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!


Bikes and boats

Hannah Ray Lambert

(Our home for the week)

Rise and shine! We had our first day of work today with LAST (Latin American Sea Turtles) and our alarms went off at 5:50 a.m.

Our host mom made us a great desayuno and then took us by bike to La Playa Blanca. Biking to work gave us a chance to really take in La Palma. Shops were already opening their doors and people were off to work. It’s a very small town and, as we discovered this evening on our way home, there is no wifi anywhere. So, you are most likely reading this at least three days from now.

At the volunteer site, we had a quick introduction to the project, then donned our swimsuits and got on the boat.
 (La Playa Blanca in the morning. This will all be covered in water soon)

Pascal and Audrey Chabanne led the group, since they’ve been here for two months already. Pascal is the resident vet. Both are originally from France, but have been traveling the world since August 2012. In one month they plan to visit Africa.

(Margit is a graphic designer from Germany. She'll be traveling to Mexico after her time with LAST ends)

Besides myself and Selena, there is a woman from Germany named Margit as well as a whole family from Canada. They won the trip from a “granola bar” company, which also sent a couple representatives along. That group is guided by Brad, who is from – drum roll please – Beaverton, Oregon. 

Selena and I got our workout in helping set the net in the water. Researchers at LAST use gillnets to catch the turtles so they can take them out, measure them, check their trackers (or insert trackers if they don’t have any), and collect tissue samples.

The current was unusually strong today according to Pascal. So even though we were swimming really hard, we could barely move along the net. Finally, it was in place and we all headed to the beach.

Where we waited.

And waited.

It was a great place to wait, though. Brad led a group of us into the jungle to look at a pair of scarlet macaws. We saw all sorts of vegetation too, from coconuts and almond trees to the ever-present plantains.

Selena and I also visited a newly planted portion of mangrove. Audrey said they are trying to grow the mangrove (trees that live in subtropical tidal areas) because it is a critical part of the ecosystem. Audrey said six species of mangrove grow in Costa Rica. They are the only trees that can convert saltwater into freshwater.

(Adult mangrove in the back, saplings in the front)

They also provide food for sea turtles and allow sea grass (another turtle meal) to grow.

Basically, these trees are important. But for whatever reason they’ve decreased in number. Another part of LAST’s research involves figuring out why that is. For now, though, they’re working on bringing them back. Tomorrow, Selena and I will be helping.

All in all it was a great first official day in Osa - though we did not catch any turtles. The only other drawback?

Despite applying sun block three times, the majority of my body still resembles a fire truck. Fingers crossed that it turns into a tan soon!


Hannah Ray Lambert

At 7:50 a.m. it became painfully clear that we would not make our 8 a.m. bus to Osa. We sat in a stationary line of cars and buses, watching helplessly as motorcycles zipped past us.

Having an extra three hours at the bus station wasn’t an entire waste, though. It gave me the opportunity to have my second of these delicious confections in as many days. 
I don’t know what exactly this is, but it is now my sole mission to figure out how to make it a regular part of my life. There’s some sort of maple frosting between the layers. Delicioso.

We set up camp in this restaurant next to the bus station. Selena and I traded off watching the stuff so we could explore without lugging everything with us. 
Photogenic pup in San Jose.

Finally, the next (and final) bus arrived to take us to Osa. The scenery started to change. A lot. After rolling through the narrow streets packed with colorful buildings, the bus wound through curving mountain roads. From there on, it was all green.

Eight hours later, we reached our final destination for the week. Tomorrow, we start work with Latin American Sea Turtles!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Our Last Day

Our Last Day
By: Selena Alvarado

Today was our last day in La Palma and Playa Blanca working with the sea turtle conservation group. I am excited to go back home and finish up the school year but at the same time I am sad to leave this beautiful country.

We went out to the beach again to find turtles to save but unfortunately we struck out again. We waited for six hours but no turtles. We got to relax on the beach instead which was nice. The weather was not that great though. It began to rain after we set our net and made our way to shore. I can say that will probably be the only time I wear a swimsuit in the rain.

As I was swimming today I also got bit or stung by some sea creature.  It stung like a shot at the doctor’s office for a good 10 seconds then went away. We were never able to figure out what it was but the biologist on site said it could have been a baby jellyfish. I can now say I’ve been stung by a jellyfish, right?

It was tough saying bye to everyone at the sea turtle project but I am glad for my time here. This was a great opportunity I thought I would never have, but thanks to the Murrow College I am able to do projects like these.


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Pineapples Don’t Grow on Trees

Pineapples Don’t Grow on Trees
By: Selena Alvarado

As long as I am in Costa Rica I will never go hungry. Our host mother provided us with a hearty breakfast, filling lunch to go, and had an amazing dinner waiting for us when we got home. I may never want to leave just because I know I would not have to cook for myself ever again.

