Sunday, March 29, 2015

Galapagos Photos: Marc Wai

Darwin's paradise

Conor recollecting the day's activities

Many abandoned ships can be found on the beaches around San Cristobal.

Story time at the Galapagos

Part Three: War with Mora

By Conor King Devitt

I stared through the open gap in the airport wall where pushed luggage was appearing.
“C’mon, they said it would be here. C’mon!”
Suitcases. Beige, black and yellow. Backpacks of all colors. Industrial travel boxes. But no pistachio-colored duffel bag, the receptacle for a borrowed $500 camera and all of my damn clothes.
Sweat from the stress and disappointment greased my already filthy t-shirt and jeans as I watched with sinking dread as more and more bags were shoved around the racetrack.
“It ain’t coming today.”
I had communicated to the people at Jatun Sacha shortly after my arrival on Sunday that I would need to taxi back to town the following morning to reclaim my bag. The airline people had told me it was coming in then, and I was wishfully hopeful they were telling the truth. I had worn the same clothes through five airports, two nations and a sweaty island hike.
At 8 a.m. on Monday morning Marc and I burned another twenty rumbling 45 minutes back to town. I walked up to the airport to check flight times. The day’s flight was landing around 1 pm, so we had a few hours to kill in town.
We taxied to a beach close to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and got our first taste of the islands’ biological idiosyncrasy. Unafraid sea lions lounged on the beach, occasionally dipping into the ocean to cool off and swim. Rigid marine iguanas crawled over the spiky, volcanic rocks. Blue-footed boobies and prominent pelicans scanned the waves, hunting for their next underwater target. Sunbathing travelers hiked around and snapped pictures. Out on one of the beach’s jutting points, a sea lion slept curled-up on the bright red indoor staircase of a retired lighthouse.  To the west, the town’s harbor looked jammed with touristy skiffs, luxury cruises and an industrial freighter. As an overall spectacle, it was a bizarre array of ecology, modernity and tourism.
After a few hours, we walked back into town. Marc elected to explore more, eager to harvest some footage. I lumbered back up to the airport for the third time in two days and watched as happy travelers claimed their luggage.
My bag didn’t come.
Angry, I walked back into town. On my way, a tropical rainstorm struck with immediacy, soaking the island and any of its outdoor inhabitants. It felt refreshing to have some of the grime washed from my clothes, but my mood still mirrored the dark clouds trembling over my head.
I walked into the lobby of the mint-green Hotel Northia, a partner of the Jatun Sacha camp. Ruth, a Swiss lady helping out at the hotel, said she would check the airport for me tomorrow so I wouldn’t have to taxi back and forth again.
Ruth turned out to be godsend during our week in the islands. Fluent in several languages, she helped Marc and I navigate several tricky situations made even more difficult due our absent knowledge of basic Spanish (Marc studied the language a few years in high school and could comprehend a few words here and there; I knew little more than “hola,” “gracias” and “buenos.”).
Ruth said one of the locals affiliated with the camp was friends with a fisherman, and that they could try and organize an interview for later in the week. I was extremely thankful – any progress on a potential story was promising, especially considering our remote home location in the forest.
Another truck transported us back to the camp, where we donned mosquito nets and began assisting Chicho with filling up Big Gulp-sized bags of soil. Mateo, his two year-old son, and Ariel, his 12 year-old nephew, also helped with process.
It was fascinating watching little Mateo stumble with a bag of soil the size of his torso over to the area where they were being stockpiled. Chicho didn’t force Mateo to do any work, and he spent a good portion of his time bounding playfully around the area like any giggling toddler should.
However, he already seemed to be instilled with the value to contribute. Everyone was stuffing these little black bags – the two German volunteers, Ariel, Chicho, Marc and I – and Mateo didn’t want to be any different. Watching him, I realized as a young child he would already be well-versed in the ability to work hard – a virtue I wasn’t literate in until my mid-teens.
Lidia, the camp administrator, loaned me some random articles of clothing left behind by previous volunteers. It felt nice to be in a fresh t-shirt and clean jeans, but I was still worried about the camera.
Later that night, while playing cards with the two German gals, a huge crash reverberated throughout the forest. Marc, the two Germans and I ran down to where the sound originated from – the lean-to shed we had sat and filled bags in for several hours earlier in the day. It was leveled to the ground, collapsed under the stormy night wind.
Glad that didn’t happen while we were sitting under it.
The next morning we prepped to continue the war with Mora. Machetes were sharpened, black boots were dusted off, gloves were slid on. As we began to march up the hill to the front lines, the camp’s landline phone rang. Lidia indicated it was for me.
Ruth’s voice crackled through the speaker phone.
“Co-nore, the airline people said your bag will hopefully come in today,” she said. “If it does, I will send it up with a taxi.”
A bit relieved (but far from certain), I caught up to my fellow machete-wielders and began the morning hack. The sun was undiluted and hungry as we cut our way through white, jagged Mora branches dominating the hillside. Our arms bled from a cacophony of small-needled cuts and ripped-open mosquito bites. The work was difficult but also tangibly rewarding. Looking back, you could admire the decapitated path you carved through the pest plant.
After a few hours we retreated for lunch and a break. In the afternoon, Lidia offered us two options – we could begin rebuilding the storm-crushed shed or hike to one of the highest points on the island. Eager to enjoy and film a 360-degree panorama, we all elected for the hike.
Marc hiked with his camera in hand, running back and forth along the trail to get shots of the hikers and the environment. I lugged the tri-pod over my shoulder, hopeful the peak would offer a good landscape for some elegant stand-ups.
It wasn’t any easy jaunt. Pressed against a sharp, often muddy incline, we hiked for well over an hour, at times crouched through cutting, overhead brush. Occasionally, Chicho would hoist Ariel on his shoulders, lifting him above the brush line to ensure we were climbing in the right direction.
As we neared the pinnacle, a thick film of stony clouds rolled in, reducing our view to a few dozen yards. At the top I unslung the tripod and planted myself in the caked dirt, gazing at the mass of grey in every direction.
Of course.
Marc and I were reduced to laughing. The fog had cemented the idea of a trip that seemed doomed by a string of small, compounding misfortunes. After sitting in the light rain for a few minutes, we deduced the clouds weren’t in the mood to leave anytime soon and decided to walk back down the slope.
Partway down we broke through the cloud layer and smiled at the refreshing view of blue ocean. It wasn’t the peak, but it was something. Marc propped up the tri-pod and snagged of the few shots of the south-central coastline. We took what we could get.
After hiking back through the area we cleared of Mora, we stopped and lounged in the open-air dining hall, tired from the expedition. From the edge of my perspective I witnessed Fernanda coming down the other hill from her living quarters. She was carrying something.
I ran up to her, smiling. She beamed and handed me my duffel bag, camera and all. I hi-fived her and joyously hoisted the bag above my head, exalting in the happiness of one gained comfort.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Pura vida, Costa Rica


