Kids Experience Foreign Way of Life


Front Page / May. 18, 2017 9:21am EDT

Ecuador Visit Opens RHS Students’ Eyes
By Brianna Hillier

. Chase Christiansen and Jillian Sherwin take a break a project site in Sablog, Ecuador, and are joined by two local sisters. (Provided) . Chase Christiansen and Jillian Sherwin take a break a project site in Sablog, Ecuador, and are joined by two local sisters. (Provided) When a group of 14 Rochester High School students and chaperones touched ground 9,350 feet above sea level in the bustling capital of Quito, Ecuador, the moment was unforgettable. Excited, jittery, and slightly dizzy from the elevation, we landed in the early hours of April 16, after a year of planning, intense fundraising, and anxious preparation.

This was Rochester High School’s first trip abroad in almost a decade. The group of nine students included seniors Michael Crickard and Brianna Hillier; sophomores Amelia Mattrick, Jacob Bump, and Samantha Paige; freshmen Jeffrey Lokatys and Sam Klingensmith; and eighth graders Jillian Sherwin and Chase Christiansen. Trip planners and Rochester staff Jennifer Elaine Snow and Shawn Lenihan led the group, assisted by parent chaperones Elissa Klingensmith and Terri Bump.

Day 1

On our first full day in Ecuador, culture shock was already setting in.

“Remember, in Ecuador, we never flush the toilet paper down the toilet!”

The words of Ximena, our guide, hung in the air as we bumped along the highway in Quito in our bus. That was the first of many vital facts Ximena would share over the next 11 days.

After an hour driving north through Quito and the Pichincha Province of Ecuador, we arrived at the Reserva Geobotanica Pululahua, an overlook of a large nature preserve, including, the Pululahua Volcano crater. The crater was lush, a quilted cornucopia of crops dotted by simple houses. After everyone had snapped a photo of the striking landscape, we piled into the bus for another 90-minute drive higher and deeper into the Andes.

We reached the small, sustainable community of Yunguilla located in the aptly named “Cloud Forest.”

The community’s sustainable enterprises include small organic cheese and jam factories and a handicraft workshop. We were fed lunch in local family’s home and, all too soon, found ourselves leaving the mountains and clouds on the bus.

Our final destination of the day was the Intiñan Solar Museum, where we learned about the history of Ecuador, including the native tribes, as well as about native species of flora and fauna. Afterward, we took part in experiments, such as trying to balance an egg on the head of a nail, balancing on the equatorial line with our eyes closed, and a demonstration of the Coriolis effect.

Day 3

A five-hour bus ride from Quito to the Chimborazo Province brought us to Alausí where we met Daisy and Hendrick, our Me to We service project directors.

Hailing from the coastal region of Ecuador, Daisy is a young, enthusiastic teacher and guide, passionate about her country. Hendrick, on the other hand, looked like the last person one would expect to find in Ecuador.

Born in Norway, Hendrick is a political scientist who lives full time in Quito. He is a tall, paper-white intellectual with multiple Ph.D.s and an unexpected sense of humor.

The two guided us through our service project work on a new, three-building high school for a mountaintop community called Sablog.

Our group was responsible for breaking ground on the second of the three buildings—that meant a lot of digging.

The damp and compact earth made for tough digging, as we worked in pairs to excavate 132 centimeters (4’4”) down in meter-by-meter square foundation holes. Another smaller group helped to assemble rebar.

The project took all day to reach the desired depth, and we all retired blistered and aching, but very satisfied.

Day 5

Early in the morning, we loaded into the bus to visit “Sumak Ahuana,” a women’s group in the community of Santa Anita. There we learned the skills of native Ecuadorian women.

Our group was split into two teams, one responsible for cutting wool from the sheep and spinning thread, and the second for weaving panels for traditional Ecuadorian ponchos or scarves, using three different sets of simple wooden looms.

The women teaching and working alongside us ranged in age from 60 to 18-year-old Karen, who had her baby wrapped in swaths of cloth on her back.

After lunch, we left for the fields where we met Rosá, one of the group’s elders.

We all felt the effects of the high elevation as we puffed up the hills of crops behind Rosá to her potato fields. There, in the rich soil, surrounded by the Andes, we got dirty digging up hundreds of small potatoes. Rosá informed us that in just an hour we had completed a day’s worth of work for her. It felt great to have made such a measurable impact on a person’s life.

That evening, we tasted guinea pig, a staple food in Ecuadorian culture. Those who dared, watched one of our cooks from the hotel slaughter and butcher the guinea pig. At dinner, all were invited to try a portion. Although some could stomach more than others, each student was able to experience a delicacy unique to Ecuador.

