By Dr. Lee Blaney (CBEE) – June 13th
Today was our last full day in Costa Rica.
I met Alexis, Carlos, Daniel, Heather, Jordan, and Tess at the Los Lagos restaurant at 7:00 am. We jumped in one of the vans and headed up the hill for one of Carlos’ famous birding adventures. I missed the first one at the beginning of the course because I was finalizing my lecture and preparing for the water quality fieldwork. After hearing the rave reviews of round one, I was not going to miss this final opportunity to see Carlos in action.
We popped out of the van to a group of parakeets flying overhead. Shortly afterwards, we saw the clay-colored robin, which is the national bird of Costa Rica, and some guan. We walked a little ways down the road, and Alexis spotted a peccary. We soon noticed that there was a group of about ten peccaries making their way across the field. Our next find was the scarlet tanager, which seemed to follow us around for the rest of the morning. As we walked back down the hill, I couldn’t help but appreciate the knowledge and skill involved with identifying plant and animal species.
As we pulled out from Los Lagos, the students seemed tired and worn out. They were working on completing their journal entries and reflecting on the past two weeks in Costa Rica. In this regard, I was glad that our next stop was at Don Juan’s medicinal plant farm. To me, this activity seemed like a great way to marry the biodiversity theme of the course with organic and medicinal chemistry. Davir was our guide to the farm. We started off talking about cacao and then moved on to starfruit, bananas, lemongrass, and guanabana. Like our friends at LIFE farm in Monteverde, Don Juan’s farm also raises a variety of animals, including poultry, pigs, and cattle. The waste is sent to an anaerobic digestor (for energy recovery) and vermicomposting (for waste reduction). As we have seen throughout this trip, the spirit of sustainability is strong in Costa Rica. Nevertheless, I am curious about the effectiveness of these techniques as employed. Many of the “green” systems that we have seen have not been correctly designed or utilized. Carlos and I have discussed opportunities for future collaboration in Costa Rica – I look forward to it!
After seeing the animals, Davir led us to an obstacle course, where the women and men competed. The women won the competition with Heather’s excellent lasso toss. From there, Davir challenged us to a taste test of peppercorns, gavilana (jackass bitters), and moringa juice.
Although I enjoyed their intense flavors, the peppercorns and gavilana did not get strong reviews from the rest of the group. However, everyone agreed that the moringa juice was delicious and refreshing. Next, the students faced off in a dance competition after painting their faces with achiote, which has been used as a natural food coloring and dye (annatto).
The men performed a haka, and won this time. These small competitions demonstrated the nice ties that we have all built over the course of the last two weeks. From strangers teaching/taking a field course, we have all become quite close. As an engineering professor, this experience has shown the importance of connecting with students on both personal and professional bases. These relationships also help to reinforce our responsibility to serve people through science and engineering – thoughts that are sometimes lost in the hustle of academic research.
Davir then shared one of the farm’s philosophies: “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.” With this mantra in mind, Hector dug up some yucca root for our lunch. We then worked together to press sugar cane to get the juice, before eating a delicious meal of yucca chips, rice, beans, mashed yucca, and habanero salsa. During this time, we also had excellent presentations from Daniel (San Juan River dispute between Nicaragua and Costa Rica), Temi (history of Arenal Volcano), and Alexis (use of renewable energy in Costa Rica). While all three presentations were insightful, I was particularly struck by one of the comments made by Alexis. Last year, 98% of energy use in Costa Rica came from renewable sources. This is an incredible statistic and shows that we have a lot to learn from our Tico friends when it comes to energy production (and consumption).
After our time at Don Juan’s farm, we dropped Carlos, Shirley, and Hector off. Having spent the last two weeks with these wonderful new friends, we were sad to see them go. We all got off the bus and shared a group hug. Carlos, Shirley, and Hector all encouraged us to come back to Costa Rica again soon. In my previous travels, the personal connections and stories have always been the most rewarding and memorable. Costa Rica was no different. I look forward to working with Shirley in the future on the Engineers Without Borders project in Cedral. In the coming months, I hope to cooperate with Carlos and Jerson (from LIFE farm) to plan water quality campaigns in the Santa Elena region. Carlos has already indicated that he knows of some funding that can be available for this work. Given the pesticide (coffee and pineapple production) and hormone (dairy and cattle production) use that was mentioned throughout our experiences at Monteverde farms, I look forward to expanding these projects into my research program. This integration of research, teaching, and service is what it is all about.
We hopped back on the bus and drove to San Jose, where our adventure started about two weeks ago. At dinner, we each shared our thoughts on the trip. Some of the responses that stuck out to me were the following:
- What we appreciated: the people and their personalities; community spirit (willingness to share with and help others); the cloud forest; validation of career choices; everyone’s willingness to be open with each other; watching others experience Costa Rica for the first time; the food; and, the farmers’ knowledge of climate change
- What we learned: where food comes from; how the forest brings life through water; coffee trees are planted in pairs; the ecotome; research comes with a responsibility to people and communities; the amazing animals of Costa Rica; anaerobic digesters; and, how much Costa Ricans care about the environment
We fly out tomorrow, and I can’t help but close this post (and the trip) with a fond “thank you” to Maggie. First, thanks for inviting me to join this unique course and to partake in the many memories that have come with it. Second, thanks for making it so easy to serve as your co-instructor. You kept everything running smoothly and made sure that all of us experienced the best of Costa Rica. It has been a true pleasure to work with you, and I look forward to the next edition of this course. Muchas gracias, Maggie!
Y muchas gracis a todos,