29 July 2013

Arroz y frijoles con maduros. A feast for kings. (Also, I am reveling in the fact that Tom has a rice cooker AND a slow cooker)

28 July 2013

Driving is an adventure here, to say the least.

The roads are at approximately 45° angles for unrelenting distances, and even the gentle sections don’t go easy on you with their boulders and giant potholes (local legend has it that every pothole is a dead cow that fell onto the road and was buried where it lay by apathetic farmers with no sense of social consciousness).

Today en route home from the feria, I was travelling light. Just myself in the car, drumming the wheel with the window down and a guava-laced breeze blowing through, enjoying the independence and the liberty of driving a beat up old flatbed up a beat up old mountain.

However, travelling light means that I do not have 5 volunteers in the back of my truck; I do not have any newly-filled canisters of gas; I do not have large bags of cement; which means that there is not any weight sitting on those back tires.

What this means is that if it should so happen that the 4WD is out, those back wheels are going to start turning and turning in place, because there is no weight sitting on top of them to push them down and give them traction against the ground.

And hills become a whole new kind of challenge.

So I left the feria with my cheese and my yoghurt (staples), feeling very pleased with my independent flat-bed-driving self. And then I hit the first hill. I made it about 3/4 of the way up, and felt the wheels start to spin in place. I put the car in neutral and rolled back down. Take two. Repeat. Take three. Repeat. I switched from H4 to L4 (it’s an automatic), and put the truck in low. By now a neighbor and his wife had pulled up behind me, and got out to come check on me. I let him hop into the driver’s seat. We tried twice more, and on the second try he got it up the hill. He went back to his car, I kept on going in mine. It survived the next hill. Then the next.

Just as I was daring to feel confident again, I hit hill number 4. The wheels began to spin in place again. Bill and Beth, my kindly neighbors, caught up to me again just as a crew of tico bikers came whizzing around the corner above me. They stopped to make sure I could get up. I couldn’t. One tico left his bike and came over to check. “Tiene quatro por quatro?” he asked me, and so I got to learn the Spanish term for 4WD. A small linguistic victory in the face of a much larger vehicular defeat. I told him that yes, en teoría I had it, but that it didn’t seem to be working. He agreed with my assessment. He stood outside the car, looking first at it and then at the hill, then stood back and directed me, somehow, magically, on a path up the hill that allowed the car to get its grip. Hill number 4 conquered.

This time I didn’t let my confidence gain too much traction (hah!), and was prepared when the car let out yet again on the final driveway. Bill and Beth, who had been following me all this time, came to my rescue for a second time; but to no avail. The car simply would not climb the final stretch to the garage. And then…. I noticed that giant pile of lumber that’s been sitting down the road for the last few weeks, which Tom mentioned we ought to move up to the bodega. I figured that now was really just about as good a time as any, as we had a flat-bed that desperately needed weight sitting right there next to the pile of wood. So we loaded her up, popped her back to L4 and into low, and voilà. The truck floated right up that driveway, powered by those beleaguered back wheels that had tried and tried and tried and simply hadn’t had the weight to work.

So the question: to pay to fix the 4WD? Or to simply weigh down the flat-bed with volunteers or gas canisters or sacks of cement? The latter is certainly a cheaper option, and I suspect that it would be more in keeping with the tico way to load up the back and let that be an adequate substitute for 4WD…

But one wonderful thing that I took away from this little adventure was that there is a great deal of kindness in this community. People will stop for a total stranger, as those tico bikers did, to help them out. And wonderful neighbors like Bill and Beth will leave the dry, hill-competent haven of their car and labor out in the rain to help their neighbor move huge pieces of lumber, just to help out. This is a place where kind people live, and the kind of community that I am delighted to be a part of.

24 July 2013

Bienvenidos a Cloudbridge y al bosque nuboso! Our welcome center.

My first cicada

Last night as I curled up in bed to send an email before going to sleep, I was abruptly and unceremoniously dive-bombed by what appeared to be a small green tarantula-helicopter-eagle-scarab with giant buzzing wasp-harpy wings. Not that I’m anti-insect. I’m totally cool with giant insects. Like this moth that decided that showers are AWESOME and flew into the bathroom to join me as I was washing my hair:

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was the only shower that the moth ever got to take.

But this green creature was something else entirely. For a start, it sounded like a small airplane, and when it ran into my head it flew with sufficient velocity and force to make an impact. No insect should be big enough to be able to do that. So I got a jar, waited till it had landed, and I captured it. I gazed upon this monstrous ghastly beast with its huge bulbous eyes and its maggoty underbelly, and decided that it was probably some mystery species of the jungle, perhaps found only here. Maybe deadly.

