Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Back from the Galapagos

... but I think I would have been much happier if I had never had to come back. I had the most amazing several days sailing from island to island and exploring the wildlife that inspired Darwin´s theory of evolution. I hope that all of you guys get to go someday, because it was absolutely a once in a lifetime experience.

My first wildlife encounter in the Galapagos was on Santa Cruz, in a wildlife refuge for giant tortoises. Our guide, Gandhy, led us on a hike where we got to come within several inches of the giant tortoises... close enough to hear them sighing as they munched on the grass or lazed about in ponds trying to cool off from the weather. The tortoises really deserve their name, as well - they are pretty big. Big enough for a full-grown man to climb inside one of their shells... which Molly and I got to do. We probably could have fit the two of us in one, though we didn´t try.

After we experiences the tortoises we got to go into a lava tube, which was a kind of cave-like formation that had been created by lava flow when the islands were formed. Also pretty cool... but not as cool as the tortoises.

Over night, we set sail for Floreana, and when we woke up set out in a dingy for a morning hike, where we got to see some baby sharks and sting rays (I couldn´t get any pictures since they were in the water) and flamingos - not endemic to the island, but pretty nonetheless. That afternoon, I had my first snorkeling experience. I was nervous about swimming with sharks, which our guide had told us we´d find in the water, and so was hesitant to jump in... and what do you know: My first animal sighting, just moments after I jumped in the water, was three white-tipped sharks. Fortunately, they were several feet below me. If I had been eye-to-eye with sharks, I think it would have kept me from getting in the water afterwards. Fortunately, I got used to the sharks´presence, and even began to seek them out. I also got to see a sea turtle, golden rays, and sea lions playing in the water. It was a fabulous first snorkel. That evening we had a beautiful sunset and set sail for Española.

Our Española hike the next morning was absolutely incredible. When we landed on the island, we were greeted by dozens of sea lions - some of which were strewn across the very path we were to walk on. We even had a bit of a battle with an angry male sea lion who got in our way. As we stopped to take photos of the sea lions, we noticed the less conspicuous marine iguanas that were basking on the rocks amongst the sea lions, as well as several blue-footed boobies that posed for our cameras as we went along. We continued across the island (spotting some webbed albatrosses and Darwin´s famous finches along the way) until we came to a spectacular drop-off where we got to watch the albatrosses in flight. It was interesting to watch them take off... they literally have to hurl themselves off of the edge of the cliff to take flight. We sat for a while and watched before we returned to the ship for some afternoon snorkeling (more sea turtles, more rays). I think I could have stayed their for longer.

To be honest, the days are blurring together so I am not sure exactly what we did the next day... but at some point we sailed to San Cristobal and went to an interpretation center and spent some time in the town, went to Santa Fe to do more snorkeling and go on a hike where we got to see more sea lions and land iguanas, and did a lot more snorkeling. And of course, we saw more sea lions wherever we went. In town, lying on the sidewalks and on benches... on the beaches sunning themselves (I got to lay down in the middle of a big pile of them... I didn´t have my camera but another tourist took a picture and when she emails it to me I will put it up)... sea lions swimming up to us and imitating us and playing in the water. And of course we sailed and sunned... it was a spectacular time. I want to go back.

Another thing... I met a lot of other really great people on the boat who I am going to get to hang out with in Quito and who I may or may not run into in Peru. They range in age from about my age to about 60, and I love them all and have had a great time getting to know them over the next few days. The best part is, they are from all over the world, from Ireland to Australia, and so now if I am ever traveling in their part of the world I have a place to stay and a tour guide to show me the way!

I have posted pictures from the Galapagos (at least, some of them... not all of them yet) on my Piacasa website, and I´ve added a link to them below the link to the Ecuador pictures. Feel free to check them out... and prepare to be insanely jealous.

Hope all is well in the US.

Love to all.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Physical Discomfort

*Disclaimer: What I am about to write may constitute a little TOO much information for some folks. If you think you don´t want to read about my poop, then maybe skip this blog. If you are ok with reading about poop and additionally you have some background in medicine, a diagnosis would be welcome.

I believe I wrote in another blog post about how great I thought Peace Corps was for teaching people just how to cope with the reality of life in a third world country and how to accept that reality as their own. Well, in the past few days I have learned that maybe I don´t need to be in Peace Corps to learn how to cope with some of the physical discomforts that are a reality for a lot of people here in Ecuador. First and foremost, I have been forced to cope with what is probably the worst diarrhea I have ever encountered. Folks, my stool is in no way solid. In fact, it is the definition of liquid. If you heard it you wouldn´t believe it. Lucky for Molly and Tyler, there is no door on the bathroom at Tyler´s house so they DO get to hear it. To make matters worse, I have little to no control over it... I mean, when it´s time for me to go, it is urgent. Needless to say this made for an uncomfortable weekend at the boy´s camp I helped with this weekend in Muisne where I had to share a bathroom with about 25 teenage boys.

