Monday, May 12, 2014

The Time Has Come, The Toucan Said...

It's hard to believe, but my time here in Costa Rica is essentially over! In just a few hours, I'll be on a plane headed back to the United States and real life.

The last few days finished up in a blur- we had to rewrite our papers, and in addition complete our final exams. Both went well I think- I know at least the exams did. Also we had a friend visit the night before our exams, which I interpret as a sign of good luck:

Following the furious writing of our two research papers, a friend and I ended up hiking to the back of the La Selva property, where we saw a couple beautiful views of the river and saw some really cool wildlife:

We also made a friend.
The next site we ended up going to was a few miles away and a couple meters below Cuerici Biological Station. We arrived at the Quetzal Mountain Lodge really excited to detox from the past few stressful days. We were a little nervous because we were told that the place was cold (barely), but it ended up being the perfect place for us to relax before heading home. The food was delicious, there was a fireplace (which s'mores were made in), and the views were gorgeous. 

We also had the opportunity to go on a hike with the owners of the hotel, who showed us around the forest that surrounded the hotel. We actually got to see a quetzal, which was probably one of the coolest things that I've seen on this trip. 

Yay for crappy pictures through a scope!

In addition, the forest itself was gorgeous. I absolutely loved hanging out in there (but the high altitudes did get to me after a while- I had a case of the sniffles while we were there).

Today we returned to San Jose to finish up a few things at the OTS offices before we went souvenir shopping. It was a little strange to return to San Jose, especially knowing that it was for the last time. But I definitely prefer city life in the States more than I do here.

Tonight is our last dinner as our little OTS family. It's kind of weird to think that I'm leaving Costa Rica, especially since this trip has been something I've been looking forward to for a very long time. It's also going to be strange to not see the same people every day that I have been. The 11 of us have gotten really close over the past months, and I know I'm going to miss each and every one of them. Not to mention, the professors of this program have been absolutely great, and I really enjoyed taking their classes. 

My participation in OTS has been one of the best decisions that I have made. The course caused me to think more critically about the environment and research. I've come to have a greater appreciation of biology and research. Working in habitats like the ones that I've experienced here in Costa Rica has only made me realize how little we actually know about the world that we live in. The unknown may be frightening to some people, but I find that it encourages me to dig deeper and understand the way the world works in a biological sense. 

I've loved every second that I've been here in Costa Rica, and I'm so sad to see it go. I know that I will return (hopefully in the near future?) and continue to enjoy what this country has to offer. So, thank you Costa Rica, for teaching me so much. 

Pura vida. 

Sunday, May 4, 2014

La Selva Life

With the end of the semester rapidly approaching, it's hard to believe that I've been in Costa Rica for three months! Life here at La Selva has been so busy, I really didn't have the time to stop and ponder the fact that my time here is almost over. 

Classes have pretty much ended for the semester, but we still had one more field trip before we jumped into final projects and exams. We actually got to tour one of the banana plantations in the area that is owned by Dole. In this area of Costa Rica, bananas are key to the economic stability of the area. It was fairly obvious that there's a bunch of money behind the whole operation (banana republic, anyone?), and they definitely catered to us as "tourists" during the tour. But it was still really interesting to see the behind the scenes of banana production. As one of my friends so notably stated after we saw the processing: "The curtain had been lifted."

Walking through the plantation.
The processing plant.
It's a little weird that classes are essentially over now, but we've still had a lot on our plates to do. We've been working on a couple projects led by invited faculty that have been really interesting. I was a leader for one of these projects here in La Selva, meaning that I and another student got to work with the invited faculty, Ignacio Escalante, to design an experiment. We ended up doing a really interesting project comparing how symmetrical and asymmetrical leg loss can affect the behavior of daddy long-legs. In the end, we found that surprisingly, walking speed is not affected by leg loss, but behavior of the daddy long-legs is. It was actually a really fun project, and I'm glad I had the opportunity to work on it with Ignacio- he was really fun and also helped me to not hate Microsoft Excel as much (which is actually a huge task). 

The past week has been devoted to working on our second independent project. I had a blast working on this project, mainly because I was working with two of my really good friends here. In addition, we were able to work on a really interesting topic too. Our project focused on the idea of mimicry in Lepidopteran larvae. A couple people have proposed that some larvae could be mimics of coral snakes, so we attempted to determine if a coral snake pattern (a very conspicuously colored organism) or coral snake coloration could be a successful defense mechanism for Lepidopteran larvae. Essentially, this meant that we got to make a LOT of clay larvae (~500 to be exact) and hang out in the forests all day. It was pretty great. 

