Monday, January 25, 2016

Semana tres (week 3) Monteverde, Costa Rica (1/17/16-1/23/16)

To start slow, I am doing well and settling in with my host family more every day. I am sleeping much better now, if anyone is interested. I'm very happy about it. My room is reasonably clean as I'm the only one that goes into it, and I have yet to find a scorpion in my shoe or under my pillow. I have also not said this out loud in order not to jinx anything. I did stick my hand in my backpack and come out with a cockroach clinging to my palm the other day but as they don't sting/bite/otherwise attack I was only surprised. I didn't even scream loud enough to bring anyone running. Which I am more than capable of doing. And actually surprised that I didn't do. But I didn't, so no judging.

My Tropical Ecology class took us back to the Bajo del Tigre the other day and as we were walking out of the forest we stopped to open a set of particularly prickly pods that contained beautiful round, black seeds called ox eyes. While the seeds are lovely the pods more closely resemble cacti than rosebushes and we had to be very careful not to touch them as we opened them for fear of getting our hands covered in tiny splinters. As we walked away from our find, we noticed a fluffy tail bobbing up and down to the side of the path ahead of us. A coati, a relative of raccoon but with longer, fluffier tails, elongated snouts and general better temperament, was just ahead of us. We watched in awe until it started to wander into the dense under-foliage and we noticed more movement to our left. We stood captivated as coati after coati nosed their way across the path on all sides of us. Large as the first to tiny babies, they were an absolute wonder to see, and no more than thirty feet away! More than twenty ambled past, taking their time to forage with their long snouts for grueenbs before bounding after the slowly retreating group. We stood in near complete silence until we were sure that they had all gone before dissolving into excited chatter. (Photos were taken and some are displayed below.)

One afternoon, as we were taking a break in the middle of class, one of the girls came in with her palms carefully cupped together and a grin on her face. Curious, I maneuvered my way behind her and looked over her shoulder to catch a glimpse of what she had found. For a moment I thought it was a leaf on a twig, then I realized that the twigs were in fact legs and the leaf the body of the most realistic katydid I have ever had the pleasure of seeing. It's camouflage was perfect, discoloration on part of the wing imitating sunburn, lines running the length of the wings looking exactly like veins on a leaf, a slight wave along the edges of the wings to make it asymmetric and a tiny hole that went entirely through both wings. I was absolutely awed by this specimen of selective camouflage. And yes I took a photo and it is not included below because I have not figured out how to crop and I'm not including my groups faces in the photos on this blog.

On Friday, we all went to visit a coffee farm. It was small, no more than two hectares, but was so different from most farms I had been to before. If you have ever visited a farm you know that they are very organized places. Long straight rows of identical plants, all weeded and well maintained. This place, despite being a fully functioning, and from what I heard booming, business was more reminiscent of my mothers garden than a farm. The coffee plants were not planted in rows, rather they were placed where ever they could exist happily in the shade and be spaced apart enough to allow workers to pick the coffee beans. The were surrounded by native trees, citrus (of which I ended up eating two fruit, they were delicious and I'm not entirely sure anyone in the states would recognize the fruit) chayote vine (which is a vegetable that is quite good, if a little bland) and a thick carpet of grass covering the ground. This actually allows the coffee to grow better as the relationships between the plants improve the quality of the coffee and the other crops. We got to try our hand at coffee picking. There's a photo out there somewhere of me wearing a small basket around my waist and picking coffee. It was fun. We learned a lot about coffee growth, coffee pathogens, flavor, scent, coffee plants themselves, the beans and the process of coffee getting from the coffee cherry's to the cooked product that graces our breakfast tables (and lunch tables, and dinner tables, and work tables and is just generally very common). I also learned something else when we returned to the farm house and were given a taste of the coffee the farm produces; I still hate coffee. I really, really do. I had a third of a cup loaded with milk and sugar and I only finished it because I was dipping sweet arepas into it. I will stick to milk and water, thank you very much.

