T-minus one week to departure
On July 9th, I am traveling to the Amazon Rainforest in Ecuador.
The above title “no tengas miedo” sums up a good part of my sentiment about traveling. It means “don’t be afraid” in Spanish.
Despite my gung-ho attitude about travel, I’ve been getting raised eyebrow looks that say, “Well, good luck coming back disease-free and with all your limbs.” Just to clear some people’s minds (Nanny and Poppy!) I got my Hepatitis A and Yellow Fever vaccines, and I’m taking anti-malaria medication. As for my limbs, I’ll make sure to watch out for man-eating jungle spiders and whatever other mystical creatures lurk in the dark heart of the forest.
So why am I going to Ecuador in the first place? Because Johns Hopkins is true to its ideals as a research university. They awarded me a research grant as an incoming freshman - the Woodrow Wilson Research Fellowship - to go and find out about whatever I wanted. My heart had always been set on South America. So after two years of thinking about it, my plans fell into Ecuador.
A brief history of the area: The Oriente of Ecuador is a highly biodiverse area of rainforest and is home to various indigenous peoples. Texaco found oil in the Oriente in the 1960s and began a drilling operation there that lasted almost 30 years. The company apparently dumped billion gallons of toxic wastewater into the waterways and dug about 600 unlined pits for sludge waste, most of which remain today. The people in these areas have reported cancer and diseases from living with this toxic waste (note: Chevron-Texaco disputes these claims).
Here is a short video from TIME magazine about the issue. (Sorry for the ad, it’s short.)
The Amazon Mycorenewal Project (AMP) is a small organization based in CA that is researching how to use fungi to clean this waste (mycoremediation). Basically, the fungi use the oil as food and convert the toxins and carcinogens into harmless products: water and carbon dioxide. I’m jumping on to this project because these guys have all the right ideas. Their methods are sustainable and cost effective, and if they succeed in getting their techniques off the ground, the local people could benefit long term not only from the cleanup of their home environment, but also from the cultivation of mushrooms for food and income.
So I’m meeting up with people from AMP and the Cloud Forest Institute (CFI) for six weeks, and they are going to take me and some other students all around Ecuador to learn about the rainforest ecosystems and the history of the oil industry there. My goal is to learn as much as I can about the interactions between the environment and the health of the people there.
Here is a map of the general areas where I will be. Our trek will include a few days of crossing the Andes Mountains.
I’ve been stocking up on the gear that I will need for traipsing around in the rainforest. Shown here, I have: heavy duty insect repellent, voice recorder for interviews, malaria medication, poncho, headlamp, binoculars, swiss army knife. The tyvek suit and respirator mask are for my safety when we visit toxic waste sites and collect mushroom specimens for research.
I am told that we will have at least weekly and sometimes daily internet access, so check back for updates. On we go, in the name of science!