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“If you don’t work, you don’t eat.”

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).

nathan_achioteThe 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.

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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,

Lee

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Crossing the lake to Arenal

By Dominic Raico (CE) – June 12th

Today sadly was our last day at Cabinas Capulín.  We got up for breakfast at 7 as usual, just about everybody besides me was served pancakes, which I cannot eat because I am lactose intolerant and the pancakes are cooked with milk. However, as they caught on quickly to my needs, they served me a plate of gallo pinto with eggs and a grilled plantain usually when pancakes are served. In total we stayed at Cabinas Capulín for eight nights and since Day 2, they have been very considerate of my dietary restrictions, which I truly do appreciate. Not to mention the food for every meal at that place was definitely some of the best I have ever had. As food is something near and dear to my heart, thinking of Cabinas’ cooks and their hospitality made it even harder for me to leave.

After breakfast we packed up the bus to leave Monteverde at 8am and head to La Fortuna in the province of Alajuela. Getting from here to La Fortuna took us about 2 hours. Although, about halfway there, we transferred from one bus, and took a boat across el Lago Arenal, which had a great view of the Arenal volcano despite the clouds covering the tip of the mountain as we passed by it. Once we arrived at Los Lagos hotel, we all immediately realized that this hotel is nothing like we have stayed at thus far on this trip.

We arrived much earlier than our scheduled checkin time, which gave us all some free time to roam the landscape of this expansive hotel complex. Yet, before we even left the hotel lobby something exciting happened. We saw a row of short, less than sturdy trees with 3 large iguanas climbing on them. As a number of us stepped out it startled the iguanas and they shook the trees a little bit. Jack, being a lover of amphibians & reptiles, walked under the tree that an iguana was in and this startled the iguana so much that it jumped out of the tree onto the ground (a pretty high fall), and ran away. After this sighting, three others and I spent our time, before getting our keys to our room, wandering around the grounds of the hotel. They have a couple pools with slides, a hot spring, small trails to see wildlife where we saw numerous basilisk lizards (aka Jesus lizards) roaming freely, and a long trail to the top of the hill to see the view of the volcano.

The four of us decided to take the trails to see the wildlife. They have an ant cave, crocodile cage, 2 large fishponds, butterfly garden, frog cave, and much more. We saw everything besides the butterfly garden and frog cave but we were more than satisfied with the things we saw. At the larger fishpond we spotted a bird perched on top of a pillar in the water right next to were they keep all the tilapia together, which we guessed was for the restaurant. The bird then jumped into the water with all the fish and stabbed a fish with its extremely sharp beak and swallowed the fish whole. Then, it did it again which was surprising because those two fish combined seemed to be much bigger than the bird itself. The whole incident seemed to be something we see on National Geographic and was unbelievable, even if a little gross, to witness about 10 feet in front of my own eyes.

After the bird had a nice meal we realized it was time for us to have a meal as well. We sat down and had a 3-course lunch, which consisted of a tex-mex salad, tilapia fish (which I now realize we watched get killed and eaten by the bird right before this) and a dessert. I had no room for dessert; instead I finished my and my friend’s juice that goes along with just about every meal here in Costa Rica.

After eating, we moved into our rooms and then, with a group of 3 different people, decided to take the 2km hike to the top of the mountain to get a good view of the Arenal volcano. The hike was steep, sweaty and unfortunately when we reached the top, the clouds were still covering the tip just as they were on the boat. So we enjoyed the view we could of the houses and green land we could see far past the resort we were staying at for a little bit and as we hiked back down the mountain, we got rained on pretty hard.

I spent the rest of the day writing in my daily journal about what we did yesterday and today. I did this until dinner, which was an open buffet, filled with typical Costa Rican food and after we all finished, we celebrated Carlos receiving his doctorate and becoming Dr Muñoz, with a cake and candles. ¡Felicidades Carlos, mantenga el buen trabajo!

