Tuesday, December 9, 2008


The clouds are dancing through the forested valley, playing with the swirling wind that is lalloping over the green ridge. They sway in a tango-trance, rising and falling, gusting and receding, unable to choose a path or direction.

Today our morning talk was "Franks lessons for life." There were moments of comedy and seriousness, and many moments of bio-nerdiness and insanity. But mostly this was a serious talk about our futures and how we may continue on in life as biologists. Oh man, this "what will you do with your life" conversations always get me....

I'm not sure who exactly reads this...but whoever is out there, you may or may not know that I am seriously considering staying, or rather, going home for Christmas and returning to Monteverde for another quarter (or two?) to work and mostly just to live in this beautiful place. As I have explained to a couple friends and family, and as one could probably tell by reading previous posts, I am in love with Costa Rica. I have been more inspired spiritually, intellectually and artistically by this area, the people, the "vibes" of this place, more than I have been in a very long time. To stay here would be an amazing life experience for me, hopefully one that will help me better understand who I am, and to help me answer that enternally daunting question, "what am I doing?"

But after Don Frank's talk, I am unsure again about this choice. He encouraged us to find things that we are both good at and enjoy. And to do this, the only thing to do is to try things--that is an arguement to stay here...but am I ready to find this fit? Frank also brought up that to be in a position where you can have contact with people--to have real relationships and impacts, while doing something you love and are good at, is a rare and desireable opportunity as well. And that is something that I will be missing by not returning to Project Literacy and the community that I am a part of at home. And there is no gaurantee that I will find that here...

I'm not sure this makes sense. It could be that I am mentally tired from working endlessly on my independent research report...Tomorrow I will present it to the scientific community here...which could include some big figures in the bio world (yikes)...and then I have more finals and the final submission of the paper, which has to be in publishable form....

I am all scrambled, I can't keep one train of thought... Staying here, understanding what it is like to live here and be a part of this different world, is a huge opportunity--and there won't be many like it. This could enhance my self understanding and also what I am able to contribute later on....On the flip side, if I can stand to wait, until I graduate, perhaps, then I will have that much more knowledge and maturity to bring with me, and perhaps I will get even more out of it.... I need help.

...Now they pause in an uneasy truce, idling in uncertainty, slowly circling. The wind, as always, is impatient to move and explore, to spread seeds and rustle leaves. The clouds spread and settle, slowly rolling in on themselves, releasing fleeting drops of rain.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Peñas Blancas

Directly from homestays, less than half the group took off for the “epic hike” to Peñas Blancas for a five day stay in the rainforest on the Caribbean side. We packed as lightly as possible and got wrapped up in our ponchos and headed off into the mist and rain. The hike was about fifteen kilometers (about 8 miles) up and over the continental divide, into the heart of the rainforest conservation, down a trail marked “Cerrado: Closed.” The heavy rain is more than it has been in years. In rubber boots we crossed several “streams” and small (and not so small) rivers—one of which I crossed by crawling across a fallen tree, much to the horror of my professor who arrived just as I was encouraging the other students who were coming up from behind to cross. They crossed by holding a rope held by myself and another student who had crossed via log—wading through strong water up to their hips. The horses that carried our food could only make it half way—they couldn’t cross the final river. Therefore a small group of us had to hike back and carry the food for the group (16 total with teachers, for 5 days).

It rained every day in Peñas—this made the hikes muddy, and the students smelly, but we stayed in good spirits. This forest is by for the most picturesque, typical “rain forest.” Plus, the extra water meant that the swamps and creeks were teeming with frogs. Everywhere we went frogs scattered at our feet and orchids dangled in our faces—the most amazing orchids I could ever imagine. They are big and smelly or practically microscopic. And we were with the best person in the world to be exploring this land. Eladio Cruz, the man for whom the station at which we stayed was named, has had orchids, trees, frogs and insects named for him. He knows the species of every plant and animal on this land—in fact, when we came upon an orchid that he didn’t recognize, we collected it to bring back to Monteverde—surely it must be a new species. Eladio used to own this land, it was his farm before he sold it to the Science Center to be added to the conservation. This man, who has only up to sixth grade in schooling, has taught and lead countless conservationists and the world’s leading biologists, and he is our guide, and our cook. On the first night we went hiking, Eladio caught us frogs seemingly out of nowhere, and of course knew each species. But that night it was me that had the find of the day—I found the Fer de Lance: one of the world’s most deadly snakes. Apparently they’re all over this place, and I nearly stepped on it. No big deal. I mean, Eladio was bit three times years ago, and he’s okay. Just another hike in Costa Rica…

