Tuesday, July 28, 2009

La Vida Loco

Life has been hectic.

As you may have noticed, my last post was in March – approximately five months ago. Just to cover my bases, I made it out of the jungles of Costa Rica mid-May and returned to the US just in time for my birthday. Summer 2009 will have a separate post dedicated to its adventures; for now, I must take a step back to post a quick synopsis of my final weeks in the beautiful country of Costa Rica.

[Written May 11, 2009]

I am currently sitting in the same hotel where I wrote my first Costa Rica entry upon my arrival in January. Funny that it was written about nostalgia because I am in a place that used to feel unfamiliar and new, yet now holds many memories and is comforting to have returned to. I feel nostalgic about this hotel as I sit here now. So it seems I have come full circle. I write this last entry from my time abroad on my final night in Costa Rica, for tomorrow I am headed to the airport for a flight to the United States.

I have been doing a variety of things and traveling many places since the last time I updated this website:

  • learning Spanish in the capital city of San Jose
  • surfing on the Nicoya Peninsula
  • hiking around the Monteverde cloud forest
  • snorkeling in the waters of Cabo Blanco on the Pacific coast
  • bushwacking around La Selva Biological Station in true rainforest
  • relaxing at Rincon de la Vieja, located at the base of a volcano

All the while I have been learning a great deal about Costa Rican culture, tropical ecology, and myself. Every place was an entirely different experience than the previous, and each time I felt a renewed sense of awe for the biodiversity of Costa Rica and the inexhaustible energy this planet has to offer.

I want to say I am “going home,” but that phrase holds little meaning to me…where is my home if I can feel comfortable any place in the world? A safari tent in Africa or a mosquito-netted bunk bed in the neotropics feels just as relaxing to me as an air-conditioned, queen-size bed in the northeastern United States. The main thing that changes is the people around me when I awake (and the various diseases being carried by the mosquitoes of the region). They say home is where the heart is, but if I have promised my heart to the world - with all its beauty and biodiversity, then aren't I home anywhere I go?

[End of post]

In regards to the above post: I hope to go into detail about the bulleted points (a.k.a. weeks of ridiculoso adventures) in upcoming posts, along with a few other topics that have been brewing in my mind for some time now. The goal of this write-up was to re-establish my semi-regular posting as my adventures of Summer 2009 come to an end and my final year as an undergrad at Cornell begins. I hope to bring this journal up to date and then continue to log my adventures beyond graduation. Yippee!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Patterns of Time Budgeting in Jessica stitt as a Function of Work Load and Environmental Stimuli


This update was meant to serve as a brief link to fill in the gaps between the visit to the mangroves and the start of San Jose … but it looks to be just about as long as usual; ¡Pura Vida! Plus – lucky you – I am in a paper-writing mindset, so I have organized this post just as I would a research paper! Needless to say, it has been a whirlwind of a week, and my brain is a little fried. Everything is a little hazy but the underlying structure of the week consisted of two days given to us to study for our midterms, a third day set aside for taking the midterms, then two more days allotted for rewriting our scientific papers. On the morning of the sixth day we packed up and headed to San Jose.


Now, that all sounds pretty bland and boring. But it turns out that if you give Jess a total of four days to “study” or “rewrite,” she will inevitably procrastinate and find better things to do with her newly-created free time. So while some of my classmates were stressing over learning ecological terms or trying to find more sources to cite in their papers (Stitt 2009), I was out exploring … or napping in the hammock. Below are some examples of how I spent my time:

Crocodile hunting

This activity requires nightfall, marshland, a headlamp, bare feet, crocodiles, and the ability to disregard that voice in your head which tells you not to do stupid things. You slowly wade into the marsh, sweeping your headlamp back and forth, looking for the eyeshine (reflection from the eyes) of a crocodile half-submerged in the water. It is important to keep quiet. This is often hard to do because the marsh is very windy, knocking you off balance, and you sink up to your calves in the mud, which makes loud squelching sounds. When you locate a pair of eyes, you must keep the light trained on them, so as to keep the animal blinded to your whereabouts. If you manage to get close enough without the scaring the croc away, you plunge your hand down around the snout – keeping its mouth closed as you bring your other hand around its belly. Then you bring the animal out of the water and hold it against your belly to keep it from thrashing. When you’ve had your fun, you release the croc back into the marsh, making sure to orient it away from you. It was just as hard as I imagined to willingly thrust my hand towards a mouth full of tiny razor-sharp teeth. Yet even with my adrenaline pumping and my bladder threatening to empty itself, I managed to catch a caiman about 3ft long, from snout to tail, and emerge (nearly) unscathed. I discovered that the teeth really are razor-sharp! Thank goodness they were tiny.


