Rutgers - Science Summer Abroad 2010
Nine Science Undergraduate Students Around the World

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Soundtracks and Comebacks

The Malaise trap was successful! Relatively speaking. The setup survived the first night of trapping and yielded almost twenty insects, mostly moths, which are active at night. We'll see what else turns up after the next few nights as I collect from site to site. I attached a picture of the setup so you can see what it looks like. Essentially, it is a tent that fools insects into flying upwards until they are trapped in a plastic container. The other photo shows the bat detector setup. A tupperware container, modified by Seth, last summer's bat REUer, houses the recorder and bat detector. This contraption is strapped at an angle on top of a two-meter ladder so that it may get a good "view" of the site. How both are able to survive in the bush while foraging elephants, curious baboons, impala herds, etc. abound is beyond me.

That being said, the Pettersson D 240x bat detector is giving me some real grief. From what I understand, the trigger is supposed to be set to automatic so that the device only records when echolocation is detected. I know it is capable of detecting the calls, because I can see and hear them using the Bat Sound Pro program. But, after sifting through the last three and a half hours of recordings, I believe the auto function is malfunctioning. So, tonight I set it to manual, where it is constantly recording. Tomorrow we shall see if it works out in my favor. Until then, I keep the attitude optimistic.

Speaking of tonight, I experienced my first legitimate leopard sighting about an hour ago after we had finished re-baiting Ryan's Sherman traps. Site 5 was the final of eight sites, as well as the location of tonight's bat recording and insect trapping. On the drive back to camp, while passing Site 7, a male leopard crosses the road. With a silent and graceful gait, he stalks through the bush, seeking tonight's meal. The leopard pauses for a moment, turning back to examine us, and then continues his course. Breathtaking.

By the way, I suggest that you all check out the group Goldfish. They are a South African duo from Cape Town. I don't know why they haven't hit it big in the States, but I feel as if they could be popular back home. Their track "Fort Knox" is featured in a car commercial...I think. I'm not much for electronic music, but their stuff is the perfect blend of catchy and classy. Goldfish actually samples live instruments that they play themselves, so it's not just a mixing board creating all the tunes, but real musicians. Some of my preferred tracks are "Soundtracks and Comebacks" (sick bass line - my favorite), "Wet Welly" (close second), "This Is How It Goes" (I believe this is the song that made them famous in South Africa), "Hold Tight" (our REU theme song), and "Egyptology". It's been a running joke for everyone to be out in the field, sweating profusely and collecting data, only to hear "Hold Tight" begin to blare out of Jay's iPod. Our ensuing laughter breaks the stress instantly. Goldfish is not for everybody, but sometimes it's good to step out of your normal boundaries and experience something new.

That's all folks.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Catch up

Pineapple picking is a great way to start the day. We harvested pineapple at the EARTH University farm, just like their students would do. There is a work experience component in the EARTH curriculum. Students work on the university´s farm Wednesday and Saturday mornings, 6 - 10 AM. They cannot miss a single session (unless they have a doctor´s note). If they do, they fail. Yes, one absence = failure. They do not kid around! Then, they also have to make it up with twice the work!
So, we harvested some pineapple, only for about half an hour, and then ate some in the field. It tastes so much better down here. Pineapples picked for export to the US are not allowed to ripen on the plant. Instead, they are picked green and later gassed with ethylene, a ripening agent. (Ethylene is produced naturally by plants.)
After our foray into the world of pineapple production (more on that later), we took a bumpy bus ride to a dock from which we took a boat to Mawamba Lodge, in Tortuguerro. On our way, we spotted howler monkeys, spider monkeys, and capuchins!

2 boat rides, one before and one after breakfast. We went along the canals, some of which are manmade, dredged during the time when logging dominated the area.
Despite the history of logging, there is much wildlife here: birds, monkeys, caimans, and sloths! (I am happy to report that neither the sloths nor the monkeys bothered us)
The lodge we stayed at also had its own wildlife collection: butterfly houses and frog habitat. There were blue morpho butterflies, which are just so dang fast! It´s easy to get a picture of them with their wings closed, but to get them open, that´s a real challenge. In the frog house, there were tree frogs and poison dart frogs. Small little things, but once you spot one you know what you´re looking for and it starts getting easier to find them amongst all the vegetation.
After dinner, about 9ish, four of us went with a guide along the Caribbean to look for leatherback turtles. It´s not green sea turtle nesting season yet. If it were, we wouldn´t even be allowed on the beach. There are strict regulations during green turtle nesting season, as there are so many tourists who come to see it. I am sorry to report that we did not see any turtles. However, we saw some lighting strike over the Caribbean while sitting on a piece of driftwood surrounded by coconuts. Very Pirates of the Caribbean.

