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Showing posts from September, 2009

¡Hasta luego!

On our way back to Alajuela, the class stopped by a local artisan shop to purchase last-minute souvenirs. We had a final group dinner at a city café and reflected back on three weeks worth of grand adventures. After two flat tire incidents, numerous miles of hiking, and a million insect bites, the UW Honors Study Abroad Program reached its end. Regardless of the tough living conditions, everyone always put on a great attitude and a chipper disposition. ;-)

In retrospect I found the expedition to be very organized, enlightening, humbling, challenging, and intrinsically rewarding. Even as a non-biology major, I felt that everything was taught in an appropriate scope for students of diverse interests. The class reflections, intense hikes, and structured activities truly left me with a greater appreciation and understanding of the environment at large. =D

Adrenaline junkies

In our final day at Monteverde, students were given the option to explore the rainforest canopy by either walking through designated bridges or racing through a zip line. I chose to partake in the zip line (one more item to check off my list of things to do before I die), and had to sign a liability contract to participate. After my fellow peers and I were harnessed, we immediately zipped through the wire courses, feeling the wind violently brushing against our cheeks! XD

We also had the opportunity to join in on the “Tarzan Swing.” It was by far more mentally nerve-racking than the zip lines because I had to fall straight down (I HATE the “free fall / stomach-in-my-throat” feeling!) prior to swinging on the harnessed vine. I can still remember yelling “OHHH MYYY GODDD!!!” at the top of my lungs upon the immediate, plunging descent! Indeed, the adrenaline-seeking activities (surprisingly vomit-free) were a great way to end our stay at Monteverde. =D

Cloud forests and coffee

After three days of Playo Palo Seco, it was time for another change of pace. The next group destination was slated for Monteverde, a city engulfed in tourism. Aside from the lavish night life—eating at fancy dinner restaurants visiting local bars—the class was able to explore much of the outdoors through structured mountain hikes that the pioneering Quakers established. On one of our class treks, we ascended into the national “cloud forest” (1440 meters above sea level), and as the name implied, each step drew us closer into the THICK mist. We eventually reached the Continental Divide, a vantage point for both the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean. And just for fun, students spat into both sides of the country… =P

The next day, our class was given a tour of a local coffee plantation. As a major product of Costa Rica, coffee sales played a vital role in the nation’s economy. We were taken through the whole process of growing organic shade-grown coffee and got to chew on the fleshy fruit of the…

Save the turtles!

One of my fondest memories throughout the whole program was the night that was spent with the endangered sea turtles at Puerto Quepos. After the class was debriefed by the ongoing turtle poaching crisis, we headed out to the beach to help local volunteers with their nocturnal watch and marine research. At night, it was important to ONLY use infrared flashlights because regular white light would disorient the hatchlings. =S

The class was able to witness the entire egg-laying process live! The female turtles would make their way from the ocean to a soft spot in the beach and start digging out sand with their hind flippers. After creating a foot-long hole, she would lay over 100+ eggs and cover her nest with sand. Lastly, she would pat the whole area smoothly with her body (as to not leave a trace) and crawl back into the ocean. Once the turtle left, the class extracted the eggs and reburied them in a nearby turtle nursery reserve (under metallic nets to ward off natural predators). I enj…

To the beach!

After spending nine days in rural Mastatal, we then packed our belongings and traveled to Playa Palo Seco. We checked into the hotel, and were very appreciative of the accommodations: air conditioning, backyard pool, indoor toilettes, laundry machines, and secondary napping beds. The food the hotel served was amazing (though very American) and meals were always served with fruit smoothies. We also had the neighboring beach—pristine with palm trees, drift wood, and white sand—ALL to ourselves! =D

The hotels were also close to an artificial mangrove habitat (home to the family of plants of the genus Rhizophora) and we were able to embark on a boat tour to explore the marine wildlife. Along the way, we encountered many unique creatures like pit vipers, white-faced monkeys, silky anteaters, green herons, etc. This venture demonstrated that the biodiversity of Costa Rica was not ubiquitous and uniform throughout; changes in flora/fauna species fluctuate tremendously in varying regions of Co…

