Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Nicaragua... and FIRE

Upon leaving Monteverde, we set off on a seven-hour bus ride for Nicaragua. We arrived, ate lunch, cleared Costa Rican customs, and loaded our backpacks and ourselves into a strange bus-like boat on the San Juan River. From there we traveled three hours downriver to the west, stopping at one point to clear Nicaraguan customs. We arrived at our station at Refugia Bartola around 7:30, unloaded the boat, and moved into our three-person rooms. Refugia Bartola was an interesting combination between a tourist lodge and a biological station. While the rooms were rustic and bare (bunk beds with mosquito nets), the dining and common area was a beautiful paved area with hammocks, a long rectangular table with a white tablecloth, and a high thatch roof. Unlike at the other stations, the meals at Refugia Bartola were served to us, complete with different courses! Temporarily, we felt like we were living in luxury.

^The boat that took us down the San Juan River to Refugia Bartola.

^View from the boatride.

^The dining and common area at Refugia Bartola.

We spent the day after our arrival doing the usual new-station business - learning about the area and going on orientation walks. We also began preparing for the two faculty-led projects that were supposed to take place that week, which involved catching fish in the river and wandering through the woods looking for bat tents under big leaves. After dinner, we caught bats and nets and examined them in the thatch-roof common area, which was really neat. The professor that was handling the bats got bitten at one point, and we've been teasing him ever since that he now has rabies. We went to bed that night tired and happy, but were rudely awakened in the middle of the night... I'm going to just paste the story of what happened that I e-mailed to a few of my friends.

^Cool tree in the forest near the lodge.

^One of the bats we netted and examined.

First, a quick description of the place where we were staying - the main part of the building was a wide, really tall circular open area with a thatch roof that served as the dining room, common area, etc. To this was attached the kitchen, and to the kitchen a row of eight small bunk rooms with 3-4 beds in each room - I was staying in room 7.

On Tuesday night my two roommates and I went to bed at 11:11 (I know this because it was 11/11 so we decided to stay up and make a wish). We woke up sometime after midnight to our professor yelling from outside and other loud noises - a fire had started in the kitchen and the huge thatch roof was completely consumed in flames that were probably three or four stories high. I ran out my door, looked to my right, and was (seriously) temporarily frozen with fear. I remember wondering how in the world the fire had gotten so huge before anyone woke up - it was terrifying. After a second I realized that some other students were standing outside their rooms looked dazed, so (in true form) I started yelling my head off... something like, "WAKE UP EVERYONE IN YOUR ROOM! GET YOUR PASSPORT, GET A LIGHT, PUT YOUR SHOES ON, AND GET OUUUUTTTT!" My classmates later joked that for once, my painfully loud voice had come in handy. We quickly made our way out of the building for fear that the gasoline in the kitchen would explode, but it turned out that had already happened while we were still sleeping. With the help of the guys at the station, we managed to get everyone's stuff out of their rooms, because the wind was blowing away from the bunk rooms and the fire was actually moving slowly. Amazingly, the guys at the station managed to put the fire out by tearing out the roof above the first bunk room and spraying it with a hose - in the end, the fire only reached the first bunk room. The only thing I lost was my watch, and my only injury was an absolutely huge and disgusting bruise on my leg- I probably ran into something in the initial panic, but I strangely have no recollection of doing so. We left Nicaragua the next morning the same way we had come and stayed in San Jose until the following Saturday, when we traveled to Palo Verde in the northwest of Costa Rica. Thinking back to the whole thing seems pretty surreal -none of us like to think of how bad things could have been if our professor hadn't heard the fire and woken up (there were, of course, no fire alarms). We were also extremely lucky that the wind was blowing away from our rooms - we were completely in the middle of nowhere and would have been in major trouble had the fire made its way into the adjoining forest.

^Nobody really got much in the way of pictures of the fire, but here's one Becca took- the flames you can see are rising high above the bunk rooms, which are between the camera and the fire.

^The dining area the morning after the fire.

^Sorting through all of our stuff the morning after the fire was a bit of a nightmare as everything had been thrown in a giant pile in the rush to get it out of the building, but obviously we were just grateful not to have lost all of it.

Thankfully, our professors gave us a lot of free time during our couple of days in San Jose, so we were all able to calm down and chill out a little bit. We're now staying at an OTS station in Palo Verde, but more on that to come later.

^Claire and I dying Tim's hair blue on one of our free nights in San Jose... good times.


After midterm break ended, we returned to San Jose to pack for the most rustic two weeks of the semester. We would spend one week in the Monteverde cloud forest and one in Nicaragua, and because we had to hike in to the station in Monteverde, we had to pack all our belongings for the two weeks into one backpack. On the Monday after break ended, we set off for Monteverde. On the way, we stopped to visit one of the strangest ecosystems I have seen: mangroves. For a few hours, we hiked (trudged) in our rubber boots through the most disgusting-smelling, deep, and sticky mud I have ever seen. To make things worse, a common characteristic of mangrove tree species is pneumatophores, which are roots that grow up and out of the ground to get oxygen from the air. As we walked through these upward-pointing roots, they flung mud absolutely everywhere, with the end result that we left the mangrove completely drenched in mud that smelled like sewage. Of course, after this, we had to ride in the bus for a few more hours with a stop for lunch at a restaurant before we arrived in Monteverde. Ewwwww.

^Mangroves with pneumatophores... ewwwww.

After a terrifying (for me, anyway, as I am terrified of driving anywhere near cliffs) drive through the mountains to an altitude of 1200 m in north-central Costa Rica, we left our bus and hiked to the Monteverde station with our backpacks. The first half of the hike was on a road (impassable for the bus), and the other half was through the woods. It was steeply downhill the entire way, and after about an hour we arrived at San Geraldo station in El Bosque de los Niños. The station was rustic, with generator power for only about four hours each night and no hot water (and by this I mean FREEZING cold water to go along with the cold mountain temperatures). From our rooms we had a beautiful view of Arenal Volcano, and a few nights we even saw red lava glowing as it flowed down the volcano.

^View of Arenal Volano from the porch of the station.

^Hanging out on the porch outside our rooms at night :)

We had a pretty full week at Monteverde, which included a visit from two local biologists - one a bird specialist and the other an amphibian specialist. We spent one very early morning netting birds, which was really fun as we each got to learn how to hold, examine, and identify the birds we caught. We also went on a night hike with Mark Wainwright, the amphibian specialist. He's a pretty famous guy here, having written and illustrated about a zillion books and guides on the fauna of Costa Rica. We also had our second plant exam (ewww) and somehow found the time for some epic games of ultimate frisbee, charades, ping pong, and the like.

^One of the birds we caught in the mist nets.

^Cool herbivory we saw on the night hike - something ate part of the Heliconia leaf while it was young and still rolled up.

Towards the end of the week, we got some entertainment from the removal of a botfly from Jess's head (the fifth one she had). If you're not familiar with botflies, basically what happens is that a mosquito that has a botfly egg inside it bites you and inserts it under your skin. The egg then hatches and a larva grows under your skin - it turns into a bump that apparently gets pretty painful as the larva grows. If you leave it alone, it will eventually (after up to two months) crawl out on its own. Jess had her previous four botflies (three on her shoulder and one on her head) removed by a doctor while we were in San Jose, but as we were completely isolated in Monteverde, our professors elected to stick a small tub of Vaseline on top of the botfly to cut off its oxygen source, forcing it to crawl out. This worked pretty well, but getting the larva completely out was pretty disgusting (see photo).

^Botfly larva coming out of Jess's head... ewww.

Our last day in Monteverde was a rest day, and a bunch of us hiked out of the station to go to Selvatura, a local touristy place where we went ziplining through the forest and walked around on the canopy bridges. On the morning we left, we had to hike with our backpacks back out the way we had come - i.e., up the extremely steep hill we had mostly slid down on the way in. It took us about double the time, with everyone stopping periodically on the way to gasp for breath and gulp water. Despite the fact that we had all been convinced we would never make it back up the hill with all our stuff (we had half-jokingly discussed the possibility of throwing clothes, soap, books, etc into the road as we hiked), we eventually all made it back to the bus and were on the way to Nicaragua.

^Kiva ziplining through the Monteverde forest.

^Canopy bridges at Selvatura.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Nirvana Semana!

Semana = "week" in Spanish. Nirvana = "the perfect peace of the mind." Nirvana Semana = GLORIOUS.

For our week-long midterm break, fourteen of us rented a beach house on Playa Flamingo on the Pacific coast. Including an adjoining apartment, our house sleeps 18 and has a nice kitchen, TV, big boom box, hammocks, beautiful porch, pool, etc. A flight of stairs leads down to the beach, which is mostly deserted because it's the off-season. Other than dealing with scheduling classes for next semester and registration, we spent the week chilling on the beach, going deep-sea fishing and snorkeling, kayaking, swimming in the pool, playing the guitar, watching movies, and generally enjoying ourselves to the max. Most of us bought food on a group basis and we cooked a delicious dinner in-house every single night. The sunsets over the beach were absolutely gorgeous, and one night we cooked hot dogs and roasted marshmallows out on the beach. Tomorrow, we'll take the return 6-hour bus ride back to San Jose, and on Monday morning we're off to Monteverde and then Nicaragua. We won't have internet at either site, so I'll be out of touch until about November 17. ¡Hasta luego!

^Kiva, Tim, Whitney, and a random dog watching the sun set on the beach.

^On our second-to-last night, we were visited by an unusually bold anteater.

^In honor of Halloween, Courtney carved a watermelon. Fabulous.

^Deep-sea fishing! Unfortunately, Whitney caught the only fish of the entire day.

^View of the sunset from our porch.

^Billy decided to catch a giant iguana we found. He's probably going to have scars from its claws... no, seriously.

^Campfire on the beach! Tim is for some reason eating ketchup in this picture...

^Our house, Villa Martita. Wonderful :)

Weekend Fun

While living in San Pedro, we took full advantage of our weekends to enjoy ourselves and explore what Costa Rica has to offer. Here's a quick synopsis.

Whitewater Rafting
On the Saturday of our first weekend, 12 of the OTS students went on an all-day rafting trip on the Pacuare River. We left the language school a little after 6 AM and returned right before dinner, exhausted and somewhat sunburned. We were in six-person rafts with a guide in the back yelling instructions, of which my favorite was "GET DOWN!", which was when you dove to the center of the raft to avoid flipping over in a huge wave. My only previous whitewater rafting experiences had been in two-person rafts, so this was different and really fun. I was lucky enough to be in the front of the raft, too, which also meant that I got the most wet. The rapids were classes I - IV.

^Our raft - I'm in the front, on the right.

^Our raft, mostly underwater. ahhhh!

The second weekend, as I wrote before, began as soon as our midterm exams were over. I went with six friends straight to the bus station when we finished our exams, and about five hours later we were in the small, beautiful Caribbean beach town of Cahuita. We stayed in a cheap and sufficiently sketchy hostel and spent the weekend enjoying black sand beaches, Cahuita National Park, the small bars in town, and snorkeling on the coral reef. It was the perfect way to forget about our exams, and I was really glad that we took advantage of our only opporunity to visit the Caribbean coast.

^We decided to climb a fallen tree on the Playa Negra. (Picture by Becca)

^We met up with some friends who were also in Cahuita for the weekend - qué divertido! (Picture by Becca)

^Sunset on the beach in the National Park. (Picture by Becca)

Poas Volcano
During our last weekend in San Pedro, after our Spanish classes were finished and our midterm break was beginning, a few of us spent Saturday visiting Poas Volcano. First, we went to a viewpoint above the crater. There was steam pouring off of the hot water inside the crater, and the air smelled of sulfur. After that we hiked around to see a lagoon, and then headed to a nearby resort that had enclosures of birds, monkeys, and butterflies as well as a walkway along a series of waterfalls. We ate a delicious buffet lunch, and all in all it was a really cool day.

^The crater at Poas Volcano.

^Toucan! This was taken right after I attempted to take a picture with the bird and it attacked my head. Good times.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

San Pedro & Español

On October 4, we arrived in San Jose, the capital city of Costa Rica. Our first stop was the language school that was to be our academic home for the next three weeks. CRLA, the Costa Rican Language Academy, is located in San Pedro, a smaller city adjoining San Jose. After a brief orientation and oral placement exams to supplement the written ones we had already completed by e-mail, we said farewell to our three biology professors and split into groups to be taken to our homestay families.

Homestay Awesomeness

My homestay "Mama Tica" ("Tico/a" = Costa Rican person) was somewhere around 75 years old (so more of an "Abuela Tica"). She lives in what came to be called "the compound" - about five houses together behind a big orange gate. Nidia, my Mama Tica, and a few of her children live with their families in the houses. During my three weeks there, there was also a German student named Stefanie living with Nidia. Even though Stefanie speaks English, we always spoke in Spanish, which gave me lots of extra practice.

Nidia is an amazing cook, and I ate huge breakfasts and dinners every day. I had my own room and bathroom, which was incredibly nice after a month and a half of bunk rooms and communal bathrooms. Between Nidia and her husband, her children, her grandchildren, and their friends, there were always a zillion people at the compound with whom I could practice my Spanish. Her grandchildren always got a kick out of this, of course, but they were really fun to hang around with. One of the uncles is the mayor of San Pedro - he is a hilarious guy who tried to convince me that I should have a Tico boyfriend at every biological station we visit... thus, seven presents throughout the semester. I had an awesome time at my homestay, and was sad to leave.

Spanish, Spanish, and more Spanish

My main worry about our intensive Spanish classes in San Pedro was that I wouldn't place into the advanced level, and thus wouldn't complete my Duke Spanish requirement like I had planned. Luckily, though, the placement seemed to be based more on the amount of grammar you knew and not your speaking ability, and thus I did place into the advanced level. The classes at CRLA are small in order to increase the amount of time each student spends speaking in class - my class was two girls from my program (Jessica and Whitney), our teacher Carla, and me. Carla is in her mid-twenties and is an extremely fun and creative person - thus, class was really enjoyable. When we weren't playing ridiculous games directed at practicing some aspect of grammar, we were gossiping continuously (in Spanish, of course). We had Spanish class Monday through Thursday from 9 to 3, with a one-hour lunch break in the middle. Most days after Spanish a few of us went to dance class from 3 to 5, which was really fun - our salsa and merengue skills improved considerably. Throughout the three weeks we had two quizzes each week and a long final exam on the last day of class - all requirements from Duke so that we would receive a full class credit. On the last day of class we had a little graduation ceremony in which we all received certificates and a hug from our professor. All in all, I was really pleased with both my experience at CRLA and the improvement in my Spanish abilities - and, as always, sad to leave.

...and a little bit of biology.

Of course, we couldn't possibly put biology completely on hold for three weeks (grrrr...). Unlike the other students at CRLA, we didn't have our Fridays completely free. On our first and third Fridays in San Pedro, we had guest lectures in the morning at the OTS offices at the University of Costa Rica. On the Friday in the middle, though, we had our midterm exams for our Introduction to Tropical Biology and Environmental Policy of the Tropics Classes. About two hours was budgeted for each exam and we were allowed to grab lunch from the lobby whenever we so desired. Both studying and taking the exams was pretty much horrible, especially when we wanted to be out enjoying the city. To make up for this, a bunch of us took off ASAP for the beach after the exams - but more on the weekend adventures later!