My Experience in Costa Rica

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By Dennis Bolshakov, College of Wooster ’19

I am a biology major from The College of Wooster in Ohio, United States, and I am currently with the OTS Tropical Biology semester in Costa Rica. Even though I study in Ohio, I am well-acquainted with rainforests, since I come from the temperate rainforest region in Washington State. However, the Costa Rican tropics are very different. They blew my mind, and every new site continues to do so, with its unique flora, fauna, and atmosphere in general.

The Palo Verde wetland and surrounding dry forest had many bird species that I never imagined before seeing them, such as tiny jacana birds that wade through the water hyacinths.

In Cuerici, I felt the cold of the tropical highlands, and encountered a resplendent quetzal, small alligator lizards, and trout (although the last one was at a farm).

At Las Cruces Biological Station and Wilson gardens, I spotted a prism of different birds: from toucans to baby crested caracaras to parrots and tanagers. There also, we did two studies with the local wildlife: one with wandering spiders in the bromeliad garden, and the other with aquatic anoles in the forest streams. Both of those were quite an adventure, since we were right in the middle of the tropical storm that became hurricane Nate.

Overall, I have really enjoyed my time in Costa Rica. I have seen things I’ve never dreamed of seeing in the States, did things I would otherwise consider crazy (such as wading through a swollen stream amid mudslides and treefalls), and met really interesting people to boot.

a Week in South Africa

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By Blythe Owen, Wheaton College, MA ‘19

Blythe is currently a student on our Fall 2017 African Ecology and Conservation program.

This week we challenged ourselves to try new things and completely immerse ourselves in an entirely different culture on our homestays in Hamakuya. We were split up into groups of 4 or 5 people and went into different villages to stay with a family for 3 days. It was the longest we have all been apart from each other since getting here. There was definitely more excitement than nerves when getting dropped off at our new homes for the next few days although it was sad to say goodbye to everyone.

Once at our home it took maybe only 10 minutes until there was a crowd of at least 20 kids all ready to play with us. We played soccer, learned a lot of new hand games, and got new hairstyles from the kids. We spent most of our time over the three days with the kids really getting to know them and seeing how they fit into their community. We also learned a lot from the family’s helper who came in to help with the cooking. We watched her kill a chicken, learned how to make pap, and crushed peanuts using a mortar and pestle. Along with learning the cooking methods we tried a few new traditional foods though out the three days. My group got to try pumpkin greens, chicken feet, and of course Mopani worms! It was a very different experience from what we are all used to and we were all so happy we got to enjoy it together.

After being reunited with our fellow OTS members after the homestays we compared the songs, hand games, and dance moves we had learned at the homestays over a braai and a huge dance party with live music. After Hamakuya we made our way to Mapungubwe where we were back to watching out for the leopards, lions, and baboons we had all missed.

 

First Impressions of Costa Rica: a Series in Contrasts and Comparisons

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By Mikayla Kifer, Bowdoin College ‘19

Mikayla is currently a student on our Fall 2017 Tropical Biology on a Changing Planet program

For most people, travelling is a way to explore differences. We like to contrast our “normal,” boring lives with something foreign and exciting; the distinctions between the two are intriguing. I like to focus on the smallest changes—light switches, systems of garbage disposal, ratios of food pyramid groups. The way that we interact with our surroundings shapes our lives and who we are as people. The neural machinery that bats use to echolocate is something that we can never comprehend because we have not experienced the same stimuli as a bat. I have not experienced the same stimuli as a Tico—until now.

Every night (and morning and afternoon), I eat Costa Rican beans and rice. I gaze across the same marsh as them and lift my upturned binoculars to the same herons. I am not and will never be a Tico. Being here has reminded me how vastly different one human’s experience can be from another’s. Yet we all love to laugh, to feel connected to other humans, and in my case, we’re all here because we love plants and animals and care about this planet. Every day when we go out into the field we do so with the same excitement and the same hatred of mosquitos.

Although this lifestyle is totally foreign to me, seeing people who are adapted to it has made me understand that although our environment shapes us in different and amazing ways, we are still fundamentally the same.

 

New, but not Completely Unfamiliar

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By Niisoja Torto, Duke University ’20

Niisoja recently returned from our Summer 2017 Global Health Issues in South Africa program and is serving as an OTS Alumni Ambassador for the 2017-2018 school year.

In her TEDTalk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks to the danger of a single story, asserting, “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” Reflecting now on my homestay experience in Sanari village, Limpopo province, South Africa, I cannot help but attest to the validitiy of Adichie’s remark. Coming to South Africa and approaching my homestay, I unknowingly believed into a single story—a single story that polarizes my life and the lives of the people with whom I was soon to live. During the three days of my homestay, I expected to live a life completely different from the one I was used to living. After all, I was coming from a different region of the world, speaking a different language, looking at the world through the lens of a perceivably different culture. In reality, however, my expectation of encountering difference could not have been more uncharacteristic of my time with my incredible homestay family in Sanari.