Long travel day. Had to take the boat ride back to dock. Boat and plane are the only ways in and out of Tortuguerro.
There is a lot of sedimentation in the canals, making them very shallow, making it very easy for boats to get stuck. We got stuck. Dragged along in the mud for, I don´t know, let´s say half an hour (on top of the boat leaving late).
Then back on the bus. Quick stop to look at the conventional banana production. Makes me feel very guilty about eating bananas. So many inputs, so much disruption to the native habitats, hard labor. Why must they be so good?
Then traffic jam: the boats had come to dock and trucks were going to back and forth to load and unload their products.
Eventually arrived at the pineapple farm. Organic producer, but on a very large scale. This is no joke. There were a lot of pineapples. Hundreds of hectares of em. Most of the pineapples grown at this operation are sold at Whole Foods, so you may have bought one. I love visiting these farms; I love learning where my food comes from, seeing how it gets from farm to fork. That phrase it getting to be very overused, isn´t it.
The operation is also trying to tap into the ecotourism market, offering tours and selling food and souvenirs.
Staying at a wonderful inn: delicious food, a butterfly house, frog habitat, a pool (which we didn`t get to use because it downpoured). I want to come back to all these places.

Ready to start the day!

Friday, May 28, 2010

Written May 27th, on my birthday

Well, today marks my 22nd revolution around the Sun. If you had told me a year ago that I would be sitting here in South Africa, listening to hyenas cackle in the night…I probably would have believed you. At the time I was preparing for a two month internship at the La Selva Biological Research Station in Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui, Costa Rica before embarking on the three month OTS South African savanna ecology course. But, tell me two years ago that I’d do any of these things, and I would have choked on my burger and told you that you were crazy. Not that I haven’t almost choked already today. The gang gave me a 50 mL shooter of mampoer (South African moonshine) with a mopane worm inside. It was reminiscent of a tequila shot with a Hypopta agavis larvae, except the mopane worm was the size of my pinky finger. It was spiny and did not go down on the first try. I think I can still feel it crawling around in my stomach…

Anyway, the REU gang has been in Skukuza since last Sunday. Shingwedzi was a nice place - it seemed every morning held the promise of a lion sighting. That being said, I think the research camp in Skukuza feels a little more like home. Ryan, Jay, and myself share Hut 10, which, I have to admit, is very comfortable (wireless internet!). We will be leaving the research camp on the 7th or 8th, and moving our things about half a kilometer to the vet camp that we stayed in during the OTS course. It’s small and fenced in, so sometimes it can begin to feel like a ratcage. That same cage, however, protects us from the wild things, so let it be known that I am not complaining.

So, let’s get down to it. I submitted my proposal and literature review today and the details of my project have been ironed out, more or less. I still have to decide what statistical analysis I am going to run my data through, but those decisions are for a later date. So, I am assessing bat activity at 15 riparian sites along the Sabie River in the Kruger National Park. The sites are divided up based on their canopy density: dense, intermediate, sparse, and open. They are essentially being used as a proxy for elephant disturbance. I will set up a bat echolocation detector at each site, just after sunset, and let it run for the night. Using Bat Sound Pro, I will analyze the recordings and identify each call down to guild and species level. I will also be setting up a Malais insect trap at each site so that I can get a measurement of insect prey activity on the nights I record bat activity. To make my life much easier, I will only identify insects down to the level of order. With all of this information, I should be able to compare canopy characteristics (density of tall trees, canopy cover, canopy heterogeneity) with prey abundance and bat activity to get a clearer picture of what has the greatest effect on bat community assemblages. I will also try to identify any trends that I notice as canopy density decreases. When elephant population densities increase during the winter months, they tend to aggregate around sources of water, and I’m hoping my project can add to the literature by establishing the shifts that bat communities undergo as elephants disturb/alter riparian vegetation.

