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!