Sunday, September 19, 2010


Basecamp was left clean and packed up as we all left on Thursday morning. The ten week session came to an end, giving the staff a couple weeks of break before returning out for another ten week session. Thursday morning we loaded up and headed to Tena for the night. Being one of the last nights we were all together as a group, and the first night we have been out of the jungle in 5 weeks, we all made solid attempts to have a good time. We headed to Quito the next morning, a 6 hour, winding, bus ride. Once in Quito, I checked into the best $5.60 hostel you can find in Quito, Ecuador, Central del Mundo. Sharing a room with Sam and Iggy, we organized our few days together that we had in Quito. We grabbed the 2hr bus to Otavalo on Sunday and made our way to our host family´s house.
We met our host mom, dad, and their three kids- a 2yr old girl, 6 yr old boy, and a 9 yr old boy. The house is an easy 25min walk from the town center, in a residential area of Otavalo. It is a two story house, with each of us getting our own room. Our host mom cooks every meal for us, but if we want to eat out, we just need to let her know not to expect us. We each have one on one Spanish classes starting at 8.30am until 12.30pm Monday to Friday. Other than that, we have the freedom to do what we want and come back to the house when we want. Our Spanish classes usually consist of an hour or two of conversation or work, depending on what you want to improve, and then we will all take little field trips to different areas around Otavalo. We have been through the clothing market, the food market, to a giant cross on the hill side, a local textile maker, a local artist´s gallery/home, and seen demonstration on creating and using local instruments.
We were each given a map containing some local highlights, which ofcourse was mainly restaurants. In addition to eating meals from my host mom everyday, I also eat at a local pie store. They have fresh blackberry, strawberry, apple, lemon meringue, orange meringue, and chocolate pie everyday…and take my word for it- they are sooo absolutely amazing. A warm slice will cost you $1.40, which is beyond worth it. A little bit of satisfaction comes from the pie lady saying ¨See you tomorrow¨ in Spanish everyday when we leave, because its true, we will be going back the next day. There are also a few different hamburger places that we have enjoyed. Iggy has been set on having a hamburger everyday, so definitely enjoy those as well. Little snacks of green mango, toasted corn nuts, or French fries with sausage are also occasionally picked up. Sam has made the goal (unintentionally ofcourse) of buying a musical instrument every other day. Thanks to Iggy and Sam, I have been in more music stores in the past week than the past 4 years. And between the two of them, they could open up a music store and sell all their instruments. 4 harmonicas, 2 flutes, 2 clay hand flute things, a keyboard that you blow into via a tube to make noise, a small guitar, a local ukulele type thing, and two music books- the best thing owned though isn´t a musical instrument. It is the rare find of an album that contains tributes to Michael Jackson, all done on wooden flutes local to the Andes region- one of the most amazingly, amusing things I have heard.
Otavalo is a smallish town located in the Andes mountains. It is in a valley, and doesn´t seem too cold. The days can get pretty hot, especially since the sun is so powerful, but the nights definitely are easier with a sweater and pants. There is a strong presence of the indigenous tribe, Quechua , who are spotted wearing traditional clothing around town. Depending on the morning, sometimes snow covers the nearby volcanoes (there are two- both dormant) and sometimes it’s a little drizzly, but other then that the weather is very dry. It actually reminds me of Alberta, except the surround mountains are nowhere near as rigid and intimidating as the Rockies- but that’s not to say it isn´t still beautiful. Also, Otavalo, like the rest of the area, doesn´t go through season due to such a close proximity to the Equator, so it is weird to think the weather stays like this year round. The town center is grid-like and is based around the Plaza de Ponchos, which is where you can find the Saturday market, daily in a much smaller version, and the Parque de Bolivar.