Now, in addition to this diarrhea problem, I have been having fevers on and off lately. I haven´t been taking my temperature constantly or monitoring my temp, but I think over the next few days I am going to try to keep better track of it, just in case the fevers are an indicator of something more serious (which I hope they aren´t). At any rate, these fevers are nearly impossible to handle in this heat. We don´t have air conditioning at Tylers (actually, we often don´t have many modern conveniences at Tylers like electricity or running water), and the temperature here is probably at least 90 every day. The hot, wet, sticky heat of the coast in and of itself is almost impossible to handle, so when my body heats up with a fever... man, it is really uncomfortable. I have been taking Tylenol to lower the fever, and fortunately, I am taking the night bus to Quito tonight, so I´ll be getting back to the Sierra where it´s much cooler, and much more comfortable to have a fever.

Finally, I have been coping lately with the effects of sleeping on a foam matt for the past month... my lower back pain has gotten so bad that I can barely stand up, and it has recently begun to spread to my hips. Its been preventing me from walking long distances... then again, so has the heat and the diarrhea. But again, I am going to Quito tonight and I hope to stay in a nicer hotel this time with a comfortable bed that will be good for my back.

Anyway... amidst all of this extreme physical discomfort, there was a campemento for boys to run, so as I mentioned, I had to hearn to cope with all of this and let life go on. Which I did. I think the camp for the boys was definitely very successful... the boys seemed to really understand the purpose of the activities we were doing with them and take their meanings to heart; they were actively engaged in everything we did, whether it was an activity like the "river cross" (where they had to use teamwork and communication to cross an imaginary river by stepping only on about 25 blocks of wood as we - the counselors - circled and tried to steal their boards) or our sex ed talks. I only hope that it sticks with them... but based on the boys I talked to, I think it will. I had really not been looking forward to being around 25 boys for 4 days but it wasn´t nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be. The boys were really considerate and kind, and I even connected with a few of them - not in the same way I connected with the girls, but by the end of the weekend I felt like I had definitely made some friends. Oh, and the boys were great for practicing Spanish. Even when I was struggling in a conversation, not understanding and wanting to give up, the boys were really persistent and made me keep talking to them. At the very least my Spanish comprehension skills improved if not both my comprehension and speaking. Now, if only spelling would come so easily...

As I mentioned, I am headed to Quito tonight. My camera is broken AGAIN and I want to take it to get fixed before Molly and I leave for the Galapagos Islands on Wed. I can´t believe it is already time for the Galapagos. That means only 2 weeks left in Ecuador for me, and then it is on to Peru. I have to admit, I am a little nervous about embarking on this trip to Peru alone... it will definitely be a test of not only my travel savvy-ness, but my language skills as well. I think I can do it, though. I am becoming more and more confident every day in my ability to communicate with and understand Spanish-speakers, and at the very least, I will be able to make them understand me. I think if they speak slowly, I will understand them as well. I am actually amazed at how much Spanish I have picked up in just a little over a month. I really believe that 6 months here and I would be totally conversational. Too bad I have to come home in May.

Uh-oh... I think it´s time for another round of liquid poo. Sorry to all for the disgusting details.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Dos Voluntarios en Ecuador

To begin with, I would like to apologize for my erratic picture uploading. Internet (and for that matter, transportation... weather... anything, really) here in Ecuador is not quite as reliable as it was in Costa Rica. It´s been a slow and frustrating process. There are still a lot of photos that I have not been able to post in my web albums yet, but I will continue to try to upload photos from Ecuador until they are all up. Hopefully that will happen tonight. Oh, and additionally, there is a link to the web album for Ecuador now. Look just below the link to the Costa Rica photos.

Now, where to begin? After our first two weeks in Ecuador, I wasn´t sure what to expect from the Ecuadorians. As far as I could tell, Ecuador was a crazy, disorganized country filled with crazy, disorganized (though kind and earnest) people. However, Molly and I have finally had a relatively chaos-free week, and though I still maintain the opinion that most Ecuas are certifiably crazy, I am starting to think that it´s at least the good kind of crazy. I think. I hope. At the very least, there have been a lot of good, kind, crazy Ecuas helping us out lately. Lukas, for example, who has been trying to help us find volunteer work; Manuel, who set us up with a group of young periodistas (journalists) so that we could help them with their periodico (newspaper); and the kids in Tyler´s Barrio (neighborhood), without whom we would have probably ended up lost and/or dead somewhere on the coast of Ecuador last weekend rather than in Quininde, where we helped out with a campemento for jovenes (youth camp... come on, people, learn to speak Spanish).

