Monday, June 13, 2011

My Return

I’m sitting in the middle of the Mexico City airport where my flight is laid over—completely out of it for the time being. It might be the fact that I woke up at 2:50 this morning to take a shuttle from a San Jose hostel to the airport, and haven’t slept since. It might be due to crying pretty consistently since parting ways with Hanna once her flight took off, or it might simply be that the weight of the fact that my time in Costa Rica has ended has finally descended upon me. In spite of being completely mentally absent I’ve somehow managed to make it out of Costa Rica, into Mexico, through customs (even though I’ll be in this country a grand total of 3 hours) and into the food court. However once in the food court I managed to miscalculate the exchange rate for pesos and ended up spending 8500 colones or, that’s right, 17 dollars on a super small portion of crappy food that—you guessed it—had meat hiding inside.
            But all in all, the journey so far has been pretty easy. Its been crazy traveling alone and having time to reflect on the last three months. It’s a little scary to me that its already starting to feel surreal, almost like a dream. I can only imagine it will feel even more that way when I’m back to my usual routine at home. I can only hope that it never stops feeling real for me. I can’t even tell you how many ways this experience has changed my life. I’ve learned SO much. More than any other quarter I’m positive, and most vitally I’ve learned so much about myself and what I’m interested in and what I want out of the world and how much I actually might be able to achieve. I’ve never been more inspired by teachers than by those I had in Monteverde. They weren’t just teachers, they were friends, and they cared SO much about igniting our interests and pushing our limits. My interest in biology and nature has been so revitalized thanks to them, and thanks to the beauty and diversity that Costa Rica boasts.

            Maybe most importantly were the friends I made: mis companeros through this entire experience. From the first two weeks where we were dropped on an island and then the middle of a dry forest without electricity or hot water or any civilization and had no choice but to learn about each other, its been an insane ride. I’m not sure I could ever find a better group of 26 people to enjoy this journey with. I was constantly surprised and inspired by every single person’s enthusiasm for life, enthusiasm for nature and their knowledge of both. I will never forget the hikes and field trips we shared together, finding frogs and fungi and insects and seeing joy in every discovery. Or the nights at Mata e’ Cana, rollin in with our huge group of gringos and taking over the dance floor, looking like idiots and making Ticos jealous. My biggest hope is that we stay in contact throughout the years. California is an incredible place and we are lucky enough to be able to bring back what we’ve learned to such an amazing and naturally diverse state. All the same I can’t express how much I’ll miss seeing everyone together every day. I’ll be thinking about you guys a lot when I get back.

            Coming back to the present, the past week has fallen right in line with the rest of my time here in terms of enjoyment. This was my third time to the Caribbean and I never cease to be amazed by this part of the world. Puerto Viejo, where we stayed is a party town to be sure, but now in the off-season its pretty mild. The town runs right along the crystal-blue water’s edge. Coconut trees line the shores and pretty much any view from any angle looks like a desktop that would come with your mac. Marvin, the girls, and I (along with Harrison and Mike a few days later) made some amazing snorkeling excursions down the coast. Two of the days we rented beach cruisers to take us a couple miles down the coast through some beautiful forest. Sometimes everything just seemed more like a Jack Johnson music video than real life. The snorkeling was some of the best I’ve ever seen. On Hanna’s and my last full day we made a 6 km trek through some seriously beautiful poison dart frog and eyelash viper-filled rain forest to a beach that had a tiny island only a couple hundred meters away. We were able to swim around the entire thing and all of us did. Different sides of the island were home to different species of fish, and the entire area was so rich in life. It was so incredible.  
     We tried taking advantage of as much beauty as we could...even getting up with the sunrise.