ohhh Staff

Being a longterm intern (6 months) with GVI includes quite a lot. The overall program means that I spend 10 weeks at basecamp in the jungle as a volunteer, helping conduct research projects and teaching English in local communities. Then I spend 2 weeks living in Otavalo with a host family, taking a total of 40hrs of one on one Spanish classes. I then have a little bit of time off, almost a week, before going to my work placement for the remaining ten weeks. GVI has set up different work placement opportunities with local partnership organizations. One option is going to Hector´s Island, who is a well known Ecuadorian guide who has setup a refuge island for monkeys known as Sumak Allpa. Another option is to work at the Yachana Technical High School on the same reserve where basecamp is, but is located about 20mins up river near the ecolodge. The final option for work placement that GVI offers its interns is a position as a member of staff with GVI.
Interns meet weekly with a staff mentor in order to reflect on self progress and professional development. As interns, despite being volunteers for ten weeks like everyone else, we are expected to help around basecamp more, volunteer to go on extra surveys, and take a leadership initiative in helping other volunteers, particularly new ones, acclimate to basecamp life. So through taking these initiatives, staff give feedback on areas of excellence that interns have but also areas for improvement. My staff mentor has been Jenn, a fellow Canadian, who has an amazing knowledge on birds, but particularly birds of prey. I have enjoyed meeting with her a lot, and I have really gained a lot from our meetings and reflections. She has encouraged me and has helped me finding ways of taking more initiative on basecamp.
I have really enjoyed conducting the variety of surveys, interacting with members of staff and volunteers, and the general life of living at basecamp. GVI looks at each intern´s best opportunity in placement, to make a compatible workplacement. So, I was very happy when I got my work placement with GVI as a member of staff. The other two longterm interns, Iggy and Sam, will be going to Hector´s Island and helping with community programs and monkey research over the next ten weeks, which is an amazing opportunity. I will be returning to the jungle in the next couple weeks, with a new group of volunteers but in a new position. I will share a room in the staff cabin with another member of staff, Caroline. I will lead the volunteers out on surveys, hopefully without getting lost, I will take on new responsibilites with helping basecamp on food orders and taking care of other basic needs, and I will be a source of information about local tropical habitat and species. So, needless to say, I am loving my time in Otavalo right now, but I am ready to be back in the jungle again!

A weekend at Yasuni

Every five weeks, we take a field trip/vacation from basecamp. The first five weeks we went to Hector´s Island, which is an island owned by an Ecuadorian guide, who has started a monkey reserve and set-up a small school for the kids in the area. The second five weeks we went to Yasuni National Park with Hector as our guide. I loved Hector´s Island and I think it is a great place, relaxing, beautiful, and a great monkey reserve- but I figured I would write my blog on Yasuni, since it is internationally well known as the most biodiverse hotspot on the planet. The amount of plants found in a hectare of the park, totals more than the plant population of the United States.
Packing for Yasuni takes a whole day, as it is important that we remember everything we need. It is a team effort, as lots of kitchen gear, food, and general living things need to be packed in addition to everyone´s personal items. Two staff members and 12 volunteers equaled to 2 crates filled with everything from dishsoap to candles, four big containers of water, and two massive pots. We had the option of sleeping in a tent or a jungle hammock, but everyone opted for a jungle hammock, and I can´t blame them because it is such a unique experience.
We are in the dry season of the rainforest, which is very obvious when it doesn´t rain for a whole week. Ofcourse we had been anticipating rain for a few days, because a week and half without rain is very dry. So, such is life, it would open up raining the night before we leave. And when I say it was a massive storm, Im not exaggerating in any way because I have been through some big storms, hurricanes, typhoons, etc. The thunder and lightening started about 20 minutes before the actual rain. The lightening was so bright, it let up the whole basecamp for a solid second, and allowing clear vision for at least 20 meters on a dark, electricity free, night. A group of us sat in the commedor hammocks, after all, without TV, so many things become entertainment. Once it started raining, it rained so hard on and off, but mostly on all the way up until 4.00am, which was awesome luck, as we had to be up and at the road waiting for the bus by 4.45 which means we needed to start moving gear by 4.15am, since it would take a couple trips. Also to our good fortune, the bus arrived at 5.15. Being a bus that regularly runs to the route from a local town to Coca every morning, the time of arrival by our basecamp could be anywhere from 5.15 to 6.45. Shortly after getting all loaded on the bus, it started to rain again- which was bad news to anyone who didn´t have a waterproof bag or cover, as all of our 14 large backpacks were strapped to the roof of the bus.
Once we arrived in Coca, we had a few hours and a few dollars from GVI for breakfast and lunch. This is the first time we have been with electricity, hot varieties of meat, and basic civilization in 4 weeks. So, naturally, we spend our time between internet and endless amounts of chicken. By 1pm, we meet at the boat terminal and load all of our stuff on to Hector´s motorized canoe as we head off on the 2.5/3 hr boat ride to Yasuni. We pass his island along the way, and briefly point it out to the volunteers who weren´t here for the first five weeks, but we can´t stop because we are only an hr into the boat ride. Upon near arrival at our basesite at Yasuni, due to the minimal rain the region has been getting, there is a desert-look-alike bank we need to walk across, while Hector tries to go around a back way to the dock with his canoe, and all of our stuff. After walking 10 minutes across the beached bank of an island in the river, we get to a deeper channel with a width of about 15 meters, that we need to cross to be at the base of the stairs for our campsite. Carrying our day backpacks, containing money, electronics, and passports, we start to walk through the water, which was too bad because it was only up to our knees. But, ofcourse, it was only getting deeper. There was only a section of about 1.5 meters where we couldn´t walk, which was just enough for each of us to attempt to place our bags in the area above our head and swim, failing under its weight, and dunking in, soaking all of our items, some more important than others. As we scrambled out of the water, one by one, we found nice spots of sun to dry our items, while we waited to see if Hector could find a way through with the canoe. Our stuff arrived drier than us, and we set-up camp, unpacking cooking items, and finding good spots to tie our hammocks. We spent the next couple days taking trips to local community centers, that show how local tribes live in Yasuni and learning a bit about their culture and way of survival. We took group hikes, which consisted of attempts to climb a tree in an indigenous way. We also went to parrot claylicks, where parrots fly everyday to lick clay (I bet you couldn´t have figured that part out…) with minerals to counteract the poisonous enzymes that they ingest from seeds. On a hike off from the claylicks, we saw tracks for multiple types of mammals, wooly monkeys, and hog-nosed viper. We truly enjoyed our time at Yasuni as relaxing break away from daily surveys before returning to Coca on Sunday morning for a few hours along our way back to basecamp.

