My last post left off when I was saying goodbye to the San Gerardo de Dota and heading up to catch the bus for San Jose, where I had previously arranged to work alongside of some missionaries (whom I had never actually met). As is typical in Central America, that plan was not without a few bumps. Firstly, it was pouring down rain and the three people I had in line to possible take me up the valley were now not available. When I finally secured a ride to the top, I had time to catch one of two buses that would pass. I sat waiting at the bus stop as I watched it get darker, then foggier, one bus passed me straight on by without even the pretense of stopping, and then it started to rain. So I was sitting at the top of the mountain in the dark, cold, fog, and rain, waiting on my last chance to get to San Jose and hoping I wouldn’t finally see my first jaguar. I didn’t have a phone, and so if that last bus decided not to stop, I would be in for a long, wet, cold walk down to an empty and locked field station. But, ahoy, to my great relief, the bus stopped and put me en route to a wonderful surprise. “What are you doing out in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night, gringo?” someone on the bus asked me as I lugged by suitcase aboard. My response was, “Just trying to get into the city,” which really doesn’t make much sense now that I think of it. I could have said, “Just looking for some missionaries i’ve never met before” and that would have made equally as much sense, but been more accurate.
When I did arrive, I was greeted by a group of missionaries as eclectic as it gets, including a senior citizen (and ex-subject of the Queen) and a woman who lived through 9/11. For approximately one week, I got to work alongside of these excellent people in a construction project to lay the foundations for another Children’s Home. I also got be Jesus to those children. I don’t mean this in the way youth groups tell their kids to go be Jesus for everyone they encounter. I was Jesus to those kids in a very similar way an old fat man is Santa Claus to a bunch of kids every year at Christmas. Let me explain how that came to be.
You see, not only did these missionaries come to Costa Rica to build an orphanage and help with the kids. Each evening they loaded up in a bus, dressed in robes that resemble the storybook representation of the Biblical times, to travel to various churches around San Jose and the surrounding outskirts in order to perform a song, dance, and reenactment of a Bible story. The man who was to play Jesus had a heart attack the night before the group left. His replacement Jesus fell into a ditch and cracked a rib the very day I arrived. So because I have flowing dark hair and a beard, I was given a robe and told to go along with the choreography (though the British lady was quick to remind me that bad things come in threes and that I was doomed). At one point in the first performance, after I had already danced around and improved a skit in Spanish, a teammate whispered to me, “Uh, Jesus, now the kids are going to follow you.” Everyone started singing this song in Spanish and so I took that as my cue and started marching around the room. Sure enough, the kids began to follow me. I’m sure for their parents, it was a touching moment– seeing their little children following Jesus– but for me, it was one of the stranger parts of my whole trip. I had to remind myself: Things like this just won’t happen back in the States.
Reentering the United States couldn’t be any more anti-climactic: You wait to get your passport stamped, then you wait to pick up your luggage, then you wait in line at customs, then you wait to drop off your luggage again, only to top things off by waiting in one more line at security. There’s no greeting committee, no Star Spangled Banner over the loud speaker, and no line you dramatically step across that announces you’ve made it home. So I meandered the lines, wishing there had been something to triumphantly announce my return home.
And then I saw it. The very same Panda Express where I had my last meal as I left the States over four months ago. Compared to the fresh and organic stuff i’d been eating for four months, the greasy fried chicken hardly looked appetizing, but everything about it somehow screamed “Welcome Home!”. “Well, minus well bookend the trip,” I thought, and I enjoyed faux chinese food as best as I could.
Copied from Jay’s travel blog at http://shouldabeenacowboy.tumblr.com/
On April 30th, at approximately half an hour till 4 A.M., the crew I have lived with, eaten with, traveled with, studied with, prayed with, and laughed with for four months gathered their things for the airport. Because it was so early and because the airport terminal was mostly a place for forms and not causing a scene, the goodbyes were not as tearful as I expected (nine of the eleven students were women). The rest of that day was spent getting to Panama. My destination was Bocas, a bunch (or “archipelago” to use the official term) of islands off the Caribbean coast. The Panamanian border consists of an old railroad bridge that you walk across, stepping over giant gaps that would send you into the river, and a booth you approach to get a sticker for your passport. A van and a boat ride later, I was on a Caribbean island. It was dark so I checked into a cheap hostel. My dinner consisted of a pineapple, a shishkabob of meat and veggies, and a powerade– costing me $3 total. Things are cheap in Panama.
