Saturday, April 23, 2011

We've moved!

I have moved the Strangecrossing blog from Blogger over to Wordpress. You can now find new Strange Crossing posts at All old posts and comments (everything originally posted here on blogger) have been imported into Wordpress, so if you want to read or comment, please do so there, not here!

This site will no longer be updated, and comments to posts here will no longer be moterated/approved.

Monday, April 27, 2009

İEso Es!

As I begin to write this, my stomach is digesting the unfortunate beef sandwich I had to walk to the back of the airplane cabin to get, after sleeping through the passing of the meal cart. The bland yellow dessert that accompanied it, I think an attempt at lemon meringue, was a far cry from the one Alba, my friend's host mom, had made on Wednesday for the end of semester host family banquet.

If I do actually have any regular readers, I apologize to you for not posting in a while. If blogging has a cardinal sin, It's got to be getting so far behind in writing that thinking about all the stories you should have told becomes a bigger mental block to writing than whatever kept you from writing in the first place. I stopped writing because school got really overwhelming for a time, and am only now getting around to catching up.

And I have been really busy: the last few weeks included making a video about a local farmer to display at the weekly farmers' market, doing a massive lab on local water health as compared to land use and deforestation, performing an oral history project about a fifty year old Scrabble guide book one of the original Quaker settlers made by hand by sifting through her unabridged dictionary, and reading and translating studies performed by Institute students over the last fifteen years to make a booklet – in Spanish – that documents the studies for distribution among the twenty or so farmers who have year after year allowed students to perform experiments on their land without ever having seen the results of those tests, the caferos (coffee farmers) of the Santa Elena Coffee Cooperative, and anyone else in the zone who interested in the research.

Add on to that room draw, class registration, finishing my thesis proposal, and campaigning to be president of the Goucher Student Government Association from abroad, and it becomes pretty obvious why my better habits from the first half of the semester (doing yoga, teaching myself how to play guitar, going to sleep early, and writing in my blog) have gone to the wayside.
The social tension I mentioned in my last post, which had been at a high around Spring Break, has long since dissipated, and everyone in the group, practically without exception, seemed to enjoy each other's company for the second half of the semester. I think there is something about pilot programs that has a tendency to produce amazing group dynamics; I'm not sure whether it's the type of people who are willing to risk a new program without assurances of what to expect, the environment of the pilot itself that induces a sort of open mindedness and willingness to go with the flow, or something else entirely. Either way, this group of twenty three has been really remarkable, both in intelligence and excitement about our projects as well as the ability to always find time for fun, be it playing twenty questions on long bus rides, joking with the bartender at Moon Shiva (the bar we frequent), or breaking out into rousing choruses of Beatles songs or “Build me up buttercup” as we work away the night by the light of our laptop screens at the Institute.
The semester has ended, and due to an amazing confluence of circumstances (a whole lot of friends graduating in May, Student Government elections, David Plouffe speaking at Goucher, dirt cheap plane tickets, and a possible White House tour) I'm on my way back to Baltimore for a week before returning to Costa Rica to do independent research. It has been an absolute pleasure spending so much time with this group of people, and while it doesn't need proving, the many tears shed over the last few days have definitely shown how much we are going to miss each other as we go our separate ways.
We spent the beginning of this week presenting a wide range of projects to a surprisingly large number of people from the local community at our two-day final symposium. The presentations were awesome: almost always interesting and useful to both the students and the audience. Unfortunately, after giving two out of three presentations in Spanish (one on about 5 minutes' notice when the Institute's new simultaneous translation equipment didn't work) and getting only two and a half hours of sleep on Monday night, I spent much of Tuesday afternoon sleeping in the library instead of listening to my friends present.
For our “Development and Social Change in Costa Rica” course, we presented oral histories of local items of material culture, included a 100 meter long tunnel that had been used 30 years ago to bring water under a hill to Monteverde's first electric generator, a massive wooden mortar and pestle called a metate, used before mechanized versions existed to remove coffee fruits from their outer shells, and Hillary's and my old Scrabble guide. 
Student in the “Field Methods in Tropical Ecology” class presented experiments on firefly mating, strangler fig soil content, and butterfly diversity, (Emma and I went overtime trying to explain all the results of our macroinvertebrate communities and land use experiment) while those in the anthropology course presented works on informal food exchange networks, cigarette culture, and raw milk trade.

