Finding community thousands of miles away from home
BELLEFONTE — When a group of Bellefonte Area High School students traveled to Ecuador with their science teachers in early July, they expected to learn about science, try new foods, experience outdoor adventure sports and learn a bit about the language and culture.
What they didn’t expect to find was a new appreciation for each other and a community an ocean away from home.
BAHS chemistry teacher Kevin Harman and biology teacher Chris Freidhoff spearheaded the overseas trip, which was called “Ecosystems of Ecuador.” Harman explained that the Bellefonte Area School District wanted to promote international travel to students, so the district came up with a 10-year plan with departments to sponsor trips. The science department sponsored this trip, said Harman, and it was opened to all the kids in school. The teachers and three rising seniors–Dan Methven, Jeremy Gingrich and Mykhala Richner–at BAHS talked to The Express about their experience and one of their classmates, Johnny Purnell, sent in answers.
One thing that struck Freidhoff was “the biodiversity of those ecosystems” in Ecuador, ranging from the taiga of the Andes Mountains to the tropical rainforest of the Amazon and the arid, semi-desert vegetation of the Galapagos Islands. On their 10-day trip, the group visited the Ecuadorian capital Quito, which sits nearly 10,000 feet above sea level; Cotopaxi, a volcano south of Quito in the Andes Mountains; the thermal springs of Papallacta; Tena, a major city in the Amazon rainforest; and the islands of Baltra, Santa Cruz and Isabela in the Galapagos. While there, they went whitewater rafting, relaxed in the hot springs, visited indigenous villages, learned about Ecuadorian history, hiked to Cotopaxi Mountain, went snorkeling, saw giant tortoises and visited the Charles Darwin Research Center.
Ten students from different grade levels went on the trip, said Harman. At first, he said, he could tell the students weren’t totally comfortable around each other. But then, he said, they started to open up to each other and connect.
As a teacher, he enjoyed “seeing kids from different parts of the school coming together…reaching across their differences…and making those bonds,” he said.
Dan said his favorite part of the trip was white water rafting in Tena because “we bonded so much…it was the most fun I ever had.” His classmate Jeremy agreed, and also mentioned the hot springs in Papallacta, since “that was one of the first instances where we got to talking and sort of opened up…it started breaking down the barriers.”
Mykhala said she became much closer with the group on the trip, including Dan and Jeremy. “All three of us are incoming seniors,” she said, mentioning that they only knew each other in passing. “We didn’t really know we were on the same playing field (before the trip).”
While the group was forming friendships that would persist into the new school year, they were also seeing science, language and culture in action.
“I really liked when we went to the indigenous Kichwa village,” said Mykhala. “Most of the kids (in the village) didn’t have phones to play on,” so they made their own fun with sticks and dirt. The locals performed a dance for them, she said, and it was great “just to see their culture and their history,” including how they incorporated nature into their lives instead of working against it.
Dan added that “they’re not conserving necessarily the nature, but the people’s ways of life.”
Jeremy said the Ecuadorians in general were very proud of their country and wanted to show visitors that they take care of it. “Everybody we came across, they were very kind and understanding to us,” he said.
“Going along with the ecosystem, the locals love their country and love that they have people coming to it and attempting to speak their language, try their food, and enjoy the things that they get to see on a daily basis,” wrote Johnny in an email.
They were “by far the most welcoming people,” said Harman. “They had a genuine interest in us–they were interested in having a conversation.”
And the group noticed a difference in the way business is conducted in Ecuador. “It’s not as hustle and bustle as it is here,” said Freidhoff of the Ecuadorian economy.
The Bellefonte group also got to sample many Ecuadorian delicacies–including guinea pig, which locals call “cuy.”
One student on the trip ate “the more savory parts” of the rodent, according to Jeremy, referring to the eyeballs and the brain.
“It just tasted like turkey (to me),” said Dan.
The Ecuadorian diet is mostly made up of starches, like rice and potatoes, and fresh fruits and vegetables. The students said they had rice with almost every meal and peppers, mushrooms and carrots served with either pork, chicken or fish. Many times the meal included a soup.
