Vivienne Talbot's Diary

Monday, February 20, 2008 Thursday, March 20, 2008
Monday, June 16, 2008 Wednesday, July 23, 2008
Sunday, July 27, 2008 Monday, July 28, 2008
Tuesday, July 29, 2008 Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Thursday, July 31, 2008 Friday, August 1, 2008
Saturday, August 2, 2008 Sunday, August 3, 2008
Monday, August 4, 2008 Tuesday, August 5, 2008
Wednesday, August 6, 2008 Thursday, August 7, 2008
Friday, August 8, 2008 Saturday, August 9, 2008
Sunday, August 10, 2008 Monday, August 11, 2008

Monday, February 20, 2008 Bonjour, readers, and welcome to my Earthwatch diary! My name is Viv Talbot, and I was lucky enough to be chosen as an Earthwatch fellow for 2008.
A little bit about me. I joined Alcoa as an intern in 2002, becoming a full-timer in 2005. I’ve worked in Lausanne (Switzerland), Kofem (Hungary), Drunen (the Netherlands), and Geneva (back to Switzerland), where I’m based now. My current role is that of human resources coordinator for Alcoa’s Global Business Services Europe, and I love it. I have the chance to work with great people across a range of functions throughout the region—it’s a stimulating job.
My academic background is in development studies, so I was thrilled to be chosen for an Earthwatch fellowship. This is a unique chance for me to bring together my passion for sustainable development and my work for Alcoa. What has working in the shared services of an aluminum company got to do with sustainability? Not much at first glance, but scratch a bit deeper, and we soon realize that, ultimately, we are all responsible for making a difference toward diminishing Alcoa’s ecological footprint in our jobs. This could be through a simple act of reducing the amount of office waste we generate through recycling of paper, toner cartridges, or packaging materials; conserving electricity in our offices by turning off lights and appliances when not in use; or sharing rides to work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. All of these are individual actions that, when multiplied across our office population, help reduce our ecological footprint.
I have been assigned to an expedition in Costa Rica, assisting researchers on a sustainable coffee production project. According to Earthwatch, coffee is one of the most important agricultural commodities, supporting the livelihoods of an estimated 100 million people in developing countries. Along with the other volunteers on the July expedition, I will be learning more about how different approaches to coffee plantations can affect bean growth and the surrounding ecosystems. For example, ecologists have found that shade-grown coffee (more natural, forest-like conditions) has a beneficial effect on local fauna, which in turn affects other parts of the ecosystem, such as pollination. Understanding these conditions better can improve coffee yields and coffee quality for farmers in Costa Rica.
So the countdown has started. To say I’m excited is an understatement!

Thursday, March 20, 2008 I can’t believe how fast time flies. In less than five months, I’ll be headed out to Costa Rica!
My friends and colleagues have overwhelmed me with kind words of congratulations (and requests for coffee beans) as well as guidebooks about Costa Rica and Spanish-English dictionaries. One thing that has made this experience really special for me so far is the support and “vicarious pride” that my colleagues in Geneva and across the Global Business Services unit have expressed toward me. It’s a huge honor to have been chosen for this program, and I hope to not only be able to share the highlights of the experience with my peers, but also make them proud that someone from GBS gets to help out on a sustainability project. (In the words of a close colleague, I “gotta represent!”)
On my most recent visit to Kofem, I met up with Cesar Zuleta, a colleague from GBS Global Credit who is headed to Australia later this year on the Climate Change in the Rainforest expedition. It was great to talk face-to-face, being able to relate to the sheer “wow” factor of being chosen—and getting this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The excitement bubbles up every so often as I read more about the project itself, Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve where we’ll be working, and the research that has already been carried out in this field. I think my real challenges now are 1) master basic Spanish phrases and 2) concentrate on my work between now and July 28. The temptation to daydream and pore over the guidebooks is very strong!

Monday, June 16, 2008 How did half a year fly by so quickly? In 40 days, I’ll be on my way to Costa Rica.

Here are a few updates on my “good resolutions.”

1. Learning the language
I regret to inform the readers that my español (Spanish) lessons are not progressing as smoothly as I would have hoped. I’ve been relying on cassettes (yes, some of us still use cassettes!) and “A Beginner’s Guide to Español.” My pronunciation is still atrocious, as is my limited vocabulary. Yet I remain optimistic! I will push on with acquiring some basic phrases. I’ve actually found that the best way was to watch DVDs with both audio and subtitles in Spanish. I’ve watched “Star Wars,” “Sister Act,” and “Indiana Jones” all in Spanish. It helps that I know them by heart already.

2. Daydreaming
Seeing as my boss will read this, I’d better write that I’ve not been daydreaming my office hours away, but it’s hard not to when everyone at work keeps stopping by my desk to ask when the Big Day is. It’s keeping me in a constant state of excitement/anticipation!

I’ve read the guidebooks I was given back-to-front and spent hours online researching more about coffee plantations and pollination methods. I’m lucky to have access to a lot of academic journals and textbooks that I’ve collected during my studies and through some friends who are doing their post-graduate degrees in environmental management and sustainable development.

I spend a lot of time trawling through maps and articles. Some of the images are just made for daydreaming (lush green forests, colorful towns, delicate flowers), and the history of how coffee agriculture began and developed throughout the region is just as interesting. But let me be honest. Reading is great, but I’m far more excited about seeing the “real thing” in…less than 40 days!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008 I’m writing this on the flight back to Switzerland from Hungary. This week I visited my colleagues at Alcoa-Köfém, which is located in the town of Szekesfehervar and is one of Alcoa’s biggest manufacturing sites in Europe. A significant proportion of the Global Business Services teams are also based there.

A number of colleagues asked me why the project I will be working on focuses specifically on shade-grown coffee. As with many other regular coffee drinkers, it never really occurred to me that the coffee I buy could be grown in more than one way. Sure, the packaging is different, and sure, the “roasted” versus “grilled” labels tell me their preparation can vary. But what about the actual cultivation?

Traditionally, coffee was grown under a canopy of trees. But throughout most of the second half of the 20th century, more and more farmers and agribusinesses grew coffee in large swathes of open field. They also began to use “technified” coffee plants—new strains developed to cope with direct sunlight. This meant that the trees could be cut down and more land could be devoted to coffee plants (and therefore produce a higher yield). The downside was that the loss of the canopy resulted in both a decline in the local fauna, which acted as natural pest/insect controllers, and in lower nitrogen levels in the soil. To counteract these issues, farmers increased their use of pesticides and fertilizers, engaging in a downward spiral of lower soil fertility, chemical pollution, “pesticide” coffee, and greater costs of production.

So, shade-grown coffee is a return to more traditional farming methods. Coffee plants that grow under the shade of trees require less pesticides and fertilizers, because the trees attract migratory birds and other wildlife that control the pest and insect populations. These animals also aid in the nitrogen fixation in the soil, thus reducing the need for fertilizers. (Although some studies have shown that increased tree coverage does not completely eliminate the need for fertilizers and pesticides, there is a significant decline in their usage).

Our expedition next week involves surveying the migratory bird population in the shade coffee plantations we are assigned to. Our group leader emailed us plenty of articles and “bird cards” (literally dozens of photos of different birds) to prep for the work. I’ve also been reading more about the actual tree species (and thus opened myself to many jokes about being a tree-hugger).

I’m looking forward to learning more about shade-coffee cultivation (and birds!) when I get to the forest reserve on Monday. Speaking of Monday…I leave in less than 72 hours for San Jose! I have a good 22 hours worth of flights and layovers before I set foot on Costa Rican soil, but it doesn’t diminish the mounting excitement!

I’m about to land in Geneva, so I’d better shut down now and sign off with à bientôt…or even more appropriately, hasta luego !

Sunday, July 27, 2008 Just shy of 24 hours door-to-door, I arrived safe and sound at my hostel in Alejuela, Costa Rica.
The trip was long, but thankfully uneventful. I even had enough time in Newark, New Jersey, to wait for an hour to get through immigration and customs.
My first impressions of Costa Rica were somewhat blurred by the jetlag but remained very favorable. San Jose’s airport is much like Singapore’s—clean, efficient, and organized, with lots of local flora. I would go so far as to guess that whoever did Singapore's interior decorating did San Jose's...and just changed the theme from pink/gold orchids to a blue/green rainforest motif! 
Within minutes of stepping off the plane, I whisked through immigration and customs and found a cab to get to Alejuela, the third largest city of Costa Rica. Within 20 minutes, I got to the 1915 Hotel, where my colleague Alexandre  from Alcoa Brazil was waiting. Needless to say, it was good to see a “familiar face”…or more like a familiar Alcoa logo! 
This morning, Alexandre and I visited the Poas volcano that looks out over the cities of San Jose and Alejuela. We had a terrific guide in our taxi driver, Julio, who pointed out all the sights and even took us for a wander in a coffee plantation when he found out why we're both on this trip in the first place.
The cloud cover and mist at the top of the Poas volcano was very dense, and the first time we walked to the top to see the crater, all we saw was... nada (nothing)! We headed back down to the parking lot, and just as we reached the bottom, one of the other guides told Julio the mist was lifting. So we trekked back up (gasp, gasp, gasp) and were rewarded with glimpses of the crater as the clouds rolled in and out very fast.
It’s hard to describe, but imagine in a kid's movie when the heroine looks out from her castle and the mist evaporates to yield a stunning view. Well, this was less Disney-ish and more National Geographic in setting, but the effect was similar. We got to see parts of the crater as the clouds rolled out and the mist lifted, but then the clouds would just move to another part, so we’d have to wait for them to move again. It didn’t take long. The wind is quite strong up on the mountain/volcano sides and moves the cloud cover.
Poas is part of the Central American Volcanic Belt, but it’s inactive. I believe we will be closer to an active one—Volcan Arenal—when we head further inland tomorrow.
We headed back down into the valley, stopping for a short lunch of tortillas and fried pork. I ate just a little, as I was a bigger fan of the papaya, strawberries, and other fruit. There were so many stands along the road, and we stopped for some postcards and more strawberries. Then Julio and Alexandre made me try the coffee liqueur, which has now replaced Bailey's as my favorite drink.
A few things that struck me today:
  • The altitude. Half of Costa Rica sits more than 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) above sea level, and you can feel (breathe) it!
  • The landscape reminded me a lot of Australia, particularly Queensland, because of the rich green vegetation, the sheer variety of plants, and the reddish-brown mud. Other things that reminded me of Oz: fruit plantations and sugar cane.
  • The number of cyclists kitted out (equipped) like it’s the Tour de France, huffing their way up the mountain roads. I didn’t expect it at all! I thought all those masochists stayed in France and Switzerland.
  • People walk along the side of the road, and the cars are the ones that move to avoid them. Pedestrians are quite respected. 
  • There are more tourists from Central and South America than from Europe and the United States.
This afternoon/tonight is not yet planned. We're going to wander around Alejuela and see if we can get Alexandre some gumboots (Wellingtons) and then have an early night.
Tomorrow, we head to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, a four-hour drive away. There, we'll be staying at the ecolodge near the center of the reserve.
Alexandre is sitting at a personal computer next to me and just announced, rather tongue-in-cheek, that the weather forecast in Monteverde and Santa Elena is storms tonight, storms tomorrow, and storms for most of the coming week!