Familia Tica

My last days in San Luis were beautiful and full of family. Despite frustrations with my project and with school (in California) I could always count on my home stay family and the beautiful farm to lighten my mood. Last Saturday was Adriana’s fifteenth birthday—a huge rite of passage in a young woman’s life. For this celebration my family, who is far from wealthy and rarely eats much meat, bought a whole pig. Some family who live nearby came for the day of preparation. Four people worked at cutting up the whole animal in the back—every single piece being used and sorted into various pots and buckets. As they stood around chopping and cleaning, talking and telling stories the first bits of meat cooked on a wood burning stove. We spent the whole day in the back of the house around the cutting table and the stove, snacking constantly.

On the big day, it was a convergence of family to rival any other major holiday or reunion. As usual, the epicenter of the party was around the stove, which had been burning and cooking almost constantly in preparation for this day. It was so warming to see this huge family together—and to be welcomed to join them in this special celebration. It is comforting to see how universal the warmth and dynamics of family are. I was constantly reminded of my family, and how we are for big gatherings. These are my first pangs of homesickness in nearly nine weeks. But they were quickly smothered in a hug from my home stay sister, Laura, a precocious three year old who was constantly attached to me. This is my tica family—this massive group of smiling people—farmers, construction workers, bakers, etc. speaking the slow Costa Rican Spanish that now peppers my own Espangles speak.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Tranquila en San Luis

Life in San Luis can only be described as "tranquila"--a description used here much more commonly than in the states. Yes, it means tranquile, but we also use this term to say "chill", "relax", even "kick back." An advective and a verb. And life here is all of the above. I may have mentioned this before, but it is worth mentioning a thousand times: the place is freaking BEAUTIFUL. From our very modest house we look down a valley of fields and forest to the Nicoya Gulf. From 1100 meters above sea level, we can see the whole way down the valley without seeing a single other building. With the wind blowing down from Monteverde, the clouds are pushed out to sea, we get a fine mist, and a beautiful rainbow almost every day. Talk about cheesey.

The farm (where I am doing my independent research) is equally beautiful. My family grows coffee and sugar cane mostly, but, like most farms here, I can snack on the sweet lemons and guavas that are scattered amongst the crop. If they were ripe I would be munching on bananas too. My family keeps this farm as a place to live and as an extra income--my homestay father has a day job maintaining the Ecolodge (U. of Georgia's research station). They also sell the coffee and give tours.

In fact, I just took the tour the other day. They show people around the farm, explaining the organic process of harvesting coffee, etc. They end at the trapiche, which is a traditional machine to process sugar cane. They have tourists pull the machine into motion, squeezing the juice from the sugar cane. Everyone gets a taste of the sweet water as they listen to a charla about the traditional way to boil it down into "tapa dulce"--brown blocks of sweet molasses-flavored sugar. This is boiled into "agua dulce", which we drink every night before bed, or is ground into drinks to sweeten them--my family usually adds this to lemonade made from the fruit on our farm. It was really fun taking this tour as the resident gringo. The tourists had lots of side questions for me about life on the farm, and tico culture, and a little more about the processes from a "science student's point of view"...oh, tourists...It's good to have them though, my mom stays at home, and so she depends on tourists for extra income from selling them her embroidery, jams (sooo delicious), and handmade trinkets. And, as the rain and wind slowly dies, the tourist season is cranking up!

I also wanted to comment about the wild life here. In San Luis and the Monteverde region in general. It seems that recently I have had a lot of funny encounters...I mean more than normal for living in the jungle... First, on one of my visits back to Monteverde, I just so happened to arrive as some students were tranquilizing a coati for their project...Then, as I left the station I saw a sloth crossing a rope across the road--or at least I think it was crossing...It really looked like a hairy booger on a string, but I assume it was intending to move out of the rain at some point, maybe later this week. Then, back in San Luis, a snake snuck up on me while I was studying in the coffee. I tend to be quite quiet and still in the field and I am used to birds and sometimes monkeys going about their business, not minding me. I am certainly not afraid of snakes, but as I knelt in the plants I got the hugest rush of adrenaline when a 1.5 meter long snake (probably an Colubrideae--harmless) practically brushed along my leg as it glided past me from behind. I guess that human instinct to fear snakes is pretty hardwired in me--it took a couple seconds for my biologist brain to override--then I tried to catch it... And then there's this morning...I was delightfully woken up by a weasle (or Costa Rican equivalent, I think) chasing a rat across my bed! This just reminds me that the security of our house's roof and walls is fairly nominal--leaves occasionally blow in through the cracks in the walls that shake when the wind is high, and there seems to be no end to the interesting insects I find everywhere in my room, the living room, the bathroom...My homestay parents laughed at me when I came out of my room this morning, "Did you see it? We saw it go into your room. What do you think? A new pet, maybe? The weasel is better than the rats--he eats the snakes, too...."