During our orientation walk at Palo Verde three weeks ago, we passed some lovely boulder fields, and I promised myself I would return to play around on the pretty rocks. As the weeks passed away, I began to get frantic, because I had not found free time in which to go bouldering! Thank goodness for study time. On two separate occasions I found my way into the forest to climb around on the very sharp limestone boulders that were scattered about. The second time I went with two of the guys here, Gabe and Allan, who were also interested! The rocks were a bit chossy, but there were tons of bomber holds and a few nice overhanging roofs, complete with solid huecos … yay climbing jargon! However, the limiting agent was to be the two species of cacti (Family Cactacea) that inhabited these rocks: Stenocereus aragonii and Acanthocereus tetragonus. Days later I was still pulling their mini spines out of my legs and fingers. (Side note: on the trip with Gabe and Allan, we found a really cool carpenter bee that was half black, half yellow; we showed our professor – who is an entomologist – and he had no idea what was up. So it has been put in a jar and taken to Universidad de Costa Rica, where they can hopefully shed some light on the insect’s strange morphology … how bee-zarre!)

Sunrise hike

On one of our last mornings at Palo Verde, a group of us woke up pre-dawn to hike up to a point called La Roca and watch the sun rise. I needed a little help stirring from my sleep, but once I was awake, the three of us (Erin, Gabe, and I) set off on our trek up to La Roca around 4:45am. La Roca is one of the best vantage points in Palo Verde: it is an exposed rockface that overlooks the marsh and the surrounding valley. From time to time, a black vulture would glide by, riding the thermals up past our lookout point. We arrived at La Roca in time to see not only the sun rise but the moon set. It appeared to be a full moon and looked huge as it disappeared behind the mountains. The sunrise was slightly delayed because a cloudbank prevented Mr. Sun from making his way into full view until about 6am. Nevertheless, it was beautiful, as most sunrises are. We also caught another sunrise on our last morning at Palo Verde – but this time we watched it from the tower on the marsh (meaning 5:30am wake up instead of 4:30am). Also beautiful. And both days we were the first students at breakfast. Wepa!

Following monkeys

On one of the days allotted for paper writing, I found myself napping in the hammock one afternoon, after reading Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility for a while. When I woke up around 3pm, I noticed a group of howler monkeys dozing in a nearby tree. Great minds think alike, as they say. I got up from the hammock and went to go get ready for a brief solo hike in the woods. I grabbed my camera and went in search of a trail that supposedly originated near the dining hall. On my way, I saw the same group of howlers! They took had risen from their afternoon naps, and were on the move. When I eventually found the trail I was looking for, I looked up to see the howlers again. We seemed to be heading towards the same area – this trail must have tasty leaves. I watched the troop try to solve the problem of getting from one branch to another, and recognized the same actions as can be seen by a group of people trying to get up a rock climbing route. One would try to get across, get nervous, and step back while another gave it a go. Once one monkey figured out a good way across, the rest would follow the same path. I was able to get some nice pictures of the mantled monkeys moving from tree to tree before our paths diverged and I continued my hike up to a very nice lookout point (complete with some good boulders). On my way down, I came across a group of white-faced capuchins nimbly making their way through the branches. Any day is made better when monkeys are added to it.


By the time we were getting on to the bus on the last day at Palo Verde, I was fully content that I had gotten the most out of the trip that I could. I remembered that I had some regrets as we were leaving Las Cruces (the first site we visited), so I invested the energy at Palo Verde to ensure I did not leave with the same sentiments (there is still a large strangler fig at Las Cruces I am determined to climb at some point in the future, as well as a nice riverside lunch I have yet to have there). Getting the most out of my time at Palo Verde was painful at times – waking up at 4:30am, getting sliced by crocodile teeth – but I am glad to report that I have no regrets.


Now this is not to say I did not prepare for my tests or do a good job editing my paper; those activities define the study portion of study abroad, and are essential to my education and the active learning process I love so much. However, I feel it would be a tragic mistake to neglect the abroad portion of study abroad too. Why read over notes in an air-conditioned classroom when there is a perfectly good tree to sit under? From which you can watch scarlet macaws fly by at 3pm, or see a troop of capuchin monkeys swing through at 4pm? I cannot be assured I will ever get free reign over a national park in Costa Rica again to spend unencumbered time walking the trails and snapping photos of anything that moves.


Yes, I realize that I am a biology nerd. And that I enjoy the structure of scientific papers just a little too much. Thanks for reading!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Manglares Y El Mar

After finishing my first Costa Rican research paper – a nice ten-page essay all about the extrafloral nectaries of morning glories – I hopped onto the bus for yet another Costa Rican adventure.  Seemingly as a reward for completing the first draft of our papers, we were taken to a mangrove forest on the coast of Puntas Arenas the following day.  Mangroves are plants adapted to live in areas of high salinity, meaning they are only found near the ocean, often juxtaposed by sandy white beaches.  The place we visited was no exception. 

