This journal documents a two-week journey to Ecuador, South America during the year 2010.
Note: This section of my trip is what inspired me to film and edit a documentary about the oil pollution and the communities it has effected over the 40 years. You can watch it here: CLICK HERE FOR MY DOCUMENTARY!
Part 2 – Continued! Re-Visit PART 1!
That next morning the sun was absent from the sky and the weather cool and dry. When we arrived at the airport, the sun began to peek through the clouds, and as I looked out towards the long horizontal landscape of Quito, the buildings were illuminated in a breathtaking purple haze. The whole day that followed was simply breathtaking. Just the plane ride alone was the most beautiful aero-trip I had ever been on. It was a small jet with two rows of seats, one on the left and a two-person row on the right. I spent most of the flight watching the sun rise into the clear blue sky as we soared over a massive layer of full white clouds. It sat underneath our plane as a vast expanse of clouds that looked like something out of a children’s fairytale story, like Jack and the Beanstalk. It felt like we were approaching a magical land in the sky. Or maybe the clouds were actually a soft blanket of snow, covering the air for miles and miles and I could jump and leap in graceful bounds. It was just gorgeous. A few times a snow-covered mountain top peaked through the white layer of fluff. It was mind-blowing and just fascinating, as I had never seen mountains that tall. As we descended towards the ground, flying through the clouds, the blank white fog opened up to an expanse of pure jungle canopy. The foliage and geography had changed dramatically in comparison to Quito. While the city was crowded with buildings and lights, this oasis was overflowing with pure jungle, Amazon rivers, handmade huts, and small sporadic towns.
The Lago Agrio airport was heavily guarded by army personnel who carried rifles and automatic guns. The town of Lago Agrio is near the Colombian border and a land bursting with natural oil and gases. The stifling air immediately felt ten times more hot and humid than the dry, crisp air of Quito. I wore a sweatshirt over my tank top, and I didn’t hesitate for a second to take the heavier layer off. The town in which we stayed was even more impoverished than Quito. Buildings were ruined in unexpected places, roofs were missing, electrical wires exposed, and trash was strewn everywhere. Wild dogs roamed the streets and a feral cat even haunted the outside dining area of the hotel. Beggars were constantly passing by to ask for money. One blind woman came repeatedly to my table. After giving her some money, against my natural tendencies, I was forced to begin to ignore her because she kept coming back. I am never sure how to act and behave towards someone who seems to desperately need help. It is hard not to feel compassion and a desire to help those in need, but it is hard to know when to draw a line and create the comfort balance in one’s own life. Though I question why I shouldn’t sacrifice my own privileged comfort for someone else’s. Whether I should or not, I always feel guilty after an interaction with an impoverished person. That is something that will never go away being some one in the “have” category.
Though deeply devastating, it was hard not to see beauty within the town. Something was strikingly different about the people and buildings so that I had a strong urge to film and photograph them. But wanting to be respectful and not unconsciously exploit them, I kept to myself mentally capturing the moments.
Once settled at the hotel, I had a breakfast of fresh mango, pineapple, guava, some eggs, and bread with cheese. I was already cutting down on food, and ate slowly and in smaller amounts (which is actually healthier). I then left to take a small van towards the oil fields of Petro Ecuador. Originally, much of this land was owned by indigenous tribes such as the Cofan. The oil companies that came to exploit the land’s resources in the 70s removed these people and have consequently polluted their land and water supply. A private (and I’m not sure if it was legal) tour took us through gated farms and behind oil drilling facilities into the jungle where I was able to document on video the leaking of oil and gas emissions into the jungle, and the pools of oil and water the size of large ponds, hidden within the jungle’s canopy. Large pipes ran throughout the area carrying the oil that had been drilled from beneath the jungle floor. The pipes stretched hundreds of miles through Ecuador to the coastal city of Esmeraldas, where it would finally be refined and exported. They transport it so far away to refine it because it is cheaper to transport it through the pipeline to Esmeraldas than it is to refine it at the drill site and ship it out afterwards. However, these pipes are old and corroded and when there are spills and holes, they are not maintained or fixed – the land and wildlife surrounding them are punished for it.
