Sunday, July 24, 2011

I'll be fine once I get it

Before I write about our grand conclusions or where to go with my research, I thought that I would take a brief digression into happiness. When I was in Ecuador I wrote about the things I that made me happy there. The Pursuit of Happiness, Ecuadorian style included: banana milkshakes, bus rides that are long but actually feel short, speaking Spanish, bathrooms with toilet paper, being so dirty that you forget clean, conversations with strangers about politics, dangling my feet off a canoe, well maintained parks, only using the internet once a day, the rainforest, fried eggs and the list goes for two pages.

A few weeks ago I finished reading a great book lent to me by a a great friend, The Geography of Bliss, by Eric Weiner. Weiner, a former foreign correspondent, visits ten countries in order to observe what does and does not make people happy. His travels take him from Switzerland, where orderliness is happiness, to Bhutan where happiness is a domestic policy, to Moldova where unhappiness is rampant. Weiner's observations tend to be a bit general because of the brevity of his visits, but he raises important points about the real impact of culture on all of our lives. He very aptly states that "Culture is the sea we swim in- so pervasive, so all-consuming that we fail to notice its existence until we step out of it."

Thinking about culture and happiness, I am trying to decide what it is that makes people in this country happy. Do the things we want make us as happy as we think? According to mainstream American culture, food, shopping, professional sports, resort vacations and good reality television make us happy. Is this true? Do these things really make us happy? The list I made on a park bench in Ecuador does not look anything like this, and I have a feeling that there are many others out there whose lists would correlate. So here is a challenge, start taking note of the things that make you happy, however silly and insignificant they sound. Coffee in the morning, running at night, or calling a friend. Anything.

Thank you for indulging me in this detour. I am going to make blueberry pie, which I want and will coincidentally make me happy (I think).

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The perfect space

It is so hot outside right now that I can't help but be reminded of a month ago, when I was in the Amazon. To continue from where I left off, we were in Nuevo Rocafuerte, ready to embark on our three day camping trip in Yasuni National Park. Following the beautiful sunset and a dinner of rice and beans, our bags were packed and spirits were high. Jerry, Drisk and I loaded up Juan Carlos' motorized canoe and set off for a two and a half hour ride even further into the Amazon. Here were are on the boat:

Along the way we spotted a rare species of pink freshwater dolphins and saw the border of Peru at an even closer range. After studying there during the fall semester it was strange to see Peru from the other side.

After a gloriously breezy ride we arrived at our first encampment. We set our tents up beneath a canopy of leaves and readied ourselves for some adventure. And let me say that adventure, it came and took us by force. We hiked, canoed, and swam our way through the some of the most exciting few days that I can recall.

Recreational activities aside, we came to Yasuni with a research objective. In 2008, Ecuador was the first country to declare the unalienable rights of nature. Therefore, maintaining the preservation of Yasuni National Park is a crucial part of meeting the Millennium Development Goals. The ecological diversity within the park is unparalleled and because of it Yasuni was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1989. Inside this area live many indigenous groups, some whom have never contacted the outside world.

However, this sacred place is threatened by the natural resources that lie beneath its surfaces, namely oil. In 2007 the Ecuadorian government created the ITT Initiative, which claims to leave Ishpingo-Tiputini-Tambococha oil fields untapped in exchange for compensation from the international community for lost revenue. If exploited, the indigenous rights and the unalienable rights of nature will be seriously jeopardized.

With this knowledge, the ever-fearless team Ecuador wanted to see what the effects of the oil exploration process were on this piece of jungle. So after our two canoe rides we hiked an hour and trekked through waist-deep water to find the oil reservoirs. Look at us go:

And after our exploring, this is what we found on the other side (its the Ishpingo of ITT):

I am still not completely sure what to call this structure, but I think oil valve is the most accurate. I am still in awe of how it came out of nowhere, distracting us from the incredible greenery around it. Poking at its base with a stick released the oil fumes. So it was easy to imagine how building a pipeline from it would be extremely dangerous for the surrounding communities. If used, Ecuador would benefit economically, but not for long. Definitely not long enough to make up for the damage it would cause to the environment. Many people we met, even our guide, believe the current administration of Ecuador WILL break the ITT initiative and drill for oil. Only time will tell, but for the sake of Ecuador and the importance of biodiversity everywhere I sincerely hope that they do not.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The end where I begin

I'm back in the United States, back in New York, in my house (and to be even more exact, my bedroom). A lot has happened since I left here four weeks ago. I have traveled to Ecuador, met with UN agencies, explored Yasuni National Park in the Amazon and swam in the Pacific Ocean. With all this being said, I am a bit overwhelmed by the recapping process but I will try to make some sense of it for you all.

I arrived in Quito, the capital of Ecuador one month ago today. It looks alarmingly like Cusco, an Andean city in Peru that I studied abroad in, so I felt immediately at ease. Our first meetings was with the HIV/AIDS division of UNESCO, which corresponds with Goal 6 of the MDGs. I learned that HIV, although extremely rare with a prevalence rate of 0.08, is highly stigmatized and most common in the mobile workers in the coastal zone. The women that Drisk, Jerry and I met with were extremely intelligent and dedicated to educating Ecuador's youth about HIV transmission and how to prevent the virus.

After 3 days in Quito we moved on to Tena, a charming jungle city. We ate grilled corn and plantains every night of our stay and purchased a knife to enjoy the fresh pineapple that was everywhere. Here is the merging of two rivers in Tena:

There wasn't a whole lot of research to do in Tena (the rafting, caving and kayaking that tempted us is another story) so we moved on to Coca. Coca is known for its petroleros, oil workers that move in and out of the city. From here we met with Irma, my absolute favorite person at the InformaciĆ³n Turistica, who led us to Juan Carlos and into the Amazon.

A few phone calls and a 10 hour motorized canoe ride later, we arrived in Nuevo Rocafuerte, which rests on the border of Ecuador and Peru. Nuevo Rocafuerte has ZERO cars and only two motorcycles. Men sitting with monkeys are a common sight and there were more stars there than I have ever seen before. Upon our arrival, our trusty jungle guide, Juan Carlos, wanted us to climb this tower:

To see this sunset:

And here is team Ecuador, happy to be off a canoe and watching the sky:

That is all for now, part 2 through a million to come!