However, our first stop was an inland mangrove that only floods during the rainy season.  There were two species of mangroves here: white mangrove and red mangrove.  The white mangrove deals with salinity by excreting the salt from glands on its leaves.  This leaves a coating of crystallized salt on the surface of the leaf – and it tastes extremely salty!  This species also has roots called pneumatophores that look like little pencils sticking up from the ground everywhere.  The red mangrove is even cooler in my opinion.  It uses lenticels (openings) on its roots to filter salt out of the water and so must expose its roots to the air.  Since the tide often inundates these trees in the rainy season, the roots must be high enough out of the mud to be able to breathe at some point every day.  This means that in the dry season, when the mud is exposed, these rhizophorous roots can be up to fifteen feet off the ground!  They are often in a big tangle and, since the species is a hardwood, the roots are very strong. 

The main reason that I am spitting out all of this natural history is to illustrate that these mangroves create the perfect treeclimbing environment!  In the dense thicket of trees you can easily move between multiple trees while remaining off the ground completely …  natural ladders are also abundant, lending themselves to exploration and copious amounts of swinging.  Needless to say I have discovered a profound liking of mangroves.

When we had all had our fill of monkeying around in the mangroves, we were taken to yet another biological station.  This one was quite small and we were only staying the night, but we made the most of our time in such a mesmerizing place as the mangrove beaches proved to be!

About 500m from the station there was a very nice white beach that opened onto a sheltered cove with waters of a brilliant aquamarine.  As this was our first real chance to swim and our first interaction with the ocean thus far on the course, many of us threw on our bathing suits and booked it to the water’s edge for the remaining hours of daylight we had that first day.  Seeing the ocean for the first time in a little over 6 months, I immediately jumped in.  A frisbee was pulled out and a game of 500 commenced in the surf, complete with many unnecessary layouts and tackles.  Once satisfactorily exhausted and salty, we watched a painfully beautiful sunset over the cove before heading back to the station for dinner. Rice and beans are still going strong.  After dinner I returned to the beach with a few friends and refreshments to enjoy stargazing and watching the tide come in.

The next day we visited some more mangroves along the beach and spent some more time playing in the surf.  It was definitely a great break from collecting data and writing our research papers.  I knew that once we returned to Palo Verde that afternoon, the following week would be consumed by studying for midterms and working on final drafts of the research papers.

But before leaving the beach, we were able to do a bit more exploring in the waters just behind the station, where a boat launch leads out into a swathe of ocean bordered by a vast spread of mangrove forests.  There were several small dinghies anchored around the boat launch, and about 10m out there was a larger, wooden vessel.  The clan of guys on the course who call themselves “the BioPirates” decided that this would be the perfect craft to commandeer as their pirate ship.  They swam out to the boat and, naturally, I joined them. 

The vessel was really only half a ship capsized, and with its portside mostly absent.  It was encrusted in barnacles and ridden with broken planks of splintering wood, as well as ropes covered in a thick green layer of slime.  After deciding that it really only needed a paint job and a few touch-ups, we climbed aboard (this was harder than anticipated since the boat was leaning at a 45-degree angle).  All five of us ended up bleeding by the time we gained stable footing on the boat…the barnacles and broken planks proved to be very sharp!  So the color of choice for the paint job was chosen to be blood red, since we already had a head start.  With a bandana flag raised at the helm and the mission hailed as a success, we descended the ropes back into the salty water and went ashore to grab some grub.

Our afternoon was spent traveling … through the Nicoya Peninsula and through time.  On our way back to Palo Verde, we stopped at the Megafauna Park alongside the road.  This is a set of trails complete with life-size statues of many of the large animals that used to roam Costa Rica’s lands. Giant sloths, massive armadillos, and the famed gomphotheres were all on display – in addition to the towering tyrannosaurus rex that greets you at the entrance.  Oddly enough, we spotted a ctenosaur (big iguana) sitting in the jaws of the T-Rex.  I felt that this display aptly captured the living ctenosaur’s triumph over the extinct tyrannosaur.

I am now back at Palo Verde, mentally preparing for the onslaught of the coming week.  Only seven malaria pills left… that’s less than seven weeks left in the jungle!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

A Stomp in the Swamp

As my friend Erin pointed out to me yesterday: "Jess [pronounced 'yes' in Spanish], you can remember new flavors you've tasted, but not whether someone owes you money?"  It is true, so if any of you owe me money out there, consider yourself lucky, because I don't recall any of these debts.  But I think it's a pretty good insight into my character; I definitely value experience way more than I value monetary sums.  If I was faced with the choice between one million dollars or a trip to Indonesia (orangutans included of course), I would easily pick Indonesia...or I'd use the million dollars to fund my trip to Indonesia.

Anyway, I've picked up and moved again in Costa Rica, and am currently in the NW part of the country at a national park called Palo Verde. It is a marsh, meaning lots of water, mud, and bugs.  It's the dry season, so the mosquitoes are next to nothing - supposedly in the wet season, you walk through an area and the ground slowly rises with the small humming bloodsuckers...they would eat me alive, since I am deemed "sweet meat."  I count my blessings that we're here in the dry season. But the rest of the bugs are crazy: giant praying mantises that follow you with their creepy eyes, cockroaches the size of my hand, and big kamikaze katydids by the dozen. 