Stress relief

By Nathan Thompson (GES) – June 11th

Today was the free day, so we all went our separate ways to do that last thing we hadn’t done quite yet (and to relieve the stress of the looming presentation at the end of the day).
        For Team Coati that meant going ziplining at the Xtreme Adventure Tours. We weren’t the only ones though; 2.5 kilometers of ziplines,  Tarzan swing, side by side off-roading, and bungee jumping were more than attractive enough for Lee to join the zipline adventure.  The zipline consisted of 14 lines spanning tree top canopies and valleys.  Starting off easy to get the hang of it the first line was maybe 25 meters.  As a symbol of good times and good luck a macaw followed our line as if it thought we were birds too.  The macaw stayed with us until our first trip across the valley where it flew about half way and turned back. On the platform there is no sense of what you are about to cross and it is only once you emerge from the canopy maybe 100 meters above the ground that you understand the extreme part of this company.
       Once across, the hiking starts: after almost every line we have to gain more elevation by climbing washed out stairs and steep metal steps. On the opposite side Lee was able to spot a toucan while flying through the canopy.  After a few short ones through the canopy to get your bearings, there was another long one across the valley: this much like the first but even faster.  More through the canopy with the epiphytes and the birds until the last cross valley to the opposing side.  The wait to launch was a longer wait than usual because apparently someone slowed down too much and was unable to make it all the way across and was now suspended in the middle above the valley.  Thankfully after a little help she made it across ok, just a little nervous about the future long ones.  On this crossing we were lucky enough to fly by two black vultures finding and riding the thermals.
        The final set of zip lines were the superman lines.  Your harness was turned around and another was added to keep your feet up.  At this point the fog had rolled in, the temperature dropped, and the wind picked up significantly which made the launching pad sway.  With it being a superman you felt very much like a bird with the wind buffeting you and the rain stinging your face it proved to be more than just a gimmicky ad.  With the fog rolling in visibility dropped and kept dropping to the point where the line keeping you aloft stretched into the fog eventually being obscured.  On this you cross over right next to the bungee jumping platform which is really no more than a metal gondola suspended over the valley by wires.  This is what captivated Ian and, more reluctantly, Dan for the morning.
     Others did other things.  Maggie led a group through the Curi Cancha reserve where they saw many emerald toucanets, agoutis (one with a baby), and many beautiful flora.   Some people slept in and went to play soccer.
     By lunch though the grind was back on.   Final presentations were in four hours and teams still needs to finalize and rehearse their presentations.  Working slightly past the scheduled start of presentations we all finished and passed our work on to Maggie.  Group 3 started us off with a presentation of Alberto’s and Juan Carlos’ farms.  The next group about another two, and finally my team (Team Coati) presented on Rockwell and Cabinas Capulin farms.  Throughout the presentations similarities were drawn and we were able to start putting together the philosophy of Monteverde farmers in regard to water quality, forest monitoring, and the human perspective to go along with it.
     Most farmers had not gone far in terms of formal education, yet they still understood the balance needed to keep their farms, families, and surrounding forests healthy and working together.  They all firmly believed in climate change, some talking directly about the standstill with climate change policy in the US.
      During the discussion after our group presentations, we talked about the responsibility of obtaining the data, analyzing it, and disseminating our results.  Now that we have collected data and explored these farms, it is our duty to share the data in an understandable way so that the community can take what we learned and move forward.  We discussed ways in which we could do effectively do this once the course was done.
      Having now finished with oneo f the main graded portions of our field course, a wave of relief washed over the group and we focused on our final evening at Cabinas Capulin.
      To celebrate this final evening in Monteverde, Tess graciously made us a tres leches cake that was fantastic.  From there most everyone turned in early for the early bus ride to Arenal.

Food for thought

By Alexis Boytim (U. Maryland, College Park) – June 10th

Today we had the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the Monte Verde community and culture, both through a service project and through a fun food activity.

In the morning, we met up with workers from the local ASADA (the association responsible for treating Monte Verde’s drinking water) for a service project. We were collectively assigned the task of scrubbing clean various spring containment sites and water treatment facilities. At first, the work seemed somewhat futile, and a few of us asked the question I think many were thinking: “Why are we doing this?” The easy answer to this question is simply that these tasks need to be completed at some point, and, like almost any service project, whatever assistance able to be completed by volunteers now saves the organization time and resources in the future. A less obvious answer, though, is that last week ASADA workers took productive time out of their workdays to teach us about the water treatment process in Monte Verde. Providing our service doing whatever tasks they ask of us (even if it is just scrubbing concrete) is our way of giving back to the community that so graciously gave us their time. Throughout this whole study abroad experience, our professors have emphasized the idea of empowering instead of exploiting the community with our work and research, and it felt good to really put this into practice today. On a side note, it was interesting how, even in times of a water shortage, we used a lot of water to clean the water treatment containment areas. Just some food for thought.

