The Red Hot Chili Pepper

Written by Richard Hsieh

It was our fourth day in Costa Rica when we visited Villas Mastatal to learn more about their ways of sustainable farming. To provide some background, Villas Mastatal is situated right next to La Cangreja National Park and a short walk to the town of Mastatal, where we stayed. Villas Mastatal is an educational, organic farm that is deeply rooted in the local community, displays sustainable design and architecture, practices regenerative agriculture, and offers educational learning for student groups and individuals.

Even though all the farms we visited were unique, we still found commonalities amongst them, such as composting toilets. As we toured the farm, it was cool to hear about different strategies that they specifically implemented for organic farming. Unlike mass farming, organic farming requires a lot of attention on individual crops. For example, Javier, the owner of Villas Mastatal, explained that he would plant corn in certain places so the bugs will eat that instead of the other crops.

Just one of the plants on this huge and diverse property!

Just one of the plants on this huge and diverse property!

During our tour, smelling and tasting plants were nothing new for my peers and me. From cinnamon to mint to lemongrass, we smelled it all! It was really interesting to see the food we eat every day in its original form. Just when I thought that every plant or leaf tasted and smelled the same, boy was I wrong!  Javier pointed to some shiny red chili peppers and talked about the use of it. All I remember was being eager to try it because Javier said we could. Being adventurous, I like to try everything and seeing a beautiful chili pepper sure did not stop me from trying it too.

Initially, when I took my first bite, I did not think it was that spicy. However, things started to change and my throat, chest, and stomach felt funny.  In no time at all, I felt very sick. As we walked on to see more parts of the farm, I grew ill and weak. I remember that I could barely stand— my whole body began to feel frail and all of a sudden, my hands started tingling and grew numb.in the mouth It was crazy how quickly it all happened! After that, I remember Jennifer, Tim, Marcos, Ryan, and some of my peers taking me to a shady, grassy area to sit down. They cooled me down by taking off my shoes, fanning me, giving me water, and pouring water down my shirt. In addition, they fed me cookies and honey, freshly-squeezed milk, and a cool tea that tasted delicious! It all really helped me recuperate and get my senses back together. I felt a little guilty because I was spoiled with all this attention and food, but I secretly enjoyed it, nonetheless. Soon after, I was full of energy and excited to get back on my feet to continue on.  I felt like a new person!

This was a huge “ah-ha” moment for me because first, I learned that I should pay a bit more attention before shoving any type of food in my mouth. Second, I realized that I should not act so strong and stubborn at times and take more prudence before doing anything foolish; in other words, think before taking action, which I fail to do a lot. happy nowLastly, I realized how blessed and grateful I am to have so many caring and compassionate people along this trip who really supported and helped me during difficult times.  Although the spice and weakness I felt from eating the pepper overcame me, looking back, it is a reminder of the things I learned and risks I have taken in Costa Rica.

 

Happy Jack

Generalizations: we all make them from time to time, thinking we know a person’s story before they even open their mouth to tell us.  Perhaps one of the most prevalent generalizations out there is the one that the young generation puts on the older generation.  There always seems to be this idea that because of their age, the older adults are somehow stuck in old-fashioned or outdated ideals.  Jack Ewing of Hacienda Baru puts an end to this flawed set of assumptions by defying all expectations that the young have of the older generation.

Stopping to pose at a very old tree

Stopping to pose at a very old tree

Something about Jack reminded me instantly of my grandfather.  I do not know if it was the slight twang he had in his voice, or something about his overall demeanor that instantly made me think that he was a country-raised, “red-blooded” American, just like my grandpa had been.  Of course, I formed these opinions before I actually started listening to him, rather than just hearing.  Jack Ewing, property manager of Hacienda Baru, had come to Costa Rica on a temporary cattle-rearing contract back when the land was being used for cow-grazing.  He uprooted his growing family in the hopes of getting a change of scenery and an adventure before really settling down in the USA and starting a life.  For the first couple months, Jack felt no real attachment to his surroundings.