I remember walking past a wire fence, crawling underneath an opening, hiking through the jungle, hearing the noises of distant birds, and then… a menacing and slow rush of air that sounded like a doomsday machine that would destroy anything in its path (think LOST). I later learned that this sound was the gas being released by a valve and sent through a pipe across an open field and then high into the air, where it was set on fire. I walked a few feet parallel to the pipe and it was burning hot. The temperature had already risen to at least 90 degrees. The guide stated that all over this area they would burn gas 24 hours a day because there was no way to dispose of the chemicals other than burning them. He basically said that it was cheaper to burn it than to actually utilize the resources. Throughout our tour we came upon this apparatus within the jungle. Our guide said that the fire and poisonous fumes would kill the many bugs who were curious enough to approach it. Birds and other wildlife that fed on these dead bugs would be affected too. We walked further and deeper into the jungle, and came across at least three large pools of oil.
They were just sitting there, unattended, uncovered, and completely exposed to the surrounding environment. In one area, oil had dried on the edges of the pool and we were able to walk closer. There were two birds that flew over the deep, black oil-covered water and landed on the other side. One almost went into the ominous death “water,” but instead just sat on the side and cleaned itself. Seeing animals so close to the poisonous oil made me so angry and emotional – I immediately wanted to do something about it. On top of the pool and nearby the pipes, I saw hundreds of dead bugs, some nearly the size of my hand. It was a blatant example of how the mistreatment of oil can affect the surrounding biosphere.
Feeling unbearably hot, we took a break from the tour to eat under a small, roofed platform building that had a stereo system and sugarcane stand. The tour guide said this was where the oil workers got together to dance and relax. The restroom (like most restrooms in Ecuador) had no running water and was basically an outhouse with a toilet but no toilet paper. I was glad that I had stolen a roll from the hotel that day for the hike, but it instead came handy at this rest stop (if there are two items one should never forget they are paper/tissues and hand sanitizer. seriously). We had a bagged lunch of white bread and cheese, a banana, and tang. It is hard to find natural or hearty food in this town because they are so poor – they are forced to sell all their prized fruit and coffee to foreign countries in order to pay for housing and clothing. However, because we were near a sugar cane farm we were able to buy freshly made sugar cane juice with fresh cut lemon.
While I rested, one of the girls walked a little further down the road and found a couple farming cacao, the plant used to make chocolate. She was excited to discover this odd looking fruit and asked them if she could buy one. They were happy to see someone interested in their crop and gave her three for free. It is a reddish brown colored fruit that is shaped like a football and ribbed with bumps. Once cracked open, the inside looks like mold, but it is actually a white, soft juicy covering that surrounds the inner seed. It was messy, and to eat it I scooped out a few of the white seeds and sucked on them. It was a slightly sour yet sweet tasting fruit, slimy and chewy, one that I had never seen the likes of. I don’t recommend biting into it, though, because the seed is very strong and bitter, and it juxtaposed the chewy sweetness of its outer covering.
After lunch, many of our accompanying travelers were worn out from the day’s walking and the dramatic images we had been exposed to. We stopped by one more farm and walked a little into the jungle. I came across an old Texaco oil barrel, like the kind people see in images of oil cans being dumped into the ocean. It was strange to come upon one in person, and in the jungle, just…sitting there. Nearby, there was another farm where a large truck was releasing water and oil into yet another pool. Across the way was a smaller oil-filled pond where a drain directly filtered the waste into a nearby stream that flowed into the rainforest. You could actually see the pipes that lead into the jungle. astounding.
When back in town, my translator and the guide discussed how many of the townspeople are surprisingly unaware of the true destruction that is going on. Many don’t believe that it is harmful to their environment, and many are forced to work for these companies to survive. It is ironic and sad that the thing destroying their home is also the thing keeping them alive.
