Today is Day 4 in Guanacaste, Costa Rica. The weather is in the perfect 80’s and the sun shines everyday. So far, we managed to catch and analyze 56 convict cichlids here in Lomas de Barbudal Biological Reserve (more than halfway there!). We’ve seen cichlids (too many), iguanas, howler monkeys, white-face capuchins, hummingbirds, lizards, cane toads…there’s a reason why this place is named Costa Rica. Even here in the dry forest region of the country, the biodiversity is enough entertainment for us 4 biologists without Wifi or TV.

Today was our first day off, and it was a much-needed day of relaxation, sun, and no snorkeling! Danny, Matt and I decided to head over to playas del Coco, one of the more well known beaches in this area along with Hermosa. 1 car ride, 2 buses, and 2 hours later, we made it to the beach town and immediately hit the sand. It wasn’t as crowded as we anticipated; it was a Wednesday morning after all. The sand was a bit wet but the water was a perfectly warm temperature.

Coconut and sun: recipe for vacation

Coconut and sun: recipe for vacation

I may have been a tad too excited to get some sun since I didn’t really get to beach this past summer in the monsoon season of SE Asia. Now, I’m here treating my sunburns with aloe and cocoa butter lotion.

The Pacific, in all it's glory and saltiness

The Pacific, in all it’s glory and saltiness

I should really call this post “the night that we were left behind on a road in a Costa Rican reserve.” After a long day on the beach, we hopped off at our stop to no waiting car. About 15 minutes later, we see our park ranger pull up in a four-wheeler. After realizing that he wasn’t kidding about the four-wheeler, the three of us hopped on top of whatever available surface. It was a really pleasant ride, a lot smoother than riding a car! The sky was beautiful and the wind was really helping cool down my sunburns. 15 minutes in, the four-wheeler stalls and stops. The boys help push it down the road but then the ranger just took off with it after a while. Imagine 3 American college students, left behind in a forest with no light but the moonlight. I take out my handy iPhone and use the flash to light the rest of the way home. It was pretty hilarious but I won’t lie and say that I wasn’t a bit scared.

Everyday, we are awoken at 5 AM by the grumbling cries of howler monkeys near the guesthouse. They sound pretty terrifying, but they’re just the roosters of CR. The day begins really early here so I don’t mind that nature tells us to get up in the mornings.

Mufasa the aggouti eating scraps

Mufasa the aggouti eating scraps

At 7AM, we all head to the dining area and a typical CR breakfast: eggs, toast, rice with beans from last night, and coffee. The warm coffee isn’t too caffeinated so I just like to hold it with my hands and savor its delicious taste. I usually don’t eat carbs back in the US, but I’ve grown so fond of these overly buttered plain white toast and rice. The beans are a favorite of my too, even though I have it every meal. We usually enjoy the warm air, watching birds, butterflies, and aggoutis.

A typical breakfast: gallo pinto from dinner leftovers, eggs, and coffee

A typical breakfast: gallo pinto from dinner leftovers, eggs, and coffee

At around 8AM, we pack our stuff (two lab equipment bags, snorkeling gear, first aid kit, buckets, water bottles) and head out! It’s usually not too hot yet; a perfect 80′s. I spray myself with sunblock and deet, put on my hiking hat, and put an electrolyte tablet into my Camelbak.

Our best friend in the wild

Our best friend in the wild

We usually head to the river and scope out the area for a good pool. We’re trying to get fish from different places of the river, so we’ve been everywhere from the waterfall at the reserve edge and back. We usually spot some cool animals on the way.

We snorkel for convict cichlids. They’re usually most active in the mornings when they start to feed. The water’s a bit cold for the mornings but I get adjusted pretty quickly. We usually have a sort of assembly line set up – someone at the bucket weighing the fish and taking dorsal photos, the next person taking UV/visible light photos, and Lexi pumping their stomachs. I’ve gotten really good at catching them. I use two main methods: taking two nets and using a scooping motion, or lowering a net from above the fish. They nest and hid in rocky areas so you have to anticipate where they’re going.

At 11:30, we start to pack and head back from our noon lunch. We really can’t be late or Sade reprimands us (jokingly). She’s our jolly babysitting grandmother. Lunch is usually rice, beans, and some sort of meat with some freshly made juice.

Standard rice&beans lunch

Standard rice&beans lunch

At 1:30, we pack up to head out again. We usually go to another spot of the river, and repeat. We’re all glad to get into the water at this point since we’re usually sweating from the walk.

By 6PM, we’re back at the guesthouse getting ready for dinner: rice, beans, and some meat dish. I’m telling you, our meals have been simple, consistent, and lacking in flavor in the best way possible. Our “dessert” is usually munching on the junk food we bought at the grocery store.