A million shades of green

A million shades of green

He was there to do a job, not to cohabitate with nature, and he did just that.  It wasn’t until he extended his contract in Costa Rica that he finally started to look around.  Without having realized it, Jack had been ignoring the slowly diminishing rainforest around him since his arrival in Costa Rica.  He had been too distracted with hunting and cultivating the land to form any attachment to it.

Once Jack began taking note of his environment, there was no possibility of turning back to any other life.  From that point forward, Jack poured himself tirelessly into making Hacienda Baru live up to its potential.  He began by reforesting the area with the seeds of trees that had become endangered.  In this way, he not only reforested large portions of Hacienda Baru’s landscape but also helped to reduce the risk of extinction for the formerly at-risk tree species.  Jack also helped in stopping hunting on the grounds of Hacienda Baru.  This change, in particular, struck me as a true measure of how far Jack’s thinking had come over the years.  From a man who hunted on Hacienda Baru, to a man that was willing to prosecute those who did, Jack Ewing’s mind had become forever changed.

Nothing but smiles at Hacienda Baru

Nothing but smiles at Hacienda Baru

 

When one of the participants asked Jack why he had chosen to switch to an environmentally-friendly lifestyle, he simply responded that after his mindset started switching, he would have felt false living any other way.  Going back to his cattle-rearing life of before would have made Jack incapable of looking his coworkers in the eye out of shame.  So in a way, it seems like the stereotypes about older adults are right in this case.  Jack Ewing is firmly stuck in his ways and will never change.  It just so happens that “the ways” he is stuck in are singlehandedly helping to create a healthier planet for the younger generation to live.  My generation might complain about how the older generation never changes, but at the end of the day, the world would prosper if more people like Jack were “stuck” in environmentalism.

When It Rains, It Pours

Written by Marissa Pham

I think it is safe to say we all faced some pretty heavy extremes during our trip when it came to weather. Being SoCal natives, we don’t know ANYTHING about rain or humidity when we’re encompassed in sunshine all day, every day. So feeling the rain for the first time on our hike back from the river during our second day in Mastatal is an experience I will never fully be able to capture again. As we trekked up the giant, red-soiled hill in the 85°+F temperature, these huge raindrops began to drop one by one, and by huge, I mean massive. These raindrops had to have been at least half an inch in diameter! The raindrops continued to come down slowly and gracefully. Once we had reached the top of the hill and come back down to the main road, there was a small section of concrete paved on the side of the dirt road where we could see the rain meet the pavement. The strange thing was the pavement looked completely dry as rain continued to splash on it. After watching closely, we realized that as the water hit the ground, the air around us was so hot, it was causing the water to almost instantly evaporate after contact! We could literally watch a raindrop hit the concrete, and watch the dark, wet mark slowly disappear within about five seconds. It was incredible to watch it happen so naturally. In an area where this is normal, we were all incredibly baffled when we realized this isn’t something we would ever see back at home.

 

2 puppies look out over the mist

2 puppies look out over the mist

Moments after we made it back to the farm, we realized how lucky we actually were. Just minutes after we had arrived, the rain started coming down in sheets. The power of the rain was unbelievable. The drops were coming down so forcefully, it sounded like hail as it hit any hard surface. But it wasn’t hail, obviously; they were huge raindrop pellets. Listening to the rain hit the earth was thunderous, and looking out, you couldn’t even see rain falling because there was so much and it was coming down so fast. But stepping out from shelter, we could feel the difference in nature from a different part of the world. Seeing, feeling, and listening to that rain was proof to me and proof to many of us that our environment is capable of more things that we can imagine.

Rain clouds looming over the mountains

Rain clouds looming over the mountains

As the rain came to a halt, the world around us seemed to be at some kind of ease and serenity. After hearing what sounded like constant thunder for about twenty minutes, everything seemed so peaceful, it was almost surreal. Looking out toward the hills from the kitchen, there was a strange fog rolling over that looked ready to devour anything it its path. It was scary at first, until we discovered that it was actually mist emerging from the evaporation of the rain from the heat. We were literally watching the effect of water evaporating before our eyes.