What’s cool/scary about my project is that I will be in the field, on foot, at sundown, when predators are on the prowl. Because of this, a game guard (Graeme armed with a bolt action rifle) will be making the trip with me every night. The other day, while we were completing vegetation surveys at each site, I startled a waterbuck, which leapt out of the bush towards me. Until it turned and sprinted in another direction, it was only a brown blur of fur, and scared the **** out of me. Had it been a lion or leopard, claws and teeth would have been on me before I could have blinked. Having an armed guard by my side is reassuring, but when the sun goes down and predators move that fast, I can’t help but wonder about my chances if something were to happen.

(5/27/2010) Morning game drive: completely uneventful for about 45 minutes. Wearing a thermal, a sweatshirt, and a fleece, I was still unable to fend off the bone-chilling cold. Jay spotted a vulture nest, and we watched as one individual climbed (yes, climbed) across a couple of branches to gather some twigs (pictured above). If you look closely, you can see that the vulture is actually using its head and neck to stabilize itself on the branch.The whole event was very awkward, but the vulture managed to return to the nest without falling. A passing car stopped and tipped us off to a Wild Dog kill just up the road. I was able to great some great photos and some video (pictured above). We followed them for a while until they ran off into the bush. Wild Dogs are the most successful hunters (80% kill rate), while lions are only successful 30% of the time. Hooded Vultures eventually found the kill and I also snapped some photos of them as well. On the drive back to camp, we found a massive Warthog male harassing a female. He followed her relentlessly until she allowed him to mate with her. It brought a bunch of jokes and laughter from the group.

ps – The third picture is one of myself gripping a Rock Monitor that Graeme found during our vegetation surveys. They are related to (and resemble) komodo dragons.

pps – I think I am the only Philadelphia Flyers (let alone hockey) fan in all of South Africa.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

And I thought I would never have dining hall food again

After a long, windy, bumpy bus ride, interrupted by a couple bathroom breaks and ginger-ale-and-saltine runs, we made it (alive, I am happy to report) to EARTH University. Established in 1990, and set on 8,154 acres, EARTH has approximately 400 students from various Latin American countries, as well as some African nations. Many of the students are from lower economic classes and this university provides them with invaluable education. The curriculum sounds fascinating! Agronomy, environmental sciences, business. You may be familiar with the university, more familiar than you think. Whole Foods sells the bananas they produce! Look out for the EARTH sticker.
We are now on the Atlantic/Caribbean side, where it is hot and humid and rains nearly every afternoon.
EARTH hosts an annual international fair and we were lucky enough to see it on Sunday. We ate lunch and dinner at the concession stands, each of which served food from a different Latin American country. I went to El Salvador for lunch. And Dole gave me a free bunch of bananas. Perhaps lunch wasn't free, but dessert was!
We are staying in the on-campus hotel, not the dorms, but we still get to eat in the cafeteria (yay?).
Sunday evening, we had a discussion. On the way to the classroom, we saw an armadillo and a cane toad, which is invasive here in Costa Rica (and in Australia). There was a bat in the classroom, which we had to literally shout out.
Yesterday, we trekked through the rainforest and spotted a tarantula, some bullet ants, and a couple poison dart frogs. I don't think I really ever want to see a bullet ant again. Once is enough. Big buggers, they are, and they call them bullet ants for a reason. Anyone care to guess why? Yet our tour guide (who lived for a time in NJ) did not hesitate to pick up a stick with a bullet ant crawling on it.
After lunch (yay, more dining hall food) we visited a family that had a biodigestor installed by EARTH students. A biodigestor produces methane to be used in cooking, etc. from animal manure. So, this family, which raised hogs and chickens, could produce power from waste. We then constructed a biodigestor for one of their neighbors. No longer would the woman we built it for have to search for firewood, which was sparse and often too wet. (During the construction, one young man cut his finger with the blade; I do not like blood, no not at all. Water please? Yet, the young man, an EARTH University student, was unphased. He has a rural background, used to cuts and scrapes and things of that sort. I'm a bit more squeamish, coming from suburbia, NJ.). This community of 23 families received their land from the government. They have no electricity or potable water. The houses have no doors, though one did have a beaded curtain. They sleep and wake with the sun. Their lives are very different from my own and I have difficulty imagining them.
Not surprisingly, the day ended with a thunderstorm.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