Here is what it looked like:

From below:

To those of you with a discerning eye, you might notice that this is not unfamiliar. In fact, if you have spent time on the East Coast, you might find this to be all too familiar. I googled “giant green flying insect tropics” expecting to find hits of “Green Venom Junglebug” or perhaps “Emerald Wasp-Wing Bloodsucker”, and as I searched through the hits I began to realize with a growing sense of disillusionment that the ones that bore the most startlingly similar resemblance to my creepy find………. were cicadas.

And so that is the story of how I was completely terrified by a cicada.

It would seem that despite their widespread presence in the US, I nevertheless had to come all the way to Costa Rica to learn what a cicada was. And from this broadening experience, I have to say: I do not think I will ever learn to love them.


On Sunday at the feria, Katia the cheese lady was not there (in fact it was quite a small affair this weekend, which only a few vegetables and some plantains for sale!); but her husband Wilbert was, thank goodness. I got some mozzarella this time (worth every penny! oh my GOODNESS is it delicious), and was eyeing the yoghurt - but before my very eyes the last of it was bought up.

I expressed my sadness at this state of yoghurtlessness to Wilbert, who confided in me that he had two more bottles. He had already sold them, however, and they were waiting to be picked up. I felt sad he’d gotten my hopes up, but then - he promised me that if their buyers did not arrive, he would come find me and sell one to me! And lo and behold, the buyers did NOT arrive. And now I am enjoying my delicious frutas mixtas yoghurt, and feeling infinite amounts of love toward the generosity and conviviality here in this town. (Plus I got an open invite to go down and hang out with them one afternoon, to learn all about how they make cheese. I am there!)

21 July 2013

Perfect time for a hot bath is in the afternoons when it gets misty.

19 July 2013

Image cred: Hanson, Paul, Monika Springer, and Alonso Ramirez. "Capítulo 1: Introducción a Los Grupos De Macroinvertebrados Acuáticos." Revista De Biología Tropical 58.4 (2010). SciELO. Web.

Image cred: Hanson, Paul, Monika Springer, and Alonso Ramirez. "Capítulo 1: Introducción a Los Grupos De Macroinvertebrados Acuáticos." Revista De Biología Tropical 58.4 (2010). SciELO. Web.

The mystery has been solved!

So I’ve been doing some reading up on macro-invertebrates of Costa Rica. I started out here with an Introduction to Groups of Aquatic Macro-Invertebrates, just by googling macroinvertebrados Costa Rica. I was immediately able to identify that my mystery species is an amphipod, which according to Wikipedia is defined as a sort of crustacean that hasn’t got a carapace (hard outer shell), has varied thoracic legs (as opposed to isopods, whose thoracic legs are all the same), has a laterally compressed body, and can be both aquatic and terrestrial. Bullseye! Costa Rican amphipods, according to Hanson et al in the Intro to Aquatic Macro-Invertebrates, are generally between 5-20 mm (mine are about 5-8 mm). However the amphipods described on this site are predominantly aquatic, almost half living in groundwater and the rest largely inhabiting deep water - though some live in aquatic vegetation (Hanson et al).

There is a stream nearby Tom’s house that could provide aquatic vegetation as a habitat for amphipods, but it’s too far away to explain this quantity of shrimp coming into the house! So the research continued…

I googled “land amphipod” and found this report by Thomas R Fasulo, which describes terrestrial amphipods in Florida (which, like here, is humid, warm and experiences heavy rainfall - a similar environment, and therefore potentially host to similar species). Though amphipods can live on land, it says, “they still require moist habitats” (the cloud forest is definitely a moist habitat). They can live in the top 13 mm of soil, particularly when it is damp and composed of leaf litter or organic matter, which is exactly what the area around Tom’s house is like. It goes on:

"After rains, large numbers of amphipods can migrate into garages or under the doors of houses. There they soon die. Amphipods do not have a waxy layer on their exoskeleton as do insects. They lose or gain moisture from their environment. Too much of a water loss results in desiccation while too rapid a gain is also lethal. This is why they migrate out of rain-soaked soil to drier areas where they usually end up dying anyway. Most species are active at night…. Once dead, they turn a reddish color" (Fasulo).

This makes perfect sense for what I have been seeing. It has been raining heavily for the last two nights - and both yesterday and today I have found hundreds of amphipods across the floor. The fact that they can die from too much water explains why they have been coming inside to where it is drier. Tom’s door does not lie flush with the ground, so the amphipods are able to hop in easily. Once inside, they dry out (I have mostly just seen them in the front room - presumably they begin to dry out or die before they can make it to further rooms), and turn a reddish color - this is all exactly as I have been observing!