Painting a school in the rain!

Painting a school in the rain!

Needless to say, it meant the humidity level cranked up over one hundred percent. It was okay, though, because although we were drowning in the moisture in the air, we had witnessed a part of nature that many people would never get to experience. We discovered something new this day, and we all felt something beyond words.

The 2014 UCI Costa Rica Research Symposium

Written by Shannon Lee

The 2014 UCI Costa Rica Research Symposium was hosted on May 6th, 2014 from 4:30 PM to 7:00 PM in Pacific Ballroom A and B. The symposium allowed each of the seventeen program participants to share the overall impact of the program and the research conducted in Costa Rica. The first forty-five minutes of the symposium was allocated to a short presentation consisting of video clips on what the participants encountered while abroad and the meaning of “Pura Vida,” the slogan of Costa Rica, speeches on the impact of the program, as well as a formal thank you to stakeholders, coordinators, and guests. After the presentation, there was still much time for guests to walk around and see the research each participant conducted.  Guests were also free to take delicious, sustainably sourced food provided by UCI Catering.

Shannon Lee explains her research to 2 of the attendees

Shannon Lee explains her research to 2 of the attendees

Although the symposium was only two and a half hours, an immense amount of time and effort was put into making the event a success. After coming back from Costa Rica, participants hit the ground running to prepare for the symposium, including completing their research poster boards in an effort to showcase their works in just five short weeks. This year, the program’s symposium committee expressed a desire to articulate each detail that would be presented in the two and a half hour event in order to truly explain the experience and the impact. For instance, the food for the event was supposed to be 100% environmentally-friendly. Unfortunately, due to the high costs, this goal was compensated with Greenware, compostable plates, cups, and forks.

Some of the participants throwing up a Zot at the end of the symposium!

Some of the participants throwing up a Zot at the end of the symposium!

This showed the committee that sustainability unfortunately comes at a steep price in a country that is not as sustainable as the parts of Costa Rica we had been in just six weeks prior. In addition, the music of the event was partitioned into two time periods. At the beginning of the event and prior to the presentation, the music consisted of music commonly listened to students today. This was a representation of the seventeen pre-trip participants, who would soon be immersed in the Costa Rican culture and nature. The music after the presentation was limited to the sound of the rainforests, expressing a vision of Costa Rica and the natural sounds that we heard over the course of our ten-day trip.
Alongside those details, the main purpose for the symposium was truly for the participants to share their research and lessons learned. Students not only had the opportunity to be fully immersed in the Costa Rican culture and learn about environmental sustainability, but also had the chance the do a research project. Topics ranged from the benefits of Human Waste Composting to the importance of nutrition in primary schools; from the reasoning behind living a sustainable lifestyle to the overall change in perspectives of the seventeen participants after the program. Overall, participants used this time to share what they uncovered and even shared a bit about their personal experience.

Some of the attendees enjoying the delicious food at the event!

Some of the attendees enjoying the delicious food at the event!

Although the research symposium was a short period of time, the impact from the experience of the program, as well as the teamwork necessary to make the symposium a success will always be remembered. We hope that those in attendance had the opportunity to not only learn a little bit about Costa Rica and environmental sustainability, but also were encouraged to take action in their community to become more environmental-friendly and culturally-competent.

Bitten by Knowledge

Written by Breanne Downs

While hiking through the jungle in Hacienda Baru, I saw millions of ants crawling through the dirt. Our tour guides warned us about the danger of army ants as we crossed into their territory. I cautiously watched my step and avoided their trails because I did not want to destroy their home.

13611093165_e974a991ee_z

Ants can carry 10 – 50 times their body weight. These leaves were no challenge!

We were surrounded by army and leaf cutter ants as we made our way towards our cabins. I was accustomed to small, pesky ants crawling into my space and taking over my food. These ants were bigger than the black ants that invade my kitchen and sneak into my jar of honey.