Speaking of food, after a period of downtime upon returning from our day’s service, we ventured to a local Tica’s house for a cooking lesson and traditional Costa Rican dinner.  Maricela and her assistants, Jessica and Maya (her daughter), guided us as we worked together to make an array of traditional foods, including guacamole, chimichurri, patacones (plantain chips), ensalada (salad), white corn tortillas, and pollo (chicken) for dinner, carambola (star fruit) juice to drink, and sweet mashed plantains with ice cream for dessert. My mouth is watering just thinking about it again! Maricela explained that each ingredient used was organic, meaning that each is grown without the use of chemicals (pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, etc.) or genetic modification. She even grows a lot of the vegetables and herbs in her own backyard. She told us that there are many health benefits to eating organic over industrially produced food, as harsh chemicals result in a lot of negative impacts on the body’s systems. The fifteen of us then divided into pairs and one group of three, and after a brief culinary lesson from Maricela, we all quickly grasped the roles of “sous chefs” for the evening and began making our assigned dishes. Good smells and good vibes filled the workspace. Some of us juiced star fruit, some ground up corn, some mashed avocados; regardless, like cogs in a well-oiled machine, we each had an equally important role in creating the final product: dinner.

Dinner was incredible. I think we all stuffed ourselves well beyond our stomachs’ capacities, but it was most definitely worth it. Each dish tasted so fresh and flavorful, if this is what traditional Costa Rican food tastes like I could eat here forever! It was a cool experience to share the result of our collective effort. As Maricela told us all at the end of the night, the best way to experience another culture is through its food. Food brings people together. It establishes and solidifies bonds; it allows for cultural empathy and appreciation; and in a way, it is its own form of communication where all are able to share the humanity of the experience that surpasses any language barrier.

To pave, or not to pave?

By Cameron Walkup (GES) – June 9th

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Our field course group (blog author, Cameron, appears back row, second from left)

We woke in the morning along with the birds, ready yet reluctant to leave our homestays. Over the past five days our whole class has gotten to know their host families well, and the group of my peers and myself that stayed at Paola and Tobi’s house was no different. Staying with them allowed us to learn about the routines of a normal Tico family, pick up additional Spanish words and phrases, and get in shape by walking their mountainous, never-ending driveway. They were incredibly accommodating and kind, and that generosity has left us with nothing but fond memories.

After packing up our things and getting showers, we had our last breakfast with the family before heading down to the main road so that we could be collected and transported back to our previous living space, Cabinas Capulin. Once we were there, we placed our things in our cabins and got to work creating a sign which we planned to display at our next event of the day.

Our day began in earnest when we took our taxis to a forum on the pavement of Route 606, a road currently made of dirt and gravel, which connects Guacimal to Monteverde. Since this road is one of the only ways to access the region, we had ourselves taken this route on our journey to Monteverde, giving us a firsthand experience with its gorgeous views and uneven surface. The forum on the paving project drew national attention, as the president, Luis Guillermo Solis, and a senior official from the Ministry of Transportation were in attendance and set to speak on the matter.

We arrived just after the discussion had begun, and squeezed our way through a densely-packed crowd in an overflowing building. Five men sat at a table upon a dais at the front of the hall, and an emcee introduced each before they spoke at a podium. The first one to speak was, to our surprise, someone we had met just a few days earlier: a part-owner Life Monteverde. His speech focused on the reasons why the pavement project will be a benefit for the community, including increasing tourism numbers and reducing transportation costs to the region. He was followed by another speaker who gave reasons to worry about the construction of the road, namely that increased tourism numbers could overburden the fragile ecosystems and cause excessive development. Later, the official from the Ministry of Transportation spoke on the effect the paving project will have and how they will attempt to mitigate undesired externalities. One note in his speech received much applause, wherein he described how the government would create overhead wildlife crossings along the road so that animal populations would not be completely separated from each other by the not so proverbial black line in the sand.

Finally, it was the president’s turn to deliver his remarks. Presidente Solis first spoke from the lectern like all other speakers, but quickly descended into a large open space in front of the stage. Known as a man of the people, Solis showed it instantly by going down to meet those in attendance at their level and speaking with clarity and compassion. Although the decision to pave or not to pave has been a contentious one, Solis clearly stated his support of the project, going as far as to say that he would ensure its construction was started by the end of his term as president.

In making this statement, the president attempted to console those who had been wary of the project and assure them that its potential negatives would be averted. He reminded the older generations of how development projects such as this one have come to the region before, and yet conservation and life in Monteverde has thrived throughout it all. This time would be no different, he assured them. The debate over paving the road has been raging for decades. Now, with the end in sight and the pro-paving advocates having won, the community cautiously awaits its outcomes.