My favorite part of the week was the night we went bat mist netting. One of the worlds foremost experts on bats lives in Monteverde and he came to show us wild bats. We called him Batman. He first gave us a lecture on bats and how important they are to the environment. They are actually responsible for a good deal of pollination as many species eat nectar. We actually got to see one of these bats. They are also responsible for a staggering amount of pest control. They save farmers all over the globe billions of dollars per year in insecticides and crop damage. Fruit bats also play a key roll in seed dispersal. Basically there is so much to love about bats and they are not the pests they have been described as for hundreds of years. DO NOT HURT BATS. THEY KILL MOSQUITOES. That should be T-shirt. Anyhow, the lecture was not the fun part of the night, the fun part was walking into the small reserve behind MVI and getting to see some of these bats up-close and personal. There were fine nets strung up along two of the paths so we sat at the intersection of these two paths and Batman's daughter brought us bats every so often as they were netted. At first I was horrified and terrified that the bats were being hurt as Batman handled them to show us their wings, bodies and, on occasion, small bat-fly parasites. Their wings are two layers of skin covering thin bone with almost invisible veins and muscles allowing the bats to pull their wings in without looking like folded umbrellas. It was a wonder to see but also, due to how thin their wings were, deeply stressful to think how easily those fine wings could be punctured. However, apparently this fear was unfounded as bat wings heal quickly and do often get punctured. We saw scars on many of the bats wings despite Batman ageing them as almost all under five years of age (they can live up to twenty or more for certain species). The largest bat we saw was a fruit bat. It actually had the largest front teeth of any of the bats we saw as it needed them to help it grab fruit and carry it. Batman had to wear gloves when he was handling this bat as it liked to bite and could hurt. Not that it was vicious, just that he had to hold it in his hand to show it to us and it did not want to be there. We only saw one nectar eating bat, but it was perhaps the most recognizable. It had a long snout, an incredibly long tongue (as long or longer than its body, the end of it was constantly poking out of its mouth) which it used to reach into flowers and access nectar and very small ears and nose leaf, the organ used in echolocation, as it relied mainly on smell to find flowers. It was lovely. The most common type of bat we saw was a small insectivorous bat. It had a beautifully pronounced nose leaf, tiny fangs, a tail flap used to scoop bugs out of the air and was the size of half my palm. I didn't bring my camera because I knew it would never have been able to capture pictures in the flashlight illuminated dark (and I refused to use a flash around the light sensitive animals), but several other people had cameras that were less sensitive so I may at some point post pictures taken by them. We caught several of these bats and Batman placed most of them in his bag at his waist to take them home. He also allowed us to touch the fruit bat, to feel its wings and marvel at how their skin expanded and contracted. To feel how soft their fur was and to gently, so gently, touch the bats nose leaf. Then, as the evening went on, he offered to let some of us hold the tiny insectivorous bats. I volunteered at once. It was so small, he placed it in my palm and I curled my thumb over its back and there was still plenty of space for it to exist. I could feel its heart fluttering against my palm, slowing slightly as I stroked its head to relax it. So my hands have held a bat. I am very proud of this. I actually ended up holding about three, but that's beside the point. They were all so delicate that I was terrified of hurting them so I was a gentile as possible. It was a wonderful experience, truly, truly wondrous. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

1/21/16 dia 9/nueve-12/dose (1/12-15/16 first week at Monteverde Institute)

I have made an executive decision that it is just too hard to write day by day so I shall tell anecdotes from all throughout the week. Much more entertaining for you all and more time for me to do homework in.

I am taking four classes, Sustainable Development, Development and Social Change in Costa Rica, Tropical Ecology and Advanced Spanish. That last one is nerve wracking as one of our students is all but fluent and very outgoing so she speaks Spanish all the time to everyone. Which, to clarify, is intimidating. I try but I'm just not as inclined to speak to people as she is, in English or Spanish. But Mom, I'm doing pretty OK myself and learning a lot. Don't judge.

The first week was intensive Spanish week, which meant that we had Spanish class for three hours per day for four days. Lots of speaking, practicing verb conjugation and listening. It was much more fun that I had expected as I generally have had poor experiences in my Spanish classes. I feel more confidant in my speaking with each day that passes. I need to improve my vocab but I'm working on it. Sustainable Development has only had a few classes so far, mostly field trips. It genuinely fascinates me to think of how all things fit together and remember the ripple effect. Tropical Ecology has mostly been hiking and animal watching. I'm not at all objecting. The majority of the work I have to get done is coming from my Development and Social Change class. It is very based in economic theory at the moment and to say I don't have a clue about economics would not understate the truth. Now for the fun things!

I have gained something of a reputation in my group for loving insects. Whenever someone comes across some cool looking bug they will inevitably run and find me. I am thrilled by this. The other day during lunch one girl in my group came up to me to tell me that she had found a giant wasp. I was excited, expecting some long thin thing with lovely legs or antenna. What I got was a metallic blue with orange wings monster the size of my thumb. I kid you not. I had not brought my camera with me so I ran to get it. As I was coming back toward where we had seen the wasp something slammed into my side and then flew off. I turned to see my friend gaping at me and gesticulating wildly at the air behind me and to the now wasp-less ground. The monster wasp had flown right into me! As it turned out, I was very lucky that I didn't get stung. We had found a tarantula hawk wasp, whose sting is both extremely painful and can trigger a reaction similar to anaphylaxis. Oops. (I have attached a photo I pulled off of Google, as I don't have one of my own, to give a sense of scale.)

