Thursday, September 20, 2012

Adventures in Ecuador Middle-Earth: I have found where the elves live.

"The road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began."

Ecuador is magical. Epic. Enchanted. In fact, Rafael Correa (the president) should just change the name of the country to Middle-Earth (bonus for him: if he did this, maybe everyone would actually like him - except maybe New Zealanders). It would not only be appropriate due to the fact that it's actually located in the middle of the earth, but also because all of the scenery here could very easily have been designed by J.R.R. Tolkien himself (Tolkreationism?). Among the many landscapes here in the Sierra (the Andes mountain region in central Ecuador) there are enchanted forests, misty mountains, and fiery volcanoes - during the past few weeks, I have explored a lot of it, and just about the only things that were missing were some hobbits to follow me around, and the LOTR movie soundtrack (the real trouble with reality is that there's no background music).

When most people imagine what the climate is like along the equator, they would probably come up with hot and sunny beaches along the coast, and an endless expanse of tropical rainforest inland. In Ecuador though (and probably most other places along the equator) this is almost completely false. Continentality (the Andes being the prime factor here) have way too big of an effect on climate for it to be as simple as "it's on the equator, so it must be hot". Yes, there are indeed sunny beaches and tropical rainforets, but their climate is also intimately connected to the presence of the Andes. The Andes are the longest mountain range in the world, and stretch the entire length of the western edge of South America. In altitude, they are second only to the Himalayas. The fact that they are so high means that there are some really marked zonation patterns as you go up in altitude, ranging from tropical rainforest at the base, to a vast expanse of tundra at the peak (and of course, intermediate regions in between). This means that in a single day, you could have a snowball fight up in the Andes, then go down to the coast and drink some Piña Coladas while lying in a Hammock (this is on my bucket list, btw).

Also note: Since the equator recieves much more heat and sunlight than in more temperate regions at higher latitudes (like the European Alps pictured here), all of the zone boundaries like the tree line and the snow line are found at much higher altitudes.

A few weeks ago, during our first expedition with the Ecology program, we took a day trip along the gradient of elevations among the Ecuadorian Andes. We had our very own magic school bus to travel in, and were joined by our Professor, Kelly Swing, and our TF Jaime. We made a lot of stops on the way, each on with something special to look at - but even just the bus ride was brilliant with all of the beautiful scenery visible right outside our bus windows.

To the bus! We're going on a field trip! (props if you get the reference, that means you had a normal 90s kid childhood)

It was really amazing how you could go up a few hundred feet and find yourself in a completely different environment, with completely different climates and plant life. One of our stops was in the Andean forest biome, which is located at elevations of 2000-3500 meters.

Andean forest. I suspect there are Ents and Wood Eleves hiding somewhere in this picture. 

I go back to the LOTR reference here when I say that Andean forest really is enchanted. If Legolas had popped out of from behind a trunk and shot me with an arrow, I would have died thinking "this is totally normal". This particular Andean Forest is dominated by essentially pure stands of a single species of tree belonging to the genus Polylepis; locally, it is called Queñua, a Quichua word.

The trunks are covered with many thin layers of paper-like bark, resulting in a really textured and interesting looking surface. In fact, Polylepis derives from the greek words poly and letis, meaning 'many' and 'layers'.

The really elaborate surface creates excellent opportunites for epiphytes like mosses and lichens to fill up those empty spaces between the layers.

Polylepis trees grow with gnarled and mangled trunks, and give the Elvish Andean forest an enchanted feel. Actually, an alternative name that is often used to refer to Andean forest is Elfin forest. The trees are small but their branches spread everywhere in really interesting shapes.

Polylepis with a somewhat facultatively arboreal Homo sapiens (AKA, Nate) perched on a branch. This photo gives good perspective so you can judge the relative sizes of these trees.

Besides the Polylepis trees, there are a multitude of smaller species of plants, mostly ferns and mosses. I never particularly liked ferns, they seem rather boring as houseplants - seeing them growing in the wild like this is a different story. I love them now because they look really primitive and  make me feel like there could be dinosaurs roaming around.

A fern. Note the fiddlehead (a young, uncurled leaf) in the middle. This is a somewhat strange fern, as it doesn't have the typical large compound leaf.

Alas, the sori (spores) on the ventral side of the leaf reveal that it is indeed a fern.

A perch of moss, with a leaf plant belonging to the Melastomataceae family growing on top.

Between the trunks and underneath the canopy of all those Polylepis trees, there was a narrow but powerful little stream running through the forest, which just added to the fantasy feeling.

Give me a Canoe. I think I can float to The Shire from here.

Our TF Jaime, rockin' the BU sweater.

Unfortunately, Andean forests are slowly disappearing due to the cutting of these trees for firewood, and because of introduced species like Eucalyptus outcompeting the native andean forest trees. I hope they'll eventually get the protection they deserve. Being among all of those fascinating trees and plants, even for few minutes, can change or bolster your perspective on conservation. You realize just how magical nature can really be, and how much of a tragedy it would be to lose a place like the Andean forest.

Thank you, mother earth.