Finally, presentations for our Environmental Sustainability class stretched from project proposals suggesting that the Institute create a permaculture garden and build two composting toilets to a research project about biodigesters, a documentary video about CO2 emissions and personal automobile use in the Monteverde area, and Sarah's and my Cosecha de Cienca (Harvest of Science) book documenting fifteen experiments about shade-grown coffee, organic fungicides, and biodiversity protection on farms.
Elise, me, Emma, and Erin on the caminata (walkathon) fundraiser for the Monteverde Friends School. Volcan Arenal is behind us.

After the presentations on Tuesday, one of our professors stood up to make closing remarks. Pati, our extremely well-loved, absolutely insane, enthusiastic about everything but especially insects, sing alongs, and homemade documentaries, mother of a toddler, Ecuadorian resident-ecologist and professor began to recount when she first met us in San Jose, a day or two after our arrival in January. “One hundred and ten days ago, hace ciento y dies dias...” 
I am not the kind of writer who can put words to those feelings and emotions, for fear that doing so (and even writing this) will come off as cheesy and shallow. What followed was a bilingual thank-you-fest, with each of our professors and Janelle, the executive director of the Monteverde Institute, standing up and saying a few words about how amazing the last three months have been, flowing back and forth between English and Spanish without thought. After they took their turns, I stood up to attempt to thank them on behalf of the group, who become for us so much more than just professors. Usually impervious to tears, I felt my voice crack as I tried to find the words to thank them for being our mother-away-from home (Lynn), our motivators, and our therapists, as well as amazing professors.

The next evening (Tuesday night we had a bonfire at Anibal's house and then a party thrown for us at Moon Shiva – we had been a substantial portion of their client base since we arrived in January) the Institute threw a banquet party for all of the host families who had taken us in, and for the first time I was struck by how much of an impact we had been making on the community. We've always known Santa Elena was was a small place – each of our host families was related to or good friends with at least a half dozen others' – but seeing the 150 people who had fed us and packed our lunches and washed our clothes and taught us Spanish all in one place talking and joking with each other for the first time since the day we arrived was startling.

After the meal, Anibal brought out two Piñatas: the first was for all the host families' kids, and the second was for us, the soon to pack their bags students. All hell broke lose as kids and older kids alike made fools of themselves, nearly lopping off heads with the broomstick as they swung blindfolded at the piñata and the entire crowd cheered them on, yelling directions in Spanish and English simultaneously. “Abajo! Abajo! To your left! A su derecha! Izquierda, izquierda! Atras! Behind you! Eso es!”

I was hit by this overwhelming sense of how lucky I, and we all, are to be able to participate in such a program and be so lovingly accepted into such a wonderful community. Even though the person standing next to me spoke English, I automatically went to translate that feeling into Spanish, but could not for the life of me remember the word “suerte,” “luck.” So I did what anyone surrounded by a new language learns to do so well: I figured out how to say it in different words.
Tengo mas que debo tener.” “I have more than I deserve to have.”

Sunday, March 22, 2009


Like my last post, lots of short stories. Hopefully another full post is coming soon.

1. I like chocolate now.

Whhhhhhhhhaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat? I know. I don't even know what to do or where to begin. I have so many years to catch up from.

Ok, Parents – I know you're reading this. Take a deep breath. I AM ACTUALLY YOUR CHILD. There is no more question about it. I feel like I finally joined the family I've just been pretending to be a part of for the last 21 years.

Can I say it again? I think I like chocolate. Weird.

It all started about three weeks ago, the week before our Spring Break. Lynn, our anthropology professor, is also a star baker and has baked a cake of some sort for every birthday thus far on the program.

It was Haeinn's birthday, and Lynn baked an oatmeal chocolate chip cake. After singing, we're all standing around talking and a piece of the cake gets placed in my hands. I didn't want to be rude, and telling people that yes, I really don't like chocolate has gotten pretty tiring after a decade and a half, so I said thank you and graciously accepted the slice.

I took a nibble, and realized that I didn't hate it. I took another one, trying to break the one-chew-avoid-the-tongue-and-swallow habit I have had so long to build up, and the damn thing wasn't that bad.