Monday, July 28, 2008 I’ll make the most of having a few hours free (and an available PC) to write a lengthier entry than usual. I suspect I will be less inclined to so later this week, judging from the schedule I was given a few hours ago!

New team members
Last night, Alex and I met one of our fellow Earthwatchers. Alice is a natural sciences teacher from South Carolina, although she originally hails from Brazil. Needless to say, she and Alex were soon chatting away in Portuguese.

This morning, we got to meet four other team members:
  • Mark, a biology teacher from Utah;
  • Pam, an anatomy/life sciences teacher from Texas;
  • Elaine, a retired jeweler from Idaho; and
  • Jeff, an outdoors education coordinator from Los Angeles.
So, Alex and I are in the non-teaching minority. Later, you’ll read more about the importance of having teachers on this trip.

Our project leader is a Ph.D. candidate from the University of Georgia, Valerie Peters. Valerie has been conducting research in Costa Rica since 2005, and we are her sixth Earthwatch team in the last 12 months to assist her with data collection.

Road trip!
We left the hostel in Alajuela around 9 a.m. Valerie gave us each an “I spy” sheet with a list of things to keep an eye out for. Among them were guanacaste trees (national tree), Brahman cows, turkey vultures, coffee beneficio, and cecropia trees. I managed to spot a papaya tree, and that was about it. The others beat me to the rest.

I did, however, notice a few others things:
  • In the city, all the shops and houses have big grill gates and fences, and some even have barbed wire. Despite this rather intimidating choice of exterior decorating, the streets are clean, the verandas and gardens are tidy, and all the paintwork is bright and cheerful. Folks walk around peacefully, the noise level is low for such a high population density, and everyone seems genuinely friendly (and that’s not just me being naïve). I found the contrast quite intriguing.
  • The gutters in the city are very deep. As we drove out into the countryside, I noticed that the bridges, roads, and walkways are all designed to deal with very high levels of rainfall, if not outright flooding. I’ve only experienced some light afternoon showers since I got here, but I guess the rainy season must be quite overwhelming.
  • As soon as we hit the city outskirts, coffee plants appeared out of nowhere along the side of the road. As the road became more level to its surroundings, I saw how even the smallest parcels of earth were cultivated for coffee—but then there were also large swathes of what looked like mini palm trees. These are actually erosion-control plants from the yucca family. Their roots hold the slopes together and prevent excessive topsoil erosion. As I mentioned yesterday, the sheer variety of trees and other vegetation is mind-boggling. I gave up counting and trying to identify them after a while. It’s simply amazing how diverse this country’s flora is. And the red earth that peeps through the shrubs, coffee plants, and guanacaste trees is extremely fertile. Its rich color and fertility are due to the fact that it’s volcanic soil.
  • For all those with kids under 10 years old, you’ll recognize the names Mater and McQueen from the Disney cartoon movie “Cars.” The roadsides here are a Cars-crazy kid’s dream—rows and rows of shiny, colorful cars, minibuses, and truck cabs. There are also plenty of JCBs and CATs—large farming and construction vehicles—everywhere. 
  • The roads are in great condition all the way up to the mountains. The highways are smooth and, contrary to what my friends warned me about, everyone drives sensibly (even saw the police out monitoring speeders). When we reached the foothills of the Monteverde Reserve, the road was much steeper and rockier. I’m glad we drove up in dry conditions. I wouldn’t want to hazard it in the rain.
  • Valerie pointed out a number of pedestrians along the way—pilgrims from all over the country are making their annual trek to Cartago. August 2nd is the Virgin of the Angels day, and people make their way to the main church, the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Los Ángeles. The church houses a statue (La Negrita, which is the Black Madonna) that is reputed to have healing powers, and pilgrims come in hope of a miracle.
The dynamics in the minibus were great. It was just as fun as my fieldtrips during university. (To my fellow Hollowedgians who traveled with me to Northwest Kenya in 2004, remember Justice and his driving around the potholes? Well, I got to experience the Costa Rican equivalent once we hit the mountains!)

Alice and I sang along to all the 80s and 90s tunes that were on the radio, and we made two stops that allowed us to see some toucans and parrots (and get the local equivalent of corn fritters for lunch).

During the four-hour trip, the two major topics were previous travels/service projects and the importance of expeditions like these to the teaching profession.

Mark, Elaine, Alice, Jeff, and Pam have all been on similar projects before (in fact, this is Elaine’s sixth Earthwatch trip!). I think if we added everyone’s passports together, we’d probably have covered most of the globe.

Mark and Alice told us a lot about how their experiences on these trips really contribute to their classroom lessons. They can show their students the places they’ve visited, species they’ve observed, cultures they’ve interacted with, and sustainable practices that work, as well as damaging activities that harm the environment.

Mark recently lectured on marine biology on an Amazon cruise, and last year, Alice attended a tropical forest conference in Hawaii that was aimed at teachers. Jeff coordinates the outdoors education program at a school in California, taking primary and secondary schoolchildren on fieldtrips throughout the academic year to show them firsthand what they learn about in the classroom. Pam teaches life sciences at a high school in San Antonio and encourages her kids to participate in fieldtrips abroad whenever possible. A few weeks ago, she accompanied some high school students on an exchange program to Japan. She brings back maps, flags, and other mementos to decorate her classroom with and to support her teaching with “real” visual aids.

Listening to these four education specialists, it really hit me how much my own parents and teachers influenced me through their love of discovery and their environmental awareness. I already feel lucky to have met these folks and to have them on my team. If their pupils ever read this, I hope you all know how lucky you are to have such dedicated and entrepreneurial teachers!

Welcome to San Luis Ecolodge
We arrived at the Ecolodge San Luis & Biological Station after lunch. The best way to describe it is as a wee slice of paradise on earth. My materialistic side was immediately won over by the tasteful bungalows with comfy bunks, electricity, and hot water showers. The outdoorsy part of me was entranced with the scenery: forest as far as the eye can see starting from two meters (6.6 feet) outside my bungalow.

The ecolodge was purchased about four years ago by the University of Georgia, which has turned it into a first-rate research station. There’s a laboratory and indoor and outdoor classrooms. An airy dining hall gives on to the student union facilities with a PC room and mini-library. There are about 20 staff members from the local towns who run the ecolodge, as well as some resident naturalists from the University of Georgia. A group of environmental law students just arrived from Georgia, too, and some bachelor-level students are about to leave after seven weeks of Spanish and ecology classes here.

In my photo gallery, you can see a picture of the valley where San Luis lies in the middle of the Monteverde Reserve. You can also see cloud cover—hence the name of the reserve.  

A little bit of background
Quakers settled in the region during the 1950s. They started farms and founded the local cheese factory and schools. Twelve years ago, one of the Quakers who taught English to the local kids passed away. To commemorate her life, funds were donated to a lottery. Landless farmers were allowed to participate in the lottery, and 26 families received land on the condition that they would farm it sustainably. These are the farms we will be working in over the coming two weeks.

So what exactly will we be doing?
Valerie handed out our schedule for the coming two weeks. Every morning, we’ll be out amidst the fruiting trees by 6:30 a.m., observing the frugivorous birds (birds that feed on fruit). We’ll go back to the ecolodge for breakfast and then on to the next activities. These will range from setting up mist nets to catch and tag birds, to collecting bees (don’t ask me if they’re alive and stinging or not!), conducting flower and fruit surveys in the coffee plantations, conducting bird transects, or measuring sugar concentrations of flower nectar using a fancy piece of equipment called a Brix refractometer.

In the afternoons, we’ll be counting birds and measuring tree density, height, and diversity. In the evenings, we have to work on pollen grain slides in the labs, as well as data entry (my specialty). Some nights, there will be guest lectures from the resident and visiting naturalists or David Attenborough videos. These will be a trip down memory lane for me. My mother was always a fan of Sir David’s documentaries, and my brother and I watched them over and over again.

I think we’ll be kept busy, and I’m excited at the prospect of doing such a range of observations (bees, birds, trees). I look forward to telling you more about it.

In the meantime, the sunshine and peaceful outdoors are beckoning me away from the PC, so I’ll end here.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008 Birdspotters
This morning, we congregated outside our bungalows around 6:30 a.m. and had our first stab at bird spotting. Valerie was very patient with us. I think Pam and I managed to misidentify the same rufous and white wren about six times.

Some of the most common birds we’ll see in the coffee plantations are wrens (house, plain, rufous, and white). Jennifer, the last team member who arrived yesterday, and Elaine are currently the only ones who manage to spot and identify the birds correctly!

