Costa Rica: Making Small Differences

“MONITOREO Y PROTECCION DEL MANGRAR. NO PASE” Mangrove monitoring and protection. Do not enter.

When we’re kids, it seems easy to make a change. Inexperience and youthful ignorance promises, in one stride, a future of adult-like achievements and glories that impact the world and the people.

It’s an impulse, isn’t it? The drive to outpace your parents? To persist in history rather than fade with it? It’s naïve, a form of fear, but it’s a youthful synonym for hope. In young eyes, we want to see the world be better in our hands than those before.

We woke earlier than usual to gear up for a long day in the heat. It’s not the Evansville type of warmth with swimming humidity and hair-singing ferocity that persists from dawn till moonlight. It took a severe sunburn by 2pm for me to notice it was hot at all. We had a quick breakfast (we were advised not to drink the water), and then we trekked to a very mosquito-infested area on the mouth of the estuary.

We surrounded a dock and a very knowledgable leader who explained to us the Mangrove Project he’d been pursuing for many years now, here, on the beaches we stood on. Prior knowledge told me that global warming (caused by about a million anthropogenic reasons) was changing global temperatures. Polar ice caps have been shrinking for years, and the fresh, cold water sinks into the ocean, causing the sea levels to rise and precious coastland to flood and disappear.

The effect can be shown most clearly by my experience on those beaches in Costa Rica. I knew that the ocean levels were rising. I knew that high tide, in some places, was getting higher and higher. The difference, however, was that I could see it here with my own eyes. Every several hundred feet there were concrete markers buried in the dirt or the sand. I didn’t understand what I was seeing at first.

“They mark the change in high tide,” our guide explained. Each concrete block shows how the tide moves farther inland, and they indicate that the beaches are shrinking. It’s not a slow, decade by decade thing. The shoreline reduces every year. People’s homes are lost every year.

Collapsed barrier built to protect the land against estuary currents.

When we were driving on the bus along the center of the island, on my right I could see the estuary, and on my left I could see the ocean. One minor flood, and the island, along with old homes and family-owned hotels, would be washed away. Many already were.

Commercial builders interested in tourism would buy a plot on the island and set to clearing the land. They’d pull up the mangroves on the estuary and the uglier palms on the pacific beach to make room for their pretty walls and profitable businesses. A lot of money and hard work later, the island would flood and the property would wash away.

Our guide lined us up around several plastic bottles with dirt and an alien arm inside (I’ll explain later). I was one of the first in line and almost every bottle I picked up came with a little gray crab that, I kid you not, projectile launched itself from the bottle to the ground. They scuttled away faster than we could shriek in surprise.

Red Mangroves (also Mangles Rojos) taking root on the estuary.

I was the designated Journalist, so I counted each alien arm and excluded the dead ones. Our guide stood us around them all, and he explained what they were. The alien arm was a propagule. They were hand-plucked from the mangrove trees, planted in reused plastic 2-liters, and then left to germinate about 10 inches. The ones we took had grown to an acceptable height, and we all piled onto the bus with our plants and drove about five minutes a little further into the island.

We parked next to a Mango Tree.

We were split into two groups. We stood along the estuary bank on the edge of a sagging brick wall built into the side of the mud. A beaten path sloped from where we stood to our left onto the muddy shore. Girls were filing out to the far end of the planting-site, their boots making a schlop sound with every step. We had to plant the propagules a foot away from each other, and then we had to take a small curved knife and cut the planted propagules from the bottle in way that kept the soil with the roots. It was difficult, and we had to run through slop before all the soil fell away.

Marching our propagules to the planting site.

We planted one hundred.

The purpose, our guide explained, was to prevent erosion. The roots of the mangroves anchored into the soil and held against the force of rising and falling estuary currents. The effect was a natural barrier against Global Warming. The little propagules we planted were literally holding the island down.

By the time we finished a few hours later, the water had already risen to our thighs, and the muddy shoreline was now submerged. Our guide shrugged, and he assured that at least some would survive to take root. We all took a picture by our group Mangrove Tree, which everyone called Scout (seems about right for a bunch of Girl Scouts).

