UGA Costa Rica Blog

¡Pura vida!

Strap on your helmets!

Out of toothpaste? Need to go to the pharmacy? Craving ice cream?
Time to head into Santa Elena, a town about a 20 minute ride from our campus that takes you through the rising mountains and beautiful vistas of Monteverde. Here’s a sneak peak of what you’ll see along the way:

Adios Arturo

As always, the interns laugh and enjoy their time spent with Arturo. Here they hold their cloud forest guru – and might not let go!

As always, the interns laugh and enjoy their time spent with Arturo. Here they hold their cloud forest guru – and might not let go!

On Tuesday, members of UGA Costa Rica staff and community gathered to send off Arturo Cruz, the campus’s head naturalist. Moving to Southern California with his wife and two-year-old daughter, Arturo in his past four years with the campus, has amassed a long list of reasons for which he will be missed.

For starters, “he is the encyclopedia of Costa Rica,” says resident naturalist Theodora, a hint of desperation in her voice. His knowledge of the natural history is exemplary, and he is humble about his intelligence.

Another resident naturalist, Gina, will miss being his student. “He has a really great style of teaching,” she says, elaborating on how slowly he talks and how thoroughly he explains environmental concepts, flora, and fauna.

And when he’s not giving plant tours or guided hikes, one can find Arturo rocking in a chair sipping coffee, or doubling as the campus IT guy.

From calming birds with broken wings to calming people with broken computers, Arturo is a smiling, patient, intelligent member of our UGA Costa Rica family.

We sat around chatting and wishing Arturo well as cinnamon rolls seeped their sugary scent into the comidor air, blending smoothly with each pump of freshly brewed coffee. But no amount of hot coffee or sweet snacks will warm the part of our hearts that will dearly miss Arturo.

The perfect portrait of Arturo. The message board reads “see you soon” and wishes Arturo “luck” in his next adventure.

The perfect portrait of Arturo. The message board reads “see you soon” and wishes Arturo “luck” in his next adventure.

Hasta pronto Arturo!

Blog contribution by Alex Fylypovych, UGA Costa Rica Photojournalism Intern

Weekend Snapshot: Feb. 21-22

On Sunday, UGA Costa Rica interns played THINK Global students and staff in a futbol (soccer) game packed with friendly competition, goals, sweat, and most certainly, laughter.

A dramatic golden spotlight illuminated UGA Costa Rica’s futbol field, a small rectangle of thick bladed grass marked by two goals about 1/8 the size of standard stadium goals. Shadows grew and shrank as players raced up and down the field with bursts of wind cooling them down and bursts of laughter leaving them winded.
Blog contribution by Alex Fylypovych, UGA Costa Rica Photojournalism Intern

Medicinal Garden Tour: Angel’s Trumpet

Resident Naturalist Gina Gilson leads a tour through the medicinal garden. Her upbeat energy is reflected in the responsiveness of her tour group and the garden is instantly filled with bursts of laughter, oh-s and ah-s, and unending questions. Noses scrunch and eyes widen as the groups use their senses to identify plants she knowledgeably plucks from branches. Waiting for their aha-moment, she giddily munches on a deep purple wild clover. Approaching a thin-branched tree, however, she tweaks her facial expression just enough to hint at a change in the playful pace. She raises her finger and our eyes follow until they meet the angle’s trumpet.

AngelsTrumpet

Instantly, I sense a deceptive innocence in the pale peach flowers gently swaying overhead. I imagine them to be like delicate bells; faint chimes sounding in my head, beckoning me closer to their subtle, addictive scent – which is particularly stronger at night. Their physical allure alone is mesmerizing, but eating the flower of the angel’s trumpet, genus Burgmansia, has far graver consequences. Gina cautiously explains that eating the blossom – a hallucinogen – induces temporary insanity, a violent high, and vomiting. With her familiar chipper voice she adds that the plant does have a beneficial medicinal property: chopping up the green leaves and steeping them in boiling water relieves symptoms of asthma.

Blog contribution by Alex Fylypovych, UGA Costa Rica Photojournalism Intern

Why let waste go to waste?

With a neon bucket swinging playfully in hand and a royal blue cooler slung over her shoulder, Maureen Kinyua looks like she’s headed for the beach. But her long pants, scuffed hiking boots, and red daypack suggest otherwise.

Born and raised in Kenya, Maureen received a scholarship to study in the U.S. and is now in her fourth year of pursuing a PhD in Environmental Engineering from University of South Florida. Maureen’s dissertation pertains to improving the health of people in developing countries, women in particular, through sustainable technology that is uncomplicated to install, use, and maintain.

“Environmental engineers and public health sometimes concentrate on water water water water [in developing countries]…but they forget livestock waste is such a big polluter of water,” Maureen said.

Enter the biodigester.

BiodigesterUGA2

Maureen stands on a plank in front of UGACR’s farm biodigester. Microbe treated water gurgles beneath her as it flows from the biodigester.

