Brandeis Alumni, Family and Friends
“Frog Calls at Night in the Middle of Nowhere”: A Study Abroad Travelogue
Harrison Goldspiel ’13 describes studying frogs in a remote cloud forest during a semester in Quito, Ecuador, in 2012, as part of a series marking the 60th anniversary of Study Abroad at Brandeis.
Studying abroad in Ecuador was one of the most consequential decisions of my life. It was there that I fully realized my passion for ecology and conservation science. During my time abroad with SIT (Comparative Ecology and Conservation), I spent many weeks immersed in different biomes across the country, from rainforests to tropical islands, capping the semester with an independent project that took me to a remote cloud forest where I studied frog communities.
For that final month, I lived with a few Ecuadorian park guards and one other American student and traveled alone into the mountains every day, plunging into the thickly vegetated hills in search of small amphibious creatures. I still remember those moments vividly to this day. The visceral sensation of listening to frog calls late at night, alone and in the middle of nowhere. That was the definitive moment I knew I wanted to pursue a career in conservation biology, which I have been doing ever since, as a wildlife ecologist with a special passion for herpetology, the study of amphibians and reptiles.
I was entranced by the warm, friendly culture of Ecuador. Having grown up in New York City, it took some time for me to adjust to the daily pleasantries with random strangers on the streets of Quito. Every day was a new opportunity to have a conversation with someone new and learn something I didn't know about the country and its people.
While studying frogs in a remote part of southern Ecuador, my friend and I would occasionally travel to the nearby towns to resupply on food. Early one morning, we told a park guard at the station that we were off to town and walked to the nearest bus stop on a dirt road in the mountains. The bus schedule was notoriously unpredictable. After an hour or so of waiting, we began to consider hitch-hiking. Before long, a pick-up truck passed by and stopped a few yards ahead, the driver sticking his head out to ask if we needed a lift. We gave each other quick nervous glances for confirmation and accepted the offer, hopping into the truck bed (there were no available seats inside) where also sat two small children, a dog, and crates of miscellaneous sundries. We assured ourselves that this was quite a normal method of travel in the rural parts of Ecuador.
After a long bumpy ride on the windy mountain road, we finally arrived in town and thanked the family for their kindness. A few weeks later on our next visit to town, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant, where to our surprise we were approached by the very same truck driver who provided our recent mountain passage. Apparently, he owned the restaurant and was friends with the park guard, who called him that morning weeks ago to ask if he could give us a lift. We were thoroughly surprised, thinking that we bravely engaged in a bonafide act of hitch-hiking with a random stranger, when in reality it was all prearranged! After a raucous round of laughter from all three of us, he treated us to lunch on the house.
I always planned to make a return trip to Ecuador one day, but never imagined it would be for work. It just so happened that my graduate advisor, whom I sought out to study amphibians, also does research on tortoises. After finishing my master's degree, I was offered a job as a biologist for the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative with Galapagos Conservancy, a US-based environmental organization dedicated to the conservation of the archipelago.
I lived in the Galapagos from 2019 to 2020, studying tortoise populations on the various islands and volcanoes. It was quite an adventurous year, and a very rewarding learning opportunity to be part of some remarkable ecological restoration programs. I almost didn't want to leave, and for a few months I couldn't, as the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a complete lockdown in Ecuador, including the Galapagos, where I hunkered down with a few friends until the borders opened back up in the summer. I hope to return to Ecuador again one day, and explore more parts of the country and the rest of South America.