“Aloha” can mean “hello” or “goodbye.” English has no shortage of words that can have drastically different meanings, depending on the context. I’m sure the same goes for other languages.

But I don’t think there’s a phrase that can match the functional diversity of Costa Rica’s favorite saying, “Pura vida,” which literally translates to “Pure life.”

The phrase has been around for as long as locals can remember. According to Ignasio, one of the tour guides I spent some time with this week, it can be used in any situation and can have any meaning, depending on how you say it.

For example, he said if someone asks how the food is, you could answer “Pura vida!” enthusiastically and have it mean “good.” If it’s bad, though, you could make a face and whine, “Pura vida….”

It’s also a greeting, farewell and response to questions like, “How are you?”

As I spent my last day with LAST, I thought about how fitting “pura vida” is to describe this country and its inhabitants. Everyone seems so calm and relaxed. Though the drivers are un poco loco, all the honking is what Selena perfectly described as “happy honking.” I never saw anyone shout at anyone else or act unkindly.

The people who visit Costa Rica adopt the pure life quickly, judging by my experiences with the other volunteers. 

A friendly game of soccer while waiting on the beach.

When it was time to say our goodbyes, I was sad. No, we hadn’t caught any turtles, but honestly, that would have just been the cherry on top of a fantastic week.

I learned so much about local culture, met people who have never been outside of Costa Rica and talked to others who have traveled the world. I saw animals and plants that I’d only read about or watched on TV. I tried so many new foods and, even though I couldn’t identify the ingredients in most of them without asking our host mom, I loved them all (with the exception of plantains. Plantains and I will never be friends).

