Sunday, July 24, 2005

In the woods

Wednesday, July 20th:

Back in the hotel on Tuesday night, we had received a note from Tim Sexton, a student from U of Iowa, saying he wanted to join us on our trip. Unfortunately, we couldn't connect with him. On the bright side, Patty was able to join us as there was place in the van.

For those who are reading this blog to learn about the PHA-2 – sorry, folks! I'll get back on track tomorrow. However, since we learnt about the biodiversity of Ecuador and the healing properties of plants in the mountains, this could be considered a field trip! Read on...

The ride to Cajas took about an hour. We passed through a small town right outside Cuenca. Here, Santiago (our guide) said, every family has a member in the United States. It's the case with most of Cuenca too – a picturesque and teeming town, it's also a rich one. In the usual 'pulling a tale out of a hat' approach, Santiago mentioned that Gayacuil had the highest population in Ecuador, next Quito, then New York! That is, there are more Ecuadorians in New York than in Cuenca!

Our drive to the park took about an hour. Along the way were a few villages and that scourge of the countryside – Eucalyptus. Yes, Eucalyptus does have medicinal properties, its oil is fragrant and good for the skin and its wood is useful. But the trees don't allow any other vegetation to flourish. Further, it depletes the water table with its deep roots. But hey, it's a money maker...

We entered the park and started our first trek – to a height of 4100 meters. The trek was sharply uphill in places and a light rain made it worse. Luckily, I was dressed for the weather, down to my waterproof pants. We reached the heights to encounter clouds in every direction. Santiago suggested we wait and mentioned that we were on a continental divide, that is, water west of us would flow to the Pacific and to the east would flow to the Atlantic thousands of miles away. As he promised, the clouds started drifting away and some of the hundreds of lakes in the park became visible. We returned to the van and drove to the start of the second trek. This would be a 2-hour trek through the mountains and also in a 'wet mountain forest'. Santiago stopped every few minutes to show us a plant or tell us a legend about a certain lake. One lake is considered to 'eat the people' as it has a lot of algae that entangle swimmers. A type of tulip is a hermaphrodite and never opens. Another plant, related to the pineapple, can be eaten in emergencies. A number of medicinal plants and flowers were shown to us.

The wet mountain forest had trees with barks that peeled like paper – I forget their scientific name. After the wilderness in Minnesota, this forest was a welcome change. Here and elsewhere in the mountains, even rocks are covered with vegetation. Mosses, lichens, small plants, daisies at ground level (evolutionary response to the winds) abound. In the mountain forest, we had to watch our heads. Tracks were hard to make out – I wasn't much in favor of a guided tour but now was glad we took it instead of losing our way.

Ahead of us was another group so Santiago took us on another path. This took a lot longer than expected – a bonus was another wet forest. But we were dog tired when we reached the restaurant almost 4 hours later. The lunch was excellent – for the rest, a fried cod and for me, a salad with heart of palms, broccoli etc. The food has been almost universally good here – lots of fruits like naranjilla, mora etc. that are unique here and plenty of vegetables to satisfy the herbivores. After the meal, we went to see a cloud forest. This was at 2.30 pm and the clouds were gone by then. We also didn't see any birds – too many tourists, I guess. We did ask Santiago about the indigenous people – whether they lived in the park and were evicted. Santiago said yes, they were 'destroying' the environment. The biggest failure of environmental movements that look at local communities as the problem...

But overall, it was great to experience the combination of the tropics and the altitude and the amazing biodiversity of Ecuador.

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