An early morning

Wake up call: bird songs at 5:30 AM. Up and at em. I think I could get used to this. I love the morning. As I always say (you´ve probably heard this a million times when I explain why I cannot go out with you to a party at 11 PM), I am a lark. Though I´m not sure if they have larks here, so I´ll say I am a flycatcher. Pretty yellow bird. I did manage to capture it on film, i.e. memory card, so you´ll see it as soon as I get a little more technologically advanced.
The black lab here at the lodge enjoyed a morning yoga session with us yesterday. He´s my morning buddy - no one else here is up at this hour.
I´m convinced I may develop a coffee addiction while I am here, I had more at breakfast yesterday than I did the day before. I will try and restrain myself today.
CATIE is an institution for agricultural research and graduate education. It is also home to a large germplasm collection. Such collections, which hold numerous varieties of different species, are warehouses of genetic diversity. Having such collections allows us to respond to problems such as UG99, a strain of fungus that has overcome the trait for resistance in the wheat we grow today and now threatens our food supply (no, I am not a harbringer of the apocalypse, it´s not even 2012 yet!). The main collections at CATIE are coffee, cacao, and annatto. The first two I am sure you are very familiar with and that you appreciate, as do I, how very VERY important these crops are. (With regard to chocolate, both theobroma, the genus name, and cacao, the Mayan name, mean fruit of the Gods.) You are familiar with annatto, though you may not realize it. It is used as a coloring agent in foods and cosmetics.
An example of the importance of these collections is in order, to make you relaize just how essential they are. In the 1970s, coffee rust wiped out the crops in Brazil and Africa. Researchers identified, among the collection held at CATIE, one variety that was naturally resistant. This specimen was then crossed with commercially grown varieties to produce a variety that was both commercially viable and resistant and therefore could be grown without the use of potentially harmful and environmentally detrimental fungicides. As pathogens and pests evolve new strategies to attack crops, researchers look for varieties with key resistance traits. They may also look for such characteristics as high yield or tolerance of adverse growning conditions.
Our guide pointed out some interesting plants in the collection. One was a fruit from Colombia which is used to make a drink. Only one tablespoon of the paste is needed to make one liter. It is purportedly an aphrodisiac. It is also high in phoisphorus and will help keep you awake. As our guide said, ïf you aren´t sleeping, you must be doing something¨!¨
Such tropical fruits are falling ¨victim to the global market¨as the younger children in the region are more apt to eat apples and grapes than the native fruits. The culture and the food system are changing rapidly.
After lunch, two fellow students and I joined our professor plant collecting while everyone else went in the pool on CATIE´s campus. While they splashed around, we trudged up and down the hill at the farm we visited the day before. All the way to where the cows are and all the way back down. ALL THE WAY. This cannot be emphsized enough. As we wound our way back down, literally wound, the road is curvy, the thunder grew threatening. Fortunately we made it to the bus before we fell victim to any mudslide. But, by the time we got to the pool to pick up the ¨slackers,¨ it was raining, sure enough.
After a brief taxonomy lesson, we identified the collected plants to family. For instance, coffee is in the Rubiaceae family. Some characteristics we look at in taxonomy, or classification, are leaf venation and arrangement on the stem, as well as the flower. Only problem: my bad memory. Do you think I really can remember all the names of the families and the different characteristics! The names are just so long, and difficult to spell, let alone pronounce!
We depart today for EARTH institute. I do not want to leave this inn behind.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Another day in paradise