We then wandered down toward the ecolodge’s botanical gardens. Here, we learned more about the frugivorous birds’ favorite haunts—basically all the fruit-bearing trees like guava, banana, mistletoe, and so on. Note that fruit doesn’t just mean fruits that we humans eat. We also include all the trees that yield berries of any type, even if humans can’t eat them.

Just before heading into the forest, I spotted and identified my first bird while in the gardens: a band-tailed pigeon perched high up on a tree.

By 8 a.m., we were all rather hungry, so headed up to breakfast at the ecolodge. At mealtimes and during breaks, we interact with the other groups that are here. From what the students have told me, the University of Georgia is a great school to attend if you want the opportunity for field work.

Mist nets
After breakfast, we headed down toward the San Luis school and set up a mist net in the field next door to it. Some people try to catch lots of birds at once, but Valerie wants us to try and catch one specific species: the emerald toucanet. No, it’s not a baby toucan… it’s just a smaller species. And guess who saw the first one…yes, yours truly! It helps that its colorful plumage and beak make it very distinctive.

It’s quite difficult to catch birds that are so high up, so researches use a system known as a mist net (the mesh is so fine, it’s mist-like). Two poles are set up, and we gradually raise the net so it’s spread across a certain area. The net has rows of “pockets” that the birds fly into.

This time, we set up the nets just outside a swathe of fruit trees where we’d seen a pair of toucanets a few minutes before. We left the nets up for two half-hour periods, but after a while, we decided to wind the net up and come back tomorrow.

We can’t leave the nets open, because then the birds would get caught overnight. Given the wind, rain, and drop in temperature, they would die very quickly. By checking the net over a shorter period of time, researchers can catch, tag, and release the birds without harming them. 

Had we been lucky enough to catch a toucanet, Valerie would have tagged the bird by attaching small radio transmitters underneath its tail. These neither harm nor hinder the bird’s flight. They merely allow Valerie to track where and when the bird flies. The more time the birds spend in the plantations, the greater indication it is that we have a healthy plantation with good tree diversity.

Our disappointment in not catching a toucanet was quickly diminished when we saw a large family of swallow-tailed kites flying over the hills next to us. Valerie told us it’s very rare to see so many at once. I was lucky enough to see a white-faced monkey, and Jennifer spied a snake that we weren’t able to identify…although most of us did identify a certain repulsion and desire to step away!

Bird abundance transects
After lunch (and yes, we do plan the day around mealtimes), we headed down to the lab and had our research methods class. Valerie explained what, how, and when we’ll be conducting the various surveys. Let’s start with the one that will take up the most time: bird abundance transects.

Each pair of Earthwatchers will be assigned to a plantation. We’ll survey four 100-meter (328-foot) transects every morning. Each transect takes just under an hour because we have to minimize our movements and noise, and we’ll also need time to count and identify the birds.

Why are we doing this? Valerie’s research aims to see how diverse the shade-tree coffee plantations are, and obvious indicators are the number and types of birds that visit. Not only will we identify the species, but we’ll also track their activities (foraging for fruits, nesting, and so on).

I’ll save the other two research methods (environmental measurements and fruit/flower surveys) for tomorrow. Time now for another bird identification session and then dinner. Hasta mañana!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008 Order—apodiformes; family—trochilidae
After posting my entry yesterday afternoon, I zipped down to the indoor classroom for a lecture on bird families. Valerie made a very good summary of the major bird groups we have seen so far and that we will be observing in the coming days.

In summary, when looking at birds, we need to focus on the following characteristics:
  • Head: shape, crests and tufts, eye stripes (some of them look like superheroes with masks…I know…it’s a childish comment, but it’s sure easier to recognize them);
  • Bill (beak) shape;
  • Body shape;
  • Plumage (feather) coloring;
  • Behavior (swooping down for a bite, pecking at fruit, etc.); and
  • Tail length and shape.
The reason we focus on these aspects is because a) we’re not specialists, and b) we don’t always have time to look back and forth between our birds and our field books. Sometimes the birds are so fast that in the few seconds between spotting them and pulling our binoculars up to zoom in, they’ve flown away. So if I spot a bird and notice a very distinctive characteristic, there’s a strong chance I can identify the bird very quickly (and reliably).

Pre-dinner stroll through mud and barbed wire
We still had an hour before dinner yesterday, so a few of us decided to go for a leisurely stroll behind the ecolodge, although this then turned into a full-fledged hike (to the urbanites like me, that is) through mud, wild grass, and even some barbed wire when we crossed into a sloping field hoping to get closer to some Brahman cows.

The ecolodge is nestled amongst the hills, and any trail in and around the 62-hectare (153-acre) property rewards hikers with breathtaking views. Even through my heavy asthmatic gasps, I managed to take in the beauty surrounding me—and said a quick prayer of thanks for being lucky enough to see it.

Later that evening, the Earthwatch and University of Georgia law students attended a thought-provoking guest lecture on fair-trade coffee, presented by one of the farmers from the local cooperative. Guillermo Vargas gave us a brief history of the Monteverde cooperative, the importance of fair-trade coffee, as well as its challenges. He even spoke about the criticisms against fair trade and gave some good rebuttals. It was an honor for all of us to hear him speak, and I got the impression it left many humbled, inspired, and challenged. 
Early morning bird watching
We met up for a 90-minute walk-and-spot-the-birds session before breakfast today. We saw a flock of parrots and a pair of keel-billed toucans fly off just as we reached a watering hole. The birds that weren’t scared off were, sadly, not as exciting, but we did manage to try out our newly acquired bird identification skills from last night.

If we spotted the tail, beak, or other distinctive feature, nine times out of 10 we were able to identify the species correctly. These included the common toady flycatcher, lesser greenlets, social flycatchers, grey-crowned yellowthroat, and many, many brown jays. We even saw a crimson-crested tanager preening atop a scraggly bush—the highlight of the morning.

Farm visits
After breakfast, we began our visits of the coffee plantations, where we will be conducting our bird survey transects. In 2005, Valerie approached a number of farmers and asked if she could do her research in their coffee fields. She identified 100-meter (328-foot) transects along the windbreaks so that she and her teams could quietly observe the birds that came to forage and nest in the coffee plantations. The whole point is that the more birds there are, the healthier the coffee plantation.

The fun part started at the end of the first two visits, when we tackled the rocky road up toward the other four farms. It took a lot of willpower to get up. Thankfully, the view was always an encouragement: it’s hard to “give up” when the sun is shining, tropical birds are singing, lush trees and flowers are swaying in the breeze. I realized I need to stop feeling so sorry for myself!

Halfway through the fourth visit, we stopped for some lunch and heard thunder in the distance. Ever so discreetly, the thunder rolled closer. As we munched our peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches (ever so worriedly), we heard the first pit-pats of rain falling on the canopy above us. Very soon, lightning flashed across the other side of the valley, and the thunder kept crashing above us. Ever so dramatically, the rain started pouring.

We dug out our raincoats and walked for the next two hours in the soaking rain through the remaining plantations. One hospitable family graciously welcomed us (and our muddy boots) into their home to give us a welcomed break from the storm. We were treated to hot (homegrown) coffee and potato pancakes. It goes without saying that I am looking forward to surveying this particular family’s coffee fields.

A few hundred meters before we got back to the ecolodge, the rain stopped—perfect timing.

Trip to town
Three important words: cell phone connection! I know that makes me sound like a text-aholic, but it was great to be able to read text messages from my family and friends. And for my other addiction (computer-aholics anonymous), I found an Internet café to write this diary entry from, as well as a few short emails.

Tomorrow, we start the bird survey transects. Hopefully, we’ll escape the downpours this time.

Thursday, July 31, 2008 Research history
After dinner last night, Valerie gave us an overview of previous research pertaining to the connections between birds, coffee, and conservation efforts.

In 1991, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Centre (SMBC) was established to investigate the reasons for the decline in migratory birds. Its goal was to look for ways to encourage biodiversity, and coffee was identified as a conservation tool that was economically sound and supported biodiversity. Thus, a number of groups have invested a lot of time into learning more about the impact different factors have on bird diversity and higher/better-quality coffee yields. Some have looked at the effect different shade-tree species and crop structures have on bird species present, while others looked at the importance of epiphytes to birds (epiphytes are plants that grow on others).

Valerie's research focuses on the ecological study of bird biodiversity and agriculture—basically finding ways to promote both of them. Bearing in mind that significant portions of tropical lands are being turned into coffee plantations, and that we know migratory birds are on the decline, Valerie is investigating ways of supporting migratory birds that are also complementary to the cultivation of coffee. For example, planting hamilia trees next to coffee plants attracts both migratory birds that eat insects (thus reducing the need for pesticides) and bees (which act as natural pollinators).

Bird-friendly coffee
The SMBC also created the Bird-Friendly Coffee label. Farmers whose plantations meet a number of requirements can market their produce as bird-friendly. We found out that only one farmer in this region has qualified as bird-friendly. I asked if this was because the others don't meet the standards, but it turns out the reason is that it costs a lot to get the certification specialist to visit and make the assessments.

My next question would then be: is there any way of subsidizing or reducing the cost of the certification? And, how can we make the process more accessible to farmers? (It probably wouldn't be a one-off event, as farms would have to be monitored periodically to ensure that they continue to be bird-friendly).

After a long day of walking and learning, I turned in for the night around 9 p.m. And I'm glad I did…because we were up just before 5:30 a.m. this morning!

Fruit and flower abundance surveys
In Tuesday's entry, I promised more details on the other environmental measurements we're taking to support Valerie's research. Two of them are the fruit and flower surveys. While the other six Earthwatchers were assigned to bird transects, Mark and I hiked up to a farm above the ecolodge to carry out the fruit and flower surveys.

Basically, we had to count and sample the abundance of open flowers and ripe fruit (other than coffee plants) within the farm. The goal is to assess whether or not having "food" available all year-round (or not) is a deciding factor in whether bees and birds visit a farm more or less. (In this case, we are looking at local birds as well as migratory ones).

