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Wildlife of the San Cristobal, Galapagos

            When I arrived in the Galápagos I was surprised by the vegetation.  When you hear about the Galápagos, it is described as this paradise with a huge amount of vegetation.  From first glance it really doesn’t seem like that.  Cacti and shrubs dominate the landscape and the black rocks amplify the heat to an extreme.  After exploring the island a little more and entering the water, I have realized what a beautiful place it really is.  Although sea turtle populations are threatened, snorkeling with a green sea turtle is common place here.  Sea lions are hated by the locals because of their abundance on the beaches, large howls, nasty smells.  (I still think they are super cute.)  Marine Iguanas are not easy to spot while walking along the volcanic rocks, but not because of their abundance.  While snorkeling I have seen so many different beautiful fish I can even begin to name them all (plus I don’t know half the names).  Sea bird seen include Frigate birds, blue footed boobies, endemic gulls, pelicans, and Nazca boobies. 

            I have now snorkeled at Leon Dormido or Kicker Rock (the English name) twice.        Here you are pretty much guaranteed to see sharks.  I saw hammerheads, white tip reef sharks, black tip reef sharks, and Galapagos sharks.  The second time I went I thought it was cooler (and scarier) because the sharks were closer to the surface and closer to us.  At one point I was diving down looking at all the beautiful fish that go there as well, when I looked up to see a Galápagos shark a meter and a half from me.  Face to face, we both swam away quickly.  Arguably cooler than the sharks was the school of eagle rays we followed for a bit.  The way they swim is so majestic and beautiful it is crazy.  Also amazing was a school of fish (forget what type) that seemed to go on forever.  I held my breath for as long as I could, allowing them to get acclimated to me and just swim around me.  I was literally inside a school of fish.  Here there was no shortage of sea turtles as well.

            Apart from the rocky shores and cliffs, travel uphill just 400 meters and you are in a completely different ecosystem, the highlands.  Here it is like a rain forest.  Lush is the name of the game, along with a beautiful freshwater lake volcano.  This is where they get all drinking water; no swimming please! 

            I still need to explore more, and see even more species snorkeling!    

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The Coffee Farm

            I traveled to a coffee farm the other day.  It was beautiful.  It is funny because I live in a state that is all farms, but I have never seen a farm that was actually beautiful.  This coffee farm, El Cafetal, is a sustainable farm.  It is certified organic along with several other certifications one of which I had never heard of before.  The certification is awarded to farms that are closed systems, so there is no waste, ie an actual ecosystem.  The coffee was of course shade-grown coffee.  We walked through the fields, or should I say forest, of coffee as the owner explained everything.  We were able to eat the fruit, which the bean is inside of.  It was so sweet!  I felt I was back in the rain forest again.  The bean grown at this farm is specialty coffee.  The species of coffee is only grown in Ecuador and one other country.  It is very expensive coffee.

In order to get the best beans they sort them five times.  First farmers pick by hand only then best beans seen visually.  Then they place them in this large tube the good ones float while the bad ones sink (it may be the other way around).  They then put them through a machine that sorts them and can take out “non-top caliber” beans by weight.  They then sort them again by hand and put them in the oversized tube once again.  After the best beans are found a shucker machine takes off two of the four layers of the fruit.  This portion is used as compost while the remaining bean and two additional layers are fermented to allow the third layer to be taken off.  The fourth layer is kept on the bean.  It takes seventy beans to make one cup of coffee.  The beans are sold this way to Starbucks among other vendors.  By purchasing beans unroasted, Starbucks is allowed to make huge profits.  A kilo of unroasted coffee is sold from El Cafetal at seven dollars.  Starbucks then roasts the beans and can sell a kilo of beans for around $120.  As I write this I am sitting in a restaurant that is owned by the owners of the farm.  In order to stay awake I am drinking a $1.50 espresso made from the beans of this coffee.  It is delish.   