Reforestation projects

Tom and Brenda were able to arrange our class to work with the youth of the local elementary school to restore a garden together. It took a TON of manpower from both parties to shovel and rake out weeds. After everything was cleared out and the top soil was overturned, we started to create rows of beds for the potential plants to be grown. I helped plant solid vegetation around the edges of the garden as a measure against erosion. The young children, as small as could be, were always eager to offer assistance and ultimately became a great source of comedic relief. =P

Because many of the rare plants in Costa Rican rainforests were endangered, Tiburón built a “vivero” (Spanish for nursery) to plant tree saplings on his property in Mastatal, Costa Rica. As concerned environmentalists, we all pitched in and helped him with his project during our weekend’s free time. We started by mixing human fertilizer (taken from the compost toilettes…), top soil, dirt, and sawdust to create a nutrient-r…

The chocolate factory

One of our afternoons in Mastatal was scheduled for a tour of the local chocolate factory. The half-hour walk to “Iguana Chocolate” was treacherous; we all had to walk through a frenzied rain storm! It was so rainy/windy that umbrellas were inverted; rain jackets were as ineffective as walking through a waterfall; verbal communication was futile due to the sheer loudness; and backpacks with digital cameras, etc. were soaked! The weather truly showed NO MERCY to us foreign travelers. ={

The chocolate factory served as a shelter from the hammering precipitation. The whole class was able to sample a variety of chocolate products: brownies, beverages, candy, etc. From the English tour guide, we learned that the chocolate was harvested naturally from the area’s cacao beans. We even participated in a live cacao bean roasting demo and observed the fermentation of the crop. It was no surprise that the final product tasted so much better than American gimmicks. ;-)

Cultural home stays

To truly be immersed in the “Tico” (a colloquial term for a native of Costa Rica) lifestyle, students were grouped into pairs to spend a couple of nights at a local family’s house. I was paired with Chris, and we were assigned to temporary live with 46-year-old Lucmilda (a reserved woman and single mother) and her 6-year-old daughter Priscilla (who often broke the ice with her playful antics). I did the majority of translating at my home stay with my background in Spanish (thanks to the classes I took at Yakima Valley Community College). =P

It was so interesting to learn how the average family spent a typical night at home. The rice/bean/meat dinners were traditional, but full of flavor. Lucmilda and Priscilla also tended to the needs of three baby birds by feeding them bananas through a syringe. They also love watching their “telenovelas” (soap operas); Chris and I found the thrilling plots of “Tormenta en el Paraíso” and “Casi Ángeles” to be VERY entertaining! We grew attached with t…

Educational death hikes

With a couple of days into the program, everyone was getting more accustomed to the climate and began getting to know each other on a personal level. Tom, also known as Tiburón (Spanish for “shark”), was one of our instructors on the program who coordinated many outdoor activities with outlandish enthusiasm. The students were also under the supervision of Brenda, a professor who focused on the academic and logistic aspects of the program. During our first couple days at Mastatal, we all went through an introductory orientation of the community to cover concerns relating to safety and environmental awareness. The rural area was home to venomous snakes, torrential downpours, etc. But even those perils won’t deter the fervent curiosity of us honor students! =]

It was common to go on morning nature hikes, even in the scorching sunlight—I had to go through bottles of sunscreen for protection! On these forest hikes, Tom would point out facts on the exotic flora and fauna we’d encounter. The …

¡Hola, Costa Rica!

After a flurry of airline transfers from Yakima to Seattle, to Los Angeles, to Houston, I finally arrived in San José, Costa Rica. From an aerial view flying into the country, it was evident that a lot of lush vegetation has been unperturbed by urbanism. After taking a taxi (only a $4 fare) to Alajuela, I met up with a couple of the students in the UW Honors Program (Course Title: “Environmental Sustainability and Natural History”) at the Los Volcanes Hotel. We explored the town’s churches and central parks and ended the night with a group dinner (with the Miss Universe Pageant playing in the background) at a local restaurant. XD

We assembled with the entire group the next day and headed to Mastatal, a rural community located high in the mountain of Costa Rica, where the students would spend the bulk of their academic research. Man was I in for a RUDE awakening! In Mastatal, insect bites from ants and mosquitoes reigned supreme, there was limited privacy in the ranch “dorms,” everyone …