Valerie wants to assess the time factor (constant resource versus temporal/seasonal), as well as the sheer variety of species, so we only counted the open flowers and ripe fruit because they present a "here and now" resource to the birds and bees.

I was keeping track of the flowers, and after finishing the survey part, I collected some samples to squeeze onto the Brix refractometre. The Brix refractometre is a small instrument that measures the sugar concentration of flowers. By squeezing some of the flowers' nectar onto the slide, I could then read the sugar concentration off the inside scale. It looks like a kaleidoscope (but a very heavy and expensive one!). When you angle it toward light and peer through the lens, you can see a scale inside that indicates the sugar concentration. I had quite a lot of fun with that one.

We finished our surveys earlier than expected, so we had time to talk to the farmer, Oldemar. Oldemar has let Valerie and her teams conduct research on his plantation for the past three years, and he recently began offering eco-tours to visitors. Just as we were finishing up, a group from the U.S. arrived, and we were able to join them as he gave them an introduction to coffee growing. 

Circular plots
Another task we will start doing tomorrow involves analyzing the vegetation composition in circular plots. What are circular plots? One person holds the end of a tape measure, while another person goes out a precise 11.3 meters (37 feet). The first person stands still while the second walks around in a circle, and two other team members identify, measure, and track the plant species growing within the circle.

The goal is for us to understand the vegetation diversity in each farm, note any clustering of specific species, and then compare the farms with one another using other environmental measurements to find correlations. If there aren't any, then we'll be able to scratch it off as a factor affecting bird biodiversity.

Valerie is also using exclosures as a method of measuring the significance of bird diversity in coffee plantations. In each farm, she has set up two or three nets that cover three coffee plants. The mesh is large enough to let insects in, but too small to let birds in. The idea is to see what effect excluding the birds has on these three plants (compared to the rest of the farm, which acts as the control group). Our team does not have to do anything with the exclosures yet, but I thought it worth mentioning.

Escuela San Luis Altos (Upper San Luis School)
While waiting for a toucanet to fly into our mist net this afternoon, we got caught in (another) afternoon storm. We sought refuge in the primary school close by. The kids had already gone home, but the teacher showed us the classrooms. Jennifer and I had already been pestering Valerie for some ideas on how we could say thank you in a useful way to the community, and I think we found our niche when we visited the school. It's very clean and tidy, but the kids lack reading materials and geometry tools.

The thing that shocked me the most was the complete lack of maps. As a geographer, I'm big on maps. I collect old maps, books about maps, puzzles of maps…you name it, I collect it! Usually, every school I visit has at least one or two of them. So my pet project when I get back to Alajuela/San Jose will be to procure some decent maps of the country (and hopefully the world) to mail back to San Luis.

One of the teachers from down in Guacimal was visiting her colleague here in San Luis. She told us that because her establishment is not located in a tourist-attracting area, she misses out on the attention that the ecolodge visitors give to San Luis' two schools. Her comment was a sharp reminder to me that despite spending most of my day trawling through bushes and mud, I'm only seeing one facet of Costa Rica. We drove through some less picturesque areas but didn't stop, and I guess that's what most visitors do. It's not a crime to avoid the less fortunate zones, but it's something to bear in mind wherever I travel. 

Jennifer and I hiked back up to Oldemar's farm when we realized we'd left something there, and we had a good chat about adult education and training methods there and back. When we got back to the school, we saw that our teammates had left their belongings under the portico, but they were nowhere to be seen. Making our way to the mist net, we found them crowded around Valerie, who was trying to free a white-eared sparrow that had unfortunately flown into the mist net and, with such a strong wind, gotten tangled.

After 20 minutes of careful handling, Valerie freed the little sparrow, and Jennifer took it farther down the field to let it go (releasing it away from the net meant it wouldn't fly back in). We then wound the net up and headed back up the hill toward home.

I'm on data entry duty tonight (my specialty—it's so much easier to key in numbers than to recognize tropical birds!), so I'm off to clean up before dinner and data entry.

Friday, August 1, 2008 First of all, a very happy Swiss National Day to all my friends back in Geneva! I know I’m missing out on the fireworks, but you’ll understand I’m not all that sorry about it when you check out the sunsets I’m being treated to over here.

Lab time
After dinner last night, we trooped down to the lab to learn how to pin bees and count pollen grains under a microscope. Being a naturally clumsy person, I avoided the pinning and microscope work and focused on data entry instead. I got to work with Valerie on that, and it gave me a greater appreciation for the sheer amount of information she has collected over the last three years.

Fruit and flower surveys
Valerie asked me to do fruit and flower surveys again so that I can teach someone else, and then that person will teach the next, and so on. So this morning, I paired up with Alice, and we headed down to Odilio’s farm. We identified plenty of different fruits (bananas, guavas, yellow plums, avocados, and my all-time favorite—mangoes). I didn’t survey many flowering trees, but Alice managed to catch some bees and wasps for Valerie’s collection. Once we finished our surveys and tests, we began the strenuous hike back up the hill toward the school, where we rendezvoused with the others for lunch.

Circular plots
While Valerie, Elaine, and Alex stayed down by the school to keep an eye on the mist nets (in the hope of catching a toucanet), the rest of us hiked back up the hill toward Oldemar’s farm, where Mark and I were assigned yesterday. Once there, we began our attempt at circular plots. You know how my description yesterday was very simple and straightforward? Well, the reality is completely different! Identifying and counting the vegetation was not as difficult as actually setting up each plot.

It took about an hour and a half for six of us to complete six circular plots. Pam stood in the center of each imaginary “circle,” while Mark, Alice, Jeff, and I walked 11.3 meters away from her in the directions of a compass. Then we each walked clockwise in our respective quadrants toward the person next to us, counting the number and types of trees within our areas. (Poor Pam was the designated scribe and had to take down all the entries we shouted out to her. Good thing we weren’t observing birds this afternoon, because all our noise must have scared them all away!). In the meantime, Jennifer measured the overhead canopy cover using the densiometre.

Challenges we faced:
  • Gradient of the slope;
  • We had to avoid stepping on the coffee plants and also damaging plants by dragging the measuring tape across/through them; and
  • Accurate measurements.
The upside to all of this frustration is that we’ve now learned what to do and what not to, so we’ll be better prepared for tomorrow. We’ll be more methodical in how we go about it, marking the plot perimeters clearly and being more structured in calling out and recording the vegetation.

Another bonus was that afterward, the landlady let us watch her roast a load of coffee beans, and, on top of that, brewed us some fresh coffee and served up fresh cake.

We are completely spoiled here in terms of food. The ecolodge staff feeds us extremely well, and the farms we visit offer us delicious snacks and hot coffee. I do not recommend this as a place to start a diet. I do recommend it if you want to have a great time!

Up next…
I just spent the last hour creating a “plant card” for our group. We each have a set of bird cards and various ornithology books that allow us to identify the species we observe in the farms, but none of us is a botanist, so we’ve been having a hard time distinguishing between plants. Over the last three days, I’ve photographed all the flowering and fruiting trees I’ve surveyed and compiled a reference list with the local name, the English name, and a short description.

There was a unanimous vote to go back to the town of Santa Elena after dinner this evening to have a drink and socialize outside our little corner of paradise. I’m off to enter my data and then find something that’s not covered in mud to wear out tonight. 

Good news on the mist net. Alex just came in and told me they caught, tagged, and released a toucanet!

Saturday, August 2, 2008 Bar Amigos
Friday evening, we got a ride into Santa Elena, where we went to a posh-looking restaurant for dinner and then into the town for a drink at Bar Amigos. It’s the joint that all the locals and tourists end up at. We bumped into some of the law students from the ecolodge, as well as some of the farmers whose plantations we’ve been working on.

I’ve not had so much fun on a night out in ages. The dance floor filled up for every song. Some of the locals could rival those reality TV shows, where celebrities and professionals ballroom dance. I had to drag one of my fellow Earthwatchers onto the floor (we must have made an odd pair, stoically two-stepping to the rhythmic cumbia), but after that, I found more willing partners and had a great time twisting around to the live music.

Speaking of the live music, I can’t begin to describe how funny it was: an eight-man band with guitars, percussion, keyboards, and singers, while just behind them was a huge screen…showing the best of MTV’s rap and hiphop list. So while the band was belting out Costa Rican classics, 50Cent, Mariah Carey, and Jay-Z were silently grooving in the background. The juxtaposition between the bling bling (flashy jewelry) we could see on the screen and the very laid-back look of the local band (and their fast-paced cumbia music) had me in stitches for quite a while.

I met a landscape architect from Washington, D.C., who is interning at the Monteverde Institute this summer. In the space of 10 weeks, he had already picked up all the moves and steps—dancing with him was more exhausting than hiking up the hill from Odilio’s farm to the ecolodge! But it was definitely a great night out.

We got to sleep in until 7:30 this morning (as opposed to 5:30)—luxury. After breakfast, we went down to the lab to pin bees and to prepare the equipment for setting up exclosures.

As I mentioned in an earlier entry, exclosures are simple pole-and-net systems that Valerie has set up across the farms to assess the pest control role of birds in coffee plantations. In each plantation, Valerie chooses three adjacent coffee trees that bear only a few fruit. She then plants four poles around them in a rectangular shape and attaches the nets to the poles and the ground. The goal is to keep the birds out (hence the name exclosure) but still allow everything else in—mostly arthropods (bugs).

By comparing the damage the insects do to these coffee plants in the coming months with the plants that are accessible to the birds, Valerie aims to prove that birds provide a natural and necessary pest control. And to attract these birds, farmers must leave the bigger trees that are the birds’ habitats (thus tying into the whole shade-grown coffee concept).

I thoroughly enjoyed the exclosure exercise. It’s fun, it’s a logical scientific method of assessment, it involves teamwork, and it lets us spend more time in the sunshine rather than crouching quietly under the canopy peering at birds through our binoculars (which, believe me, is very interesting but also very cramp-inducing).

