Friday, February 19, 2016

Semana seis/Week six (2/7-2/13) Monteverde and Costa de Pajaros, Costa Rica

I feel that the theme of 'lots of work assigned and completed' is going to just need to be implied from now on. I'm frankly tired of complaining/commenting on it. But yes! I had lots to get done. Many fun things, but many of them. I do have one complaint that is new; it's freaking cold right now! It's probably sixty most days, which sounds warm to you people in New England, but I don't have a coat or any layers. Also, the wind is clocking in at twenty miles per hour ALL the time! And it's raining. I am wet, cold and hungry. We are either burning a ton more calories trying to keep warm or we are atempting to all build the Blubber Insulating Layer (TM). Can't quite decide which. Also, wet jeans + wind = no fun.

But! Good things did happen this week. How could they not, we are in one of the most bio-diverse places in the world, there is always something new to see (yes, I am the kind of person who will sing 'oh what a beautiful morning' to a grey and rainy sky in hopes that I'll freak the clouds out and they'll run away. It's getting warmer and dryer so it might just be working). Also, though the weather is always a bit damp from the horizontal rain (we are basically sitting in an invisible cloud all the time) this results in something known here as la Estaciรณn del Arco Iris. Translated into English, the Rainbow Season. We get spectacular rainbows here at least once a week. Mostly more like three times. I've walked under a rainbow now, and right past where it lands. The only gold I saw was dry grass so I guess someone beat me there. Or maybe the leprechauns don't bother when they are throwing up this many rainbows. Payment through view. Sounds like a solid plan to me.

This week has been a lot of prep for next week, when we are going to finish up all pressing projects as we head out on our mid-semester break. Nicaragua here we come! (I am going to roast and get very sick, I know it) So most of this week consisted of doing homework and sitting inside and staying warm. I generally do homework in the Institute library until it closes at 5:00 pm and this week was no different in that respect (the library also happens to be the warmest room in the institute). What was different was that on two separate occasions I went and bought things to eat from the near by cafe. I was just hungry all the time and wasn't bringing enough food with me to classes. I got a brownie the first day and, after trying a bite of one of the other girls, a quiche and hot chocolate the next day. The quiche was absolutely delicious and wonderfully filling. I was very happy with it. The hot chocolate was good too and I really appreciated its warmth.

We had a wonderful talk from our director on the Three Waddled Bellbird and on how people have been working to preserve it. She is a wonderful speaker, fascinated by her subject and so knowledgeable. But all the questions she asked us were ones where she had a theory but not an answer. I have been seeing that used a lot here as a teaching tool and honestly I love it. People aren't expecting a specific answer, they just want you to think. I'm so used to there always being one right answer that I found this strange at first, but now I've seen the light I'm not looking forward to going back to the single right answer style questions. If you have no idea what a Three Waddled Bellbird looks like, google it, they are cool. Also, she promised to teach us how to mist-net birds if we would like and I would really like. (I have the seed of an idea forming for a potential senior thesis and that's all I'm going to say.) I had a wonderful time and really enjoyed the whole experience.

On Friday we went to the Gulf of Nicoya, to Costa de Pajaros, or the parrots coast, to see a small tourism operation. It was murderously hot, 95 degrees, and slightly humid from the nearby ocean. I say slightly as the earth was parched and dry like decade old bones. Flowers bloomed though, and butterflies fluttered past every so often. The big activity of the day was a boat trip out into the gulf to see the area and its attractions. We walked down to the beach, passing under a tree full of Oropendola nests. The tide was out and I stepped in deep mud once or twice, thinking I was still on solid ground. The open water was much cooler than the land and had the added benefit of a cooling breeze, both from the movement of the boat and from air moving back and forth across the gulf.

Our first stop was at a preserved fishing area. The coast relies on fishing for their livelihood and once fish populations became damaged due to over fishing, the area set aside a large piece of the ocean for protection. Though it is protected, fishing is still allowed; but only line fishing. Nets, drag nets, long-lines and any other type of fishing is prohibited in this area. This has helped the fish populations rebound and has opened a new kind of industry for the area; sport fishing for Costa Ricans. The gulf has fantastic fishing and though not many tourists may want to experience this, though some do, many Costa Ricans are. This opens up both a local market and one that doesn't rely solely on foreign interest and the use of international advertising to draw in customers. The area is marked by big yellow buoys, one of which we almost ran into. Our next stop was an oyster farm. It was right next to a protected island covered, and I do mean covered, with pelicans, frigate birds, herons and an immature red footed boobie. The operation is owned by a non-local but staffed by the towns people, mainly women. It is a small operation in that it doesn't take up much area but it is worth a boat load. They have about 150,000 oysters maturing and sell them for 300 colones a piece (about $ 0.50). It's impressive and a well designed operation. It was very interesting to hear the manager of the sight talk about it. He was riding about in a little motorized dinghy and generally ensuring that everything is in order at all times. From there we headed out, past two more islands, less populated by birds, and past a large sugar factory with a huge dock for tankers to the mangroves. The tide was down so we didn't see as much as we might have at half tide, but we did see green, great blue and little blue herons, ibises, an osprey and a roseate spoonbill. That was lots of fun and then we stumbled across an illegal fishing net in the middle of the mangroves. It was stretched across the waterway and the water around it was frothing slightly from the trapped fish. I understand that people here are poaching to survive and that they feel they have no choice, but empathy for them does not make me approve.