After the debate, our groups went our separate ways, with mine headed towards Juan Carlos’ one hectare farm. Upon arrival, we ate our lunches and discussed our strategies for the afternoon’s exercise of water quality measurements with Professor Blaney. We decided to take samples from two sites, one from a river that ran along the edge of his property, and another from a spring that fed into that river. Sampling the spring water was especially important, as Juan had said that he wanted to utilize the water from that spring in order to become more self-sufficient, but he was unsure if it would be safe for use.

We set out in pairs of two to collect samples, and returned to Juan’s porch to begin the testing. Although I do not consider myself to be anything close to a natural scientist, the process we utilized to collect our data helped me to appreciate the necessity of the scientific method and its results. Although some of the test results have yet to be finalized, it seems clear that the spring is one of the cleanest sources of water that my group has tested so far. However, even if all tests come back perfectly, we must be careful in how we describe them to Juan, as we will have only tested the water’s quality in a few select ways. No matter how much we may want to deliver good news, our final assessment must be measured and carefully formulated, which will be difficult yet highly important.

As our final event of the evening, we heard about some of the research that my fellow students have been conducting on various aspects of Costa Rica’s environment, culture, and politics. I myself presented on the life and legacy of Rafael Angel Calderon Guardia, an influential politician in the mid-1900s who served as president of Costa Rica from 1940 to 1944. Calderon instituted numerous important reforms, including creating the country’s first work code, establishing its universal health care system, and founding the nation’s premiere higher education facility, the University of Costa Rica. Despite instituting these practices that remain to this day, Calderon is not viewed as favorably as some of his contemporaries, namely Jose Figueres Ferrer, whom another student presented on. Learning about important figures in Costa Rican history and other facets of this nation has been a highly rewarding experience.

After hearing from our peers, we were alerted by our professors to news coverage of the day’s forum on the paving of the road, which we watched together on a small projector. Just less than a minute in, there was our sign, displayed on national television. After seeing that, our group was nothing but giddy through dinner and the rest of the evening. This was just another inimitable experience from our time in the tropics.

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Ian Baker holding class poster; Presidente Solis in the background

As an individual interested in the intersections between environmental studies and public policy, today provided many valuable insights. Seeing a community come together to discuss the implications of a development project on conservation, and for that debate to be so important that the president would be in attendance, was highly inspiring. I am highly thankful for the opportunities like this that we have been afforded during our time in Monteverde, and cannot wait for our last few days in this country.

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Our field course group with Costa Rican president – Dr. Luis Guillermo Solis

Blind as a bat…

By Heather Rosario (CE), June 9th

I woke up this morning with a bit of sadness, knowing it was my last night with my homestay family, but still appreciative of the bonds I’ve made with them. I will miss the warm hospitality I received as well as the delicious meals. Before coming to Costa Rica, I enjoyed eating Latin American food or any type of food really, but my host mother made dishes that were on a whole other level. For example, this morning I was served an egg dish which seemed to resemble huevos rancheros (fried egg with cooked salsa). I have never tried this before, so I didn’t know what to expect, but once I took my first bite there was an explosion of sweet spices. My day was already off to a good start. As I walked down the bottom of the hill to get picked up for my project site as I do every morning I was surprised to see a bus pull up instead of our usual taxi. I walked in and was happy to see my fellow classmates, who were also excited to go to their project site.

Today I was on water quality monitoring, and the first thing my team and I had to do was determine two different sources of where we wanted to sample our water. Since my group was at this location yesterday, we wanted to check out one of streams we saw. As we were making our way through the farm, we took a few steps in the forest and realized it wouldn’t be a good place to perform our tests. Forest: 1, Team Coati: 0. The forest had won this round, so we decided to sample a stream close to the road, and a small lagoon that was located towards the front of the farm. We were already familiar with the protocol for how to assess the water quality and quickly began our work. My team split up to cover the two sites most efficiently, and decided to set up our equipment at a midpoint between the sites. We found a spot that was in front of a torn down house that included some graffiti work. I noticed some people had spray-painted quotes inside, and one that stood out to me was “An eye for an eye makes the world blind.” As we were working, one student came up to us who appeared to be not from around here and asked if we had seen anyone else pass through. We were confused as to why anyone would be hanging around an abandoned house, but soon found out that there was a group there working to fix the house and create a community center. They were very friendly and told us if we ever had time, that we were invited to help. Every single encounter I’ve had with someone here, regardless of who I’m speaking to always seem to have a happy-go-lucky attitude. I am beginning to understand why Costa Rica is one of the happiest countries in the world. After taking our third replicate sample we walked to the Cheese Factory to eat our lunches, and more importantly get ice cream. Today I decided to try a scoop of guanaba, which is also known as soursop and chocolate chips. As always, the ice cream was a great way to end our morning of hard work.