That night, Amy and I went swimming in the hotel’s pool, a nice and refreshing change to the contrasting heat and intensity of the day. The rooms of the hotel were nice, large enough for two twin-sized beds, but without space for much else. The bathroom and shower were interestingly constructed on a slant, angled when connected to the room, reminding me of one of those circus fun houses. Much of the lobby area was under construction, and at most hours we could hear the workers clacking away at the wall’s tile. In the center of the hotel was the pool, surrounded by a pretty garden (though many plants weren’t flowering and some were even dead) and there was no roof covering the area, and the sun could peek through to warm the bathers. It was cool to be inside and at the same time feel like I was outside when sitting by the poolside. I was perfectly satisfied with everything, but can see how a high-end North American traveler might think less of the accommodations in Ecuador. For the bargain price we paid, we got everything we needed: a place to sleep, eat, bathe, and even a place to hang out and cool off in the humid jungle heat. Personally, I feel over-privileged when I have such nice places to sleep and the people right down the road are crouched on top of rubble under scraps of clothing…
After my swim I sat outside and wrote in my journal, watching people until the sun began to set. Looking at the various Ecuadorians and townspeople near the hotel and on the street, I once again I realized how different I was from them. Not only was I a woman alone in a foreign country, but I was a white, freckled, young, English-speaking woman, in a Spanish-speaking country. I couldn’t strike up a conversation with just anybody, and I also had to protect myself from dangerous people, especially sketchy looking men. In the U.S. I find that many times I make comfortable eye contact with strangers in the street or at a café. I even casually make an acknowledging comment or talk to them. In Ecuador, I felt out of place and I couldn’t blend in as easily. I was unaware of local customs, and on top of that I couldn’t even speak the country’s language! (note: how different from my experience in Argentina after having a year of spanish under my language belt.)
Meanwhile, while I was contemplating my isolation, two of the other girls, Lizeth and Katie, had gone walking together down the road to explore the town. They had been hungry and had stopped to buy a salad and steak from a street vendor, against our travel guide’s advice. That night, both became sick and spent the night awake and ill. I wasn’t planning to eat food from the street, but their experience just reinforced my decision tenfold.
We flew back the next morning bright and early, and watched the sun rise over the misty rivers of Lago Agrio, an unforgettable experience that will last a lifetime. I was sent back with a feeling that something had to be done, and that these pools would not be hidden for much longer.
photo credits: Amy Clark (these photos are the still-shot counterpart to the footage I filmed!)
Please continue to follow this travel account in the future! It will be located under Travel and Ecuador! More parts to come soon!
In order for me to look forward, forward on to my extended stay in Argentina (Gosh, has it really been 6 days?), to my future in the U.S., and really my future in general, I feel that it is important to reflect on my past. To not forget where I have been, where I have come from, where I have gone to, and how those places, people, and things have affected me. Every day, someone or something contributes to the growth of my spirit. I don’t take those things for granted. I try not to at least. I value my life, my education, my family, my privilege. I want to give back – if not directly, then through the experiences I have had, and perhaps I can help in ways that I cannot normally think of. I can at least make the effort, nu?
To remember, and to share – here is the somewhat unabridged (yet a slightly edited and de-drab-ified version because it was for a class) travelogue.
It will probably be broken into a few parts (4 or 5) and it will take you from the Capital City of Ecuador: Quito and center of the Earth, to the polluted town of Lago Agrio – a place torn apart by oil companies. From there, we’ll go through the forgotten towns of Ecuador by bus to the edge of the jungle in Puyo, where you’ll fly with me into the Amazon and read what it was like to live in the Jungle for a week with the indigenous Sarayaku. If I have time, I will even be able to include what life has been like for me after the trip: working on a documentary (that helped me process some of the trip), teaching dance and art at a thrilling and fulfilling Summer camp, and committing myself as a full-time student – trying not to forget the valuable life lessons I learned during the limited two weeks I spent abroad.
Ecuador Part 1
This journal documents a two-week journey to Ecuador, South America during the year 2010.
~In the summer of 2009, a Communication professor, C, asked me to join him on a trip to Ecuador. The goal was for me to assist him in completing a documentary about the Sarayaku, an indigenous tribe located in the Amazon jungle southwest of Puyo, Ecuador. C was trying to document their interesting way of life: a mix of indigenous rituals and behavior with the technology of modern society (such as electricity and yes, even solar power). He was conducting a small class that discussed indigenous media and culture, as well as oil exploitation and globalization, and he wanted me to be a part of it. The travel group consisted of two freshman students, one named L, an Ecuadorian born American girl who was adopted at a young age and raised in the United States, and one named K, a Vietnamese girl who was also adopted and raised in America. Joining us was a timid young woman, Amy, a senior Spanish major, and N, the assistant group leader who had also convinced his cousin, A, a senior Criminal Justice major, to come at the last minute.
To prepare for this new and exciting trip into the Amazon I went to a local heath clinic to get the necessary vaccinations and health advice. I needed a yellow fever vaccine, a typhoid fever vaccine, and malaria pills. I also needed to purchase ciprofloxacin, an antibiotic used to treat traveler’s diarrhea (not. fun.) (note: though to my satisfaction I never had to use these). Ecuador is a country that does not have very safe/clean water. It is advised to drink only filtered or bottled water, and one can even buy water tablets to the purify water. It is also advised not to eat food that is cooked and sold on the street, or food that is prepared in cold or room temperature water. It is better to eat food at a sanitary restaurant or food that has been at least cooked and boiled.
To continue: I knew that I would not only be traveling to the populated and lively city of Quito, but that I would also fly out to Lago Agrio, and take a bus to Puyo and a small plane to Sarayaku, which are places situated further in the Amazon. I used a hiking backpack to store my belongings in a transportable and easily accessible fashion. The plus side was that it was the perfect size for a carry-on (Yay for no extra baggage fees!). To keep it lightweight, I only put in a few tank tops and t-shirts, shorts, leggings (which are very useful for jungle walks because they keep bugs and gnats from biting you – which they do. a lot.) and hiking sneakers. I also brought a long sleeve shirt, a wind-breaker, and a pair of jeans and sweatpants. Ecuador is situated on the equator (duh) and the temperature usually hovers around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. In the jungle it is more humid, and therefore hotter, nearing 80-90 degrees F. At night, in the mountains and in the city, it can get cooler, around 60 degrees or lower, which is great for late night walks between salsa and karaoke bars(a fun story to come in one of the following posts). I tried to pack lightly, not only because I would be traveling a lot and I didn’t want to be hindered by a heavy bag, but also because I wanted to leave space for souvenirs that I would purchase during the trip (which I did and I use at least one every day).
After picking every one up in a van, we used the two hours driving to the JFK airport during a giant snow storm as a meet and greet, sharing our fears and expectations for the trip. From NYC we flew directly to Guayaquil, a city south of Quito on the coast of Ecuador. The plane ride took about six hours, but adding that to the three hours for driving and another three for waiting at the airport till takeoff, it had been a loooong trip and we were fairly tired (yet somehow extremely awake due to the excitement). Because there is limited space in the city of Quito (which means that large planes can’t fly in), the capital of Ecuador, we had to take a short ride (half an hour) on a smaller plane from Guayaquil. However, when we got to the smaller airport in Guayaquil, we had to wait for our plane for three hours. This was somewhat of a challenge for me because it was about 80 degrees + humidity, plus the constant chaffing of my shorts and bra = not fun. Then there was a delay that lasted four more hours because a bird had flown into the plane’s engine (yes, that does actually happen in real life), bringing the wait to at least seven exhausting hours (that’s a whole day of school, a shift at my job, or a marathon of Arrested Development).
Upon my entry into the country (read: Airport), I immediately felt like a foreigner. I only knew a few words and phrases in Spanish such as ‘Qué hora es?’ and ‘Hola.’ I felt silly and stupid when mispronouncing easy phrases such as, “Where’s the bathroom,” in broken Spanglish. Not being able to automatically understand spoken or written words was a hard thing to adjust to. I remember not being able to order my dinner at the airport in Guayaquil and having to put to use my six years of French in order to differentiate between ‘chicken’ and ‘fish’ or ‘cold’ and ‘hot’. I was glad that many words were similar (thanks Latin! You are useful.), and also glad that so many Spanish speakers live in North America, where I had at least been exposed to some words. Amy, the Spanish major, gladly taught me certain words and phrases when I asked her to translate. Not knowing the country’s language made me realize what foreigners immigrating to the U.S. feel like, and I gained compassion for those who have had to adjust.
Once our plane finally took off and landed in Quito, the group took a shuttle bus from the airport to our hotel, Hostal Jardin del Sol. The hotel was small, squeezed in between a restaurant and a tourist shop, but it had a significant number of floors (four) and quaint (some were quite large) rooms with balconies. They shut the power off late at night and didn’t turn it on until the morning, so the shower water was freezing cold. They also turned it off during the late morning till the late afternoon to preserve power. I shared a room with Amy, a small double with two twin beds and a view looking at a magnificant…brick wall? But who really cared, because all we could think was: Sleep.
During the first day in Quito the group took a bus/walking tour through the old part of the city. We visited many churches and government buildings, and walked through renovation sites, stopping to look at historic monuments on the way. La Compañía de Jesús, built from 1605-1765 was almost covered entirely in gold. It shined brightly and was intimidatingly large. It was quite a sight to behold – and one of the most detailed and beautiful architectural works I have ever seen. I could probably walk around staring at its walls for hours. If you happen to be a church-goer, definitely put this one on your list of places-to-see.
Another church on our stop was creatively constructed symmetrically. Everything done on one side of the building was mirrored by the other, except for the art. The art on the left hand side was holy, positive, and godlike. The art on the right side showed images of sin, darkness, and the devil. On the back wall to the left, there was a spiral staircase that went up to the organ. Yet on the right an artist had actually painted a staircase that spiraled in the opposite direction to maintain the symmetry. (I wish I had photos of these places but unfortunately they were lost in a computer crisis.)
Later that afternoon I visited the president’s office, the capital’s city hall, and the main square in which a group of protesters were speaking out against the government for shutting down independent radio stations. They were singing and chanting songs in the name of the indigenous groups fighting against the oil companies from taking over their land. They declared that the indigenous should be allowed the right to speak out and defend their homeland. Cops were lined up around them but nothing dangerous occurred. It was disheartening to know that they were not even allowed the right to freedom of speech (one our our basic rights in the U.S.) and twice as disheartening to know that oil companies lack the mindfulness and morality needed to prevent such crimes against human beings (and our planet).
Walking the streets of Quito was exciting. There were many many people, more than I am used to seeing when in a city. The weather was beautiful and tons of people were out shopping and selling items. There is a lot of poverty in Ecuador, and in Quito there were plenty of street merchants who carried items such as paintings or scarves. They constantly followed us around trying to sell their merchandise. It was hard to deny them because they needed the money, and it was a challenge to avoid being confronted by them. I bought some pretty scarves for my brother and his fiancée, and at $2 a piece. Though it is hard to say this, one must be careful to watch one’s money and other valuable items when traveling. I think it’s best to travel in average plain-looking clothing, and not wear expensive looking jewelry or accessories. That way you are not a target, and can feel less guilty when not buying anything you don’t need (it sounds sucky, but it’s true – I’d rather not rub my privilege in someone’s face, thanks).
(this man was beautiful to watch – so much soul and emotion into one song – I will post a video of him at some point)
Ecuadorian culture is a bit different from the North American one. For instance, it is very machismo. Men are very much the dominant sex and they will not hesitate to cat-call or hit on a woman, especially white foreign women who are seen as taboo. Mostly, as I would walk with Amy around Quito, the men would whistle or say, “What beautiful chicas,” in Spanish (or more demeaning phrases that they thought we wouldn’t understand, but Amy did). But one day in Quito, as Amy and I were walking out of a store on a populated street, a man dressed in a suit and carrying an open newspaper was oddly staring at us. I looked at the strange expression on his face, which was a mix of interest, flirtation, and suggestiveness, but when I looked down I realized that he was actually flashing us in the open market! I wasn’t so much as disgusted and offended as I was surprised, and my thoughts were mainly about how ridiculous his behavior seemed. I just couldn’t comprehend how he could do such a thing in such a public place! (insert: me laughing) So – my current advice after experiencing that, is to be wary of everyone, as you never know what kind of people they really are and maybe keep your eyes above the waist level until date(meeting) 2. or 3.. (insert: still laughing)
Quito and much of Ecuador is very high up in altitude when compared to the places I have lived and visited in North America. Quito itself is around 9200 feet high, (developed in the valley of the high mountains of the Andes, it is about 40 km (24.85 miles) long and 5 km (3.1 miles) at its widest (cite:wiki. yup.)) and from the disorienting heights I experienced nausea and vertigo multiple times. When going up or down stairs, driving, or even getting up from bed, I was out of breath and dizzy. The first time I walked up my hostel’s stairs I practically fell down again. When I woke up the first day, I stood up and one second later I was back sitting on the bed (haha). It took me a day or two to adjust. At one point when touring an art building in old Quito, I almost fainted and had to stop to drink some water and sit for a moment. (I recommend ginger or sucking candy to eliminate some of the nausea – because seriously I was going to vom.)
After the tour of the city, my group drove up a hill to visit an outlook point. On the way, one of the girls, L, stopped the bus.
As mentioned earlier, she was raised in the United States, but she was actually born in Ecuador having spent her early childhood in Macas (a town south of Puyo). When she was 5 years old she was put in an orphanage by her mother, and was later adopted by a couple from the United States. On this trip, she was visiting Ecuador for the first time in her life, and during this bus ride she had actually spotted the orphanage she had been placed in (which is why she had stopped the bus). We were given permission by the Nun overseeing the facility to go into the building where L saw the places where she used to play, eat, sleep, and learn. There was a church room filled with benches, a bedroom full of bunk beds, a dining room, a kitchen, a playroom, and at the top there was a laundry room with skylights that allowed one to see the sun and look outside at the city’s vast landscape. Children were sitting on the large spiral staircase that wound through the center of the building; they were laughing and playing together. They looked very happy and healthy and eagerly welcomed us in with wide eyes. While exploring the building, L spotted a photo of an old nun standing with some children. She recognized the woman as one of her caretakers, and learned from the current nun that she had passed away eight years before. It was very sad to learn that the woman she remembered had died, and at this point L broke down in tears. It was a very emotional (happy and sad feelings twisted around one another in a very complex and unrelated version of strawberry/cherry twisted twizzlers) experience, and one which I am glad to have shared with her and been available to support her.
After leaving the orphanage, we proceeded to the top of the hill, upon which sat a giant statue of an angel towering high above our heads. From this point we were able to look out across the entire city, which was quite beautiful (and it is also the current background of this blog). In the distance we could see large mountains with snowy tops, and even a dormant volcano. Quito is a valley city built between two parallel lines of mountains. The city is considered a long horizontal belt that is constructed in a line rather than a grid or circular pattern. There are layers and layers of houses and shops, all colored in shades of red, yellow, blue, orange, and green. The homes are simple, square and rectangular shaped, not more then two stories high, but they go up and down the sides of the hills, stacked one on top of the other.
From this hill we proceeded by bus to another touristy destination just outside the main city. This was the Center of the World, or point 0’’0’0 on a GPS. Many years ago, the Spanish colonists determined what they thought to be the center of the earth and they marked this location with a brick tower and a cannonball-like sculpture on top.
Just a few years ago some Ecuadorians came through the area with a GPS device and they were able to determine the exact center point, which turned out to be only a small distance from the anciently (not the Spaniards’ one but the Indigenous one) marked spot (which could actually be seen across the street!). It was a very interesting tour in which we learned how gravity is different on the equator, the direction of water flow is different in the northern and southern hemispheres (demonstrated by crossing a line between the two hemispheres and YES I WAS on both at the same time – too cool for school), and that a person standing on the equator has less muscle resistance. This was demonstrated during a funny activity where one holds their arms up and can not keep them elevated when someone presses down on them (there’s some funny video footage of this too).
After the tour we had our first authentic Ecuadorian meal at a nearby local restaurant. We drank a juice made from corn, cinnamon, and water that reminded me of watered down apple cider. Then we all shared empanadas and I had a chicken and rice dish. It was very well done, easy to eat and digest. Much of the Ecuadorian diet is rice, beans, poultry, and fish.
We went to sleep early that night because the next morning we had to wake up at four to take a bus and a short plane ride (not more than an hour) to Lago Agrio. TBC in PART TWO.