I forgot to mention we visited the National Cathedral yesterday. Breathtaking. Originally built in 1635 it was destroyed by an earthquake, rebuilt, destroyed again, rebuilt, destroyed yet again, and then erected at a new site, where it has been ever since. On one side, there is a grotto, where people collect holy water to bring to their homes.
I also saw an African tulip tree. Large tree with orange-pink flowers. It started to rain as we walked to the bus. What a surprise. While we were on the bus, I spotted more tulip trees and called it out. We have "sightings of the day." There is a list of items to spy from the bus. For instance, a tulip tree, or a pregnant dog, or three people on a motorcycle. We still have not spotted that last one.
So today, after my post, we had a delicious breakfast, fresh bread, guayaba jam, fruit (I will never enjoy papaya and mango as much as I do here) and coffee. I don't really like coffee, but when in Costa Rica...You see the trees everywhere!
We visited a dairy production facility. On top of a very steep hill. All of us rode up in the bed of an old pickup truck. Sturdy vehicle, it got us all up there. I have to say, though, the ride did a number on my stomach, nerves of motion sickness?? The cows were kept in an enclosure at the top of the hill. Mulberries were produced along the slopes. The vegetative parts were harvested to feed the cattle. The operation strives to be sustainable. The manure is collected and used in vermicompost and a biodigestor.
We walked down, so I was calm enough to enjoy the scenery, not as focused on holding on for dear life. There was a colony or oriole nests in a large tree. The orioles here are beautiful black birds with bright yellow tails. They build large hanging nests. I also kept seeing these blue butterflies, but they just move too darn fast!
Then lunch. Again, rice and beans, and plantains. Surprised? We stopped in town for calling cards and an extension cord and the professors picked up some fruit from a stand. Mamones, or "suckers." Little green fruits with peach flesh, almost a grape consistency. You peel the fruit, and suck on the flesh, but don't bite! There is a large pit. Tart fruit, but kind of addicting. The only problem is you do all this work and get your fingers all sticky for so little!
On our way to the ruins, one of the few in Costa Rica, we spotted an Alcoholics Anonymous building (though this was not on our "sightings" list).
We made it to the ruins, after driving past it, at 3:35PM, 5 minutesn after close. They were kind enough to let us in. I was quite thankful. I've been very thirsty, and drinking a lot of water. In the women's restroom, there was a big furry spider...I used the men's.
The native peoples had a sophisticated aqueduct system. They built circular wooden houses on mounds, the foundations of which remain to this day. We saw a katimundi, which is a small mammal in the raccoon family, and a toucan, among other things. As we left, the weather changed. We had sun all day, then the clouds rolled in and by the time we reached the lodge, you couldn't see very far in front of you.
Looking forward to another delicious dinner here.

First Full Day in Shingwedzi

Well, well, back in the Kruger again. Though it is a world away, I am beginning to feel at home again. After arriving in the park, the first hour or so is usually spent scouring the bush for wildlife. It’s very comparable to looking for a needle in a haystack, especially when the savanna is as lush as it is now. During my OTS semester, the South African summer had just begun and we watched as the trees and shrub went from dead and dried to green and lively. Now, at the end of summer, the grasses have grown tall and thick and spotting wildlife is particularly challenging. Of course, spotting an elephant remains as easy as finding a bowling ball in a haystack, but the animals that really don’t want to be spotted (big cats, reptiles, birds etc.) are very well hidden. After some time, it gets very tedious and your eyes begin to play tricks on you. During the drive to Shingwedzi we were able to spot elephants, giraffes, zebra, warthogs, a hippo, and a giant kingfisher (that was practically posing for us on a bridge) among other birds.

Once Sarah and I arrived, we ate a late lunch and were thrown right into the mix. The other four REUers (there are six of us in all) gave us an introduction to the overall theme of our combined work and Karen (one of our professors) outlined the potential projects we could choose from. Altogether, we are focusing on the effect that elephants have on vegetation structure and the reciprocal effects on various types of organisms (birds, bats, rodents). I chose bats as my focus. Laurence and Dax will mentor my project. Laurence was the director of my OTS course and Dax was a professor for the OTS course that was completed in early May. In a nutshell, I will be recording bat activity for two hours at fixed locations along a riparian zone after sunset (the Sabie River in KNP). These locations represent different levels of elephant disturbance. I have a lot of literature reading ahead of me. I need to determine which vegetation characteristics drive bat community shifts, and then decide which characteristics I want to focus on, but I am looking forward to becoming an “expert” on the subject. So far I have been reviewing papers, taking notes, and bouncing ideas inside of my head. The real fieldwork begins when we leave Shingwedzi and get to Skukuza. As my workload increases, the depth of my posts will certainly decrease, but I will do my best to stay on top of it and keep those reading informed of my experiences.

(5/21/2010) Morning game drive: three lionesses harassing a hyena; later on a male lion chasing the scent of the females – too dark to take any photos; good snapshot of a vervet monkey sitting by the side of the road; spotted an eagle and a hawk as well but I don’t have bins (binoculars) and I’m not enough of a birder to remember their names. It was raining during most of the drive, and our seats in the GDV (Game Drive Vehicle) are open to the elements.