BTEC Program

Included in my internship, I have been working on a certification program called BTEC. It is based out of the UK but is internationally recognized. There are different types of BTEC and different levels that one can earn. But, it is basically a practical assessment of skills that are learned. Out at basecamp, two different BTECs are offered. You can work towards a leading biological surveys and/or a leadership certification. My program offers me a leading biological surveys certification, which I spend additional time working on each week. The group of volunteers doing the biological BTEC get weekly assignments that force us to learn general safety, environmental safety, information about local partnership organizations, how to lead surveys, and information about the surrounding environments. All assignments were encouraged to be researched in our library that contains multiple scientific books, and allowed the use of basecamp´s actual outlines and staff as sources of reference.
The first week we each had to create Environmental Assessment Plans, with using the basecamp´s real EAPs as guidelines, to show safety procedures and steps in the result of different potential threats. For example, I did an EAP on a snake bite, which included the step by step procedure of what to do in the event that someone is bitten by a snake. We also needed to do a risk assessment, listing 15 potential hazards, their likelihood, and what to do to avoid them or how to handle them, such as dehydration, bug bites, and slipping on trails. The second week´s assignment included a description of what a target species is and an indicator species. We also had to pick what area we wanted to specify when doing our research, amphibians and reptiles, butterflies, or birds. From that selection, we had to list ten families of that area and describe their habitat, life cycle, identifying characteristics, and other important information. The third week we handed in a rough draft of an essay that is to identify characteristics of the three types of habitat we find on the reserve, including riparian, secondary, and primary forests. The fourth week we turned in our final essay of approximately 5 pages. And the fifth week, our assignment was to describe potential environmental impacts of surveys on the species we are studying, and a description of each of GVI´s partnerships with local organizations and communities and how its locally beneficial.
Meanwhile, being a certification based on practical demonstration, we were also all preparing to conduct a survey in our area that we focused on for the assignments. The location of basecamp provides access to tons of different species in each of the three areas of focus. However, I noticed that almost immediately that I would struggle with learning about amphibians the most. Their scientific names and difficulty to identify, made them an area that I knew I would have to force myself to become more familiar with. So, I picked my area of study to be amphibians and reptiles. I went on extra surveys for amphibian and reptiles and became familiar with the project proposal that GVI has created in order to receive permission from the reserve and the government in order to conduct the survey. When leading a survey, although a staff member is still supervising, you are in charge of preparing everything needed. Every survey always needs to take a medical kit (already packaged and filled in the staff cabin) and an operating radio. Additionally, I needed to prepare equipment for my specific survey. I led a visual encounter amphibian and reptile survey, so I needed to pack small plastic bags to catch the frogs, a scale, a caliber for measurements, a clipboard and data sheet for the data collected, a weathermachine, a container to bring back any unidentified species, and plates which contain photos and a description of the species to help with identification, all in dry bag to be carried by someone. I needed to write the names of everyone going on the survey, location, and a time of return on the whiteboard in the commodore so everyone was aware we weren´t on basecamp. Also, I had to give a safety talk and briefing of what, how, and why we are doing our survey. Finally, I needed to be the main overseer of the survey, making sure we were keeping on time and doing things correctly. Volunteers working on their BTEC get a practice survey first, where they will get constructive feedback on how to improve and any information that might have been left out. In order to pass the actual BTEC survey, only a few minor mistakes or bits of information can be missed, but feedback is still provided after the survey, and you are encouraged to lead more surveys with staff supervision in the future.

