As I begin to count down the days to an as-of-yet-unspecified day of departure (still waiting for my plane ticket), and I try to rally my strength to get through the cold weather and build my enthusiasm for traveling again, I realize that I have never really shared what made me apply for a Fulbright to work in Ecuador in the first place. Why am I about to pack up my life into a big purple suitcase and move to this tiny South American country for 6 months?
Surprisingly, I don’t get the question ‘Why Ecuador?’ all that often. A lot of people, I think, don’t quite know where it is. I’ve had people confuse Ecuador with Ethiopia. Uh, wrong continent. Some people confuse it with Peru (more understandable – Peru is just to the south of Ecuador and they have some shared history).
Most everyone has heard of the Galapagos, however. For a long time, that was Ecuador’s shining jewel and primary tourist attraction. For the people who don’t know Ecuador, that’s how I introduce it to them: It’s the country with the Galapagos.
But more and more people are now looking to Ecuador’s mainland – the mountains, the cloud forests, the Amazon – as a major vacation destination, and, for some in the US and Europe, a retirement home.
So what, specifically, drew me to apply for a Fulbright there?
- Spanish. I’ve reached the point in my life when I want to put my Spanish to use – AND improve it. I’ve been learning Spanish off and on since I was 5 years old, when I was enrolled in a bilingual class at my elementary school in California. Just being exposed to another language at a young age isn’t enough to make you fluent. But it does help me speak it without too much of an accent – and I can pick it up quickly. I’ve always wanted to find a way to use my Spanish in my work (teaching and researching climate change) – this seemed like a good opportunity.
- One of the US Fulbright program officers recommended Ecuador. Given that my Spanish is only at an intermediate level, and most South American countries require Spanish fluency for a Fulbright, the program in Ecuador – which only required an intermediate level – was my best bet.
- The Galapagos. Yes, like most people, this was my first introduction to the country of Ecuador – specifically, reading Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut, almost 15 years ago. If you haven’t read it, consider this a suggestion. Of course, I won’t be anywhere near the Galapagos in the city of Cuenca, where I’ll be working. But it’s only a short flight away, and I’m hoping to squeeze in a couple of days off at some point!
- El Niño (climate variability). Or ENSO (El Niño-Southern Oscillation). As a climate scientist, this phenomenon has always fascinated me. In fact, my master’s thesis focused on El Niño. This is THE primary feature that controls annual variability of climate in this region of the world. I will be in the heart of ENSO-country!
- Peru. I visited Peru in 2005 and was enamored with the culture, the mountains, the Amazon. Ecuador has all that in a smaller country. (Maybe that means shorter bus rides?)
- Geography. Mountains, jungle, cloud forests, beaches, and everything in between – all within about 400 miles in an east-west direction, and about 450 miles north to south. So it’s about the size of Colorado, plus northern New Mexico (not counting the Galapagos).
- Culture and climate change. I read an article after my trip to Peru in ’05 about how the people of the Andes believe that the mountain tops are inhabited by spirits (apus). The spirits support local communities in many ways, including a supply of fresh water from glaciers. When the glaciers are gone, the people believe the spirits will abandon the mountains. Communities in the high Andes will have to adapt or abandon their homes. Given that current glacial retreat is as fast as 6 meters a year, this is not a far-future prospect. The glaciers of the Andes are one of the many canaries in the climate change coal mine. You can learn more about this from this article. And this abstract. This relationship between people and the mountains, in a time of rapid change is something that has been stirring in my mind for 10 years now. I want to learn more.
And why Cuenca?
Cuenca is a city of ~300,000 people at ~8000 feet elevation (not the palm-laden beach community, nor even the small mountain pueblo most people imagine I’m going to visit). This is a city with shopping malls, theaters, universities, museums, a concert hall – everything you might imagine in a modern city. And it has history. It’s listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
By all accounts (and I’ve been reading lots of them from travel and expat bloggers) this city is oozing with charm (and, apparently, fantastic bakeries). It’s a major travel destination in Ecuador – a major destination for learning Spanish, and a major expat hang-out.
I didn’t set out to do a Fulbright here. But it was the Ecuadorian Fulbright Commission that suggested it and put me in contact with people I might work with there. I had been looking at institutions in Quito and Guayaquil. But, academically, la Universidad de Cuenca turned out to be a better fit.
So, we’ll see!
(Maybe I’m starting to feel a little excitement now).