At 4 PM ten people from our camp played ultimate frisbee on a muddy field in the rain. It felt wonderful to get the lungs and legs working again. You’d think we were a bunch of “swamp things” when we had finished; we were covered head to toe in mud. I wish more than anything that we had snapped a picture. It would have been priceless. It was raining so hard that we were able to wash off in the downpour.

On the ride back to the camp (<1 km) a male lion crossed the road. It may have been the same individual from the morning game drive. We followed him for a bit until he eventually took a seat fifteen meters into a dense thicket. A clearing in the brush provided the perfect vantage point to admire his regal countenance. We sit and exchange stares for a few minutes, and then the group decides to try and find him tomorrow morning on a game drive. That lion was one of the most beautiful things I have ever laid my eyes on. It sounds ludicrous, but I had an overwhelming desire to step into the thicket and touch him. This whole event occurred less than 100 meters from my tent.

Written May 19th, 2010 while bouncin' around in the truckbed

After my seemingly eternal flight finally ended, Dom scooped me up from the airport. Apparently, we had great timing; he arrived just as I trudged through the gate. When I first flew to Joburg back in August, I arrived on the same day as the controversial track athlete, Caster Semenya. In the main lobby, there was a large crowd of South Africans celebrating her arrival. This all occurred, of course, before it was determined that he/she is in fact a hermaphrodite. Between the exhaustion of traveling, the anxiousness of being alone in a foreign country, and the shock of being confronted by a screaming wall of fanatics - it was a very unnerving experience. Thankfully, this time around the situation was much more low-key.

I was very happy to see Dom again. He is one of my favorite people from our OTS course. We do, however, have a peculiar history. On one fateful night during our first stay in the Skukuza camp, Dom and I initiated an impromptu wrestling clinic. Unfortunately, a freak accident occurred and Dom was left with a shattered right ankle. I will always regret the decision to mosey on over to Dom and the group of hyena-luring students instead of quietly brushing my pearly whites and hitting the hay. To their credit, Dom and his family have been incredibly understanding and forgiving of the whole situation and I can only hope that his injury was fate's way of preventing some other disastrous event from taking place later on in the course.

When we drove back to his place, Dom's mother and sister had already prepared dinner for us. It was delicious: exactly what I needed after surviving on airplane food and lightly salted peanuts for an entire day. I spent the night there, but had some trouble sleeping. Once I finally fell asleep, however, I was out like a light, not waking up for another ten hours. At 3 PM the next day, we set out for the airport to pick up Sarah, another REUer who was a student with us on the OTS course.

So here I am now in the truckbed of Dom's landcruiser, snug as a bug in a rug (pictured). By the way, there were two propane tanks under the bags to my left...yeah, it's funny now. With space being a limiting factor in the cab, I volunteered to travel in the back. Arcade Fire articulates my opinion perfectly: "I like the peace in the backseat, I don't have to drive, I don't have to speak, I can watch the countryside, and I can go to sleep". To be honest, I find it to be rather comfortable back here. I have a little nook carved out for myself in the midst of Dom's camping supplies and the bags Sarah and I have packed for the REU. It's strange to think about it, but nine months ago I did not know these two people existed. Now, I trust them with my life. The experiences we shared during the OTS program were able to bring us together as if we had known each other for years. This short road trip has been a blast so far, and I'm looking forward to tomorrow's journey to Shingwedzi as well.

As we travel farther from the lights of Joburg, holes are poked in the darkening sky one by one. Looking through the side window of the truck, I have a proper view of a night on fire. This is nothing like New Jersey; stars twinkle different colors and crowd the heavens. As I gaze, I wonder if any of them have orbiting planets like ours. South African nights take me back in time to a vacation in Hawai'i with my family as a four year old. Those nights burned with the same intensity, it's an image I will never forget. I used to be so shy then. I remember, at first, the sheer number of stars frightened me. Tonight, I am mesmerized, and I can't help but lose myself in them. It's not long before a shooting star catches my attention. My first wish: please may I return home safely. The second: please keep my family safe in the meantime. A third: I hope my project is a resounding success. I continue to make requests as the atmosphere greets each meteor, but those, my friends, those are none of your business.

