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"It is the journey which makes up your life."

Monday, May 30, 2005

More Hammers

So, we got to Boquete yesterday evening, way later than planned because of a series of annoying little events like the girl at the checkout desk having run to the supermarket. Well, no big deal. Boquete is a really cute little mountain town in western Panama. Adorable. Little square, christmas lights, old trees. Big green mountains with clouds drifting around them. The hotel we are staying at is a little family owned place right next to the river, with two rooms and a little kitchen and livingroom, all painted with flowers and such. Like most houses in towns and cities, its outfitted with bars on the windows and a metal gate caging the patio and front door. Since we got there late, the family that runs it had already gone home, and left us a note and number to call for them to bring us the key. (We, at this point, was me, my mom who is down visiting, and Kelly and Melissa, two girls from the program. Kelly left this morning) So we got dinner... local panamanian food consists of rice and fried meat. Its pretty terrible. I have found both real cheese(not Costa Rican plastic) and crunchy apples in Panama, though. That almost makes up for it. Alexis, the owner, got there right as we finished, and took us over to let us into the room. He had three keyrings with maybe four keys each... and none of them opened the gate. Not one. Must have left the real keys at the house. What a pain. So he piles us all into the back of his truck, and we get a nighttime ride up the mountain to his house. Met the wife and kids, and even the dog. They were really funny, happy people, with a house that could have come right out of the suburbs, and a view of the entire valley. The wife sat us down to tea and cake, their little daughter came and gave us little candies and played with the dog and did her best to argue her way out of her homework, and it turned out Alexis knew lots of botany, so he ended up showing Kelly all over his garden telling her about plants, and bringing us out books from his biology library. It was really nice. Couldn´t find the key though. The wife came down the mountain with us too to see if she couldn´t work the keys any better. She couldn´t, of course, so they pull a hammer out of the truck, and are trying to break us in with the hammer by pounding the lock out of the gate. That wasn´t going so well either, so Alexis went around back while his wife kept trying, and we start hearing lots more banging and thunking... then eventually a giant crash, and a couple seconds later he walks out the front door and tells us now we can just come in through the back door!
Well, I think mom has been having a great time riding around in trucks and public busses and staying in hostels with me. She makes a really good travel buddy. It´s been fun to have her visit. So far, we´ve been doing a lot of hiking around Boquete. We climbed volcan Baru, found this beautiful rainforest trail called "Sendero los Quetzales" and visited a coffee farm. Before that we were in Panama city.
Panama City is as cool a city as ther ever was. It´s streched out along the coast, right next to the canal. We went to see the ruins of the original colonial city, first city founded by the spanish on the Pacific. Leveled by pirates in 1671. They had a great museum... way newer and more modern than anything in Costa Rica. Panama is a little better off in general, I think. Panama city is very modern. Skyscrapers and supermarkets and good roads. Anyway, apparently Sir Robert Morgan marched twelve hundred men across the isthsmus from the caribbean and took the city by land, loaded the entire stockpile of inka gold onto some mules, and made off with it. Crazy. Also went to see the canal. Panama has been operating the canal itself since '99, I think. They've done a good job of it, and seem really proud. There were all kinds of cargo ships heading through there. You could see them lining upout in the ocean... then they cross under the graceful Bridge of the Americas into the canal. Seeing the locks was pretty cool, though the Panamax ships that are the largest which fit through the canal were a lot smaller than I expected. I'm used to much bigger ones going in to LA or long beach harbors. The sheer volume of stuff is staggering, nonetheless. Did a little more exploring around the city, and ate at some fabulous restraunts, but Panama city was on strike while I was there. Apparently the government was trying to raise the retirement age for recieving social security payments, and raise taxes. It was an uproar... all over the radio and news. There were giant marches and rallies in the Cinco de Mayo square for three days, and most of the city went on strike. Lots of police with bullet proof vests and combat boots and semiautomatics. Our last night we tried to go out, but the play had gotten cancelled when we got to the theater... and on the way there the taxi drove through a cloud of tear gas and lots of running people. It came in all through the windows. Oh man. I never want to be tear gassed. I just got a whiff and it burns and chokes you like nothing. In general it seemed to be pretty peaceful. But big stuff is happening. I think lots of latin american governments are being pressured by the IMF to dismantle social welfare programs, so this might be from that. Corruption never helped anything either. On the bright side, they have the coolest paintings all over the public busses. Some have chrome and strobe lights, and they all play dance music. Party on the bus!!