Monday, November 17, 2008

La Realidad

I had mixed feelings coming to this farm. I wanted to work with coffee—to contribute to the community—the beautiful cooperative that inspired me. But then I realized that I would be so isolated here in San Luis. And now, all of this has changed—in only a few short days.

My family is absolutely beautiful. They are hard working and down to Earth, and so very loving—towards each other and toward me. I recently had an amazing conversation (in Spanish!!) with my home stay father about the coop. He corrected my misconception that all the farms here are a part of the coope—nor is the coope all it’s cracked up to be. He explained that a lot of people lose money to the coope. It keeps 10% of profits “for security,” but over time this money goes elsewhere—to private investments and separate enterprises. It’s a nice idea—an ideal, but the REALITY is that it is poorly managed, and there is some mishandling of money in the administration. Instead, Alvaro (mi papa extrangero) and other cafeteros are independent of the coope. They sell directly to tourists or to other cooperatives, always getting payment in full. But what about price security? He says that although there is fluctuation, overall he’s better off this way. “Coope Santa Elena” is only an idealist title—“Café Monteverde,” a misnomer for marketing and politics. Alvaro sells his coffee mostly to his neighbor who has his own machinas para preparar el café. Alvaro and his other neighbors here in Finca la Bella make “Bella Tico,” which isn’t sold much in Monteverde (“Café Monteverde” dominates here, of course) but can be found elsewhere, and tastes delicious—es la verdad.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

On the canopy

Today after testing and homestay orientations, we had time to explore and prepare for the next phase of the program. Half of us will be hiking 14 km (about 8.5 miles) to Penas Blancas, while the other half (myself included) start homestays and research. I will be on a coffee farm, as anticipated, but (to my surprise) I will be the only student in San Luis, which is quite far from Monteverde. And suddenly travel anxiety sits upon my chest. I needed to breathe...

So I went with one friend to The Strangler Fig. This strangler fig juts out above a waterfall, high above a rocky stream. We scramble up from the pool at the base of the waterfall. Soft, fertile mud slips from beneath us as we grasp weeds and roots. We reach the first roots of the fig and are barely half way up this vertical climb. As we scale this muddy, wet mountain, we are silent in our struggle. Our grunts and gasps as we slip and push are drowned in the roar of the waterfall, rumbling of distant (or not-so-distant) thunder, and the warning barks of onlooking howler monkeys.

The base of the strangler fig, where the tree that used to support this monstrous plant used to set its roots is already far above the waterfall. Into the tunnel we climb. The hollow tube left by tree killed by the fig is about a meter wide, sometimes solid, sometimes laced with holes large enough for us to slip through. We climbed out, extending over the river, over the waterfall. At the top we emerged, as if being born into an alternate world. It is surprisingly similar to the forested paths that we enjoy...except that the "ground" we see below us is actually canopy. The river looks like a trickle below us. Now I can breathe. Whatever struggles ahead, whatever new worlds I am about to enter, they will be breath-taking, and I can rise above.

Through the Clouds

Sitting out on the balcony of a café, my friends and I are in a cloud. Whisps of white obscure our faces… “Aladdin” gave us false impressions of the moldabily of clouds. We can’t exactly put a dollop on our lattes. But the effect is magical nonetheless.

As we “study” for our upcoming exams (which I took this morning), we discuss the cloudiness of what the future holds for us. What will we do with our educations? What can we do? Where will our knowledge and skills be best applied? What is our responsibility as educated people, what is our obligation to the world? It is a crucial time in Earth’s history, and the decisions we make and actions we take can dramatically alter our world. Where should our energies be focused? To the discovery of new species, or description of interactions between rainforest creatures? To education? To conservation? How can we do it all? And how can we do it all in time?