            The hostel itself was quite entertaining as well. We took up most of the rooms—I think we only really encountered one other couple the entire time we were there. Vista Verde is run by Olaf and his wife Katy (Cat-ee). They are extremely German and extremely adorable. If you are ever in Puero Viejo I highly recommend staying with them, their three-legged cat that we called Tripod, several dogs-including Hansel who is pretty much bald due to a skin disease, their collection of poison dart frogs, and several other rag-tag animals. They are very sweet and very accommodating, and most importantly their hostel has lots of hammocks. I’ve never been more attached to colorful pieces of fabric. Its possible I bought one or two to bring back…
            As for the journey back from the Coast, Hanna and I left on a 4 o’clock bus last night that took us 4 hours away to San Jose, then took a taxi across the city in which I thought once again that I was going to lose my life. I do not recommend taxis in San Jose. They drive on the wrong side of the road, blow through red lights, come perilously close to pedestrians and will give you a heart attack if you are used to gentle American driving. We stayed at Hostel Pangea, a “party hostel” that resembled a tacky abandoned MTV beach house but per usual managed to make some good times out of it.
            And now I am here, still in complete disbelief that I will b in Los Angeles in just a few hours. I am incredibly excited to see everyone, but still a little apprehensive about going back to “normal”. Frank has said several times over this program that you can prepare yourself for the culture shock coming into Costa Rica, but its much harder to prepare for the culture shock of returning to the U.S. I suppose only time will tell!

Pura Vida 

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The final weeks of EAP

Its hard to believe how much time has actually passed since I last posted. Harder still to believe just how much has happened in these past few weeks and where I am now. Where am I? sitting in a hammock at 6am surrounded by twinkly lights and coconuts carved to look like fish on the balcony of the hostel I’m staying at in Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. I can’t believe the program is over. Our group of 27 is now split up completely-with some of us starting travels around the rest of this country, some of us already back at home in the U.S., and some starting journeys throughout the rest of central and south America. I’m on the Carribean side with a group of 7 others: Madeline, Johanne and her brother Damien, Sarah, Marvin, Elizabeth and Hanna, and I’ll stay here for the next few days until I travel back to San Jose to hop on my plane to California. This morning we got up at 4:30 to watch the sunrise (Aimee you would have died). I’m going to try to briefly go through what the last few weeks have been like. Forgive me if I ramble on. I’m already pretty sentimental.

Homestay ended well. The Castillos were awesome and though they weren’t SUPER traditional Ticos (in fact they weren’t Ticos at atll—they’re Ecuadorian), we ended up getting along great. There were some serious initial frustrations on my part in the beginning, simply because I was struggling so hard to communicate. In having to suddenly participate in day-to-day Spanish conversations it suddenly felt as though I had never taken a Spanish class in my life. I would get extremely nervous any time I tried to speak, and ended up spending a lot of time sitting silent and awkward at the dinner table. But by about day 8 I sort of turned a corner and my confidence got a serious boost. I’m sure now that I’m not forced to do it everyday, my Spanish will deteriorate exponentially, but at least I can say that at one point, I was barely able to communicate. It also helped tremendously that there was another girl living with the family-also named Katie and from California. She’s awesome and an excellent Spanish speaker—needless to say I took advantage of her skills quite often. During all this I was spending 2 to 4 hours a day sitting in Bajo del Tigre—a trailhead in the Children’s Eternal Rainforest, observing and taking notes on my independent research species, the long-tailed manakins. They really are the cutest birds ever. I miss those guys now, they got me through a lot.

Once homestay ended 2 weeks later, I was back at the station with everyone, and I was ecstatic. I loved my homestay, but I also loved the freedoms of the station—being able to go out hiking whenever I wanted, constantly having snacks around and cooks making us delicious meals, company 24-7. However what I did not anticipate was the amount of work we had coming once we returned. Within our final two weeks at the station we were required to put together a final project first submission, complete 4 finals, an agroecology video project, an 8 minute power point presentation on our independent projects that we had to present at our symposium, and a final submission of our project ready to be published. I don’t think I’ve ever had a more sleepless two weeks. There were probably about 7 days in total in which I did not leave the library at the station except to eat and use the bathroom. It was one of the more intense academic experiences of my life, and in the meantime, we were all desperate to have fun in our final days together, so any time we had even the slightest break in our workload we headed out to the bars or tried to create some kind of festivities at the station—needless to say, it was sleepless.