San Luis waterfall
After lunch, seven of us decided to hike to the San Luis waterfall. I only got the tail end of the conversation, so I naively thought it was a 20-minute hike. In actual fact, it was a 20-minute hike to the farmhouse where we pay US$8 to then walk up to the waterfall…a good hour zigzagging up and down the hillside under the dense rainforest canopy. But don’t let my initial dismay discourage you—it’s a gruesome hike, but it is absolutely, completely 100% worth it.

I got to see parts of the rainforest that I usually only see in coffee-table books or on my screensaver. The lush greenery is simply amazing (and I don’t use that word lightly!) and entrancing. The humidity makes everything glisten, and even in the relative darkness of the forest, the sharp relief of each fern, each lichen, and each vine contrasts with the others. The gushing sound of the waterfalls and streams becomes a constant lull, while the bird calls and drip-drip-drip of the rain closer to the trail provided a more intense soundtrack to the hike.

One thing I should mention is that although we paid for access to the waterfall, the trip is entirely at our own risk (and this waiver of liability is stated very clearly at the start of the trail). At first I didn’t think there was much to it; that was, until I got to the first “bridge.”

Now, I need to stop here and confess my absurd fear of heights. Even 1.2 meters (four feet) off the ground is too much for me. I don’t mind being in buildings, but looking out over the balcony is already pushing it. So imagine my look of panic and dread when I spotted this water-sodden foot bridge about four feet above the fast-flowing stream.  

There were about a dozen more “freeze” moments for me, and I’d like to acknowledge my fellow Earthwatchers’ patience and help. At every little bridge, Alex, Jeff, Mark, or Jennifer would walk in front and then quietly wait for me to gather my nerve and step onto the planks, hold my hand as I walked across, and then assist me down from the bridge onto the least slippery of the rocks. 

But again, don’t let my paranoia stop you from doing this trail or any like it. The view at the end is really worth it (as is the wonder of the rainforest as you walk along).

When we got to the end, the waterfall was thundering down into the blue-gray pool below. Alex and Alice were the first to wander in. Pam, Mark, and I were slightly more hesitant—and boy, was it cold! But I’m glad I did it.

When I looked upward, I could see another pool and waterfall farther up, as well as the stormy clouds overhead. Even in the rain, and despite its impressive sound and depth, the waterfall held a sort of ethereal appearance, timeless and constant. I profoundly enjoyed staring at it for long minutes and would have continued to do so for longer had the light sprinkle not turned into a steady, pounding downpour! So we wrapped up again and turned back down the trail. 

As blasphemous as this might sound to some ecologists, walking through the forest actually reminds me of walking into a nightclub. Sunlight streams through the dense foliage in little bursts, and as you walk along, it’s similar to the strobe lighting in a club. It’s quite disorienting.

I was a bit stressed at some moments, because it’s tough keeping your balance as you walk on very uneven ground, avoiding slipping on the rocks, sidestepping the treacherous tree roots that appear out of nowhere to trip you up, and, last but not least, navigating the sheer gradient of the hillside.

Going up is actually less challenging than downhill: it’s relatively easier to grab hold of something to pull yourself up as opposed to braking as you slip downward. I think I used muscles on this that I didn’t even know existed. By the time we got back to the bungalows, nearly three hours after we’d set out, my body was aching. I spent the next hour waddling around the bungalow, trying to tidy my belongings without stretching any more muscles. After showering, I stared at my swollen, pink feet and winced.

Wallowing in self-pity, I made my way up to the mess (dining hall) for dinner. Gingerly sitting down at the table, I met a family from Georgia, but I was rather rude as I nearly fell asleep while eating and talking with them. After dinner, the group sat on the porch for coffee and storytelling, but we all soon turned in for bed. I cannot remember ever feeling so sore. I slept like a log until morning.

Sunday, August 3, 2008 Overcoming my fears 
Sunday was our free day—no bird transects, no circular plots. Alex and Elaine headed out very early to Monteverde for a morning hike, while the rest of us lingered at the lodge and enjoyed the warmth and sunshine.

Just before midday, we headed up to Monteverde/Santa Elena to the Sky Trek park. It was at Sky Trek that I decided I was to overcome my fear of heights—or at least learn to deal with it. I’d spent all week gearing myself up for this, and with the rest of the team cheering me on, I went to pay for my trip above the forest canopy.

Sky Trek is a series of cables (zip lines) suspended high above the rainforest. Tourists strap themselves up with harnesses and then hang from a pulley as they glide across the cables and the rainforest.

Alex was a real chum and came along with me. I think I would have ducked out otherwise. As the minutes crawled by, I wanted to back out. From the harnessing room, across the suspension bridge, up the cable car, and gingerly up the first tower, my heart was thumping louder and louder. So were my fellow tourists’. One young man from Georgia was about as pale as I was.

When one of the guides gave us the second safety talk and explained the braking and slowing down signals, I steeled myself against the urge to turn around and hop back in the cable car. When I got to the top of the first tower, I must have looked like death, because my newfound friends confirmed this haggard appearance—and then immortalized it with their digital camera. Their 11-year-old daughter was fearless and calm. I was the one shaking and breaking out in a sweat!

It was finally my turn to be hooked up to the cable. Before I knew it, the guide had pushed me down the cable, and I was hurtling through the air, high above the rainforest canopy—and screaming at the top of my lungs.

The adrenalin rush was incredible, and it doubled when I saw the extremely short and fast-approaching landing pad. How in the world am I going to land on that? How come those trees are so close? I’m going to slam into them, I just know it! All of these panicked thoughts (and a few expletives that I shall refrain from writing down) were rushing through my mind (and across my lips). But before I could hyperventilate too much, the guide on the landing pad had stopped me with a seemingly effortless tug of a rope, and I was slowly dangling from the cable, only 60 centimeters (two feet) off the landing pad. Amazing! A rope knotted and rolling along the cable was all it took to stop me, despite the 40 mile-per-hour speed and the less than 10-meter (33-foot) landing pad.

The adrenalin (and associated screaming) continued another six, unforgettable times. On the seventh, I thought I was all set. Then the guide made the couple in front slide down in tandem. So, I assumed I would have to pair up with Alex, but the guide told me to go solo. When I inquired why I was to plunge to my death alone, he gave me a sheepish smile and awkwardly explained that I was a tad heavier than the girl in front and therefore wouldn’t need the extra person to slide down this cable (the longest of the eight stages). Reddening at this reference to my padded self, I let him hook me up to the cable and send me off.

The screaming didn’t start until about 12 meters (39 feet) before the beginning of the landing pad. And then it just didn’t stop. Why? Because I had stopped. The guide had thought I was too heavy, but it turns out I wasn’t heavy enough to make it all the way to the landing pad. So I spun around a bit, in my now habitual panic mode, until I understood that the guide wanted me to pull myself along the cable.

Now let me pause here for a minute. I’m about 150 meters (500 feet) off the ground (or so it seems), suspended in mid-air with just two carabineers and a pulley, buffeted left and right by the wind, and my arms feel like they are about to give way. Did he really screw the carabiner back? What if this pulley breaks? What if the cable snaps? What if there’s a sudden storm and I’m electrocuted by lightning? All these cheerful, optimistic, carpe-diem thoughts were running through my mind.

After what felt like an hour but was actually only 30 seconds, I calmed down and braced myself for the 12 meter sloth-o-thon and hauled myself over to the landing pad. I had to turn myself so that I faced upward, with my head toward the landing pad, legs up and crossed under the cable, and move hand-over-hand backwards, like a sloth. I finally made it, and the guide dragged me (still attached to my pulley) along the landing pad. While I was blubbering about how scared I was, he simply shoved me off the pad onto the next stage, and off I flew, screaming again!

Back on solid ground, with legs, thighs, and arms trembling and a goofy grin spread across my face, I triumphantly hiked the short distance back down to the Sky Trek center and beamed at Elaine, Alice, and Jennifer, who had loyally waited for me at the bottom. I was on such an adrenalin high that I was so excited for the next few hours.

I’m really happy I got the chance to do Sky Trek, and I highly recommend it to all who visit this part of Costa Rica. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience and provides one of the most exhilarating ways of viewing the cloud forest.

We arrived back in Santa Elena around 4 p.m. I spent some time sending photos to my communications contact to upload to my diary’s photo gallery, and then I did some shopping. I found a detailed history of 20th century Costa Rica in English that explains a lot about the growth in coffee cultivation during the last 50 to 60 years, the rapid rise of ecotourism in the 1990s, and on into the 21st century.

I was sorely tempted by the wooden crafts, but Jeff and some other friends told me that unless the shops can certify where and how the crafts were made, it’s best to avoid them. A lot of the souvenirs are not made in a sustainable manner (endangered species of wood, no reforestation or measured approach, and poor working conditions for the folks who make them).

We were all supposed to eat at Morpho’s, a bar-restaurant named after the iconic big blue butterflies for which Costa Rica is famous. Sadly, Morpho’s was so popular during the day that they’d run out of food. So, we decided to go back to Friday night’s fancy place. Dinner was a funny affair. Mark, Pam, and Jeff are great storytellers, and they had me in stitches for most of the meal!

Things with fangs
The drive back to the ecolodge was long and bumpy as usual, but we were all in high spirits, and we’d gotten used to the jostling by then. Back in our bungalow, Pam and I turned in for an early night, each with our respective books. Over dinner, one of our teammates told us of her nightly ritual of checking the curtains, under the bed, all the bed covers, and under the pillow before getting into bed. She’s so wary of any possible bug.

Up until then, I had not given indoor bugs any thought. The bungalows are simply decorated but solid: bugproof in my mono-dimensional mind. So at the end of a chapter, I looked up from my book to have a quick scan of the walls around me (my bunk bed was in one of the corners). Peering down at me were some moths, and about a foot above my head was a spider web. It had some fresh catches in it, but no spider, although I assume it’s the little wretch that’s mauled my fingers and side of my face with bites the last few nights.