I feel that no tale of Monteverde is complete without a description of our morning and afternoon walks. Or hikes depending on the mood one is in while describing them. It takes about twenty five minutes for me to get from my host families house to MVI and the reverse. Going from my host families house I head down a very steep hill to a busy road and cross, avoiding cars, trucks, motorcycles and the dreaded AVT's. Honestly any horror stories you have heard about South and Central American driving are true. Then I walk along a row of restaurants, past a small market beyond a not so small hotel then past a giant luxury eyesore of a place down towards a dirt road. As I am heading this way a giant thicket of bamboo sits on my left. At sunset it is filled to bursting with the Costa Rican equivalent of seagulls. Loud, big and everywhere; they more resemble crows with their large bodies and pitch black feathers but annoy me enough that I have dubbed them seagulls. Then the wind picks up, and what wind, its enough to blow a person off their feet which can be an issue as what was before bamboo becomes a drop off that leads down into a valley that stretches all the way to the Gulf of Nicoya. And I know this because I can see all the way there. On this stretch of our walk I can see almost all of the Pacific coast of Costa Rica and on a good day, all the way out to the Pacific itself. As the sun sets at five thirty, we often are able to watch as it sinks below the horizon in a display of colors that put a toucans bill to shame. It is splendid. Then comes the dirt road, which is really not so bad except for the fact that as we are hear for the dry season, the trade winds are blowing and the rain is not falling so the majority of the dirt that should be on the roads ends up in our eyes, noses and lungs. Mostly in my eyes, especially if I'm wearing contacts. It is unpleasant. Along this stretch of dirt road are several art shops, selling local crafts, which I intend to bring home as gifts, a bat jungle with live bats which I will elaborate on in my next post, a chocolate shop that I need to visit, several cafes, an organic food shop and Bajo Del Tigre which is another reserve which again I will elaborate on in my next post. Then I walk up a short trail and arrive at the institute. If I don't feel like going to class that day (which has never happened) I can continue on a few feet and arrive at the cheese factory. That sells ice cream. That is very yummy. I have tried macadamia, chocolate and fig. I recommend them all. (Photos now included)

On our first day of Tropical Ecology, we took a walk in the forest to visit the Strangler Fig trees. These parasitic trees start life as tiny seeds that begin to grow rapidly into vines reaching for the ground once they have found a host. They quickly encase their victim in a web of twisting veins, strangling it just as the name suggests. They then proceed to grow huge, up and up and up they go, leaving a hole in the middle of their growing trunk where their host, now long decomposed, once existed. Looking up at these giants is an experience and a half, they are gorgeous to behold, but climbing up inside one is all but a religious experience. I have never felt so close to the Pacha Mama as I did sitting in the heart of a tree. They are also incredibly quick growers, just like everything here. There is a tree with a ten foot diameter trunk that is younger than my parents! (Meaning that it is under sixty years old! I couldn't believe it when I was first told.) (I have added a photo of me climbing inside the tree below as well as a photo of the outside of a different fig tree.)

The birds around MVI are fantastic. Some days I will glance out the window and spot a toucan or a green toucanete. (which is one of the strangest birds you will ever see fly and which I do not have a photo of, though I do of the toucan and it is below) We also see blue crowned motmots, a variety of finches in a myriad of colors, the weird black birds/stupid not-seagulls, woodpeckers, hummingbirds (which I also have a photo of below) and so very much more.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

1/20/15 ocho/8 (the date was 1/11/16) (Monteverde, CR)

The morning was a slow plodding one. We were so used to always on the move that the lack of defined plan was more disconcerting than the lack of professors. Breakfast was at eight, which was late for us by that point. Our one lone boy had got up at seven raring to go only to realize he had to wait an hour and so ended up being late after deciding to take a shower that took longer than expected. After breakfast was an introduction to Staying With Host Families, presented by the MVI's Host Family coordinator. It went over food, family life, chores, etc. It also ended well before the eleven arrival time of the families so were again left hanging. I bird-watched and twiddled my thumbs along with the rest of the group until eleven sharp when, as a group, we all headed up to the main building. Only to find that we had to wait a while longer, as our host families had their own orientation. We stood outside in the small parking lot, which turned out to be an exercise in taking our lives into our own hands. Not a minute in, a motorcycle, followed by a second motorcycle pulled up and tried to park, both at the same time, exactly where we were standing. Then, a jeep came squealing up the road, whipped around the corner and almost hit us as we attempted to get to the comparative safety away from the motorcycle parking zone. Stones were flung up in our faces as the jeep swung around the corner and was gone. Suitably shaken, we converged in the shade as the sound of a motorcycle and a car reached us. The car arrived first and began the slow process of parking in the space left by the motorcycles. The motorcycle, which we had heard first, had been driving behind the car and stopped to wait until the road was clear before continuing. A young boy and, presumably, his father were seated on the motorcycle. It took me a moment to notice, but the boy had a shovel griped tightly in one hand while his other held on to his father in front of him. As the car parked and the motorcycle revved up to go I noticed that the father had a machete griped in the hand on the opposite side from where we were standing, unsheathed and pointing forward like a jousting stick. Just as we thought we had seen it all, a deep rumble echoed up the road. A large truck with a plow on the front moved slowly towards us. In the bed of the plow lay a motorcycle. By that point I was done and ready to retreat into the forest and avoid roads for the rest of my life and was gearing up to say something to that effect and ask if the rest of the group was ready to join me when we were called in to meet our host families, replacing my fear of roads with sheer nerves.

