Saturday, March 31, 2012

One more for the ride

I am currently in the Orlando airport waiting for our connecting flight to Boston, which has been delayed by 1h30. These last few days have been a whirlwind of events and I will try to share as much as possible.

Thursday, we went to a banana plantation and opinions were split upon whether or not this large corporation was hiding information from us. We did spend a ridiculous amount of time watching power points showing off the merits of Chiquita and its numerous outreach programs and none in the plantation or the packing plant. That night we even had an organized debate where our most vegan member surprisingly defended – to a certain extent – the use of pesticides. In reality, she was only correcting a technical error that many of us were making (using pesticides is not bad for the consumer’s health because of how thick banana skins are) but the fact remains that she sat on the pro-commercial side of the argument for a couple minutes.

In the afternoon, because of how far away it was, we weren’t able to make it to a non-commercial banana plantation. Instead we had the time to ourselves and went to visit the local people. First we went into town and I once again tried my hand at interpreting. We asked the local people how they felt about the rainforest and the government’s efforts to preserve it and surprisingly most of them agreed with those policies and felt they were important.

Then Shanté and Jakob told me about a couple that made pottery a short way out of the hotel, and how the day before they had conversed with them in French!! Indeed the woman is French and moved here after she fell in love while on holiday. We had a long conversation where we asked her questions in French and she translated to her partner in Spanish when she didn’t know the answer he then answered and she transmitted the information to me which I then relayed on to the others in English, all of this recorded for a potential radio program.

It was very interesting to see everyday life broken down for us by someone who knew how we thought. She explained for instance that the people live in a day-by-day matter, and if they can’t buy food on one day, they believe God will give them double the next. She also translated that no matter the amount of money her partner would not doing anything else because “no hay dinero que valga si no tenemos cultura, si no tenemos bosque, si no tenemos naturaleza.”

Yesterday, we woke up bright and early in order to go bird watching. At first the pickings were rather slim. Therefore, we left the garden area, where the more colorful birds live - since there is less of a canopy, there is more light for them to show off their colorful plumage – and went into the forest. Despite our guides pessimism due to the denser canopy we heard a Motmot, Our guide then imitated its call (with surprising acuracy) and instead attracted a different, much more territorial Motmot. The bird is so beautiful!

On our way back to get breakfast, we saw a spider monkey (see video below) and a parrot. These definitely made the early morning worthwhile!

In the evening, after a coffee tour plantation – where most people stocked up on fair trade, organic coffee – and a hydroelectric plant, we had asalsa dancing class. It was entertaining to watch everyone come together and learn to dance. Even our teachers joined in!

I’m still hoping we will get to Boston before midnight. Perhaps the storms over Florida will abate and we will be able to leave soon.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The rainy forest

Today we switched focus from biodiversity to eco-tourism. This means we went out to a local sustainable farm for breakfast this morning. Many of us weren’t too happy at getting up even earlier than previous days to do this but we once again piled into the cars at 6:15 this morning on our way to Finca-Albergue. This small village is at a higher altitude than Tirimbina (1000m or 3000 feet) and the access road was not meant for minivans. My van driver once even had to ask all the guys to get out and push while the rest of us sat in the front of the car as dead weight to give the driving wheels more friction (MIT students never stop doing physics). As we caught up to them, we saw Erin – a TA – rescuing a horse from some barbed wire. Later up the hill two of the three vans were once again stuck. After a couple failed attempts, everyone was forced to walk up the hill while the cars stayed parked at the bottom.

The reward was worth our while though. The farm served us the most delicious breakfast ever, all of it home made by the farmer, José and his wife. We had cheese and traditional round bread, rice and scrambled eggs, fresh pineapple, what they call a cake that tasted like the most delicious corn bread ever, a hard pastry filled with guava jam and the best drink ever to top it off, it was very warm and

Today, and a little last night, we also got our first taste of rain in a rain forest. The sound is beautiful and the coolness it brings refreshing. The radio students aren’t as happy with the rain because it means that they need to take extra care with the fragile equipment and keep it out of the rain. The best way to do this is to cover the microphone in a condom! Now, the radio people are already being somewhat invasive because in order to get good sound you need to hold the microphone rather close to someone’s mouth. Imagine the scene when the protected microphone is held up to a speaker’s mouth!

