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.”



    couldn't have said any final words for this trip better than you, matt. it's been a pleasure.

  2. Hey, this is a great written piece to remember those last activities - but, I have to semi-echo Hillary - You forgot Trash and mail!! gosh.
    Nice pictures though. Arenal is beautiful.

  3. What a year! White House tour? Independent research? Get in touch while you're waiting for Plouffe. --Kirby.

  4. Wow, Matt. Rereading your blogs for this article (see, I have homework too) has been awesome. You learned so much and have some of the best pictures I've seen from abroad (Hillary's are great too). Thanks for your willingness to share your experiences! --Angie (OIS)