On the 20th of June I arrived in Quito, Ecuador, and so began the most challenging yet rewarding journey of my life. Having waited 2 years for this experience, the emotions I felt prior to my departure and during my three-day journey to the largely unknown were high and varied. This was my first time embarking on an adventure alone, away from home without my friends or family, my first time outside Europe, my first and longest time in a culture vastly different from my own. I was acutely apprehensive yet endlessly excited – to learn, to grow, to share and to grab every opportunity during my adventure with both hands.
Between one of my five flights on the way to Quito, I read an article about ongoing protests in the nation. To be honest, I didn’t pass much heed of it – I thought of protests at home in Dublin and Ireland, I thought of their relevant pacificity – people marching for something they think will make the world better, in a way that doesn’t disrupt others. Through my own ignorance and lack of global awareness, I didn’t even consider how the nature of protests contrasts so greatly in different parts of the world.
And so, I arrived in Quito during indigenous-led protests against the economic policies of the government, which were largely triggered by rising fuel and food prices. This state of civil unrest continued for a further 10 days. The uneasiness of the beginning of my venture was undoubtedly the greatest challenge I faced. I felt frustrated – I was embarking on this experience of a lifetime yet was unable to leave my new home for fear I’d get caught in crossfire between civilians and police. The outdoors has always been my source of solace – and not being able to get out and explore was not a challenge I was expecting in the first days of my journey.
After a few days I began to understand the gravity of the situation and in fact, looking back, I am grateful for it. I learned so much during those 10 days about myself, about Ecuador and about others. I taught myself to find comfort in things other than the outdoors. I used this time to get to know my host family, who are now ‘mi segunda familia’. I occupied my days with Spanish class and homework and educating myself on the background to the ongoing protests, discussing it in broken Spanish with my host family through the help of our good friend Google translate.
When the state of national emergency came to an end, I was even more excited and grateful to commence my project in the botanical gardens of Quito. The feeling of gratitude and “WOW, this is actually happening” was even greater given the difficult start, and I was determined to make the most of everything that came my way. Above all I was excited to learn about Ecuador’s relations to climate-related SDGs through hands-on experience, see how this compares to at-home experiences, and delve deeper into the interconnectedness of the SDGs. I am passionate about all things climate action, and during my final months of university I became particularly interested in urban nature – green spaces like parks, urban farms and botanical gardens, as well as trees, hedges and flower patches. Such spaces are incredibly valuable, both socially and ecologically (Westphal, 2003; Dwivedi et al., 2009), and with global urban populations projected to increase to 68% by 2050 (United Nations, 2018), the proportion of individuals experiencing nature most regularly in urban settings is ever-increasing (Miller and Hobbs, 2002).
While the topic of urban nature largely relates to sustainable cities and communities (SDG 11), climate action (SDG 13), and life on land (SDG 15), spaces such as the botanical gardens in Quito are connected to all the other SDGs in many ways, and this became particularly clear to me during my volunteer experience. During my time as a volunteer, I noticed how valuable this space was to the people of the city in terms of good health and well-being (SDG 3), quality education (SDG 4), and gender equality (SDG 5).
In terms of SDG3, the air quality was notably better inside the gardens in comparison to in the middle of the city, which is known to suffer from severe air pollution. In comparison to walking the streets of Quito, the gardens were definitely a breath of fresh air – often in more ways than one! Many visitors I spoke to in my broken Spanish emphasized how much they valued the gardens as an escape from the busy city, an opportunity to connect with nature, and a place of peace and tranquility. In fact, the gardens even formed a partnership (SDG 17) with a local gym which provided classes every morning in the gardens before doors were open to the public – a fantastic collaboration providing people with the opportunity to exercise in green, open spaces within urban areas, and something which I think could be introduced to our botanical gardens in Dublin or other green spaces in Irish cities.
The gardens also provided many opportunities for learning (SDG 4). The botany of each region of Ecuador is represented in the gardens – the cloud forest, the rainforest, the coast and the Galapagos – and with information boards scattered all over, the gardens serve as an educational resource for old and young.
In terms of SDG5, the staff of the gardens are made up of men and women. Especially in countries such as Ecuador where discrimination against women is still an ever-pressing issue, efforts such as this should undoubtedly be made in every workplace, given their ability to help create a more just, comfortable, and sustainable society.
Ecuador is a beautiful country with wonderful people, and I will forever cherish the 8 weeks I spent there. During my time abroad I kept a journal of my days, my thoughts and my learnings which came to about 100 pages. It allowed me to reflect on my journey in real-time and acted as an effective way to process my emotions. Through living with my host family, taking Spanish classes, volunteering in the botanical gardens, traveling around Ecuador on the weekends and making so many friends along the way, I learned more about the country, and its rich culture, history, and environment than a book, a documentary or a lesson could ever teach me. I learned so much about myself and others – more than I could ever express here. However, without a shadow of a doubt, my main learning was that personal growth truly happens when you step out of your comfort zone. Being completely apart from friends and family at home was something I was a bit nervous about, but it ended up being one of the most wonderful parts of my experience. I learned to say yes to everything, to push myself outside my comfort zone, not to be nervous about meeting new people/interacting in a different language, and to just be myself in my self-expression, both verbally and physically. I learned the power of smile and laughter when it comes to language barrier (I gained the nickname ‘snip snip’ on one of my first days in the gardens due to my inability to remember how to say ‘cut’ in Spanish – a very important verb in the plant husbandry world).
You learn so much and experience a freedom different from the freedom you experience in your everyday life. Meeting people and living life separately from all those close to you provides an incredible opportunity to learn and engage fully in new places, people, and things. I am forever grateful to have been awarded this opportunity – for the lessons I learned, the memories I made, and the life-long friends I wish to see again in the near future. Most importantly, I improved my global awareness – my most valuable takeaway from this experience. Expanding my global awareness is now something I try to incorporate into my everyday life, and you should too! Whether that be taking on this challenge yourself, engaging with global news, or watching a random YouTube video on a city of your choice – do it. Who knows what you could learn and where it could take you. You are the author of the next chapter of your life, so go out, explore, and spice up your story!
References Westphal, L.M., 2003. Social aspects of urban forestry: Urban greening and social benefits: A study of empowerment outcomes. Journal of Arboriculture, 29 (3), 137-147. Dwivedi, P., Rathore, C.S. and Dubey, Y., 2009. Ecological benefits of urban forestry: the case of Kerwa Forest Area (KFA), Bhopal, India. Applied Geography, 29(2), pp.194-200. United Nations. (2018). News: 68% of the world population projected to live in urban areas by 2050, says UN. United Nations. Accessed at: https://www.un.org/development/desa/en/news/population/2018-revision-of-world-urbanization-prospects.html Miller, J.R. and Hobbs, R.J., 2002. Conservation where people live and work. Conservation biology, 16(2), pp.330-337.