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.