It’s essentially a fancy word for waste cleaning machine. Waste, anything from human or livestock fecal matter to leftover scraps from meals, is disposed of into one end of a balloon-like cylindrical tube. With time, microbes trapped inside the digester break down the matter, mainly into water, carbon dioxide, and methane. These components are cycled into reuse, increasing environmental, social, and economic standards in a given location.

“You can provide people with a well, but then it gets polluted by livestock waste, so you’ve not really solved the issue, and you’re still not helping their economics or the environment,” Maureen said.

Her research, therefore, highlights the environmental, social, and economic benefits of the biodigester. Having received another grant to continue her research, Maureen has returned to UGA Costa Rica and the surrounding community to sample livestock waste and test it’s biogas potential. Out of curiosity, I tagged along.

I knew we made it to our first farm when Maureen slapped on purple latex gloves and glided on over to the pigpen. How elegantly she reached down, a yogi diving toward her toes. But instead of grabbing her little piggies, she snatched up a lump of poo belonging to one of the five oinking pigs curiously looking on. She zip-locked and stowed the sample in her bucket. Leaving the scene of sampling, we ducked below a thin blue pipe running from the biodigester in the garden, to the house, disappearing through the kitchen window. Maureen proceeded to educate me about the advantages of re-purposing waste.

Intrigued by Maureen’s sampling, the pigs investigate their visitors.

Intrigued by Maureen’s sampling, the pigs investigate their visitors.

Environmental

  • Firewood is a common resource for cooking in developing countries. The demand for wood contributes to ecosystem destruction. Connecting the extracted methane gas from the biodigester into a kitchen, via a tube, decreases, and in time could offset, deforestation. It’s a new form of energy that requires existing waste to operate –waste that would be dumped otherwise.
  • Lowering the levels of jettisoned solid waste in water has its perks, too. Solids from waste get caught in fish gills, suffocating them, and block essential sunlight from reaching aquatic life. Solids release excess nitrogen and phosphorus, triggering algal blooms, which rely on microbes to aid with decomposition. The overbearing algae-microbe combo eradicates oxygen on which fish and other aquatic life depend.
  • Wastewater flows from the biodigester with fewer toxins and, because the liquid is fortified with natural remaining nitrogen and phosphorus, can be reused as fertilizer.

Social

  • Indoor air pollution mainly affects women who cook with firewood. Microbe-made methane can replace wooden fires as a cooking source, reducing smoke and ash pollution in the home.
  • Microbe-treated wastewater that flows back into waterways is cleaner than solid waste dumping, lowering the risk of water-induced sickness.

Economic

  • Biodogesters release water that has nitrogen and phosphorus components. There’s no need then, to purchase mineral fertilizers that are toxic for the waterways in which they eventually end up. Farmers can simply water their crops with the excess biodogester water and save money doing so. In Costa Rica, neighboring farmers have saved between $20-40 per month after having installed a biodigester.
  • Less air and water pollution means less frequent, costly doctors’ visits for indoor pollution related illnesses.

Having heard about the positive effects of a biodigester, a local Costa Rican farmer eagerly asked Maureen, “when are you returning to build one?”

Blog contribution by Alex Fylypovych, UGA Costa Rica Photojournalism Intern

Weekend Snapshot: Feb. 14-15

This past Sunday, a little over half the TGS student body here at UGA Costa Rica went on a beach trip! We spent about two hours in the bus, rocking and swaying down the mountains, through the seemingly perpetual mist, till we reached sea level, where the temperature rose about 15 degrees. When we reached the beach, we were ecstatic and ran down to touch the rolling waves, burning our feet on the black sand. We spent the next four hours either being ridiculous in the ocean, throwing each other in and burning our throats from ingesting too much salt water from laughing, or eating seafood and drinking mango juice in the shade. On the road home, we chased a double rainbow, arching over the green cloud forest, all of us tired and content from the sun and salt.

Post contributed by Madeline Schwartz, THINK Global School student

Pop Quiz #3!

Test your knowledge on the flora and fauna growing along UGACR campus trails and throughout the Monteverde Cloud Forest here in Costa Rica. You never know when a trivia night will call for tropical ecology facts…

True or False?

This powder puff plant, Calliandra bijunga, does not have medicinal properties:

PowderPuff

Ok, it’s sort of a trick question.

The answer depends on whether or not you have a holistic approach to healing.

Rubbing, crushing, mixing or brewing any components of this flower will not cure symptoms. Rather, the bright pink and white pom-poms, perched on branches like sea urchins out of water, and their lively green leaves, serve an ornamental purpose. The powder puff plant playfully greets visitors at the medicinal garden’s entrance. The seemingly weightless flowers tickle the surrounding air with even the slightest gust of wind. Growing sporadically throughout the garden, the long branches reach out, its feathery leaves reaching to pet each passerby.

It has been said that laughter is the cheapest medicine; the powder puff may not make you laugh, per se, but if you catch yourself smiling in the presence of this aesthetically pleasing plant, it may in fact be an appropriate prescription for either a mentally or physically cloudy day.