Finishing everything felt incredible though. Our symposium was amazing. Seeing the fruits of everyone’s labor for the past month, and being able to share mine was pretty indescribable. And once we were done with the final submission the relief was enormous. I think one of my favorite nights of the entire program was the one right after I turned in my submission. Erick, our teacher that lived with us at the station decided that we should go surprise our other teacher Pati at a show she was playing at a place in town. It turned out to be at the beautiful house of a woman who opens up her kitchen to the town every Friday night, and makes her patio a restaurant, offering awesome food and wine to anyone who comes. Pati was playing guitar and singing on the patio surrounded by beautiful twinkling lights and tons of people we recognized from town, including more of our teachers. Pati is amazingly talented, and we were all just so happy and content to be there. I’ll never forget it

The last nights were filled with final talks from Frank about reentering the real world, getting our EAP shirts (which I designed!) and taking millions of photos in them, traveling back to San Jose and taking more goodbye pictures, a SERIOUS roast on all of us planned by the teachers and presented to us in Hotel Cacts on our final night, and then the strange goodbyes as people left one by one or group by group. I held it together almost until the very end. It still hasn’t really registered that I won’t see everyone every day anymore. We were literally always together (sometimes in complete isolation) for 3 months straight. I think once I’m back in the U.S. it will hit me a little harder, but for now I’m going to just try to enjoy the Caribbean sunshine with my remaining friends here and worry about all that later

The one thing I am REALLY looking forward to though is seeing my friends and family from home. It probably doesn’t seem like it from the blog but my time here hasn’t always been easy and thinking about you guys has gotten me through a lot.

Sorry for another long post. I’ll try to fit one more in before I leave on Monday. See you all soon!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Penas Blancas

Its been a week since I made it out of the cloud forest valley alive. It has definitely been one of the highlights of my entire trip so far. Last Sunday half of the group hoisted our backpacking packs into taxi vans that dropped us off at the entrance to the Monteverde Cloudforest, while the other half began their homestays in houses throughout Montevderde, or in a little fishing village four hours away called Cuajiniquil. It was really strange saying goodbye. After having been thrown together for six weeks without a single day of separation, we suddenly wouldn’t all be together again for almost a month. For the Penas group, we would be backpacking 16 km into the reserve into an area closed to the public to stay in a small cabin manned by Eladio Cruz. Eladio was a familiar face as he had hosted us in Guanacaste and cooked for us every night there. Words don’t really describe the coolness of Eladio Cruz. He is an old, shy, solely Spanish-speaking, renowned Tico naturalist, who knows the cloud forests here like no one else. Numerous species of flora and fauna have been named after him, either because he had a hand in discovering them or because one of his cool biologist companions did.

But it took us ten miles to get to Eladio’s mystical cabin in the middle of the rainforest. For the most part it was all down hill, as we were traveling into a valley, but I was in rainboots so it wasn’t necessarily easier, and I slid down many a moss-covered slope or wet rocky ravine. I spent the better part of my travels debating with both my fellow travelers and myself whether or not the boots were worth it. When it came to crossing flooded streams I was clearly the winner over the hiking boot enthusiasts, but by the time we reached the cabin my feet were so torn up my choice was definitely put into question. I was part of the first cluster to make it to the cabin, and I can safely say we were all exhausted by the time we reached the bright green cabin. It didn’t help that most of us had gone out the night before, wanting to celebrate before we all separated. I think everyone questioned that decision at least once by the time we reached Eladio.
I was thinking about writing up a post before I left about all the things that could possibly kill me while I was in Penas, but in retrospect its probably for the best that I didn’t do so until now, from the safety of my room in Monteverde…or else I’m pretty sure Mom or Emily would have tried to book me a plane back to California. Our main adversaries on the trip were:

