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 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!