            The leaf cutter ants grabbed my attention because some of them were carrying giant leaves on their backs. The green leaves on the jungle floor appeared as if they were moving by themselves because the ants utilized their entire bodies to carry the leaves back to their colony. I kneeled down to catch a better glimpse and saw that small black ants were running throughout the trail. These ants were checking the different types of leaves for fungi and our tour guide jokingly called them “quality control”. Their job was to make sure that the leaves did not carry any diseases that could harm and potentially eliminate their colony.

The bustling trail only consisted of female leaf cutter ants. The female ants were considered the workers within the colony. I was reminded of Beyonce’s uplifting song empowering girls throughout the world to take charge of their own communities. The female ants provided their colony with leaves, berries, and flowers that served as materials for shelter. They carried these materials to the queen who was the biggest and most powerful ant within the colony.

Our tour guide showing us an army ant up close

Our tour guide showing us an army ant up close

The workers gathered materials far away from their colony because they wanted to stay dry under piles of leaves that created a natural umbrella during the rainy season. Some ants travel approximately 1/2 mile in order to secure their supplies. I did not know that the ants were blind because their trail paralleled a crowded freeway in Los Angeles, California. I was reminded of a freeway because of their ability to create lanes for different directions and move at similar speeds. Some ants acted as policemen because they quickly removed any unwanted leaves that blocked the roads and disrupted the flow of traffic.

Did you know that the jaw of an ant can be used in place of stitches?!

Did you know that the jaw of an ant can be used in place of stitches?!

Before this trip, I knew nothing about my least favorite insect. In my mind, all ants were annoying and scary due to their ability to crawl into small crevasses. I carried my negative generalizations about ants into Costa Rica and I now realize that my lack of knowledge fueled my fears. The tour guides provided me with armor against my greatest enemy in the jungle because they explained the daily lives of leaf cutter ants. My newfound knowledge allowed me to see that they were hard-working and motivated insects trying to fulfill their purpose within their community. Regardless of size, every living being has a place in the animal kingdom.

¿Cómo se dice? A Conversation with My Homestay Family

Written by Antonia Bacigalupa Albaum

When the bus dropped Olivia and myself off at our homestay in Mastatal, I walked up to the house feeling apprehensive. Marcos wouldn’t be here to translate, nor would the other students who grew up speaking Spanish, and our home stay mom, Lisbeth, didn’t speak English. It was just Olivia, myself, and my Spanish/English dictionary. We introduced ourselves in Spanish, Lisbeth spoke slowly for us and we were able to understand her as she introduced herself and her eighteen month old son, Isaac. She was finishing up dinner so we hung out in the side yard with her litter of two month old puppies, watching the sunset over the valley.

toni picture 3

The view of the valley from the kitchen

After dinner, we sat on the couch and chatted with Lisbeth in Spanish, occasionally looking up words. The television was on and I noticed that some commercials had a sign language translator in the bottom corner. Pointing, I asked Lisbeth why the translator was there and she explained that there was a law that mandated all political ads to have ASL translators to provide equal access to the information for Costa Ricans. This information led to a much longer conversation about politics and the electoral system in Costa Rica.

Elections began around November with each of the thirteen political parties putting forward one candidate. In February, the Costa Ricans vote on the thirteen candidates and the candidate with the most votes wins the election and becomes president.

Hanging out with the litter of two-month old puppies

Hanging out with the litter of two-month old puppies

This year, two candidates received twenty five percent of the vote so another round of campaigning was in place, which is why we were seeing campaign ads on the television in March. The two candidates had until the second round of voting on April sixth to convince the Costa Ricans that their view for Costa Rica was best.

This multiparty type of political system was wildly different from that in the United States and I continued asking Lisbeth questions about the candidates and their campaigns. She explained to me that each of the thirteen parties had different stances which made it difficult to choose a candidate. As an avid follower of politics in the U.S., I am very aware of the finance laws that govern U.S. campaigns and I asked her how campaigns were financed in Costa Rica. She explained that there was an organization within the government that handled finances for the campaigns. At the beginning of election season, each campaign was given a set amount of money, paid for by the government. There was no outside funding and all of the candidates were given an equal amount of funding.