I asked Lynn – It didn't have too much chocolate, she said. I chalked it up to her amazing baking ability and moved on. In hindsight, though, that cake played a pretty important role in my life. So, mom, if you're looking to make me a homecoming surprise:

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cake

1-3/4 cups boiling water

1 cup oatmeal, uncooked

1 cup brown sugar, lightly packed

1 cup white sugar

2 large eggs

1-3/4 cups flour, unsifted

1 tsp. Baking soda

½ tsp. Salt

1 Tablespoon cocoa

12-oz package semi-sweet chocolate chips

¾ cups nuts, chopped

½ cup margarine

Mix the oatmeal, margarine and sugars together. Pour in the boiling water and let stand for 10 minutes. Add the eggs and mix well. Sift the remaining dry ingredients together and add to the sugar mixture. Add about one half of the chocolate chips and mix well. Pour into a 9 x 13-inch greased and floured cake pan. Sprinkle remaining chips and nuts over the top. Bake at 350 degrees for about 40 minutes. Test by using wooden pick inserted in the center.

Moist, delicious, freezes well.

From Great Plains Cooking, P.E.O. Chapter AA, Wray, Colorado

Can you tell she's a Doctor of Anthropology? I don't think I've seen anyone cite the cookbook before.

Anyway, the real surprise came on Saturday morning of Spring Break. Jesse and Genna had borrowed Lynn's inlaws' kitchen to cook a cake for Jim, our professor who two days earlier had his laptop stolen on the bus from San Jose, and some brownies for the road trip. I had a brownie on the bus as we drove away from Monteverde, and I liked it. I liked a brownie.

Dave's parents are in town this week, and last night they took a couple of us out to dinner. For dessert, Quinn and I ordered a slice of chocolate torte with guava. It was the first time I have ordered chocolate in... ever. Literally, probably.

I am a new man.

2. One Crazy Floridian

There's a small hotel near my house with wireless internet where I go work sometimes to work on the weekends when I don't feel like walking forty five minutes to get to the Institute. The truth is, I hardly get any work done when I go there, because I spend most of my time either talking with the tourists who stay in the hotel (and, if they ask, dispensing advice about restaurants and how to make the hot water work in the shower), hanging out with Freddie and Marlene, the owners with whom I have traded a bit of tech support for occasional internet use, reading online news, or skyping with people from home.

Last Sunday, however, my unproductivity was made especially special by a wonderful tourist from Florida. It was her last day in Monteverde, and she had about twenty more minutes to wait for her 2:00 PM shuttle to take her down the mountain. Probably in her early fifties, she was traveling alone in the middle of a three month Costa Rica tour. She plopped down next to me, open container of boxed merlot in hand, and due to how far she tilted her head back when she drank while we spoke, the liter had to have been pretty close to finished off.

I mentioned that I was planning a trip down to Chirripó and the Osa Peninsula, both in southwest Costa Rica, and she quickly began to tell me stories about her time on Osa.

First, the mangroves – she said – you must see the mangroves. The best way to do it is by renting a kayak and taking them out on the river, assuming you don't get lost among the meandering pathways through the ten foot tall grasses. She, however, had had no problem on her trip, because she is from Ft. Lauderdale, where there are lots of mangroves. In that part of Florida, she said while making a kayaking motion with her hands (the left still armed with the box of merlot), that's how they get around.

Second, the bug bites. Beware of the bugs on the Osa Peninsula, she told me, wear 100% DEET and rub it all over your body. She had used bug spray, but only as she did in the rest of the country – on her neck and arms and legs, the only exposed parts of her body. In Osa, though, that had not been enough. As she began to explain the consequences of her underuse of repellent, she paused. I'm not quite clear what story she had been about to tell, but all she chose instead to say was, “let's just say I got bites the size of [holds up her fingers in a circle slightly bigger than the size of a quarter] in the white places of my body I don't want to discuss.” We call that good imagery.

3. Quetzals & Other Birds

I saw my first quetzal two weeks ago. And my second, third, fourth, and fifth. I hiked up behind the Institute with Michael, a guy from the States who is doing research down here, and Hillary to a tree where they are known to hang out. When we arrived, we found four males and a female eating wild avocados maybe twenty feet from us. It was amazing. The truth is, they're pretty weird birds – their heads are oddly small, they look like they have little spiked mohawks, and their long split tail feathers look like the tail of a kite. But they are beautiful birds – I can see why the quetzal has been the flagship species for about a dozen different Monteverde conservation campaigns. Here's a picture (not mine – I didn't have my camera with me), but just know that it doesn't do it justice.