I hope tomorrow will be as exciting as today was!

A Day to Remember

Yesterday was by far the best day of the trip and a day that I will undoubtedly never forget. Of course several things happened in succession that added to it sticking in my mind. For one, Nikita found an adorably cute (but poisonous) caterpillar that had red, black and white fur, and I absolutely fell in maternal love with it. It crawled in the most amazing way, and literally held my attention for the entire trek through the forest.

Also, the most important thing on the “things-I-wanted-to-see-in-Costa-Rica-list?” I saw it. A sloth with a baby on its stomach lying in the trees definitely competed with the caterpillar for my excitement. Also, I think so much of our attention had been focused on the small caterpillars that it was nice to be reminded of the larger mammals that represent the diversity of the tropics. This picture is a very blurry but I'll try to get a better one from others who were there soon!

And what better way to end the day than with real, live, adorable bats caught and studied in Tirimbina?

Undoubtedly, however, everything almost seemed to pale in comparison to my experience in the afternoon. During our hour-and-a-half of relaxation, Jaya, Ana, and I (all of whom are Terrascope Radio students) decided to explore the community outside of Tirimbina, and possibly hear the voices of the people of Costa Rica. We weren’t really sure what we would get, but armed with Ana as our translator, we stepped out of our carefully-planned schedule and walked to some neighboring roads. After almost making one woman miss her bus, talking to a high-schooler about the lack of school education in biodiversity, hearing a construction worker describe how so much has changed in Costa Rica regarding the blind destruction of forests and wildlife for agriculture, and adorable little five-year-olds who made animal noises, we thought it couldn’t get any better. With the remaining time, we crossed the street to talk to perhaps one last person.

A little further down the road stood a small house completely surrounded by gardens and greenery, with an elderly couple on the front porch. After Ana explained what we were doing and got their permission to interview, we walked up to them and stood outside of the porch, expecting this to be pretty short. Soon however, they invited us on their porch, and a few minutes after, the woman led us to her garden and showed us her cacao tree (the plant responsible for chocolate goodness). She showed us her dogs and cats, and Ana continued to lead a conversation with her as Jaya and I stood transfixed. When asked about why and how she chose to make her house full of greenery, she said simply that they were very poor and didn’t know any other way to live. When Ana asked her about school, we were in for another surprise. Her mother had passed away at a young age, and her dad gave her away to one of her aunts. As she recounted the ways in which she and her sister had been horribly mistreated and abused, tears filled her eyes, and words actually can’t describe the way my heart wrenched. As Jaya later said, “Of all the lectures we’ve had this week, there was nothing like this where I just couldn’t take my eyes off of her face—and I didn’t even understand what she was saying!” The woman led us back to the front porch, and we thought we were about to leave, when suddenly the man told us to come with him. He took us back to the cacao tree and told us about his early years working in Tirimbina biological reserve. As we was doing this, he hand-pollinated the flowers of the cacao tree. I didn’t even realize my mouth had dropped open until I turned to Jaya and Ana and saw the same expression on their faces. And as if this wasn’t enough, he gave us a cacao fruit to take home.

For me, that is what our trip is really about. The naturalism and science that we have been experiencing for the past few days is incredibly interesting and valuable, but our days of fieldwork almost made me lose sight of the larger importance. And yes, this may sound incredibly cliché, but we are here to understand a world different than ours and completely immerse ourselves in it for a week, and maybe we had forgotten to do that. This couple, in only half an hour, led us into their lives, opened up their hearts, and simply gave everything they could without any expectations or strings attached. If there’s anything I can convey from this trip to the world, it’s that privilege of hearing someone’s story, of being allowed into their past, is a feeling that you can just never forget.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

For Science!