All these concerns, but we are still holding on to living care-free. For now, at least, we are content to know that we are educated and motivated. Life, and our experiences, will steer us somewhere where the tools we are picking up along the way will be used well—because we have integrity and drive. That’s why we are here. So, with or without a set path, we are happy to keep on going. In fact, from our jungle experiences, we know that what we find off the beaten path is often exciting and beautiful, and even more our “own” because we dared to discover it.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

My Bible

I was reviewing notes from my stay on the island, and came upon a great quote from Doug McCauly, an EAP alum who came to the island with us as the fish expert.

“Nature is our living Bible—it holds the story of where we come from.”

I love this quote. It really sums up a lot of how I love and value nature. It is not only beautiful to behold, it also holds many secrets and knowledge about life. I have often tried to express this sentiment about my affinity for diving. To be in the ocean is to be in the womb of life on Earth. The amazing thing about the ocean and nature in general, is that it is so vast and still so largely mysterious. We’re probing the depths of space, but we are largely unaware of much our own world.

Monteverde is a vast and mysterious place, with so much unknown. I am in a hotspot of diversity and miracles of evolution and nature. There are questions in everything, and we are challenged to approach everything we do inquisitively. Some things we see every day here are hardly studied. At first I wondered how they could expect so many students coming through to study something unique—how could there possibly be so much unknown? But now I realize that biologists are barely scratching the surface, and will never be able to keep up with what nature has to offer. For every problem, nature has “designed” a solution or strategy from which we can learn.

Truly, nature is my Bible—I look to it to understand where I come from, and for guidance and meaning for where I am headed.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Beautiful Days

Now that we're staying put in Monteverde, I am happily settling into a routine, and getting to know the lay of the land, and the rhythm of the area. Our typical day starts with breakfast at seven and first lecture at 8. Lectures last until lunch at noon (with a couple coffee breaks, of course). After lunch we have a couple hours break, during which we scramble to take advantage of what Monteverde has to offer--yoga classes, hiking, horseback riding, any of the many nature museums (bats, snakes, butterflies, etc), or just cruising town or the many art shops. 3 days a week we hike to the Institute for Spanish lessons in the afternoons, or have more charlas (talks) or workshops (field lessons). Fridays we spend the whole day in the field after morning lecture--eating lunch on the trail or at whatever agroecology site. The evenings usually have some sort of night lecture and then the evening is left to studying and hanging out.

Being able to stay for so long in one place has been awesome. I can actually walk around and run into people I know. The farmer's market this weekend was an amazing gathering of many of the characters that I've met so far. This town is remarkably small-everyone seems to know everyone. Such a beautiful community--and I am so excited to contribute to it.

I'm honing in on a research topic. It looks like I'll be living/ studying on a coffee farm, looking at something related to the organic shade-grown processes, and trying to find a solution for the problems with a certain fungal infection that has really hit the farms hard this season. I'm super excited that I can at least get the ball rolling (short of seeing it all the way through--2 weeks isn't much time) on something that can actually be useful for the community. Also, I have worked out with my agro-eco teacher an extra project compiling all the past projects done on the farms and creating a book for the farmers who have been allowing students to study their land since the beginning of this program.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

An Eden

I have been waking up with the sun to explore the forest outside the field station. One of my favorite spots is just a little way down one of our main paths up the mountain, where there is a small river with a tree fallen across. I love stretching there and meditating. Other than the path, there is no evidence of people. Closing my eyes, I enjoy the soft song of the forest…the rush of water beneath me, birds calling for their mates, bugs humming and croaking, my own breath slowing to match the subtle rhythm of the breeze that blows eerie white wisps of clouds. The air is crisp and cool and clean. I smell the savory aroma of the plants (which I am learning to identify), and a sweet, wet smell of moss and flowers. I open my eyes to a soft green glow, dotted by white and red berries and flowers and fungi. I don’t have to sit still for long before seeing a giant blue morpho butterfly flitting clumsily amongst the foliage, and a chubby humming bird busily visiting the flowers, paying me no attention…Good morning, Monteverde.

At night, on the rare occasion that it isn’t raining, I lay on the station lawn to watch the stars. It is the most stars I have ever seen. And the dark is the darkest dark I have ever experienced—there is so little light pollution up here. The last couple nights there have been shooting stars….Good night, Monteverde.