...We may have made a giant caterpillar out of all of them in the end. 
We didn't find a difference in predation between the two models that we made (coral snake pattern versus our control model). We're hoping this suggests that a larvae looking like a coral snake doesn't make you more likely to be predated, blasting through any suggestions that larvae could mimic coral snakes. But it's more likely that we saw equal predation just because both models were novel to the area, and predators are more likely to attack novel prey items. But a scientist can dream. 

We also finally had a free day today, meaning that we were able to go and do a little exploring today.  This had some benefits (including riding a trolley over the river!), and was a great way to blow off some steam: 

Yep. Could get used to this. 
Despite the independent projects being done, we still have a lot of work to do. Remaining on my list to do are exams and a rewrite of a paper. But following that, my time here in Costa Rica will essentially be done! We'll be visiting one more station following La Selva as a detox for two days before we head back to San Jose to leave for the States. I hate to say this, but look for the wrap-up post in a week or so!

And here's a picture of a basilisk just because. 

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Two-Week Hiatus Explained

Following Spring Break, we jumped right back into the swing of things for our classes. I was a little sad to see my break go (also that meant that the course is more than half over- eep!), but we went to some amazing places in the past two weeks, where I had the opportunity to have a lot of new experiences. 

First, we headed out of San Jose to Monteverde. Once we got there, we had to hike down to the field station with all of our things for around 45 minutes. I considered it a miracle that I managed not to fall over with my backpack, especially because it was debatable as to whether or not I would be able to get back up again.  The San Gerardo field station was a welcome sight to us sweaty college kids who each carried ~20 lbs of stuff down into the valley where it was located. 

First of all, we were greeted by this view of Arenal Volcano from our rooms, which also was the view that could be seen from the hammocks (even more bonus points):

Yep. Could get used to this.
Second, we found out that the station hosted a ping pong table. So we naturally launched ourselves (including the professors and our TA) into a tournament (I unfortunately only won one round, and then lost in the first round of the tournament, but still had a good time). 

Third, the cook made snacks for us that were to DIE for. I'm talking homemade empanadas, banana bread and donuts kind of good. I'm pretty sure I gained like 6 pounds just at this station, I ate so much food. 

Fourth, the biodiversity in this area is astounding. The cloud forest is a very rare type of ecosystem, so a lot of endemic species call Monteverde home. Managed to get introduced to some bird watching finally, which was pretty successful- saw some pretty cool birds, including the endangered Mottled Bell Bird! We also had the opportunity to go on a lot of night hikes, which also led to some interesting finds:

Glass Frog! 
Me getting way too excited about holding a frog. 
Fifth, Monteverde just hosted some pretty cool sights. We ended up taking a trail on our last full day that lasted pretty much the whole day. But in the end, we got to see the river that runs through the park, as well as this pretty sweet waterfall:

Do you feel tranquil yet?
Unfortunately, we didn't quite realize what our professor had meant by a "tough trail". So the way back from this beautiful sight was kind of hellish, because it was uphill essentially the whole way. And by uphill, I mean like you were basically scrambling up cliff faces and then on a 45 degree angle for the rest of the hike. I felt good that we managed to complete the hike anyways, but it made the next day when we had to hike out of San Gerardo (with all our stuff again) even more hellish. But, to be fair, it didn't help that the road was practically 3 inch deep mud the whole way up. 

We eventually did make it back to the bus (after essentially skating up the entire hill), and we spent that night in the more touristy section of Monteverde. It was interesting to contrast our experience of Monteverde with what the tourism industry attempts to sell to foreigners. Essentially, the tourism industry of Monteverde has focused on marketing "EXTREME" tourism, like zip lining, bungee jumping, etc. and it has eventually morphed into the surrounding community becoming extremely dependent on tourism for their economic stability. 

We didn't actually get to go zip lining or anything like that, but we still saw a good portion of how reliant the community is on tourism. In the end, we got to visit a Co-op that had little gifts for sale made by community members, and then got ice cream from the cheese factory that a set of Quakers began when they moved to the area in the 1950s. The ice cream was so worth it after a hard day of walking around practically everywhere. And to top it all off, we visited a shop that set up hummingbird feeders outside. There were at least 50 hummingbirds zipping around in the area, and some of them would actually land on your hand if you stood still next to the feeders. 