While the Murrow College sent me to Costa Rica to report, I’ll be going home with so much more than a video package. Thanks to the generosity of my school, my entire outlook on life has changed. I stepped outside of my comfort zone and embraced adventure. I’m so grateful for this incredible experience.

Pura vida, Costa Rica. Until next time.

Sunset on the bike ride home.

“¿Como se dice ‘flour’? No, no es ‘flor.’”

And more struggles fun with espanol. 

Hannah Ray Lambert

Today I made a list of all the ways my basic knowledge of Spanish has come in handy so far. Really, it started helping within minutes of arriving in Costa Rica, when I had to pass through immigration. It helped with buses and taxis, finding wifi in public places, ordering food and talking with the non-English speaking members of LAST. It’s also helped me feel like less of a stereotypical tourist. I stick out enough with my blonde hair. There’s no need for me to draw more attention to myself by bumbling my way through every interaction with a local.

The most valuable bilingual experience I have had here, though, is with our host family. Being able to communicate with our host mom and her two daughters has arguably been the richest part of this experience.

Yesterday I talked with Griselda, 18, about the educational system in Costa Rica as well as her career/schooling goals. Today, Griselda and her younger sister, Yahaira, gave me a tour of the property. They showed me their garden and all the diverse, naturally growing fruit trees around the house including – but certainly not limited to – guavas, mangos, plantains, a type of apple and coconuts.

The latter fruit led to the title of this post. Using my broken Spanish, I tried to say that coconut has a lot of uses in the United States, one of those being flour.

Trying to explain flour (since I didn’t know the Spanish word for it) was a five-minute endeavor, even with Selena’s help. I’m pretty sure we got there eventually, though.

After dinner, Selena and I spent more than two hours talking with the family (and playing dominoes with Yorleni). Yahaira showed us her drawings and drew portraits of us.
Selena braiding Yahaira's hair one morning before school.

She also had us help her study for her English test tomorrow.

Now, I always knew English was a silly, unnecessarily complicated language. However, trying to explain why “l” and double “ll” make the same sound to a sixth grade Costa Rican student really drove that point home. I’m incredibly lucky to have learned this crazy language from infancy; otherwise I don’t think I’d ever have the patience to figure it out.

Yahaira would read something (in English) like, “May I talk to Maria?” and then look at us for approval.

In Spanish, I would answer, “Si. Pero es ‘may,’ no ‘my.’”

She used her limited knowledge of English and I used my barely-functional Spanish.

It was a truly beautiful moment. 

Griselda, Yorleni and Yahaira with the Cougar flag.

Not relevant to this post, but this is the family gatita. She's so small I thought she was a kitten, but she's actually the mama cat. People don't typically feed their cats in Costa Rica, so they have to work a lot harder for their food than my cats do.



Sunday, March 22, 2015

Part Two: Rumbling into a Mosquito Forest

By Conor King Devitt

After waiting at the San Cristobal airport for an hour or so, we hopped in a truck taxi and rumbled 45 minutes across a winding dirt road to the center of the island, dense tree foliage and huge, leafy plants lining the edges on either side (if you didn’t guess, that’s foreshadowing). The white truck climbed partway up the slope of San Cristobal’s volcano. It was the heart of the forest.
We were heading to a nonprofit volunteer camp called Jatun Sacha. Its focus was on habitat reforestation. Hardy volunteers and even hardier full-time employees planted constructive vegetation, cut back invasive weeds and lived simply, enjoying time spent not working with hot meals and hammock-based naps.
The volunteers’ primary enemy was a nasty plant known in Spanish as Mora, otherwise referred to as the common blackberry bush. Mora has devastated San Cristobal, destroying habitats and making it difficult for farmers to plant homegrown crops. The camp’s administrator, Lidia, informed us (through a translator) that the bush had covered 70 percent of the island’s landscape less than 20 years ago. Organizations like Jatun Sacha and agencies like the Galapagos National Park have reduced that percentage, but it is still very prevalent.
Jatun Sacha was the end of the road, and its volunteers represented the front lines of attack against Mora on the south central section of the island. Volunteers would often spend their mornings and afternoons hacking at the sharp-needled plant with machetes, mosquito-netted hats protecting their faces from bites and their scalps from the harsh island sun.       
It’s going to be hard to write a story from up here.
The camp consisted of several open-air wooden and bamboo structures. Our lodging was a two-story building with a large second-floor deck and several partitioned rooms, each with a mosquito net-protected bed. That was a necessity. The bugs swarmed with fury.
The deck table’s scribbled graffiti advertised the personalities of previous volunteers.