Our healthy, soon-to-be-planted Red Mangroves (Mangles Rojos).

The sweat and the muddy butts and the wet socks and the searing sunburns were proof that we didn’t just come here to take pretty pictures and fumble with our Spanish. We worked to conserve the land for everyone. We planted a seed to feed the world-wide community, not just our own.

Working to protect ourselves from the symptoms of our anthropogenic disease did not produce a cure, but we made a small difference that, someday, will grow to become something big.





Featured: The Tarcoles River

While in Costa Rica, our group made a stop on the Tarcoles river to look at Crocodiles. That was not, however, the only thing we saw from the boat. This blog entry is entirely dedicated to the animals we discovered, some with a random fact I learned from our guide.

American Crocodile: This crocodile has a gland that controls its salt intake. It eats fish carried by high tide via the Pacific Ocean.



(Not so) Green Heron:



Mangrove Swallow: These birds nest in the holes of broken tree debris.



Night Heron: It has big eyes because it’s nocturnal. Hint: the name of the bird.



Ctenosaur: This type of iguana has the coolest name of them all.



Green IguanaThe species is facing some problems because humans have an uncanny ability to eat them all. My tour guide mentioned something about Green Iguanas and Eyedrops, but I think she was lying, and Google is failing me.



Snowy Egret: The wimpier version of the Great Egret.



Brahman Bulls: Native to India (the name gives it away), these imported cattle survive well in Costa Rican weather. They are identified by the large hump on their backs.



Great Egret: The cooler version of the Snowy Egret.



Roseate Spoonbill: I saw this guy later at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.


And just for your information, there are 130 different types of snakes and 860 different kinds of birds in Costa Rica. There are 54 different types of humming birds that live in only Mangrove forests. What happens when you cut down a mangrove forest? 54 species of humming birds are wiped clean. Remember that.

In the Tarcoles River, those American Crocodiles are being studied by National Geographic and several Universities to assist the unbalanced population. They examined 70 different crocodile DNAs and found that the ones on the Tarcoles are a metapopulation (meaning they could all be related, resulting in mutations that are bad for the species survival).

A balanced American Crocodile population consists of 5 to 7 females for every male, and they are officially an endangered species in this area because of the imbalanced sex ratio between crocs on the Tarcoles.

Costa Rica: A Long Drive

We packed to leave hotel Irazú the night we got there. Rising early to eat breakfast–hold your applause– at Denny’s, we loaded our luggage into the tourismo bus and departed from San José.

From the back seat, I pointed my camera out the window for a solid five hour drive, drooling over a landscape that I’d only seen in pictures. We thundered over two lane bridges straddling canyons, the neck-breaking sight of volcano mouths rolling in the distance.

Our drive through the mountains from San José to Parrita.

Empe, our tour guide, rattled off several food facts about Costa Rica.

If you’ve ever been to Walmart to buy a pineapple, know that the Del Monte brand ships directly from Costa Rica. While a shipped, packaged, and processed pineapple doesn’t remotely resemble the taste of a juicy, fresh, hand-picked piña plucked from Costa Rican soil, I’ll tell you that a pineapple uncut is far better than the sad pre-cut. Besides, it’s fun to go at a pineapple with a serrated knife among friends.

As far as meals go, they often consist of shrimp, beans, chicken, or rice. It sounds kind of stomach-clenching, but Central American Rice and Beans are not, by any means, the same thing as an order of Mexican Rice and a Volcano Burrito from Taco Bell.

While stuck in traffic on our way to Tarcoles, a fishing town, men meandered between traffic selling fresh mangos and frozen gelatin. The best mango I’ve ever had, ladies and gentleman, came from a man in a sweaty t-shirt who tossed frozen jello into the backseat of a tourismo bus filled with teenage Girl Scouts.

A man selling food in traffic.

Wobbling at the head of the coach, Empe, peaking over her glasses and smiling, gave a run down of Costa Rican life.