Our next adventures took us across borders, where we ended up in Panama. The entire process of getting ourselves to Panama was a lesson in patience and politeness to immigration officials. But the cool part was that I had the opportunity to actually walk across an international border, which I thought was super cool (albeit on a very rickety bridge that possessed gaping holes that I very nearly fell into). 

In the end, everything went fairly smoothly and we ended up in our final destination: Bocas del Toro. Here, we had our marine biology section of the course, and essentially got to snorkel in coral reefs for three days straight. I unfortunately don't have very many photos from Bocas because I don't own an underwater camera, but I seriously did see some really cool stuff that truly allowed my inner nerd to unleash itself in full bloom. Some of the highlights from my snorkeling adventures include: an eel, a puffer fish, a ray, spiny lobsters, jellyfish, too many fish to count (including a baby barracuda, butterflyfish, damselfish, and LOADS more), corals, sponges, shrimp, crabs and so much more. This was easily one of my favorite activities that I've done in the course so far, and I absolutely had a blast.  Not to mention, Bocas was not too bad on the eyes.

Could get used to this. Part II. 
The only part I didn't really enjoy about Bocas was the field station. It was clearly still in the middle of construction, and we were kind of forced to share a bathroom between 11 of us... Not the most ideal situation, but the snorkeling was so awesome it definitely made up for that. I also somehow managed to legitimately fall into the boat from the shoreline. I was standing in ~2ft of water, so I decided to just pull myself up into the boat using the side. I somehow instead managed to fall flat on my face, driving my shoulder into the bottom of the boat.  Thinking back, I still don't really know what went wrong in that situation, but the boat driver tried so hard to stifle laughter when he told me that he had never seen anyone else manage that before. 

But, all in all, I really enjoyed Bocas and the type of research that we did there. My only regret is that I wore my flippers for too long - my apologies to my bruised toes. 

Now we're back at La Selva (after a surprisingly easy border crossing back into Costa Rica), which is our final station. It's kind of weird to be at our last field station, but it seems like we're going to have a great time here. We've already seen loads of animals:

A photo of a porcupine that I unashamedly took through the scope of the guide. 
Leaf tent making bats!
Orb Weaver Spider!

And today we had the opportunity to go up into the canopy towers and take a look around, which was an awesome experience. 

It was actually really great to be back in climbing gear. Hahaha.  
Across the Canopy
Yeah, this was pretty tall. 
So La Selva already proves to be pretty promising! Really excited for the next couple weeks, but not the workload associated with it. Wish me luck!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Spring Break: Frogs and Fish

Spring break was immensely fun. I finally saw my parents for the first time in two months, which was pretty exciting. They were clearly very excited about what Costa Rica had to offer, and I was clearly very excited about having the week off from work. Nevertheless, we began our journey in Sarapiqui, which hosts a tropical lowland wet forest (basically your standard rainforest). This was a neat opportunity for me, as it’s one of the parts of the country that I haven’t seen yet. But I was able to draw a few parallels between the habitats that I have seen and this one. Additionally, we got to go on a boat safari (where I got terrified by a giant iguana and also got to hold a baby iguana), take a chocolate tour (yum), and simply walk around the hotel area enjoying the sites. We saw lots of frogs, and a lot of anoles. 

In addition, this ended up being one of my favorite parts of my spring break, because I ended up going on a horseback riding trip with two vaqueros here as well. I got to herd cows with them, gallop around the Costa Rican countryside and basically just be a cowgirl for around 3 hours. Pretty great in my opinion.

Next, we traveled to Manuel Antonio, which is well-known for its beaches and National Park. Now, anyone who knows me knows that I LOVE the beach. So this was also a great part of the trip as well (minus being hit on by the surf instructor who apparently remembered me from my last trip to Manuel Antonio a few weeks before). Here, we also had the privilege of doing a kayak/snorkeling tour, which was an awesome experience for me. I had never been snorkeling before, so understanding how to actually breathe took some time. But it also didn’t help that I kept gasping to myself every time I saw a really cool fish. Still, didn’t drown, and overall had a great time. We also went to go see the National Park as well. Despite my mother reading the map wrong and making us hike 1.4 km in both humid and hot weather, I actually really enjoyed the park. It’s a bit more tourist based than what I’ve seen in the other national parks, but it was still enjoyable. Not to mention, we saw three sloths (two-toed and three-toed) just in the span of the three hours that we were in the park. So that also is a pretty good day in my book as well.

