9,252 feet above sea level, I shivered in the cold air. I did not prepare for Ecuador being so chilly. In every direction, blue mountain ridges bordered Quito, including the snow-capped Cotopaxi. If you didn’t know, the capitol city could have been any city in the United States, except for the empanada stands, the imposing mountain backdrop, and towering palm trees invading the otherwise urban environment. Regretting having taken French in high school and college, I tried to converse with the minimal Spanish I retained from grade school and an app I downloaded on my phone. My conversational Spanish needs improvement, but I managed to successfully navigate to my hotel to meet up with my fellow Master’s Project group member, Tatiana, who has been in Ecuador working for the Conservational International Trott Field Internship.
After a morning run around the park (which proved incredibly difficult in the thin air and high altitude) and a breakfast of fresh fruit, including the foreign granadilla, dragon fruit, and narangilla, we met our host at Conservation International Ecuador and started work immediately. We arranged meetings with the Ministry of the Environment and HIVOS, an international development organization, for the end of the week. Prior to conducting our interviews, we needed a mock platform for our toolkit in order to present the information in a way that enabled people to visualize our final product. We also drafted questions for the interviews. A stark dichotomy began to grow between ministry officials/organizations in the capitol and members of the mangrove concessions. Earlier in the month, there had been blue carbon workshops, and we carefully reviewed all the presentations and met with our in country host. At this point, we began to run into trouble. The challenge of manipulating and presenting BIG DATA, creating questions for a plethora of stakeholders, and trying to create a universal yet really specific innovative platform grew out of proportion. We struggled with the behemoth task of creating our own website.
Three days and several cups of coffee later, we had a relatively coherent agenda with updated objectives, a site map for our Blue Carbon Toolkit, and a series of questions in English and Spanish. The questions focused on ascertaining what the Ministry and NGOs thought was critical information (knowledge, tools, technology) for implementing a blue carbon project that was unavailable to them. We included questions to assess what blue carbon projects they currently were working on or had future plans to include, what type of person in the organization would utilize such a toolkit, and the level of expertise of the potential users. We also asked for specific and general feedback on the sitemap.
Meanwhile, in the hotel, we met a Belgium hydrologist and decided to explore Quito nightlife. Somehow, we ended up in a chocolate shop sampling chocolate bananas, chocolate coffee beans, rosewater chocolate, and other Ecuadorian specialties. I could have stayed in the shop for the rest of the trip. The lady behind the counter was more than generous with allowing us to taste anything in the store.
Tatiana and I immediately recognized our mutual love of food. We decided to indulge this craving and ate a variety of local and Peruvian ceviches and bought local fruits at the market. Quito has more to offer than just amazing food and tasty, crunchy, roasted corn kernels. Old Town is famous for its beautiful churches, convents, and monasteries as well as the Virgen de El Panecillo. The Pope had just visited Ecuador the week before, explaining the large billboards sprinkled around the capitol welcoming his arrival.
We traveled to the “center of the world” or 0 degrees latitude, 0 minutes, 0 seconds (the monument is actually hundreds of feet away from the actual equator). A yellow line, dramatically painted across the monument, symbolizes the equator. The center of the world was incredibly cold and windy. A mock town wraps its way around the monument, with alpacas, a church, souvenir shops, restaurants with roasted guinea pig, a town square, mini museums, and a playground. The tip of the snow capped Cotopaxi, an active volcano, can be seen just left of the monument.
At the end of the week, it was back to business, and we went to the Ministry of the Environment to meet with the Director of the Biodiversity Center and the Vice Minister of the Environment. The ministry officials were very smart, pragmatic, and provided useful feedback, advice, and precisely expressed what they wanted from our toolkit. After leaving the ministry, which was very intimidating to present in, we went to a local gastronomie and ate delicious sea bass and had freshly prepared passion fruit juice. Next, we met with the directors of HIVOS, an international organization dedicated to solving persistent global issues such as unsustainable use of the planet’s resources. HIVOS advocates sustainable fishing and has shellfish projects in the concessions (an alternative to the agriculture which destroys mangroves). They offered a different perspective and set of needs than the ministry officials. Again, the polarity of our objective seemed to be an ever present issue.
We will be traveling to Guayaquil next week to visit the concessions, marine reserves, and deforested areas. We will be conducting more interviews with the local people, fishermen, ministry officials, NGOs, and members of the universities. Until then, there is more ceviche to eat in Quito.