We all have our version of the unknown; the uncomfortable ignorance that lies just beyond our comfort zones. As kids, most dream of becoming explorers but few dare to take that leap; to reach out to all their wildest questions and in turn learn something about themselves. What would you do if given the chance; the opportunity to live the life of an explorer?
In February of 2018, Kat Golden of the Missouri Botanical Garden’s EarthWays Center was selected as one of 40 Grosvenor Teacher Fellows for 2018. This Fellowship is a two-year professional development program for educators made possible by a powerful partnership between National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions. In November, seven months after finding out she’d been selected for this opportunity, Kat finally set off on the expedition that would take her flying through the canopy of a cloud rainforest, snorkeling with penguins and sea lions, and hiking to the top of a volcano.
In this series of blog posts, Kat will share her journey in becoming an explorer, recount tales from her expedition, and share how she plans to connect her travels with her work here at the Garden.
My eyes flickered under the blinding incandescent glow of airport lights. Yawning isn’t how one expects to begin an adventure, yet as I sank into my seat I felt a weight pull down on my eyelids. It was 4:30 am on Monday, November 26th; my last thoughts before falling asleep were a mix of fear and disbelief. I watched the wing of the plane rise over my city. This familiar place began to shrink as we moved further from home. Everyone I know and loved slept comfortably in that place below, which looked more like a model than anything real. I’d only seen the like rainforest and the Galápagos Islands in magazines and on TV; they were as real to me as Hogwarts or Hyrule Kingdom. As we rose above the clouds I thought of hugging my dog, saying my goodbyes, and of the new city that awaited.
My first stop would be Ecuador’s capital city, Quito. While most of the trip would focus on exploring nature and wildlife, the trip to Quito grounded the experience through the lens of people and culture.
Ecuador is a country about the size of Oregon located on the western coast of South America. Quito is its second most populated city with around 2.7 million people. Today, Quito is well-known for its preserved colonial center, with stunning churches and dazzling architecture blending European, Moorish, and indigenous styles. You couldn’t tell from first glance, but the land where I stood was once the site of an ancient Incan city. I would later learn how Incan culture influenced the art and iconography of the churches built during the colonial period.
Casa Gangotena, my hotel, would be home for the next two days. Here I learned about the culture, history, and people of Ecuador. Most of our travel was done on foot, which was fortunate because traffic in Quito isn’t something you experience—it’s something you survive. Unpacking was surreal, my belongings seemed as unfamiliar as my surroundings. The backpack, large hat, camera, and boots were not things I associated with my work at the Garden; they were the belongings of some triumphant explorer. As the trip went on, it became clear; they were one in the same.
Through guided tours I began to develop a sense of connection to the city of Quito. I started to learn the story of this place. At the heart of Quito were layers of culture, history, people. We were joined by a local historian who provided a special tour of the important sites in the area including a local open air market—a place of significance in food, medicine, and community for the people of Quito. Here, a local medicine woman demonstrated her use of plants as tools for healing as she cleansed a fellow traveler of stress. Smells of mint and lavender filled the air as she worked. Her daughter looked on, now old enough to begin learning as her mother had done from her grandmother and many generations before her.
On the last day before we were to leave for our next destination we visited El Panecillo, a volcanic hill where a 148 foot-tall stone monument of a madonna stood watching over the city below. Inspired by the “Virgin of Quito,” a statue with great significance we’d seen earlier in our tour of the Church of San Francisco, this towering aluminum figure stood tall in contrast with the sprawling city below. That evening as I prepared to say my goodbyes to Quito, I watched from my balcony as local groups joined together in song and dance as the city kicked off the Feistas de Quito, a nightly celebration that would continue until December 6, the official date of the foundation of Quito. As I watched, I thought about the importance of people and place, of history and community, and how these facets have shaped the environment of Ecuador. I’d spent just two days observing, soaking in the details, studying how people moved, interacted, and lived in this beautiful, historic, and bustling city. I thought about how I’d used my new tools to capture images powerful enough to share this story with my community and I prepared for what lay ahead in the cloud rainforest for me to discover.
EarthWays Center Sustainability Education Manager