Blog contribution by Alex Fylypovych, UGA Costa Rica Photojournalism Intern

Weekend Snapshot: Feb. 7-8

Hugging the top of an incredibly tall ficus tree with my entire body out of a beautiful combination of extreme happiness and terror is the newest addition to the list of things I never thought I would do. I am completely enamoured with rock climbing, but I have never been one to climb trees. People typically seem to get into that around age 6 or 7, and when I was that old, I was far too physically cautious to venture past the first couple branches.

Every time we go to Santa Elena, a town about a 30 minute drive from campus with a handful of restaurants and markets, the view out to the ocean miles and miles away is captivating, and I can’t help but stick my head out the window to feel the wind and to get as close to it as I can. On our second-to-last trip to town, my friend Alejandro and I met a couple of friendly, dreadlocked hippies selling beautiful stone, gem, and thread bracelets. One man, speaking in rapid Spanish, told Ale about a huge ficus tree which we could climb and see the entire area and out to the ocean from the top branches. Immediately after Ale told me what he had said, I became fixated on the idea.

On our last trip to town, after an essential coffee stop, we headed out to the tree with our South African friend Emma. We asked for directions two or three times, headed up huge hills and turned down a non-descript dirt pathway into what looked a little more like the forest than the town. When we finally came upon the tree, we realized that it didn’t have climbable branches — rather, it was adorned with a gigantic strangler fig that had grown and morphed into a natural ladder. We only needed to climb inside the strangler fig in order to access the path up to the top of the tree, and with careful movements, we placed our feet in the natural footholds and wrapped our arms around the branches, lifting ourselves up further and further towards the top of the tree. Looking through the holes of the strangler fig quickly became more and more exciting, and, simultaneously, anxiety-inducing. When we reached the top, the strangler fig was so narrow that we were crawling on our knees. Sticking my head out of the strangler fig, I was greeted by the uppermost branches of the tree, and after climbing out, the most spectacular view.

I breathed shakily, taking in the sheer insanity of being alive in this strange place, and feeling wonderfully insignificant.

Leaning against the tree, I was the happiest I’ve been in the longest time, feeling one with nature, despite the cliché. So often we forget that we are not separate from the natural world as humans, and climbing to the top of the tree reminded me, as so much has recently, to be grateful for our place on this beautiful Earth.

Post contributed by Madeline Schwartz, THINK Global School student

A new approach to biodiversity

The mechanical hum is interrupted with intermittent crackle-and-pops: an imaginary firework show in the microwave. Just as the finale commences, a warm, buttery smell reaches your nose, the scent dense as lava oozing down the side of a mountain. Drink of choice in hand, popcorn in the other – it’s time for movie night. But what to watch?

Just press play on this TED talk. It’s 19 minutes and 26 seconds of constructive, optimistic and realistic information. NGOs and other small businesses are making impressive sustainable strides, but here’s a different – and bold – approach to preserving biodiversity. As a bonus, you’ll probably have just enough popcorn to last you through the end.

Hint: watching with subtitles on helps decipher some of the fast-paced information.

Thank you to the THINK Global School’s Environmental Science class for introducing me to this insightful, enlightening TED talk!

Blog contribution by Alex Fylypovych, UGA Costa Rica Photojournalism Intern

Pop Quiz #2!

Test your knowledge on the flora and fauna growing along UGACR campus trails and throughout the Monteverde Cloud Forest here in Costa Rica. You never know when a trivia night will call for tropical ecology facts…

True or False?

These are two different species of trees:

True. That was a tough one, but after a closer look, you could be one step closer to becoming a resident naturalist on the UGA Costa Rica campus!

One of the most telling differences is the growth pattern of each tree. Notice, the first tree, a strangler fig, resembles a vine and weaves around a host tree. The ebony tree on the other hand, has no host and, although its trunk resembles thick vines, it’s merely the trunk growing predominantly upward.

Many plants struggle to establish themselves as seedlings in the dark, nutrient-poor soil of the cloud forest floor. In order to survive, hemiepiphytes start from the top and work their way down. Strangler figs, of which there are a number of different species within the genus Ficus, are one such canopy-born plant. Birds often disperse the seeds high in the canopy, atop branches reaching for sunlight.

While the fig germinates in the cloud forest’s natural awning, its roots begin a journey of descent. For approximately 20 years, the host tree serves as a GPS system for the fig, guiding the roots downward. Slowly, the roots twist and tangle their way around the trunk of its host, forming a lacework of crisscrossing vines. Once rooted in the thin layer of soil, the fig inhibits the host tree from extracting vital nutrients. Strangled and starving, the host tree rots and what remains is the hollow corkscrew trunk of a fig tree.

HollowFig

The ebony tree, Diospyros sp., grows wide and high, from the ground up. Although its outermost trunk may look like thick individual pipes, the tree is entirely connected. During its growth the trunk forms deep crevasses, mini-caves where snakes, birds, spiders and bats are know to nest. Ebony wood is black and sturdy, once a popular material for creating black piano keys. If it were to be cut down, and ebony tree could remain as is for nearly 50 years without decaying, an indication of its durability.

Blog contribution by Alex Fylypovych, UGA Costa Rica Photojournalism Intern

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