Danielle Walawender, a member of the Equestrian team, had the opportunity to study abroad this summer. She is currently studying Animal Science.
In June, I studied abroad in Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands with the Entomology program. It was probably one of the most amazing experiences of my life, it was truly a trip of a lifetime. The people on my trip were awesome, I couldn’t have asked for a better group to explore Ecuador with. We went to multiple locations in Ecuador such as Quito, Maquipucuna, Otavalo, the Amazon, and the Galapagos Islands. Each place was incredible and had something special to offer. My favorite location was probably the Amazon and the Galapagos Islands.
Quito is one of the main cities and the capital of Ecuador. It was very busy and resembled a less developed Atlanta. We visited the equator line, where latitude 0 0’0”. It was pretty cool because in several places they show us how gravity will pull you one way. We also learned about shrunken heads which blew my mind. People of these tribes would wear shrunken head necklaces of either someone important or their enemy. They walked us through the entire process of how to shrink a head, it was creepy, but also pretty cool.
Maquipucuna is a nature reserve in the cloud forest with a huge biodiversity. We spent the most amount of time here, and did most of our classwork here. We went on many hikes including the Pre-Incan trail and Santa Lucia mountain. We went zip lining through the cloud forest which was very fun. Sometimes I couldn’t even see because of the clouds, we were at a pretty high elevation. We helped the reserve plant coffee seeds, pick coffee beans and process the beans. I learned a lot about the coffee making process and how different coffee’s have different tastes. On a leisure walk once I found a Fer-de-Lance snake which is 1 of 2 venomous snakes in Ecuador which was pretty cool. We also found a hidden waterfall and splashed around in the freezing water. The reserve was amazing and it is admirable all of the preservation work they do.
Otavalo was a very interesting city. We went to this huge marketplace. It was very cool to see all of the individuals selling things they made. I bought a bunch of souvenirs. My favorite purchase was a poncho for my 1-year-old niece. Next, we participated in a sweat lodge. The sweat lodge is an incredible ceremonial affair. We tested our physical and emotional boundaries, it was a very special experience. There are 4 elements and 4 sessions; earth, wind, fire and water. Each session gets increasingly hot, but there is a message with each element. They add hot rocks with each session and pour water on them to make the steam rise. The purpose is to overcome and conquer any negative energies in your life to become a better person. It was very difficult to breathe at times and ridiculously hot, but I am glad I got through it. It helped me renew myself and open my mind. It is pretty cool to say I got to partake in such a sacred ritual like that.
The Amazon was incredible. The place we stayed at was very luxurious, but also in the middle of the forest which was pretty cool. Our first day, our guide took us through the rainforest with a machete in hand- just like I pictured. We went to this small community and they taught us about some of their culture. We learned how they make chocolate from the cocoa bean straight to the bar. We also met Pancho the medicine man. He taught us all about the medicinal plants he uses to treat patients in his community. I purchased some of Pancho’s ethanol which I use for stomach aches and head aches. Finally, we learned how the women make jewelry straight from the plant. They walked us through the process and at the end we had the opportunity to purchase some jewelry. I bought a bunch, which I am still wearing to this day. Finally, we messed around with this large blow dart and then played with the children of the community. It was a really fun day and I learned a lot about the communities’ culture. The following day was one of my favorite days. We hiked to this massive waterfall and everyone got in. The hike was really fun because we had to move past many obstacles. The waterfall was breathtaking and so much fun to mess around in. Next, we went to the ‘monkey’ city. One of the community members got a monkey to come down and play with us. One monkey stole someone’s bandana and then ran to the top of the tree and swung it around as if it were saying “HAHA”. Monkeys are amazing creatures; I was completely amazed. Then we went alligator hunting on a boat tour. We didn’t see any alligators, but we did see some more monkeys and birds. I thoroughly enjoyed the time we spent in the Amazon, I wish we could have been there longer.
The Galapagos Islands are a truly remarkable place. The first day we got to snorkel and I got to see some big fish and sea lions play under water. San Cristobal island was awesome because there were sea lions everywhere. I mean hundreds of them would lay out on the beach, they owned the island. It was fun getting to watch them and observe, they are super playful. We also went to this incredible look at out point and watched the sunset. The next day we went out Kicker Rock which is basically in the middle of the ocean. I am not a great swimmer so I was a little nervous, but the guide made me feel super comfortable. It was so crazy to snorkel and not see the bottom of the ocean. It was just endless blue. We saw many sea turtles floating blissfully throughout the ocean. My favorite moment of the entire trip was when a sea lion looked me right in the eye and then swam right up to me. He was darting toward me and then turned at the last minute and swam all around me like he was playing with me. I was laughing so hard I got water in my mask. The moment still feels surreal and I will never forget it.
This trip was truly a trip of a lifetime. I learned a lot about myself, made forever friends and had incredible learning opportunities. I highly recommend studying abroad because it definitely changes you in the best way possible. It is nice to be disconnected from the outside world for a little and just be engaged with what is in front of you. I am grateful that UGA Athletics gave me a scholarship to study abroad because it has always been a dream of mine to go and this is just another thing UGA Athletics has helped me check off my list.