A place of contradiction: A student’s reflection from the VT Ecuador Study Abroad Trip


Written by Mark Feinberg, Undergraduate Student in the Water: Resources, Policy and Management Program within the College of Natural Resources

Dried bundles of leaves of Ilex guayusa. (Photo: Anna Premo)

This trip has been the best experience in nature that I have ever had. We have visited places with the most amazing wildlife and food. In the highlands of the Andes, for example, we went to a lodge that had hundreds of hummingbirds. They would even land on you if you stood still! In the lowland forests of Yasúni National Park, we’ve seen many unique species of birds, spiders, insects and snakes. Another cool part of this trip is that we are completely disconnected from the outside world since there is not any cell or internet service, and the nearest town is six hours away by boat only. Being isolated from social media and the internet is great because I am focusing on what is in front of me instead of other people’s lives.

Though the nature is fascinating, I am here to research guayusa. This plant has been used by indegenous people for thousands of years to make tea that has many health benefits. I want to research this plant because it can be grown sustainably, and has the potential to bring money into Amazonian communities. These communities could use the money to promote conservation and invest in education and business. Economic solutions are essential for protecting the rainforest from deforestation and illegal resource extraction. I have begun interviewing people, such as our guide, about guayusa and potential economic solutions. I hope to gain valuable insight so that economic solutions to these problems can be found.

We are wrapping up our time in the lowlands and at Shiripuno Lodge. This saddens me because it is the most unique place I have ever been. It is a place of contradiction. The physical conditions here are the most intense that I have ever experienced. It rains for hours or even days, I’m wearing dirty, damp clothes and I have almost no contact with the outside world. At the same time, it is the most peaceful place that I have ever been to. I am totally immersed in nature, with no worries or thoughts about what is going on elsewhere, and I am very focused on what is going on in my vicinity. I have never been so relaxed or calm in my life. Everything is much more rustic and simple here, which I love. I can also feel myself getting stronger. I no longer fear spiders and insects nearly as much as I used to. I am also a lot more comfortable walking around the forest with things brushing up against me than before (I write this with an annoying insect buzzing around my head). Finally, I have been practicing my Spanish by talking to the Waorani tribesmen who work here, and it has been a great experience. It’s very cool hearing their perspectives on the world.

Though I am leaving with a heavy heart, I look forward to experiencing other parts of Ecuador and indulging in a bit more luxury, though the Shiripuno lodge is surprisingly comfortable. There is something very special about getting into true wilderness. Shiripuno will always have a special place in my heart.