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Gleaning life lessons in the Galapagos Islands

Gleaning life lessons in the Galapagos Islands
Reagan Deel, a La Vernia 16-year-old, traveled to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands this summer on a student trip.

What a lucky young lady, to take a trip to the Galapagos Islands! Reagan Deel, a 16-year-old La Vernia High School student, got to do just that this summer.

Her stepmother, Barbara Goldstein Deel, sent her own sons on youth service trips when they were in high school back in New York and knew that this experience would be good for her stepdaughter.

Reagan traveled from San Antonio to Miami and then flew to Quito, Ecuador, for a three-week youth service adventure with the “Wilderness Ventures” tour group. The group of 14 ...12 teens ages 15 to 17 and two counselors made the trip. The students came from Kentucky, Massachusetts, Connecticut, West Virginia, Illinois, New Jersey, and one from Romania. Reagan was the only Texan. No cell phones were allowed.

“I did not miss it at all,” the La Vernia teen said. “I did not have time to miss it. Life goes on without social media. Too many people get caught up with how many ’likes’ they get on what they post.”

At their hostel in Quito, Reagan and the other teens had to share a room and bathroom with total strangers, which took some adjusting.

They visited a fruit market in Otavalo, Reagan said, and saw fruits she’d never seen before.

“It smelled wonderful! Like a summer day. So fruity,” she recalled.

Across the market they were selling fish, which wasn’t as fragrant.

“It smelled bad!” Reagan said.

They bought ingredients for their meal of fish soup, which they prepared in the shared kitchen at the hostel.

After two days in Quito, the group took at 15-hour bus trip to the Amazon rain forest, longer than usual, due to landslides.

They stayed at the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” lodge in the middle of the rain forest, off the grid, for four days.

Did all the teenagers get along well with each other?

“Yes. The group dynamic was amazing,” Reagan said with a smile. “We worked very hard to be on good terms.”

The lodge staff cooked for them. Her favorite food was plantains.

Since it was a service trip, the teens helped rescue Yellow Spotted Turtles, an endangered and protected species, learning how to tag the turtles by notching the edges of their shells. Reagan saw many different bird species, such as parakeets, cockatiels, and parrots. They also saw howler monkeys.

“The howler monkeys were scary,” Reagan said.

The teens also replanted bamboo to prevent de-forestation caused by people chopping down stands of bamboo.

“Being able to help out with reforesting and helping the turtles was very rewarding,” Reagan said, still glowing. The teens and counselors then went by canoe downriver to a village. “There were caiman and anacondas in the water,” Reagan said.

After the rain forest service adventure, the group traveled to Banos to experience the hot springs.

“The hot springs supposedly had healing powers,” Reagan said. “We had to wear bathing caps. It was required.”

It’s hard to be pretty in a bathing cap, she said.

One thing about Ecuador disturbed her: The people there eat guinea pigs.

“You can see people roasting them on spits over fires by the sides of the road,” she said, with a grimace. She refused to try it.

The teens spent time bonding on the roof of the hostel in Banos, talking and playing card games. From Banos they returned to Quito, then flew to the main island of Santa Cruz in the Galapagos Islands. After a 2-1/2-hour boat ride, they reached Isabella Island, where Reagan said the weather was less humid.

The teens walked 20 minutes from their hostel to a school to volunteer, helping teach English to pre-k through 12th-grade students.

“It was great,” Reagan said. “It was good to see that people are happy with less. People who have less are more helpful than those who have more.”

The teens also got to see sea lions, penguins, and giant tortoises.

“We actually got to swim and snorkel with the sea lions and penguins!” Reagan exclaimed. “The penguins swam around us. They were so cute!”

The water was a beautiful blue and the beach was beautiful, she said.

While there, they saw a man sitting on a bench and a sea lion was standing in front of him, just staring at him, for about 10 minutes. As the man left, Reagan said, the sea lion climbed onto the bench and went to sleep.

Reagan took surfing lessons, and went tubing down the Napa River with her group. Other activities she enjoyed were cave exploring, zip lining, and white-water rafting. The students had their photos taken at the “middle of the world,” a sign declaring where the equator is. They also got to see Cotopaxi, the highest active volcano in the world.

She also saw a native cat, the ocelot, in a protective enclosure. During a 10-mile bike ride, the teens also saw iguanas and crabs. Reagan described how the iguanas lined the edge of the sidewalk.

“It was pretty intimidating to walk or pass by them,” she said.

They also saw a mangrove swamp, and observed pelicans, blue-footed boobies, and flamingos.

As they prepared for departure from Ecuador, they heard Pope Francis was in the airport at the same time. Kids were handing out T-shirts bearing the pope’s image, and Reagan got one.

In addition to her memories, Reagan returned with life lessons and new aims.

“I want to donate,” she said. “I want to do charity work. I want to stay humble and not be greedy. I want to be as selfless as I can be.”

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