It seems that the type of “lawn shrimp” I am seeing here is similar both in biology and in behavior to the ones discussed in this article, observed in Florida. No, it is not raining shrimp through a mystery leak in the roof; no, there are no floods that are flowing in through the house while I am asleep and leaving behind shrimp as they recede; no, the dog is not tracking in literally hundreds and then managing to shake them all off before she reaches her bed (which is amphipod-free). They are getting in here on their own initiative to escape these heavy rains, and desiccating once inside.

Case closed!

Hanson, Paul, Monika Springer, and Alonso Ramirez. “Capítulo 1: Introducción a Los Grupos De Macroinvertebrados Acuáticos.” Revista De Biología Tropical 58.4 (2010). SciELO. Web.
United States. Department of Agriculture. Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida. Terrestrial Amphipods or “Lawn Shrimp” (Crusacea: Amphipoda: Talitridae). By Thomas R. Fasulo. Doc #EENY-220 (IN377). 2001. Web.

18 July 2013

The garden that grows and grows. With constant moisture and balmy temperatures, there is nothing to hold these plants back. Those kale plants (dare I say trees?) are as tall as I am, and twisted in Seussian fashion. The lettuce covers whole beds, and the chard is already growing upwards on twisty stalks to imitate its kale cousins.

Anyone know what these are?? They show up in the water, which is what I would expect; but I have been finding them all over the floor of Tom’s house! Mysterious. Unless we have walking shrimp? That just…. all died at the same time? In all the corners throughout the entire house?

Disaster strikes.

17 July 2013

First challenge of living in Tom’s house: freeing a tiny wren (house wren?) from the rafters. It hit a window, got pretty freaked out, and hid under the washing machine. I was worried it had hurt itself, but once I’d caught it in a baseball cap and taken it outside, it ruffled its feathers and pruned for a while, and then zipped off.
Well, it’s afternoon in the cloudforest, which means the clouds have rolled in and the rain is coming down. Today’s rain is pretty heavy, a good sign for planting. If it’s going to keep up like this for a few more days, then we can start planting tomorrow. Victor, one of the workers, grows the trees from seed or from cuttings (estacas, literally stakes) in our vivero. He told me that he spends his afternoons after work (which is already some serious physical labor) climbing through the undergrowth looking for seeds or good cuttings to take. Talk about garden commitment.

Today was my first day being manager. Tom left in the early hours to get his bus; he’ll be flying into the States and then Canada, and will be away for two whole months. Two months that felt like not much at all when I agreed to come down, and which now seem monumentally huge.

I woke up at 5 and lay awake until my alarm went off a half hour later. By then it’s already light out. I couldn’t eat breakfast for nervousness, and with my stomach in my throat I went up to meet the workers at 6am.

And I survived! I introduced myself, explained who I am and what I’ll be doing here, asked them to show me what they’ve been working on and how much longer their projects will take them, so as to get a sense of when I should ask them to start on some of the other projects Tom & I lined up. Some of them remember me from last year. Jason tried to remind Alonso, telling him that I was here when they built the cabinas... and indeed I was! But Alonso shook his head and insisted that although I look familiar, he couldn’t remember me being there when they built the cabinas.

They got to work, and I went to get the volunteers started for the day. There are two GVI volunteers, Kyle and Max (GVI being the organization that I worked for last year and which brought me to Cloudbridge in the first place)! They will be working on biodiversity surveys, focusing especially on birds. Then there’s a couple that’s travelling through Central and South America this year, Matt and Sama, who will be working on doing some local watershed studies, as well as measuring carbon on one of the old-growth plots. They will be here for the next 4 months, and the GVI crew for the next 3 months - so those are the ones who will be here with me for my whole time.

The shorter-term volunteers are here for another month or two months (as yet undecided). They don’t have specific research projects, so are mostly helping with anything and everything. They’ve been helping to spread cartón around newly planted trees on Sendero Montaña, which is the most effective way of suppressing weeds, and will be planting more trees early next week. They have identified a construction project down by the volunteer house, which they’ll be working on for the next week or two, and one of them will be trying to germinate some fig cuttings using root hormone. So, a lot of projects going on.

I took the GVI guys out for a hike to introduce them to a few more trails, while the others started out on their various projects. It was a good morning with some hard hiking (is there a single easy hike in Cloudbridge?), and when I came back I found the workers going strong, and the volunteers who had returned from their cartón-laying inspecting the framework on the welcome center and seeing how best to fix the bust door. So day one of managing is out of the way. Makes me feel like perhaps this all is a doable feat.