The next morning I took a boat to a different island where I slept on the beach in a hammock for the next two nights, making camp wherever I saw fit. The Caribbean provided everything it promised: coconuts you could hack off a tree and eat, clear blue water, dreadlocked inhabitants, and plenty of chill time.
I walked down to a dock where a Panamanian man passed with his small motor boat and asked if I wanted a lift to the mainland. That began my journey to the mountains of Panama, a journey that would require two boats, two cabs, and two buses, yet costing no more than fifteen dollars total. Buses are very cheap in Panama. They sacrifice expediency for efficiency. Basically, if they see someone walking in their direction, they will slow down and announce where they are going. If the bus is heading that direction, the person will hop on a pay a negotiated fee. Some people ride for minutes, some ride for hours, with the typical comically loud and stereotypical Latin American music you would expect. I jumped of the bus just before it passed a big sign announcing my hostel’s location was somewhere nearby. Following a few markers, I learned that that somewhere was a fifteen minutes trek uphill through the jungle. The hostel’s name was Lost and Found, and I had found it.
The hostel itself had a psychedelic flair to it, the buildings were painted and laid out in a way that made you feel like you were trapped in that Beetle’s album with Yellow Submarine and that song about the Octopus’ garden. It was up in the mountains; the forest structure reminded me very much of the cloud forest I grew to love so much back in San Gerardo. They had a treasure hunt that any daring guest could attempt. I so dared and so rose one morning, was given a map and a wish of good luck. The first clue took me to a labyrinth I had to navigate and find a clue in the center. The riddles eventually took me up into the forest itself, passing under old growth trees, wading through a cold mountain river, and digging around in a cave. The whole thing took 3-4 hours, but I eventually finished and was rewarded with their idea of treasure. I was expecting a note about the journey and memories making the how experience worthwhile, but no, the treasure was a bottle of rum.
The next anecdote ends with.. and then I won five dollars. I don’t play poker, and i’ve never played poker with money involved, but the buy-in was only $5 and I figured it would be fun. Besides, it was the most ethnically diverse game of poker I’ll probably ever get the opportunity to play, made up of three Americans, two Canadians, a Belgium, a Brit, a German, and a woman from Greece. So again, I have very little poker experience, though I am very good with anything strategical. My strategy was therefor to act like I was an idiot and call people on everything. It worked to get me further as one American, the German, the Canadians, and the Brit left the game– but I soon ran very low on chips. I decided I had to go all in with my next hand, which happened to amount to nothing but an 8 high. But my fierce reputation in the game won me an enormous pot of chips, eventually lasting me to the very end, when it was just me and the Grecian woman. There came to a round where we both had to go all in, so we did, and she won the pot. And then I won five dollars.
I eventually left the mountains and made my way back to Costa Rica. To be honest, I chose to end the trip early. Traveling on my own has been fun, but it was a little bit empty at times. I contacted a church that’s in partnership with my home church and for the next few days i’ll be volunteering at their orphanage. That’s how I want to spend my final days in Costa Rica. Today I hiked down the road to the valley of San Gerardo. I traveled down that road for the first time four months and one day ago. Not much has changed in the valley since then, but it’s all changed for me. Well, goodbye San Gerardo de Dota. Now off to the next adventure.
Yesterday the group left the valley for good. The first goodbye we said was to Nancy, the wonderful woman who has cooked, cleaned, and acted at station mom for the students. During those goodbyes was when the approaching departure began to become a reality. Packing was not difficult– it’s easy to put a week’s worth of clothing into a single suitcase; and I think I’m actually leaving with fewer items than when I came. When I get home to abundance, when I have an entire pantry of food and wardrobe of clothes to select from, i’m not going to know what to do with myself.
On Thursday all the students presented their research projects for the San Gerardo community. We had 35 or so people show up for what was intended to be an hour and a half of presentations. Almost three hours later, the guests left and we finished our last assignment of the semester. The reason it took so long was not that we were dreadfully boring and slow, but that the community took such interest in every single project. Usually, a debate would break out amongst a few of the men about a finer point of the project. I didn’t expect much controversy over my lizard presentation, but as it turns out, Ticos are afraid of lizards. They discussed the lizard’s importance in the circle of life– not a bad realization for community with little previous scientific education from academia.