A grooming station of capuchins.

A really terrible picture of a sloth. 

The view from a rock that I climbed in the Park (I miss climbing)

I returned back to San Pedro to stay at Mama Tica’s for the weekend on Saturday. I expected it to be a quiet weekend, where I could get ahead on homework that’s due in the next couple of weeks. Unfortunately for me, I forgot that it was Mama Tica’s birthday, so people were pretty much in and out of the house the entire weekend. In addition, I had to awkwardly go to the party where I was introduced to her family and friends as “A girl from the United States who is living here.” So maybe I can check crashing a party off my list, but her family was very nice and I actually did have a good time.

Now I need to pack quickly for the two week excursion to Monteverde and Bocas del Toro, Panama. I won’t have access to internet there, so I will provide another update when we get to La Selva in two weeks. Hasta luego!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Extreme Weekend

It occurred to me the other day that I passed the halfway mark from when I arrived in Costa Rica and when I'll be leaving to go back home. It's kind of a strange feeling. As cliché as it is, time really flies when you're having fun. I feel like every time I blinked I ended up somewhere new in the country. Home stay will be over in a few short days, but we still have three more sites to go to, not including our vacations that start this Saturday.  But Costa Rica still has plenty to offer, and this past weekend definitely proved that to me. 

My weekend started off with some rock climbing after school. The guys who work at the gym have started to recognize us and seem to really enjoy having us there, probably because we give them an opportunity to work on their English. Also as our Spanish has gotten better, we're starting to understand what they've been trying to tell us climbing wise. There was definitely a learning curve to translate the climbing lingo in English to climbing lingo in Spanish and vice versa. But we were definitely able to crack a few jokes with them on Thursday, so that's a good sign.

The next day (really freaking early) we all hopped on a bus to Manuel Antonio, which is known for great beaches and its National Park. We didn't really have time or the funds to go to the Park (although I plan to go within my vacation), so we spent most of the time on the beach. I had a great time on the beach, and the views were fantastic.

Yep. Could get really used to this.
The only drawback to the beach was that it was a little touristy (and therefore a little more expensive than elsewhere) and the fact that my gringa skin was not used to tropical sun on beaches. I may or may not have gotten slightly burned despite my constant slathering of sunscreen (SPF 50, so don't even talk to me). Nevertheless, the fact that I was able to actually be at a beach out ruled any negatives I had about Manuel Antonio. My friends can attest, I was not unlike an overexcited dog when we finally got in the water. 

Saturday night I ended up returning to San Jose slightly earlier than my friends. This was so I could catch a bus to Pursical in the morning to take me to the countryside where I was finally able to go horseback riding. For five glorious hours, I went on a trail ride that took us through tiny towns and the normally unseen countryside. The scenery was beautiful, and it also was just great to be back on a horse again. The whole experience was a blast, and I also got some pretty good pizza out of it too. 

One of my favorite views.

The only picture I managed to take because I was terrified of dropping my phone in the dirt.
Needless to say, I'm still trying to recover from this weekend, but overall it was a fantastic experience. My only regret about the whole weekend was the fact that I kind of left a presentation to the wayside that was due on Monday. However, the presentation actually went rather well, so I'm interpreting that as a sign that my Spanish has improved. 

Just a few more days of Spanish class remain and then I'll be free on my vacation! I'm really excited to finally actually have a break and to just enjoy what Costa Rica has to offer. Updates about my break will come soon!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

City Zen

After roughing it in Palo Verde, returning to the city has been a welcome breath of fresh air. I have seriously underestimated the value of having a double bed (that's not a top bunk) and a room to myself. It is very safe to say that I am enjoying my home stay thus far. 

Overall, my home stay is amazing. The house itself is gorgeous, in addition to the fact that I have my own room. Honestly, the entire set up of the house is very similar to my life in the United States.  My mama tica (it's what we all call our host moms- Tico/Tica is basically a slang term for someone from Costa Rica), Denia has been great so far. She's very welcoming and treats me like one of her own- especially in terms of her trying to set me up with a Tico while I'm here. She's so candid and hilarious. I'm really happy where I ended up in terms of my home stay. Also I have a puppy tico as well, so that also makes life pretty awesome.

