Parque de la Papa: Native Cultural Immersion

Our Condor Travel Guide, Juan Jose, arrived to begin the day early for the ascent to Parque de la Papa. Our narrow bus pulled away from the curb and began traveling the windy roads commonly found in the Andes. Steep slopes require roads to be in a Z formation, and on top of this, the roads are incredibly narrow. There were times when I peered out the window, and just a few inches of dirt kept the wheel of the bus from falling off the edge. Upon arrival, we exited the bus and climbed up another slope, passing animals and homes to greet the natives of Parque de la Papa.


A beautiful, elderly woman adorned in traditional clothes greeted us. She wore deep colors; a maroon cardigan laced with green and pink trim, accompanied by a beautiful black skirt which expressed many traditional patterns made with brightly colored threads. She smiled as she blessed us with white flower petals, acknowledging us as her brothers and sisters. Migrating over to a small model of the Park, our tour guide translated the messages being portrayed. There are five sections of land which were presently being used, as the sixth section was punished due to greed. Parque de la Papa produces 3,600 varieties of edible potatoes, which hold a significant place in these communities. For example, there is a potato that has a tremendous impact on young women’s lives. The name roughly translates to “That which makes the daughter-in-law cry”; this knobbed potato is given to potential brides to determine if they are ready for marriage. If they successfully peel the potato with little damage to the flesh, then they have proven themselves ready to be wed. Because potatoes have such a high success rate in the highlands, this crop has had an incredibly significant impact on the culture here. This tradition is just one example of how nature and culture intersect in the Andean communities.


I was incredibly lucky to spend my birthday here and experience a special aspect of their culture. After sampling native dishes, many of which were potato based, I was surprised with a potato cake and a rendition of Feliz Cumpleanos from the women working in the restaurant. These women blessed me one by one as they dusted my hair with orange flower petals and planted a kiss on my cheek, smiling all the while. These actions open their culture even more, and demonstrate how the natural environment influences this. Their welcoming nature may stem from their close knit communities, and this occurs because of the natural environment. The communities all rely heavily upon each other for goods, as differences in altitude translates to different goods being produced. For example, the highest altitudes may produce potatoes and lower levels of the highlands may produce cereal grains. The exchange of goods creates the relationship between former strangers, much like the exchange I experienced here.

This interaction at Parque de la Papa intrigued me; why are we not this welcoming as a whole in the United States? Of course you can have Happy Birthday sung to you at a restaurant, but it is done half heartedly at most. These women embraced me and referred to me as their sister; it is hard to come by people so welcoming. The warm exchange here has made me want to extend this type of interaction to individuals back in the states. Perhaps this idea can become similar to the Random Acts of Kindness trend occurring now, and can create positive days through positive greetings and positive contact.




The Mighty Susquehanna


We scrambled into our canoes, eager to begin our journey on the mighty Susquehanna. I remember Doug imploring us to rip our eyes away from the beautiful landscape and look beneath us – what did we see? Was it the murky, contaminated waters we had been warned about before beginning our adventure? Quite the contrary – the water was clear. Had it been in a water bottle, nobody would have been the wiser, and could have thought it came straight from the tap. But I was immediately overcome with disbelief. If this was the water flowing into the bay, why does this beautiful river have such a bad reputation?

An interaction between Nature and Culture unveils itself here. Our current means of obtaining sustenance is a reflection of our culture, which inevitably negates natural cycles found in nature. Intense manipulation of the landscape is the first problem in the agricultural equation. Tilling topsoil increases the rate of erosion, which increases turbidity of the water. Normally, an increase is viewed as a positive effect, a net gain. However, turbidity is frowned upon, as it is a lack of water clarity. Now, an important point to make is the lack of farming in the area we paddled through. The upper Susquehanna consists of residential communities and strip malls, not agriculture. But the upper part of river did not always appear this pristine. Susquehanna Outfitters owner, Steve, informed us about his childhood experience on the river – which was nonexistent.

Steve shared with us some dark history of the beautiful waterway. Coal mining was an intense business decades ago, and coal dust saturated the river. Soot stained the water black; there was no life in the water. Yet another example of how our culture destroys the beauty of nature. Coal mining was certainly beneficial to society, however, annihilated biodiversity in the river. Steve informed us that many of the islands found on the river are built upon coal dust deposits. This, therefore, could potentially lend itself to contaminating the river water, as the pH level of the water would be negatively influenced by the acid leeching from this widely used energy source. Yet Steve taught us a valuable lesson – inspect the invertebrates of the water to determine its health.


After dividing into groups, we conquered Steve’s simple assignment:  inspect the underside of as many stones as possible to fill up the immaculate dividing containers bestowed upon us. In simpler terms, put a different organism in each section of the ice cube tray. I couldn’t believe how simple this experiment was, and how crucial it is in order to determine the health of the waterway. We discovered a plethora of species, including crayfish, mayflies, and assorted worms. The importance of the exercise was not simply find the organism, jump for joy that there is sign of life, and move on. Steve broke it down a step further, organizing them by how toxic of an environment they can survive in. The mayfly was the most important, as these critters cannot survive in highly contaminated waters. But the question is, are there mayflies throughout the river, or just at the top?

Had we been able to continue to the lower Susquehanna, I’m positive we would have discovered more turbidity due to agriculture. We came across many individuals throughout Journey Two that claimed the Bay is filthy due to the Susquehanna. There must be some reason behind all of the fuss over this river. But if this is not the case, then we must go back to a smaller source. We must discover the health of the brooks and streams that feed the Susquehanna. Everybody is willing to point fingers at the larger issue in order to keep them from changing their ways.

