The City of Quito

Having spent a few days in Quito years ago on my own, I wanted to introduce this historic city to my family. We thereby arrived in Quito a few days prior to our expedition (which was to meet in Guayaquil on the 17th of October).

Quito, the capital of Ecuador, was founded in the 16th century on the ruins of an Inca city and stands at an altitude of 2,850 m. The capital city derives its name from the Quitus, who inhabited the region a long time before the Spanish conquest.

Despite the 1917 earthquake, the city has the best-preserved, least altered historic centre in Latin America. The monasteries of San Francisco and Santo Domingo, and the Church and Jesuit College of La Compañía, with their rich interiors, are examples of the ‘Baroque school of Quito’, which is a fusion of Spanish, Italian, Moorish, Flemish and indigenous art.

quitoThe city occupies a small basin in the great central plateau formed by the volcano Pichincha, the Puengasi ridge, and ridges formed by spurs from the eastern side of Pichincha. The houses of Quito are chiefly built in the old Spanish or Moorish style. The building material in general use is sun-dried brick, covered in the better houses with plaster or stucco.

Upon consulting with the concierge at our hotel, we opted to purchase tickets for the City Bus Tour (hop on hop off). This was a great introduction to the city – enabling us to see some of the famous churches and plazas. We hopped off at only a few places: El Panecillo, La Plaza Grande, y El Teleférico.

El Panecillo is a 200m high hill of volcanic origin with a peak elevation of 3,016m above sea level. The original names used by the aboriginal inhabitants was Yavirac. According to a Jesuit historian, there had been a temple which the indians used to worship the sun; later destroyed by Spanish conquistadores.

In 1976, the Spanish artist Agustín de la Herráan Matorras was commissioned by the religious order of the Oblates to build a 45m tall aluminum monument of a madonna. It is made of 7,000 pieces of aluminum and was inaugurated on 28 Mar 1976 by the 11th Archbishop of Quito.

quito2While enjoying the views from the Panecillo, we purchased a cup of sliced mango. The kids were looking forward to a sweet refreshing treat but to their disgust, discovered the fruit had been sprinkled with salt and lemon .. too sour for their taste.

Our next stop was the La Plaza Grande where we visited the Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesus, did a little shopping, and enjoyed a wonderful Ecuadorian meal at Hasta la Vista Señor. Geneva purchased a poncho here and wrapped herself up in it for much of our trip.

In the photo collage above, you can see Geneva wasn’t very happy. She and Jeffrey had been arguing for much of the morning and just before we snapped this family photo, he had stepped on her foot. Ah, the joys of traveling with kids.

Our last stop was the Teleférico – a gondola lift running from the edge of the city center up the east side of Pichincha Volcano to the lookout Cruz Loma.  It is one of the highest aerial lifts in the world, rising form 3117m to 3945m. Geneva and I actually began to feel the effects of the altitude. My heart felt constricted, I was very winded (hard to catch my breath), and we even a little dizzy. Yikes! We thereby opted not to walk any higher – though Patrick and Jeffrey braved forward.

The view was incredible though. It reminded me a little of the viewpoint in Hong Kong – the infrastructure was there, but it had not been maintained. From my research upon our return home, I learned that the aim was to create an entire mall at its base, with cinemas, coffee shops, and an amusement park. Unfortunately this project eventually fell through (though a small cafe, gift shop, and an amusement park – Vulqano Park, still remain).


Rainforest Caterpillars

As a teacher, I’ve had some amazing opportunities over the years. For a while now, I have wanted to write a post about them here to share some insight into who I am – to describe how I came to be the person I am today. I wanted to share some of them with you in hopes that I might inspire you. Accordingly, some of the posts you see around here in the near future may be a bit of a departure from your garden-variety homeschool blog. Sometimes, I just like to get these things in print so I’ll remember that they actually happened. For today, here’s a snapshot of one of those teaching experiences that changed my life.

rain cats

People are pretty jealous when I tell them I’ve recently returned from a trip to Ecuador. They immediately ask, “Did you go the Galapagos?” Did you stay at a beach resort?” I have to be honest and answer, “No, I collected caterpillars.” While this may seem a bizarre way to spend ones vacation, I really did venture into the rainforests of Ecuador for two weeks as part of an Earthwatch expedition.

