Postcards from Ecuador: Reflections on Two Life-Changing Weeks

The Honors College Ecuador program returned home on Friday (with the exception of a few students who had planned beforehand to explore further in Ecuador and Peru on their own before coming home) exhausted but happy after a 30-hour "commute" from Santa Cruz island in the Galápagos all the way back to SeaTac.

"I can't believe it's almost over," said student Ilah Mittelstaedt as she played cards on the floor at the departure gate in Quito with other members of the trip cohort. "But when you think about all the things we have seen and done, it's almost hard to wrap your head around it all."

"I know, it's crazy," said student Braden Brask as he shuffled the cards. "When you think back to the things we did at the beginning of the trip, like going to Otavalo or Cotacachi, they seem like so long ago."

Mentally capturing as many of those moments from a trip that so many of the students said had changed their lives  as if talking about the trip's individual highlights for each of them would help cement them more permanently in their collective memories  seemed a priority for the group as the trip wound down.

Certainly one important way to hard-wire those memories and their impacts was the constant discussion among themselves of what they had seen, as well as the almost-nightly "fireside chat" discussions about the day's events with the program's faculty members, Amy Carbajal and Scott Linneman. Another reference point would be the daily observations and assignments in their journals, submitted at the end of the day, read by Carbajal that night, and returned the next day.

The final night's group dinner in Quito was an opportunity to share and reflect, with both faculty and students rising from the long table to make toasts and look back not only on all the things they had seen, but even more importantly, about the relationships forged through two and a half weeks of demanding travel and full immersion into a new culture.

Stories were shared, and glasses raised to memories and new friendships.

"Because of the pandemic, I feel like I was sort of robbed of an opportunity to really get to know my Honors cohort," said Ayla Bilyeu as she held up her cup in a toast. "But now, after this, I feel like there isn't a single one of you who I haven't shared a profound moment with on this trip, and for that I am so thankful."

The two most common words at the group's last dinner together seemed to be "remember when," followed by gales of laughter and a few tears of joy and thankfulness for all they had seen.

Many topics and events were reflected on: a salsa dance lesson on their first day in Quito; the creep through a pitch-black maze to emerge on the roof of one of Quito's churches; meeting Maria Virginia Farinango, the co-author of "The Queen of Water," one of the books of required reading for the course, to hear about her life; the awe of riding up the Rio Napo in the Amazon basin for the first time as the sun set; a 6 a.m. walk through the jungle to see hundreds of red-winged parrots feeding on the clay they needed to metabolize the toxic seeds they eat; quietly watching a trio of spider monkeys cavort in a tree; exploring the Otavalo market; climbing the slopes and picking through the lunar landscape of Chimborazo at 16,000 feet above sea level; communing with 500-pound tortoises and their equally huge green sea turtle cousins on Isabela Island.

But more than any single event seemed to be fond memories of laughter and shared comradeship that, the more they talked to each other, seemed to be one of the most important goals of the trip for all of them.

"I can't say enough how incredible I think you all are, and how thankful I feel to have been able to share these two weeks with all of you," said student Jessica Dietzman as she toasted her fellow program members.

Linneman echoed those thoughts with his own toast to the group.

"We've never had a student group as big as this, but when we were interviewing all of you, there wasn't a single one of you that we thought didn't deserve to come, and who would grow because of what we would see and do together," he said. "And we were right. You all are an amazing group."

A tearful Carbajal looked out at the table lined with faces who had made such an impact on her, and raising her glass, her toast was as simple as it was heartfelt.

"Thank you," she said.


The group examines a new lava flow from the caldera of Sierra Negro volcano on Isabela Island.
Students take a selfie while tubing down the Rio Napo in Ecuador