The Cloud People

I have spent the last couple days quietly smiling, completely in awe of the beauty surrounding me. There is beauty in nature, and beautiful people who have a simple and beautiful lifestyle. A lot of what I am enjoying about life here is the Pura Vida attitude, which effects nearly every interaction in day to day life.

Yesterday we visited the coffee grower’s coop. The farmers live simply, growing modestly sized shade-grown crops of coffee. The whole process is really interesting and eco-friendly. The idea is to leave a lot of local flora in tact and plant the coffee amongst it. The result is natural pest control—pests eat the bananas, guava, oranges, figs that grow naturally. It also serves to conserve bio corridors and diversity in general. While this is not perfect, it is an amazing effort. What’s more, it’s done largely just because it’s the right thing to do—to conserve natural resources and beauty, even though it doesn’t really financially benefit them more than growing monocultures would, for example. Theoretically, farmers should be getting debt swapping for conserving, but I asked one farmer if he saw any of this money, and the short answer was that no, it gets lost amongst the bureaucratic BS. But pura vida, right? What else would he do? Cut down this beautiful forest in which he lived? That’s what the co-op is for—it gives the farmers security for the 3-4 years it takes from the initial investment of planting a crop to first harvest. What’s more, rather than modernize, farmers have stuck to the traditions of planting and processing that have come from a heritage of knowledge of living in harmony with the land and maximizing each resource—respecting it all as a valuable gift from nature—from eating or selling the extra crops grown in the polyculture, to using the husks from the coffee berries to make paper products (including the bags in which the coffee is packaged and sold—there is a woman’s co-op paper factory that recycles the whole town’s paper).

(Subtitle: "Greasy Hair and Crunchy People"
The other part of the community here in Monteverde is more like a hippie colony. There are a lot of ex-pats and biologists, many of whom came here not planning to stay, and who have ended up making a life here. We have been taking yoga classes and dance classes at a beautiful studio tucked back into the forest across from the Instituto Biologica. On the walk over we pass by countless art studios and cooperatives. There are also bio exhibits everywhere you look—run by major published scientists. In fact, just walking around looking at plants today I found myself admiring the greens with the authors of two of the major textbooks we refer to regularly in the field here. And they invited us over anytime if we ever needed help or had questions or just wanted to look at there catalogue of sample—no big deal.

This open door hospitality is another thing that draws me to the people here. Rich or poor—biologist or coffee farmer, the doors are always open to us. Everyone is happy to offer us a cup of coffee with a bit of knowledge—and there is knowledge to be gained from every soul on this mountain. It seems as though everyone here, with or without formal education, knows a significant amount about the plants and animals in their environment. Can you name the genus of all the plants on your street? As it turns out, Eladio, the man who cooked for us for the whole field trip—who has never had “formal training” has had an orchid and something else named after him, and was the last human being to see a live golden toad in the wild…plus he’s an amazing cook…

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Costa Rica

Finally settled in Monteverde after the most amazing adventure of my life. This three week field trip has been a whirlwind of travel and learning and nature. I haven’t even had a moment to journal, and I certainly never had access to a computer. All I did was to record titles for each adventure or experience. I’ll try to record some brief impressions along with the titles in writing…but really I’m not worried that I could ever forget any of this….

“Frutas y el Mercado” (“Fruits and the Market”)
3 days in San Jose basically to ourselves. We spent most of the time exploring the city, getting last minute supplies in the market and testing the waters with our Spanish. Our first homework assignments include finding an assigned fruit in the market, learning about it, buying some and preparing it for the other student. Thus I discover lychee, tamarindo, and some other yummy (and yucky) exotic fruits….I can’t believe how yummy class can be. This was the last time I saw myself in a mirror.

“Getting Our Feet Wet”
We leave San Jose and get dropped off with our day packs at the base of a mountain. We have our first hike in an intense downpour, 8.5 km uphill. We arrive at Estacion Patilla. It has 2 rooms with not enough bunks for everyone and a wrap around deck. I slept outside on the deck with 5 or 6 other students for 5 nights.