A quick, cold shower later, we’re typically lounging about reading, trying to get the Wifi to work, or just chilling. It’s not a long night because we’re all exhausted by 9 and fall asleep soon after.

It’s only a 10 day trip, but this schedule makes it feel like we’ve been here for much longer. I really enjoy the calm and routine; there’s not much else to think about or do. It’s a great pause before the storm, aka final college semester ever.

We made it! After a late 6 hour Northampton-Bradley-Atlanta-Libreria journey, we finally landed in sunny, hot Costa Rica. The first person we spotted was Ethan sporting a short haircut and tanned skin. Oh hello there, thesis advisor whom I haven’t seen all semester!

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Stuffing our luggage into Ethan’s car

We tied our luggage and labmobile to his tiny car and proceeded to take the bumpiest car ride of my life towards Lomas Barbudal Biological Reserve. It was as good thing we stopped for lunch & beer for the car ride. My first Costa Rican meal was simple and delicious (albeit from a grocery store) plate of beets, marinated beef, and of course, rice.

beets, pork, chicken rice

beets, pork, chicken rice

The reserve is extremely isolated; I supposed it is meant to be “protected.” The place we’re staying is the park rangers’ home. There’s a large open area where we eat, a kitchen, two bathrooms, and some rooms. There’s not much, but we’re so close to nature everyday.

Big pond cichlid at Lomas Barbudal

Big pond cichlid at Lomas Barbudal

We’re on the hunt for convict cichlids, and this is definitely the place to be. The river behind our guesthouse (if you can call it that) is teeming with them! Our goal is to capture and analyze (weight, photograph, gut contents) 100 total fish. It’s my first field research experience so it should be interesting. I’m ready with my hot pink flippers, snorkel, and beer!

Our arrival greeting! Pilsen and plantains

Our arrival greeting! Pilsen and plantains

I can’t believe my last post was back in June. Somehow, it’s already the end of November and the end of 2012 is slowly coming to a close. Looking back at my previous posts, I can’t believe how different I am as a person today. This summer, this semester, this past week…so much has happened that the overwhelming amount of transformation, emotions, events are too much to recount. It’s a shame that what’s past is gone but now that I’m back home for Thanksgiving, I’ll revive this little blog, starting where I left off!

I think C.S. Lewis put it best when he said, “Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes but when you look back everything is different?” Somehow, I went from London to Laos to Amherst and I am different today. I guess this is one of the main reasons why I write – to remember, to reflect, to share.

Well, I’m back home and there’s no better place to feel like yourself. Here’s a little snapshot of my ride back to the city. I’m really glad to be back home. You certainly are beautiful, NYC:

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Amherst, how I’d forgotten how beautiful you are. As I emerged from the sweaty gym, the sun radiated off the green lawn and I was magnetically drawn towards Memorial Hill. There’s a reason why summer is my favorite season! The smell of freshly cut grass, the coolness of the shade, the quiet chirps…it makes me want to never leave this place. Alas, senior year quickly approaches.

I’m starting to get settled into Clotfelter’s lab and I’ve been reading up on published papers and previous theses. I’m searching for an intellectual spark to inspire my own project, something to combine my interests in environmental research and health. Clotfelter’s lab has already done work on phytoestrogens and fish systems so it might be more difficult than expected. One of the numerous perks of attending a private liberal arts school: apparently every honors student has a pretty decent price tag that comes along with us to help fund an experiment of our own. My own money to do whatever experiments I want on these little cichlid fish? Yes please! Nerd mode on. I’ll be on the lookout during my trip to Southeast Asia for something to switch on the thesis lightbulb.

Being back at Amherst in the summer is strange – it’s quite empty and work is so much more relaxed. I feel like I can enjoy this campus for once! Seeing all these graduated seniors is a little unnerving though. So many of their lives are up in the air, so much transition. It makes me cherish the little time I have left here before I need to make real decisions. Eek!

Amidst all the future worry, I’m going to lay back and enjoy where I am for now. God has his plans and things will happen in due time. It’s summertime and it’s easygoing.

S

It is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

Currently, I am functioning on around 6 hours of sleep the past 48 hours (thanks to two exams) and I’m contemplating pulling an all-nighter for this final exam tomorrow morning. Clearly I must be delirious; they say that being awake for more than 12 hours is equivalent to being drunk.