My host father and brother had come to meet me as my host mother was working. They were both very kind and relatively quiet. My host brother speaks fluent English and proved it every time he spoke to me, which I was rather disappointment by. I had hoped to have the chance to learn vocab from pantomiming and describing words I wasn't sure about but likely would be using a translator instead. Still, useful for emergency situations. We three piled in to taxi and took off for my new home. At the top of a tall, tall hill, in a lovely little house I now live. There is a dog, named Manchas, who is part dalmatian and all sweetness and a cat, whose name I can't quite remember, who is fluffy and yellow and whom I am allergic to. Oh well, I'm used to it. My host mother came home for lunch and was much more talkative than her son and husband. I felt myself relaxing slowly in her presence. After lunch she returned to work and I set about settling into my new room. I unpacked, fluffed my pillow and went out into the living-room to sit with my family and work on my personal journal and setting up this blog. Dinner was delicious, if a bit more fried than I would like. (Fried sweet plantains are to die for) After dinner I washed the dishes and, when asked if I needed to, did my laundry. Music played in the background along with the televised news. I took a shower, using the water heater over the shower head successfully on my first time. (If you do it wrong you get a cold shower. There is a trade off, hot water or good water pressure.) I fell into bed and slept the sleep of the nervous and uprooted. That is to say, I didn't sleep well.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

1/16/16 siete/7 (we arrive at our final destination, the route guidance is going to split now. Peace out.) 1/10/15

Our day consisted mainly of driving. We moved from the rain-forest down to the dry forest, watching trees turn to starkly open farm land. Pineapples, plantain, cattle and more dominated the landscape. We stopped for a bathroom break (we needed plenty as we are drinking about twice the amount as we were used to) at a lovely park full of fantastically sculpted bushes. It looked like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. Lots of fun to walk through. Lunch was delicious but nothing new. It wasn't until we stopped just before we turned off the main road onto the road towards Monteverde that we exited the bus in the true dry forest. It was over ninety with pounding sun. Two of our professors, probably in a move to make us really understand how it felt to work in the fields in this type of weather, took us to the side of the road an made us stand there for half an hour as they talked about pineapple farming. People, I thought I was going to pass out. I kid you not. I am a pale-skinned northerner from a snowy nation, this heat/sun thing is not my scene. Lesson well learned professors, lesson very well learned. We had seen many families swimming in rivers we had driven past and now I understood why. We rushed to use the bathroom and climbed back onto the air-conditioned bus in record time.

The next part of our ride was bumpy and beautiful. We climbed up the side of the mountains toward the cloud forest where we would make our home for the next few months. At one point we paused at an overlook where we could see over a hundred to the Gulf of Nicoya and the hills on the other side of it. Truly, it was a spectacular sight. It took us about an hour more to reach Santa Elena, the moderate sized town one down from Monteverde where our professors apparently live. I say apparently because as we reached the town, the bus pulled over and our beloved and most chatty professor stood up. We thought he was going to make a big speech about us arriving but he just grabbed his bags, called out a quick goodbye, letting us know that he was headed to Mexico for a week and would not be seeing us until he got back. Peace out. We were all a bit shell shocked, it was the least he had ever said in one go. (Please understand I mean this in the kindest way. I adore him, we all do, and he has so much knowledge to share and is willing to do so.) Then as we were just beginning to process the fact that he was gone the bus pulled over again and the rest of our professors piled out with quick goodbyes and promises to see us sometime in the next week or so. We were shell shocked. We arrived shortly there after at the place where we were to sleep that night. We unloaded in unusual silence, as we were still processing the loss of the professors who had been a constant for the past week and the fact that we were to meet our host families here in less than twenty-four hours. As we were heading down to our rooms, we were told that our coordinator would be leaving as well, just for the night, and that our beloved driver would be returning to San Jose and that we wouldn't see him again. To say we felt set adrift and abandoned would be to severely understate.

Though the cabins were very comfortable, we couldn't really enjoy them as much as they deserved. With four hammocks and a beautiful view of the setting sun, it was gorgeous. I walked around back where there was a path leading into the forest. Beautiful birds fluttered about in the branches, bright plumage flashing in the fading light of the evening. A brilliant flash of red caught my attention, a large woodpecker with a crimson head, striped wings and a pale beak hopped purposefully on the side of a short tree. Had I been in the States I would have taken a ton of pictures and run screaming to the nearest natural history museum that I had seen an Ivory Billed Woodpecker. As I was in Costa Rica I merely consulted the next bird book I encountered. The bird I saw was a Pale Billed Woodpecker. Still, it was ten feet from me and quite the sight to see.

After dinner, several of us headed down to a cafe to have a cup of coffee (or not, in my case). We talked, joked and enjoyed ourselves for over an hour, we have a great group of people and though we all have some overlapping knowledge, many of us know lots of things about really random topics. We moved from talking about the psychology of Bronies (and I learned the word Pegasister) to the anatomy of rosemary to a very tangential conversation about color preferences. It was fun. After, we walked slowly back to our cabins and turned in for the night.

1/16/16 seis/6 (aaaannnnd 1/09/15)

We got up at six to join our professors in bird watching. We saw toucans, hummingbirds, oriels, finches, vultures, parrots and so many flashes in the bushes we couldn't quite identify. It was fabulous. Breakfast was wonderful and afterwards we pulled on borrowed boots and went for a hike in the rain forest. Before I continue, I feel I need to share a bit of background. Where we were was a biological reserve in the rain-forest and, because it was a rain-forest it had in fact rained a good deal the night before. Also, I have small feet. Our group is made up of ten girls and one boy so most of us have small feet. The research station we were staying at did not have an infinite supply of boots so many of our borrowed boots, mine most certainly included, really didn't fit. Like, I had over two inches between my big toe and the end of the boot didn't fit. I could walk, but if one of my boots got stuck I would be walking in socks for the rest of the day.