In rural areas, the people depend on the smooth running of plantations and tourism from December to April– the dry season in Costa Rica. Part-time jobs literally do not exist, and the kids are expected to support their parents directly. It’s difficult to find any retirement homes in Costa Rica (take this moment to feel blessed by Social Security), and four generations living in one home isn’t a ridiculous situation.

Empe explained that her family can’t afford to split. As much as her sister, her sister’s husband, and her sister’s child would love to live in rural Costa Rica alone, they can’t afford the property. That’s how it usually is among families. So they live on the second floor of her building.

Beaches all along the coast are often very economically depressed, Empe explained. Monster resorts and tourist sites dictate small businesses and local economies.

We soon reached Tarcoles, a small fishing town on the estuary between Tarcoles River and the Pacific Ocean. The only thing I got out and looked at was the tourist dedicated section of the river for Crocodile sight-seeing. The town on our drive to the river was small, and I saw one school decked out with locally painted murals, bright colors, playground equipment, and barbed wire.

The roads were dirt, and people rode their bikes down the middle, a smattering of kids in school uniforms running between palm trees. Men carried bushels of bananas on their back, their iPhones out in one hand, the bananas supported with the other.

Tarcoles River itself was a sight, teeming with wildlife that our tour guide fluently identified one after the other. Without her help, I too was able to identify things in the water.


Trash in the Tarcoles River.

Amazing isn’t it? I expect to see trash in the United States, but going to Costa Rica I want to see pure nature, untainted, green! To my dismay, the garbage was piled along the banks, mangled between trees and roots, tires lodged halfway into the dirt. Sediment turns the water a thick brown color (not too far from the Ohio on cloudy days), and fish take in the sediments with their gills.

Does it bother you that a quiet river running from the Costa Rican mountains empties trash into the ocean? Did you know the Ohio River empties into the Mississippi, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico? The trash you see now isn’t gone when you don’t see it anymore, it’s just someplace else. Where is “away” when we “throw trash away?” Where is “away?” Where does it go?

Oddly enough, I found where it goes. When we arrived in Parrita, a very remote, coastal town on the Pacific that farms palm trees, I found where the trash goes.

On the secluded, black beaches along the island we stayed, the trash washed ashore, disguised as pretty shells, pretty rocks from the ocean. I realized my mistake when we were combing the beaches for shells before nightfall.

The water tumbled towards my feet, and my friend and I chased it, stooping down to pick up what the ocean deposited among the sand. What I thought was the side of a sand dollar was actually a half-dissolved piece of plastic, a fossil of a container that came from Japan? The Philippines? California?

Plastic washed on the remote shores along the Costa Rican Pacific.

We squished our toes into the volcanic sand, laughing, throwing it at each other.

For dinner, we ate in an outdoor pavilion that served rice and beans, spaghetti, fruit, and hand-mashed starfruit drinks. My friend filled a liter tall bottle with the stuff later. Our tour guide advised against drinking tap water. “Bacteria,” she explained.

It’s reassuring to know that in Evansville our water is drinkable, that even if it is problematic, the city issues boil advisories for us to know. Simple things like that should be appreciated.

We fell asleep to the sound of the ocean echoing like thunder, sand in our sheets and in our hair.

El Océano Pacífico.



Costa Rica: Pura Vida or Bust


Pura Vida: Pure Life

I made a list. Excavating a small notepad from the bottom of my bag and a pen from my billfold, I cupped the papers in my hand as if they were a diadem. This was how I remembered anything apart from the weather on this trip.

Several other teenage girls and I from Southern Indiana landed in San José wearing matching t-shirts and matching sweat stains. We beat our way through a small customs line and exchanged fifty bucks for 20-something-thousand colones. We heard the traffic before we actually saw it, a squealing of ratty tourismo vans, cars and bicycles. Strangers offered us rides, but our tour guide, Empe, directed us to a small bus and a lively old man who muttered in Spanish about the size of our bags while he stacked them in the back.