Agriculture may not back up immediately to the Susquehanna, but to smaller tributaries that feed the mighty river. This would require tighter restrictions and regulations to clean up the issue. While on the Chester River there are buffer zone requirements, these are not always abided by. The same may be true to areas feeding to the Susquehanna. If there is no land and vegetation to deter run off from entering the stream, then obviously contaminated water will find its way to the bay. In order to solve this problem, it must become a community wide effort, and everyone must stop pointing fingers. Nobody wants to point to themselves in the mirror, telling themselves to clean up their dirty farming practices. But this is what must occur in order to see any positive result in the bay.


Only so much can be accomplished once contaminated waters reach the bay. But if we begin at the source, minimizing the chemicals and sediment seeping into the freshwater system, then the Bay may have some hope. A cleaner Bay may be seen in the distant future. The transformation would not occur over night, but I challenge farmers along this mighty, beautiful waterway to clean up their practice. If you love the Bay, and you want clean water, then you need to be willing to take the first step. Start cleaning up your act today to ensure clean water for the future.

Religion through an Envionmental Lens: Smith Island

We loaded up the ferry with out belongings for the next two days, and began our journey across the bay to Smith Island. Speeding off across the water, the scent of brackish water overcame our senses while we ate lunch on the deck, hair whipping around our faces. After an hour of travel, we stepped onto the dock of a quaint little town, Ewell. It appeared to be nearly a ghost town, a few elders rolling by on their golf carts as they traveled through the heart of town. Leaving the dock we passed a Smith Island museum, Ruke’s, and a church. Ruke’s is a small grocery store and restaurant, with delicious food. First time I’ve ever had a soft-shell crab, and I couldn’t have tried it at a better place! Our experience here was interesting and enlightening, interacting with townsfolk and walking the streets at night to look at the stars.


Smith Island: Land Loss

Smith Island is a culturally distinct, 1200 acre mass of marsh lands inhabited by just over 200 individuals. The population is in decline as it has become more difficult to make a living as a waterman. We stayed in a quaint home located in Ewell, courtesy of Michelle. This town is comprised of an elderly population, with very few members below the age of 50. Smith Island hosts a very religious community, with multiple churches in a town. We were presented with an opportunity to attend part of a Revival, which was a colorful experience.

Pastor Rick, Smith Island

Pastor Rick introduced the guest Minister, who took control of the pulpit and shook the audience with his message. While he paraded around the front of the church, waving his arms about wildly while telling his story, I couldn’t help but alter the point he was making. Pastor Willy lamented that we must pay attention to the warning signs Jesus is sending, or else prepare ourselves for an eternal afterlife of torment. All the while asking us to embrace God and serve him selflessly. But this guest Minister made an excellent point while discussing the warning signs. While he expressed this in a religious sense, I applied his message to our environmental mission. Mother nature has given us countless warning signs to change the path which we are sprinting down before it is too late to reverse the damage that has been done. A current example of this would be the rising temperatures this time of year – it is uncommon for it to be warm enough to swim in the Atlantic in early October. Tropical Storm Karen pushed the heat north, which heated our system, but this can be linked to climate change. Our strengthening storm systems are a result of changing weather patterns, and these disrupted patterns wreak havoc on the earth. These are all warning signs of a wrench in the cycle, which unless we begin to take measures to reverse some of the damage we have inflicted on this planet, we will all be tormented by the effects.

That Minister knew what he was talking about after all!

Environmentalists: the good, the bad, the ugly

What is an environmentalist? A dictionary definition would state it is an advocate for environmental protection. But what does this ultimately come down to? The environmental field is becoming a more attractive option for the younger generation due to potential job opportunities. But while viewing this with a bit of cynicism, why do people choose to be an environmentalist as their occupation? For example, why would we want to clean up the bay if a dirty bay is what brings in our paycheck at the end of the week? Some individuals believe that people within the environmental field have no desire to really clean up the environment – just make it appear so in order to bring in a steady pay check. This may in fact be the case for certain people, however I feel this is not so for the majority.


This cynicism can still be applied to environmentalists. We try to put our best foot forward, lessening our impact on the environment, educating ourselves on pertinent topics. Yet how informed are we? People strive to participate in activities such as recycling in order to reduce and reuse materials. We pat ourselves on the back for our good deed and are then detached from the process once the recycling leaves our sight. While I support recycling, and participate in it myself, this practice is not as perfect as some may think. Some sources disclose that certain types of materials are not dealt with domestically, and are taken to different countries on barges. Sadly, not all of the materials make it, as crates may fall overboard and are then lost at sea. In addition, non-recyclable plastics are mixed in with recyclables which slows down processing. Knowing this and not spreading the word would make you a poor environmentalist, which many of us are. We would pride ourselves on knowing this bit of information, and just choose to not think about it because hey, at least we know what we’re supposed to do, right?


If we do not take the initiative to spread the word about issues such as this, we will continue as mediocre environmentalists. Talking the talk but never walking the walk. Once we educate ourselves, spreading the word is simple, and imperative to do as a good steward of the environment. This is something I realize I must work on myself. I have become aware of many environmental issues over the past few years, with the help of my mother, and tend to forget that not everybody possesses a great understanding of the issues at hand. Therefore, I feel I am obligated to share these stories with individuals who have any prior knowledge on the subject. I hope to hone this skill throughout the rest of the semester as we delve into other topics, as we all share our wealth of knowledge with each other.