Archive for March 2011
Oh where should I begin? I what I want to do is give you a little more of an idea what my daily life is like while living at my rural site, but I don’t know if that is possible – I have had a surprising number of different experiences here – a lot of it thanks to the women’s chocolate-making group working in my house and various people and groups visiting the farm. The first few weeks I discovered there are certain “things” about living in an area like Pueblo Nuevo/Finmac. For example, the most common mode of transportation around here is by bike. The thing to keep in mind is that the roads are very rough: think gravel roads, but packed and made with rocks the size of golf balls and softballs, and lots of “potholes”. I find just riding a bike somewhat difficult (granted I was also trying to carry a 50-pound backpack sprayer). To live in Pueblo Nuevo, though, you have to master the art of riding a bike with an umbrella – for rain or shine. Then, put another person on your bike with you – if they’re younger than 6, you could put two – and then bike a few hundred meters to town.
[Picture of the roads coming soon]
I haven’t mastered this skill (yet), but there are a few lessons that have learned during my first few weeks working on the farm, and that come in hand, such as:
- How to tell when it’s going to rain soon – so that you’re not caught with your research notebook and nothing to protect it 2km from the nearest shelter/the rest of your supplies. Most people here have quite the knack for knowing what days/ part of the day it will rain.
- That being said: Banana leaves make for great emergency umbrellas/notebook protectors when you are in a pinch.
- How to make stakes out of palm tree branches (Geovanny and Oldemar are so resourceful!)
- How to open a coconut without a machete (this was one of my greater successes)
- How to make a cow move out of the middle of the road when it blocks your running route
- Charades and sound effects are quite effective when trying to communicate how a certain piece of equipment is broken
It was an especially interesting contrast to return back to San José for the beginning of this week – although it was great to see my family there again and all of my classmates, and the ability to go find what I needed when I went shopping (more than just 2 general stores, what?), there were things that I realized I missed (and will miss even more when I leave for good) about life in a(n extremely) small town (isolated area) – like picking the fruit off of the tree to eat it, the smell of the air, some alone time, and the general tranquilidad.
The other type of experiences – that I briefly mentioned above – have been when various gente visit the farm – either other students and researchers, or chocolatiers, including a group from various countries that stopped by on their chocolate tour. I have had the opportunity to participate in some of what they get to see and do, as well as acquire a bunch of contacts – so now I’m set to be able to get ahold of fabulous chocolate no matter what part of the world I travel to. J One of my favorites, though, was being asked to act as the translator for a visiting chocolatier from Wisconsin for the weekend, and through that experience was able to bond more with the women of Amazilia (the women that make chocolate bars & bon-bons here on the farm).
My goal for the next few weeks that I have left here at Finmac, however, is to really leave behind this shyness that I feel for talking with new people. I’ve loved having free time and just chilling here at the farm, but I also really want to meet the people that live and work here and get to know more of the town and what life is like in this part of the country. Although I’m leaving again this weekend (we’re going to go see Tortuguero National Park, since we’re so close), next week and weekend will be my time to work on that. Wish me luck, I’ll let you know how it goes…
Okay, as promised, I will finally fill you in on what I am doing for my research project – aka the real reason I’m living on a chocolate plantation for two months (as much as I made it sound like it in my last post, I’m not just here on a dream vacation…). I am working on a project to test the efficacy of different organic herbicides here at Finmac. It has been somewhat of a challenge for me; I have some background with plant biology – thanks to my REU experience on Konza Prairie last semester – but I have yet to take a class like plant physiology or field ecology that focuses specifically on plant functions or methods for studying different types of plant communities. Add on the fact that there is still very little information available – especially published studies – on organic herbicides, and you’ll see some of the problems I have encountered. But, I like challenging myself because I think that way I will learn more through the process. At times, things seem a little overwhelming, but I’ve made it through alright so far and I think overall things are going well. The inevitable part of research is that things don’t always go according to your plan.
There are some conditions and limitations that you may not be able to control, and being able to accept those or deal with them accordingly is becoming a valuable skill. For example, I’ve already been interrupted with the semi-unpredictable weather here (unpredictable on day-to-day basis, but I knew today when I started that there was a good chance for rain within a few hours. And guess what… it rained, so I’ll start over again tomorrow (weather permitting)).