Lagoona SAT Camp

One of the experiences that I have enjoyed the most while being out in the jungle is SAT camp. SAT camp is basically a satellite basecamp we set up to help with conducting one of our surveys, mistnetting, for birds. We have four different location on the reserve that we do mistnetting at. In consists of opening up four different bird nets that are very thin and difficult to see. Birds are most active in early morning and later evening, avoiding the heat of the day. So, we need to open up the nets at 6am…-_- which definitely isn’t what I enjoy about SAT camp. The nets stay open until 10.30am and we check them every half an hour and take out any birds that may have gotten caught and record their information and place a lightweight alloy band for identification on them. Three of the netting locations are about an hours walk away from basecamp, so instead of getting up at 4.45am to walk out to the sites in time, we head out to the location the previous day and campout, so the next morning we only have to get up at 5.40.
The nets are used every morning for a week, so everyone at camp gets an opportunity of going out for the night. Which means, the first group going up takes all the camping stuff and sets it up for the week, and the last group of the week brings it all back with them. Items include jungle hammocks, kettle, tarps, and birding equipment. Each individual group takes up a previously prepared dinner, a package of cookies for the biscuit challenge, granola (which is an AMAZING change from the daily porridge), potatoes for a late-night baked potato snack, a spare hammock, and firewood- in addition to all the personal items needed.
We leave for SAT camp after lunch, and normally we stop at a nice place to swim along the way- either a low waterfall, or a semi-deep stream, depending on the location you are going to. Once we get to the sat camp, everyone picks a hammock, or sets up a new one, if needed. We unpack and settle in, and then maybe do a bit of birding. Honestly, birds are not my favourite- I seem them, I respect the fact that they fly and all of that, so I don´t normally have the enthusiasm to look at them through binoculars, but we have seen some really neat birds including toucans and birds of prey- which make it more exciting. We eat dinner at the campsite and then head out on a night walk. Again, we have seen some really neat things including glass frogs, caymen, and a fully grown fur-de-lance, which I stood within a couple meters and walked past with absolutely NO idea. When we get back to the campsite, we get a fire going for tea/coffee, and our baked potatoes. However, the last time I went to sat camp, it was along a trail called Lagoona. I partook in the most fat, sugar indulgence, I have in a long time. Not only did we eat the typical jacket potato, but Edwin, a member of staff, brought a couple bags of marshmallows, which I had a leading role in demolishing, as well as a couple chocolate bars, a ripe plantain, and I additionally added a can of tuna and cheese to my baked potato, and I also had the extra baked potato.
An early rise at 5.40am to open up the nets located a couple minutes from the campsite, but after we are able to talk quietly and relax at the camp. When birds are caught, they are bagged, weighed, and then taken out to have all their additional measurements taken. We make the process quick, because they birds can get stressed really easily. If a lot of birds are caught, we will skip taking a bunch of measurements, but band them, so we can let them go about their morning business. During the breaks of checking the nets, we also find the time to do the biscuit challenge. Ofcourse you just enjoy the snack, or you can partake in the challenge, even if its just for a personal best. The rules are that you can only use whole, unbroken cookies, you can´t crunch them until you can close your mouth around the cookies, and none of the cookie crumbs can fall out. The record was held by Edwin at 11. However, I got to witness the intense competition between Edwin and Fabian, another volunteer, at an attempt for 12 cookies. It took about 20 minutes, and the look of defeat on both of their faces was simply amusing. But, in the end, Fabian ended up beating the record, by completion, as Edwin came close but lost (although he still manages to find excuses/ and believes he was cheated). I did a personal best of 8, to be improved over the next sat camps. Once we close the nets at 10.30, we pack up our stuff and head back to basecamp to be back in time for lunch.

Surveys, Surveys, Surveys

As research projects run constantly, GVI Amazon base camp can’t be all play and no work... who am I kidding – catching frogs, butterflies, and birds is every kid’s dream. And over the past couple weeks there has been a lot of hopping, fluttering and chirping. Amphibian and butterfly surveys are for 10 and 14 consecutive days respectively every 5 weeks for a year. Bird mistnetting is totaled to 70 net hours at each of the four locations, four times a year.

Two different amphibian surveys are conducted. The first, pitfalls traps, consists of four buckets placed in the ground separated by 8m of black plastic baffle in a line, per location. The idea is that the frogs will get to the plastic and follow it until it opens over the bucket and fall in. There are 10 total locations in two different types of habitat which looks at species diversity. To avoid the biases of catching only ground-dwelling frogs, a second survey is conducted along 75m transect lines at night, recording all species seen. This is also done at various locations. There is nothing more rewarding than spotting a 3 cm frog in leaf litter in the black of night with a wimpy head torch - trust me.

The second most rewarding thing is managing to keep hold of a healthy Nessaea butterfly. I wish I was kidding, it’s embarrassing when a delicate-looking butterfly masterminds its way out of your hand. Butterfly surveys are conducted with 10 traps sites along two trails each. We bait the traps with three day old mashed bananas. We catch a variety of butterflies from tiny tiger-patterned Tigridias to large black and blue Morphos. Traps are located along the road, on the trails and in the forests to monitor the effects of disturbance on the butterflies.

Finally, bird mistnetting surveys are conducted to record information on species present on the Yachana Reserve, as well as collecting information through taking measurements. There is definitely no shortage of things to do, and you gain valuable experience conducting research and leading surveys. (No animals were harmed in the making of this blog!)