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Sunday, June 21, 2015

Food for Thought, part 2

Note: this post is one of dozens written by students participating in a 2015 field course in Costa Rica. The entire series is here

On the way from San Jose to Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific Coast, our group visited a spice farm, the Villa Vanilla Spice Plantation, to learn about sustainable farming practices that are used there. One of the spices they produce is vanilla. Vanilla is derived from three different types of orchid, all from the genus Vanilla. While orchids are the largest group of plants on Earth, only one genus is edible. The flowers of the vanilla orchid must be pollinated by hand in order to produce fruit, the vanilla bean. As one might imagine, it is a fairly labor intensive process.

In fact, a majority of spice production is very labor intensive. At this farm, we observed cinnamon, the inner back of the cinnamon tree Cinnamomum verum, being harvested by a machete. Then the shavings are placed in a tray to be placed in a large dryer. The final result are the curled cinnamon sticks which can also be powdered.

We also saw their production of allspice, Pimenta dioica, a spice commonly used in pumpkin pies and Caribbean cuisine. The berries were set out in small batches in the sun to dry alongside several other types of spices. With such small batches, the production of each spice could be monitored individually. Even the fruit from the cocoa pods, Theobroma cacao, was fermented in the sun and occasionally mixed by hand. All of these plants, from the vanilla to the cinnamon to the cocoa tree were fertilized with compost made on site. There were no chemicals treatments or machinery and very little, if any, as wasted.

The amount of time and care put into the farm was incredible, but it also brings up a question about our own consumption of goods. With nearly 8 billion people on earth, small scale sustainable farming simply cannot keep up with demand. Documentaries such as Food Inc. discuss the culture of excess and wastefulness that exists in modern society but farms like Villa Vanilla are taking a stance against this movement of mass production. Hopefully in time, other farms will begin to go more green!

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Food for Thought

Note: this post is one of dozens written by students participating in a 2015 field course in Costa Rica. The entire series is here

Plants are everywhere in our lives. We walk through parks with trees or even plant gardens of our own to decorate our homes. But plants are also a crucial part of our diets as well. During our study abroad in Costa Rica, we have been able to see and taste a variety of foods grown locally. There are of course, fruits and vegetables that are easily recognized, but many others are also commonly seen in our grocery stores even if they take on a form much different than what is grown on a farm.

Even when working in the field, deep in dense jungle far away from cultivated land, it is possible to see plants that are related to our own dinner plates. Bananas, ginger and cardamom are all a part of the Zingiberales order, the group of plants that we are studying here in Costa Rica, but each is harvested from different parts of the plant. Bananas, from the family Musaceae, are easily recognized as the large yellow fruit which hang down the tree; ginger, from the family Zingiberaceae, is harvested from a part of the plant known as the rhizome which dwells underground; cardamom, also from the family Zingiberaceae, is a spice that is harvested from seed pods. While bananas, ginger, and cardamom is ready to be sold soon after harvesting, other foods require a little more processing. Chocolate and vanilla are both taken from the fruit of the cocoa and vanilla plant respectively and fermented. As a result, the chocolate and vanilla that comes to mind is very different from the original fruit.

All these foods originated from specific parts of the world but can now easily be found in supermarkets across the globe. Vanilla, chocolate and bananas seem to be very normal in the average American diet but such foods would have been rare just a few centuries ago. As early European explorers arrived in new lands, expanding both toward the East and West, they discovered not only new people and resources, but food as well. These foods today may be considered an ordinary part of cuisine. For example, tomatoes were unknown in Europe until the Spanish brought them over from the new world. Now it is hard to imagine what Italian food would be like without tomato sauce. Seeing both the indigenous and introduced species of plants in Costa Rica has made me think a little bit more about the history of the food I eat and the journey it took to end up on my plate.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Ecotourism in Monteverde

Note: this post is one of dozens written by students participating in a 2015 field course in Costa Rica. The entire series is here

During our final week in Costa Rica, our group traveled from San Jose to Monteverde to complete research at the field station. Dr. Chaboo had described Monteverde as a small town established by Quakers and a place very conscientious about the environment around them. What we had found was a town teeming with business and tourists. In a little over twenty years, Monteverde had been transformed from a small community to a bustling tourist destination.

This sudden influx of tourists has helped raise awareness about the decline in rainforests in places such as Monteverde. One of the most well known examples of the rainforests’ dire state is the extinction of the golden toad, Incilius periglenes. Once endemic to Monteverde, the species vanished by the 1990s. Tourists who visit the Monteverde Could Forest Biological Reserve come for the amazing sites and to learn about conservation. Now more that ever there is a drive to educate people and to protect the remaining rainforests.

But perhaps in a twist of irony, this sudden influx of tourists has also brought about new challenges for the environment. A larger population means more waste being produced, and more space required to dispose of it. As hotels, gift shops and restaurants appeared, land that once served as a self-sustaining ecosystem was developed into building space. In the height of tourism season, buses can line up from the reserve all the way into town. It is amazing to wake up each morning to see busloads of families, students and nature enthusiasts in the reserve.