Name: Gatsby, Haircut: Unfortunate
The Spanish classes have also been going fairly well. Originally, I somehow ended up in a level lower than I should have been. But after speaking with my professor and the director of the language academy, I was put in a class that was more suited to my level. So there was an unfortunate amount of stress and boredom associated with those first few days of class. But now I'm in a level more suited for my level of Spanish, I'm enjoying the classes a lot more, and I actually am learning a lot. My spanish has already improved within the span of a week, which has been fantastic. I also catch myself thinking to myself in Spanish as well, which is also a great sign of improvement. 

Additionally, the language academy hosts different cultural activities after classes which are also a lot of fun. So far, I've learned some basic salsa moves (but only from the guy's perspective because there were too many girls to guys that day). But the fact that I actually learned a few dance moves is an obstacle in itself. Tomorrow I'm going to be participating in a cooking class that I'm really excited for. It should be a lot of fun!

I have had to get used to city living again though. The first couple days were filled with the stress of understanding the bus system here in Costa Rica. Busses here are run by private companies. So there's really no predicting when the bus will actually arrive or how comfortable it will be. Also shout out to the people who manage to do their make up on the busses in the morning. You are astounding individuals, as I can barely manage to sit in the seat. But at least the bus is super cheap. It works out that at most it will cost around 50 cents for one bus ride to school or back to my neighborhood. 

We've also had a chance to explore parts of the city that we haven't seen before. Of course, we also returned to the climbing gym, and are planning on returning this week. The night life here is also kind of interesting. In most cases, most Ticos go out for one or two drinks and then call it good for the night, which is not necessarily the culture in the United States. Some of the night life is clearly catered to foreigners (such as ourselves), but some of it is clearly more Tico. We've unfortunately seen a lot of the stuff catered to foreigners (but shout out to the Costa Rican Beer Factory, because that was delicious and had great beer), so hopefully we'll see more of the more authentic stuff as our home stay continues. 

I apologize for the lack of pictures in this blog post, but I normally don't carry around my phone or camera for safety purposes. I'll attempt to take some pictures of San Pedro/elsewhere soon. My friends and I are also possibly planning on going to the beach this weekend, which should also be a lot of fun. Essentially, I'm looking at this home stay as a break from school, even though I do have work for my spanish class. Staying in a house to be doted on is definitely what the doctor ordered based on the first part of the semester.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Final Days at Palo Verde

The past couple days have honestly been a blur, mainly spent working on the various assignments that needed to get done during our last days here at Palo Verde.

One assignment was to construct a dichotomous key for some of the common plant species that surround the station. A dichotomous key is a tool that can be used to identify certain species based on traits that they possess. Each species has to follow the other in a sequence and you can't repeat traits. This actually turned out to be a little difficult- it's pretty much like putting a puzzle together and took a lot of thinking about plant traits. However, while we were walking around looking at the traits of each plant, there were a couple of awesome individuals hanging around the area which made walking around in the sun a bit better:

Giant group of Coatis! 
All of the marsh animals!
After that, we had our midterms. They went pretty well, it was just a chore to convince ourselves to study for the two exams that we had. Especially after finishing up IPs, the concept of more work was just not appealing. Then, as an extra bonus, we had to do our rewrites for our IP papers pretty much right after the exams. But finally, all the work is done and now I just get to relax. Which ended up looking like this for the brief period that we had between exams and rewrites:

Shout out to Miki for having the patience to do this to my hair and taking this picture. 
I did also manage to take one last hike in the morning to watch the sunrise from my favorite lookout point here. It turned out to be well worth it to hike up there:

So although the last couple days here at Palo Verde have been a craze of work-induced stress, I've still managed to take some time to soak everything in. I feel like I blinked and the past three weeks went by. I'm a little sad to see Palo Verde go- the habitats and organisms around here are fascinating. But I will admit that I'm getting a little tired of the station itself (there's pretty much nothing to do past the trails that we already did).

We head out tomorrow to the home stay section of the course. There, we'll be learning Spanish at a language academy as well as staying with a family for the next two weeks. I'm really excited to meet my family tomorrow. If home stay is anything like how it was when I visited Nicaragua, I know I'm going to have a great time. Let's just hope that my Spanish comes back quickly.

For now, adios Palo Verde!