Life here in Ecuador has been amazing, I have been learning and discovering everything there is to know about the biology, ecology, culture, and people here. I can't believe how fast the semester went...let alone my undergraduate career! Time really does keep getting faster as you grow older. This semester has ignited my passion for learning and shown me what I want to dedicate my life to. I am so passionate about staying here in Ecuador and studying amphibian biology while incorporating the topics of conservation, sustainable use, and local education. Traveling really does bring the world together, I have made amazing friends and incredible memories over the past 5 months, and I am excited to see where the next 5 months take me. Now, the journey of becoming an explorer and feeling the freedom of a graduate begins...!
My first week as a conservation biologist:
After spending the previous day with my friend Nina in the visa office waiting 6 hours, only to have a 10 minute meeting and an exchanging of numbers (who knew all you needed was a whatsapp account to get a visa extended?) I was ready to leave the concrete jungle for some fresh air and green landscape.
First stop, Mashpi Reserve. This is a 1200 hectare privately owned protected area at the heart of the larger municipality of the Mashpi area. I left for Mashpi early Wednesday morning with members of the Tropical Herping team to photograph a red-tailed coral snake. While the photos were being taken I spent the day pondering life and practicing a little yoga in front of a waterfall. I was deep in thought planning and dreaming about the future, smiling about the past, but most importantly appreciating the moment. I began to understand while its important to strive for the future and remember the past, you can't get stuck living in them. The strongest memories come from losing yourself to the moment and being content with the here and now. Take the time to let your senses feel your surroundings. Get lost in thought. Sit and think, but think the thoughts that are worth your time. Don't loose minutes over possessions you don't have, people you can't change, and circumstances beyond your control. Focus on what is in front of you and put your effort into things you can make a difference in. Be content. But never lose the excitement for adventure. And then go look for frogs and snakes...
So after the day passed I planned to get a ride into the town of Mashpi to stay at a local chocolate farm. But it turned out I would be staying at the reserve a little longer...Carlos, the head biologist and friend of Tropical Herping informed me that the town was about an hour and a half away from the reserve, in the opposite direction than how my friends were returning to Quito, and the last shuttle had left about 45 minutes ago. Looks like my plan to meet my friends at the finca would be postponed until tomorrow. No problem, I would take the 9:00 bus out and I was lucky enough to be offered accommodation in the biological station in the reserve. It also happened that this was the night he would be giving a presentation on the projects he had conducted and currently worked on throughout his four years as the biologist there! What appeared to be a stranding was slowly turning into a blessing in disguise...
After learning about the diversity and potential within the reserve I woke up the next morning after a night of rain, lots of rain. 8 hours of downpour had apparently caused three landslides in between where I was and the town, blocking access out of the reserve and into Mashpi. Besides this delaying my arrival at the farm and causing my friends to think I had gone missing (I'm sorry!) I had the day to explore the beautiful area :) I helped out in the morning at the Centro de Vida, which is a butterfly reserve with a full breeding program and research center. I learned the process of starting and maintaing the populations and spent the morning transferring newly hatched caterpillars onto designated plants to grow and mature. Spending the day at Mashpi also provided time to discuss my ideas for the grant with Carlos, who would be an affiliate of the project, and brainstorm the direction of the proposal. Around 5 that afternoon I said a final goodbye to what would be a hopeful return and was at last on my way to Mashpi Chocolate Artesanal!
Winding through dense cloudforest is an incredible site. The rolling hills display every color of green and are a mosaic of farmland and natural forest. The three local ladies along in the ride advised me of my stop and I walked up the beautiful road towards Mashpi Shungo, and just in time to eat chocolate bananas and spend a last night with my friends before they headed out to Banos. My time at the chocolate farm was an inspiring and possibly life deciding event. I fell in love with the area and the lifestyle. Everything they eat is within 50 km of the farm and in the open kitchen and living room swings hammocks and book shelves that look out to the beautiful landscape underneath. I was able to spend the nights discussing conservation and sustainable use with Alejandro and playing and watching futbol with Augustina and Vanne, the ladies in charge of the chocolate making. These ladies along with 15 other teams from around the area travel 2+ hours every Saturday to play futbol matches. On Saturday we fit 15 people in the pick-up, got turned around 4 times due to closed roads, and got soaked with rain in the back of the truck during the downfall on the way home. It was a lovely afternoon and a beautiful experience. That night I was lucky enough to celebrate the birthday of a visiting friend and we had montons of carne and pork asada, vegetables, salad, and red wine all paired with interesting people and good conversation. I left early Sunday morning on the ranchero out of town, knowing that I will be back to further my relationship with the town and biology of the surrounding area.
Now for the herp report!! My amphibian findings: Alejandro and I set out for some Friday night herping around the farm and along the river of Mashpi, until about 2:00am listening and identifying what we could. We found an incredible amount of beautiful herp species, including a glassfrog, many species of Hylidae, Pristimantis (family Craugastoridae), Bufonidae, and Plethodontidae, which is the family of Anolis lizards. It was a successful herping trip and the area was breathtakingly gorgeous and natural! Filled with a restored tilapia pond which now served as great amphibian habitat, dense forest in between plots of land use, and overgrown river banks teeming with wildlife. After talking with Alejandro, who is one of the most innovative and passionate conservationists I have had the pleasure of meeting, I understand the opportunity to research and discover the amphibian diversity within Mashpi and share that knowledge with the locals. My future project could be a part of a large scale sustainable use plan implemented for the surrounding areas within the Pinchicha province. The idea is to make Mashpi and the neighboring towns a model forest for sustainable agriculture, conservation, and community tourism. I cannot wait to return and get started on these projects!