“Many of the things they served us were fresh,” said Jeremy. “All of it was natural.”
“My all time favorite part of the trip was the hike at the Cotopaxi National Park,” wrote Johnny. “The Cotopaxi Mountain was definitely the most beautiful thing that I saw during the trip. The landscape and nature found surrounding the mountain was magnificent as well.”
When the group visited the official equator line located 15 miles north of Quito, the students and teachers said observing the effects of the weakened magnetic field was stunning. On one side of the equator line, their guide had three students place their arms above their heads and she tried to push them down, without much luck. But then, she had the same students place their arms above their heads on the equator line–and she was able to push them down without a problem.
“To prove that with visual things was really cool,” said Freidhoff.
“You’re immersed in it (the science),” said Harman of the trip. “They were seeing the sights…the results of it…it’s a much richer environment.”
As an Advanced Placement Biology teacher, Freidhoff said it was “really cool to see some of the connections (my AP Biology students) made.” He told a story about seeing a finch on a cactus in the Galapagos and realizing it was likely the same scene Charles Darwin had observed over 200 years ago when he came to the islands. Observing the physical differences between the finch species, Freidhoff said, helped Darwin form his theory of natural selection, which now comprises the modern basis of evolution. It was an “awesome, ‘a-ha!’ moment,” he said.
“Seeing the finch on the cactus…was really cool,” said Dan, who took AP Biology with Freidhoff the year before. “It was really cool to see the evidence (Darwin) observed.”
Even though, Freidhoff said, he has a good understanding of evolution and is extremely passionate about it, “I still learned things about the islands I didn’t know about” and will probably tailor his AP Biology class based on the things he absorbed on the trip.
Johnny was struck by the conservation efforts in the Galapagos Islands. “While in the Galapagos I learned that conservation is a very precise and careful process which is very important to preserve delicate life,” he wrote. “Also, seeing all of these concerted efforts to save life made me realize that the environment isn’t this big powerhouse that it is made out to be, it is actually quite fragile and the introduction of just one seed on a boot can ruin an ecosystem.”
While in the Galapagos Islands, some students went snorkeling and got to see a sea turtle. They also saw finches, crabs, sea lions, marine iguanas and blue-footed boobies, most of which are unique to the Galapagos.
Dan said the sea lion was the “coolest” animal because “they’re just so relaxed and calm…and really cute.”
All the students (and teachers) agreed that the conservation of tortoises in the Galapagos was exceptional. “It was awesome to see that conservation,” said Freidhoff, “I thought, “Oh my gosh this thing is humongous!” It was just immaculate…a game-changer.”
Students also learned that a saddleback giant tortoise named “Super Diego” fathered more than 800 babies. “He basically saved his race,” said Dan.
Harman noted that relations between animals and humans were different in Ecuador than in the United States. Here, he said, animals tend to fear and avoid humans. There, they did not seem to be afraid of humans and coexisted more easily.
Many students said they would go back to Ecuador, and several said the experience had changed or reinforced their future plans.
“The experience that you get being there, with so many connections and life lessons learned, was just hugely instrumental in their growth,” said Harman.
Mykhala said she knew she wanted to go into international relations before the trip, but the experience pushed her to pursue those goals even more. Students Jack Badger and Kathy Abbott went into the trip wanting to study marine biology and are now even more committed to pursuing it.
“The hands-on experience of everything and being able to see things in real life, rather than in just picture or video form, made all of the difference for me,” wrote Johnny. “Sure, you can look up a picture of the Cotopaxi Mountain and think that it is a beautiful mountain, but seeing in person is a completely different experience, and that goes for all things with this trip.”
To commemorate their trip and give back to the Ecuadorian community, the students partnered with Jabebo Studios on West High Street in Bellefonte to design a collection of Galapagos animal-themed earrings made of recycled cardboard. They have been selling their designs through the store to benefit their trip and the Charles Darwin Foundation in Puerto Ayora on the Galapagos island of Santa Cruz. Students raised $350 for the research-based organization that focuses on conservation in the islands.