November 7 2010

CouchSurfing in Ecuador

So what exactly is couchsurfing?

CouchSurfing is a program that is kinda like a cultural exchange where you stay with a local on his/her couch (bed, futon, whatever) and they show you a bit about their city. I first heard of the program prior to leaving, but haven’t really had the opportunity to use it. About a month ago, while in Quito, I met another traveler who used couch-surfing about 80% of the time while traveling and had 0 issues with it.  I am usually pretty cautious with where I sleep at night, especially since I am traveling as a single female, but hearing her stories convinced me to give it a try.

So here I am…

currently in Loja, Ecuador with my first couch surfer.

His name is Jamie; he’s quite cute and also is very nice…  I’m not going to lie, it was a little bit awkward–probably more for me than for him. Jamie has a small, but clean one-bedroom/ one bathroom apartment in a centrally located area of Loja. He insisted that I take the bed while he slept on the couch. My first night there he cooked dinner, and it was amazing.  I was tired and after dinner he went to a pub to catch a soccer game.  The next morning, he showed me around central Loja and gave me tips about visiting Vilcambaba and Cajas National Park.  It’ was kinda like staying with a friend–who happens to be a stranger. I ‘m not sure I could be as nice and helpful to a complete stranger, but I most certainly appreciate it.  By couchsurfing you not only save money because it is forbidden for a host to charge for the couch , but you also learn things about the city that you probably would not have found out on your own.

I stayed with Jamie for almost a week and at the end of my stay, I bought him a weeks’ worth of groceries as a thank-you, and on my morning out of town, he took me to a fresh juice / health store where you pick what fruits you want and they juice them and serve them fresh… I would have never found that on my own, but my pineapple orange juice was excellent. I don’t think I could do an entire trip by couchsurfing, but it is a nice change of pace when I get tired of hostels.  I will probably couch surf again at some point (and while nothing in life is 100% safe, Couchsurfing admins do take precautions about how the site is run).

Sometimes I still feel as if I am in the beginning stages of my journey because I spent a large part of this trip sort of away from civilization (good and bad), but with my arrival in Cuenca on Tuesday that began to change.  I actually met other travelers.  One lady was traveling with her teenage son–sort of a variation of home schooling.  She enrolled her daughter in University of Quito for $1200 semester and her son is in Spanish class in Cuenca… after a bit of that, they will go down to Machu Piccu to get in a history lesson or two. I think that would be the perfect way to educate children. They still have a schedule of what they must cover for the 9th grade, but they can do it however they want, and what better way to study World History than traveling the world.

I met another guy who is riding his bicycle! from Alaska to Argentina. He has been at it 15 months and figures to finish in February or so. I think that takes serious guts because pretty much once you cross into Mexico, drivers (and roads) suck… Every two weeks or so he pulls into a town on his bike to relax, go to Spanish school, do some hiking, stock up on supplies, ect… I think that is so cool, but I could never do that. I met another US retiree who is traveling to find out where to move. He said he is tired of the way the politics and healthcare in the US are run and is ready to sell the condo in FL and get out…

I have also met a girl from New Zealand (who loved my Southern accent) who was about to return home after traveling a year. Most everyone I have met has had some type of interesting story about what they are doing–which is nice to hear about…

 

 

August 15 2010

Ecuador and Orchids

After traveling around Colombia for a month, I am now in Ecuador.  Ecuador is known for its natural diversity – and all the fun that accompanies it. It is the second-smallest country in  South America, but its range of offerings is no less than astounding. In one day’s drive you can journey from the Amazon Basin across glaciated Andean volcanoes, down through tropical cloud forest and into the sunset for a dinner of ceviche on the balmy Pacific coast. For nature lovers Ecuador has exotic orchids and birds, bizarre jungle plants, strange insects, windswept páramo (Andean grasslands), dripping tropical forests and the fearless animals that hop, wobble and swim around the unique, unforgettable  Galápagos Islands.   And this is why I am here.  For the next month I will volunteering with Ceiba Foundation for Tropical Conservation. Ceiba has operations in the jungle, the Oriente, the coast, the Galapagos Islands, and the cloud forests.

I had orientation today and got my suggested items list and spent the day shopping.  I had a lot of the items like a headlamp, water bottle, wool socks, long-sleeved shirts, hiking shoes and pants, but I needed rubber boots, tall socks, and work gloves.  I also bought a few souvenirs and shipped them back home.  The cloud forest is only about 1 hour north of  Quito, and I’ll be living at the Mindo Orchid Reserve.  I am not sure exactly what I will be doing there, but it involves photography.  Then its off to the Ecuadorian Amazon.  From there it is a quick flight over the mountains off to the coast to do some work in the dry forest.  I know that I will be working in the EcoCenter for a couple of hours a day, but I am not sure what else I’ll be doing there.

A plant person, I am not, and I’m even less of a flower person. However, Ecuador is a bio-diversity hot spot, and I would be amiss if I didn’t at least check out some of Ecuador’s offering. I would also be de-friended by one of my best friends who not only has a master’s degree in plant pathology [I can’t even], but also grows orchids in one of his many home greenhouses.  But as a person who like to be thorough in my writing I did a little bit of research on the beautiful orchid.

Among the biggest misconception about orchids is that they are parasites. Most people will conclude this because in the wild most orchids are found to grow in the branches of trees and some even cling on bushes. Many species of orchids are epiphytes. This literally means “on top of plant”. They are called this because they usually attach themselves to the branches of trees. They are also referred to as air plants because they absorb moisture and nutrients from the air that surrounds them. This is also why most orchids require proper ventilation to thrive.

 

The orchids that hang from tree branches and birches get the nutrients not from the tree itself but the surroundings. They live “up there” because this is where they can get the best of the best nutrients from its surroundings, such as from dead leaves and bird droppings. That is why to classify them as parasitic because of their chosen location is completely untrue.

Some orchid species cannot create their own food through photosynthesis. So what they do is they rely on the fungi on their roots to create the food for them. These are the more appropriately called “parasitic orchids”.

In reality parasitic plants, like mistletoe, are considered parasites because they cause damage to their host plants. Orchids that cling and hang from trees are actually somewhat beneficial. Their host trees are considered more of a stage for them to thrive rather than a host to steal nutrients from.

Enough of the science lesson…

Whilst in Ecuador I went to not only the Orchidarium in Cuenca, but also did volunteer work at the Mindo Cloud forest about an hour north of Quito where I photographed and catalogued all the orchids on site. My favorite flower by far is the monkey faced orchid.  I’m sure it has a fancy  scientific name, but I like the monkey face name.

See that cute little monkey face. Talk about a flower with personality! And when it’s in full bloom, it smell like an orange.  How perfect! These orchids grow in the cloud forests of Ecuador and Peru at 1000 to 2000 meters above sea level.