La Cucaracha

I had my first cucaracha at dinner with mom. You layer rum, kaluha and vodka in a shot glass, stick a straw in it, and set the vodka on fire. You have to drink it through the straw before it melts!

I got all set up at spanish school in León, something to do while I wait for Cooper to get out of school and come be my travel buddy. I need to be in Leon on the 5th,
so I will be on the road for my birthday. Nine hour bus ride. whoop-de-dee. Looks like the school is in one of their old colonial mansions with pretty personal teaching, so it should be good. Nice to have something scheduled to do. I've ended up being the leader on this little trip, since
I organized everything for me and mom and for Melissa and Kelly, and I speak the best spanish... so they keep wanting me to figure out what we´re doing today, or to say when we go eat or which trail to take and all that stuff. I don´t mind the organizing, I guess, it´s just wierd to feel like Ive been put "in command" Especially when it´s not like I know this place any better than they do.

Not that its been hard to find things to do. Boquete is awsome! It keeps reminding me of steamboat. All these pretty little houses. Sendero los Quetzales was beautiful. Thanks to Cooper for the reccomendation. If the taxi hadnt ripped us off and left us at the bottom of the hill on the road instead of the entrance to the trail, we would have just gotten lost there all day. But great as it was, wandering past farmhouses too. There is a good bakery in town, and they sell the most delicious sesame peanuts. Yum!

Today we were lazy. Mom and I did a coffee tour in the afternoon, of a mostly organic, shadegrown plantation and processing plants. I was really impressed. Its a very well designed, environmentally friendly way to do agriculture. And the coffee was really good. Otherwise, I finished a detective novel. Got the best strawbery batido in the history of civilization, did laundry, and went on a run. Its been a good day. Tomorrow, climbing volcan Barú. After that, a lot of busses.

Friday, May 27, 2005

One of those nights

Panama city is on strike. There have been protests since I got here, and most sectors have been striking for two days. Police in bulletproof vests with motorcycles and machine guns everywhere. We were going to go to the theater, but the production was suspended. On our way, the taxi drove us through a cloud of tear gas, past lots of running people. I decided to come back and watch the news. Drinking rum and trying to translate something meaningful from three channels, reporters all in spanish talking too fast and about nothing that wasnt obvious. Gave up. I find myself channel surfing alone.