Later that evening we met with Batman, otherwise known as “Vino” to do bat mist-netting.

We arrived as soon as it was dark enough to see the bats wake up and fly around the forest. After waiting for them to fully wake up, Vino approached us holding a bag with something jumping around inside. Once he reached his hand inside he took out small black bat and proceeded to show us his wings. It’s structure was fairly similar to that of a human arm, and felt soft like leather. He continued to show us several species of bats including a nectar bat, whose tongue was as long as its body! Bats are fascinating creatures and help pollinate flowers or spread seeds which we got to see evidence of when a piece of seed was stuck to the bottom of the bat. I am glad I was able to experience seeing these bats in person, since the recent rainfall here has been preventing us from seeing them.

After catching bats, our group went to a local restaurant, “Referees,” to watch Costa Rica play Panama in fútbol. I was surrounded by people wearing red, white, and blue jerseys and an eagerness to see their country win. The game started off well with good touches and passing. At half time the score was still 0-0 and everyone here was waiting for the first goal to be scored. At the 45 minute mark Costa Rica started to get closer to scoring, and I could hear the fans standing up cheering “Awhh!” as they missed the net. Despite the tie, the locals were always hopeful that they would soon score, and began to sing some sort of soccer chant. It was nice to see everyone have so much pride in their country and seeing how one sport was able to connect us all.

Care for Water

By Jordan Armstead (ME)
Looking out of the window this morning from our house perched high up on hill, we were able to see the far-off Gulf of Nicoya through the normally cloudy atmosphere. The view was majestic, like an elaborate portrait you might find up on a wall of a nice restaurant.  The sparkling silver water was struck by rays of sunlight which reflected off the surface and glistened between the trees of the curving dark mountains.
After trekking down our extensive driveway, my homestay brothers and I waited at the bus stop on the corner by CASEM (a women artisans’ cooperative store). A couple minutes passed by and we were informed that our professors had been delayed because of the paving of a road – a subject of debate here in Monteverde.  As the professors arrived at the stop in the popular Tourismo vans, each asked one individual why he wielded a wooden staff. I replied that it was because I had tripped while running down and hill, excited to play fútbol, and now used it as a cane to move along. One friend nicked named me Hobbles for the day, but I saw myself as Oogway.
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Jordan & Temi collecting water samples.
On the ride over to the day’s project site, we observed the usual variety of stray dogs venturing around, living the nomadic life. Cows and horses continued to graze the open pastures, which spread out far across the land.  Upon arriving at L.I.F.E. farm, we were greeted by the cheerful Jerson, who informed us of his plans to learn about water testing. He had been in contact with Professor Lee Blaney, and was ready to learn about what he could do to do positively impact the environment and help clean the local water sources around.
We walked over to a stream where we would conduct our test, split up into groups, and selected our locations. Safety procedures call for goggles, gloves, and any other precautions necessary. After that it was time to begin observations. It is important to think about how the surrounding environment impacts the quality of the water. This adds context to the experiment and allows for more reflection on how the water quality can be changed.
During today’s test, we found many factors that played a role in the water purity. Steep banks on either side of the stream caused more organic waste to be washed into the stream which increases carbon concentration and so absorbs more of the dissolved oxygen. The trees surrounding the stream provided shade and so lowered the temperature which raises pH. Red clay in the surrounding soil means more iron which then soaks up phosphorus causing a lower phosphate concentration. Cascades mean more surface area to soak up and dissolve oxygen. Deep pools and slower moving water mean more suspended solids or colloids which cause higher turbidity. A small spring of ground water flowed into the stream which may influence a couples things. Runoff from a nearby coffee field may also have a significant impact.
After making all these important observations, it was then time to collect data. Tests include: dissolved oxygen/BOD, nitrate, phosphate, turbidity, coliform, two for pH, and four petri films for bacteria and microorganisms. Each of our groups did trials using multiple samples for greater accuracy and we were able to teach Jerson a lot along the way. After finishing all of our testing, the group was ready to relax and eat lunch … until we were struck with the notorious and teacher-ful question by Professor Lee “So what did you learn?” I have found that this is a great question to ask, as it promotes critical thinking and reinforces learning objectives.
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Jerson, Jordan, and Ian.
After searching through my array of thoughts, I responded, and then dug into lunch. My host mom had sliced up some delicious plantains, added cooked brown beans, breaded chicken, and rice. Jerson offered us fresh brewed coffee and I drank it with delight.
I thought about today’s experience … having the ability to spread knowledge is a powerful gift. I was very grateful to be able to take part in that process today. I hope that Jerson will be able to continue this interest in improving water quality and even spread this information on to any others who may feel the calling of the importance of caring for our Earth’s water.
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Dr. Lee & Team Perezoso

He gets it.