I tried to go again a few days ago, but we took a wrong turn and ended up at the house of the owner of the property where this tree sits, who kindly asked us to leave. Hopefully he'll forget me by June, so I can go again before I leave.

In general, birds here are spectacularly beautiful, even the common ones that show up everywhere. Their constant calls may be the one thing I miss most when I go back to the States. Wherever I am here, walking on any road, I can hear birds singing.

I spent a day last week sitting behind Stella's, the bakery near the Institute, taking notes on the behaviors of different species of birds at a feeder for my ecology course. In under an hour, I saw Emerald Toucanettes, Blue Crowned Mott Motts, a Great Kiskadee, and a bunch of Costa Rica's national bird, the Clay-Colored Robin.

A Blue crowned Mott Mott at the Stella's Bakery feeder.

Also last week, I was struck as I sat in class, zoning out for a moment (or two) and hearing a bird singing immediately outside the classroom. As I compared that moment to taking the final exam in Dr. Roth's Intro to IR class my Freshman year, during which a bird repeatedly flew itself head on into the window of the classroom, I remembered just how lucky I am to be here. And it was all I could do not to laugh.

4. Great Saturday

Yesterday, briefly, before I go try to do homework:

Ultimate Frisbee at the Quaker School. They do it every Saturday at noon, and usually its a good mix between "big people" and "little people" playing together. Yesterday was almost entirely little people, with one or two big people on each team. Anna, a science teacher at the Cloud Forest School, played Ultimate before she graduated from Swarthmore last year and was on the other team - we did more coaching then playing, and it was awesome.

Tried to do homework at the Institute in the afternoon, but Katie's homestay dad and Molly's homestay brother were cutting down a tree and it fell the wrong way, into the road and onto a phone pole. The whole city lost power, phones, and internet for the afternoon, complete with a small explosion and some blue flames. We couldn't do any work, so a few of us hiked to a nearby waterfall and hung out for a while. The power was still out as we walked back, so we stopped in Stella's Bakery for pastries and cheered when their lights came back on as we ate - the guy behind the counter looked at us like we were lunatics.

Went square dancing with Elise at the Quaker meeting house, which I definitely haven't done since they forced us to in Middle School. Officially, it was English Country Dancing - I felt like I was in "The Three Muskateers" and it was great.

Good day.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Spring Break

Way too overwhelming for complete sentences.

Palo Verde National Park

Some Holyoke girls posing (similar Goucher pics on Facebook), and the view from the top of the mountain.

The first dry forest I've been to in Costa Rica. Different then the rain forest, go figure. Birding at sunrise. White faced and spider monkeys dropped unripe mangoes on us. Howler monkeys howled at each other – that was cool. A hike up the backside of a cliff to an absolutely stunning view of the marshes and river that form the top of the Gulf of Nicoya. An old pier of sorts into the marsh meant an amazing view of the sunset and a number of great photoshoots. More frogs than I have ever heard in my life that night after the sun went down. The next morning, I got up to watch what I think was my first complete sunrise ever, and an abandoned pylon of the pier served as a great yoga mat for some sun salutations.

those are white-faced monkeys; and a sunrise.

Passing into Nicaragua

We sat at the border for a little while and I bought some booze at a duty free shop for the first time in my life: Women with hammocks on their heads and men with boxes of pirated DVDs attacked us as we sat on the curb and a young guy (Tico or Nicaraguan, I'm not sure) greeted me by saying, “Que pasa, flaco?” (“What's up, skinny?”).

We stopped at a spot along Lake Nicaragua so our professors could ask if the big bus could manage the ferry ride to Hometepe, an island with two volcanoes in the middle of the lake we were going to stay on for two nights. The three guys stripped down and jumped in the water, because it was beautiful and because we could.

The bus couldn't make it, so we had to change plans, and a week later our professor showed us an article about how Nicaragua just got enough money to start building a sewage treatment plant to start cleaning the hundreds of thousands of pounds of human excrement that gets dumped into the lake every year. Maybe, the article said, just maybe in fifteen years or so the lake will be clean enough for people to swim in. Great, guys. Great.