Then I saw it. It was huge. It was brown. It was ugly. It was...rubbing its antennae together and wiggling its spindly legs. No, not a spider. No, not a giant stink bug. It was the King Kong of grasshoppers. But not just any grasshopper. This one was huge! More than two inches! I called to Pam, and she suggested squashing it or catching it. In my infantile panic, I had frozen. I kept calling to Pam. When she came over, she made a kind of yelping sound and ran for the mosquito repellent (somehow we thought this would help). The grasshopper suddenly moved and jumped to the wall closer to where we were sitting.

The whole conservation thing just dies when faced with a monster of these proportions. My desire to be one with nature so quickly diminished, I moved to the spare bed next to Pam, helped douse the Big Bug with a few more sprays of mosquito-repellent, and then tried to fall asleep—pointlessly, because I kept jumping at all the scratches and sounds outside.

Monday, August 4, 2008 At breakfast this morning, Jeff looked at Pam and me and asked “What in the world was that bug doing?” The poor guy had received half the insect-repellent mist when Pam had sprayed it (there are significant cracks between the wooden planks that form the internal walls of the bungalow). All he’d heard were our exclamations of “It’s huge!”, “Squash, you squash it!”, “Ahhhhhh, it’s moving!”, “Look at those...fangs!”, “Ew, it’s making sucking noises”, and so on. He thought it was something like a foot-long earwig or the tarantula Mark found in the indoor classroom. We then had to explain the whole story (and how the sucking fangs were just the prominent mouth of the grasshopper). We got a lot of laughs, but I sure felt silly!

Once down at the lab, we collected our gear for the day. Jeff and I were assigned to Gilbert’s farm (very reasonable hike compared to any of the others), where we did more fruit and flower surveys. I think Valerie has picked up on the fact that I can’t tell the difference between a rufous and white wren and a blue-tailed it’s probably for the best that I stick to the vegetation assessments!

While we were weighing the fruit and measuring the flower sugar concentrations, Jeff spotted an animal that looked like a cross between a beaver and a fox. We still don’t know what it was, but when I described it to Valerie, she said it sounded like an agouti.

After lunch, we met up with the rest of the group at R’s. His farm is the highest up, and he has started to remove some of his coffee plants to make way for new crops. This diversification trend has been noticed elsewhere, but R is the only one to have actually removed coffee plants. The others have simply planted other crops alongside the coffee or in their gardens.

I nicknamed this farm the anthill. It’s literally anthill after anthill between the remaining coffee trees. I also saw a murky green snake slithering along. It zipped out of sight as soon as the others got close.

While the others conducted circular plot surveys across the farm, Valerie, Alex, Mark, and I set up three more exclosures. I then assisted Valerie with denisometre readings. To be more accurate (read: truthful), Valerie took the readings and calculations. I scribbled down what she called out and hopped from one foot to another, panicked that I might get nibbled on by a toad or snake. Not likely, but my Hitchcock-indulged imagination was doing overtime. I was quite relieved when the rain started and we headed home toward the ecolodge. Slimy, slithery animals are one phobia that I will not be able to overcome as enjoyably as my fear of gliding through the air!

The day was relatively short. We began at 6:30 a.m. and got back at 2 p.m., and I was grateful for the time off. I was eager to write down my Sky Trek experience, upload some photos, and give my poor muscles a break. I know I need to toughen up a bit, but at the moment, I’m happy to sit quietly on the patio and observe the birds outside our bungalows—without having to hike a mountain to see them.

Little side note to end today’s entry. I’ve been designated the party planner for this weekend’s get together with the ecolodge crew and the farmers and their families—got to start organizing that next. 

Tuesday, August 5, 2008 Last night, the group got together in the indoor classroom to watch a documentary about migratory birds, sustainable coffee cultivation, fair trade, and consumerism. The documentary showed clips from both Costa Rica and neighboring Nicaragua, and there were interviews with farmers in both countries.

We had a lively debate after the movie. That’s the part I love about trips like these. It’s the animated discussions with people from different parts of the world with oftentimes very different views on the topics we cover.

Later on, I got a licking (got beaten) at Scrabble. The most galling part was that I got words like “plead,” “decorate” and “tribe,” while Jeff simply placed vowels on the strategic squares and made real knockout words like “as,” “of,” “is,” and the ever-impressive “ha.” But he still scored more than 300.

This morning, Pam and I were assigned to one of the farms at the bottom on the hill, so we trekked down and carried out fruit and flower samples. We finished first, and the others came to meet us for lunch midway up the hill. While waiting, Pam set up her hammock and rocked peacefully, protected from the rain and wind by the tall crotons and tubu trees. I, on the other hand, was not as well-prepared and had to make do with a very narrow and splintery plank of wood masquerading as a bench. That was too uncomfortable, so I went back to journaling my “sightings” for today and trying to sort through the dozens of new fruiting and flowering trees that I've encountered this week.

I finally learned what a daphnopsis looks like, and I can recognize a few more epiphytic plants. (I couldn't even pronounce the word at first. I kept confusing epiphyte with Ephesians—as in the New Testament. My mum would be so ashamed if she knew. Her degrees are in biology and theology, so it’s always of great dismay to her when I mislabel a plant or environmental process, or confuse Colossians and Corinthians).

The ecolodge has a well-stocked library with every possible text on tropical plants, birds, and animals, as well as many other ecology books. My new “bible” is Willow Zuchowski's Tropical Plants of Costa Rica: A Guide to Native and Exotic Flora. I've taken photos of all the plants I've surveyed and have gradually documented each of them in my plant card. I spend a bit of time each afternoon going back and forth between my camera screen and Willow’s book, trying to figure out what is what.

The wind and rain motivated us to get through our circular plots as quickly as possible and then head up to Oldemar and Ersi’s farm. Ersi spoils us rotten. Every time we visit, she prepares fresh coffee and hot tortillas. Today, we got to watch her start making banana jam, too.

I think the damp weather has sent us all into a rather lethargic state, so we’re going to spend the afternoon back at the lab instead of getting drenched trying to track toucanets and motmots, not to mention acting as human lightning rods. Because the toucanets are tagged with radio transmitters, one of us has to wander around with a handheld antenna. With self-preservation in mind, I’ve graciously let the ornithologists among us handle this duty. (I saw my first motmot this morning, by the way! A blue-crowned one—absolutely magnificent.)

Pura vida, faithful readers!

Wednesday, August 6, 2008 Flowers, fruit and coffee stickers
This morning, Pam and I were lucky enough to be assigned as a team for a second day in a row (flower team power), and we conducted fruit and flower surveys in R.’s farm at the top of the hill. At about 6:45 a.m., as we were halfway to the farm, a light drizzle started to fall. By 7:00, it was a solid rain. By 7:30, we were absolutely soaked. Pam and I exchanged woeful glances.
Halfway through our measurement exercises, we gave in to the enticing aroma of roasted coffee, abandoning our investigation of soaking flower petals, unripe fruit, and mystery leaves, and asking Oldemar and Eric if we could help. We spent the next hour sticking Oldemar’s logo onto bags made out of recycled paper, stuffing sachets full of roasted beans into them, and then gluing the bags shut. All the while, Pam would ask Oldemar questions in Spanish, and I would address mine in English to Eric, who would then translate into Spanish. 
La Bella Tica
We all met at Alvarro’s farm for lunch and then did circular plots and took densiometre readings. An asthma-inducing hike back up the hill took us to Oldemar’s, where we helped with the second stage of banana jam making and, in what is now becoming a tradition, helped ourselves to the fresh coffee and cakes that Ersi prepared for us.
Once the last jam jar was sealed, we trooped out toward the coffee plants. Ersi gave us a tour of the farm, which we'd already surveyed many times in the last 10 days, but this was the first time we had one of the owners talking us through the coffee plant cycle, telling us about the changes over the last 20 years, and answering our questions about the different challenges they’ve faced. As a development geographer, this was the highlight of my day—getting up close and personal with the coffee plants and the farmers and learning what worked, what didn’t, and what turned out to be the best solution for them and for the environment
By the time Ersi finished her presentation, the rain was pounding, so we hung back under the porch for a little bit. While the others chatted with Oldemar and Ersi, I plunked myself down next to their youngest, Melanie, and had a go at reading in Spanish. She’d laid out her favorite books, and I made a right mess of all of them! The only one I understood was “La Biblia Para Bebes,” meaning the Bible for little ones. Melanie encouraged me to try reading aloud, so I had a go. Flicking through it, I noticed that it skipped from Daniel to the gospel of Matthew—where were all the prophets and judges? What happened to Haggai, Amos, and Micah? Honestly, children these days! They don’t know their Jobs from their Josephs.
I gave the reading aloud a try. Melanie was very supportive and corrected my horrendously-accented pronunciation, and I think she got a good laugh out of it (and hopefully some of the gospel).  
The rain didn’t let up completely, but once it was lighter, we thanked our hosts for the tour and hightailed it down the hill toward the shortcut that leads through the forest behind the ecolodge.
One with nature
To end the day on an earthy note, gravity deemed it appropriate for me to become the first Earthwatcher to land tail end in the mud. I think it’s pretty impressive that we’ve made it this far without anyone going for a slide, but boy, what a splash I made!
It was only a few hundred meters from the ecolodge. I was jabbering away to my long-suffering teammates about everything and anything, when all of a sudden, mid-sentence, my feet flew out from under me, and I went sprawling down the muddy bend. I’ll never forget the stunned silence followed by raucous laughter from Elaine and Valerie as they watched me wail and flail in the mud. My boots, pants, shirt, jumper (sweater), raincoat, and backpack were all caked in dirt.
I trudged the last 200 meters (656 feet) to my bungalow, head held high, retaining what shreds of dignity I could. In the comparative warmth of my room, I soothed my cold, muddy rear (and equally bruised ego) with a lukewarm shower—dreading having to go up to dinner because I knew that by then, the ladies would have told the others about my artless fall. So reassuring to know that I provide free entertainment to the Earthwatch team....