The day was hot and humid, again rain-forest (photo below). Sun slanted on occasion through the canopy onto our faces, but was mostly blocked by the thick foliage. Butterfly's, including once a blue morpho, fluttered by along with tiny (or not so tiny) wasps, flying ants, gently falling leaves and in the distance birds argued back and forth over this, that and the other. It would have been utterly idealistic were it not for the fact that, one, bullet ants exist (which are the insect with the most painful sting, equivalent to being hit with a bullet, as the name implies) and that the path we were on was solid, or not so solid as the case was that day, mud. Brick brown, thick, ready so suck your boot off, slick on the plethora of bumps and hills, mud. I spent as much time looking at were I was going as I did on what was around me. Which still left plenty of opportunities for me to slip, though the only one of us to fall was our shortest member who luckily, due to being short, didn't have as far to go. I have a confession to make; I am very clumsy (torpe in Spanish). Generally it is contained to making weird sudden motions as I am generally on flat, high friction ground, but Costa Rica has apparently decided that if there is something to be tripped over, I need to find it and use it for its intended purpose. I also tend to be walking around with my head tipped back, not looking where I'm going as I stare about me in wonder, which may possibly be attributing to my clumsiness. Just a bit. We saw trees standing over two hundred feet tall, crossed over two suspended bridges from which we could look out over the canopy (and a river, as photographed and displayed below), saw nun-birds, heard and saw more toucans, stepped over leaf-cutter ant trails, sweated through our cloths and just generally had the time of our lives.

Lunch was at a slightly ritzy hostel at the end of our hike that was the more tourist accessible version of where we were staying (I preferred where we were honestly). It took us three hours to reach our lunch spot and an hour to drive back to our lodge. Think on that for a bit. That afternoon we had our first tropical ecology formal lesson. Kind of. We had an introduction to tropical fruit where we all presented our fruit to the class. We had avocado (yes, it's a fruit), watermelon, granadilla, maracuya, sapote (which was mine and reminded me why Wikipedia is not a valid source as I had accidentally researched the wrong fruit! Oops.), starfruit, guayaba, guanabana, mango, manzana de agua and manderin. We tried most of them, several couldn't be found in markets so we got unripe ones and just looked at them. It was lots of fun. (many of the fruits are pictured below, mostly eaten)

After dinner we packed up our things in anticipation of the drive to Monteverde that would take us the entirety of the next day. One of our professors took any of us who wanted to go on a night walk. We saw a few interesting insects and frogs but the highlight (or very low light as it turned out to have) was the phosphorescent grubs and fungi we encountered. You have no idea how dark the forest can be until you turn your flashlight off and realize that you barely even know up from down without your eyes. It is simultaneously humbling and terrifying. I recommend against doing it unless you have other people with you. Their presence supplies a comfort that allows you to fully appreciate the experience. The bio-luminescent grubs appeared like bluish firefly's close to the ground. We saw a few each only for a moment, leaving you to wonder whether you had imagined the sight or not. The glowing fungus was a bit more impressive. Letting off the barest amount of light, it glowed in patches on the back of a decaying leaf. No one is quite sure why the fungus glows as it seams to serve no real purpose. But it does and I am glad for it. When we were not scanning the ground for tiny faint lights, we were staring in awe at the sky. I have seen many beautiful views of the night sky but never before had I truly seen the Milky Way. But I did this night. It was awe-inspiring.

We headed back shortly after finding the fungus, ready to hit the hay or, in my case, brave the freezing showers. They weren't really that bad but there really wasn't any warm water. At all. I like to call them refreshing. Considering the heat and humidity of the place, it really was a lovely feeling after a long day.

Below is a picture of two vultures and a toucan in a dead tree. P-E-A-R-C-H-I-N-G. (No, I couldn't resist)

Friday, January 15, 2016

1/15/16 5/cinco (you guessed it, 1/8/16)

Breakfast was normal, rice and beans, eggs, toast, fruit. The works. My beloved beetle had stuck around so I spent a bit of time with him before we headed out for our next stop. Our day was to be all traveling with two main stops. The first was at Limon (again, sorry for the lack of accents, there should be one on the o) at the new shipping port being built on an artificial island just off the coast (I mean just off, I could sprint from one end to the other. If I felt inclined. Very inclined. It's not more than a quarter of a mile.). Anyhow, the company building the island has a contract with the government because of the more than 100 companies originally interested in building a shipping port, they were the only ones willing to risk the investment. Think what you will of that. There wasn't much to see, we were shown a slide show about the project, and I will say that they really are working hard to make the biggest positive social impact they can and that it shows, and were given a short bus tour around the construction site. It was a very typical construction site just on a bigger scale and with boats (see below). We said goodbye and headed to our next destination, which was lunch. We were pressed for time so we got in and out of the restaurant in less than thirty minutes, a huge feat if you consider the fact that our best before then had been an hour and fifteen minutes. And that's being generous.

