Ecuador: with my students

There are moments in your life when you think, “This is exactly where I’m meant to be right now.” That came into my mind early on in my 11-day journey through northern Ecuador with 17 students. Arriving in Ecuador for the second time in my life, I felt just as much fear and anticipation as I did the first time – but of a much different quality. Two and half years ago, when I arrived for the start of my Fulbright grant, I was simply terrified and totally alone in the middle of the night in a new country. This time, I was certainly not alone, and not unfamiliar with the country – but I felt responsible for the well-being of so many people.

My anxiety was compounded by the fact that our driver was not there waiting for us  when we emerged from customs around midnight at the Quito airport. But things got much easier after that initial flurry of phone calls, texts, and inquiries around the airport, and the bus pulled up at the curb for us about 45 minutes later to take us into the city.


Spectacular day for great views in the Andes. Las Ilinizas: two snow-capped volcanic peaks south of Quito. Photo taken from the Pan-American highway.

I’m reluctant to write too much about our adventures yet, as my students are presently working on their own blog posts. These will be published on our Earth and Atmospheric Science Department blog in October, and I’ll be linking to those here. I don’t want to steal their thunder. Instead, I’ll focus on some of the highlights and challenges for me, and then later, share more details about the trip.

One of the biggest highlights for me was simply traveling with this group of students. Anytime you bring together 17 people, you take a gamble. There’s always bound to be a trouble-maker, a complainer, or someone who can’t seem to quell their nerves. But this group did not have any of those people. Maybe that’s because they were a self-selected group of adventure-seekers with an open mind and friendly attitude. I was so impressed and proud of them throughout the trip as they showed, again and again, kindness and respect toward each other and toward the people we met along the way. They took the time to help each other out, and while grumpiness eventually set in as the physical challenges of being in the Amazon took their toll, and fatigue set in on the way home, there were no major dramas. For that, I was SO grateful. Millennials rock.

A number of these students had never left the US before. I loved seeing their first responses to Ecuador: their interactions with people, their astonishment at the (ahem) ‘free-form’ driving style more common in Ecuador, reactions to all the stray dogs, and best of all, I loved seeing my own awe for natural wonders reflected in their faces. I loved watching them evolve into global travelers, as they considered the implications of their journey, the impacts of climate change, the risks the people of Ecuador face from natural disasters.


At the Mariposario in Mindo, Ecuador.

In some ways, this is some of the easiest teaching I have ever done. I usually spend so much energy teaching just trying to get my students to come along on the journey with me, just trying to get them engaged and wanting to know more. But on this trip, I was able to save my energy for other things (like trying to give the bus driver directions, or translating ancient Andean prophecies).

The itinerary itself was spectacular. A few personal highlights:

  • Walking into the mariposario (butterfly aviary) in Mindo to the flutter of hundreds of wings.
  • Sampling chocolate – from bean to bar – from a small chocolate producer.

Cocoa beans, drying out in a hot-house at Mindo Chocolate Makers.

  • Hiking 1000 feet up out of a volcanic crater of Quilotoa while trying to take in the scenery and avoid mule trains.

The busy, dusty trail down to the lake in the center of the Quilotoa Crater.

  • Dancing with the Agato community near Otavalo, and learning about their philosophy of life and their relationship with the environment.

All dressed up for our party in the Agato community! (Near Otavalo, Ecuador – Imbabura Volcano in the background)

There were some challenges. For the first half of the trip, I was the only group leader, so along with that, I was travel coordinator, go-between person, interpreter, person-who-gives-directions-to-bus-driver, and teacher all in one. I had much less time and energy to be a teacher than I would have liked. We were able to keep costs really low on this trip by not having an official ‘tour director’ or coordinator. We used an agency to book our hotels, transport, and basic tours, but that was it. Now that I’ve essentially had to take on that coordinator job myself, I think it would be well worth our money to have someone along on our next trip who can take care of all that stuff for us. I’d rather not have teaching be the logistical challenge that it was for me.


Morning sunlight on my cabin at GAIA Amazon Lodge, along the Napo River.

Being the trip coordinator also really pushed my Spanish skills, and I liked that part of it. I was really happy that my Spanish always came through when I needed it, and it’s motivated me to want to keep working toward fluency someday.

Overall, despite the challenges, this was one of the best teaching and most meaningful travel experiences of my life. I’m hooked.



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