Written May 18th, 2010 on Delta Flight #200

Traveling by air remains my biggest fear. There's just something about cruising at 31,000 feet above the middle of the Atlantic Ocean that I find very unsettling. But hey, as crazy as it sounds, I'm here aren't I?

Peeking out of my window doesn't provide much solace. There is nothing but a black abyss staring back at me. I imagine that this is what the bottom of the sea is like. Realizing this isn't a place I want to visit anytime soon, I push the thought out of my mind. It's funny, we think we know so much about the world when, in actuality, most of it lies at great depths, beyond the touch of sunlight, inhabited by creepy, crawly things.

By using a touch screen located on the back of the headrest facing me, a multitude of entertainment options becomes available, literally, at my fingertips. Most of the programs are complimentary, and it doesn’t take long to find many options for killing time. There are a few simple games, like a version of Tetris called Caveman, but the slow response of the touch screen is crippling and would prevent even the most seasoned Tetris master from completing four levels. Frustrated, I decide to peruse the available TV shows and movies. Both categories are organized by genre (comedy, drama, documentary, etc.) and contain many choices. I begin with an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Twenty minutes later, the credits are rolling and I realize that watching a movie will be a much better time-killer. I’m surprised by how recent some of the titles are (e.g. Avatar). Eventually, I settle on Inglorious Basterds for three reasons: I have yet to see it, I (mostly) enjoy Quentin Tarantino films, and most of it is in captions. Since my dog, Baxter, destroyed my headphones before I left, I have had to depend on the complimentary pair provided by Delta Airlines. Playing the movie at a regular volume level means missing out on the details of dialogue, but listening at full blast means losing my eardrums and missing out on hearing into my thirties. Finding the perfect middle ground is an ongoing process. Now, if only I could wrestle the armrests from my neighbors, it would almost feel like the movies…

Fifteen hours is a pretty long time to be cramped in between two people. My previous trip to South Africa was blessed with good fortune. I had an aisle seat with no one sitting next to me. Though it was convenient for writing and watching movies, it did nothing to help me sleep. It's true, not even a wink. This time around I have a trick up my sleeve: Unisom tablets. Before finishing my in-flight dinner, I down the chewable tablets with some water, resume watching Inglorious Basterds, and wait for them to take effect. Beginning as a slight ache in the back of my head, drowsiness slowly creeps forward around my cranium and before I know it, my eyelids are heavy and yawns dominate my breathing. This is a very welcome feeling, now only if it were a little quieter... Since I don't exactly have $300 to dole out for Bose quietcomfort headphones, I make do with the $1 earplugs I found at Whole Foods. I squish them down to the size of Q-tips and wiggle them into my ear canals. As they expand, the incessant drone of the engine begins to fade away...ahh, that's more like it. I wouldn't say that I'm comfortable, but this is as close as I am gonna get. I close my eyes and let unconsciousness sweep over me...

I know you are all dying to know what I did yesterday

Traditional breakfast of, drumroll please...rice and beans! Who would ever have guessed?
Then on to the volcano Irazu, where we discussed the role volcanic activity plays in ecosystem productivity and soil fertility.
We also enjoyed the weather. Dense fog. Then rain. Then the rain stopped. Then it started again. And stopped. And the clouds cleared long enough for us to get pictures, then the rain started again and it was time to leave Irazu.
Lunch at a restaurant with an absolutely breathtaking view. Mountains, farms, forests. We saw it all, when the clouds cleared, that is. So what was on the menu? And this is the kicker: rice and beans.
Our next destination: a fern leaf farm. I bet you never thought about where they grow the green leafy plants in your rose bouquets. That is, if you are lucky enough to have someone buy them for you, or buy them for yourself. With the economy the way it is, the farm has not been doing as well lately. After all, bouquets are luxuries.
The operation is originally from Miami, but moved to Costa Rica, where labor is cheaper. However, workers in Costa Rica get paid ten times more than their counterparts in surrounding countries, where the industry is now moving. Also, there is free health care and education.
The farm was trying out a new, high'tech approach, using greenhouses and computerized controls. This method was vastly more efficient and profitable, and produced a higher quality product.
On our way to the lodge that evening, we saw Turrialba, yet another volcano, smoking in the distance. Turrialba has a new crater.
Apparently, there was also a 6.0 earthquake. We did not feel a thing.
The inn we are staying at is wonderful. Beautiful country. It is hard to imagine that all this pasture was once forest. But, that is why we are here, to learn how farmers can produce crops and raise livestock without causing any more damage.
The lodge served a delicious dinner - no rice and beans! - which was accompanied by excellent conversation.
After a short lecture and a shower, I fell asleep.
And slept till 5:30 AM, when the dog started barking and the birds singing. I am glad for the wakeup call. I walked around this morning. Saw some beautiful orchids, three types of butterflies, a bright yellow bird.
I promise there will be pictures! I want to share this with you all...
Till next time