By Tess Gallagher (GES)

The day started with a group breakfast cooked for us by our host mom, Dona Esmeralda. Our host family has welcomed us to their home with open arms and has been treating us as if we are just an extension of the family. The mother is sweet as can be and the dad has much to talk about. Suyen, the youngest daughter of the three, has been very helpful in translating during our family gatherings. We have already discussed amongst ourselves that our group isn’t quite ready to leave our Costa Rican family this coming Friday.

                                  Above: the view on the way down to San Luis & the finca of Don Ramon.

For the day’s work, my group spent the final day working on la Granja de Don Ramon, or as we say back in the states, Ramon’s Farm. As we pulled up to the property, we could see a man cutting timber as he was whistling a loud and happy tune. Little did we know this was the man who owns the land that we have been analyzing for the past couple days. After introductions, we conducted our interview in a mini restaurant (locally known as a “Soda”) located on his property.

The theme for the day was to interview Don Ramon about the history of his family and land; production methods; the forest of his land; changes and availability of water; and climate change.

He was happy to answer all of our questions while talking clearly and enthusiastically with his body language doing half of the communication. The best way to describe the energy of this charming man is to compare him to a fútbol broadcaster.  He talked with such enthusiasm and pride about everything from his family to his land to his life values.

Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed hearing what Ramon had to say during the entire morning. He answered every question with the knowledge of someone who has a passion for the work that he does. Even without a complete education, it was clear that he was no novice. He mentioned how he wishes he continued his education, with an interest in becoming a veterinarian. I felt the need to make a comment that, even without the schooling, I believe that his passion, knowledge, and time spent with his animals is practically equivalent to the knowledge of a veterinarian.

He inherited his farm sixteen years ago and has developed efficient processes in managing his land and cattle. One can see that he loves his cattle very much. He mentioned how the people of the town thinks he is crazy because he invests so much money and time into his cattle, but they have started to notice that it has payed of in his favor. Quality over quantity is one of the values that has brought him success in life.

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Ramon standing by his bull/toro.

After the interview, we asked Ramon to give us a tour of the areas on his land that brings him happiness and virtue, and what areas he has seen the most changes due to climate change. Whenever we would see cattle grazing in the distance, he would ask us if we were “listos” (ready), and would then call out to his cattle. After a few whistles, they would all raise up their heads to see where their beloved caretaker was calling out to them.

                                 Ramon calling his cows.

It is obvious that his loves his cows and they love him. He shared a beautiful story about a mother cow who came searching for him after her new born calf fell down a steep hill.  When the calf took its first steps after birth, it stumbled down the hill. In desperation, the mother cow came to Ramon’s house and called out to him until he came outside. “¿Qué pasa?”, he asked her. Once he realized that she had given birth but the calf was nowhere to be found, he understood why she had come to him. He ended up following her to where the calf was stranded, and carried it up the hill to its mother.

The story enlightened us to the fact that, with time, animals and humans can connect on a level not usually appreciated. This story, amongst others, also described how animals are not as simple as we may think. They are organisms with their own consciousness, and just because we may not understand it, that does not mean that they are not worthy of understanding.

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The team (Team Perezosos) with Don Ramon.  Tess (author) is bottom right.

Before we left his farm, Ramon welcomed us to come back anytime. I left with an appreciation for this man who shared with us who he is as a person and a higher appreciation for the organisms of our world.

 ¡Pura Vida!

Back to the woods…

By Matt Fagan (GES faculty)

The day began with coffee.  I needed coffee.  I stayed up a bit too late getting our quadcopter drone programmed for its first flight over the cloud forests of Monteverde.  After coffee and an outstanding breakfast, the Monday morning commute to our field sites began.  Birds were singing, mist curled around dark hills above, and the air was soft and cool.  A taxi came to get each professor, and we stopped at each student’s house to take a team of four students to their farm.  My group today (Alexis, Heather, Nathan, and Austin) was happy with their homestays, and we soon arrived at Cabinas Capulin, a lovely farm that overlooks the Pacific Ocean.

