil on Sunday. I wasn't really sure what to expect, and I haven't even seen that much of the island, but I will tell of the experiences I have had so far.

This is the town I live in, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. This picture was not retouched in any way, the water is actually that blue. What I do with most of my time here, when I'm not in class, is go to the beach. There are some amazing beaches on the island, most of which I haven't even seen yet. I also have gone snorkeling tons of times, and every time I see the most amazing marine life. I've seen tons of fishes, sea turtles, sea lions, marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies, pelicans, frigate birds, Darwin finches, the list goes on. Since the wildlife here has no natural predators, nothing is scared of you. That's one of the reasons Galapagos is one of the biggest tourist destinations (besides being the birthplace of evolution and modern Biology and all), is because you can easily see wildlife that you might never see otherwise. I'm sure I will post plenty of pictures of sea lions and such (because sea lions are EVERYWHERE), but for now I've been taking it easy with the pictures.
My backyard, with my family's two puppies.
Annaliya, my four year old host sister.
Playa Mann, the beach in front of my university.

My host family consists of my mom, dad, and twelve year old and four year old host sisters. They are really nice and easy to get along with, even though I don't speak much Spanish. I feel comfortable practicing my Spanish with them, and I think they will really help me learn. We live in a small, orange house that I need to climb a hill to get to, and I wasn't lucky enough to get internet in my house, but I was lucky enough to get air conditioning in my room, which I definitely prefer. It is so hot here. I know I can't really complain with Ohio and Michigan covered by multiple feet of snow, but still. 

A look-out point near Tijeretas, an awesome snorkeling spot.

The path to Tijeretas.

I am liking living here so far. It's a lot different from Quito because I no longer have to be constantly worrying about being robbed and getting places. Here, I walk everywhere, feel totally safe at night, and no matter where I go I will find some friends. I am planning on starting diving classes soon to get certified which I am really excited for, Galapagos is supposed to be one of the best places in the world for diving. The night life here is also fun. I will keep updating on what it's like to live in Galapagos, and post more pictures. Hasta luego!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Las montañas

Two weeks ago (I know it's been too long) I spent time in the paramo, at Chimborazo, and in the cloud forest. The paramo is a grassland that exists at a certain elevation, and only a few plants and animals are able to thrive there. One of those animals is the vicuna, a relative of the alpaca, PICTURED HERE:

The paramo has really harsh conditions, spanning from desert-like rocky areas to lower elevations with lots of grasses, shrubs, and hummingbirds. The weather changes really rapidly there; it can go from summer to winter in just a few hours. While we were hiking, it hailed on us and then an hour later became sunny and warm. And the views from up there were amazing. 
Valerian, which can be used as a relaxant.

Hiking this high was pretty difficult. After just a few steps, my heart was beating really fast and I felt like I had just been running. It was really rewarding to get to our top spot, which was called the ear of Chimborazo, a cave where indigenous people went to pray to the mountain. When we reached the cave, our guide said a prayer in Quechua to help us have a safe and happy journey in Ecuador. It was really beautiful.
Our professor, Esteban, in the ear of Chimborazo.
Next stop was the cloud forest. This might have been my favorite field trip so far. Unfortunately I was not able to take any pictures there, so I will paint a picture with my words. The cloud forest is typically how you imagine a jungle, with plants living literally everywhere, to the point that epiphytes, or plants that grow on trees branches, cover up to 135% of branches there. When we went, it was incredibly muddy and we sank into the mud with almost every step, making the hike pretty difficult, which some people didn't like. However, I thought it was awesome and I stayed behind our guide, who wielded a machete through the forest to clear the way for us. After we finally made it to our halfway point, we swam in an ice-cold waterfall, which felt way too cold but really great at the same time. The cloud forest got its name from its higher elevation unlike that of a tropical rainforest like Tiputini; clouds roll through the forest, water condenses on the trees and flows downward, making it super wet and plant-y. I really loved all of the biodiversity and abundance of plants there, and I thought even though it was hard to hike through, it was incredibly beautiful.
On our way to the cloud forest, we saw Banos, a really cool town boasting a huge active volcano, Tungurahua. The crazy thing is, two weeks after we left Banos and the cloud forest, Tungurahua had a lot of activity and a huge ash storm resulted. Here's a picture I took of the volcano: 
This is terrible for the residents of Banos because it can contaminate water, kill animals, and be an all-around nuisance for people to clean up and such. But you have to admit, it's still really awesome. Ecuador is just so awesome. 