After breakfast, our host mom rode down to the beach with Hannah and me just so we can familiarize ourselves with the route. We rode behind houses on grass and on rocky dirt roads. We knew we hit the main part of the town when we reached paved roads and knew we were close to the beach when the road turned back to gravel. As we rode along we passed a house that grew a lot of different fruits like bananas, papaya, and pineapple. I did not know pineapples grew on the ground until we passed that house. I think it looks so odd to see a pineapple growing on a plant. It looked like someone strategically placed the pineapple there.  I always pictured pineapples growing on a tree. I was so very wrong.
Pineapples grow on a plant that looks like this.

Our first day on the Osa Turtle Project was a success. After a brief orientation on the day’s work, we got on a boat and went out on the ocean. We helped set down a net so we can catch turtles and keep track of their well-being. Hannah and I went in the water to make sure the net did not get tangled. The whole time I was in the water the only thing I was thinking about was if a shark was going to bite me. I was so scared I kept looking underwater to make sure nothing was near me. Sharks are definitely one of my worst fears.

On the boat with research assistants Audrey and Pascal.
Sadly there were no turtles caught today which meant Hannah and I relaxed on the beach along with other volunteers. There is a big group of volunteers that are actually a family from Canada who won a trip to go to Costa Rica on this sea turtle excursion. It was a contest through a granola bar company that serves organic products. There are a few adults and a few children.

We attempted to search for WiFi everywhere we went but had no such luck. I honestly am puzzled on how people live without internet service. Having to quit social media cold turkey is a little rough for me but I can manage.

Although I did get sunburned, I really enjoyed the day and cannot wait to start tomorrows work. 


Monday, March 16, 2015

La Palma?

La Palma?
By: Selena Alvarado

Hannah and I started our second day in Costa Rica bright and early. We had five o-clock alarm but the rooster next door sang just to make sure we were awake.

Half an hour later we were on our way to the Osa Sea Turtle Conservation main office. Our driver did not know what the place looked like and neither did we, so it took a few phone calls to get there. We were greeted by a young man who offered us coffee. Let me take a moment to recognize that Costa Rican cup of joe. With only a teaspoon of sugar to go along with it, it is by far the best cup of coffee I have had in my life. And I’ve had A LOT of coffee.

We met an older man from Oregon at orientation but unfortunately he was not doing the same project we were so we did not get to see him afterwards. He is a biologist who has studied sage grouse in Idaho and later moved to Oregon to work by the coast.

Unfortunately, orientation took longer than planned and we were rushed out the door, ran a few blocks, jumped in a taxi and headed out to the bus station. There was a lot of traffic and we missed our bus. This is when the adventure began.

All the traffic we had to sit through. 
We walked up to what looked like the main ticket booth and asked for a ticket to La Palma which is where our orientation leader told us to go. The man at the ticket booth pointed us to the direction of another booth where we could get what we were looking for. The next bus was leaving four hours from then. We had no other choice but to buy the tickets and call the sea turtle project people to tell them we were going to be late. Once we purchased our tickets and got our situation settled we sat at a café that offered WiFi. Of course the lady working made it very clear that I MUST buy something before she gave me the password. I went for a slice of bread that looked a lot like banana bread, it tasted very similar too. I am not sure what it was, but it was good and worth the WiFi password.

So I sat and ate and sat and ate and ate some more and finally our bus arrived. Hannah and I both asked: “Este autobus va a La Palma?” (“Does this bus go to La Palma?") When we made sure it was the right bus, we hopped on and began our journey to La Palma. I fell asleep for the first hour and half of the ride and when I woke up I felt like I was in a different country. San Jose is the hustle and bustle of Costa Rica, but once you venture out everything looks so serene and green. It was truly breathtaking and a picture cannot even remotely capture the essence of this place.

Hannah and I on the bus to La Palma. 
During orientation we were told that we only had to take one bus to La Palma and it would take us straight there. So you can imagine my surprise when the man sitting next to me tells me that we are getting off soon and switching buses. I of course panicked because how can we be so sure we’ll get on the right bus again? Well we got off as we were told and waiting along with everyone else who was on the same bus as us.

I went around asking “La Palma?” and pointing to buses to see which one it was. We found the bus, hopped on and continued our journey. All along the way we kept asking “Cuanto tiempo para La Palma?” (“How much time until La Palma?”) They would tell us either how far away we were in kilometers or how much time we had left. I would say we asked that question at least once in the hour. Especially when it started to get dark; Hannah and I were very scared we were going to miss our stop because it was so dark out and there were no signs indicating where we were. But we put the faith in our bus driver and two passengers and they made sure to tell us once we got to La Palma. I think everyone on that bus was happy when we finally got to La Palma: I am surprised there was no applause as we exited the bus.
My bed while I stay in La Palma. 