Mountain forests in Monteverde strain water out of the passing clouds, contributing a big part of the total water flow.  Their densely-leaved canopies, understories, and abundant epiphytes (plants that live in soil on other plants) intercept heavy tropical rainfalls as well, preventing soil erosion and maintaining stream water quality.  In other words, the physical structure of these forests protects regional water supplies, and the locals know it.  Almost every farm maintains forests along its rivers and streams—what scientists call “riparian forests”.  Given how critical water in these highlands is to the lowlands below during the long winter dry season, it’s fair to say that these riparian forests work for a living.

We started our work at the Cabinas farm with a group discussion of how and why we measure forest structure.  I then gave an introduction to the equipment we would be using (meter tapes, two-meter poles, GPS units, waterproof notebooks, range finders, and so on).  Then the students and I headed down into the valley.  Following a well-maintained trail, we descended the steep slope into a mossy forest that hugs the stream passing through the farm.  Dark trees vaulted over us, draped in moss and epiphytes.  We hiked up and down and eventually arrived at our plots, where we measured trees, estimated shrub density, and set out wildlife cameras for later retrieval.  After all that exercise, we took lunch in an overlook with a wonderful view of a misty valley below.  In all honesty, who needs coffee when you have the woods to wake you up?

Forests, water, wildlife—it’s all connected.  Dense forests provide clean water, and wildlife maintain dense forests by pollinating flowers and dispersing seeds to replace fallen trees.  When riparian forests are degraded by cattle grazing, over-hunting, or logging, the ability of their forest canopy to protect water quality can be quickly compromised.

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Male coati captured by camera trap on Finca Capulin

Tree seed dispersers like this male coati we photo-captured at a farm on Monday are indirect stewards of the water, working for a living.

When we finished lunch, we hiked to the top of the farm.  We arrived at the lovely house of José Torres, one of the siblings that lives on the large farm of his father, Don Fermin Torres.  Surrounded by excited members of the Torres family, we set up and launched a remotely controlled drone to take canopy photos of the riparian forest.

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Our UMBC team (Alexis Boytim (UMD), Heather Rosario, Austin Craig, Nathan Thompson), with familia Torres about to launch drone.

Back at UMBC, we will use these overlapping, stereo photos to create a three-dimensional model of the forest.  With a three-dimensional model of the forest canopy, we will test if forest degradation (cattle grazing) alters the forest canopy structure—smaller trees perhaps, or more canopy gaps.  Finca Capulin is a healthy control site in our study—protected old-growth forest in many parts, and just gorgeous.  I will be back in Monteverde next summer, measuring more farms with drones, and I can’t wait to return.

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Drone photo of Finca Capulin’s forested area with crops & buildings in foreground.

The photos are simply beautiful.  It’s almost hard to believe that they are also going to be great data that will, hopefully, help folks here better manage their forests for clean water.  And I am very excited to share the final images and 3D models with the farmers themselves next year.  They are the ones who have done all the hard work of protecting these forests—chasing off hunters, managing their cattle, and letting pastures go back into forest.

Normally, I am just happy to come here and be a small help, recognizing that my conservation research is not going to magically solve all of Costa Rica’s problems.  But this year, UMBC gave me a bigger gift—I got to see Costa Rica anew through my students’ eyes.  Their enthusiasm and thoughtfulness has made this trip a renewing one for me, as a professor and conservation scientist.  I can again see Costa Rica for what is—a little country, beautiful and forward-thinking, facing its many challenges with grace, love, and grit.

Finding el bosque nuboso…

By Austin Craig (GES)

So far, each day during our trip in Costa Rica has been better than the last. Today we had the excellent opportunity to have a guided walk through a portion of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, led by Mark Wainwright. Mr. Wainwright was an incredible source of knowledge and being able to spend as much time with him as we did was an awesome gift. Our tour started at a small cafe near the entrance into the reserve. Thanks to the strategic placement of a few hanging feeders, the cafe patio was home to roughly ten different species of hummingbirds. In contrast with the singular species that is visible throughout the east coast of the United States, the sight was quite impressive. Mr. Wainright used the opportunity to briefly explain and demonstrate the concept that nothing exists without years of fine tuning to a specific task by natural selection. Each different hummingbird species has a differently shaped or length beak in order the access the nectar of specific plants.