Ecotourism is a double-edged sword. While it is a wonderful thing to see so many people eager to explore the cloud forest, such large numbers can also be a problem. But Monteverde has done an incredible job of finding a fine balance between the two. I have been amazed how the country of Costa Rica has been so environmentally conscious everywhere we go. The people here hold great pride in the biodiversity here and are eager to share it with the rest of the world.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Costa Rica Reflection

Note: this post is one of dozens written by students participating in a 2015 field course in Costa Rica. The entire series is here

Reflecting back on my study abroad trip to Costa Rica, I can see all the beneficial knowledge and characteristics that I gained from the experience. My cultural view was broadened when we visited our first destination, San Jose. The city was large and densely packed, which gave me a chance to see how the Costa Rica population functions. The street were busy and frankly quite chaotic, compared to those here in Kansas.

Every night while in San Jose we went out for dinner, most of which were Costa Rican cuisine. The food in Costa Rica was far better than what I had expected. The meal sizes were not only larger than what I am use to back in America, but also presented delicious and healthy food. I noticed that the food in Costa Rica  lacked preservatives and processing that most American foods contain, which I found to be much more enjoyable.

I was surprised by the hospitality of the people in the big city of San Jose. Unlike many large American cities, the people were incredibly friendly and genuine despite the language  barrier. It was obvious that the people in Costa Rica value the revenue that tourism brings to the country. Tourism was especially apparent when we reached areas such as Manuel Antonio and Monteverde. In many instances there were more Americans in these two areas than native Costa Ricans. The towns where tourism was heavy flourished due to the high amount of money flowing from the travelers.

The cloud forest in Monteverde probably left me with the best memories because I was able to see the true beauty of the rain Forest. There was life everywhere you looked, and was just as I had imagined it prior to the trip. The cloud forest was a perfect location for our research because there was a large population of Zingiberales in the area. My favorite part of the trip was doing the research itself, and getting my hands dirty looking for bugs. It was amazing to experience biological field work for the first time and I am now interested in participating in an ecology field of some sort. My trip to Costa Rica is one that I will remember for the rest of my life, I had a truly fantastic time!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A Warm Welcome to the Tropics

Note: this post is one of dozens written by students participating in a 2015 field course in Costa Rica. The entire series is here

beach

After our time spent marveling over the natural wonders of Costa Rica, I remained for another week to explore its cultural side a little more. My time travelling alone in Costa Rica led me to a much greater appreciation of its residents.

Everyone seemed eager to help in any way they could, from small favors and gifts to even just taking the time to try and talk to you, something that has become a rarity. Even though I could barely speak the language, warm conversations with taxi drivers, with waiters and waitresses, and even strangers on the bus were to be expected, and I realized this is sadly lacking from my life in America.

When I left my camera on a public bus, a woman hurriedly followed me off to return it to me, a kindness I would never expect. On more than one occasion, perfect strangers intervened on my behalf. Perhaps there were other dynamics at work that I was unaware of, but having traveled abroad before, my experiences have never been so overwhelmingly positive.

In addition to being more friendly, people seemed more outwardly happy. I think this may have something to do with the beautiful, lush landscape of the country. Who could be unhappy in such a picturesque setting?
This outgoing, cheerful and friendly attitude is possibly the most memorable thing I’ve experienced here, and it’s certainly something worth holding onto as I return to my daily life in the States.  
 

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Rich Coast

Note: this post is one of dozens written by students participating in a 2015 field course in Costa Rica. The entire series is here

Prior to colonization by the Spanish, Costa Rica did not have a single, unified ancient society, as was seen in other Latin American countries with civilizations such as the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas. Instead, the country consisted of isolated tribes, living in peaceful abundance and harmony with nature, each with their own unique culture.

These tribes used the bounty of their land to develop advanced systems of agriculture, ceramics, and metalworking. Some developed skilled techniques for casting gold into jewelry, religious icons, and symbolic representations, particularly of animals. We saw several examples of this amazing goldsmithing at the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum in downtown San Jose.

This system of isolated ‘chiefdoms’ proved to be an advantage when faced with the threat of Spanish conquest. Although colonization wreaked havoc on the country’s natives, as it did all across the New World, the effects were less violent. Many tribes were able to flee to the Southern edge of the country, where they still reside today, and others were integrated into the new Spanish colonies.

After a few weeks in Costa Rica, I started to wonder how the country’s remarkably nonviolent history has contributed to its current state. It seems to me that the citizens of Costa Rica are overwhelmingly peaceful and good-natured, and there is little crime, I’m told, even in urban centers. In fact, Costa Rica even abolished its military over 70 years ago.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Volcanology

Note: this post is one of dozens written by students participating in a 2015 field course in Costa Rica. The entire series is here

The day after our arrival in Costa Rica, we went to a volcano!!  We went to Irazu Volcano National Park (here is a map of the volcanoes of Central America; this one was number 28). It is still an active volcano.  The last time it erupted was in 1963 and happened to coincided with former US President John F. Kennedy visiting the country .  The last activity was in 1996.  Irazu is the tallest volcano in Costa Rica, reaching over 11,000 ft!  While there, we saw our first mammal of the trip: a coati! 