Sunday, May 15, 2005


So, the semester officially ended yesterday. Finals were on friday, and then we hopped down to the Caribbean beach town of Puerto Viejo. It was my first time on the Caribbean... it was just beautiful, and I really liked the atmosphere... everyone completely relaxed. Lots of reggae music, rice and beans with coconut, and a whole lot of jewelry vendors and young bohemian-looking travelers, but not upscaled in the way gaudy way tourist towns can often be. I really liked it. We stayed in these condo style rooms south of town, where we had our own party on the second night instead of going out. So,after a last weekend on the beach, we hitched it back up to San Jose, where we stayed outside the city in the hotel next to the airport to avoid trouble with the transportation strike. A lot of taxi drivers and transportation workers are angry about gas prices and a company called Ritere that does annual vehicle checks... so they scheduled a strike for monday. Luckily, it turned out to bea march and some negotiating, and not road blocks around the entire capital. We had our goodbye dinner at the hotel by the airport and all stayed out by the pool together late for our last night together. It is sad to leave... I was really genuinely impressed with everyone on the program. It´s been a good time with them. We said our goodbyes yesterday morning as people left for their flights. Kelly, Melissa and I got a taxi down town for the morning. The two of them are also traveling for a little while after the program. They went to Corcovado yesterday, and we are planning on meeting back up in Panama City next week. San Jose seems different to me now. Still crowded, bustling, and noisy like any city. We were choking on exhaust the entire time. The driving doesn't terrify me as much as it used to, and having been in smaller towns I look at the same buildings in SJ that I thought were a little crooked or dingy and think that they are normal, and in general there are a lot of clean and upscale places there, at least by Costa Rican standards. We north-americans are pretty spoiled with our public spaces. Do you realize how rich you have to be to keep up all that landscaping? My plan for the day was to head down to the town of Golfito, where Cooper was staying at a station for the week, so I could see him before going to Panama. I got a bus with out too much trouble, and seven hours later, only interrupted by a lunch break in the mountains where they had hummingbird feeders outside the windows and surprised me with the best arroz con pollo Ive ever had, I stumbled blearily into the town next to Golfito. All I had was a phone number for the station, and no one picked up.. so I had a bit of a time actually finding where Cooper was. I payed my taxi driver double because he was so helpful. He gave me all kinds of suggestions and helped me ask people along the way if they knewwhere a group of gringo students was staying.. and eventually I found the U of Costa Rica building in town, and he was staying there. So here I am in Golfito. Its a pretty typical little town. Not so well touristed, With a collection of a few bars and sodas and supermarkets, a school, a couple hotels. It streches out along the east side of a big green bay... so it´s a port, though there´s only one dock as far as I can see. I met a guy from the US coast guard down here last night. Apparently the coastguard does anti-drug smuggling missions and picks up refugees along everyone´scoasts, not just ours. The guy told us a lot about debt slavery to coyotes and these ridicuous, overstuffed, breaking down boats that these people try to go to the states in. Pretty amazing and sad what people will do to get to our country. I have met a lot of people down here that want to go to the states. One of the janitors in Corcovado, taxi drivers, and some of our cooks...they make a decent living here, and they wouldn't have nearly as good a life if they moved, but they still want to come. I think it's because of the success stories. I met one guy on a bus who bragged to me about how he tricks immigration by saying he is buying cars and is just visiting, then he works as a gardener in New Jersey, makes a ton of money and brings it back here. Well, I should go pick up my laundry.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Rice and Bean Melt-down