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First thoughts from the Galapagos

I have been in the Galapagos for almost two weeks now.  I have to admit that the first week was a little hard.  The heat here takes a lot out of you.  From around twelve to two or three they have siesta.  Everything is closed besides specific restaurants that serve lunch.  It is for good reason.  That is the hottest time of the day.  So far I have been getting used to life in Galapagos and I have to say I like it a lot.  The pace of everything is much slower and more relaxed.  Think about it, what is there to do in an extremely small town on an island but surf, scuba dive, hangout on the beach, hike, work, lounge in a hammock etcetera.  Well anyway it is very relaxed, the people, the place, and the speed. 

            I am living with a host family.  They are amazing.  I have a host mother, father, a 22-year-old sister, a 19-year-old brother, and a 12-year-old sister.  My 22-year-old sister has a one-month-old baby.  He is the cutest thing ever, except when I don’t like trying to make him stop crying.  They are extremely accommodating and feed me a lot.  Woo. The food here consists of a lot of fish, plantains, eggs, and rice.  I feel that I am becoming more and more apart of the family.  My twelve-year-old sister is a dickens.  She defiantly uses me as a cover so she can do things here mom doesn’t want her doing.

Last week I went to two birthday parties.  One was for a one year old and the other was for a nine year old.  I have to say they do it up for birthdays, and they were exactly the same.  Both were at someone’s restaurant or “bar” not a bar like in America, really just a small restaurant.  There were chairs lining the wall and a table in the front to display the cake and other snacks.  Loud music played as, moms my age, urged their kids to dance.  Food was constantly passed around; then there was dinner, and then cake with Jell-O.

            Since I have not written in a while I will summarize.  A typical day for me goes like this.  I have dinner either at home or at the university depending on the day.  I have class from nine till twelve.  Normally the last hour of class we go snorkeling with a certain goal in mind (turtle behavior, identify fish).  We then go to lunch till around 1:30.  The places that are open for lunch serve one thing, which becomes difficult for me.  Lunch includes soup, juice, and some main course, which is usually a rice dish with some type of meat or fish.  After lunch I either work on the extremely slow Internet or go to the beach.  After dinner I either hangout at a bar or watch telenovelas with the fam.  

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The Amazon

4:45 Monday morning we were off to the Amazon.  The trip in order to get to the biodiversity station was an adventure in itself.  I took a taxi to the university. (The one I called did not show up so I had to hale on the pitch-black street.)  We then took a plane to the city of Coca, a pretty interesting city because it is the access to the Amazon.  There was an interesting mix of old white tourists, scientists (I met two interesting professors who were searching for a place to take students), locals, businessmen (not sure why they were their) and Ecuadorians traveling to buy illegal bushmeat from the Amazon.  We then took a boat for two hours to the oil company.  Here we had to go through security, there were many military guards and we were not allowed to take pictures. Ere.  From here we took a chiva (open air bus) (Hey Mom: this is what I painted a picture of in like 3rd grade.  Its hanging in the 3rd floor stairwell) for another two hours along the oil company’s road.  We were not allowed to take pictures along the road.  Why might you ask are we not allowed to take pictures?  Well because why would the oil company want anyone to show pictures of their environmental and human injustice.  After that we took another two-hour boat ride to the virgin forest.  There was a visible difference in forest along the road and forest along the river.  After a day of travel we arrived at the one and only Tiputini, the biodiversity station of the University of San Francisco, Quito (my university).  I felt extremely lucky to get the opportunity to go here.  The only people that come are researchers and students.  I was one of a thousand.  Also the amount of completely virgin rainforest that exists currently is so small. 

Our days started with breakfast at 6:30, a morning hike, lunch, an afternoon hike, dinner, and then a talk at night from one of the researchers.  The last day we went fishing for piranhas then took a boat along the river at night.  The night boat ride was magical.  I have never seen so many stars, until the Galapagos.  Friday we made the same trek back to Cumbaya. 