That wasn't the end of our day however! Next post, I'll tell you about our climb past the tree line (3,500m) into the Misty Mountains Páramo.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Latitude 00°00′00″

If you're ever in Quito, one of the things that you will eventually and inevitably do is make your way to La Mitad del Mundo (if you need to work on your Spanish, that means 'middle of the world'). You can't visit a country whose name literally means 'equator' and not visit the equator (of course, there is a reason the equatorial line is called "La Mitad del Mundo" in Ecuador - if both the country and the line were called 'ecuador', there would be so much confusion that anarchy would be the only logical result).

The earth is a big place however, and the equator wraps around it entirely. The equator passes through 13 different countries (trust me, we googled it). What makes Ecuador so special? What gave them the right to name their country 'Ecuador'? Blame it on the French.

00°00′00″, the equatorial line. As your most excellent powers of observation might suggest , Ecuador is clearly not the only country the equator passes through. 
It all goes back to the French Geodesic Missions of 1736-1739. In the 18th century, there was a lot of debate in the French Academy of Sciences as to whether the circumference of the earth was greater around the equator or around the poles. Louis XV, the King of France, sent two expeditions to find the answer once and for all: one was sent to Lapland (close to the north pole), and the other was sent to Ecuador, which at the time was known as 'The Viceroyalty of Peru". The leader of the Ecuadorian expedition, in his reports back to France, apparently grew le tired of writing "Viceroyalty of Peru", and started referring to the land as Ecuador. The name stuck, and when Ecuador won its independence from Spain in 1822, it officially became known as 'The Republic of Ecuador'.

So that's how Ecuador got its name. And if you're ever in Ecuador, you HAVE to visit La Mitad del Mundo, the site where the French team performed their survey and obtained their measurements. Nowadays, you can find a huge monument there in commemoration of their expedition. How do you get there? Well, obviously, the site is located at the equator. Or is it? 

Actually, no. The French screwed up. They measured in the wrong place; their site is located 240m south of the actual equatorial line.
"MERDE, 240 METRES D'ERRUER. C'EST DE CONNERIES"  (also, this is what you get if you google 'angry french man')

What does this mean for us? Well, it means that there are now two different 'Mitad del Mundo' exhibits: one is Ciudad Mitad del Mundo, the government sponsored touristy site, where the monument honoring the french expedition is located (or as our group affectionally called it, the 'fake' Mitad del Mundo). The other is the "Museo Inti-Ñan", a site that claims to be located on the 'actual' equatorial line, as measured by GPS (we called it the 'real' Mitad del Mundo).

Over the span of two weekends, I visited both (coincidentally, there was a fight between Ecuadorian men on the bus on both trips, one of which involved an argument over a 25 cent bus fare and a bad-ass Zinedine Zidane headbutt).

The 'Fake' Mitad del Mundo. (Photo cred to random nice lady and Anna's camera)

The 'Real' Mitad del Mundo

Museo Inti-Ñan is by far the better deal. We got a cool tour guide that took us around different exhibits and related the history of the indigenous peoples of Ecuador.

"This is a penis" -Tour Guide

Cuí (AKA, Guinea Pigs). They are native to South America, and are a delicacy.

They also brought out a a traditional dancer in Curiquinge costume (Curiquinge is an Andean bird of prey, but it's also a dance), and a few of us got pulled in to dance.

Dance party. No one in the Andes got swagga like us.

And of course, we got to straddle the equatorial line (one of the few times in my life where I can say I was in two hemispheres at once). They also performed various 'scientific' experiments  showing the effects of being on the equator (more like parlor tricks, but they were kind of cutesy).

No trip is complete without a group picture. 

It's apparently harder to balance yourself on the Equator, but I think I just had too much Canelazo. 

Yup. Definitely too much Canelazo (Yes, I realize it's no longer 2010 and planking is out. But #HatazGonHate)

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Quito? But we just began-o...

So like I was saying yesterday, my vision of Quito completely changed that Friday, when I toured the city. Finally getting out there to explore what was going to be my home for the next 4.5 months was just what the doctor ordered.

I woke up bright and early to meet up at María Antonieta's (the study-abroad progam coordinator) house with the rest of people from our program. We were leaving at 7:30am for a bus tour of the city, as well as a visit to a few museums and historical landmarks. We were also told not to bring lunch - which got me very excited, because free food is one of my favorite things in the world (they say the love of food is the most sincere form of love there is). Once we were all there, we hopped on our magic school bus (it really was a yellow school bus), and we were off.

Señor Medina, our trusty chauffeur. He let me sit in the passenger seat so I could feel cool take pictures.

María Antonieta was our handy dandy tour guide. If I recall correctly, she studied Latin-American history and art, so she knows everything about Quito, and threw knowledge and fun facts about the city at us everywhere we went.

She's also quite the comedian.

Our first stop was at a mirador overlooking one of the many valleys in Quito.

Just behind those two mountains is Cumbayá, where my university is located.

I guess riding on a school bus brought us back to our elementary school days where walking in a line was the law.