16 July 2013

Our vivero! The largest are ready to head up the hill, the smaller ones need a little bit longer.

14 July 2013

Went to the feria this morning and got some lettuce, chayote and plantains, not to mention a huge slice of Catia’s AMAZING CHEESE. Apparently someone in her family (her father?) learned how to make cheese in Switzerland. I’ll ask her next week. She’s started making mozzarella as well, and it is delicious.

After practicing driving the truck back up the (frankly vertical) road back to Cloudbridge, and managing to stall an automatic on a tight corner, I spent the day today getting prepped by Tom for my two months as manager here at Cloudbridge (Incidentally, you can read up on Cloudbridge at its website and its blog). There is going to be a lot of work! Very little of it is hard work, per se… but it will be challenging in the level of people management I will need to do. For a start, I will need to meet with the workers (all locals, Spanish-speaking) on a daily basis to check in on their work, and assign them new work if they have finished. Work might include trail-clearing, building maintenance, weed suppression in the tree planting areas (ie putting down boatloads of cardboard on the plots), repairs… in short, quite a lot of things that one really needs to keep on top of in order to know where to focus and how much needs doing.

Then there are the volunteers and researchers. The researchers are self-sufficient, and I’ll only need to check in with them every few days or every week to make sure all is going well, or if they need any support. But the volunteers will depend on me to make sure there are projects for them to work on that are within their (varied or perhaps limited) skillsets, but not meaningless or dull. There will be some volunteer turnover while I am here, though fortunately less than Tom had in March (16 volunteers at one point!). I should have six or seven over the course of two months. Which is enough to accomplish a lot of work… but also enough to mean that I will need to be coming up with a lot of projects.

Despite the scariness of being in charge of four workers, two researchers and six (+) volunteers, I am excited for this challenge!

Cloud forests are rain forests that experience persistent cloud cover and abundant precipitation throughout the year. This high level of moisture available in the air allows plants to grow on trees high above the forest floor, sourcing their water directly from the air around them and from moisture that has precipitated onto host trees. These plants, known as epiphytes, source their nutrients from rainwater and from organic debris that accumulate around them.

This gives the trees an eery, magical look, as they are draped from root to crown with mosses, ferns, bromeliads, lianas and orchids; walking through Cloudbridge feels like walking through a Cretacean jungle. I expect to see giant dragonflies alighting on the path in front of me, or hear the shriek of a pteradon in the distance.

13 July 2013

On Friday, down in the Quepos/Manuel Antonio area, I went to a roller-skate night in Boca Vieja in the Boquense sports arena. A few of my old students were there, though none of the ones I knew well. My greatest pride was that I did not fall over.


I have returned to the humid land of wild drivers and plantains and hot muggy clouds. Where families of 6 perch helmet-less on mopeds, surfers call out to me “macha!” from their hive of boards to offer me lessons, where clocks are a guideline and the national apathy towards punctuality is known as tico time.

Costa Rica was home for me from January through November last year, and I still can’t quite put my finger on just why it was that after I left, I couldn’t leave. Costa Rica was in my head and on my brain, even when I started to see concealed impatience at my refrain “One time, in Costa Rica…” I couldn’t stop.

Maybe it was the tropical pace, which is gentle and relaxed. Or perhaps it was that thrill of being able to separate myself out from the tourists: I didn’t vanish after a day or a week or a month, and when locals looked at me I wasn’t just another face to them. If I ran into tourists and they asked me what my next destination was, my answer was “Nowhere. I live here.” It felt great to say that. I loved the language, also. A second language feels magical; finding the words to put together a brand new sentence in another language is a puzzle, a challenge that’s logical and constantly confusing, and which opens doors.

Whatever the reason, Costa Rica stuck in my head, even as I started to put my academic goals together back home. And then, just when I was starting to get over it all and put my head back on my shoulders, the manager of a nature reserve where I volunteered for a short time last year invited me to come back this summer to manage in his 2-month absence.

So here I am. I flew into Costa Rica two days ago, and after a grueling few days of train-bus-plane-taxi-bus-bus-bus-car travel, I am high in the mountains at Cloudbridge Nature Reserve, where i will be living and working for the next few months. I will update with photos, stories, and the research projects going on at the reserve during that time.

For now, I leave you with a photo of my view from this little cozy porch of the volunteer/researcher house where I am sitting:

12 July 2013

Punta Quepos.

10 July 2013

Organic tomatoes are beautiful! #fresno #farmersmarket