“I Can’t Believe I’m in Class Right Now”
Every day consists of long hikes, which are considered “class.” We have bug hikes, plant hikes, amphibian hikes….or we just learn about whatever our teachers happen to find along the way. We also just have hikes for fun, including climbing to the top of the volcano, ~1.2 mi, 575+ altitude gain on VERY muddy “paths,” and a few opportunities to be completely solitary in the forest…I wish I could do a Vision Quest here….Oh, and despite rain nearly every night, we must remember that we are in a dry forest…Other highlights include lots of Frisbee, and kids from a nearby town coming to perform local dances…

“30 People”
Our group of 30 is divided in half. Half to Cuajiniquil, half to Isla San Jose in El Archipelelago Murcielago, a protected marine area. Only 30 people total are allowed on this island at a time, there is only one building (the kitchen and residence of the guards). The 17 students, “the Orcas,” 2 Monteverde Institute staff, 1 former student/marine biologist, 2 cooks, 3 rangers and 2 construction workers are on the island. We hang tarps from trees and set up tents beneath them. No mirrors, no bathrooms, no showers (save one hose). Snorkeling everyday (insert title: “I Peed In Class Today ;)”—we had lecture while floating/splashing in the surf). One great dive. We cover the entire island in a half day hike. Every evening green sea turtles come up to the beach to lay eggs. The sunsets are amazing—we hike up to the highest point and look along the perfect point of the island toward the sun sinking into the ocean. It is so picturesque and ideally composed that if someone had painted it, it would be called unrealistically cliché and perfect… Another student and I take the kayak to nearby island to make a survey of the fish (these islands are protected, but very under studied). On the way back we encounter two males and a female sea turtle mating. Enchanted, we float with them, within 2 meters of them the whole time, for nearly an hour. A lot of rain in the evenings…not one thing is dry by the time we leave the island, and we smell horrible, but no one seems to care.

“Un Poco Mojado” (“A Little Wet”)
Home stays in Cuajiniquil, a VERY small fishing village. After the fist night we feel a little wrath from a hurricane. My home stay house is flooded and we evacuate down the road to her sister’s house. Even through this clearly difficult event, the Costa Rica attitude holds true: “Pura Vida.” Spare a couple moments when the stress showed through, we stayed light-hearted, literally bailing the house out with buckets, like a boat. Despite this stress on the town, everyone is warm, welcoming and patient with our Spanish. We are taken fishing, 5 students to a boat—in all cases the one fisherman on the boat caught as many fish as all the students caught. I got 7 total—6 red snapper, and 1 yellow tail snapper. We took them home to our homestays for dinner… (kind of a subtitle…) “Recuerdos de Mi Abuela” (“Memories of my Grandma”)—we move back into my home stay house (finally dry) and my home stay mom fries the fish whole. I ate the eyeball (ick). She really reminds me of Ammy Irene…the love and compassion that is lost in translation is communicated through the amazing food… We also get 3 dives, including a night dive. These dives, plus the snorkeling and diving on the island correct some misconceptions about bio that I’ve had and some incorrect IDs I’ve been applying to other dives (Dad, we’ll have to review).

“La Pura Vida Lifestyle—Overall Impressions Thus Far”
So, “Pura Vida”—“Life is Good,” the national slogan and lifestyle of Costa Rica is really great thus far. I am impressed and inspired by the ticos (Costa Ricans). Laid back, happy, patient, warm and trusting, they seem to get something that a lot of us miss on a day to day basis. Even with the storms and flooding, my host-mom kept her sense of humor…Although the worry did eventually show through (she got a stomach ache and head aches for a couple days), it kind of further proved that Costa Ricans aren’t used to stressing out, and are much more prone to smile than to stress. Even on my last day in Cuajiniquil, with the cinder blocks we used to lift the larger pieces of furniture above the water still wet, my host mom (head ache and all) sang as she made me lunch. Every day, I’m impressed in some way by how happy and chill these people are, because really, life is pretty dang good.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

First Impressions

Our introduction to Costa Rica really opened my eyes to how amazing this country really is—in some ways the US has some lessons to learn. For example, Costa Rica has gotten rid of its army—a sort of declaration of peace to the world…who would attack a defenseless and unthreatening country? Without money being poured into military, there are more resources for a universal healthcare system, and education, resulting in an amazing 94% literacy rate! Also, there are dozens of environmental programs and incentives to preserve the natural ecology. Much of these policies are more political than practical, of course, but they are on their way to progress in the right direction. But sadly, corruption, greed, and (I think) strong ties to the U.S. are causing this country to take some large steps backwards. Healthcare and insurance are being privatized, and “free trade” has brought in a flow of American goods, replacing much of the locally produced products. It is sad, because all of these things are keeping this country from fulfilling what seems (on paper) like huge potential. Instead, there is a social decline, from having a strong middle class to a growing divide between rich and poor….I hope to explore these changes more, and hopefully to ask for more local opinions of the current political environment.

