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:
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!)
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!
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!