We headed back after that, we had reached the end of the mangroves anyhow, and saw a giant tanker pulled up at the dock by the sugar plant. I will never get over how big those things are. Our ride back was fast, I was sitting in the back of the boat and my side got soaked with salty water. As I licked my lips I got the taste of salt and seaweed down my throat. Tiny fish jumped out of the water at our sides, frightened by our passing and once a small ray took a flying leap to our left. By the time we arrived back it was twelve thirty and we were hungry. Not that we are ever not, but we were ready for a full meal. We walked back up the beach, stopping briefly to look at baby mangrove plants taking root in the open sand. Our lunch was just about ready for us when we arrived and as we were sitting down it arrived; rice and beans, salad and a whole fried fish. It was delicious; the fish was fresh as could be and the rest of the food well cooked. After lunch the president of the organization gave us a talk on the history of the site. It was interesting and impressive, she is the kind of woman who becomes a famous historical figure. She has so much drive and determination I admit I'm jealous. I've never been that passionate about anything. It was mid afternoon by then and we still had a several hour drive ahead of us. We said goodbye and headed for home. On our way up the mountain, we saw a stunningly bright rainbow that stretched across a valley that ran parallel to the road taking us upwards. I've never seen one so large or so vivid before in my life, it was absolutely stunning.

Photos of my adventures are included below.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Semana cinco/week 5 (1/31-2/6) Monteverde CR and San Gerardo Research Station, Children's Eternal Rain Forest, CR

This week was what I would call packed. Lots of work and travel!

Lets start with work. I am currently writing two papers, working on a presentation, thinking about my topic for a final research project and prepping for two quizzes. Yeah. Oh, also reading lots of technical papers on conservation efforts, why they haven't worked, what went wrong and the pollinating of flowers by bats, bees, beetles and wind. Actually all very interesting, but long.

For our tropical ecology course this past week we had a class dedicated to the capture and identification of various macro-invertebrates (AKA bugs). We gathered them from the gardens around the Institute, examined them under a microscope and then identified them by looking at their physical features. It was great. I got to bring out my dead insect collection (which is a thing, people bring me dead insects like I'm some kind of weird cat owner. Oh well, it makes me happy and I told them to do it) and we looked at butterfly wings under a microscope. Little scales, like shingles all arranged perfectly. It was gorgeous. We also looked at spiders, a scorpion, a psudoscorpion, wasps, rolly pollys, beetles, weevles and mites. They are all so very cool under a microscope. I loved every second of that class.

My home-stay father's birthday was this past week. We had a party with his parents and my host-sister who was visiting with her daughter from the coast. Pizza was bought and eaten, I had salad, giant marshmallows with sweetened condensed milk and coconut were eaten (and they were good) also caramel cake was had. I talked with people in Spanish about snow in April and generally had a great night.

During our second Tropical Ecology class of the week, we went bird watching. We spotted birds and identified them by their traits. It was incredible fun. We saw Motmots, toucans, a Scrub Euphonia, Great Tailed Grackels (which are the bird I described as an annoying pigeon in an earlier entry), a Wilson's Warbler, Brown Jays, a Topical Kingbird, a Crested Guan and many more flashes of unidentifiable feathers. I love how much there is to see here. You could spend your whole life here studying everything and never even scratch the surface. Maybe that's best, a bit of mystery never hurt anything.