It has also been a challenge to keep up with the pace at which we are trying to carry out these projects: two-month research projects for undergraduates are becoming more and more common (thanks to things like REU programs and other summer research jobs), but this study abroad program through ACM allows you to do more of the process. Many times with the summer research experiences, you jump into a project already in process, or already somewhat designed; my experience here I started from the very beginning: writing a proposal for a project that has never been done (I’m using a some brand-new or only very recently released products) and designing an experiment based only on the little information I could find. But like I said: it is a process that is normally carried out over the course of a few months or more (like a masters thesis), which we squeezed in in just four weeks. For that reason, I’m still adjusting my ideas and my methods as I go – finding out what works and what doesn’t, sometimes the hard way. So it has been an interesting dichotomy between the pace of life here and the pace of our research projects – including a few clashes between the two (like having to wait for a product to arrive to the farm before I could start applying, and then having to rush to apply during the day without rain, etc).
So I guess that is a general overview of what the research side of this program is like – for those of you considering applying – but its not a very good one, so feel free to e-mail me if you have other questions. It’s also weird because I actually am not supposed to discuss a lot of the details about my project, because I am using such new products, some are currently in the process of being patented or standardized, but basically I am testing the products at different concentrations and under a few different conditions (types of weeds, levels of shade, etc) to find optimal application concentrations and to see what weed species they kill or not. After these first few days of application are finished, my work will consist mostly of observation of my plots: overall visual observations, as well as some more specific quantification of plant mortality and biomass reduction over time.
After today, (the processing machinery is functioning once again thanks to the arrival of the necessary equipment, and a group of chocolate producers and chocolatiers from all over the world toured the farm and processing plant), I’m also thinking about starting a chocolate-quality control experiment, in which I would test the chocolate being made through all stages to assure the highest quality. I think it would have to be done at minimum on a weekly basis, don’t you…?
Instead of this: ,
I could be working with this instead:
Alright – I hope you’re comfortable, because this could turn into a long post. I just want to tell you all about what my life is like here at my rural stay and all the different experiences I’ve been having. I could split it into two posts, but in the end it’d be the same amount to read (or probably more) then I’d have another post pretty much just all about food again…
I think I’ll begin instead – like a true Minnesotan – talking about the weather. The climate here is definitely different than San José, and I realized how lucky we were to be able to “ease into” the heat that this country has to offer in Februrary/March. In San José, even if it was a “hot” day, there always seemed to be a breeze, or at least it was easy to escape from the heat by finding some shade. It’s not so easy here; the humidity makes sure of that. I can literally be sitting on my porch (in the shade), and I’ll be sweating. I’m not necessarily complaining – especially when I heard this morning that you’re supposed to be getting more snow soon back in Minnesota – I’m just pointing out the difference that I noted between here and San José. Actually, the first few days I was here, it rained – A LOT.
Even though for most of Costa Rica it is currently the dry season, many places along the Caribbean cost (where I am) still get rain fairly often. But most people here commented that it was somewhat strange that we were getting so much rain – it barely stopped for four days. Much of the time, it was “lloviendo a cántaros” – which is a phrase used here like we would say “it’s raining cats and dogs” (I think it’s literal translation is closer to “raining buckets”) – it was coming down in waves of torrential downpours. I was worried for a little while – with the combination of the rain or the intense humidity if it did stop, my hair didn’t dry at all those first few days, and I knew I couldn’t survive two months feeling like that. But no worries, the sun came back – full force! Then I learned another new phrase, during the transition from rainy days to sunny days: bochorno. That’s the word used to describe the feeling/weather after it has rained and then the sun comes out, and all of the humidity left behind from the rainstorm fills the air in addition to the normal humidity. I just looked in my dictionary, and it translates as “oppressive heat”; it can also be and adjective for “sultry, oppressive, muggy.” And yes, that is exactly what it is. Thankfully, though, not every day is bochornoso – we’ve had some nice afternoons: like this afternoon in particular where I’m enjoying the breeze by lounging here in my hammock on my porch with a beer in my hand – from my host mom, “to help with the heat”. Pura vida.
Sorry but I had to – a shot of my view from my porch/hammock corner in the morning & the afternoon….