Day two of my homestay experience was particularly striking in this regard. At around 7:30 am, my group, our incredible translator, Glenda, and I awoke from a well-needed 10 hours of sleep after an enjoyable but tiring day of play with children from all over the community the day before. To be honest, ‘tiring’ is an understatement; in fact, I had never felt more justified wielding the phrase, “I wish I had half the energy you have.” Soon after waking up, we devoured my all-time favorite meal, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with tea. That afternoon, we did some chores, bonded with our host family, and walked around the community, talking to community members at their homes and at a local market for our research project on rural livelihoods in Sanari. Our relatively slow day was truly refreshing and worthwhile. However, when I heard that a nearby home was having a birthday party that night, I jumped at the opportunity to close the already great day with some dancing. That night, we ate delicious pap (maize meal)—a meal that reminded me of food from my own culture—and danced the night away under a clear night sky. What surprises me most reflecting now on day two is that, in reality, this day’s events were not far-removed from what I would have done (or would have liked to have done) back home.

While many experiences that I had during the homestay were new to me, such as eating from a communal bowl, these experiences were remarkably not completely unfamiliar. It is interesting to note that, despite the language barrier we experienced with many of the residents of Sanari village, it was as if we could still speak some same language—a language characterized by happiness, love, fun, and many smiles. This realization initially surprised me; but why should it have? That is the danger of a single story: a story that often predicates itself on the perceived differences between people rather than on their abundant similarities. While I was challenged both physically and mentally during the homestay, I was more comfortable than I had been in a while. This reality, I think, speaks volumes to an almost inexplicable shared human experience—an experience that transcends language, background, and borders…an experience that made my homestay the great experience it was.

Adaptability

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By Barkley Dai, Yale University ’20

If there is one word that I can use to summarize our 2017 Summer Tropical Biology course in Costa Rica, the word is adaptability.

On the first night after we arrived at Las Cruces, our first study site, our professor Scott raised the question: what is the most important thing that you will need in this course? Some of us answered curiosity, others answered analytical skills. Scott smiled and said “nope, it’s adaptability. Because we forgot to bring the mist nets from San Jose office, and we need to adapt to that and change our plan to catch bats on the next day instead.” We all laughed.

But soon we realized that it is not merely a joke. As we are thrown into the wild, our ability to adapt is constantly challenged. On the first day, mosquitoes left at least one kiss on everyone; on the second week, we went off the grid and lived in a wooden cottage in the mountain with no electricity; and at our last site, all of us stepped into the muddy water of the marsh, where there are crocodile dwells. We were constantly stepping out of our comfort zone, and then adapting to the wilderness, expanding our comfort zone.

But what’s more awesome about adaptability is that while we adapt to the nature, nature also reveals all kinds of adaptability to us, and each single one of them is a marvelous story. At the botanical garden of Las Cruces, we learned about how the super long tongue of bats is an adaptation to the structure of the flower, forming a mutually beneficial relationship; at La Selva, we saw the beautiful “strawberry dart frog”, who eats poisonous insects and gather the poison at their back, so they would not be eaten by predators; at Palo Verde, we learned how iguanas change their color between dry season and wet season, so they can better blend into their surroundings to avoid predators. All of these marvelous adaptabilities can rarely be seen outside of Costa Rica, where the diverse habitat and high biodiversity formed a paradise for nature lovers. And even after three weeks in the program, we are still stunned by nature, and its ability to shape all the beautiful creatures, giving them different niche and ability to adapt.

And that leads us to think about the question, how is human adapting to nature? What is the relationship of human to other creatures? Besides seeing all the beauty of nature, we also learnt about various threats like deforestation and habitat lost, that are causing the disappearance of the beauties in nature. While it seems that human is strong enough that all the other creatures need to adapt to us, the result of a worsening global environment is something that we cannot afford. And though conducting our group projects on bird and spider diversity and how human influence these creatures, and then designing our individual projects, we are constantly exploring the question: how shall human as a whole take actions and adapt to a changing environment? While the answer is still far to reach, we are definitely closer to a solution after adapting ourselves to nature and seeing the adaptability of all those marvelous creatures in nature.

Biodiversity Surveys in Punda Maria

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By Caroline Schlutius, Yale University ‘18

Caroline is currently in South Africa with our Spring 2017 African Ecology and Conservation program.