This weekend we went to the San Gerardo research station in the Children's Eternal Rainforest. We had to hike in and out and it was all down hill on the way there. That was fun to think about. It poured the entire walk in, our guide made the most of it and told us about the millipede we stumbled across (identifiable by it's legs), the flowers we found, the caterpillar we saw and the bat tents we (he) discovered along the side of the trail. It was all great but yes, very wet. When we reached the lodge it was just lunch time and we fell on the food like a swarm of ants. None was left to waste. Now, this is important, the lodge allowed no shoes inside as the floors were polished. We slid across them in our socks like little kids and it was amazing. But slippery. Which factors into my second stupid fall during this time. From the balcony on which our rooms were located, we could see out over the valley to Arenal National Park and to Volcan Arenal itself. At first we couldn't see much beside the volcanoes base, but as time passed the clouds lifted and we saw it in it's entirety. We were lucky, most times there are too many clouds to see it and we got an unimpeded look. Our guide gave us a lecture on the disappearance of amphibians around the world and gave us a chance to hypothesize as to what the cause of this is. He was a wonderful speaker and incredibly knowledgeable. He, and we, think that a fungus is to blame for many of the disappearances along with contributing factors like climate change, the ozone layer gap and potentially viruses. It was a wonderful talk, if a bit depressing. He then sent us off to dinner. After stuffing ourselves on the wonderful food, we went out on a night hike. We saw golden-groined tree frogs, a Rufus eyed stream frog, more than five sleeping morpho butterflies, stick insects, a really cool caterpillar that was imitating a stick and another caterpillar that had we touched its spines, we would have gotten a nasty rash. It was great and we used our flashlight to look for different cool things for our guide to tell us about. Which was how I ran into trouble. So the trail was on a ledge and, as I was looking upwards, I lost my balance and fell off this ledge. Into a five foot deep hole. I actually jumped-fell as I realized as I was going in that I couldn't control weather I fell or not but I could control how I landed. I was fine but I freaked people out. That was my first stupid fall of the trip.

We stayed at San Gerardo for two nights. The first night I woke up at two, pulled the covers off the empty bunk bed above me and went back to sleep, finally warm. I also took a shower each night. When it was cold. And the water was colder. Fun. Our second morning, we were given an assignment and told to go out into the woods and take some time to journal how we felt being there. I found a spot high on the banks of a stream where I sat for half an hour, wrote a poem and worked on my gift to the group. It was wonderful. I had never had the opportunity to hike alone and it is an experience I would recommend everyone try. Just tell people where you are going and when you expect to be back and go. I saw butterfly's, beautiful forest, a waterfall and more flowers and plants than I can possibly describe. I arrived back in time to 'help' our guide as he was catching butterflies to identify them. I caught a tiny brown one and, my personal favorite, the cappuccino butterfly. It was fun, I hadn't done that since I was a child and now having the resources to identify what I was seeing was wonderful. After lunch, we shared what we had found with the group. I preformed my poem, which is always fun, and it was well received. We had brought back flowers, fruits, leaves of every shape imaginable, a squirrel skull, a half rotted vine (mine) and seeds. We talked about all of them and then threw them over the balcony into the forest to return them. Well, we threw most things. More of that later.

We then had a talk from our guide on the Childrens Eternal Rainforest's, where we were, history. It started when a group of Swedish students, inspired by a scientist who was studying the Monteverde area, came and spoke to them. She mentioned that a hectare of land could be bought for the current equivalent of twenty five dollars and the rest is history. The fund raising campaign they held spread and eventually schools across the globe raised the equivalent of 2,000,000 USD. They sent this money to Monteverde and the land that makes up the Children's Eternal Rainforest was bought. So never think you are too small. If a group of elementary school children could create a national park think what you could do if inspired. Give it a try.

After another fabulous talk, we had a bit of time before dinner. I ran upstairs to fetch my water bottle when I spotted an Ojo de Buey. Ojo de Buey, or ox eye seeds, are beautiful black seeds that are the size of a small stone, perfect for a slingshot. They are in the bean family and are actually the fruit of the vine that morpho caterpillars feed on. Or, as I thought, drop kicking. I would like to remind you that I can slide ten feet on the floors I was standing on in my socks after a running start. So, in my brilliance, I decided that the best way to return it to the forest would be to drop it and kick it out into the beyond. I did so, I would like to add that I did hit it and it did go flying. Unfortunately, so did I. The momentum of my kick sent me backwards on the low friction floor and I landed with an almighty thud. Everyone heard it and once they heard my incredulous laugh, all dismissed it as 'Yeah, that was Meredith. She's fine.' They were right but still. One girl was watching and after ascertaining that I was all in one piece, she proceeded to laugh her head off. It was pretty funny. We watched a depressing film on the negative impact of ecotourism that evening before crashing.

The next day we hiked back to the entrance of the park. I wanted to try hiking alone again so I booked it up the, very steep, mountain. I was exhausted by the time I reached the top, and I was the first to arrive by more than twenty minutes so apparently I could have walked a bit slower and still have been alone the whole time. Hind sight is a thing. We drove past the voting taking place at the school on our way home. Voting is mandatory in Costa Rica. It's nice. Photos of the above adventures are included below.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Semana cuatro/week four (1/24/16-1/30/16) Monteverde Costa Rica

This week was fun. Lots of stuff to talk about. First, I cannot catch or throw. I can hit things out of the air very well but the above escapes me. Often literally. Which is why, even though I had a blast playing, I was no good at Ultimate Frisbee when I went to play it this past weekend. I did hit the Frisbee out of the air and stop the other team scoring but I personally am no good at all. Still, it was fun and I got to run around and have an excuse to buy ice cream later. I got fig, it was delicious. On Sunday it was birthday day for one of our group who is vegan so we went out for Mediteranian food as much of it is vegan. I got Orange Soup that was made of ginger, sweet potato and carrots. It was excellent. I also had a bite of falaffel, lots of roasted egg plant, fresh made goat cheese and a smoothie made from honey, milk and sesame. It was all delicious. That was my weekend as I spent the rest of it doing homework for my various classes.

Later that week we visited a cattle and dairy farm. Much more cattle than dairy but male calf's will be eaten as they really aren't good for much else. I got to milk a cow which was a fond reminder of my time in Ecuador but then the cow pooped in the milk and I was displeased. We planted some corn, saw fields protected from the frankly terrifyingly intense trade winds by living fences and wind breaks and then were served some corn tortillas. It was a very nice trip. (Pictures included below)

We had our first service learning project this past week. We built an outlook where we are going to put benches and a barrier for people to lean on right by the best outlook around. It's right on our walk to school which is always fun. Seriously, watching the sun set over the Bay of Nicoya is spectacular. I also now have a very high respect for sidewalks as we hauled all the cement from where we were mixing it up the hill to where we were laying it down. We worked for about six hours, eleven of us plus three guys who knew what they were doing, and we got down maybe twenty square feet of cement. Hugely underestimated the work intensity of sidewalks, even with cement trucks. But we did it! And are very proud of it and so are really not pleased that people wrote their names into the cement and put hearts with initials into our cement. You didn't do the work, we did. You don't see our names do you? Nope. It's tacky. (Pictures included below. And yes, I am a bit touchy)

Work got done and then it was the end of the week. We had a field trip into the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve first thing in the morning. Our guide was very knowledgeable and told us all about the epiphites, trees, insects and birds. We saw huge fig trees, hanging vines, flowers for every type of pollinator and so much more that I couldn't list it all if I tried. We did see howler monkeys but that was far from the highlight of the trip. Birds had that distinction for that trip. At the end of the tour we visited the institutes hummingbird garden which consisted of five full hummingbird feeders absolutely swarming with the darting, tiny birds. It was like watching the crown jewels of England come to life and fly, it was so colorful and gorgeous. Blue, red, brilliant purple, black stripes, white belly's, it was a feast for the senses. None crashed into us, but the flitted back and forth across our vision, chirping, buzzing and bumping into each other when they disagreed as to who should be allowed access to the feeders. But even these birds colors and rare up-close siting was as special as the Quetzals that we encountered. Bright greed backs with white and black striped tails and red chests, these birds were worshiped by ancient cultures. Quetzalcoatl, the flying serpent, is based on how a male Quetzal's tail looks when it is flying. We saw only the flash of a males tale and a streak of a second but the third, a female, sat where we were able to observe her for a good long time. These are very rare birds and people come from all over the world to see them, and we saw them on our first go. It was a truly special experience to be in the presence of these magnificent birds. (I have photos and they are located below, but not of the male Quetzal)

We decided to walk into Santa Elena Friday afternoon and visit the shops and farmers market to buy stuff we both do and don't need. I bought some pastry at the farmers market that was sweet with coconut and dense. I loved it but nobody was willing to help me finish it so I ended up eating some of it for breakfast the next morning. We saw half our professors as we walked around town as we normally do. It's a small world and getting smaller as we are introduced to more people. I'm not sure anyone bought stuff from any of the shops but we visited about three. I found potential gifts for a lot of people but I'm not ready to start buying yet. I did buy some very cheap string from a small local store that clearly sold sewing things for locals and not tourists. I'm half way in-between by this point so it's OK. We decided to get dinner in one of the restaurants and spent about an hour trying to figure out where to go before we settled on a small restaurant near our home-stays. I had veggie pasta and shrimp and avocado salad for appetizer. It was pretty good.

That was my week. Not the most exciting I have experienced, but getting us into a pattern. We are getting used to being here and really starting to appreciate all that this town has to offer.