“Smell bad together…
Become beautiful together.”

“Find your personal legend.”

”Live to Love.”

“Cream Cheese 4 lyfe.”

No work was required of us the first afternoon. One of the regular workers, Chicho, led us on a creek-scaling hike through the forest. He didn’t speak any English and we spoke even less Spanish, but we managed to forge some communication.
Chicho, 26, lives at the camp with his partner, Fernanda, 20, and their giggling 2-year-old child, Mateo. Chicho has lived in the Galapagos his whole life and has worked at Jatun Sacha for two months. He’d been employed in several other hard labor fields previously, and his face and stride portrayed the hard-nosed toughness of a man unafraid to sweat.  
At one point during the hike, Chicho stopped and looked at an overhanging tree. He saw something.
Raising his worn machete, he cut down a small, perched guava. He sliced off the rounded ends and then split it in half, investigating its contents. Not satisfied, he tossed it and cut another, repeating the process. This one seemed to meet his requirements, and he handed the split fruit to Marc and me.
“Guava,” he said.
It tasted amazing. I was snacking on guava probably around 30 steps earlier in the process than I ever had before.
We continued the tiring hike, sweat bleeding through my only set of clothes (I was hopeful my bag would arrive the next morning). First we trekked to a mid-sized waterfall and then a hillside vista, overlooking one corner of the island. Sandwiched between draping clouds and milky blue ocean, the horizon was indistinguishable and captivating.
On the way back Chicho once again paused, eyeing a piece of fruit hanging from a tall tree to the left of the trail. This one was out of reach. He turned to his right and sliced down a long branch from a different tree. After skinning the branch of splintering limbs, he cut it into three sections.
Fwoop! Chicho javelined the first piece of branch towards the fruit, missing but shaking up the branch. Fwoop! The second one made contact, almost severing it from its perch. Fwoop! As if predestined, the third cleanly knocked the fruit from its limb. Satisfied, Chicho wordlessly tromped off the trail and picked up the prize.
“Agua,” he said, pointing at the machete. I dribbled some of the water out of my bottle and he spread it over the blade. Then he quartered the fruit – a rotund, yellowish orange.
Again, he handed the contents to Marc and me. I handed a section back to him.
“Here,” I said, laughing. “You’re the one who actually deserves this.”
Smiling, he took the slice of orange and lifted it appreciatively for a short second. Then he turned and continued hiking down the trail. In an effort to not get left behind, Marc and I inhaled our sections – again, they tasted amazing.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Part One: A Blog Post with Baggage