P.S. I am in Galapagos now! I will post soon about that, I just found a reliable internet connection to use!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

La selva

Last week I got to do something I have always dreamed of: going to the Amazon rainforest. The first day we traveled there by plane, boat, bus, and then boat. It's that isolated. We first went down the Napo River, into indigenous as well as oil company territory, and then down the Tiputini River. We stayed at Tiputini Biodiversity Station which is owned by USFQ.
On the way there, we saw river dolphins coming up for air. We had to stop the boat repeatedly to look at all of the amazing wildlife we were already seeing. Once we got to the station, we went swimming because the station is incredibly hot and humid. We all stayed in cabins that were supplied with treated water from the river and electricity 2 times per day. I felt very isolated from the rest of the world and I loved it.
On the second day, we met our guide Myer, and he took us on several hikes throughout Tiputini's land. First, we went to the tower, a structure with lots of stairs and a platform sitting on top of a giant seba tree. From there, we could see above the canopy of the rainforest in every direction. We stood up there for about an hour looking for wildlife and enjoying the view. From here, there was nothing but trees in every direction.
The stairs up to the tower.
From the tower, we saw woolly monkeys, toucans, parrots, lots of other birds, and lots of epiphytes, or plants that live on the branches of trees. After the tower, we went over to the bridges, which are Indiana Jones-style rope bridges that span the canopy. We had to wear harnesses while we walked the bridges and connect them to cables in case the bridges collapsed which was scary but reallllly cool. It was so fun and gave us a great view of the forest, even though I was repeatedly bitten by ants.
After lunch, we went to a lagoon and took a canoe around to see the wildlife living there. The vegetation there was so beautiful, with small islands of palms and vines throughout the muddy water. We saw some amazing birds like the Hoatzin and Oropendola, which makes really cool nests that hang from trees and has an awesome call.
Oropendola nests

Everyday I spent at Tiputini I swam in the river. It felt great to get in the cold water after being in the heat and humidity all day. The rainforest is so humid that we had to keep our electronics in a "dry box" or else they would stop working after a day. The river had a strong current that we would float in, and after we got out, our skin and hair would be really soft due to the minerals in the river.
One day, we had a class discussion about the issues that the oil companies have brought to the indigenous communities and the rainforest. It was eye-opening to learn about how the social dynamics of indigenous people have changed since the oil companies have introduced Western industry and economics into the lives of these people. Since the indigenous people now have the need for money, they have created an industry of killing wild game and using the oil company's transportation to sell it at a market. This is causing "empty forest syndrome" in this area because the forest is still intact, but the indigenous people are taking animals out at a fast rate. Coming up with a solution for this problem in our class discussion was very difficult.
The last day we floated down the river in life jackets which was really fun. At night, we rode a boat down the river to see some caimans, which are relatives of alligators and crocodiles. When we were returning, we saw the full moon over the river, which was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen and will always stay with me as an image of the Amazon. It's hard to describe one of the most biodiverse places on earth, but the rainforest was a place that felt more alive than anywhere I've been. I really hope I can go back one day and maybe do something to help this amazing place.
Now, here are some more pictures of the Amazon. Since I only had a smartphone that didn't work very well for pictures, most of these are taken from Meg Sullivan and April Woerner because they had awesome cameras and are great photographers.

Spider monkeys


Next to a huge fig tree

Dung beetle

My hand after it was dyed by a fruit