I used my gateway challenges funding to travel around Ecuador for several weeks, completing a Spanish course and volunteering along the way. Often overlooked as one of the smaller Latin American countries, I was amazed at the incredibly varied scenery and culture Ecuador had to offer. I had chosen it based on little more than a cursory flick through a guidebook and since Ecuador rarely makes it into the European media, I found I knew next to nothing about the country I was to spend the next month or so in.
I first arrived in the capital city, Quito, with my sister in August. Situated at 2800m in the Andean mountains, the air was thin and altitude made the first few days a bit of an adjustment. I was staying with a host family for the week whilst I did a Spanish course in the city. The course itself was tiring, and having to come home and speak Spanish every meal was trickier than I had imagined. However staying with them gave me the chance to see Ecuador from an insider’s perspective. They cooked us traditional food (which involved lots of grilled bananas) and told us about everything from music to politics. And despite the cultural differences, we were sorry to say goodbye at the end.
From Quito, we travelled southwards down the sierra, stopping at the spa town of Banos, where we hiked and went horseback riding in western style. We then moved on to Cuenca, a colonial city reminiscent of southern Europe. We went to some of the traditional markets run by indigenas- Ecuador’s native people, who have faced much discrimination and hardship over the course of the nation’s turbulent history. It was interesting to see the traditional lifestyle many still lived, wearing hand-weaved traditional dress and celebrating festivals by playing local instruments. Considering the oppression these groups have faced by conquistadors- from the Incans to the Spanish, it is gratifying to see their culture being celebrated in Ecuador at last, and we found that showcasing this diversity of culture was a key theme of many of the museums and historical sites we visited.
Having decided not to do the Galapagos due to budget constraints, we chose instead to continue on to Puerto Lopez, stopping at Galapagos del Pobres (‘the poor man’s galapagos’) to see turtles, whales and native birds. I then returned to Quito briefly, to wave goodbye to my sister on her plane home to England, and continued on alone to volunteer in the Amazon.
After much research, I had chosen an animal wildlife rehabilitation centre in the Western Oriente of Ecuador. Much to my surprise, upon arriving, I discovered it was partly run by a Cambridge vet- bringing a small but cheerful reminder of home to a very foreign experience. The volunteer house had neither electricity or phone signal, and we worked for 7 hours a day, feeding and cleaning the animal enclosures. The experience was both rewarding and interesting- initially due to the opportunity to observe closely the various species housed there (Capuchin, Howler and Wooley monkeys, Sloths, Macaws and other parrots, Kinkajous and a Puma) but also over time due to the chance to meet a wide variety of people- from all countries, careers and of all ages, all working together for a common goal. It was especially exciting to see this goal realised in a small way, when an adult Sloth was released back into the wild during my stay.
I am incredibly grateful to the various funds at Murray Edwards for providing the grants that gave me the courage to travel so far. It was an experience that has inspired me to keep travelling in South America, and has shown me a little of what lies out there for Cambridge vets.