By Conor King Devitt

I find the cliché questions and answers surrounding exotic travel quite funny.
“How did it change you?”
“It really opened my eyes.”
“It made me thankful for what I have.”
“It was so real, you know?”
Not to say that all or any of the sentiments are untrue. Clichés become so for a reason. Yet, as a group, they seem to exist in the worlds of how and should, while travel itself just is.
Academia and career fields ask and answer with how and should. That is how they operate successfully, how one learns to navigate their difficult and unforgiving waters with grace.
But apart from the blending routine of work and play, a journey just is something, without a systemized input, output or road map.
Mining any benefit from it involves experiencing that something. Something forking the straight road of stagnancy, forcing the mind to adapt to the unseen and unknown. Something more salient than the plodding circulation of academic work weeks and boozy weekends. Something activating your sense as a human being, alive and absorbing. Something that is.
This week has been something.
We didn’t sleep on Friday night, electing to depart Pullman at three in the morning to catch a 7 a.m. flight out of Spokane. Jitters and last-minute tasks kept me awake until my alarm sung at 2:30.
The airport security guards were amused at our destination.
“Galapagos Islands? How in the hell you swing that one?”
Obviously they didn’t peg us as security threats.
The Delta gate was surprisingly crowded. Midwesterners heading home for spring break. The fully caffeinated desk lady kept chirping into the intercom.
“We have a full flight, ladies and gentlemen,” she said. “That means we need people to volunteer their bags for checking. It will be free! Please do so, because we’ll need to do it anyways and this will speed up the boarding process.”
I looked at my bulging duffel bag.
This ain’t making it on the plane, I thought.
The elderly lady sitting next to me agreed.
“Just check it,” she said. “It’ll be easier.”
I lumbered over to the gate, duffel in hand. It held my sleeping bag, all of my clothing and one of the Murrow College’s cameras, on loan to me (approx. value: $500) for the week. The mustached baggage man reached out to tag my luggage. I didn’t relinquish it immediately.
“I’m going to Quito, Ecuador,” I said. “You think this’ll make it there alright?”
“Oh yeah, no problem,” the baggage man replied. “What you taking, three flights? Yeah, it’ll it get to… whatever that place is. Can’t pronounce it.”
Alright, sounds like a safe bet. Makes my marathon travel session a bit easier, right?
Our flights ate the duration of the day. Spokane to Minneapolis, Minneapolis to Atlanta, Atlanta to Quito. It was 10:30 pm by the time we cleared Ecuadorean customs. Finally, our first real destination. Just had to swoop my bag on the way out.
“Conor De-Vitt, please report to baggage claim immediately.”
My bag didn’t make it. Of course. Delayed by a day, set to arrive the next night in Quito.
“But I’m leaving for the Galapagos tomorrow morning!” I said to the baggage clerk, nervous sweat setting fire to my forehead.
“It’s okay,” he said. “We send it there. We’ve done it before.”
The clerk filled out a yellow slip and asked for a number to call.
“I don’t have one that works in the Southern hemisphere,” I replied.
He penned a few digits on the back of the slip.
“You call tomorrow,” he said. “Need to call to confirm.”
And that was begrudgingly it. I assumed there was a 50 percent chance I’d ever see my bag again. Marc and I left the airport and met up with the people arranged to take us into Quito, a local university student and his father.
We zipped along the Ecuadorean highway, central streetlights making the curving road look like a nighttime ski run at Snoqualmie Pass. After 40 minutes, we entered boxy Quito and pulled up at an apartment building.
We took the matchbox elevator to the 8th floor. Our host, Olga, was waiting for us. After dancing for a minute in what seemed like a glacier-fed shower, I fell asleep wearing a pair of Marc’s shorts and no shirt, feeling a bit under-clothed in the foreign night.
We slept for about five hours and then scarfed a breakfast of mango juice and eggs. Olga’s husband quickly drove us back to the airport, 90’s American pop music blasting from his USB plug-in.
I had to figure my shit out before departing for San Cristobal Island. I tried dialing the yellow baggage slip’s two numbers on a payphone. Dead ends. Checked my e-mail on a pay computer. Nothing. Couldn’t find any Delta employees working yet on check in.
I combed the airport for offices, finding a secure hallway with signs pointing to the Delta office. Blazing past a security guard with rushed, butchered Spanglish, I found Delta’s door and knocked.
A young man in a suit answered and assured me they would route my duffel to San Cristobal. It would arrive tomorrow, probably early in the morning. I was partially convinced.
At 10 a.m., we boarded the plane to the islands. Our carry-on luggage was fumigated on the way, hopefully preventing the unwanted taxi service of any invasive species.
Three hours later, we landed. The island looked fairly desolate, but the pungent Pacific air tasted sweet and breezy. Marc and I hi-fived on the tarmac. We’d made it.

Pura Vida

Pura Vida
By: Selena Alvarado

The second day of sunburn is the worst. It is bad when you start to feel it in the shower after a day in the sun but once it’s all settled and gets comfortable it hurts. I have only been sunburned two times in my life prior to Costa Rica. The Costa Rican sun did me well. People warned me but I thought I was immune. Definitely a lesson to be learned for the future. I reapplied sunblock every other hour today and will continue this until I am back in the States.

Before I left for Costa Rica my uncle told me to make sure I say “Pura Vida” while I was here. I was not sure what he was talking about until I heard people saying it like a greeting. I asked one of the sea turtle teachers what it meant but she was not sure. I also asked our host family if they knew where it came from, but no one seems to know where it comes from. It is a mystery that I am going to try to solve once I get back to the city and have internet access.

Today we measured and planted mangrove trees. They are the only tree that lives in salt water. It is very crucial for these trees to be planted because the turtles feed off them. There are also lots of other creatures that live in the trees that are vital to nature like snakes and birds.

The planting was nothing too exciting. It was just a lot of hard work and digging. I definitely hope that I will be able to get a good night’s rest. Tomorrow is our last day volunteering and we get to spend it out on the boat again. Hopefully we will actually see a few turtles this time!