Granada a cool city. I've been in Monteverde now for two months, and it doesn't feel like Central America in that really stereotypical salsa-in-the-streets sort of way. Granada did. Beautiful doors, old colorful buildings, cobblestone streets filled with ox-drawn carts and old Toyotas,and a central plaza and market at the base of an old and beautiful church.


Went out to an outdoor bar called Cafe Nuit with a few choice people; Hillary and I danced to live salsa music (she's a great dancer), then she danced with a Nicaraguan guy who actually flipped her over. Who's that ice skater who just, you know, does a complete forward flip in the middle of his routine with no warning? Yeah, it was like that.


The next morning I walked around the city taking pictures (Also with Hillary - her pictures are far better than mine), had my Spanish complimented by a man selling jewelry in the market, and Naila, my Spanish teacher's beautiful two year old, ate the French fries off David's plate.

San Juan del Sur

Because our Hometepe trip was canceled due to the unfortunate length of our bus, we decided at the last minute to travel to San Juan del Sur, a classic surfer-bum beach town, but without the big waves, on the southern Pacific coast of Nicaragua. Lack of time to plan meant no hotel could fit our posse of thirty students, professors, babies (two of 'em), a nanny, and a bus driver, so we split up into five different hostels and hotels, which was great because traveling as a herd gets really tiring, really quickly.

I used my find-good-restaurants-in-foreign-countries-with-my-nose skills (thanks, mom) to find the group a good dinner spot on the beach, as the professors were all running crazy trying to find us beds to sleep in. I got mad at my friends (and the roosters that woke me up at 5:30) and explored by myself one morning, walked the beach and found a bookstore-cafe with the best banana pancakes I think I have ever had.

I joked with an Israeli tourist about the five words of conversational Hebrew I know on a bumpy truck ride to a beautiful stretch of beach about forty minutes north of town, then spent the afternoon boogie boarding, reading, and exploring the beach. The truck back to San Juan was packed, so Dave and I got to hang off the back for the ride home – it was great.

The truck to the beach, and the beach.


Like most of the group, a few friends and I got off our chartered bus in Liberias, the main bus hub in the province of Guanacaste, on the way back to Monteverde. We were to take a public bus to a beach on the Nicoya Peninsula, but first we had to find our two missing travel-buddies:

  • Brett, Quinn's boyfriend, had flown in from Goucher for the week and had taken a bus from San Jose to Liberias that morning
  • Sam, a volunteer at the Institute in the middle of an amazing pre-college gap year (we bonded real fast – he was a Deputy Field Organizer for the Obama Campaign in Philly) had began his two-bus journey from Monteverde to Liberias at 5:30 AM.

Brett found us within an hour of us arriving, but it took us three more hours to track down Sam, who had holed up in a coffee shop in the town center to eat cheesecake and read Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Playa Negra

The final stop of our Spring Break, this beach was absolutely beautiful. For less than $20 a night per person, eight of us stayed at an amazingly beautiful hotel with free breakfast, a pool out back, and the first real hot showers I've had since I left the US.


On Friday we started drinking before noon, and I never got around to sunscreening my back: I ended the day not really wanting to drink or see the sun ever again, and successfully moderated the two over the remainder of the trip.

Dave, resting on his boogie board, and the sunset on Saturday night.

The next two days were filled with more boogie and body boarding, homemade guacamole, amazing milkshakes and smoothies, a failed Vodka watermelon, a beautiful sunset on the beach, and a whole bunch of social tension, which pretty much makes it THE stereotypical college spring break, more so than I thought I would ever experience. I kept looking for the hidden cameras I could have sworn were filming for the next series of Real World.


Now, we're back in Monteverde. We got off the bus in Santa Elena Sunday night still wearing shorts, flip flops, and sunglasses, only to find it raining and chilly as usual. We were pretty beat up (boogie boarding and tipsy tidepooling meant cut up feet and knees for me, not to mention the sunburn, and Jesse had his own rocks-and-surf injury, although he’s been blaming his bloodied stomach on a Shuma (that’s half-puma, half-shark).

The work load is really stepping up now that we only have six weeks of classes left (and one or two major projects in each class). That's enough for now; a few more quick stories are coming soon.