Rainforest Caterpillars

The purpose of this particular expedition was to assist a team of scientists in their investigations of caterpillar defenses against their natural enemies, particularly parasitoids. The principal investigators, Dr. Lee Dyer (Assistant Professor at Tulane University), Thomas Walla, and Craig Dodson (Associate Professors at Mesa State College), had four major research goals. The first was to gain a better understanding of the effectiveness caterpillars have against their natural enemies. Secondly, to examine caterpillar diets (generalist versus specialist feeders), hoping to clarify to what extent plant chemistry and natural enemies affect the diet of herbivores (more specifically, caterpillars). The third goal was to relate the results to agriculture as an alternative to the current use of pesticides. The fourth goal was to inventory the biodiversity of an ecosystem that is disappearing at an alarming rate.

After several years of caterpillar study at La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica, Dr. Dyer and his colleagues are pioneering a companion project in the lesser-known and threatened Ecuadorian rainforest. My expedition team was the first to work at Yanayacu Biological Station in Ecuador, a privately owned preserve on the eastern slope of the Ecuadorian Andes.

Caught between plants, predators, and parasites, caterpillars have been forced to develop a bizarre armory of survival skills. For the most part, while many butterflies are well known as adults, the details of their life as caterpillars (the longest part of their life), is poorly known, and many inter-related questions need to be answered. Getting data to provide answers for these questions is what the expedition was all about, and in order to obtain that data, many mundane chores and practical tasks needed to be carried out.

A typical day of research usually involved a lot of hiking. In order to study caterpillars, you need to find them first. We usually set out with our collecting kits, to scour the roadsides and other disturbed areas (prime caterpillar habitat) for these elusive creatures. Finding one elicited shouts of joy in the beginning. After a few days in the humidity and nearly constant drizzle of the forest, the excitement wore off (but it was always exciting to find a new or interesting species).
Rainforest Caterpillars

In the lab, another group of volunteers was ready to process the new arrivals. Essentially, each individual caterpillar was given a unique number, identified taxonomically, and the behaviors, coloration, and morphology were recorded. The caterpillar was then ready to be placed in the “zoo”. The caterpillar specimens are then cared for until they pupate and either emerge as adult Lepidoptera or a parasitoid emerges. Each day, volunteers cleaned the bags of frass (entomological term for caterpillar droppings) and condensation, and assured that each bag had fresh plant material. As we did so, we also checked the status of the caterpillar and noted any changes (presence of a parasitoid or pupa).

In the Classroom

So, how will I use all this in the classroom? As a fifth grade teacher, one of my favorite (also the most popular with students) thematic units is on invertebrate animals. Since caterpillars are considered to be one of the most serious pests of agriculture, it was only natural that part of the study included trying to find a more natural way to control their population. Using their natural enemies against them, parasitoids seem to be a logical solution. This would be something that my students could explore locally.

But much more important than any facts which I can teach my students are my experiences and adventures in the rainforest. One of the main things I have learned is that we need a new “law of the jungle.” Biodiversity and the interconnectedness of all the creatures of the rainforest show us that we must honor the balance of nature. These are the great lessons of the rainforest which I hope to pass on to my students: attitudes and perspectives which provide a new vision of the world, one celebrating life’s diversity and offering an alternative to the 19th century views which still persist. That’s my lesson plan.

I wish to thank the other Rainforest Caterpillars of Ecuador volunteers – Kristen, David, James, Bruce and Joanna; the Principal Investigators – Lee, Tom, and Craig; and our host – Harold Greeney, for helping to make the expedition so enjoyable. I would also like to thank the Earthwatch Institute for providing the opportunity for the expedition. And I offer special thanks to the Society of American Foresters, Menasha Corporation, and Dr. Craig Stephenson for making my part in the expedition financially possible. It was the adventure of a lifetime and a dream come true.