Or last week in Quito was fairly laid back.  We hiked up Pichincha volcano, which was amazing.  Friday we went out in Quito.  It was a great night of dancing and meeting some amazing people from around the world.  Sunday we were off to the Galapagos.   

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Last Notes from the mainland

I have had no time to write for the blog! My last weeks in the Ecuador mainland included so many activities.  With class we traveled to the cloud forest just outside of Baños.  We stayed in a beautiful hostel with Ecuadorian style tacos mmm.  In order to access the cloud forest we had to use the hydroelectric power company’s road.  There were many endemic species, epiphytes and a lot of mud.  Before hiking back down the mountain we cooled off in a fresh mountain spring.  (Highlight: We found this rock alcove thing in the water.  It was like a mini waterfall you can get sucked in but once behind it, it was amazing.)  One weekend I traveled to Otavalo a town outside of Quito with a large market; haggling is a must.  With our Ecuadorian friends in tow, we were able to get the prices pretty low.  We ate lunch on Qucha Cui (lake Guinea pig) and then after the market drove up the mountains to an Ecuadorian friend’s farm.  (Culture shock: feudalism is real).  

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Barcelona

Hola!

This past weekend I visited Barcelona. The flight is only an hour and so a group of us left on Thursday after glass. Friday morning we started early and went on a free walking tour of the city. Everywhere I’ve been so far they have these and it’s a great way to see the city and learn some history. Saturday we started the day off by visiting  La Sagrada Familia. La Sagrada Familia is a huge cathedral built by the famous artist Antoni Gaudi. It was rather expensive to get it but something that you can’t miss if you visit Barcelona. We also visited Park Guell and spent a couple hours hiking and taking pictures of the beautiful scenery. Sunday was the most relaxing day and we spent the majority of it laying on the beach and simply exploring the city.

Classes are going well so far and this week is my second week of being a volunteer in the colegio. The kids are very interested in what things are like in the United States. Surprisingly their English is probably better than my Spanish!

Hasta luego,

Allison

Pictures from the weekend:

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Avignon and Châteauneuf-du-Pape

This past weekend I traveled via a car-share to Avignon, home of le Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes).  The car-share worked out terrifically, not only was it the cheapest and fastest way to travel to Avignon from Toulouse, but it also allowed me the opportunity to practice my conversational French and learn about and see more of southwest France.  As we got on the highway heading west to Montpellier, we stopped at a toll booth.  Curious about the cost, I asked my driver and he said around 27€ one way.  My mind was blown.  At my confusion, he explained that the interregional highways are privatized, so while the roads are very good, it’s very expensive.  Over the past two months, I have been observing differences between French and American culture, but this is probably the most obvious.  In the United States, we regard the highway system as a right, in France it is an expensive commodity.  Luckily for me, it encourages carpooling and so I was able to easily find car-shares to and from Avignon.Image

Avignon is a great city for just spending a day walking around, seeing the medieval town with its walls, le pont d’Avignon (its famous bridge that no longer spans the Rhone River), the wonderful park that sits next to the Palace of the Popes on Avignon’s highest point with an incredible 360 degree view of the surrounding landscape.  The Palace of the Popes was magnificent to see, full of history, yet mostly barren and shockingly empty.  The only objects occupying the huge palace are benches and informative signs describing what each room was used for when the palace was in use.Image

The next day, I rented a bike and rode for an hour to the nearby region of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  Celebrated for its wines, there are many stores that sell wine as well as fine cheeses.  I stopped in one for a nice tasting of 3 reds and 3 whites (the region does not produce any rosés), I made some purchases to give as presents when I return to the States.  Walking around the village, I stumbled upon a sign stating that the American army liberated the town near the end of World War II.  Seeing that forced me to pause and reflect on a topic I do not associate much with southern France, but rather the north with the Normandy invasion. After continuing to stroll around the village, I started my hour long bike ride back to Avignon, but soon stopped at vineyard for a quick tasting and made another purchase.  Luckily I was blessed with great weather for the weekend and (especially) the bike ride.Image

 

-Claire M.

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