But there’s so much more to tell you about. Basically my first week has been a bit of an adjustment period: I’ve worked some on my project (which I promise I will tell you about in my next post), but I’ve actually reached a point where I have to wait until Monday for some supplies to arrive at the farm, so I haven’t had too much to do. I’ve kept busy by just enjoying having time to relax and reflect (how often does that usually happen for me during the semester? – not often), and walking around with the other ACM student who is doing some of his research at the plantation, Alex, and our incredibly helpful friend/guide Geovanny, who works here at FINMAC now mostly doing sloth research. I’ve also been spending time between my two houses trying to get to know the people who I’m living with and sort of living with. So one thing to know about living with a host family is that it, at times, is sort of an awkward type of limbo. I sometimes feel like I’m in a weird category between being a guest in the house and being part of the family. When we left San José, we had to begin that process all over again, but my living situation here is making that awkward position even more prominent. I’m actually living in a house separate from the people who are considered my host family – my mom, Doña Lucia, lives with her husband and her mentally handicapped daughter four houses down from the house where I stay. The house – called la casona, or the big house – is used for a variety of things: it is where the women turn the chocolate liquor produced at the plant here into all sorts of delicious chocolate bar varieties, it is where meals are served to groups who come to visit the farm, and it is used to host researchers that stay for a while at the farm, like me and my current housemate, Carlos (Carlos is an engineer in biotechnology, currently researching fermentation of cacao). However, being an ACM student, I get the luxury of having meals provided for me, so I go to Doña Lucia’s house for each meal.
And the inevitable has arrived: talking about the food. I thought the food in San José was fresh – well, it is – but it is here too, and I would say sometimes even more so! I eat fruit literally picked off the trees outside of Doña Lucia’s house that very day, or the bananos, platanos, papayas, and yucca from within the farm. Additionally, Doña Lucia is a great cook. She really likes to use healthy foods – almost every meal she’ll comment about how one or more of the foods I’m eating are “very healthy” or “good for my body”. She also is intent on making me feel comfortable here – a large portion of our conversations that we have at mealtimes end up being about food (imagine that, me talking about food…). She is very intent on making me feel comfortable here, especially when it comes to the food I eat. She tries to mix it up and not give me rice and beans at every meal, because she “knows I’m not accustomed to that”, and she even asks me what sort of things I normally eat for meals in the US so she can try and cook similar things. I told her that I want to experience Costa Rican culture and food, but she insists on variety. Unfortunately, I mentioned to her how at home I eat a lot of casseroles – a typical Minnesotan stereotype, I know – but I failed to mention that it was a winter thing, as I was surprised the next day with a hot casserole-style pasta and meat mixture in addition to my rice and beans for lunch. It was like the day she served me a hot lentil stew with lots of veggies – because I mentioned I liked vegetables and felt like they were sometimes lacking in my diet in San José – but it was hard to enjoy because it was an especially bochornoso day, so eating that just made me sweat even more. Doña Lucia also makes a mean cup of coffee (VERY strong), but her food is always delicious and even when it doesn’t quite feel like it fits the climate, I always have a large plate of fresh fruit to wash it all down – que fresco, que rica!
One last thing I’ll share for now (because there is more, and will be more to come, trust me…) is about my other housemates/friends I’ve made since living here. They include: the geckos that live on/in my house – there are two especially that like to sit on top of the curtains in the living room each night, whom I’ve named Brooks and Dunn because they also like to “sing”; the bats that live in our roof, whom we can hear crawling/flying around, and eventually each night visit our kitchen and hallway a few times (surprised me a little the first night I saw them, because Carlos was gone, and I didn’t know that it was a normal, routine thing); and Confite (meaning candy/sweets in Spanish), Doña Lucia’s little puppy that has taken to following me around – including on two of our bird-watching hikes into the hills around the farms here, and into the house at mealtimes (which gets him in trouble). Pictures of my friends below, and these are just a few of the animals I’ve come across here – there are so many more, but these are the ones that I’ve become most familiar with so far.
Top Left: Meet Brooks & Dunn. Top Right: a snapshot of the bat flying down the hall, and bottom left: Meet Confite, the little puppy that hardly ever stops moving.
Today – since I really don’t have much to do – I will be writing a long post to tell you all about my life in el campo, or the rural area where I live, and post it the next time I have internet. But for now I just wanted to let you know that I’m alive and happy, and share this thought with you:
I found this description on a tico friend’s facebook page, but then I found it actually came from wikipedia, but I still like the explanation it gives about the phrase “Pura vida” – which I’ve been using frequently here, but am now starting to really understand its meaning.
Pura vida literally means Pura = pure and vida = life, but “Pure life” in Spanish would be “Vida pura” instead, so the real meaning would be closer to “plenty of life”, “full of life”, “this is living!”, “going great”, “real living”, or “cool!”. It can be used both as a greeting and a farewell, to express satisfaction, to politely express indifference when describing something, or even to say “thank you”. The phrase has become widely known; this highly flexible statement has been used by many Costa Ricans (and expatriates)
Some foreigners view the phrase as an expression of a leisurely lifestyle, of disregard for time, and of wanton friendliness. However, Costa Ricans use the phrase to express a philosophy of strong community, perseverance, resilience in overcoming difficulties with good spirits, enjoying life slowly, and celebrating good fortune of magnitudes small and large alike.