Student Blogger Study Abroad

January in the Amazon – Alex’s story

Alex Kennedy is a senior at St. Catherine University, who will graduate in May with a major in Biology and a minor in Spanish and Psychology. In January, while most of Minnesota was shivering, she spent almost a month in Latin America, with HECUA’s Social and Political Transformation in Ecuador J-Term program. This year’s group explored Quito, trekked through the Yasuní National Park in the Amazon, and traveled to the Imbabura province to sleep at the foot of an (inactive) volcano. Read on for Alex’s impressions of the Yasuní National Park.

Our trip into the Amazon was definitely a highlight of my HECUA J-Term Ecuadorian adventures. We traveled to the Yasuní National Park, and the journey took an entire day. We went from a bus, to a plane, to a bus, to a boat, to a van, and then finally to the park itself. In Yasuní we stayed at the Scientific Station, which was an incredible opportunity, especially considering my field of study: Biology.

The variety of sensory stimuli upon our arrival to the jungle was astounding. Not only were there chirps, buzzes, and hollers, but the whoops and whistles of animals that would visit the center. Animals like tapirs, for example.

Photo Credit: Alex Kennedy. 

There was plentiful life and biodiversity, and of course lots of rain and humidity! Although I was sick for the first day, I was able to go on some of the hikes. We learned in class as well as at the science station that there is a greater diversity of trees in that part of the Amazon than all of the U.S. and Canada combined, which was fascinating. We also learned that Ecuador has the only constitution in the world that gives nature rights. [Ed. Note: You can read more about that here.]

One of my favorite parts of our time at Yasuní was hiking at night versus the day.  As a biologist it was amazing to see how dramatically the wildlife would change depending on the time of day. We saw frogs, monkeys, birds, lemon ants, and more. This climate boasts an incredible diversity of flora and fauna.

Another highlight of the trip to Yasuní was meeting with the Waorani people. The women and a few men from families who lived nearby came to meet us at the science center, to teach us about creating a variety of handicrafts and baskets. They primarily spoke in the Waorani language, but some spoke a bit of Spanish, so we were able to communicate. I learned a lot about how to weave small containers for water, and saw some of the other tools and baskets that they made for collecting items from the jungle. It was fascinating to see the variety of items that can be made from the diverse amounts of plants there.

Learning to weave baskets. Photo credit: Alex Kennedy.

The next morning, I got to meet a very sweet Waorani girl. She was fascinated by the things I brought with me, especially my watch and phone. Together, we watched some of the videos on my phone from the jungle hikes we’d taken earlier in the week.  She was able to tell me, just from the sounds, what the animals were. It was fun speaking with her because she was so knowledgeable about the area, and so eager to learn about our American culture as well.

The visit with the Waorani people was eye opening, especially learning about how their culture has been so dramatically altered by the drilling of oil in the Amazon basin. The Waorani were a relatively isolated group of people until these oil companies came in to drill. That has changed rapidly in the past 50 years. The effect on the environment surrounding Waorani communities has changed dramatically and rapidly as well. Unfortunately, now the water around the area where we stayed is unsafe for swimming. Additionally, it’s not safe to drink, and from what I understood, there are buses that take the Waorani people to places where they can get fresh water.

Oil extraction. Photo credit: Alex Kennedy.

Overall, this was an incredible trip. We got to see the many extremes of the Amazon, from the oil stations to the great biodiversity in the relatively pristine wilderness. As with any place in the world with resources, people will want to exploit the area. Although some of the areas that we saw were exploited for oil, the reserves and national parks that we saw are working hard to preserve the jungle and the biodiversity that inhabits the area. The people we met along the way were very kind, and willing to teach us about their culture and values, and it was definitely an incredible experience to hear their stories.

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