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hummingbirds at the feeder

Upon leaving, the hummingbirds behind we headed through the entrance into the reserve and began our trek to the continental divide. After a brief run in with a lovely glass-winged butterfly, we came across a female “resplendant quetzal” perched and resting on a branch not far off the trail. Mr. Wainright quickly seized the opportunity to set up his impressive telescope to provide a clearer sight of the bird. After the group was able to cycle through and each get a view of the female quetzal, we decided to continue the hike. A few moments after departing from the viewing spot, word was quickly passed up the trail that a male quetzal had appeared in the same location. The male quetzal is arguably more beautiful and impressive than its female counterpart, with longer tail feathers and more vibrant colors throughout its plummage. The quetzal was situated in a valley, and happened to be just about eye-level from the trail. Once again, Mr. Wainright quickly set up his telescope and allowed an astounding view of this rare sight. Quetzals have had quite an influence throughout the culture of Central and South America. Quetzalcoatl was a high deity for the Mayans, who ranged throughout much of northern Mesoamerica, and today the quetzal is the national bird of Guatemala and the name of their currency.

                           (Left: female resplendant quetzal; Right: male quetzal)

After the sighting, Mr. Wainwright explained that the quetzal population is divided into two groups, one in the north (Mexico and Guatemala) and the other in the south (Costa Rica). While still young, quetzals rely on a relatively omnivorous diet. As soon as they are large enough and able to swallow an avocado seed, the fruit comprises their primary diet. Young quetzals regurgitate the seed rather than digesting and  passing it, and can be observed rising in the nest on the growing bed of avocado pits. Due to the relative dependency on avocados, the quetzal tends to migrate to different climates based on the the availability of avocados. Mr. Wainwright pointed out that some have been quick to claim that the migration is caused by anthropogenic climate change. He also expressed hesitation in immediately accepting this particular theory, as he hasn’t seen any evidence confirming such a connection. Calling things climate change without concrete evidence can be harmful to the cause of conservation. Climate change is real, and the actions of humans are making things worse, but we cannot yet predict the exact consequences for so many species. Mark expressed concern that some scientists might risk the reputation of conservation science should they make certain claims about the future without strong evidence.  Because of this, it is important to specify when possible causes are speculated, rather than claim that possible effects are certain.

The information on the quetzal continued for a short time, and the group continued onward. As we moved into higher elevations, we began to notice the increased presence of mosses growing on everything. Mr. Wainwright took the opportunity to discuss the importance of the cloud forest (bosque nuboso, in Spanish) in the water cycle. The organisms in the  cloud forest (specifically mosses and liverworts in this example) are able to pull water from the surrounding air via horizontal precipitation and channel it downward to the forest floor, where it is able to continue on into a stream or seep into the groundwater.

                           Cloud-water harvesting in action

Without the presence of these organisms in the cloud forest, the clouds would pass over the region and over the dry Pacific, and never have the chance to condense. If these moss species are lost due to the inability to grow in their perfect spot, there may be incredible consequences for the life and water cycles of the entire region.

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Suspended bridge in cloud forest canopy, MTV Cloud Forest Reserve

The group continued along the trail, across an old suspension bridge up in the forest canopy, and finally to the continental divide. We stopped for a moment to eat lunch on the lookout platform, surrounded by an intense layer of thick cloud cover. A presentation on tourism given by Jack eventually turned into a discussion on environmental ethics. The main question posed was: If offered a sizable amount of money from a corporation with a questionable past in order to further one’s own goals of conservation, would you accept the money? Initially much of the group was intuitively against the idea, and only two students admitted they would take the money. After a discussion and explanation of the situation by Mr. Wainright, many had agreed to accept, and more were unsure. I appreciated the fact that this was brought up. Often times the ‘environmentally conscious’ community is quick to adopt a very binary mentality concerning environmental morality. This mentality can be potentially crippling. As scientists we must avoid subjectivity in the production of our data, and remain true only to the results discovered.

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After leaving the Cloud Forest reserve, the group stopped to enjoy fresh ice cream at the Monteverde Cheese factory. The treat was much needed after the long hike! Our last stop for the day was at the location of each of our homestay locations. At all four spots, our host families were already waiting for us. Ian, Dominic and I have been placed with the lovely Doña Vicky. Unfortunately for me, she doesn’t speak any English.  This week will be a perfect time to brush up on my Spanish!

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We ran into a UMBC alum at the Monteverde Cheese Factory!  She is also an ESOL teaching instructor (on-line) for UMBC currently.  (Left: Renee Burgos, Right: Maggie Holland)