Thursday, August 7, 2008 Wet-dog smell
We all smell like wet dog. No matter how many times we change socks, pants, and t-shirts, the Earthwatch team traipses all around San Luis and Monteverde in both a mist of tropical rain and one of canine-like stench. The Cloud Forest is aptly named—the ever-present cloud above the hills douses us regularly, and we end up feeling and reeking of damp and mold.
Jeff and I sped through our surveys this morning, so we were back at the ecolodge by 9 a.m. The wind drove the rain sideways, and although the farm we were on benefits from the most prominent view of the valley and Gulf of Nicoya, it also has the greatest exposure to the elements. We were soaked through by about 7 a.m.
Back at the lab, we dropped off our kit and samples and took a few minutes to warm up. Even in the lab, which is always clean and sterile-like, I could smell the damp from our jackets, pants, and backpacks. I sometimes think we’ve become immune to the stench, but I suspect the folks we interact with are less so. There’s always a slight crinkle in their nose when they see us, but then it disappears as they steel themselves for a few minutes’ conversation with us (and our mildew).
I'm worried that the clothes I’ve washed for the trip back are still so damp that my fellow passengers will ask the stewardesses to lock me in the airplane bathroom.
Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve
We had the afternoon off, so we arranged a visit to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve with the ecolodge’s preferred guide, Oscar (whom I highly recommend to anyone heading that way).
Oscar took us along one of the trails, stopping every so often to point out the tropical birds and insects. He carried a telescope-like set of binoculars that he could set up on a tall tripod in a matter of seconds, aim it at a tree, and then let us look through it at whichever species was there.
Oscar pointed out the smallest things, and I doubt any of us would have noticed these had we been alone. We walked past some leaves that looked like the leaf-cutter ants had been at it. Oscar flipped one of the branches and revealed a humongous, orange, spikey caterpillar. For girls who’ve just spent 10 days hiking in the mud, pulling spiders off our clothes, battling giant mosquitoes, and generally roughing it, Pam and I both screamed and hopped back to a safer distance while the others got close to take pictures. Neither of us are big fans of caterpillars! Butterflies, yes. Caterpillars, no.
At one point, Oscar hushed us and motioned for us to settle down—tiptoeing up the ridge was a papa quail. The quail nervously stuck his head out from under a shrub, pecked his way across a trail, shuffled through some more shrubs, and then cooed to his family to follow. He then made his way across our trail, just a few meters in front, and into the forest. One by one, the mama quail and her toddling brood made their way across the same path. It was definitely an “awwww” moment until Mark, Jeff, and I made some gum-smacking noises and jokes about KFC/KFQ (Kentucky Fried Quail).
We saw rainforest-type raccoons, miniscule snails the size of a baby’s thumbnail, a daunting tarantula, and plenty of weird-looking insects. The highlights for me were the orange-bellied trogon and the hummingbird sitting in her nest, which you’ll see in my photo gallery.
You’ll also see a photo of an immense and complex root system of a fallen tree. Oscar explained that because the topsoil is so fertile, the roots grow extensively horizontally but not very deeply. The trees have less hold on the ground, so in a violent storm, the strong winds can fell a huge tree. On its way down, it takes out the surrounding trees and shrubs. This creates a sort of gap in the rainforest, and over the following years, smaller trees compete for sunlight. The strongest make it to the top and become part of the canopy.
As we were nearing the gates, Oscar stopped us, because he heard the trogon calling. And guess who spotted it! I saw its tail wiggle in the cecropia above me. (Note how smoothly I slipped in the tree’s name—not just any old tree, but a cecropia! I'm getting good at this.)
If any of you are planning a trip to Costa Rica, I strongly recommend spending a few days in the cloud forests. You’ll see such a variety of plant, bird, animal, and insect species regardless of the season. You’ll also see how important ecotourism is to the local area and the value that the locals place on it.
After the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, we headed down toward Santa Elena to pick up some souvenirs from the local women’s and artisans’ cooperative and some decadent, high-fat, locally-made ice cream from the Monteverde Cheese Factory. 
Oldemar and Erci hosted our Earthwatch group and the ecolodge's resident naturalists for dinner last night, with Valerie and Erci making pizzas for every one. It was a very relaxed get together, and we all enjoyed the chance to unwind after the long day. (And who can turn down homemade pizzas with homegrown tomatoes, homemade pesto topping, and locally made mozzarella?)

Friday, August 8, 2008 I tossed and turned last night—wind and rain were pounding away at the corrugated tin roof above our heads—and I had absolutely no desire whatsoever to get out of bed and hike in the rain. Fortunately, the weather cleared by the time we hit the road, and we were treated to a warm, sunny day after that.
Jeff and I re-did three farms to identify some species I missed the first time around and to also bring back some more samples. After measuring them, we ended up eating some—delicious baby bananas and wild yellow plums.
While collecting daphnopsis flowers from Oldemar’s farm, we spotted a sloth high up in the trees. It was hugging a V-shaped branch, peacefully snoozing away the morning.
We worked from 6:30 a.m. until 2 p.m. collecting fruit and flowers and then helping the group with the remaining two farms that needed circular plots and denisometre readings.
I spent the rest of the afternoon doing data entry with Valerie and trying to dry my boots and raincoat—a pointless battle given the rain!

One laptop per child
During a break, I wandered out onto the veranda and bumped into three of the local kids running around with what looked to be plastic lunch boxes. Upon closer inspection, I recognized Nicholas Negroponte’s genius US$200 laptop.

In 2002, Negroponte, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, conducted a study on how connected laptops improved the lives of children and their families in a remote Cambodian village. Here is an excerpt from the project’s website.

If every child in the world had access to a computer, what potential could be unlocked? What problems could be solved? These questions eventually led to the foundation of One Laptop per Child (OLPC), and the creation of the XO laptop.

OLPC’s mission is to provide a means for learning, self-expression, and exploration to the nearly two billion children of the developing world with little or no access to education. While children are by nature eager for knowledge, many countries have insufficient resources to devote to education—sometimes less than US$20 per year per child (compared to an average of US$7,500 in the United States). By giving children their very own connected XO laptop, we are giving them a window to the outside world, access to vast amounts of information, a way to connect with each other, and a springboard into their future. And we’re also helping these countries develop an essential resource—educated, empowered children.

Since the end of last year, communities around the world have been given XO laptops for less than US$200 per unit. This amount covers the cost of the computer, as well as the delivery. In some cases, the laptops are given to the kids directly; in others, to schools or village centers so that a wider population can use them.

The ecolodge has a few laptops that the local children are allowed to borrow. That afternoon, as I watched the kids take photos of one another (and some rather unflattering ones of me!), play computer games, and log on to Spanish websites to look up whatever caught their fancy, I couldn’t stop smiling. The kids weren’t just learning about what they read online, they were, in the words of Negroponte, “actively learning about learning.”

The kids kept poking each other (and their respective laptops), yelling at one another on what to press, what to browse for, what game to play. Even with my pigeon Spanglish, I picked up on the questions they asked each other. As the OLPC website says, “By discovering how to use their XO laptop in new ways and exploring new ideas, children are constantly engaged in a process of learning by doing. And those who are further along in their development can assist other learners, therefore learning by teaching.”

For more information on the One Laptop Per Child program or to gift a laptop, please visit There are also opportunities for getting involved remotely through wikis (collections of web pages), software development and testing, hardware development and repair, translations, and fund-raising (visit

Seeing the kids in San Luis work and play on these amazing tools was my first first-hand experience, and I can testify that this is one of the best development projects I’ve seen in years—affordable, accessible, easy to use, easy to power, and so, so useful for the kids. If you’re looking for something to donate time or money to, I highly recommend One Laptop Per Child. Your investment will have a guaranteed positive impact on the world!

Saturday, August 9, 2008 Emerald toucanets
Today was my first time off the fruit-and-flower team, and I was assigned to toucanet tracking with Alex. Alex was terrific with the radio transmitter and antenna, and he showed me how to aim it at the trees and then quietly track the bird. The closer we got, the greater the signal we saw. Once we had a signal more than 60% strong, we could get closer to the trees/shrubs and look for the bird through our binoculars. Sometimes we’d see it alone, and sometimes with its mate. Sometimes it was foraging for food, and sometimes it simply appeared to be “chilling” and watching the world go by. 

Valerie chose the emerald toucanet as her model species because of its relatively small range (thus making it possible for us to track it on foot), as well as it being specific to this area and both a frugivorous and insectivorous bird.

Once we noted down the bird’s activities, we located the position using a global positioning system (GPS) gadget and then waited half an hour to track it again. Toucaneting (as we call it) is a lot of walking, peering through binoculars, pointing an antenna at trees, and then quietly praying the bird will appear.

La Trapiche
We met up with the rest of the group at Alvarro’s farm before starting circular plots and taking more densiometre readings. Alvarro and his wife, Eliza, then gave us a guided tour of the farm. We’d wandered around it the last two weeks observing birds and fruiting trees and calculating the canopy cover, but this was the first time we got to learn about how and why this couple designed their land as an organic farm. Alvarro and Eliza grow coffee, sugarcane, and a variety of fruits and vegetables, as well as ornamental flowers that attract bees, butterflies, and other pollinators, and shade trees for their coffee plants.

They have a trapiche, too, which is an old-fashioned sugar mill. The one that Alvarro installed is not the original one his grandparents used (he grew up around sugarcane) but is a 60-year-old one that he was able to purchase after much searching. He also bought a huge cast-iron vat to boil the sugarcane juice in. Alvarro told us about his family history and sugarcane processing. He knows there are easier ways to press sugarcane nowadays, but he wants to do it in an environmentally friendly manner and also help preserve the traditional processes for his children, community, and visitors to see.

Eliza cut up slices of sugarcane for us to munch on, and then we were allowed to mill our own jug of sugarcane juice. I was one of the “oxen.” Pam, Jeff, and I pushed the mill around while Elaine and Jennifer fed the sugarcane into the press and collected the juice.