The volcanoes in Central America are part of the ring of fire, a ring of volcanoes circling the Pacific Ocean.  The volcanoes are closely spaces and easily accessible, as well as running generally parallel to the Cocos Plate (a tectonic plate).  Those factors make Central America a great place to study geochemical variance, especially those caused by plate tectonics.  

Later that day, we went to a coffee plantation that had a pool fed by a hot spring!  John Kaiser translated what the owner was telling us about the processing of coffee.  They grew some of their coffee on hills that were stair-stepped (pictured below).   When walking down from the processing building, we saw a rock with carvings from the aboriginal people!  The hot spring pool had quite a view. 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Carpe Diem

Note: this post is one of dozens written by students participating in a 2015 field course in Costa Rica. The entire series is here

Botanist Willow Zuchowski joined us on one hike through the Monteverde Biological Reserve.  I learned more about identifying plant families from her in five minutes than I did in the first week and a half.  Willow is from the United States and moved here after her bachelors degree to work on a hummingbird project; she loved Monteverde and Costa Rica so much that that turned from a year and a half to three years to living here for the past 30 years.  She actually does not have a masters degree or a PhD.  What she does have is the motivation and interest to learn about her field in a non-traditional setting.  She has been a field assistant on many projects here and her colleagues here respect her knowledge without a formal graduate degree.  She has travelled back to the states a few times to take courses in biological illustration and desktop publishing because she is interested in those things.  She has now illustrated and co-authored a book called An Introduction to Cloud Forest Trees: Monteverde, Costa Rica

The moral of this story is that if you love something enough and are motivated enough, you can make it happen.  I intend to "carpe diem" by going on many more study abroad trips to see the world, and I may even find a place that I want to settle down like Willow did.  Carpe diem everyone.  Seize the day.

Left to right: Willow Zuchowski, Dr. Chaboo, Willow’s husband Bill, and Kenji Nishida

Friday, June 26, 2015

Aftermath

Note: this post is one of dozens written by students participating in a 2015 field course in Costa Rica. The entire series is here

My experiences in Costa Rica were unforgettable. I have learned much about myself, the world, and about field biology. The past two weeks have been not only incredibly informative, but lots of fun as well.

Field biology is vigorous; it really makes you realize your limits. Getting muddy and hiking on rather steep trails is difficult. Going off trail to collect specimens that are behind several other plants is hard. Despite all this, it is also rewarding, getting some rare insect in your collection jar or seeing something incredibly rare on a leaf; it is all something that you will never forget. I will never forget seeing a beetle larvae eating a snail, nor the first time I aspirated my first bugs.

My cultural experiences abroad were also enlightening. It was amazing to see how other countries are, from their societal conventions to how they view Americans. I met one person from Costa Rica, he shared much insight into how young adults behave, along with views on culture, both his own and how he views Americans. I have a whole new respect for how tolerant people are, and was pleasantly surprised at how Americans were treated.

Now that I am back in the United Sates I have noticed a few changes in my behavior. I have noticed myself being more active; I take my dog on more regular walks, especially in the morning. I find that I have been craving the food we had while in Costa Rica, ranging from the delicious rice and chicken to the fried platanos. I plan to learn how to make some of the things we ate, and I also plan on keeping up my personal fitness. I hope to participate in another study abroad experience, this experience has opened my eyes to many new experiences, and now I want more.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Vanishing Act

Note: this post is one of dozens written by students participating in a 2015 field course in Costa Rica. The entire series is here

Rainforests are among the richest biomes on the planet. We have observed this first hand on our daily excursions as we collect insects and search for plants. However, there are also pressures being placed on the environment that threatens the diversity within the rainforest.

During the first few days of our stay in Monteverde, our group listened to a lecture by Dr. Alan Pounds of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Dr. Pounds first came to Monteverde because of his interest in herpetology but as time passed, his research shifted from herpetology to climate change, spurred by the extinction of the golden toad, Bufo periglenes, a species that was once endemic to Monteverde. The last individual was recorded in 1989 and the species has since been declared extinct. A number of other amphibians also vanished from the area around the same time, including many species of harlequin toads, from the genus Atelopus.

This mass extinction of amphibians may be attributed to a type of chytrid fungus called Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis. The fungus can be spread between individuals through their skin. And because amphibians breath through their skin, the fungus inevitably suffocates the individual. The B. dendrobatidis outbreak that had killed so many amphibians may have been spurred by climate change but more research is required to fully understand the cause of the mass extinction.

 

Further readings: Pounds, J. A., Bustamante, M. R., Coloma, L. A., Consuegra, J. A., Fogden, M. P., Foster, P. N., ... & Young, B. E. (2006). Widespread amphibian extinctions from epidemic disease driven by global warming. Nature, 439(7073), 161-167.