I have my most difficult exam tomorrow (Genes, Development, and Evolution of Vertebrates) but I can’t even bring myself to focus! I’m so overwhelmed by the fact that I’m going back home tomorrow. My priorities can be summed up with this: before my Climate Variability exam today, I went to Camden Town to get last-minute gifts for people back in the States. Of course, I had to go back to that leather journal bookstore. I made it to my exam on time after a slight Oyster card top-up problem and came back to pack. I’m pretty certain all my luggage bags are overweight…

My flat just had Indian for dinner and we got ice cream and cookies from Sainsbury’s to eat while watching Pride and Prejudice and 24 Hours A&E (I had no idea that show was based in King’s Hospital!) How Bri’ish, eh? They surprised me with a bracelet from Accessories, an adorable Tube pen, and a sweet card with the Union Jack on it. I was so touched! I feel like I was just starting to get close to these gals and the year’s already over.

I’m really sad to be leaving this. This exact view was my walk to class and rehearsals, my path north of River Thames, my backyard, my home. Thank you London for an amazing five months of new experiences, personal growth, and new goals. The next time I post, I’ll be in New York or Amherst.

Forever xx,

S

What a blessed way to end my time here in London – the sun is out, the food is good, the city is alive! I’ve been having mini-panic attacks lately knowing that I can count the number of days left here on my two hands. I can’t even express how excited I am to go back home but at the same time, leaving a place that has been your “home” for 5 months isn’t without sadness (or tears).

Thursday night, I performed with the King’s Chix for the final time at Imperial College in South Kensington. Loads of groups were also there at the student bar and it was a really casual event. Before I talk about the actual gig, I’d just like to point out that South Kensington is posh. Goodness, no wonder Imperial has ridiculously high residence fees. There were only six of us singing that day and some of us learned the new song (Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow) at 4PM. Cheers for uni students  cramming even for a live performance! It wasn’t our best but hey, it was fun and that’s all that matters. I was really impressed by the Yale Whiffenpoofs though. Apparently they’re the oldest collegiate a cappella group in the world and the students take a year off to tour/sing, so I couldn’t really feel bad about not being as great as they are.

Friday was a little leaving party with all the American study abroad students. I tried ginger beer and Desperados for the first time and my life has been forever changed. I never knew drinks could taste so delicious and refreshing and sweet and everything good put in a cute bottle. We stayed out a bit late at the good ole Dover Castle and Blue Eyed Maid, but I still managed to force Viv and Vlad to wake up at 9 the next day for a day of last-minute tourist plans! We picked up scrumptious breakfasts from Borough Market. I finally got to try out the toasted cheese sandwich from Kappacasein and see how their famous raclette is is made. When I could smell the cheese even before I found the stand, I knew all this waiting was worth it. Just look at all that cheese grilled to perfection with onions!

We headed towards Buckingham Palace to see the changing of the guards but it was rather underwhelming (too long). There were a lot of people even though this happens everyday at both the Royal Guards and Buckingham Palace. We got to see the stage set-up for this week’s Jubilee concert, which I’m really sad to miss out on! Apparently England still really loves their royalty who are not Kate Middleton because the entire city has been decked out in preparation for the event (flags, special Jubilee biscuits, tea, etc.)

It was such a beautiful day so we rested for some time at Hyde Park just chatting. A lot of people were hanging around basking in the sun with their bikinis. I guess Hyde Park is similar to Central park but the greenery is much more artificially planted. You get to see many different types of flowers and trees that are planted in specific patterns. Across from our spot, I saw a group of kids enjoying the summer climbing this giant tree! I couldn’t help but reminisce on the times I went to Central Park back in high school climbing trees similar in shape.

Next, I finally got to go to the Victoria and Albert museum and Natural History museum! I probably mentioned this before, but I’m not a museum fan unless it’s a science museum. I was super excited :) The building itself looked similar to AMNH in New York actually. They were having a cool “Animals Inside-Out” exhibit (sort of like the Bodies Exhibit) but it was pricey to go in.

I’m pretty biased when it comes to comparing the London and NY natural history museums since I worked in the NY one for a year. London had some cool exhibits (a simulated earthquake, a mechanical dinosaur that looks surprisingly real, an elevator leading up to a giant planet) but the NY marine exhibit is unparalleled!

An ice cream and two sore feet later, we decided to go to an India restaurant nearby where I ordered Chicken Korma (a coconut curry)! It was quite delicious but the portions were small, as usual. We headed back to GDS for some Pimm’s, TV, and home-made pasta.

There are still so many things I would have liked to see in London during my time here, but I’m pretty happy about how well I know the city now. I’m constantly looking for things to buy to bring back home (chocolate, tea, biscuits) so I guess I’m mentally preparing for my departure. I couldn’t ask for more than a great last weekend with perfect weather.

S

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