As far as my impressions of the program go…This is going to be jam-packed. The schedule looks like early mornings and 6 day weeks. And information will be constantly thrown at us as we travel. We’ve already had a couple assignments. The other students (there turns out to be 33 of us--the largest program ever) are all great and nerdy, we're having fun exploring San Jose and a few of us had a good game of ultimate frisbee last night. But it's certainly not all fun and games, we've also been working on our projects on and of continually, and getting last minute gear... Yikes, this is going to be an adventure…Now off to our first field trip for two weeks!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Abajo del Mar: Seeing the world through blue-colored glasses

The first leg of my adventure has sadly come to a close. Diving the second largest barrier reef in the world off of the little island of San Pedro, Belize.

We did 14 dives in total, and each dive was beautiful. We saw, of course many fish, lobster, crabs, shrimp, coral and sponges, and a few critters we can’t identify. We also enjoyed sharing the water with morays, loggerhead turtles, spotted eagle rays, sting rays, nurse sharks (which were friendly and let us pet them) and on one dive, over a dozen reef sharks (which are actually quite aggressive)!

Some dives, especially the ones when we got to dive with these charismatic creatures were spectacular and exciting. But even dives during which we saw only the more common fishes and critters, were special. I love feeling weightless, at one with my surroundings. Movements are slow, even breathing is calm, controlled. In the water I feel graceful and centered, rather than spastic and clumsy. I feel connected to something vast. The ocean is our roots—our home, and symbolically, to return to the ocean is to return to the womb—the womb of humanity and life on Earth.

Plus, with every dive I’m getting better. With each dive, I seemed to use less air—I was calmer and controlled my breathing. I could calmly lace my fingers and with small flicks of my fins maneuver around coral heads and through tunnels in the reef. My eyes got keener, and I could spot the little animals, so adept at camouflage—the little crabs or fish disguising themselves as coral, clear bodies shrimp, rays buried in the sand.

Life out of the water in San Pedro was equally calm. It was the low season for tourists, and everything moved at a laid back pace. The people were amazingly friendly, often greeting us and wishing us a nice day as we passed in the streets. Everyone spoke English (it is the national language), but with such an accent and slang that it was basically unintelligible to us. Somehow when people spoke to us they toned this dialect down—there was a gradient of accent that everyone seemed to be able to control. I especially enjoyed getting to know the folks at the dive center, Chuck and Robbie’s. We only met Chuck once, but we saw Robbie nearly every day—he looked kinda like a pirate, but he was a very friendly guy with a very sweet family. We often saw his kids and wife, because the shop was on the beach right in front of his father-in-law’s house. His father in law is a fisherman and sold us hand caught lobster straight from the bucket. Our dive master for pretty much the whole week was Enrique—a big, friendly, goofy guy on land, and a graceful, un-jaded diver.

And now, to Costa Rica to begin a new adventure with new people. And I'd ask for those I love at home to wish me luck, but from what I understand, it seems as though I should wish you all luck--take care in America!!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Ending summer and beginning the journey

I fit all of what has been my life in LA into my little car. Just a few boxes, duffle bags, a hamper of dirtly clothes.

I am so greatful for my summer in LALA land. I have learned that I can truly be independent. I can pay bills and work and function on my own--I am my own person. But at the same time, I wouldn't be anywhere without my friends and my family. And now I realize that they are really behind me--more than I knew.

Coming home is as surreal as living in LA on my own has been. I can always count on Los Angeles to be always moving, always changing--and living there was such a huge step for me, such a time of growth. In contrast, it is strangely comforting how little changes here at my home in Santa Cruz. It looks the same, smells the same, sounds the same. Even the family barbeques seem very much the same--even with the addition of my cousin's new baby, the different girlfriends and boyfriends that my cousins and aunts bring--even with some changing dynamics as the cousins grow up, it all rings true to the comforting constance of home in this crazy world.

I am greatful for my life and for the opportunities that I have been given. Now, more than ever, I am sure of my roots, my home, my family and friends. And with this security of knowing where I come from, I go out into the world. Finally, after a month of being in a perpetual state of "goodbye," I'm leaving, ready for what life has to throw at me on this crazy adventure!