Hearing this, I explained how campaigns are funded in the United States. Her first question to me was, “Doesn’t that cause a lot of corruption?” I had to admit that I thought it did.

Staying with Lisbeth and her family was the first time that I had ever been put into a position where the option of communicating comfortably in English wasn’t available. Although I was extremely nervous at first to have to rely on the Spanish I had learned in school, I soon realized that I understood the majority of what she said and she was able to understand my Spanish, even when I used the wrong verb tenses (which happened quite often). Her patience with my Spanish and her kindness in teaching me new words (hormigas—ants, murciélago—bat etc.) gave me the confidence to keep speaking.

My host family and myself hanging out in the living room

My host family and myself hanging out in the living room

Our conversations ranged from the elections in Costa Rica to the protests in Venezuela to her favorite telenovela, Avenida Brasil. I will miss chatting with her and waking up to a soft knock on the door and Lisbeth calling “Buenos días!”

Never Have I Ever…

Written by Diego Sanchez

The day started when our group headed to “La Casa de Tiburon”. It begun like every other day we spent in Costa Rica—the schedule was very spontaneous and I never knew what to expect. The beautiful walk up to “La Casa de Tiburon”, or Tiburon’s House, the path seemed so unreal with the road filled by green scenery and bamboo trees. As the sun beat hard overhead, I decided to wear my Ray Ban sunglasses. Although not the best idea

to take these glasses on the trip, it was hard to leave them behind after I had taken them with me to every destination I traveled to in college. Once we arrived to the house, I was amazed by the structure, seeming less like a house and more like a vacation home, made from bamboo and other locally cut wood from the area. The first thing I did was rush to take as many pictures from the home looking out on the picturesque scenery of La Cangreja National Park in the distance.

I decided to head over to the bathroom and by no surprise, there was yet another composting toilet!

One of many glamorous wooden compost toilets we encountered on our trip.

One of many glamorous wooden compost toilets we encountered on our trip.

This one was a bit different, however, and not because it actually had a toilet seat, but because when I opened the top, down below there was a dark, black layer of 2-3 inch large cockroaches! I was astonished and decided to take a picture. Little did I know, I had forgotten that I placed my sunglasses on my head. As I leaned forward to take a picture of the cockroaches at the bottom of the composting toilet, my sunglasses fell into the 4-foot deep composting toilet.

Let's play a game.  Find the glasses in the pile of cockroaches!

Let’s play a game. Find the glasses in the pile of cockroaches!

I stood in shock, not knowing how to react to the situation at hand.  Our instructor, Jennifer called over Ryan, one our awesome tour guides throughout the trip, and he tried to get my sunglasses out. Minutes passed by without success. I was creating such a scene because I did not know what to do, when someone suggested moving the toilet and reaching in to grab the sunglasses. I looked at the people around me and their looks said it all.

“Diego, how badly do you want your glasses?” Someone asked from the crowd.

I wanted them back so badly, and I knew I had to reach in the composting toilet, surrounded by cockroaches, and grab them. I posed for several pictures as I reached in—I then realized this would definitely be a story for the books.

This experience taught me about willingness to do new things, and how effective it is to push boundaries I never thought could be reached before. Much like every activity on the trip, I was pushed to challenge myself in many ways that helped me grow and see things from new perspectives.

Sometimes there are invisible boundaries, which we set up for ourselves that makes us stay enclosed and allow us to live in fear. Never have I ever imagined myself reaching into a compost toilet for something I valued so much. This program and specifically this experience sparked curiosity in me and I have taken away the value of “willingness” to find new life experiences that at the moment may seem challenging, but will turn into memories shared with other individuals I can reflect and look back on.

The post-compost toilet cleaning of the glasses

The post-compost toilet cleaning of the glasses