On our drive to the hotel, I stuffed myself into a window seat and made a point to scratch down everything I noticed different about Costa Rica in comparison to my small, conservative city in Indiana. It went something like this:

Barbed wire everyplace, namely on top of fences. Often three layers. Policia sucks and there is no military. All the buildings are squat and packed together, crudely painted tropical colors, peeling, streets exploding with Spanish lingo, signs, and neon lights. Trash is dropped on the curb in small, plastic grocery sized bags. Garbage men collect at sundown when the city crowd clears. 

Driving through San José to Irazú.

I really noticed the trash bags. I stared at them every time we passed some, trying to figure out what was so odd about them. The oddness, I realized, was the look of the bags. They were 1/3 the size of my trash bags at home, and there were only one, maybe two, for each house. The biggest situational difference between a developing and developed country is the ability for one to make total use of their resources better than the other.

I hear about the United States being wasteful. So I recycle a can or two. So I turn off some lights. So I take some food to shelters. What I don’t seem to think about is the fact that nobody I know considers the irony of purchasing a saran wrapped bundle of bananas. I don’t think about the fact that our bags can’t fit into our 96 gallon trash carts once a week.

I just recently discovered my area’s landfill is in the city. We don’t realize that when we pile and pile and pile trash, methane gas is released in the decomposing process and that it’s highly flammable when exposed to oxidizers1,2. That means there can be fires underneath the garbage, in addition to all that methane piling onto our nice, fuzzy Greenhouse Gas blanket.

At a conference in D.C., Lois Gibbs, an environmental activist, preached about the threat of methane fires in landfills. One in Bridgeton, MO, is heading for the Manhattan Project’s nuclear waste site3. What happens when you mix methane fire with nuclear waste? We can all pretty much guess at that one.

Accidents don’t kill us. We kill ourselves. As Newton eloquently put it: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. When we dump our dinner in the garbage, a kid loses a meal someplace else. When we stuff our 96 gallon carts with trash every week, it lands on a pile that stinks to high heaven and that could, moreover, be prevented.

In San José, buses, cars, bikes, people, and motorbikes (notably dirt bikes and mopeds) interacted via unwritten civilian agreement, resulting in thinly controlled chaos. There were no traffic policia. Locals whistled at cabs, nearly throwing themselves into traffic. Here, defensive drivers didn’t exist. It was kill or be killed in the politest sense. Some traffic lights in the city didn’t even bother with a yellow light.

One thing I really enjoyed was the fact that the crosswalk signs were animated. A little dude on the light walked. 

Before we made it to the hotel, we stopped at a place that can be best described as a giant outlet mall. A strip of road designated to civilians teemed with people, vendors, the smell of cooking fish, the tart aroma of freshly cut fruit. My knowledge of Central American food was limited to rum and churros, so I should have branched out. I bought a churro anyway (Best one I’ve ever had, but I’m supposed to say that).

Street Market in San José.

A half indoor, half outdoor food market was a maze of local ice-cream, souvenir, meat, rice, and coffee vendors. A man in a suit offered me a dried cranberry that actually tasted quite well, and he asked my friend where we were from.

“America,” she replied, eying the dried fruit between her fingers.

His eyes flashed and I laughed, pointing out that Costa Rica and the United States are in America, and she blushed fiercely. It was innocent, really, but I was almost as embarrassed as she. Somehow we’ve separated ourselves from the people on the rest of the continent. If we don’t have Zika, we’re not on the continent. If we don’t have universal healthcare, we’re not on the continent. Au contraire, we are, in fact, on the same continent, Ladies and Gentleman.

Our hotel, attached to a Denny’s and a bar, was called Irazú. The shop worker, Miguel, gave me and my friend about 30 balls of Britt chocolate, eventually coercing us into buying something. We sang Coldplay together and talked about how tired we were. In my journal I wrote, Miguel is cool.

Looking out from a balcony in Irazú hotel.

For dinner we had chicken, salad, pineapple, spaghetti, and fried plátanos. To my dismay we had rice pudding for dessert– and every other night after that. The first bite was good, the second was not. Soggy rice is all that kind of pudding is.

But, Pura Vida, am I right?


References In Case You Don’t Believe Me: