Friday, July 18, 2014

Gringa in Peril

Fig 1. View of Volcanos from lowlands
Costa Rica is a beautiful ecological gem of the Earth.  Unfortunately, I speak zero Spanish (and somewhat regret 5+ years of French).  Everyone speaks Spanish; all the signs and labels and menus are in Spanish too.  I have never been so confused in a grocery store.

Fig. 2.  House on outside
What exactly is a gringa like me doing down here?  I'm helping Prof. Sean O’Donnell with research on how birds interact with army ants in Monte Verde.  With absolutely no previous knowledge on birds (or ants for that matter), I have absorbed massive amounts of information.  Field research is fun!

This is our house, behind a lovely farm in the forest.  The Internet is spacey; life is simple, and there is plenty of fresh produce.  The bananas are the best I have ever eaten.  Upon arrival, I found 3 spiders in my bed… Every night you have to check your sheets for scorpions, and tap out your shoes to make sure nothing crawled into them overnight.  You can hear mice in the walls, and every so often something jumps onto the roof at night.
Fig. 3.  House on inside
Even though it’s summer, the nights get chilly.  It is almost always raining or misting.  We are living in a “rain” forest, after all.  Sunrise is at 5:30am so it is difficult to stay asleep, and there are no streetlights, so after sunset you are in complete darkness.  When you look up at the sky, you can see millions of stars and the Milky Way galaxy!  The stars are so dense they look like clouds.
Fig. 4.  Abandoned house

Every day, we go to the reserves and hike.  We hike mostly on trails, but Sean enjoys leading us into dense vegetation where no man has gone before.  He drags us up muddy mountains, over and under rotting fallen trees, all the while saying reassuring phrases like “I think the trail is a little further up this cliff”, while hacking at branches with a rusty machete.  Sometimes we pass abandoned houses that have been sacked or overgrown.

Fig. 5.  Friendly neighbors
When we (somehow) find our way back to the trails, we hike and hike and hike until we come across columns of army ants.  We collect ants in aspirators and collect data, and then we go home to rest.  The field crew (6 people, including me) gets together for dinner and we make delicious food!  

The rental car got a flat on the second day, because the roads are unpaved, bumpy gravel.  Everyone in the area is strangely nice.  We befriended a welcoming Quaker population too!

I have calluses on my ankles from all the hiking; sometimes up to 10km per day through all elevations.  We hike in rain or shine; sometimes it’s hard to tell if we are soaked because of the rain or because of our own sweat.  I feel completely out of shape when my 50-something year old professor is scaling a steep trail and I can hardly keep up.  There are a lot of farms, so we are on constant lookout for cow shit.  I found a huge spider in my shoe a couple days ago and I almost cried.  I hate spiders.
Fig. 6.  Waterfall in reserve

Fig. 7.  Double (possibly triple) rainbow!
We are obsessed with these glorious chocolate dipped cookies called Chiky’s and Trululu Banana gummies (similar to laffy taffy flavor).  Everyone in our crew is fun to be around.  We discuss topics ranging from global warming CO2 levels to which type of animal testicles are edible.  

Yesterday we climbed to a cliff face to watch sunset.  We saw a double rainbow and everyone was freaking out and scrambling to get a picture of it.

I am making a desperate attempt to pick up Spanish (with the help of  My progress so far includes: por favor, mucho gracias, de nada, dónde está el baño, and no hablo español.

I will try to post more, but I am sadly at the will of our temperamental Internet connection.  

Enjoy the pictures!
Hopefully there will be more to come ~
Fig. 8.  Panorama of Monte Verde

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