Hello world! Now that that is out of the way, I'd like to introduce my perspective on this journey into the wild. I'm just going to jump in and hopefully you can gain insight into my perception.

When I initially explored the jungles here in Costa Rica, I couldn't help but notice that my brain was convinced that none of it was real. Perhaps it was too much Far Cry 2, or exposure to the plastic plants in the doctor's office, but I undeniably perceived the world in a strange pseudo-reality lense. My brain was persistently searching for the signature bad shadow casting or low anti-aliasing I've been familiar with in so many jungle based video games. It was only after a lot of polygon searching and leaf sampling before I finally determined that either it was advanced ray-tracing, or that it was all real. Today, I can definitively say that my perception has finally accepted the fact that I am in Costa Rica. I'm glad I got that figured out.

In case you have not figured out from the other posters, we left Pozo Azul today. As a Mainer, I assure you that Pozo Azul offers a very authentic camping experience. The tents were open allowing all the sounds of the jungle to fill the enclosure, and each tent was tucked into peaceful pockets of vegetation in such a way that the view out of the front of the tent was completely filled with jungle. It really made you feel like you were alone with just the jungle as your acquaintance. This is what I look for in a camp site, and it is what made Pozo Azul such an immersive experience. Nonetheless, we had to leave, and after the last delicious breakfast (where I took advantage once again of the fruit of unprecedented flavor) we all piled into the vans and took off to Tirimbina.

Tirimbina is another research area that is home of many projects revolving around the rich biodiversity of Costa Rica. Our task for the first half of today was to continue assisting in the catapillar research. My group was in charge of circling a small mountain and trudging through the jungle in search of caterpillars. We were instructed to collect the caterpillars that were found specifically on the piper plant, which is the food of choice for the generalist caterpillars. Now, one would think, being a rain forest and all, that finding a caterpillar would be a relatively simple task. It's warm, and moist, and shady, and there are things to eat everywhere. This proved to not be true. In fact, over the entire time that we were searching, I was only able to find one. Don't accuse me of not trying either. I covered many miles in my knee high rubber boots, through many perils, and risked my life against spiders, bullet ants, and blistered feet in search of these caterpillars. I was rather ashamed at my weak accomplishment, but it appeared I was simply lacking the gift of locating these elusive creatures.

After a couple hours of this frustration, Alex and I began to explore the surrounding paths in the hope that maybe the caterpillars were hiding in a place not where we were designated to look. The only thing we were able to find was a suspension bridge that was much higher than any of the previous suspension bridges. When faced with with this new and wonderful achievement of engineering, we simply could not resist the temptation to investigate every aspect of this bridge. It didn't take long before we realized that this bridge did not have the same amount of dampening that the other bridges had. Each step, if done at the correct time, would amplify the movement of the bridge by several degrees. To see this large metal structure twist and ripple as it did was equally a fascinating and a horrifying experience. Nothing in my life could have prepared me for this. Alex and I simply gripped the hand rails and let friction save our lives. another interesting feature of this bridge was that we were actually very near the tree tops. This revealed that trees sway quite a bit in the wind, which resulted in several panic attacks as I thought the bridge was sliding away from the land, when in actuality it was just a trick of perspective the trees were playing on me. As I've already explained, my perception of things is not the most reliable, so this seemed very real to me, and I'm pretty sure a few surges of adrenaline resulted. Nonetheless, Alex and I were very impressed by the entire display of engineering.