La Dispendia
At the end of every Earthwatch expedition, Valerie has the group organize a farewell party (dispendia) to present the results to the farmers and offer us a chance to say thank you and goodbye. We prepared snacks and dips, and Valerie had ordered two huge, delicious chocolate fudge cakes, too.

Elaine and I wrapped up presents for the kids in layers of newspaper to make a “hot potato” for a game called pass-the-parcel. Everyone sat in a square and passed the parcel from one person to the other while the music played. As soon as the music paused, whoever had the parcel could take off one layer and keep the presents therein. After that, we had a locals versus tourists foosball game. A mountain of Swiss chocolates motivated the teams, and the thrashing we tourists received was stinging. I think the final score was 19-1, and we decided to forfeit and retire with what little dignity we had left. The dispendia was a success, and we were all happy to have had a chance to talk and relax with our friends.

In addition to saying adios to our hosts, we had to say hasta luego to our teammate Mark. His flight is at some inhumane hour on Monday morning, so he had to be up early on Sunday to get a bus down to San Jose.

After the party cleanup, we ended the evening with some Imperial (Costa Rica's national brew) and more storytelling on our bungalow’s porch. One of the my favorite parts of the trip has been the evening talks—similar to the campfire moments from childhood with just as many bugs gnawing at our exposed limbs, but with more comfortable chairs and the sweet humidity of the rainforest’s night air.

Sunday, August 10, 2008 Team Butterfly
Another Sunday lie-in till 7:30 a.m. What bliss!

After breakfast, we split up into groups to accompany some high school students from the Bay Area in San Francisco on their first day of activities here in San Luis. I was assigned to the pollinator team—they have to collect bees, moths, and butterflies from two particular plants (hamelia and verbena) and observe flower visitation patterns and counts. Accompanying us were Elaine and another visitor, Heidi, a biology teacher from Washington.

We hiked up to Oldemar’s farm, and I showed the girls what hamelia and verbena shrubs looked like. The wind was very strong, so we then moved to Gilbert’s farm where the girls caught several butterflies. We ended the morning at Alvarro’s, catching more pollinators and meeting up with Pam and Jeff's team.

It was a really fun morning. I completely understand why my teammates enjoy their work as teachers. I didn’t get to impart much to the girls assigned to me, but I had a lovely time listening to them tell me about their current studies and academic aspirations, and watching them lope around after butterflies and bees.

Pam, Jeff, Mark, Jennifer, and Alice are all on the project as part of an Earthwatch study. Each of them has one or more “control” teachers at their schools who do not participate in Earthwatch expeditions. After they return home, tests will be conducted to see how their involvement in Earthwatch has enhanced their teaching and what the students get out of it. I’ve sat with them after dinner some nights discussing how they will integrate what they learned and experienced on this trip into their class activities and coursework.

If there are teachers out there reading this diary, why not get involved? There are plenty of opportunities for educational and service projects with organizations that award teachers fellowships and/or grants to subsidize participation. In some cases, you work as part of the team; in others you act as a chaperone. Some options include:
  • Listing of grants available to teachers
It’s important that teachers spend time in the field and experience their “subjects” personally. I am certain that my Earthwatch teammates will take back valuable memories, knowledge, and visual aids from their Costa Rica trips to their classrooms later this fall.

Orchids, Belmar, and data entry
After lunch, Heidi and I took a minibus into town, where I tracked down some stamps and books. Heidi had to take a bus back to San Jose (we’re meeting up on Tuesday when I'm back there), and I visited Monteverde’s Orchid Garden. I got to see a specimen of the smallest orchid found in the rainforest and other delicately shaped flowers. I then hiked toward Bajo del Tigre, hoping to get a glimpse of the permaculture gardens a friend had told me about. After an hour, I was exhausted and about to give up and get a ride back to the ecolodge when I saw the sign for the Hotel Belmar.

My brother went to a hotel management school in Switzerland, and one of his classmate’s family owns and runs the Belmar. So I pushed myself up the hill for another kilometer or so just to get a peek—and was rewarded with a spectacular view of the Gulf of Nicoya and the chance to spot birds in the hotel’s lush garden. I pulled out my binoculars and bird cards and spent an hour gazing at the tanagers and wrens that whistled around, while luxuriously sipping coffee and lounging on the balcony. My muddy boots, dog-pawed pants, and sweaty shirt were slightly out-of-place in this posh sanctuary atop Monteverde, but it was worth it! (If you're headed to Monteverde and are more of a spa-going tourist than a camper, try—you won’t be disappointed!)

The sun was beginning to set, so I wistfully left the Belmar and made my way back to the ecolodge. I did some more data entry with Valerie and spent my last night at the ecolodge chatting with Pam and Jeff.  

Monday, August 11, 2008 Adios, ecolodge
Waking up at the usual 5/5:30 a.m., we dressed for the drive to the airport instead of our daily hike up the hills. Pam and I had packed the night before, so we just had to zip our backpacks and do a quick clean of the bungalow.

We congregated on the porch and had a last wistful look at the mountains and tree line. Jennifer saw five blue-crested motmots in one single tree—more than I’ve seen in the whole trip! As I dragged my bag to the gate, I saw two flycatchers and some toads—significantly less appealing than the motmots.

Having piled our gear into the minibus, we bid Valerie farewell and began the four-hour journey back down to San Jose/Alajuela. The first five minutes were quiet, and then we all started talking, mostly about the highlights of the trip and a few comments on what we’ll each do when we get back home. We quickly moved on to the top five Mark stories. He only left a day early, but he left a huge hole! None of us can compare to Mark’s level of storytelling.

We reached the airport by 10 a.m., giving plenty of time for everyone to check in, exchange colones for dollars, and do some last-minute shopping. That is, everyone but me. I’m leaving on Wednesday, so I had to say goodbye to the team at the airport. After two weeks with these folks, I was quite torn up at having to part ways with them. Back in the minibus, I stared at the suburbs as we drove by, pondering my next steps, both short- and long-term. (These included the quintessentially superficial questions like where should I have lunch? Should I skip the Pre-Colombian Gold Museum in favor of the National Theatre? And the more philosophical ones—how do I relate this amazing experience to my friends and colleagues when I get back? What impact can I have back home?)

Birds, coffee & conservation
I thought about what we’d learned over the past two weeks and tried to mentally summarize the environmental concepts, various tasks, and, most importantly, the results into some logical categories. What does the research show? Here is an amateur summary.

I identified the following short-term impacts of Valerie’s research:
  • All farms:
    • Have diversified their crops (added vegetables, bananas, and other fruiting trees), which gives them something to fall back on during poor coffee seasons; provides more fruit and vegetables for home and local consumption; attracts more birds and pollinators, such as bees and butterflies; and enhances the esthetics of the farm (making it more attractive to ecotourists); and
    • Increased their shade tree coverage (attracting more birds).
  • Two farms have started ecotourist visits:
    • Sustainable coffee cultivation and processing;
    • Tropical birds and butterflies; and
    • Traditional sugarcane cultivation and processing.
  • One farm left the local cooperative and started processing and selling its own coffee
In the long term, Valerie’s research will have more wide-reaching effects:
  • Four more Earthwatch teams will assist Valerie between now and the end of 2009 (so at least 25 more “amateur researchers” will get to learn about the importance of conservation and biodiversity to sustainable coffee farming); and
  • Valerie will submit her paper and hopefully:
    • The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center will use her data and recommendations to support their conservation and lobbying efforts; and
    • Locally, a set of recommendations for organic and bird-friendly farming could be presented to farmers and cooperatives, empowering them to continuously improve their farms.
Before leaving, some colleagues asked me, “Why does Alcoa send you guys on a trip to Costa Rica? What’s someone from human resources got to do with Earthwatch?” I blushed and blustered my way through it before coming to Monteverde, but now I can reply with far greater conviction on why it’s important that companies such as ours send ordinary employees like Alex and me on trips like these. Volunteers obviously provide free manpower to the scientists, but more importantly, upon our return home, we can raise awareness of the issues we witnessed with our own eyes. We can seek to apply sustainability principles learned in a field setting to our home, office, or community settings. Similarly, why does Earthwatch send teachers? Because it provides priceless field experience to educators who then go back and share it with their students, imparting first-hand knowledge and understanding to the next generations.

We basically bring back real-life examples to our respective classrooms and offices—and not just on the first day we get back and that’s it. Oh no! These sorts of trips can really have an impact on a volunteer and make us voluntarily alter our own behavior (e.g., more recycling-conscious) and actions (e.g., choosing organic and fair-trade produce), and hopefully this will have a positive knock-on effect around us.

On a more personal level, I got so much more out of this trip than I could have hoped for.

I made great friends. I learned a lot about teamwork. I deepened an already profound respect for the teaching profession through my interactions with my fellow Earthwatchers. I broadened my understanding of sustainable farming practices. I met both humbling and inspiring people who care greatly for their families, land, and community. And, the trip strengthened my commitment to sustainable development.

So long, and thanks for all the fish…I mean coffee!
And there you have it, faithful readers, the end of a short but fantastic era.

To end the official part of my diary, I’d like to make a few acknowledgements. First and foremost to Alcoa and the Earthwatch organization for giving me this opportunity. Next I owe a big thank you to the staff at the ecolodge for their gracious hospitality. Gracias to the families who allowed us to traipse all over their plantations and welcomed our muddy boots into their homes, and to our lead Social Flycatcher, Valerie, for letting us help out on the project. And last but certainly not least, to my fabulous Team Chachalaca—Pam, Jeff, Elaine, Jennifer, Alice, Mark, and Alex. Thanks for making this one of the most memorable and enjoyable learning experiences ever.

Pura vida !

Photo Gallery

View the images from Vivienne Talbot's diary.

Earthwatch Institute

Learn more about this international nonprofit, which supports scientific field research worldwide.

Costa Rica's Sustainable Coffee

Learn more about the expedition and its scientists.