While in Punda Maria, a site in the far north of Kruger National Park, we had the chance to conduct biodiversity surveys of several sites throughout the area. At 05:20h sharp, my alarm sounded the start of the day and I jumped up to get ready before meeting the rest of our crew at 05:45h. We drove to our first site in silence, slowly waking up to the sound of the dawn chorus as the sun lit the landscape.

At our first site, we jumped out of the game drive vehicle and marched into the bush, stopping about 100 meters in to do our first bird survey.

Luckily, I had several avid birders in my group this morning, and I stood posed with my pen over paper while they scanned the horizon or listen intently for calls, spouting off names of species almost more quickly than I could write them.

After the allotted time, we made our way to the butterfly trap, which had attracted butterflies and moths with a pungent concoction of beer, bananas, and brown sugar. We put our specimens in envelopes before heading to the next site and repeating the process.

Later in the afternoon, we head out once more to conduct vegetation, reptile, and active butterfly catching surveys. The ensuing hours passed in a haze of tree identification and measurement, running around with butterfly nets, and scanning the ground intently for signs of reptile presence. Finally, exhausted, we hop in the car and head back to the camp, basking in the mopane and baobab dotted landscape and another incredible day in the savanna.

Integration of Biomedicine and Traditional Medicine

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By Destiny Ho, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill ’18

Destiny is currently in Costa Rica with our Spring 2017 Tropical Diseases, Environmental Change, and Human Health program.

In our recent lectures we have been learning about the intercultural health care system, which is interactions between both biomedicine and traditional medicine, and discussing the importance of collaboration and eventually integration of the two forms of medicine. Today, we visited the La Cosana indigenous community, about twenty minutes away from Las Cruces Biological Station, where we had the opportunity to learn about their EBIAS (Los Equipos Básicos de Atención Integral en Salud), as well as talk to one of the Primary Healthcare Technicians and some of the indigenous healers. The EBAIS of the La Cosana community is a success story of the integration of biomedical practices with traditional medicine, mostly due to the respect and communication between the biomedical physician and traditional healers.

The traditional healers we spoke to told us the community is greatly affected by diabetes, anemia, and prostate problems, among other diseases. We also learned the community is affected by chronic diseases, as well as dental issues. These diseases could be coming from the imposition of the Westernized lifestyle and diet upon the indigenous community, especially with the increased access to high-sugar foods and chips. The healers also talked about how the “imposition of civilization” has led to a loss of tradition within the community, especially around eating habits. When asked about the EBAIS, the traditional healers enforced that there is a better relationship nowadays due to the respect that the healers and physicians have for one another and the collaboration of both parties. When a patient comes in and the traditional healers cannot aid the patient, they will refer them to the biomedical physician and vice versa.

One of the Primary Healthcare Technicians spoke of her role within the community, as well as a few of the problems with the EBAIS currently. One of the key roles of the Primary Healthcare Technician is prevention, through going house to house and recommending a trip to the EBAIS when necessary. Some of the problems that the community is facing are barriers to having a skilled birth attendant present during birth, as well as the computerization of the EBAIS system. Since the system has become computerized, it is harder for community members to access the healthcare since not every member has access to the internet and a computer. The Primary Healthcare Technician stated the importance of policy makers to look into the effects and ask communities before administering new systems.

Visiting the EBAIS was a wonderful experience, especially in seeing how traditional medicine and biomedicine can actually work together if there is effective communication and respect for one another.

 

In the Mangrove Forest

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By Andres Ripley, Wheaton College, MA ’18

Andres is currently in Costa Rica with our Tropical Biology on a Changing Planet semester program.

On the way to the mangrove forest, I was excited because I had seen mangroves before, but never a forest full of them. When we got to the forest, our professors explained how the zonation of a mangrove ecosystem works due to different plants being able to tolerate different salinity levels in the soil.

We walked farther in, and all of a sudden the smaller shrubs turned into massive, eighty-foot-tall trees. The roots of the trees could be seen almost twenty feet off the ground in some cases. Some mangrove plants have pores in the leaves that secrete the salt the roots are taking in, and others send all of the salt to the older leaves because they will be falling off the branch soon. In addition, since the clay is very good at holding water for long periods of time, and the presence of water makes it is hard for gas exchange to occur underground, mangroves have lenticels on the roots above ground that are used for gas exchange, which is one of the reasons why the roots come so high above ground.

After discussing more about different adaptations plants and animals have in a mangrove ecosystem, we talked about the importance of mangroves, like how they are very good storm barriers that help protect the mainland, they help reduce erosion that can occur along bodies of water, and they help filter pollution that is heading from rivers out into the ocean. It was very interesting to learn about mangroves, because there are less and less mangrove ecosystems due to the rising of sea levels and humans destroying them, so it is important that more people educate more people on the importance of mangroves.