We were arrived at the banana plantation half an hour before our deadline of 'if you aren't hear by now we will all go home for the night (It was three in the afternoon). Our guide was a large man, tall and barrel chested with a machete on his hip. AKA he was intimidating. But he spoke perfect English due to his education at the University of Texas, Austin which was a surprise. But thinking about it, what better person to guide tours of mainly Americans than a US educated Costa Rican. He reviewed the life cycle of banana plants (not trees, they have no wood and are actually herbs), slashing strategically placed sample banana plants as we watched intently. As we listened, a small plane spraying pesticides came closer and closer until it passed over the plants just to our left, spraying pesticides and fungicides in its wake. We were not pleased. At all. But it didn't pass over us so we weren't doused, though we had been able to smell and taste the chemicals in the air since we had arrived. Just so you all know, bananas with brown spots are bananas too. Don't discriminate. It forces banana plantations to wrap baby bananas in plastic bags and pad them so they don't get dinged, allowing plastic traces to enter the growing banana. Start a trend, be cool and eat brown bananas (plus when they are ripe they are healthier, think about it). I got to bag a banana bunch and enthusiastically climbed the offered ladder up to the hanging fruit. It was fun. (And you can see me do it, in the photo posted below.) Then we watched two of our group work together using the machete to quickly cut the banana tree in half and then remove the fruit in one swift motion once it fell onto the shoulders of the second person. I'm kidding, we got to see two very experienced workers do that. From there we moved on to the processing and packing plant. It was exactly like what you would imagine, only with more machetes and a lot of water (apparently as well as cleaning the fruit, it moves it in a way that keeps it from being bruised. We were then loaded back on to the bus as workers, who had only stuck around to give us a show, flooded out of the processing plant. The trip from then on was a bit bumpy, we hit a dirt road thirty minutes later that which had us moving at about five miles per hour and bouncing up and down like Pogo-sticks. We pulled into the Tirimbina research station at six, just a dusk had fallen and night was pounding at the door. Dinner was delicious, a beautiful owl moth flew into the building we were sitting on the porch of. I was thrilled.

After dinner, we went on an insect/amphibian walk. We saw a poison dart frog (photo included)

, glass frogs, stick insects, red-eyed tree frogs, frog eggs, camens, katydids, and more. It was wonderful. We went inside and crashed the moment our heads hit our pillows.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

1/13/16 entry continued

After lunch, we loaded into the bus and headed off to a tour of a chocolate plantation. Sounds fun right? You have no idea. None. So, Costa Rica is home to several indigenous tribes, the owners of this plantation were called the Bribri (pronounced bree-bree). The peppy gentleman giving us our tour never actually took us to see the cocoa trees, though we did see a few. Instead he basically lead us through the jungle/his back yard and showed us indigenous medicine. On our first stop, at a table lined in bowls made from gourds, he showed us seed instruments (which as a former flute player and aspiring pan-pipe player I could play. Kind of.). He then asked for a volunteer without nail-polish on (in Spanish as he spoke no English but perfect Bribri. We spoke the second so our professor translated.) and I stepped forward. Apparently I had volunteered to be the guinea pig for pretty much all his demonstrations so I was immediately rewarded a necklace as compensation. He had me pick a dyed-plant fiber cord and then quickly whittled a seed into the shape of a dolphin and strung it. I wear it still, I love it. Then we moved on to the next thing where he quickly dug up a root, skinned the end, grabbed my hand with enough enthusiasm to make me very wary and colored my pointer fingernail bright yellow with the root. Apparently turmeric is indigenous to Central America. Next we were given the berries that change sour to sweet. I didn't get to try it as I felt I had already had my turn to volunteer (not that I didn't want to try, I did.). Apparently it really works. Fun! Next was the seed pod he dragged off a tree, crushed the soft seeds with my pointer finger griped tight in his firm grip and then told me to use the nearby mirror (strategically placed) to paint my lips bright red. Thankfully I and the others who joined me didn't end up looking like clowns but our translating professor dyed his nose when we tried to insist he paint his lips too to placate us. It worked. Our guide pulled a giant spider out of an epiphyte, showed us the rubber tree, gave us welts with a plant that is used as the medical equivalent of stamping on your foot to take your mind off your headache, showed us up at archery, pointed out a random cocoa tree and finally lead us back around to the main buildings where two women waited to show us the second part of the tour.

This was when we got to the chocolate part of the tour. A bowl of dried cocoa seeds were dumped into a pan over the fire where we stirred them constantly for twenty minutes, when they started to pop like popcorn. As we waited, a ripe cocoa pod was passed around for us to try. Not the seeds like you might think, but the pulp surrounding them. It tastes like a cross between mango and pineapple and is delicious. I respect chocolate even more than I did before (which was a whole lot). Once cooked, we gave the seeds an initial grinding with rocks before tossing the chaff off them and putting them through an industrial grinder, much like a coffee grinder. What came out of that grinder can only be described as cocoa butter. If you have ever seen fresh ground nut butter, it looked like that, but less oily. We were encouraged to dip our fingers in and try it. I did so with trepidation, no sugar had been added after all. It tasted like chocolate and the open fire and so wonderful I didn't know if I could ever enjoy regular chocolate again (I can, I checked.). Then part of our chocolate paste was placed in a pot of heated water that had been sitting over the stove along with a lot of sugar and we had hot chocolate. Again, it was absolutely delicious. Dark and smoky with a warm sweetness infusing it. I was in love. They added sugar to the remaining chocolate next but honestly, I preferred the unsweetened, it was less rich (or I had just had way too much chocolate. I suppose it is possible. For some. Probably.). We took a photo with our tour guide and chef before we climbed back into the bus and headed back home for an hour before going to a slightly redundant dinner. I slept like a log despite all the caffeine I had ingested. I don't know about everyone else, but that day was the highlight of our week traveling.