There is also a bug here we were warned about called the Assassin Bug: it creeps onto you while you are sleeping and sucks your blood, using an anticoagulant.  This is all fine and dandy, except the bug often defecates right after its meal, close to the open wound.  In your unconscious state, you feel a tickle of the blood on your skin, and try to wipe it off; this mixes the bug poop with your blood and goes back into your bloodstream.  This all would be just a mild nasty story, except that the Assassin bug is a carrier of Chagas disease, which weakens your heart over time and eventually causes it to fail.  That makes it a scary nasty story.  I am glad we have bug nets for our beds here. They also keeps out the scorpions.

The average daily temp here is 90F, often making it too hot to nap in the afternoon - if any part of your body contacts another, you begin sweating profusely.  Yet it's a worthwhile tradeoff for the beauty of this place...

Like most bodies of freshwater, the marsh draws all sorts of higher-level organisms, including lots of bird species like egrets, storks, roseate spoonbills, and huge waders called jabirus.  There are also crocodiles and caimans in the marsh, adding a dash of danger to any walk in the muddy waters.  On land, there are two species of monkeys: mantled howler monkeys and white-faced capuchins.  We get to see both fairly often which is awesome.  At around 530 every morning, the howlers let out a disconcerting gutteral roar that shakes you the first time you hear it. Wild. 

The other cool land animals I've gotten to see include coatimundis, which are like large raccoons with super long tails, tamanduas, which are big slow anteaters, collared peccary, which are little pigs, and - best of all - the ctenosaurs (pronounced teen-o-sawrs), which are big iguanas that lay around all day and strangely remind me of Reptar.  There is also a pair of scarlet macaws that fly overhead almost daily, and it still amazes me.

But my semester here is not all fun all the time; we still have a fair bit of work assigned to us.  In our first week we were involved in faculty-led projects that took us out into the field at 5am, and then for my independent project I found myself getting up at 430am for a week straight.  To study flowers. But doing hands-on research has been cool, since I love being in the field collecting data.  One of the faculty-led projects was studying howler monkey time budgeting, so we got to follow a troop of howler monkeys for 6 hours and record whether they were eating, sleeping, or pooping.  Not the most exciting work, but it was an excuse to tromp through the woods following monkeys.  The next project also involved hours of observation, except it was spent watching plants instead of animals.  Not as exciting.  In fact a little mind-numbing. 

The independent project was more in depth and involved collecting nectar from morning glory buds at dawn, then measuring the volume and concentration.  Suffice it to say the project was looking at plant behavior - a very interesting concept, given most people only attribute behavior to animals.  The idea that plants can react and actually interact is a relatively new field...and it reminds me a little of the talking trees in Lord of the Rings.

But once all the data was collected, the research paper needed to be written...all 10 pages of it.  Fortunately, I've gotten a lot of practice with such things, especially during my time in Kenya!  Next up, a visit to the mangroves, followed by exam week.  

Learn Spanish!
  • marsh: humidales
  • monkey: mono
  • flavor: sabor
  • high five: alto cinco
  • awesome: wepa!!
Also, my photo library is being moody, so my posts may not contain pictures again until I reach San Jose.  Use your imagination!


When I was a kid, I had this picture in my mind of what "my future self" would look like, all grown up.  The image was basically Jane Goodall, wearing field clothes and sitting in a jungle with a notebook, staring up into the canopy.  As I was crouched beside a watering hole the other day, watching a troop of howler monkeys foraging overhead, I realized that I had become my future self. The thought caught me by surprise, and for a split second I was looking at myself from outside my body - which was kind of strange but cool.

It brought my thoughts to the fact that many of my friends are still struggling to figure out what they want to do, while I have known what I wanted since I was eight.  I have learned that this makes people jealous, and apparently gives me a great advantage, in the sense that I have security in my identity that lots of college students lack.  I have tried to imagine what it would be like to not have a clue as to what direction I wanted to take my life, and it seems terrifying.

Even with the knowledge and sense of security that has come from pursuing my chosen career for over a decade now, I am still far from being at ease.  Every question I have ever asked has only brought up additional questions, so that now I have accumulated more than I could ever hope to answer.  But as I walked down the dirt road back towards camp after my realization - with my dusty baseball cap and sunglasses perched on my head, my hair in a bun, a camera bag slung over my shoulder, and wearing my white button-up shirt, rolled-up field pants, and tattered sneakers - I couldn't help but smile at the fact that I was pleased with who I am - and ecstatic to be where I was.  It feels nice once in a while to be reassured that the thing you've been trying so hard to attain for so long is still the thing you want to attain.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Brief Encounter with Civilization

In our travels up north after leaving Cuerici, we stopped in San Jose for a day.  Our first initiative was to find food.  One of the guys in our group knew of a good place that also served vegetarian dishes (a non-issue for me, but it affected a majority of the group).  It was a nice eatery called Shakti, and I recommend it to anyone who visits San Jose.  Sorry, but I can’t begin to tell you where to find it since I have no sense of direction.  After eating our fill and ending the meal with milkshakes, we headed to the Avenue Central and walked around for a few hours.  We passed through the artesian mercado and the Mercado Central, both very interesting places.  After walking around the Mercado Central for 20 minutes, I realized that I had been there before! Once again, it was something I had previously seen during the Costa Rica Tree Climbing course in 2007.  Except this time I had a slightly better idea of what was going on.  We slowly made our way back to the hotel after spending five hours in downtown San Jose.  Needless to say I was exhausted. 

After napping, the next hour of the evening was spent looking up and down many streets for open restaurants, learning that many are not open on Mondays (it was Monday), and finally walking back to a small place about a block from our hotel, where we got grilled cheese sandwiches and heaps of French fries.  We walked back towards the hotel, stopping by a convenience store to legally buy some alcohol (it’s still a novel feeling), then we returned to the hotel and drank our beers around the pool, talking and enjoying the last of our free time in San Jose; the next morning would be spent driving up to our latest field station: Palo Verde.  However, while I am thrilled to be going back into the depths of the jungle, I am beginning to look forward to my upcoming homestay, where I will live with a family in San Jose for two weeks, taking Spanish classes and trying to imitate the Ticos.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Head in the Clouds

Living in a cloud forest is rather surreal and enchanting. It is called a cloud forest because clouds literally roll through the area.  In the middle of the afternoon, the sun suddenly disappears from view in this montane oak forest and you are engulfed in a thick mist that is a passing cloud.  This high elevation area tends to be rather quiet, although birds can be heard in the distance.  What made a striking contrast to the wet forest that we came from was not only the cooler climate, but the lack of insects droning constantly.  This area was devoid of crickets calling and cicadas drumming incessantly, making the place peaceful and a bit eerie. Thankfully the mosquitoes were also lacking.

clouds in the cloud forest

To add to the perceived enchantedness of the site, there was a white horse that would appear around camp, contentedly grazing and just being gorgeous.  Soon after arriving in Cuerici, I decided to take greater advantage of my surroundings by waking up early and going on walks in the woods.  This (not surprisingly) proved to be a very calming activity and often produced resplendent animal sightings! On one such occasion, I awoke at 5:30am, pulled on my boots, arranged my wool hat-and-baseball cap combo, and sleepily headed out the front door of the cabin.  As I stepped onto the porch, I was greeted by the sight of the white horse, peacefully grazing just in front of me, surrounded by mist and the pale blue light of early morning.  Not to mention the backdrop of stunning mountains and verdant slopes.  I half expected a group of sparrows to fly down and adorn me with a flower crown.

 the white horse

At each of the field sites we go to, we are required to spend at least half an hour in the field, observing.  Obviously upon hearing of this I was ecstatic at the prospect of sitting by myself in the jungle.  One afternoon, after a somewhat depressing lecture about how to sustain a forest reserve, I was feeling rather glum.  To improve my spirits, I decided to go do my field observations.  I pulled on my raingear and departed the camp, heading for the 3km trail that looped up and over a nearby mountain.  As I rounded a corner, I was greeted by the white horse again, grazing along the side of the path.  I skirted around him and continued walking, but to my surprise the horse began to follow me! He would stop to pull up some grass along the way, and would then trot to catch up to me, walking alongside me on the dirt road.  At one point I stopped to pet him and feed him some tasty dandelions.  Eventually I reached the end of the dirt road where there was a barbed wire fence and the start of the mountain path, and had to say goodbye to the horse.  Any unexpected encounter with a large charismatic animal always brightens my day.

I hiked up the trail to a nice ridge overlooking some large, mossy oaks.  And when I say large, I mean massive trees, hundreds of years old – this forest is certainly something to marvel at.  I picked out a nice place that had a view of the valley and sat down to begin watching and listening to the forest.  I was also making a sketch of the area, focusing on one oak in particular on the horizon.  I noted that a cloud was coming in, reducing visibility drastically, such that I could no longer see the oak I was sketching.  As I looked up, I noticed a large shape swooping quietly into a nearby tree – a quetzal had decided to land 10 meters from me!  It was hard to make out in the clouds, but I could just see the outline of its body and long tail feathers.  I turned away to grab my camera and when I came back up it had gone.  It was amazing how silently it flew into and out of my sight.  And then it rained for the first time since we had been there.

giant oak

The montane oak forest is a pretty spectacular place, with each moss-covered tree seeming to have a presence – I could almost feel the trees taking deep breaths and slowly exhaling.  When walking through the forest, my eye was immediately drawn to the huge base of a tree, spanning more than two meters in diameter.  Slowly, I started to follow the trunk up, craning my neck more and more until I eventually found the crown some 30 meters in the air.  At that point, my tree climbing instincts kicked in: I began looking for solid branches that could hold my weight and were exposed enough to shoot a line into.  There were some pretty promising candidates, and it wasn’t until 20 minutes later that I actually spotted some p-cord tied around a sapling!  The small tree that this thin piece of cord was wrapped around stood next to a very large, very old oak. The p-cord ran up into the oak, out of sight, and probably over a nice large branch.  I was very excited at the idea that tree climbing was already established in this forest, at least for arboreal studies.  Perhaps I’ll come back to this area on my own someday and play around…

On another morning, the group packed into the OTS van and drove to an ecosystem known as parámo, a habitat in the exposed high elevation areas where all the plants are dwarfed.  This ecosystem has daily freeze/thaw cycles, meaning that anything containing water gets quite the beating (i.e., all the vegetation).  Therefore the plants have evolved special adaptations to this, including fur on their leaves.  Not many animals live in the environment full time; they migrate into the area to feed occasionally, such as coyotes and hummingbirds.  It was a pretty neat area – we stood on the continental divide and were able to see the Pacific; supposedly on a clear day, you’d also be able to see the Atlantic on the other side.  It makes me realize how small the country really is and how important its watersheds are.

Speaking of watersheds, the Cuerici reserve is owned by a local campesino named Don Carlos, who runs a trout farm on a small part of the land.  It is cool to see hundreds of trout at every stage of their life – and they taste pretty good too!  The farm is chemical-free = good for the environment & for me.  The water from the trout ponds drains into a natural stream, which runs downhill and powers a hydroelectric turbine that provides electricity to the reserve.  All in all the place is pretty sustainable - the biggest resource expense is firewood to keep the cabin warm at night.

Don Carlos, owner of Cuerici

We learned that there was a small shack at the top of the mountain trail, near a nice overlook.  Some of the people in the group decided to hike up one night and sleep in the shack, in order to see the stars and the sunrise the following morning.  I unfortunately had to decline the offer since I did not have a sleeping bag (and the temperature dropped into the 40s at night).  But I really wanted to see the sunrise, so me and another girl woke up at 4:30am to hike up in time to catch the view from the top of the mountain...it was well worth the trouble, and we reached the peak  just as the others were awaking in the shack.  The views were spectacular, and we headed down for breakfast around 6:30am, lucky to be greeted by tasty pancakes!

clouds blanketing the valley at sunrise

For our final day in Cuerici, I went on one final early morning walk, this time with two guys looking to do some birding.  As we ascended the mountain, the man in front stopped suddenly, and excitedly whispered under his breath, “Quetzal.”  I peered over his shoulder to find a male resplendent quetzal sitting in a tree some yards away.  It was beautiful: an emerald green body with a bright red breast, and tail feathers that were as long as the bird’s torso that blew calmly in the wind.  I looked away for a second, and when I returned my gaze to the area, the bird had disappeared, swiftly and silently.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Cambio de Vida

I write to you now from Las Cruces Biological Station in the south of Costa Rica, about 20km north of Panama.  The place we’re staying is much nicer than I expected … with running water, hot showers, wireless internet, and American outlets, I feel completely spoiled in the middle of the rainforest.  It has definitely been a transition period, as I am getting to know new people, new plants, new foods, and new bugs.  Things have settled into a nice routine, now that I’ve been here for about a week.  Breakfast is at 6:30 each day, then lectures or a jungle hike, lunch at 12pm, nap for an hour, another lecture, play futbol for an hour, dinner at 6pm, then one more lecture around 7pm.  We are learning a great deal of information each day, with the topics ranging from Costa Rican history to coffee to plant identification to insect taxonomy.  I am beginning to realize that there is a large diversity of plants and insects in this country.  Who knew?

Oh and they gave us a great intro talk: “All of the things that could possibly harm or kill you in the jungle” - in under 2 hours! The dangers ranged from mosquitoes to diseases to bot flies (look em up) to fungus to killer bees to everybody's favorite (i.e., the most poisonous): snakes.  Hearing it all in one sitting made even me want to curl up in a ball on my bed and not go outside anymore.  But after a good night's sleep I got over that and went on a lovely trek into the rainforest :D

And the déjà vu I had experienced in my first 24 hours did not let up for another couple days … on our journey to San Vito (the town outside of Las Cruces), we traveled on the Cerro de la Muerte, a highway that winds through the high mountains of central Costa Rica.  I had gone down this same highway two years earlier for the Tree Climbing class, which is not all that strange, given it is a main highway.  But what was weird was that we stopped at the same restaurant along the way, a quaint place called La Georgina where you can get quite a good “chocolate caliente.”   There are also hummingbird feeders set up outside the windows, allowing visitors to watch three or four species speed around in the drizzly cloud forest.   It was weird to be in the same place, but once our bus set off down the road again, there were no more familiar encounters – everything seen and experienced became new.

The atmosphere is much calmer than I expected – all of the students still seem a bit wary of being in a new place. It’s probably part of the adjustment period, and it is just beginning to hit me that I will be with these people for the next four months (and only them), in a country that is not my own, and without all of the comforts I usually take for granted.  Yet I am optimistic that once I shake myself out of the daze of being immersed in an entirely new life, everything will start to get quite exciting.  For now, I’ll just keep my eyes open for terciopelas.

--> I changed around a few things on the schedule that is listed in a previous post ... some of the places and dates have changed. Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Separation of Past and Present

For all those currently wondering out there: yes, I made it to Costa Rica and I am still alive!

As I stepped off the plane and entered the San Jose airport, a feeling of déjà vu overwhelmed me.  Standing in line for customs, I immediately looked to my right I to find a memorable giant green mural of rainforest trees looking back at me.  Then once I got my bags, I checked across the street to locate the grassy area under the overpass.  Carrying the same EMS Summit 4500 bag with red tape still wrapped around the straps, I walked to a familiar type of bus and took up a window seat.  By this point, I was more than expecting to drive along the Cerro de la Muerte and arrive in Tres Piedras to go see El Duke!  Nearly everything I did and saw in the first hour of arriving in Costa Rica this time around reminded me of my first trip to the country two years ago.  I was a nervous freshman, signed up for the Costa Rica tree climbing course, embarking on a journey that – I would later come to realize – had shaped my college life.

But even with all of the similarities to my previous journey, I quickly realized that it was going to be quite different this time around.   Instead of looking for Keyser Arbolski’s friendly face, I was searching for a sign that read “Duke/OTS Semester Abroad.”  And once I had found that, I was not greeted with a bear hug by friends and ushered over to a slackline, but I awaited further instructions from an unknown professor, clinging tightly to the bags that were to be my only possessions for the next four months.  And stepping onto the bus, I did not find the faces of Cornell kids with whom I had practiced tying knots in the COE basement, but I saw eager, unknown faces amazingly not from Cornell at all.  As the bus drove us to a hotel in San Jose, I struggled to stay in control of the flood of feelings and memories that were washing over me, pulling me back in time to a sunny afternoon spent kicking a hacky sack and walking a slackline as planes screamed overhead.  I was certainly not expecting this nostalgia aspect of the trip – what other surprises will be in store for me?

Monday, January 19, 2009

Habari Gani

Continuing with the Swahili titles, habari gani means "what's new."  This post is all about my latest news from Kenya.  Here is part two of two in my chronicles of the time I spent in East Africa! (uploaded late due to lack of internet access)

Kenya has exceeded my expectations and has been more than I could hope for, in terms of its beauty and the insight it has given me.  It is strange that this experience is over, because only two weeks ago I viewed it as something always looming in the future, as a journey that would never come to fruition.  It shocked everyone last year how quickly the social conditions deteriorated in Kenya, and it was even more surprising to me how the country has turned around in only a year’s time.  Even with their relations towards Americans, Kenya has become far more welcoming over the course of this past year, especially with the coming inauguration of a U.S. president with Kenyan roots.

The rich culture of the country is something I will never forget; all the people we met seemed quite easygoing and friendly, if shy.  Our three guides joked and swapped stories with us throughout the trip, and when we went to visit the children, we were able to meet many of their mothers who were selling jewelry they had made.  We were able to support their craft, while at the same time interacting with the kids who were nervous at first but soon warmed up to the large group of strangers.  On the final night, after we had said our goodbyes and finished our last smores around the campfire, a troupe of traditional dancers came to camp to give a performance.  It was hypnotizing to watch them, but we soon snapped out of it when they came over, grabbed our hands, and had us join them in the dance circle.  Everyone was mixed together: dancing, jumping, and singing – you could not make out the dancers from the students because it was quite dark and the moon had not risen yet.  It was a remarkable and unique experience that left everyone’s calves sore the next morning.

One of our guides left us with a story of how the hyena came to be as it is today:
There was a time of great famine in Kenya many years ago.  The hyena had not eaten for days.  He met a hare that also was very hungry, and together they went in search of food.  One day they came upon a beehive, high up in a tree.  The hyena told the hare to go up into the tree and throw down the honeycombs and he would catch them on the ground; when the hare was done, the hyena promised they would split the honey between the two of them.  So the hare climbed up the tree, branch after branch, and finally reached the beehive.  He called down to the hyena and dropped the first honeycomb.  But the hyena, being so hungry, devoured the honey as it fell into his mouth.  He did this for each piece the hare dropped.  After a while, the honey stopped falling, and the hyena had eaten all of it.  The hare saw this, got upset, and left.  The hyena smiled at his good fortune of having so much food.  However, he was afraid it was the only food he would get for a while.  He saw a raven flying in the air and called to it.  The hyena asked the raven to sew up his back end so that he could keep the food inside him, and not have to be hungry again.  The hyena found some string and used an Acacia thorn to sew up the hyena and left.  A few days later, the hyena began feeling very uncomfortable.  He had a terrible stomach ache that was so bad that he could not move.  Luckily, the hyena spotted the raven again and called to him once more.  The raven flew down, and the hyena requested that the raven remove the stitches.  As the bird began to do so, the pressure that had built up within the hyena was finally released – spraying the contents of the hyena’s stomach all over the raven, turning him black.  Angered, the raven flew off instantly to try to clean his feathers.  He could not get them clean and they are black to this day.  Meanwhile, the recovered hyena had become hungry once more.  He joined with a pack of his fellow hyena in search of a meal and they looked for days and days without finding sustenance.  One night, the raven caught up to the hyena and his pack, and told them that he had good news.  The raven told the hyenas that up in the sky, the moon was a giant piece of meat, waiting to be eaten.  The hyenas started licking their chops and looking to the sky anxiously.  The raven offered to take them to it and they agreed; one hyena held onto the raven’s tail feather using his teeth, and the next hyena grabbed the bushy tail of the hyena in front of him.  In this way, the hyenas made a chain, and when they were all set, the raven began flying to the moon.  He went up and up, so high that the trees looked like small green specks.  Then the raven began saying to his tail feather, “Come loose, come loose.”  Eventually, the tail feather that the hyenas were holding was plucked from the raven, and all of the dogs fell, plummeting towards the ground.  They all landed hitting their back legs first and breaking those bones.  When they tried to get up, all they could do was limp off, crying in high-pitched yelps.  Because of its greediness, today the hyena has short hind limbs and can only yelp.