The next morning, we descended out of mountains and found ourselves at sea level in the stifling heat of Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city.

We spent the afternoon exploring the city and a nearby iguana park before ending our night with dinner at a local hostel.

Day 7

On the morning of the seventh day, we arrived in the Galapagos.

A sea breeze kept the temperatures bearable as we flew into Baltra Island, but the spike in the heat was still a shock compared to the cool mountain air.

Alfredo, our official Galapagos National Park tour guide, greeted us and led us on a truly unique experience.

A short ferry ride to Santa Cruz island began the tour and soon we were visiting the Tortugo Rancho de Manzanillo, a privately-owned tortoise ranch. Later, we enjoyed a walking tour of Santa Cruz before ending at the Charles Darwin Research Station, famous for its exhibit on Lonesome George, the last known tortoise of the subspecies of the Pinta Island tortoise.

Day 8

Boats were the theme of our second day in the Galapagos. We started our day with an exciting boat ride to Isabela Island.

Alfredo warned, “the trip takes two hours, three if the ocean is brave,” but the Pacific Ocean was kind that morning.

After a quick bathroom and ice cream pit stop, our group piled into an open-air tour bus to drive down to a small beach where we found dozens of marine iguanas sunning on the lava rocks near the white sand beaches of the Galapagos.

We walked along a wooden walkway, spotting flamingos, white-cheeked pintail ducks, and small tunneling crabs, all inhabiting the inner marshlands of Isabela Island.

We ended our walk at the Arnaldo Tupiza Chamaiden Giant Tortoise Breeding Center. Hundreds of baby tortoises scuttled in the pens.

At the end of the day we caught glimpses of fish in the strong currents, in a cove not far from where our boat was moored, during our first snorkeling excursion.

A “brave” ocean made for a long return trip. Some people fared better than others, but a full three hours later, we were all glad to be back on Santa Cruz Island for the night.

Day 9

Our final destination in the Galapagos was San Cristóbal Island.

The ninth day was one of the group’s favorites, with two snorkeling trips and a hike up a nearby volcanic mountain.

The first stop of the day was a secluded white-sand cove, the kind of beach splashed on the cover of travel brochures—this slice of paradise was all our own for the morning.

After lunch, we hiked up the slopes of La Loberia, where we gazed out over the Pacific from two overlooks while black frigate birds glided lazily overhead.

We hiked back down, and were treated to another turquoise cove that we had all been jealously watching locals diving into only moments before.

Snorkeling in the crystal-clear waters of that lagoon, we watched schools of fish dart about the shoreline while parrot fish poked at rocks. We even watched a sea lion casually napping on his back in the gentle waves of the cove.

At noon the next day, our adventure in the Galapagos came to an end. We boarded a plane and by five o’clock we were back in Quito.

Day 11

Our last day in Ecuador was bittersweet, but Ximena helped ease the pain with an extensive tour of the city.

Traveling deep into Old Town Quito, our first stop of the day was the Plaza de Republica, the central plaza of the capital. Centered around the Presidential Palace and the historic Archbishop’s Palace, we toured each building, before heading down the crowded streets to the Compania Church, which is widely considered the most beautiful and oldest colonial monument of Quito, complete with an interior covered with gold leaf and adorned with beautifully preserved early colonial statues and paintings.

Our next stop was the Basilica of the National Vow, otherwise known as The Cathedral of Quito, the largest neo-Gothic basilica in the Americas.

Climbing above the stone-carved armadillos, iguana, and Galapagos tortoises into the peaks of the Cathedral offered our group an uncompromising view of the city.

The Virgin of Quito towers over Quito on the Panacillo hill. Atop the Panacillo, we were given another sweeping view of the city, this time looking back at The Cathedral.

That view was our last grand sight of Ecuador. Following a final supper with Ximena, a tearful goodbye at the Quito airport brought the day and the whirlwind trip to an end.

Home at Last

We returned to Rochester with more than just the pounds of Ecuadorian chocolate, coffee, and handicrafts packed into our suitcases. We also brought home an increased sense of the privilege Americans have in the United States, and a desire to bring a community together to promote positive change.

An open house will take place on Tuesday, May 23 at 5:30 p.m., at the Rochester High School to share the experience with the communities that helped make the trip possible.

There will be pictures, Ecuadorian crafts, and food re-creations reminiscent of meals offered on the trip, as well as a presentation created by members of the Rochester Service-Learning trip. The presentation will begin at 6 p.m. and all are welcome to come, enjoy a bite to eat, and hear the tale of our travels.

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