STUDENT REFLECTIONS FROM THE 2018 VT ECUADOR STUDY ABROAD TRIP
On a hot and humid day, on a scheduled hike in the lowlands of the Amazon forest, we hopped out of our canoe and started on what we thought was originally just a day hike. Within minutes we hear this deep, low-pitched booming call in the distance instantaneously recognized to be the call of a red howler monkey. Our Huarani guide Ramon immediately picks up pace and with one swift movement of the machete we realize that that morning was going to be special. We quickly gathered and within seconds the three of us, Dr. Hopkins and Ramon had made an unspoken agreement that we were about to chase these monkeys down. Despite the fact that these calls could be heard for miles the volume of the howler vocalizations continued to grow louder as Ramon led us closer to their location. What’s amazing is that Ramon, armed only with a machete and the head on his shoulders, led us through the incredibly dense understory of the Amazon, and not for a second did any of us doubt his sense of direction. The three of us proceeded with laser focus moving swifter through the forest than we had at any point prior to this adventure. Before we knew it we found ourselves, panting and sweaty, standing at the base of their tree tired but in awe of the situation that had just unfolded. A moment unplanned, but a memory that won’t be forgotten.
When the first call of the howler monkeys was heard, it felt like Christmas morning. At the time I wasn’t really focused on anything particular. It was one of our first hikes into the Amazon so I was trying to take in the amazing scenery. However, when I heard the first low-pitched booming call I immediately knew what was in the canopy only a couple hundred feet away. In a previous class taught by Dr. Moore, I had learned about Howler monkeys and their protective behavior, but I never expected to ever hear one out in the jungle. I immediately looked back at Dr. Hopkins, wide-eyed, and a big smile on my face. After a few calls, Ramon already started to pick up speed because he knew that Howler monkeys were a rare occurrence, especially for visitors like ourselves. As we started going off trail, the excitement grew bigger and bigger. Each step towards the Howlers resulted in louder, low pitched calls filling the air. I was constantly looking down at my feet so I wouldn’t fall (even though I completely wiped out going down a muddy hill) and looking up to see if I could locate the source of the sound. We tried to be as silent as we could as to not let them know that we were near, but I think that we were all on the same page that day, frequently looking back at each other, making sure that everyone stuck together (even when I fell). Overall it was one of the most memorable moments of the trip, and the classroom to field experience is something that I will never forget.
I caught up with my group members who were standing next to Ramon and Dr. Hopkins waiting for me to show up so that we could leave. No words were spoken, but it was clear we were going to follow Ramon towards the Howlers because he was going whether we were following or not and nothing was going to keep any of us from living out our wildest jungle dreams. Before I knew it the four of us were chasing after this native Huaorani guide swinging a machete through the dense Amazonian jungle approaching the booming roar of these howler monkeys. Now if that isn’t the most bad ass thing I’ve done in my life I’m way cooler than I thought. Now me and my group members are typically pretty boisterous and care-free stumbling around the jungle like the hopeless little Americans we are. But during this time there was a little Huaorani in all of us. We were flying through the forest gracefully and more focused than I have ever been on our final destination. We were moving at such a pace that I began sweating and panting getting drenched in the humidity that encompassed us. However, I felt no fatigue as the ever-present and increasing power of the Howler calls pulled me toward them. It seemed it would be impossible to tear my attention away from these monkeys, but I could not help but marvel at how graceful Ramon was as he streamed through his element just as excited to find the Howlers as we were. He moved with such ease it now seems that he is out of place in every other situation I’ve seen him in since. This is what he was meant to do, and I got to see him in his full glory.
This exhilarating experience is exactly what study abroad classes are supposed to present to students. I can learn all about the culture of the Huaorani and the biology and behavior of howler monkeys from a classroom, but that will never be able to replicate how it feels to experience it.– Silas Beers, VT Undergraduate student, Wildlife Conservation