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The First Full Day

Another long, but very exciting day.
Early breakfast, then onto Irazu, a volcano, no longer active. We discussed how volcanic activity is related to soil fertility. We also experienced our first Costa Rican rainfall. Rains for five minutes. Stops. Rains again. Clouds come in and go out.
From there, we went to lunch at a restaurant with an absolutely breathtaking view.
Tell you more later! Time for a lecture!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

And it begins

Woke up at 2:15 AM. Parents made themselves coffee. Coffee happens to be part of the food pyramid, in case you were unaware. My father cannot function without it. Mom dropped (and broke) a glass jar of mustard. (Don't ever do this, please, for the love of God. The smell is horrible.)
After an eventful half an hour, we left at 2:45 for NEwark airport, where, thankfully, there were no events. Smooth check-in.
I had a window seat on the plane. The couple next to me, probably in their late 30s, decided to start their day off right: 7:05 AM - bloody mary's. I suppose this is perfectly appropriate.
Transfer in Miami. Thought I would miss it! But, thank goodness, I made it, and still had time to spare to use the restroom. (I somehow will never be comfortable with the idea of using the bathroom thousands of feet above the ground.)
I even had time to do some people-watching. I can't help but think Miami is the foreign country I need to be studying.
Character #1: Female, mid-20s, bleach blonde hair (with dark roots), heavy black eyeline (1 lb, maybe 2), unnecessarily tall platform shoes, black shoulder bag, probably containing a chihuahua or other such creature.
Character #2: Adult male, phone conversation: "Que pasa!?!?...I'm getting on the aeroplane."
Obnoxious? Please don't feed the tourists.
Flying into San Jose, I saw farms, forests, mountains, towns, and shantytowns/slums. I was expecting to see more forested area, I suppose.
My first two hours in Costa Rica were uneventful as I waited for fellow travelers to arrive. Sitting on the sidewalk outside the airplane. Wildlife observed: tourists, tour guides and taxi drivers.
After getting off to a late start, the group checked in at the hotel (which is very nice I might add) and headed to lunch. We dined at a hotel in the heart of San Jose. It was established in the early 1900s with the help of a government contract.
Then onto some souvenir shopping at the market. Typical souvenirs: shotglasses, jewelry, etc. I tried to haggle, but the language barrier does sometimes pose a problem. I did try to learn Spanish on the plane with the help of a conversational Spanish book - ineffective.
We saw a fight on the street. (This should not discourage anyone from coming to San Jose or Costa Rica in general.) The scene unfolded in front of the national theater, an absolutely gorgeous piece of architecture.
I am absolutely exhausted now, so I think I will leave it at that. Pictures ASAP! I promise!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Thursday, May 6, 2010

So, I will be getting the presidential treatment my first night. (I expect I will need it after dealing with airports and customs.) Hotel Don Carlos, in San Jose, was a former president's mansion. What I find even more exciting is that they have an outdoor orchid garden. I promise you will hear more about orchids and my love affair with them.
I will also be getting the royal treatment, as we will visit the Gold Museum, Museos del Banco Central de Costa Rica (I really should learn Spanish)

The worst part...

Ok, maybe this is the second worst part (I anticipate returning to NJ being worse)
Packing. What exactly does one wear in the rainforest? The closest I've been is a humid August afternoon in Monmouth County NJ. Do I bring this? Well, I might need this. But, then again, I'll have to lug it everywhere and if I don't need it it'll just be such a pain.
Pack lightly, but bring x, y, z...and everything else on this list (the list my program sent me).