Then all that remained of this program was a brief stint in San Jose, where we all attempted to readjust and cope with the fact that we are returning to a very different life back home. We sat around the pool talking about the various stages of culture shock we will encounter. I don’t really believe in culture shock though– I believe there will be a bit of ideological drama as we encounter old aspects of life we now find boring and horrible and we’ll certainly have a different lens to look at our culture through, but this won’t amount to any diagnosable condition we could call culture shock. Our large intenstines will be the only thing that get a big surprise upon re-entry. Regardless, i’ll let my friends explore the readjustment stage first, for I will not be immediately going home like the others. I have plans to travel down to the Caribbean side of Panama, where I will sleep in my camping hammock, and kayak from island to island. That’s how I want to readjust.
It’s not going to be easy to go home. As I took one final hike through the valley the other day I realized how incredibly fond I was of this place. I didn’t like shopping malls and suburban living all that much prior to my trip down here, and now I really don’t like them. So how am I going to live back home? I don’t know yet, but that question will take the backseat for the time being. Because I now walk into the wild.
In a little over a week this group I have lived with for the past four months will have disbanded and all will have returned to their lives back in the States. I have a little post-abroad adventure planned, so my return will be delayed by a dozen or so days. Life has sure been good here in the San Gerardo de Dota valley, and i’m gonna miss it in a number of ways.
For example. Last week we needed something to eat for lunch, so a few of the students and I ventured a bit up the valley to one of the trout ponds, where we caught six trout using bamboo poles. We then tore the heads off the trout with our bare hands and our lovely Nicaraguan cook prepared the fish for us. This sort of thing just doesn’t happen in the States. All the food we eat comes plastic-wrapped and preserved with who knows what. I think it’s important for people to kill what they eat at least once. It reminds you that something has to die so that you can live.
Another example. Earlier in the week I ate dinner at my host family’s house. As I walked the two miles up the valley, I passed workers who make our dinner when we eat out, people I had played soccer with a few times, and school children who knew me only as the gringo they could throw rocks at without the other kids telling on them. When I arrived at my host family’s, I was given four peaches that had just been picked from the orchard and told to eat them. Later that night, when we needed salsa for the dinner, I walked over to a neighbor’s to borrow the ingredients. I walked back to the station that night under the dim guidance of the moon.
A third example. Today we were playing soccer near the station. We’d been playing for about an hour when a pesky little bee starting bothering me. I swatted it away, but it kept coming back for more. Then the fight intensified, as everyone else watched from afar wondering why the heck I had taken off my shirt and was wielding it like a weapon. But just in time for them to start snickering, they all started getting stung too (serves them right). We ran back to the station, where the bees followed us, a few managing to get inside. We managed to kill a few and because we are all basically science freaks, we did an ID on the bees. Africanized Honey Bees. These are the killer bees that have starred in a few sci-fi films because of their reputation for relentless pursuit. These little suckers are nasty. I was stung four times, on my head, back, and arm.
These examples serve to highlight some of the aspects of living I have particularly enjoyed here in Costa Rica. 1. We live here with a deeper connection to the Earth– trout straight from the pond, peaches picked from the orchards. At the station, our water pressure is entirely dependent on the water pressure from a nearby stream;we have skylights that allow the sun to illuminate the entire station during the day; and our water is heated via solar panels. 2. I’ve invested myself in this community. There’s the cheese guy, the woman who makes marmalade, and the guy who owns the trout farms. We scrounge the community for ingredients when we cook dinners. But that’s what communities are for, right? 3. Simple living. Walking two miles for dinner isn’t a chore. Neither is hanging up my clothes to dry them out. There is plenty to do around here, but without the conveniences of a car or a cell phone I can be content where I am. I don’t have to rush off to the next thing. 4. Crazy stuff happens and you just deal with it. We got attacked by bees today. KILLER BEES. But we just rubbed some Benedril on the wounds and laughed about it.
