Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Cry me a quetzal

So in my last post I discussed the tendency I have to notice less and less of my surroundings the more familiar they are to me. Where I live back home there are birds. There are trees and there are bugs and there are mosses and fungi and flowers. But for most of us, seeing the same bugs and trees and flowers everyday of our entire life means we sort of overlook them. Pine trees? Robins? Azaleas? Whatevs.

A friend of mine just sent me an email recently containing the very first issue of his new one-page newsletter “The Plant Parade.” The goal of this “guerilla botanical promotional campaign” is to educate people about local plants. You know that bush on the corner of your street that you go past everyday? I bet you don’t even know its name! I mean, really, it’s kind of rude. That bush thinks you are a total jerk, you know.

The first time I was at all motivated to learn a bit more about my natural surroundings was when I was living in a small, rural community in the middle of nowhere in Paraguay. All the people there (including little kids) knew the trees and flowers and bugs like the backs of their neighbor’s hands. I’d say like the backs of their own hands, but they actually know their neighbors’ better. In such a small town gossip is pretty much the only form of entertainment and half of the gossip is made up. You end up knowing everybody else’s business better than your own.

These neighbors of mine not only knew who was stealing who’s chickens and who’s brother was courting who’s sister and who’s cousin’s boyfriend got drunk last night – they also knew which tree stump in the middle of the woods had a bee hive living in it and which birds made which sounds and which weeds growing in your front yard could cure a stomach ache. Little kids, and I mean little, knew the names of all the birds and the trees. Realizing a three year old knows more than you do about the world around you is, well, humbling.

Here in the cloudforest of Costa Rica, however, trying to learn the names of everything around you is pretty much impossible. There are more types of trees in the Montverde area than in all of the US and Canada combined. Try starting a “guerilla botanical promotional campaign” about THAT my friends. But everything here is also so new and exciting that it’s hard not to at least try.

Here, in the form of a top 10 list, is my Costa Rican Cloudforest promotional Campaign:
(*disclaimer – I have no idea what I am talking about. Please refer to other sources for more detailed information about these species.)

10. DRAGON’S BLOOD TREE: It’s a tree that literally bleeds red if you cut into it. The sap is used medicinally to treat bug bites and intestinal issues and probably some more stuff I don’t know about.
9.  STRANGLING FIG: Another tree. This one grows around the outside of another tree until the first one dies from lack of nutrients leaving this super crazy looking hollow form behind.
8. BROMELIADS: They are everywhere here. Related to the pineapple, they live up in the trees and survive from the little bit of dirt they can find there and the water that they collect when it rains. They have all kinds of bugs and frogs and things that live inside them. They’re like entire little ecosystems and they’re really pretty.
7. AERIAL ROOTS: This place is so damn fertile that trees start growing on top of trees. When they realize they aren’t in the dirt they just say whoops! and send some roots down through the canopy, sometimes for really long distances, down to the ground. It can take years for their roots to actually reach the forest floor. In the meantime they make me want to swing like Tarzan while beating my chest and hollering like a monkey.
6.  MONKEYS! : We’ve seen several groups of White faced capuchin monkeys around. I saw one with a baby on her back!
5. ORCHIDS: Are amazing. There are over 500 types of orchids just in the Monteverde area! Which is crazy. There is one that blooms for only one day. One day! And I got to see a few! There is one that is super, super tiny – like half the size of a pea. I got to see that one too, but only because our guide knew where it was. I would never have noticed it on my own.
4. PARAKEETS: There is a tree down the hill from my ‘cabina’ that fills with parakeets several times a day. Parakeets apparently mate for life and this tree is like a regular pay-by-the-hour motel. There are probably about 20 pairs of parakeets, each occupying its own branch, snuggling and nuzzling and cooing and squawking. It’s super romantic. 
3. COYOTES: The other morning I was walking through the woods alone on my way to breakfast and I heard a rustle in the bushes. I crept up on the sound and all of a sudden out jumped a fairly large, four-legged animal. It landed about a foot from my face and needless to say we were both scared shitless. He froze for a fraction of a second and then took off running impressively fast, so fast it was hard to tell what he looked like. I went to breakfast and told everyone about the stray dog that scared me silly. A few days later I found out that a coyote was spotted around campus the same day. So, good thing it didn’t eat me.
2. AGOUTI: There are all these crazy rodents running around campus. They are kind of cute and I think I want one as a pet. I want to take it for walks and give it hugs.
1. QUETZAL: We went on a hike in the Monteverde Reserve and were lucky enough to spot a male quetzal. Otherwise known as the resplendent quetzal. And it is. Resplendent. It is blue and green and every color in between. It has a tail like Rapunzel’s hair. (It inspires poetry.) When our guide spotted it he and everyone else got so excited that I got teary eyed. I had to turn my back so no one would see that the quetzal made me cry. 

And there you have it folks. It's a beautiful place. Who wants to come visit?!?

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Time lags when you are having fun

You know that saying “time flies when you are having fun?”

Well, it’s stupid. I’m changing it. It is exactly the opposite of what it should be.

It should be more like “Time flies when you are busy doing everyday things.” Or maybe “Time flies when you are preoccupied and unaware of your surroundings.”  At home, in my everyday life and routine, time seems to go by very quickly. I rarely remember what I did a few days before and the days just sort of run together. I have a schedule and an environment that stays more-or-less the same and the comfort and ease this stability provides makes it easy to move about my day without paying much attention to much of anything at all. The days, the weeks, the months sort of  rush by me and I barely take the time to say hello.