Additionally, the Peace Corps workers here in the province of Esmeraldas (who may or may not be equally as crazy as the Ecuadorians) have been very helpful. Three in particular: Tyler, of course, and also David (who works in Quininde) and Ali (who works in Muisne). Thanks to them, Molly and I had a great opportunity last weekend to put the skills we learned as interns as the O´Keeffe Museum to good use. Molly and I traveled with several chicas from Tyler´s barrio to meet Tyler, David, and Ali (and a group of about 25 chicas from Quininde, Sua, and Muisne) in Quininde at a retreat center to help host a leadership camp for young women. We spent the weekend helping out with workshops on a diverse range of topics such as leadership, life, business, the environment, reforestation, and sexuality. We also helped run camp-y activities like bingo, swimming, and s´more-making. Several of the highlights of the campemento:
- A trip to the bosque (forest) where we got to witness some reforestation work and talk about the environmental issues that are facing the province of Esmeraldas (there are a lot - pollution of every kind, deforestation, y the introduction of foreign species that are damaging the forest and the water supply in the province)
- A boat trip out into a beautiful laguna, where we also go to swim and teach the kids Marco Polo
- A trip to an integral farm where we got to eat a variety of exotic fruits as well as visit to "la Cascada del Amor" (the Waterfall of Love... ha)
- A workshop on sexuality that was run by a couple of the jovenes from Quninde, who got to teach the other girls the things they have been learning about sex and sexuality from David
- A business workshop led by Tyler where the girls got to simulate starting up their own micro-business
- Spontaneous dance parties with the girls (an aspect of a girls camp which I will be sure to miss when we host a similar camp for boys this coming weekend)

As I said, Molly and I will be headed to Muisne next weekend to help with a similar campemento for boys of the same age group. It is sure to be a totally different experience... and I am not really looking forward to it. Not my favorite age group of boys.

In the time between camps, Molly and I have been volunteering with a group of periodistas who have been having financial problems with continuing to produce their periodico twice a week. It seems as though they have been having trouble with money management and misusing money, and they have additional need for money for cameras and tape recorders. We´ve helped them to make a budget and plan a pitch that they are going to present tomorrow at the Municipio (city hall? I am not sure what the American equivalent would be) in order to get some funding for their paper. I have to be honest, despite the fact that these children are TERRIBLE money managers and have not kept records of their expenses and don´t even really know how much money they need to ask for... they are darling and I have really enjoyed spending time with them and helping them. We have a lot of work to do on their presentation tomorrow. They didn´t feel like they need to make an outline or be prepared at all, and Molly and I spent the day today trying to convince them that they they need to be organized so they can make a professional presentation. (This, I think, is the essential difference between Ecuador and the US. Their way of doing things is far more laid back and - dare I say it? - a little lazy, and we have this strict, uptight, and workaholic way of working). We finally convinced them it would be a good idea to prepare and practice, and once we do that tomorrow morning, we´ll head to the Municipio. I hope all goes well.
*Note - if anyone wants to donate a camera or tape recorder to these kids, send me an e-mail or something. I would love to arrange something like that for them.

I won´t get to the internet again this week, since we´ll be in Muisne at the boy´s camp from Thursday to Sunday. After that, we may be headed back to Quito... it depends on how the UNC v. Kansas game goes on Saturday. If we win that game, Tyler (also a UNC Alum) and I have vowed to find a bar in Quito that is showing the game. Either way, I will hopefully have time for one more blog post before Molly and I head to the Galapagos on Wednesday. I can´t believe we are headed to the Galapagos already... time is flying.

Besitos para todos!

Monday, March 24, 2008

The name of the game is... flexibility

Saludos a todos de Ecuador! And I apologize for the long silence. As the title of this blog would suggest, nothing has gone quite as planned and as a result I haven´t gotten a chance to use the internet more than twice since I got here on March 12. That´s not to say that all of the little surprises and hiccups we´ve encountered in our plans have been bad. In fact, they´ve led to some fun adventures. Let me begin...

The first big snag in our travel plans occured when our flight from San Jose, Costa Rica to Quito, Ecuador failed to land in Quito. Instead, it took us about 10 hours (by bus) south of Quito to Guayaquil. This change in destination in and of itself was not altogether too traumatic... however, when one considers the fact that neither the pilot nor the flight attendants informed the flight´s passengers of the change in destination until we landed in Guayaquil (and then did so solely in Spanish - not in English), one can see how my revelation that I was in Guayaquil and not Quito was a bit of a jolt to my system. In retrospect, it was a very funny situation: Our plane started to descend into Quito, circled the city for about 15 minutes, then suddenly reascended. Of course, no one knew what was going on, and the flight attendants weren´t saying anything, so people began to start rumors... the man sitting next to me told me that there was a security problem and the plane could not pass airport security. The couple next to Molly conjectured that the plane couldn´t land because of fog. Others were saying that the plane had a mechanical failure that could be corrected only in Guayaquil. Whatever the problem was, we never got an answer from the airline. Instead, we landed in Guayaquil, got a cheery "thank you for flying Copa Airlines, welcome to Guayaquil" from our pilot, and disembarked without fully understanding where we were or what we were to do. We ended up getting a voucher from the airline for a hotel for the night and a flight for the next day. Actually, let me clarify: we got a little slip of paper - a piece of paper that was in no way official looking - with the words "in transit" written on it that was to serve as our voucher. Por dios...

Luckily, everything worked out and we arrived in Quito with relatively few other problems (unless you count delayed buses, delayed flights and the Ecuadorian penchant for breaking in line as problems. Actually, at first I was mad at the Ecuadorians for breaking in line and stealing my seats on planes, buses, etc. I have now, however, accepted it as a way of life and even started breaking in front of people in lines. Hey - when in Rome, right?) Tyler - wonderful, patient Tyler - was at the airport waiting for us and made sure that we got to our hostel and were safe. Tyler is great. Without Tyler, this all would have been a lot more difficult.