Sweet, Sustainable Pineapples: An Afternoon at Finca Sura

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By Kelsey Porter, Macalester College ’18

Kelsey is currently in Costa Rica with the Spring 2017 Tropical Diseases, Environmental Change, and Human Health program.

During the time that we studied at La Selva earlier in the semester, we had the chance to visit Finca Sura, a natural pineapple farm nearby. Finca Sura is considered “natural” because its caretakers use sustainable methods to grow pineapples, unlike most large-scale plantations. As we approached the farm, I admired the crimson decorative palms that line many of the roads and pathways.

When we arrived, we were greeted by one of the farmers, who led us to the open-air dining room and offered us some initial refreshments: fresh, cool pineapple juice. The sweet taste was quite welcome on such a warm, sticky day. Next, we went on a guided tour of the farm to learn about the plants of Finca Sura and the methods by which they are grown. Before reaching the pineapple field, we were surprised and delighted to become acquainted with Matilda, the family pig:

Throughout our visit, we learned about the factors that differentiate Finca Sura from its “organic” and “conventional” pineapple farm counterparts. Organic pineapple farms avoid using chemicals, but they place black plastic across the ground to keep out pests. Unfortunately, the plastic is not always effective, and it also contributes to waste production since it can only be reused two or three times. Conventional (large-scale) farms use a mixture of pesticides, insecticides, and fungicides to kill off potential threats. They also allow pineapples to grow quite close to each other, and as a result, each individual does not receive adequate nutrients from the soil. Furthermore, conventional farms often lack effective crop rotation methods. They plant the same crop in the same place for many years and only let the land rest for one month between growing seasons, leaving the soil in a state of perpetual depletion.

Finca Sura, in contrast, has developed sustainable (and fairly simple) ways to keep their pineapples healthy. For starters, they are completely chemical-free. This may seem impossible in the Age of Pesticides, but the farmers at Finca Sura use creative strategies to keep the critters away. They plant a variety of tasty supplementary plants, such as bananas and papayas, in various sections of their farm. As a result, many of the birds and insects that would normally devour the pineapples instead choose to munch on the delectable diversity of other fresh fruits. Additionally, the farmers make sure that individual pineapples have enough room to grow by separating and re-planting young plants as they sprout. To maintain a balance of pineapples at different stages of development, the farmers also sometimes cut the green leaves at the top (the crown) to delay maturation of the fruit. Lastly, Finca Sura uses a crop rotation cycle—3 years on, 1 year off—to allow the soil to fully recover between growing seasons.

After learning all about the pineapples, we had the chance to taste them. Our guide picked a couple mature ones from a nearby field and skillfully diced them into bite-sized pieces. I usually don’t like pineapple in large proportions, but these were so sweet and fresh that I could have kept eating them for awhile!

When we returned from our tour, we were treated to a second, even more decadent round of refreshments: guanábana juice, sugarcane juice with ginger, fresh coffee, and pineapple bread. Since it was close to dinnertime, everyone thoroughly enjoyed the hearty snacks.

Overall, I really enjoyed learning about the techniques used by Finca Sura. I wondered why other farms don’t adopt similar methods to make their practices more sustainable. Are these methods considered too labor-intensive? Too costly? Too slow? Whatever the reasoning, I think that the long-term effects of heavy chemical use have already started to reveal themselves in daunting and widespread ways. I hope that farms like Finca Sura are able to teach others, so that sustainable farming practices can expand beyond the scope of small family farms.

Above the Canopy: Summer in Costa Rica

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By Roslyn Rivas, Yale University ’17

Roslyn was a student on our Tropical Biology summer program in 2016 and currently serves as an Alumni Ambassador for OTS.

On our last day at La Selva, one of the biological station guides took a handful of us to visit one of the many research towers spread across the forested area. With our climbing harnesses and helmets in our hands, we set out to walk through the rainforest until we came across a metal frame tower that extended at least 50 meters high. Attaching our belts to the main rope, we climbed up flight after flight of stairs. Suddenly, about halfway up, we were met with a family of howler monkeys, calling out and inching closer, definitely curious about us. They weaved in and out of branches to the wires supporting the tower to get a closer look at the humans who were as high up in the trees as they were.

Soon we were above the canopy, able to see the tops of trees miles around us. It was such a surreal experience being up there, seeing the land and animals this organization is trying to protect. It reminded me of what I loved most about this trip: the sheer amount of wildlife I was able to come across. Throughout the month, I had the chance to study monkeys, birds, coatis, lizards, crocodiles, frogs, and so much more.

This trip was a dream come true not only because I got to travel and see so much wildlife, but also because it gave me a sense of what being a biologist would be like. I want to work in wildlife conservation, out on the field, and the summer OTS Costa Rica program gave me a glimpse of just that. I am so grateful to have been a part of this experience.