I have noticed, however, that time moves very, very slowly when I am (having fun) traveling in places far away from home. There is just so much to pay attention to and  to absorb – every experience is new and exciting and challenging and every minute is memorable. So I remember it! (Which is a feat for me). I walk slowly along, without a care in the world, taking it all in. For instance, I have only spent a few weeks in Costa Rica, but I already feel like I’ve been here for months. And this doesn’t mean I am not having fun. Because I am. And a lot of it.

Here are a few memories I have from my slow-moving, fun-filled adventures:

-Visiting a woman David knows at the small hotel on a mountainside where she  
  works as a cook. She made us lunch and we stayed for several hours, the only
  people in the entire hotel, looking out through the giant windows out towards the
  Arenal Volcano while sipping home-roasted coffee she grows on the hillside behind
  her house.
-Swimming in the “piscina natural” – a ridiculously perfect tide pool created by the
  Caribbean sea pouring its waters into a series of natural, enclosed circular rock
  formations surrounded by lush tropical plants. The water rocked back and forth
  due to the waves and the tide so it was pretty much the most relaxing thing ever.
-David picking coconuts from trees and whacking off the tops with a machete so we
  could drink the sweet water with our breakfast.
-Rolling around in the sand at “Playa Negra” – a beach with dark black sand and
  crystal clear water. And nothing else. No shells, no jellyfish, no algae, no bugs… and
  practically no other people.
-Hiking through the Cahuita National forest listening to the howler monkeys screech  
  and watching iguanas stand up on their hind legs and awkwardly wobble back and
  forth, running away from us as fast as they could.
-Going to the central market in San José where we ate a breakfast of gallo pinto
  (beans and rice), fried eggs, fried plantains, fried hotdog and coffee after walking
   around through butcher booths full of hanging cow-carcass parts and fish heads.

It was all pretty spectacular.

Then, last Tuesday, we went to the airport where I said goodbye to David and hello to the group of 19 yr old students I will be living with for the next 7 weeks. I climbed into a bus with them and we made our way to San Luis - a small community right down the road from the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve – the site of the University of Georgia Costa Rica campus.

Since Tuesday I have been helping with orientation sessions, going on educational hikes, preparing/teaching classes, and eating 3 delicious helpings of beans and rice/day in the school’s cafeteria. I don’t really know why I have ever taught anywhere else. Here I have 2-5 students in each class (as opposed to 30), I walk through the woods to class accompanied by hummingbirds and baby cows and coatis and morphos butterflies, and I get to listen this sound while preparing my lectures: 

Right now I am laying in a hammock on the porch of my “cabina” listening to the sounds of the forest, resting after our most recent hike through the cloudforest. And I get to do this for 6 more weeks! And with me having so much fun, and time moving so slowly, if I’m lucky it will feel like even longer.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Greetings from Costa Rica!

David and I have been here about 5 days now, but it feels like a lot longer - maybe because we have been doing so much since we got here. We rented a car with a GPS and I am now convinced this is the only way to travel - just plug in where you want to go and wha-la! Some lady with a robotic, but sweet voice gives you directions! In between our various destinations we get to stop for freshly roasted peanuts, balls of fresh squeaky cheese and fresh pineapple (where the man selling the pineapple will peel it for you and serve you the fruit piece-by-piece with his machete). We get to listen to música romántica on the radio while we cruise down mountain roads with seriously the most breathtaking views I think I have ever seen. It has been stressful at times (there are lots of roads made of nothing but rocks and several one-way streets that you somehow don't notice until you are driving down them the wrong way) but for the most part I've actually felt quite comfortable behind the wheel.

Sharing in our adventures, from the back seats, are David's friend Mauricio and his mother Doña Cristina, with whom he lived for over a year about 8 years ago. So far the four of us have visited the country's tallest active volcano as well as the country's only old, abandoned leper colony. Yup, weird. It's a giant, old building from the early 1900s, tucked into a valley surrounded by lush, green mountains, where few rooms still have a roof, all the floors are covered in intricate, beautiful ceramic tiles and the walls with creepy graffiti reading things like Bienvenidos. Sientan el frio de la muerte. (Welcome. Feel the coldness of death.) I didn't see any leper ghosts, but I was kind of expecting to at every corner.

We stayed several nights in San Ramon where Mau attends college and where his mother has been staying for a month, waiting for her husband to have heart surgery. (The health care system here is free for everyone which is amazing, however there are a few disadvantages to this system. For example, those needing an operation have to essentially "wait in line" for their turn and since there are so many patients right now, Mau's dad has been living in the hospital for over a month now waiting). In San Ramon we went to the local food market for more squeaky cheese, had lunch with a Costa Rican ex-nun who spent 12 years in Mozambique birthing babies, waited out torrential downpours and power outages with Mau's neighbors, and traveled about an hour in the rain and the dark only to arrive late to Mau's first college choral recital. (Folks here don't give directions in a very direct way. There are usually lots of hand gestures and very rarely are the words "left" and "right" used. Due to this and a few other factors, David and Mau's mom ended up in the town's giant cathedral listening to the sermon, waiting for Mau to come out and start singing. The concert was actually in a small building around the corner.)

Yesterday, we left San Ramon and made our way to Cabeceras, the small, rural town in the mountains where Mau's parents normally live. Unfortunately, our 4 hour drive turned into 8 hours due to a fallen bridge, so we arrived later than planned. But man were they 8 beautiful hours. And today we went to visit some lady who grows, harvests and roasts her own coffee. After feeding us homemade chicken soup with tortillas and passion fruit juice, she took us for a tour of her land and pointed out each of the dozens of different kinds of plants - everything from macadamia nut trees to potato vines. Then she made us coffee with fresh cows milk and a sweet treat made from "cuadrados" (plantains with 4 sides).

This place is absolutely amazing. I'm thinking about moving here and learning to milk cows. Oh, looks like I have to stop writing. Mau's brother killed a pig for us for dinner and I have to get ready!