Once we were settled in Quito, we encountered our SECOND major hiccup. Tyler recently left the Peace Corps, and has become embroiled in an epic battle with Peace Corps, the American Embassy, and the government of Ecuador to try to change his passport from his Peace Corps passport (which he has to turn in to Peace Corps) to his personal passport so that he can remain in Ecuador. When we arrived in Quito, Tyler recounted his story to us and revealed that he was probably going to have to make a trip to Colombia to try to exit the country, switch his passport, and re-enter Ecuador. Which left Molly and I in a predicament: We were either going to have to go it alone to Esmeraldas and try to establish ourselves there without Tyler, or accompany him to the border of Colombia... where there have recently been problems between the Ecuadorian and Colombian governments. Not to mention the FARC. I guess you always have to consider the possibility that a short trip to Colombia could end in years chained to a tree in the Colombian jungle while the FARC seeks ransom for your life.

We decided that we should, for the time being, stay in Quito so that Tyler could continue to work out his passport problems but to postpone making the decision about Colombia until after my 23 birthday, which was on March 14. It was nice to put off the worries and stresses of travel to celebrate my birthday... and celebrate we did. On the eve of my birthday, Tyler and Molly and I all met up with some other Peace Corps members to have drinks and ended up ringing in March 14 at a John Lennon themed bar and then proceeding to a Casino until almost 5:oo in the morning. Needless to say we slept late the next day - my birthday!- before venturing out to the historic district of Quito for some sight-seeing. We ended up at the Quito´s enormous basilica, climbing up ladders to the uppermost reaches of its towers to take in the amazing views of the city. It was simultaneously wonderful and terrifying. The views were some of the best of the city and the surrounding Andes mountains; however, I count myself among the mentally ill for having actually climbed those ladders to the top. I was shaking for probably a half hour after the experience. I am actually really glad I got to do something like that, something that was both daring and beautiful, for my birthday. That night, Molly, Tyler, and Tyler´s Peace Corps friend David took me to a very nice dinner to celebrate my birthday. We ate in a restaurant called Pims on a hill overlooking Quito. It was quite spectacular to get to sip on a glass of wine and watch the fog roll in and smother out the lights of the city (and it explained a lot about why we didn´t land in Quito two nights before - the fog was intense). My friends got cake and sangria for me and the restaurant played happy birthday, and we lingered in the restaurants sharing stories over a few bottles of wine until we heard from some others and decided to join them out for a night of dancing. It was a really fantastic birthday even though I was so far away from home.

My birthday was also great for another reason: I had a language break-through. David´s girlfriend is Ecuadorian, and she came out and brought a friend along with her and I ended up having a full-blown conversation with them in Spanish. Now, I know my Spanish wasn´t perfect and they were speaking slowly, helping to supply volcabulary I hadn´t learned yet, but the beauty of it was that we connected and were understanding each other in Spanish beyond the simple "Hello! how are you, what´s your name, where are you from?" I felt very proud of myself... though I have since regressed a little. I am having good Spanish days and bad Spanish days, but I am learning and working and hopefully when it´s all said and done, I´ll be a better communicator.

We spent the next day in Quito again, recovering from the previous night´s festivities and making decisions. We couldn´t put off the decision about Colombia any more - Tyler had to go and try to fix his situation. Mom, Dad, Jim and Robin... sorry to tell you about this over the blog, but... Molly and I decided to go with him. So on Sunday the three of us headed north to the Colombian border, beginning chapter three in our book of lessons on the complications of international travel.

Getting to the border was uncomplicated. We hopped a bus to Tulcan, one of the border cities of Ecuador, and then hailed a cab that took us to the border. We went through Ecuadorian immigration, then walked through some kind of no-mans land to Colombian immigration, got our stamps, and crossed the imaginary line that is the border between Ecuador in Colombia. Our idea was that we would go into the nearest city in Colombia, have some dinner, and then cross back over to spend the night in Tulcan. This was a foolish thought to have, and I think we should have realized from the problems we had already encountered that nothing could be so simple. After dinner, when we returned to immigration to try to LEAVE Colombia... well, we couldn´t. They wouldn´t let us back through immigration. To begin with, they wouldn´t switch over Tyler´s passport, which was the whole reason we had come in the first place. For some reason, they would not put an entry stamp on a passport with no exit stamp, or an exit stamp on a passport with no entry stamp. All of Tyler´s stamps were on his Peace Corps passport, and so the immigration officers refused to deal with Tyler´s personal passport. And another thing - we were unaware that crossing into Colombia meant we had to stay for at least 24 hours. So much for a night in Tulcan, Ecuador. We were stuck in Colombia for at least the night.

Luckily, the immigration officer recommended a hotel that we found with relative ease and we passed an uneventful night over the border in Colombia worrying about the next day, worrying about what would happen at immigration, and worrying our parents would somehow find out we were in Colombia and alert the FARC of our location so that they could handle our punishment somewhere in the Colombian jungle.

The next day was a very long one - but for the sake of brevity (because there is still a lot to write about), we managed to get back into Ecuador, but without accomplishing any of our goals in coming to Colombia. Tyler was (and still is) in Ecuador on his Peace Corps passport.

Back in Quito on Tuesday, Tyler headed off to the Embassy and several immigration offices to try to sort out his problems (as I type this post, Tyler is actually there again, seeking the same help he was seeking a week ago). Molly and I headed off to the internet with the goal of rearranging some of our travel plans. Several hours, lots of complications, and way too much money later, I succeeded in changing the details of my trip. I will be leaving Ecuador about 2.5 weeks earlier than planned. I am still headed to Peru, but with a very different itinerary. Deleted from the itinerary are: significant time in Lima, the Inca Trail, and Choquiquerau (¿spelling?). Added to the itinerary are: a boat ride down the Amazon to a jungle lodge, Lake Titicaca, and more time in Cuzco. I had a lot of really hard decisions to make, as I had to cut out a lot of plans I was excited about, but in the end, I am happy with the changes... and I´ll be seeing everyone in the U.S. about 18 days earlier than I imagined!

Molly and I spent the day timidly exploring Quito on our own. We didn´t wander far outside of the Mariscal district where we were staying, but we got to spend some time shopping in an artisan market and running errands. When we finally met up with Tyler and discovered he STILL had not accomplished what he needed to with his passport, we made the decision to head to Esmeraldas on a night bus without Tyler. And so we did. Overnight, we journeyed for more than 6 hours by bus, out of the cold, thin sierra air and into the thick heat and humidity of the coastal province of Esmeraldas.

We arrived to a rain-soaked Esmeraldas at 6:45 in the morning, and were greeted by Rachel, another Peace Corps worker, who took us to Tyler´s house to get settled. Because of the sudden changes in Tyler´s plans associated with his leaving Peace Corps, the house was a bonafide mess, and despite our exhaustion, we spent the day cleaning the house and getting situated. We swept, mopped, did dishes, cleaned up mildew, chased out bugs. We went out into the city to by food, necessary items, a bed. We even got to meet Lukas (who helped us to get the aforementioned bed), who I will be working with at Manos Unidas. By the end of the day we were exhausted, but had accomplished a lot toward making a nice little temporary home for ourselves in Esmeraldas. David (from my birthday) came over to spend the night with us and help us prepare to leave for our Semana Santa trip to Mompiche, a beautiful beach about 2-ish hours from Esmeraldas.

Thursday morning, Tyler made it to Esmeraldas and he, David, Molly and I left bright and early for Mompiche to celebrate Semana Santa. We met up with some other members of Peace Corps, and from Thursday to Sunday we enjoyed the suprisingly un-touristy beach town, swimming in the ocean and getting battered by the huge waves; laying on breathtakingly beautiful hidden black sand beaches; and letting loose, dancing, and partying until the sun came up each morning. I am not sure what to say about Mompiche; it was just a really great time. I will say, though, that the beach is unlike any other I´ve ever seen. At least, the black sand beach was unlike any other. Somehow Tyler and David knew about this hidden black sand beach that was about a 20 minute walk away from the beach that everyone else knew. Each day we´d walk out to the black sand beach, and we would literally have the beach to ourselves for the afternoon. The sand was smooth and soft and fine, black and glittery and beautiful... and it felt good just to rub it all over yourself, squish it in between your toes, or just watch it sparkle in the sunlight. Moreover, the waves at this beach were huge and menacing... and it was fun to go out and test yourself against them, occassionally letting them wash you all the way into shore. I have some pictures from Mompiche, and when I have the time, I´ll post them and I think the pictures will speak for themselves.

Another great part of the Mompiche trip was that Molly and I also got to know some other Peace Corps workers. I have to say, the Peace Corps workers we met were some of the coolest people I´ve ever gotten to know, and now that I´ve gotten to talk to learn more about them and their experiences, I´m thinking more and more I´d like to do Peace Corps at some point. Don´t freak out, Mom and Dad. I´m just thinking about it right now. But I admire the fact that they have come here and become a part of the communities they are trying to serve, promoting cross-cultural exchange and understanding. I think it would be a great experience to live in another country for a few years, learning the language and customs, working to really try to make a difference in people´s lives, and just... coping. Because after everything that has happened in the last several weeks I think I finally get how valuable an experience it is to learn to simply cope with everything that is going on around you. I am definitely a better coper now that I ever have been before.

I´m back in Esmeraldas now, and will hopefully be starting whatever small service project I´ll be doing sometime this week. I´ll be calling Lukas to meet and talk about it soon. Tyler´s back in Quito trying to end the war over his passport once and for all. It may require another trip to Colombia (one I won´t be going on this time), but the end appears to be in sight.

I´ll try to post more frequently in the future, but my free time has been hard to predict lately. I think now that I will be in Esmeraldas for a stretch without leaving, I will be able to get to the internet more regularly. I´ll also try to post my pictures from Ecuador, though as I am looking at the computer I am using right now, it looks like it might not be possible to do it today. Check back soon to look for pictures... I´ll try to send an email to let everyone know when I eventually get them up.

Also, I applaud everyone who made it to the end of this ridiculously long post. In the future, I will try to make them more managable, but today I had several weeks to account for, which made it difficult to be brief. Cest la vie... wait, that´s French. Así esta vida...

Monday, March 10, 2008

Cloud Forests, Rainforests and Volcanos

Before I begin recounting our most recent exploits in Costa Rica, I would just acknowledge the grief present within the Carolina community as a result of the loss of Eve Carson. I know many of you were friends with Eve, or have been touched by all that she has done for the University of North Carolina, and I want you to know that I am grieving with all of you. The news of Eve´s death stopped me in my tracks and I haven´t been able to get it off my mind. What a terrible, senseless loss. I hardly know what to say.

Yesterday Molly and I returned from a 5-day trip that took us roughly 4 hours north of San Jose to Monte Verde Cloud Forest and Fortuna, home of the active volcano Arenal. We left Santa Ana in the wee hours of the morning last Wednesday (our cab picked us up at 5:45am) and arrived in Monte Verde in the afternoon, exhausted but ready for some action. We took it easy the first afternoon and evening with a couple of trips to the Frog Pond of Monte Verde, were we got to see all kinds of tree frogs, poison dart frogs, etc.

We went first during daylight hours, only to learn the frogs are more active at night, so we returned after sunset and actually did get to see more frogs. There were several highlights: first, the Cane Toad, which I remembered from a video we watched in AP Chemistry in high school. Apparently the Cane Toad, which is indiginous to Costa Rica, was, once upon a time, introduced in the sugar cane fields of Australia to eat the bugs that were destroying the cane. Unfortunately, our dear friends down under overlooked the fact that Cane Toads have no natural predators in Australia, and so the toad proliferated to the point that it became a very big problem. And by big, I mean the Cane Toads were large enough to start eating small pets like dogs and cats. Additionally, there became a problem with the youth of Australia who began ´toad licking´to get high, as the Cane Toad produces a kind of hallucinogenic mucus that coats its back. There were some particularly funny moments in the video (i.e. when an old Aussi woman showed her numerous Cane Toad pets that she had not only named, but dressed in doll´s clothing) that I remembered when we came upon the Cane Toads at the frog pond that kept me highly amused. Moreover, we saw some poison dart frogs that were tiny, cute, and deadly as well as some other very exotic looking frogs that I managed to get mediocre pictures of. The pictures are up on the picasaweb site if you want to take a look.

The following day, we went for a hike in Monte Verde Cloud Forest.

We were, unfortunately, a little bit disappointed with how developed the trails of the forest were, but at least they were developed enough for us not to get lost. We saw some monkeys, not sure what kind, both through the lens of a telescope (the picture below is of a monkey´s face seen through the lens of a telescope, though you might not be able to tell what it is) and also some that were closer to us.

I believe the were howler monkeys, though I can´t be sure. Additionally we saw some kind of large rainforest chicken... honestly, I am not sure what it was, as it looked like a cross between a chicken and a crow... We saw some hummingbirds as well. Other than those sightings, however, there was little wildlife and mostly we just enjoyed the lush vegetation and a break from the harsh sun.

We hiked probably between 6 and 8 kilometers, and were too tired to do anything in the evening other than shop. I bought some gifts for my family... but you will have to wait and see what they are!

On day three, we ventured into the cloud forest of Santa Elena, a nearby town, where we got to see the rainforest from a new perspective... the canopy. We walked on bridges that hung at the highest level of the forest, and we got to look down upon the forest floor rather than up into its branches.

It was definitely an awesome perspective, however, we didn´t really get to see any wildlife. When we were done with our canopy hike we headed to the butterfly garden, where the most amazing and beautiful thing was suprisingly not the butterflies (though they were spectacular); we were most enchanted by the cocoons, some of which looked like they were jade or gold pendants or jewelry. We even got to see a butterfly emerge from its cocoon, damp and new.

It was incredible. Unfortunately, a tradgedy also occured in the butterfly garden: my camera broke. No pictures after the canopy tour except for Molly´s. I am heartbroken. (But, never fear, my camera is at a shop in San Jose now, hopefully to be repaired by tomorrow, before we leave for Quito on Wednesday.)

I didn´t get to take pictures of my favorite activity in Monte Verde: horseback riding. We took a 2.5 hour horseback ride through to countryside around Monte Verde, which was breathtaking.

Our leader took us to a spot way out in the countryside in a pasture where we got to watch the sun setting over the Gulf of Nicoya on the Pacific side of Costa Rica, which we could see in the distance, though it must have been hundreds of miles away. It was an amazing afternoon, an I got to put my horseback riding skills to good use. The only downside was the soreness the day after.

The next morning we embarked upon a journey to Fortuna. A jeep took us to the large lake below Arenal Volcano, which we crossed by boat to get to Fortuna. After a quick stop at our hotel to drop off our belongings, we headed out for a rainforest hike with a guide. We saw a rubber tree (and got to stab it to watch the rubber flow out) as well as some more howler monkeys. There were some slight differences between the cloud forest and the rainforest, but not much. Afterward we went to the base of Arenal Volcano, and after sunset, we looked on as lava began to spill over the top of the crater and splash down the sides of the volcano. Unfortunately, it was too dark to get any pictures, but it was an incredible sight to see.

I only wish it had been spewing a little instead of just spilling over. We ended our day in Fortuna with a trip to Baldi hot springs for a 2 hour long soak to relieve the soreness from the horseback ride the day before. Soothing.

Unfortunately, we had to cut our Fortuna trip short so we could get to San Jose for a camera repair, but before we left, we hiked out to gorgeous la Fortuna Catarata waterfall, where we actually ended up meeting a nice American guy who is staying in Santa Ana, as well, and has spent some time in Peru. So we not only got a beautiful view of a waterfall, but some travel tips as well. Oh, and also a good workout from the incredibly steep hike.

Now we´re back in Santa Ana, preparing to leave for Quito on Wednesday. Some complications have arisen, and may lead to a change in plans, but I will let you all know when it gets worked out. Right now it´s still in the air...

At lease the problems between Ecuador and Colombia have begun to subside (though I believe things are still heated between Venezuela and Colombia).

All is well here, hope all is well at home.

ADDITION: I forgot to mention our trip to the Jade museum in San Jose! The day before we left on our trip, we ventured into the grimy big city to find the jade museum, where there are all kids of artifacts from the cultures that lived in Central America before the Spanish arrive and colonized. The artifacts themselves were beautiful and interesting, but my favorite part of the visit was reading the horrible translations that described the exhibits. The best:

They made hungers that were reminiscent for the cults of the brats

We believe this may have referred to hangers that were made as idols for the cult of the BATS. But it could have been brats. We aren´t sure.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Ecuador/Colombia Situation

This will be short... but in case you haven't been watching the news (more likely, it just hasn't been covered much in the American news media), there is a slight situation going on in Ecuador right now. Apparently, the Colombian police or military cross the border of Ecuador in order to enact a raid on FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) leaders who were, for some reason, in Northeast Ecuador; they ended up killing some important FARC leaders, including the second in command, Raul Reyes. I won't go into the details of what the FARC is, but basically they are a revolutionary group that has been fighting the Colombian government for years. You can look it up if you want to know more.

Anyway, Correa, the President of Ecuador, was outraged by Colombia's infringement on Ecuador's sovereignty, and is threatening war; the Venezuelan government (Venezuela is Colombia's Southeastern neighbor) has backed Ecuador, and both governments have moved troops to their respective Colombian borders... which in Ecuador is not too far from where Molly and I are supposed to be staying in Esmeraldas.

We are watching the situation closely, and coming up with alternate plans in case the situation does, in fact, escalate to war. But, we are hoping that the countries can come to some peaceful, diplomatic agreement and we won't have to change our plans.

You can monitor the situation at CNN.com. Here's today's updates: http://edition.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/americas/03/03/ecuador.colombia/index.html

Of course we'll let you know in case plans change, but keep the people of Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela in your thoughts and prayers... and also Molly and me. Because we are really excited about going to Ecuador and we hope there will be no violence!

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Dos Gringas en Costa Rica

I've been in Costa Rica almost one week now, and I'll admit that while I am still a tad overwhelmed, I am starting to get used to life and travel in this beautiful country.

After a mix-up with my flights last week, I arrived in San Jose a full day later than I was supposed to. Two things went wrong: first, my flight to Fort Lauderdale was delayed, which would have made me miss my flight from Fort Lauderdale to San Jose. Additionally, I was not on the flight manifest for the flight to San Jose AT ALL. So even if I had made it to Fort Lauderdale on time, they would not have let me on the flight, despite the fact I had a paper ticket with a confirmed seat on that flight. Because apparently airline personel are idiots. Apologies to anyone whose family and friends work for an airline, I obviously do not mean your loved ones.

Anyway, after staying the night at a hotel in Fort Lauderdale (which was actually pretty fun - there was a pool with a waterfall and a jacuzzi, so I didn't complain), I flew to San Jose on Tuesday, arriving around 2:00. Molly picked me up from the airport and took me straight to the adorable house we are living in in Santa Ana (roughly 20 minutes outside San Jose). It's small but comfortable. Molly and I share a little room without air-conditioning. At first I thought it was hot and stuffy, however, after the past few days, I now realize it is actually cool and comfortable. I will explain later.

I have a host mom, Paula, and two brothers, Adrian (8 years old) and Josue (12 years old). None of them speak English and they all act like they don't understand me when I do, but I know better... they definitely understand better than they let on. The first night when I was homesick and crying in my room, Paula heard me talking on the phone to Danny and understood what I said enough to tell Molly to make me feel better. That was a little embarrassing.

Adrian and Josue (for the non-Spanish-speakers, pronouce Ah-dree-ahn and Ho-sway) are a lot of fun, and Molly and I have spent some time playing cards with them and such. They help me with my Spanish (which is rapidly improving) and correct me when I am wrong without making too much fun of me. They are patient and very cute. Little Adrian reminds me a LOT of my cousin John, only you can tell he is going to be a little Latino ladies' man when he gets older; his expressions usually involve a wiggle of the eyebrow or a wink. Both the boys like video games. They are really into guitar hero, though I have tried to convince them rock band is better. They don't have quite enough brothers for a full band, though.

Paula (Pah-ooh-lah) is also very, very sweet. She speaks slowly for me and also helps with my Spanish, and is very appreciative when I try hard to speak Spanish to her. She always cooks for Molly and me. My favorite is her gallo pinto with natilla - a rice and black beans mixture with a sour-cream type sauce that we eat for breakfast. Yes, breakfast. It is delicious. She also does our laundry and generally helps us out. Molly has obviously gotten to know her a lot better than I have, since they can have full-blown coversations in Spanish.

I would like to add that Molly and I also have a "Jamie." We are not precisely sure how he fits into the family unit I've described, but he's Adrian and Josue's dad, and he's around a lot. He speaks almost perfect English, and unlike Paula and the boys, is not as patient with my Spanish and therefore only speaks English to me. Admittedly, Molly and I are not big fans of Jamie. I won't go into why exactly, but I think it has a lot to do with the way he treats Paula and from what I gather, women in general. Oh... he is very careful around us American women and treats us with the utmost respect. But I get the idea that when he does that he isn't really in character.

Last Wednesday, we went up to Conversa (the language school) to have lunch with Dave and Anita, who run the school and are friends with Molly's dad from Peace Corps. They were so nice, and I got to go to one of Dave's classes and learn Spanish verbs in the present tense, which I really needed. My Spanish improved tremendously over the course of one lesson. Molly and I also go to swim in the beautiful pool up there, and take our own private Salsa y Merengue lessons. I think we were terrible, but the instructor was really nice about it. We are lucky to have David, Anita and Gata (another woman who works at Conversa) to help us with our Spanish and with our travel plans.

Which brings me to the trip we took this weekend, to Manuel Antonio, a beach about 4 hours away (by bus) on the southern Pacific coast of Costa Rica. Gata helped us plan the trip. The rainforest in Manuel Antonio comes right up to the beach, and there were literally monkeys and tree frogs in and around the hostel we stayed in, which was roughly 100 meters from the water. Actually, the monkeys and tree frogs were some of the highlights... I'm not used to walking through the gate to the hotel to be greeted by monkeys literally just a few feet over my head. I took this photo of one of the monkeys that was climbing in the trees just feet away from me... yes, I am serious, I took that! It should be in National Geographic. It was awesome to be so close to the "jungle animals." Additional wildlife included snakes, scorpions, and crabs, which we fortunately avoided, despite the sign in our hostel room warning us to check our beds for them at night before we crawled in (see photo of our wildlife warning). Manuel Antonio was truly beautiful, but also incredibly hot and humid. And I thought Santa Ana was hot... no way. By 8:00am it was too hot to sleep, but when we got up to try to put on our sunscreen, we were sweating so much it was impossible to apply. We had to take cold showers before slathering on our SPF 70 and zinc oxide so it wouldn't melt off as soon as we had applied it. Believe it or not, the SPF 70 and zinc was absolutely necessary... we wore it and still got a little sunburned even in the shade. Actually, only I got a little sunburned. Molly is a lot worse for the wear than I am. Given the sweltering heat and humidity and the scorching sun, I am fairly certain that the weather in Manuel Antonio is not too different from the weather in Hell, and given that Hell probably doesn't have as beautiful a beach as Manuel Antonio, I am now even more determined to stay out of hell.

In Manuel Antonio, as I said, the rainforest comes right up to the water's edge, resulting in lush green cliffs that drop off directly into the big blue Pacific. We spent a lot of time on the beach and... drumroll please... I WENT IN THE OCEAN (and that's a pic of me jumping in the ocean). For those of you who do not know, this is an enormous accomplishment, as I am deathly afraid of the water and have been known to keep safe distance unless Danny's around. But, I went in up to my chest and even dove and jumped and played in the waves. I was incredibly proud of myself, but it would have been a shame if I hadn't gone in. The water was so beautiful, and honestly it was far too hot to stay out of the water. I've shared just a few pictures of beautiful Manuel Antonio directly in this blog (and a few from Santa Ana, of course), but if you want to see more click on the slideshow on this blog to be linked to all of my pictures. The beach was so breathtaking that I took too many to share on the blog.

That's me shortly before I faced my fears and took a dip in the Pacific in Manuel Antonio.
A Manuel Antonio sunset... perfect. Complete with surfer.

We're back in Santa Ana now, and will be for the next few days. Wednesday we are headed to Monte Verde, a rainforest/cloudforest to explore the canopy and the floor of the rainforest, then to Arrenal (I hope I am spelling that correctly), an active volcano that spews lava and such. STOP WORRYING DAD I REALLY DON'T THINK THE VOLCANO IS GOING TO ERUPT ON ME!!! Actually, everyone can stop worrying because the kind people of Conversa are making sure we are safe, and of course we are being smart girls and not taking any uneccesary risks.

Love to all, and enjoy the pictures.