Below are photos of the chocolate making process and me in my ridiculous paint. Laugh if you like, I did. (In no way are these photos to be shared, copied or otherwise reproduced and/or distributed)

1/13/16 4/cuatro (in fact actually 1/08/16) (Cahuita National Park, CR)

Waking up in the morning was a chore as none of us really wanted to leave our air-conditioned room for the Heat from Heck. But we did and I for one was the happier for it. Right next to the lovely pool in the center of the hotel's courtyard was a bush and on this bush was a rhinoceros beetle. I cannot even begin to describe how cool this beetle is and how much I love it. I think it should be said, now when I'm mentioning my first insect, that I am passionately interested in insects. I love them. The bigger the better. I hate parasites though. Nasty little suckers. Unless they're plants. Those are really interesting. Anyhow, the rhinoceros beetle stuck around for the whole time we where there. I went and stared at it every chance I had. It's carapace was soft like suede but hard. I loved that bug.

We went on a wildlife spotting walk after breakfast. We ended up spending half an hour outside the park we were headed to because we found a thicket with an abundance of birds in it. Several of my professors are avid birders and pointed out different species. They were all beautiful but my favorite was a small bird with a black face with a blue ring around it that changes to a golden neck then a black back with blue on the wings and a golden belly. It was stunning.

From there we headed into the park for our real wildlife viewing experience to begin. We saw howler monkeys (with babies on their backs!) as well as monos cariblancas (also carrying their babies on their backs!!). We saw three vipers, two bright yellow and up in the trees and a third grey one on the ground next to a stump. Boat billed herons, golden orb spiders, leaf-cutter ants (a personal favorite as they don't eat the leaf bits they harvest very exactingly, they use them to farm fungus. You read that right, they cultivate a very specific species of fungus. All of the different species of leaf-cutter ants farm one specific species of fungus. It is theorized that the fungus is carried from old burrows when the ants move. You can always tell when leaf cutter ants are near by as they have specific trails they follow and they keep them pristine. Even on the sandy, groomed human-path I could tell where the leaf cutter ants paths were), a tree with peeling red bark covering a green photosynthetic trunk; the 'Naked Indian' (or, my preferred name, the Tourist Tree), blood trees for which the area was originally named (Cahuita is the indigenous name of these trees), a blue morpho, more butterfly's, more insects and more animals. It was wonderful. You would think that that was the end of our day. No, it was just the start.

Below are photos of the rhinoceros beetle, the ave de siete colores, a viper, a sloth and a leaf-cutter ant trail.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

1/13/16 3/tres (or 1/6/16) (Cahuita National Park, CR)

The day started with huevos (eggs), pan (bread) y, claro, arroz con frijoles aka rice and beans. Then we loaded into the bus and were off. It took us about six hours to get to Cahuita, our destination on the coast. On the way we saw mountains, the rain-forest, went up and back down the mountains and started seeing the farms that so characterized this part of the country. When we stopped at a lovely little bodega (open shop) for a bathroom break, we had the chance to smell the chemicals in the air that hadn't been apparent on the bus. We were right next to a plantain plantation and it was a hard thing to miss. The fruit we bought was amazing though. We had many fruits I had seen or heard of like mango, granadilla, starfruit and apples (from Washington just like the ones back home) but one fruit stood out to me as something I had never seen or heard of before. It looked like a pale pink bell, like how the fruit of a cashew looks but without the seed. I was understandably nervous about eating it as cashew fruit is poisonous but I was assured that it was safe to eat. When I asked, I was told that it was called la manzana de agua or water apple. Still nothing I had ever heard of. Scratching the delicate skin reviled pure white flesh and a watery perfume. My fellow fruit seekers found much the same and with a shrug, I took a bite. Some fruits are hard to describe but I'm pretty sure I have the perfect comparison for this one: it tastes exactly like a flower smells. It was interesting but not my favorite. I pawned it off on the person sitting behind me and went back to the front of the bus for my favorite tropical fruit after the mango; a granadilla. It looks like frog eggs in a plastic tear shaped orange but it is amazing. It's a member of the passion fruit family and I love it.

We arrived at our hotel only to discover that we were over dressed. Very over dressed. Where the morning in San Jose had been cool, here it was scorchingly hot and humid. We had the afternoon off so we all headed over to the nearby beach to take a dip in the cooler ocean (the water was still warm, being the Gulf of Mexico, but the air was much warmer). Apparently waves are uncommon and ours caused strong rip currents but we still had fun riding waves in the red zone. Where there were rip-currents. I didn't get caught in one but apparently the group of people who had split off from us did. Which is rather terrifying. But we saw monos caniblancas or the white faced monkeys (who are little devils who will steal your lunch in a cunning con involving one acting as a distraction and the other actually going for the food. It really works.). That's always a fun spot. We had dinner at a local restaurant and enjoyed a wide variety of food, including rice and beans of course. On the way there we found a tree with a sloth in it. Which is about as exciting as it sounds as you are happy to see one but it looks like a really raged football stuck to a branch (see below photo). Still. Sleeping that night involved turning on the air-conditioner to high and checking under the pillows for scorpions. I think I'm gonna like it here. (I mean it, I'm so thrilled with everything and couldn't be happier unless I had a summer job. Which I don't. Yet. My positive affirmation for the day.)