I have thoroughly enjoyed my time here. I have one final week here in the valley with this group. Closing shop like this is always a bittersweet and necessary part of an adventure. I am finished with research, i’ve seen the Biomes of Costa Rica, and i’ve hiked the heck out of these trails. It’s almost all over, and it’s been great. Or as Gus says at the end of Lonesome Dove “It’s been one hell of a party.”
Copied from Jay’s blog at http://shouldabeenacowboy.tumblr.com/
The rainy season has started. How do I know this? Obviously, because it’s started raining. While the past three months have had only a handful of days with rain, the past two weeks have had only a handful of days without rain. Fortunately, this bout of rain coincided perfectly with my parents’ visit to the valley.
Showing somebody where you live is more than just showing them beautiful sites. In a way, you are giving an account of how you live. It’s one thing to tell somebody about the San Gerardo way of life, but it’s another to bring them here and have them eat simple foods and walk everywhere. I am absolutely thrilled my parents got to experience this way of life. Every single one of our walks was me with a bout of torrential downpour– the hike to the waterfall, the hike through the old growth forest, the hike up the valley– leaving us feeling like we were characters in Lost, Jurassic Park, or the Hunger Games, depending on who you asked. If you have the right Pura Vida kind of attitude, as my parents did, inconvenient weather doesn’t deter you one bit in your adventures.
Easter in San Gerardo lacked that evil bandit Commercialism that churches accuse of stealing the true meaning from Easter and Christmas every year– but yet then rarely do anything to wholeheartedly combat it. This was also the first major holiday I have spent away from my family. It reminds me of something I heard this past year around Christmas time: “Spending time with family and people you love, that’s what this season is all about.” I remember being struck by how wrong that guy was. No. The true meaning of Christmas is to celebrate the birth of a person whose death and resurrection we will later celebrate during Holy Week. Spending time with family is great and precious during these holiday seasons, but they are not the ultimate reasons for celebration.
Partly because there are no billboards or local commercials, I encountered no Easter advertisements this year. For that reason, Easter was pretty nondescript in the valley. In fact, other than a lull in tourism, it would have been easy not to notice that this weekend was special at all. Without the typical advertisements and consumerist traditions, do we even know how to celebrate? This is what the Grinch asks us every Christmas. We like to hate on commercialism in the States, and of course it’s grossly unnecessary, but one thing it does do is provide the hype and excitement for the two most important holidays: Halloween and Super Bowl Sunday. (Yeah, of i’m kidding about those two. If you belong to a church I hope you know what holidays I really mean). It gives a much needed cue that we should indeed celebrate.
On Good Friday I attended a service during which we walked a length of the valley to different stations where we would recite different liturgy. Members of the community would take turns carrying a large wooden cross to each station, imitating the walk Christ took with his cross. When I arrived at the church Saturday night (when the Easter service happened), there was a small fire burning on the steps of the church. This would not be allowed in the States because of how afraid we are of our own legal system, but it was a great symbol for the remaining service. A candle was lit and carried to the front of the church where members of the congregation lit their candles, and continued to light everyone else’s during the opening hymn. Then we extinguished our candles– because Jesus is still dead on Saturday, after all, and continued with a service that mostly was lost in translation. Towards the end of the service, the congregation started singing a really happy song. Suddenly, members of the congregation pulled out bells and tambourines and started making noise as other members ran to the closets to bring flowers and decorations for the bare alter (the alter was stripped bare on Good Friday). The kids were given balloons and banners and ran laps around the inside of the church. Then, behold, a toddler dressed as an angle walked down the aisle holding a banner saying “Christ is risen!” It was a bona fide celebration. We relit our candles and were given a single piece of candy as we left the church.
So here’s something to consider: If you celebrated Easter in a remote valley, where there were no advertisements to tell you how to celebrate, would you know how to properly celebrate? We hate commercialism because of what it does to Christmas and Easter, but how anemic would our holiday seasons be without it? Maybe instead of complaining that the Grinch is trying to steal our Sacred days we should instead be more surprised at how easy it is for him to do so. And then maybe hyper-commercialism won’t be such a big deal anymore; as we learn to get our cues from our religious tradition.
Two weeks ago we began the traveling component of our program, known as both our spring break or the Biomes Tour. The purpose of this tour was to travel to the different biomes of Costa Rica and discuss the ecological differences of each area and how each different environment calls for different methods of conservation and sustainability. So the purpose of this trip was not to go zip-lining through the canopy, or surfing in the Pacific, or relaxing in hotsprings at the foot of a volcano, or even to watch a sea turtle swim up on shore to lay hundreds of eggs. We did all that stuff though, making our Biomes Tour all that and a bowl o’ rice, as they say here in Costa Rica.
It began with a ten mile hike to the neighboring valley where there is a sustainable farm. This farm was over two thousand acres, hosting 86 different plants, 56 with medicinal value. They used no pesticides or insecticides, they produced no waste, and the food there was absolutely incredible (probably because it didn’t have any of that preservative crap that’s loaded into all foods in the US). Now I know the word “sustainable,” thrown into the mix with “organic” and “eco-friendly,” has become all the rage in marketing in the States, but don’t write this all off as some sort of tofu-loving hippie movement. Sustainability does not mean that you have to wear burlap sacks and eat those gross gluten-free cookies for dinner. All it means that you can keep living the way you are without having to fight for resources or screw over someone else, that your lifestyle is such that you do not consume way more than you produce. I’m not an alarmist, but resources are not finite and we do have a responsibility in front of us to use what we have prudently. The woman of the family gave us a tour of the farm, pointing out plants as she went. She’d come across some whimpy looking shrub and say, “This is a such-and-such plant. It is good for headaches,” or “This plant called “blah” and is good for stopping the itching of insects.” She knew the names of all her plants, and understood what was good about each one.
The next morning, the bus driver who was to accompany us for the remainder of the trip picked us up. Actually, he was supposed to pick us up, but decided it was too hard. So after we met him, we began the ascent up a particularly steep hill out of the valley. He then told us that it would be better if we walked up this hill. No worries, it happens. We walked a bit and waited for him to come. But when he finally came, he did not stop for us. Oh no, he kept on going right out of the valley. 3.5 hours, 7.5 miles, and 4000ft of elevation gain later, a livid bunch of biology students made it to the top. And that began the power struggle that defined the relationship between the driver and the students. I have traveled all over the States on church trips, i’ve been to Europe thrice, and Costa Rica twice, and he was the worst bus driver I have ever had. I’m not bitter, it’s just that i’ve never had a bus driver who refused to take his costumers to places they wanted to go.
Anyways. Costa Rica is approximately the size of West Virginia, yet in its diversity it encompasses two oceans, mountains (with volcanos), mangrove swamps, flatlands, dry forests that resemble African plains, and tropical rain forests which are exactly as you imagine them. We stayed mostly at National Parks or ecolodges, some of the places being hours down dirt roads (though our bus driver was incredibly slow so as not to stir up dust that might dirty his bus). We were certainly off the beaten trail. It was a normal thing for howler monkeys to wake you up numerous times throughout the night. Walking through the dry forest we happened upon a boa constrictor just catchin’ some sun in the undergrowth where we had all been walking. In the wet forest we passed wild peccaries (hogs), poison dart frogs, and pit vipers. This place is not for idiots.
We saw a lot of wildlife and got into the thick science of the sustainability of different ecosystems. I’m sure if I looked back at my field notes, it would all come back to me, but for the most part it’s all blurred together. Some would argue that when you seek truth or meaning, you are actually after some sort of experience. I don’t remember any of the names of any the plants that the woman at the sustainable farm told us about. But I remember how she walked around her garden and knew each thing by name, pointing at it so as to declare “It is good.”
This week’s module was on microbial ecology. It’s not as sexy as catching snakes or caymans, but still very important in the grand scheme of things. There’s so much going on under the surface of the soil. We live in an elegant universe, indeed. Lots of time was spent in the field looking for lichens, playing with a slime mold, and figuring out why soil smells like it does.
I returned to my host family’s home one night to eat dinner and catch up. I brought with me a little taste from home: biscuits made from biscuit mix from the Loveless Cafe in Tennessee. They had never had biscuits before. I told them that biscuits are basically the pico de gallo of Tennessee. You may not think that is a very clever joke, dear reader, but let me assure you that it was very funny for the Ticos. How else was I to describe a biscuit to them? I searched and searched and I don’t think there even is a word for “biscuit” in spanish. I tried to describe it as a cake, small bread, or cookie, but none of those quite do justice. On a funny side note, I discovered that the french word for “cake” is in no way similar to the spanish word for “cake.” In french, cake is “gateau” which is very similar to “gato”, the spanish word for cat.
Research has proved to be very productive and very fun. I spend the evenings on the trails catching lizards. Recently, i’ve been dusting them with this florescent powder before I release them back into the wild. Then I return later that night with an ultraviolet light. The light illuminates the powder, showing the exact path the lizard took since I held him last. This has been very fun and has also lead to some important discoveries. But all that’s a secret for now.
Because our field station manager’s birthday is soon, we threw him a surprise party in true QERC fashion. Party games include Pin the tail on the Quetzal and a Quetzal pinata. Like i’ve said before, here at QERC we are all about the Quetzal.
Today a friend from school (who also happens to be studying abroad in Costa Rica) visited the station here in the valley. I entertained him by taking him on a trek down the river, where we scaled boulders and braved the cold water to swim in some rapids river. We walked down the trails I hike sometimes twice a day, but it doesn’t matter; this place still appears as beautiful as it did when I first arrived.
Tomorrow we leave for our biomes tour: two weeks of traveling the diverse land of Costa Rica.
This weeks module was on herpetology– basically the study of frogs, turtles, snakes, crocodiles, lizards, and everything else you’re probably secretly afraid of. I’ve had some experience with herpetology before this trip. One day my sister was pretending to be a gazelle when she stepped on a rat snake. My father heard the screams, drove over in his truck, pulled out a gun, and shot it straight through the head. Later that day another snake was seen so we beat it to death with a plastic hockey stick. Ever since then, we have had those snakes in our freezer at our farm. There is also the time I watched one of the neighborhood kids get bit by a snake at the pool because he tried to pick it up. But that’s basically it; that’s my experience with herpetology.
Fortunately, the visiting herpetologist also happens to be my research advisor. I spent the first half of the week catching up on my research, meaning I caught lizards, shot em with a laser to take their temperature, and attached transmitters to them. The latter half of the week was spent down at the lowlands, near the beach. A change of scenery usually always brings with it a change of critters that call that different place home: three-toed sloths, leaf-cutter ants, spiders with spikes on them, monkeys, iguanas, and a number of lizards, salamanders, and frogs. I don’t know why, but everything down here looks like it could kill you instantly, but just chooses not to for whatever reason. There aren’t just trees, there are trees with spikes; there aren’t just frogs, there are frogs that sweat toxin with no cure. One evening we took a night hike. During this hike we passed a muddy stream where a few pairs of eyes were visible on the water, signifying Cayman crocodiles were present. Our professor waded into the water and picked up one of the babies (with an angry mama sitting right there in the water with him). That was cool. They need to teach science more like this and less in a lecture setting. However important they may be, Biology is more than microscopes and molecules and classifications– which, by the way, get totally changed every ten years.
For the weekend, we went to the beach down by Manuel Antonio. We went sea kayaking in the Pacific and had fresh smoothies with just about every meal. One night we had dinner at a restaurant called El Avion, which is built around a plane that crashed into a mountain in Nicaragua or Columbia. I think the plane technically belonged to America, but because they never reclaimed it it now serves as a bar.
Walking back from doing research one day, I showed my advisor a picture of a dead snake i’d see a week ago on the trail.
“Oh that’s a pit viper,” he said as he took the lead ahead of me.
“Yikes, and those aren’t suppose to be up this high are they?” In fact, poisonous snakes are moving up the valley as average temperatures are getting warmer. You can imagine why this would be a big problem to the farming residents of San Gerardo and tourists who are hours from the nearest anti-venom.
“Yeah, that’s too bad,” he said disappointedly. It really seemed to bum him out.
“Because the snakes are moving up the mountain?” I declared more than I asked, but he was thinking something different:
“Because somebody stopped and killed it.”
That comment stalled me for a bit. I’ve heard of a lot of environmentalists talk about why we should save the polar bears. And of course the pandas too! Pandas are cute. Somebody would have to be deranged to want to eliminate all those fluffy bears that sit around and eat bamboo all day. Pit vipers, however, simply don’t have the same kind of advocacy. Why save something that’s scaly and poisonous? It takes a lot of something to want to do that. That something could be courage or just plain tree-huggerness. Or it could be placing value in something you don’t see as beneficial to yourself, almost like you understand that you aren’t the ultimate judge in what’s valuable and what is discardable. Do me a favor next time, you who are reading this: Don’t kill a snake the next time you see one. Sure, if it’s endangering your child or has your puppy in a choke hold, then you can beat it with a hockey stick; but if you just walk across one slithering along, let it be. It has value that you don’t understand.
It’s always fun when conservation efforts involve hacking down bamboo shoots with a machete. There is a place in the valley where a pair of Quetzals is nesting, and because the Quetzal Educational Research Center is all about the Quetzals, a few of us were recruited to help construct a bamboo fence to keep the crazy birders from getting too close. So now, thanks to us and our machete-wielding skills, those birders have to watch the resplendence from afar. It really doesn’t matter though because each bird-watching tourist comes with its own camera and lens big enough that it probably re-stimulated Japan’s economy for the next month.
This week’s module was on Tropical Medicine. We explored this genre of diseases called the Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs). The NTDs (like elephantitis, leprosy, schistosoma) inflict upwards to 40 million people, mostly in areas with poor standards of hygiene. I saw some of this during my stay in Nicaragua: pigs and turkeys walking in and out of the house, kids who literally pick up animal poop and throw it or smoosh it around in their hands, etc. The public health instructions are simple enough: if you wear shoes, cook your pork, and stay out of sketchy water, you should be fine. There are potentially vaccinations that could be distributed, but because these diseases mostly inflict the forgotten people, who we don’t encounter and who cannot pay us for this medicine, production of the vaccinations is not undergone. This shows how, unfortunately, the field of medicine has become increasingly political. Especially in the States, there is so much red tape for doctors to hack through that it prevents them from doing the most good they can with their skills. I have immense respect for people who fight that battle on a daily basis. We take our doctors for granted and probably even feel too much entitlement to receiving healthcare. At the end of this class we had possibly the most lacksidaisical lab practical I have ever experienced. During the test I made a cup of hot chocolate, took my jeans off the clothes line, and remembered I had forgotten to brush my teeth that morning.
My research advisor is here this week to lead next week’s module on herpetology, which also happens to be my field of research. Costa Rica is a hotspot for herps. Now I want to clarify because I know that some of you are be thinking, “Isn’t that a disease you get when you…” NO. It’s not. That’s herpes. I am studying herps. Anyways, because he has arrived with the equipment, I can finally begin the data-gathering portion of my research project. Today was spent catching our first specimen, attaching a transmitter to its body (we tried to use superglue, but had to resort to affixing it with a string one of us found in our bags), and crawling around the brush placing sensors that will read the ambient temperature. This is great. I go on hikes, catch lizards, and climb around on the mountainsides hiding expensive technology. I could not feel more official. I even have a special passport for research that I can pull out to show people who question my official-ness.
On Saturday the local schoolhouse was having a bingo fundraiser, so all the QERC students bought a card and played. I used to think my family was crazy for turning bingo into a competitive activity every Thanksgiving, but San Gerardo residents take bingo to a whole new level. The stakes were high: winning a bingo game could cause you to receive anything from a bag or rice to a bottle of rum. Whenever somebody would yell bingo, the rest of the crowd would jeer them in spanish. It was cool to see a big portion of the community there all together. I saw my host family, QERC’s lovely cook and her family, the Chacons (the people who virtually settled the valley), and random people I run past every day all interacting together. After two months, we have integrated well into the community. Maybe too well, actually. There are a few kids who live next door to the QERC station. I played baseball with them one day and immediately became their hero or something. But somehow, playing baseball with the gringos turned into throwing rocks at and attacking the gringos. Why is it that even in Costa Rica I find myself in situations where kids think it is the best thing ever to try to hurt me as much as they can? So now I have a pack of kids I have to evade whenever I leave the station. After school, they get on their bikes and will circle the station. But fortunately I have plenty experience in the field of “dodging barbaric children who want to kill you”. So I continue to outsmart them and yell “malitos” as I get away (which means “little evil ones”).