 1. The fer de lance…the most venomous snakes in Costa Rica (2 of which I encountered on night hikes),
2. The eyelash pit viper (several of which I encountered)
 3. Pretty much any other snakes
4. A rickety bridge we had to cross over a river that could support only one person at a time.
5. My personal favorite: the “assassin bug” or “kissing bug”, a large nocturnal insect which is notorious for biting people’s lips in the middle of the night and transmitting the Chagas disease by defecating on the wound. The Chagas is transmitted into your bloodstream and eats away at the tissues in your heart causing you to die of cardiac arrest about twenty years after you are bitten. NICE. (Luckily no encounters with the Assassin bug, as I was COMPLETELY obsessive compulsive with the mosquito net I slept under. I did however wake up from one or two nightmares completely convinced I had been bitten and was going to die immediately from some intensified version of the disease. )

But the unforgettable experiences far outweighed the risks of the trip. Even just the cabin itself was amazing. We had no electricity-so no lights or hot water, and the place was crawling with insects, but the PORCH made just about everything worth it. I don’t think I will ever find another porch like this. The bird watching I did just sitting down on the floor of that porch was some of the best I’ve done in Costa Rica. The forest it looked out to was just so incredibly beautiful. It also gave us a safe viewing spot for the insane rainstorms that hit toward the end of the trip.

The night hikes blew my mind. Things I never imagined I would actually see in real life were commonplace in Penas at night.

The Tabanid flies. Though these little blood sucking demons not only covered me in bites during the day, but decided to fall by the hundreds onto our candle-lit dinner table at night, I can’t help but look at them in retrospect as humorous. I will never forget the night they were so bad that literally the entire table covered their heads with sweatshirt hoods or rain jackets and just yelled constantly as one by one flies bounced off our heads and into our soup. Most of us were completely hysterical before dinner was even over.

The rain: I really don’t know if I’ll ever see rain like this again. The first night it started I sat straight up in bed thinking that a tree had fallen on the cabin, but when the noise didn’t subside, I realized that it was in fact rain POUNDING on the tin roof. Doors started slamming with the wind (this is at 3am mind you) and several of us got up to watch…which really wasn’t necessary since the rain would continue on just as hard throughout the morning and about half the day. Since a hot shower was nonexistent anyway, some decided just to take advantage of nature’s amenities…
The trip back was quite a different trek than the one going into the valley. It rained almost the entire hike, and most of it was uphill. I didn’t fall as many times (probably because I had more sleep) but my feet were KILLING me by the time I reached the end. I was with the first group that made it back again but our level of exhaustion was ten times that of when we reached Eladio’s. When we made it to the information sign the five of us hugged and screamed. It reminded me a lot of (Paden you can probably guess) arriving at the ferry after our insane day of hiking on the last day of wilderness orientation. Not as many miles but I think this trek was equally difficult, and the excitement at seeing the end just as rewarding.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Regreso del Bosque Nubioso y Vivo con Mi Familia Nueva