Afterwards, we drove past the central part of the city and up into the skirts of Pichincha, the mountain overlooking Quito from the west.

Driving through central Quito.

Pichincha in the background - that's where we're headed. Also note 'El Panecillo', the hill to the left.

We drove around in the mountains along winding roads, climbing up about 600 feet in the proces, until we reached our stop - El Templo de la Patria.

Definitely a much better example of brutalist architecture than BU's law building.

Cows are very patriotic here in Quito, apparently.

El Templo de la Patria is a museum erected at 'La Cima de la Libertad', the site of the Battle of Pichincha. On May 24th, 1822,  Latin-American rebel forces were intercepted by the Spanish army at this very spot - the rebels ended up winning a decisive victory however, liberating Quito and securing independence from which the Republic of Quito would eventually emerge.

I forgot who this is, so I'm just going to say it's Ché Guevara and Jesus put together.

War drums from the Battle of Pichincha.

There's always a garrison of soldiers (and their lady friends apparently) stationed at the museum site.
Mural showing the liberation of Quito.

It was getting to be around lunch time (HELL YEA, FOOD), so our next stop was El Panecillo, a hill  located in central quito with a huge and beautiful statue of Virgin Mary at the top. From what they told us, it's not the regular Virgin Mary, but the Virgin mentioned in the Book of Revelations (but honestly, the catholic church has like 23475 Virgin Marys and they're pretty much all the same).

At the top of El Panecillo

We ate at a restaurant called Pim's, which was located right on El Panecillo, and as you can imagine, had some spectacular views of the city. The music was kind of weird though - they kept playing stuff like destiny's child and things like that (yes, we know the restaurant is filled with mostly gringos, but we're not in the 90s or the 00s anymore).

We are excited for food.

Free canelazo shot? Cheers.

I like my Beef Tenderloins stabbed with plantain chips.

We had a great lunch and some wonderful conversation. And trust me, the conversation WAS wonderful  - a few of us realized we were all Game of Thrones fans, and talked about that the entire meal. By the time we left, we were still so full from the food (omnomnom) that we had trouble dragging our food bellies out of the restaurant (there were lots of stairs involved).

Afterwards, we stopped by the colonial center of San Juan Quito.

San Sebastian y De Cristo? I feel like if I turn around, I'll get to El Morro.

Yeah, I felt like I was back in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. Makes sense though - the same people (the Spaniards) built it, and from the looks of it, they pretty much stuck with the 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it rule' - this is pretty much a bigger version of Old San Juan (good thing Hector Lavoe isn't Ecuadorian, or they would have gotten their own Calle Luna, Calle Sol).

Palomas. Palomas everywhere.
Voy subiendo, voy bajando.

Spanish colonial architecture is beautiful however, and is special wherever you go. Every sunday, they close down 20 miles of streets all through Quito - so you will inevitably see me biking through here very soon.

At the end of the day, I got to know the city a little better, and felt a little more at home in the process (especially after visiting the colonial part).

First day out = success.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Quito, Ciudad de los Cielos

I'm going to be honest - my opinion of Quito during my first few days was not the best. 95% of the time during the three or so days after my arrival on the 14th of August had been spent going back and forth between my house and the university for program orientation events. It was always the same routine: get up, eat breakfast, catch three buses to get to Cumbayá (the suburb in Quito where USFQ is located), get orienteered (yes, I just made that word up), catch three buses back, eat dinner, go to bed. I would have loved to have gone out exploring on my own, but there was one problem:  It was always dark by the time I got back. This was especially troublesome because if there was one thing that was hammered into our brains during the orientations, it's that the minute we stepped out by ourselves, we would get killed by the army-hordes of criminals that constantly roam the streets of Quito in search of gringo blood (at least this is what I remember the U.S. embassy official telling us). Of course, this was a total exaggeration - but until the first weekend, I was essentially stuck on an endless loop between my house and the university. The areas I did see were pretty sketchy (a favorite word of mine).

This is my street at night. I think it qualifies as "pretty sketchy."

It felt like someone had taken the worst parts of Puerto Rico (where I'm from), and made an entire city out of it. I decided I shouldn't jump to conclusions however - I had only heard  beautiful things about Quito from friends that had gone in the past (shoutout to Cristina, Meaghan, Britney, Nicole, Jenny, and Joy), and I had only been in the city for three days - so clearly there must have been something I was missing.

And boy was there something I was missing:

Quito: The highest capital city in the world. 9,350 feet above sea level.
Now I get why they call it "Ciudad de los Cielos".

Quito is like art: sometimes you need to take a step back in order to get some perspective. A good way to step back in Quito is by going up in elevation a further 2000 feet. Quito covers an area of 1,623 square miles (for comparison, New York City's land area is only 783.8 square miles). The minute you see the rolling hills of the city extending from horizon to horizon, as far as the eye can see, and dotted by an array of mountains and volcanoes - you're in love.  The truth is, before I finally went on a tour of the city that Friday, I had seen absolutely nothing. I felt nothing but guilt for having such a poor opinion of Quito during my first days - because I learned then that Quito is nothing short of magical.