Forgive me for skipping some of the other details of the day, but at this time it is getting late and I would really like to mention the amazing lecture about bats. I should preface this by stating I have not had a lot of experience with bats. There were a lot of bats that flew around the barn on the farm that I grew up on, but other than that, I did not realize the awesomeness that is bats. First of all, they are closely related to primates, and because of this, they have many interesting anatomical characteristics that totally blew my mind. There are bats that resemble, with chilling similarity, dogs, skunks, sheep, and other mammals. I mean this in the most literal way. They looked strikingly like these other mammals. To me, that is really cool. Also, we learned of the various dietary classifications of bats and how to identify them. The different diets included fruit, nectar, insects, blood, and fish. Believe it or not, the "blood sucking" bats only account for 3 of the 1100 species of bats. These are the only bats the pose real threats to farmers due to infections from open wounds on their cattle. Part of the goal is to inform the farmers how to identify these bats so that they do not unnecessarily kill the other harmless bats. The presenter also gave us a close-up view of a couple live bats, both of which I was able to identify as fruit eaters, thanks to what I had learned. Because of this lecture, I've gained a huge amount of respect for these mammals, and I’m looking forward to applying this knowledge in the future to protect them.

Well folks, I'm rather tired now. Gotta get up for 6:15 to visit a dairy farm. Not gonna lie, the farmer in me is excited to see the cows!

No caterpillars to be found

I’m sorry I didn’t post yesterday but we were still in the first lodge where the router only works on every third day after a full moon, if there is a prime number of mosquitoes in the room and once 5 separate people have chanted in voodoo.

Instead, a couple of us went exploring the surrounding forest where we followed butterflies and found a horseshoe. Perhaps it will ward away the mosquitoes. On the way back to dinner I was amazed to see how many stars are in the sky when you are not surrounded by city lights. Their number more than doubles! Stars really are beautiful. It’s really too bad that cities are so bright.

So, yesterday, during the day we helped scientist Lee Dyer count caterpillars and were sent out into the field to collect as many as we could find. My group was brutally unsuccessful (we found many "blue jean" frogs and colorful spiders to compensate though), but since others had more luck than we did our final total was 140 individuals! We even found a species that Lee had never seen before. Scientific research is very unpredictable.

Here are a couple samples of non-caterpillars:

For lunch, we had the most amazing drink: horchata. The most surprising part was that, apparently, you can buy it at Ana’s, MIT’s fast food burrito place. I know where I’m going next time I’m thirsty!

This morning as we were packing, we noticed that some tourists were staying in the resort, and to my great surprise they were speaking French! The students that are in the radio class decided to interview a couple of them and I tried my hand at interpreting for them. It’s much harder than it looks. Especially when the person goes on for a while and you forget what they said at first.

We then arrived at Tirimbina, our new place to stay, and went out to look for more caterpillars. I was very disappointed to once again find none. My morale was boosted however by the fact that I had a short conversation – though admittedly it didn’t flow very well – with out tour guide who only spoke Spanish. Knowing that those five years of classes were not in vain is rather comforting.

We were supposed to look for caterpillars off the path, in order to find them in a more natural setting and this rapidly turned into an Indiana Jones-like trek through undergrowth, over roots and under vines. My hat and braids completed the picture appropriately.

Today I also got to play with the radio equipment. It is amazing how much it enhances the sound of every nearby bird! I also caught on tape our second guide explaining to us how the local wildlife use the suspension bridges around the reserve – they know this from images taken my motion censor cameras. The raccoons will wait until there are no people around before crossing, but our presence does not seem to disturb them more than that. It is nice to see that despite some fears that eco-tourism, if conducted on too large a scale, can disturb the natural environment, this is not always the case.

I am about to leave for a bat talk! More on that later.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Resonance, Toucans and Cocoa

I should have expected it, after how pitch black 6pm was last night, but waking up at 5:45 am to light, birds and cicadas was a shock. Admittedly, the canopy is so thick in our camps that the light wasn't strong enough inside the tent to see much. The sounds were nicer than last night's though: toads are rather loud and obnoxious. I will include the recording of their croak when I learn how to do that.

After a delicious breakfast, we piled - 14 at a time - into minivans and were jostled along to the sound of Bob Marley to la Selva Biological Reserve.

La Selva is only accessible via a suspension bridge that is 15m high and 100m long. My MIT training rapidly kicked in and coerced me into searching for the resonance frequency of the bridge. My diabolic side then took over and, with Jakob's help, we made the bridge move quite a bit.

We then explored the local forest, discovered brightly colored fauna and recorded new and different sounds. Our guide also had many interesting stories to share. One story I really enjoyed was that since he moved to this area of the country, he has seen more fauna than before, even in his own backyard. He has birdfeeders with pineapple and bananas for toucans and other local birds. He also mentioned that when he forgets to leave fruit out, they attempt to come and get it themselves from his kitchen.

Here are a couple of pictures of local wildlife.

The best way to finish off the day was with another suspension bridge (24m high and 262m long). This bridge however needed no help to undulate and make people uneasy. It was worth the hassle though, because on the other side we were greeted with chocolate tasting from cocoa bean to hard chocolate and every other state along the fabrication process.

We also were given some beans that will allow us to make our own chocolate thanks to our newly acquired knowledge. Hungry yet?

Catching Up

So, due to technical issues with Blogger I wasn't able to write about my experiences yesterday on our first day. But no worries! I blogged on my phone all day and am reproducing it right here for you, also with updates from today. Here goes :)

Saturday, March 24, 2012

We finally made it! After a nauseous landing and 45 minutes of driving in circles around the airport, we are now supposedly getting food, although of course, plans are always just that: plans.

And now… we’re standing still again, leading to everyone taking out their frustration with boredom on the camera, and I have to say, pictures of me putting my contacts in were NOT flattering to say the least (*ahem* Alexandriya).


It’s supposed to take 1.5 hours to get to La Selva Biological Station, so I’ve been typing this on my phone with the intent of posting it later. As we drive through the streets, a couple of us are ecstatically pointing out how much this reminds us of India. The ways the houses are built, the thousands of colorful billboards, and those gates and gratings that are so typical of Indian houses are everywhere here. The only difference as far as we could tell was the number of people. Although Ana says it reminds her of Mexico, so maybe we just naturally compare places to experiences we have had.

*Later still on the bus*

Absolutely stunning, jaw dropping mountains completely covered in tropical greenery are staring back at me right now as we drive down a really windy road. Every once in a while the greenery bordering the road will part and reveal an immensely vast valley of vegetation shrouded in fog, leading to frenzied camera clicks, usually in vain.

*In our tent suites at Pozo Azul ("Blue Well")*

You do NOT understand the meaning of fresh fruit until you come here. The pineapple and watermelon are to die for, and as one person said, I would definitely get my recommended daily intake of fruit if it tasted like this! We were also privileged to listen to Carlos Roberto Chavarria, the director of the Tirimbina Ecological Reserve, and I was just struck by how deeply he cared for ecological conservation. He always says that he has two sons and Tirimbina is his daughter. I also got to talk to him later, and I liked how realistic he was about ecological/biological diversity. After my first day here, I have to say that Costa Rica has certainly surpassed expectations.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Okay. It’s super late (not by MIT standards but considering that we wake up at 6am every day and walk around in the hot sun and humidity and all day, it’s late.). I have logged SO MUCH SOUND for radio. And I’m super sleepy. So I probably won’t be doing justice to today. Some highlights:

  1. Dr. Lee Dyer told us about the research we’ll be doing in the field and his paradigms of “interaction diversity”
  2. We went on nature walks with absolutely amazing guides who knew almost everything there was to know about the rainforests.
  3. We saw moths mating!!!!
  4. We ate chocolate from every step of the process in Tirimbina Ecological Reserve.
  5. We had an awesome discussion during relaxing period about the Walking palms (which according to some, are trees that actually “walk” by destroying old roots and building new ones further away) becoming an indestructible army, the incredibly high amounts of colones (2,500 colones for a meal) and potential reasons lying in the history of using currency itself, which led to discussions about gold and precious metals, which lead to stories of King Midas, and finallyyy the potential for Jed to harness the power of fusion energy from the ability to turn things to gold.
  6. I survived a really scary, long suspension bridge that swayed a ridiculous amount from side to side.
  7. And most importantly, food as always was fantastic.

Buenas noches!