I came to Kenya thinking that, with the country’s almost desert-like conditions, we would rarely see any wildlife.  But I was quite mistaken and it’s been very inspiring to see such an array of life thriving in this semi-arid bushland savanna.  Especially during the night-drives.  On four separate occasions, two of the vans would head out at night to look for animals with a spotlight.  We located animals by their glowing eyes that stood out in the darkness.  It was always amazing to come upon a herd of sleeping impala, because 30 pairs of eyes would appear out of nowhere.  Yet even more exciting was discovering a pair of eyes that didn't belong to an herbivore.  n my last night drive, I was controlling the spotlight when I strafed across a pair of eyes far in the distance.  We redirected the path of our van to follow the animal and try to identify what species it was.  After much searching and chasing, we learned that it was a striped hyena - it was the first one we'd seen all trip!  I felt like I saw at least one new species of mammal or bird every day.  If it is like this during the dry season, I would love to come back and visit in the rainy season.

My time abroad has better prepared me for my coming semester in Costa Rica; I realize it is definitely something I must do.  The more time I spend in the field, the more I love the outdoors.  This planet has a great deal to offer and I hope to do my best to appreciate and respect it.

Even the vegetation here is stunning – everything has thorns!  One of the species of Acacia trees is locally known as the “Wait-A-Bit” tree, due to the frequency of getting caught in its thorns while walking by.  We did one of our projects on the Acacia trees in the area around camp, looking to see how much elephant damage there was to different species, and in proximity to the river.  This involved a day of walking around studying individual bushes for over two hours with very little shade.  Another day we spent high noon in an Acacia forest looking for the ants that live mutualistically in the trees.  After a couple hours without water, the heat was starting to get to me, and definitely gave me a feel for the Kenyan climate.

The weather was in the 80s and 90s during the day and dropped to the 50s at night.  It was constantly sunny, making it a complete opposite of the weather I’ve been experiencing in Ithaca for the last three years.  It did not rain a single time during our stay, until the last two days; on Thursday we had a brief shower late in the afternoon, but on Friday, there was a downpour that lasted through the early hours of dawn.  This turned out to be a somewhat inopportune time for a rain shower, since we had to drive 6 hours to Nairobi that morning.  I was in the first van to pull out of camp and onto the dirt roads, and the roads did not seem to be in good shape.

Within 100 feet of leaving camp, our van had begun fishtailing in the mud as we drove.  Dustin, our driver, did a great job of keeping control the entire time.  We reached a dip in the road where a river crossed during the rainy season.  As we started to go through it, Dustin tried to punch the gas in order to get our luggage-laden van up the opposite side of the hill.  The first and second attempt failed, so we all got out to push.  As Dustin began giving the van gas, it slowly started creeping sideways down towards the streambed and the giant boulders it contained.  The car managed to stop with its front bumper gently resting on a massive boulder.  We heard a tractor coming and people went to flag it down.  Another person ran back to camp to enlist some help.  The two men in the tractor were a great help and aided us in getting the van back on the road.  We all began pushing again, but one of the tires was stuck behind a large rock in the road that had been exposed by the rain.  We laid down some smaller stones for the van to roll over, and put dried elephant dung under the rest of the tires to absorb the water.  We all got behind the van once more, pushing even though our feet were sliding in the mud and the tires were spraying dirt all over us, and managed to get it up the hill.  With a cheer, we scrambled up to the van to continue the long journey back towards America.  It was going to be an interesting trip since most of us were wearing our only clean clothes and shoes before we started pushing!  To our amazement, along the way we spotted a pack of wild dogs off the side of the road.  We sat and watched them for some times, getting to see them play while watching hyenas and tawny eagles in the background.  It was a perfect way to end the wildlife portion of our trip!  

Soon after, we reached the tarmac roads and let go of our fears of having to get out and push the van again.  Three airports, two plane rides, and 34 hours later, I showed up in New York, exhausted but happy to be finished traveling … for the week.