Entry 2/dos 1/12/16 (Actually 1/5/16) (San Jose, CR)

We slept like rocks that night. If rocks were assaulted by club music until midnight, but rocks none the less. The next day we where told that we were going on a hike to el volcan Poas. Forgive my lack of ascents, I can't figure out how to insert them. We were also introduced to all of our professors and finally had an opportunity to speak with them as the day before had been hectic at best. Breakfast included fresh fruit, rice and beans, toast and juice. A bit heavier than I was used to, but I generally eat a boiled egg for breakfast, so what do I know. We all then pilled into the bus, where reintroduced to Wilson (who would be our driver for the next week and no longer). The drive was about an hour and a half. All through San Jose and up into the mountains that surround it. Poas is to the west of the city. It actually rests on the continental divide so some of the water that falls on it goes into the Pacific and some goes into the Atlantic/Gulf of Mexico. It has a cloud forest ecosystem as well as a double caldera. One is inactive and has a lake in it but the other is active an on occasion spews toxic gas. As it is close to the main valley where over a third of the population lives, it is very closely monitored. It was too foggy to see either but we could see closer things. Like trees. Covered with epitaphs, moss and spider webs. I was thrilled. It wasn't as much walking as I expected from the advertised 'hike', but it still was beautiful. It also had the expected cheeky squirrel and bazillion tourists. Poas is the most visited national park in Costa Rica and it showed in both the quality of the facilities and the number of people there.

We headed back to the hotel, stopping along the way for a truly delicious lunch where we were introduced to a type of sauce that will define our trip here. Lizano is wonderful. Savory and tangy it goes perfectly with everything. I have taken advantage of that. Many times. We watched the rolling hills transform from fields, that began the moment the park ended and not a second later, into urban sprawl. Afternoon was for panicked reading of assigned papers that we either didn't have access to, didn't realize had been assigned or just hadn't read. For the record I would like to say that I was in the second group, not the third. Our computers were leaving us the next day along with our excess luggage as we started on our week long tour of the country. Thus we were less than thrilled by the announcement that we were going out for dinner and had an hour to pack our things as we were getting back at an uncertain time. The drive was all uphill for an hour and twenty minutes. I was grumpy and hungry by the time we arrived. The view of the restaurant almost made up for the lack of packing/reading time. We could see the entirety of the night-lit central valley. Lights from every car, building and street light shining like the milky-way. It was breathtaking. Dinner was a buffet of really delicious vegetables, chicken, plantains and a type of coconut candy I had never had before but very much enjoyed. Maria Estella had promised us a surprise and I was hoping it was the view and that with dinner done, we would be heading home. It wasn't and we didn't. The restaurant had a central dance floor surrounded by several benches which we were directed to sit on. I thought there were going to be fireworks as we were facing out into the valley. Again I was wrong. Six dancers strode onto the floor in full flamenco costume accompanied by some of the loudest music and shrinking I have ever heard. They were so close to us as they danced that their cloths snapped around and sometimes against us. For half an hour they danced, beautiful like peacocks or butterfly's, still accompanied by the painfully loud music. It was a strange combination of a treat to the eyes and an assault on the ears. For the finale, we were pulled onto the floor to try and imitate the infinitely more flexible and graceful dancers. Then, in a swirl of colors, they were gone and the performance over. The drive home took twenty minutes, which cheered me up, and gave us enough time to finish packing and fall into bed to sleep off some of our exhaustion from traveling.

Here are photos of Poas, the first is of the inactive caldera/the vegetation we could see on the side of it. The second is a sample of what the forest on the volcano looked like.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Entry 1, 1/11/16 (more 1/4/16) (San Jose, CR)

Hola! This blog will be a retelling of my time here in lovely Costa Rica. For this first post I will be writing about the first partial day I and my group spent in Costa Rica.

We arrived on 1/4/16 into San Jose international airport, one of two large international airports in the country. Cuban airspace was having a bit of a tantrum and thus the majority of our flights were delayed. Most were only for about an hour but still, no one wants to sit on the tarmac for an hour. The night was beautiful, clear and warm with just enough breeze to distract us from the fact that we had transferred from winter to summer in the space of a few hours. Well, Massachusetts summer, here this is winter weather. I met the whole group that night, ten girls and one lone boy. He will certainly have a new perspective after spending four months surrounded by intelligent and very opinionated women. Everyone is lovely. I thought so on the first night and a week later my opinion remains unchanged. We ate dinner at the hotel restaurant and it was then that I decided to avoid any meat other than fish and poultry. One, they are healthier than red meat. Two, they don't contain antibiotics to the degree that red meat does. And three, they are much less environmentally damaging than, again, red meat. I'm entitled to my opinions. Plus, this is an environmental based program and I'm supposed to try and think of ways to improve my impact on the environment. Literally, its homework for one of my classes. The food was lovely and I immediately fell in love with sweet plantains. They are wonderful. Truly, truly wonderful. None were left. Then we fell into our beds.