I have been eating rice and beans for just about every meal for four months now. They're not bad, but oh you wouldn't believe the things I would do for a bagel. It's finals week, so I'm studying and finishing up about three papers at the same time. Not too bad. We have had the most apocalyptic lectures this last week. The most terrible predictions from global warming I have ever heard, from a woman who discovered that higher temperatures decrease photosynthesis of all tropical plants, which means a positive feedback loop, which means droughts and floods and crazy weather like you've all already heard before. It also means the entire amazon basin forest, in her model, will rise in temperature 14C, photosynthesis in tropical forests globally will be pushed above its upper temperature limits, and the entire amazon basin, and the congo, and big partsof indonesia will die and turn to savannah. OK, the modeling is a little extreme, but the woman's work is rock solid, and that's the most terrifying thing I've heard in a long time.
Today I visited a banana plantation. It was run by a university that was studying sustainable alternatives for bananas. That was really interesting. It was like a theme park, with giant bunches of bananas cruising along on a disneyland rail system, hanging in green and blue plastic bags with colored tags. Bananas dont have seeds, so every plant in an entire field is a clone of the same plant, grown basically by sticking chunks of meristem tissue in the ground. They grow from those chunks to trees and produce one giant bunch of bananas every nine months. Then they cut the entire stalk off, and a new one grows and does it again. Since it's such a huge monoculture, all the bananas are incredibly susceptible to diseases and dependent on artificial fertilizers. The good plantations can last 40 years before they sterilize the soil. Where we visited, they were really proud of their semi-organic bananas, that they only sprayed with fungicides thirty times a year, vs the usual 50 (that's every week, folks!), and mixed plant matter with the soil to distract the pest nematodes, instead of using nematocides (there are a bunch of workers suing right now because they got sterilized by these in the 80s), and they use citrus extract to keep bananas green for shipping instead of some other fungicide. Sounded basically like this system was still swimming in creepy chemicals, but was a step in the right direction. If you do one thing for your environment, PLEASE pay the extra twenty cents for organic bananas! The people who process them were really interesting to watch. They have the assembly line down pat...just the fastest movements cutting, washing, sorting, trimming, and packing the bananas as they cruised in on their amusement-park rails. Looked like it would get boring fast, but they were good at it.
So seeing the plantation was good. The apocalyptic part was comparing this with our reading about the socio-economic causes of deforestation... a lot of which related to the instability created by export-agribusiness, which have boom and bust cycles, and deforest land and attract immigrants during the booms, which they leave jobless, with no option but to try and homestead in yet more forests during the busts. Costa Rica, for example, is 28% national parks... pretty damn well protected compared to us at less than 2%... and yet they had the highest deforestation rate in the world over the last couple decades outside these parks. Basically, the point is that you cannot have conservation that just builds a wall around a few chunks of land, and lets the rest go to hell. It doesn't work in biological or human terms. The alternatives? A lot of smaller scale, more diversified farms, agroforestry and such. Reduced poverty, population growth, and social instability. None of which seem likely to happen without some kind of social and economic justice. Then I had a lecture on population growth. I'm not too worried about population growth. Global warming will kill us first. So saving the world proves yet again to be harder than anticipated. The forests still surprise me with tiny beautiful things. I got to see Cooper for the first time in months, and find myself still in love. I feel humbled, a little sleep deprived, and greatful for my rice and beans.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Big Plans

My semester ends next week(drowning in finals and projects and
such right now...ACK! But Im learning how to be a good scientist. Biology here is WAY different from Reed's program) After that I am traveling all summer!! I have a week to travel in Costa Rica, if I don't get blockaded into the capital because of a transportation strike, then my mom is
flying down for two weeks and we're going down to Panama. I'm really excited to see Panama city... the history starts out with the normal slaughter of the natives and founding by the conquistadores, then the city grew like crazy because it became an important gold-route; it started getting sacked by pirates and rogue Spanish commanders, and then there was the canal... totally fascinating place.

By the time Mom leaves it will be June, and Cooper will get out of classes with the U. of Costa Rica, and we'll start hitching busses back to California all through central america and Mexico. Planning to be back in August. I can't quite believe that such a huge adventure is so close to me right now, though. What Ive been doing recently is very absorbing. Just finished a research
project on geckoes.. they're super cute... but writing the paper has kept me mostly inside for the last couple days, punctuated by 5:00 soccer games (I'm a bad-ass, Ive been the only girl on the field playing with all the Costa Rican men. There's gravel in the bottom of the mud puddles, though, so I scraped myself up pretty badly a couple days ago), occasional drinking, guitar playing, or random conversations with the researchers here, and a few lectures.

I don't even know what to tell you about my life, really. These are all details... but I don't know that I even could tell you accurately yet how Im changing and what Im learning by traveling so much. I'm getting older, I guess. That means a lot of complicated things to everyone. I still have no idea what I want to do with my life... Im sticking with biology for now because I get to travel and be outdoors and I like it, though I'm frustrated sometimes that all the work of it seems useless. I mean, I just spent a whole week studying if geckoes compete with eachother over bugs. What the hell good does that do for anyone? But I'm comforted that I keep meeting
PhD students and middle aged travelers who don't know what they want to do with their lives either. Life is in the getting there, I guess.