Taken from Jay’s blog at http://shouldabeenacowboy.tumblr.com/
The group spent the last two weeks hitting all the hotspots in Nicaragua. No. We were there because we had to leave the country for at least three days to renew our visas, not because the tourism scene is particularly lovely or even that it’s a safe place to vacation. Everything I had ever heard of this country was negative. All research I did prior to the trip only painted Nicaragua as a country of political discord and anti-Americanism. Our welcoming into the country did nothing to disaffirm those rumors. The money-changers at the border conned the group out of a collective $250 and there was trash everywhere, as well as the pleasant aroma of warm urine.
We continued our wonderful sojourn to the capital city of Managua. I kept waiting to arrive at the bustling center city, but it never happened. That’s because there is no downtown Managua. Lots of cars, lots of people, lots of trash, and that’s Managua. The city was destroyed in an earthquake in the seventies, and because geologists say there there will be a massive earthquake every forty years, the city hasn’t taken much initiative to rebuild. One source told us there are fewer than ten buildings with more than two stories. Regardless, Managua is overdo for another massive earthquake.
One of the more ridiculous parts about touring the city was when we would walk down the street and people would literally stop and stare. Entire buses would be full of people staring out the window at the gringos on parade. One man stopped and took a picture. There just aren’t many gringos that go to Managua.
We had a professor of history come give us the low down on the political climate and history of Nicaragua. She revealed to us that Nicaraguans pride themselves on being poets. This influences their government because they prefer that their leaders be poetic over being economic. Apparently one of the worst things you can be is an economist. Furthermore, their last election was rigged, and everybody knows it was rigged, but everybody participated in the election nonetheless. The professor called this sort of political turmoil “exciting” boasting that “at least they aren’t as boring as their stable neighbors” (Costa Rica).
We then spent a few days at a pueblo (small farm) el compo (the Nicaraguan equivalent of the bush). To get there took a two hour truck ride, the last hour on a dirt road cutting through rivers and over mountains. We came to the pueblo to construct a sustainable irrigation system for a few of the farmers.
The little electricity in the pueblo was from solar panels that charge car batteries. Our internal clocks became adjusted to the rising and setting of the sun. Life revolves around work on the pueblo (except for Sundays where they all place baseball). Every meal was the same. We ate corn tortillas (from corn we helped husk earlier) with rice and beans and a fresh cup of coffee. During every meal, Dona Tella (my host mother) would chase turkeys, pigs, chickens, or wild dogs that were wandering through her house with a whip she had always at arm’s reach. Our sleeping quarters were cots in a narrow hallway of a room used for storing grain in a mud house with dirt floors and no electricity. Because the community doesn’t exactly go through much trash, any trash they had was simply tossed out into the yard. But something tells me their lifetime pile of trash was roughly the size of what we produce per month. Other typical events of the day include tripping over a pig on the way to the outhouse, being woken up thrice a night by roosters, and being passed by a 10 year old boy herding cattle while riding bareback.
These are the people who live off of less than two dollars a day. I know that there are some places where poverty is crippling and people go hungry. But this was example of a different sort of place where people don’t have much and are happy, despite that they live in mud homes, wear disheveled clothing, and eat the same fuel everyday.
After the pueblo, we finished the trip in Granada. It also happened to be their International Poetry Festival. There also happened to be karaoke in the middle of the city’s central plaza. And there also happened to be a certain gringo who got oncored after singing Aerosmith’s “I don’t want to miss a thing” for hundreds of Nicaraguans. After four days of not showering and eating mostly beans and tortillas, we stayed at a hotel with A.C. and comfy pillows. We took showers and gorged ourselves on bacon cheeseburgers. I can function on beans and corn tortillas and I can function on cheeseburgers and oreo cookie milkshakes; I can function with warm showers and Wi-Fi and I can function with no electricity or running water.
And it’s amazing how quickly something can become commonplace. I’d almost become too accustomed to waterfalls, Quetzals, and evening fog rolling in from the Caribbean. Then I went into the city and quickly adapted to trash, potholes, and perpetual exhaust. The lesson to be learned is that humans adjust marvelously to their surroundings. That environment can either be paradise or Hell on Earth, and what that becomes is left largely to your own agency.
We’ve returned to Costa Rica now and it’s good to be back on this side of the border with my waterfalls and Quetzals.