So its around 6:30 am and I'm sitting in my brnad new bed in my very own brand new bedroom in my brand new home in the house of the Castillo Moreira family. Its amazing to have a little space for myself but also a little strange and sad after living with a big group of people for so long. I met my family yesterday after returning from the cloud forest via an epic rainy uphill 10 mile hike (I'll get to that later). I was able to take a quick shower at the institute, get dressed and was then shipped off to my family's house after a few goodbyes. To be honest I was terrified. This has been the part of this EAP experience that I've had by far the most anxiety about, mostly because my spanish is awful, and because I'm awkward enough meeting new people when we speak the same language. When the van pulled away, it was literally the first time I'd been alone, without at least one of the same 30 people I've been used to seeing every day, and it was a weird, weird feeling, but it subsided a little when I met my parents. Marianela and Tarcicio are artists and have their own gallery down the street from their BEAUTIFUL home. Marianela only speaks Spanish and Tarcicio speaks a tiny bit of English-enough to help me out sometimes- but prefers Spanish at all times. They are very sweet and welcoming. Upon inviting me in, I was offered some amazing pineapple tea, sat down and began my first very awkward conversation/charades show with my new parents. For some reason, even after 3 weeks of Spanish classes, it was nearly impossible for me to string together a real sentence. It might have been a combination of nerves and exhaustion, but I still felt pretty stupid. My brother and two sisters filtered in from school and were all very sweet. Huayra is fourteen, Ipsilan is twelve, and Gudari is ten. I've done an excellent job of butchering all of their names so far but they've been extremely patient with me. All three of them speak English, and Huayra definitely prefers it, which is a little bit of a relief, but Tarcicio prefers that everyone speak Spanish to help me learn-which is also good. After introductions and some more attempts at conversation, I was able to unpack and settle into my new room for a little while. My room is probably the most amazing part of this set up. I have two giant windows that look out over the family's garden and can see into Monteverde. The sunsets are incredible and sitting at my desk for a time period of about thirty minutes I saw an emerald toucanet and three bird species I'd never even seen before. After settling in, I went downstairs and watched TeleTico with my brother and sisters for a while. I don't understand Wizards of Waverly Place in English so watching it dubbed in Spanish was even more interesting. We then had dinner, which was amazing-with more great tea, potatoes, rice, and a kind of vegetable stew, and coconut bread. I've loved the food on this whole trip, but this change of dinner staples was a welcome one. Dinner conversation was much less awkward and afterwards I played chess for about an hour with Ipsi and Gudari. Both of them are much better than I am, and after being completely shown up by the giggling chessmasters I went to bed. I'm very excited to get to know the family better. Since being back, I've chatted with a few of my friends about their homestays and they're all having amazing times. I'm still missing everyone a little, and curious about how everyone from the Penas group's first night went. Hopefully I'll be able to post pictures soon. I dont have access to a camera usb cord right now but I should be able to get one from someone...eventually. Today the goal is to get in some more preliminary research on the manakins and to spend some more time with my family. I dont have quite enough energy or time right now to write about Penas (I can hear my family awake downstairs) but I will try to devote my next post to it because it was an incredible, incredible trip. Its good to be on my own but its giving me more time to miss everyone -from home as well as here. Love you all

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

For those who wanted to see some artwork (Mom*)

from when I thought I would be studying bees for my independent project...

Esta Lloviendo!


I haven't actually talked about the weather here very much as of yet but since we've been in this "rainforest"- or actually "cloud forest" we have had yet to see any rain, and very little clouds. Today thunder roared as we sat in our first few lectures and we were suddenly instructed to unplug any electronics we have because of the lightening. Towards the end of our sexual selection lecture, the rain was hitting the windows so hard, Pati had to yell to be heard over the noise. I can't wait to walk to spanish today and experience my first tropical downpour firsthand. The cloud forest is finally living up to its name.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Sunrise over the cloud forest

Last night fore Jared's birthday a group of us headed up the trail to the continental divide (My third time up there). Its a gnarly almost completely uphill hike in the daytime, and in the middle of the night with only headlamps to guide us it was quite the trek. Another one of the stray dogs joined us and decided to make the entire journey up. Half the group called him Nathaniel and the other group called him Cheeto-either way he did an excellent job of running up and down our line of hikers, either tripping us or scaring the crap out of us by suddenly leaping out of the dark. But he was so cute and genuinely excited about being part of our pack that I really couldnt be annoyed by him. By the time we reached the peak, and had sneaked past the house of the T.V. towers-guy, I was drenched in sweat and completely exhausted. We set up a little sleeping circle and talked for a few hours. Cheeto-Nathaniel slept right along side. In the morning I woke up to Nick setting up his camera to capture the sunrise and was lucky enough to be awake and looking out over the forest-covered mountains as it made its way into the sky. It was indescribably beautiful. We were all cold and wet from the morning mists but I felt amazing. We headed back down the mountain around 6 am and were back in time for breakfast and class. The clouds today are low over the hills around the station, and Erick says that it means rain could finally be on the way. I can't wait for the change of weather and the rainy season to start. Hope everyone is doing well. Pura Vida