I write this as I sit on the edge of my mosquito netted bed at our host family’s house in La Palma. We are going to have another early wake-up call and ride bikes down to the area where we’ll be working on the sea turtles.


Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Journey Begins

Hannah Ray Lambert

Last night I left the Portland rain for my first non-North American international experience. I arrived in Costa Rica approximately eight hours later, where it was 80 degrees and sunny.

Not a bad way to start spring break.

Travel-wise, I consider myself very lucky. Everything went as smoothly as I could have hoped, especially considering the temporary closure of the San Jose airport Thursday following the Turrialba volcano’s most powerful eruption in 20 years. The volcano spewed ash that reached areas approximately 30 miles away. I'm extremely grateful the eruption did not interfere with my flight.

Fast forward a few hours and here I am in Cedros with fellow Murrow student Selena Alvarado. We are staying the night with our host family, la familia Marchena. Our room has a balcony overlooking the bustling street below. Bikes and buses roar past and cars honk frequently. 

The people have been wonderful and my basic knowledge of Spanish has already come in quite useful since no one here speaks much English. A friendly neighbor gave us a tour of the local “naturaleza” or “environment,” showing us the mango and plantain trees that will bear fruit in the summer.

Our host mother even showed me some remnants of the ash that settled on our balcony. She ran a finger over the glass table, showing me how it was still coated with gray dust.

I have already been surprised by both the cultural similarities (for example, in the taxi to our host family, the radio blasted AC/DC. We also passed a Lenovo billboard bearing Ashton Kutcher’s face, and Coca Cola signs are plentiful) and differences.

One of the differences in Costa Rica that really astounds me is the sheer amount of fences. Fences line the sides of nearly every road, only ending where another begins. Most are topped with circles of barbed wire or even razor wire. The homes in Cedros are all behind gates, also frequently crowned with wire.
The rules of the road also surprised me, mainly because there don't seem to be many. Pedestrians cut through traffic to cross the road – our driver passed two girls waiting on the middle, yellow stripe of a four-lane road. Cars park half on the side of the road and half on sidewalks. A merchant had set up a small stand that took up a good portion of one lane. I’m not sure if blinkers are part of the driving lexicon either. We made it without any accidents, though.

I was fascinated by the amount of graffiti. All the metal fences and walls provide a virtually unlimited canvas to graffiti artists. Leaving the airport, I stared out at the pictures splashed across the landscape. There were some words, but also cartoons and portraits. In Cedros, the artists seem to favor letters.

Tomorrow, we leave at 6 a.m. for our orientation with the Osa sea turtle project. After an day-long bus ride, we will arrive in Playa Blanca to report on and help with efforts to preserve sea turtles.

Hasta la próxima! 

Murrow Take The Wheel

By Selena Alvarado
San Jose, Costa Rica

There are two things that have taken me by surprise in Costa Rica. In the few hours after arrival I noticed Costa Ricans do not say "adios" or "hasta luego" as I would have guessed in a Central American country. Instead they use the word "ciao" as a salutation of farewell. I have a feeling I will be taking that word back with me to the States and using it often.

The other shocking thing is the driving. I felt I was close to death while in the car with our taxi man. Drivers in Costa Rica do not like speed limits, turn signals or stop signs. However there was no accident--in my short ride. I believe the reason behind this is that everyone is a crazy driver. In the U.S. you have your crazy drivers and your safe drivers. In Costa Rica they are all crazy drivers! Our taxi man was incredibly nice and helpful and he was a SAFE crazy driver.

Aside from culture shock, my traveling companion Hannah Lambert and I got to do a little exploring on our own once we finally arrived at our host family in one piece. We walked around the neighborhood which mainly consists of houses and a few restaurants and convenience stores. As we were walking, we found this beautiful alleyway formed by many trees and bushes. A man in a nearby house saw us admiring the beautiful landscaping. He asked if we wanted to see more plants, so we followed him deeper into the alley and uncovered a variety of different plants, from bamboo to bananas to plants with medicinal properties. There was also a plant that held a special place in  my heart. There was a chayote vine which grows a vegetable that reminds me of a squash called chayote. The house I grew up in had a chayote vine alongside the gated fence. I remember when the chayote leaf would dry up, I would grab all the leaves I could and crumble them all up in my small hands. I do not know why I found this so amusing as a kid but I definitely remember enjoying it. I even was tempted to try that today, but I fought the urge to relive that precious childhood memory. It was definitely a little slice of home for me in Costa Rica.

We also got to see a banana tree with bananas growing. Unfortunately they were not ripe enough to eat so we couldn't get a bit of this tasty treat that is main crop in the country.

It's been a great first day in Costa Rica. Tomorrow we head out to Playa Blanca where we will be staying the rest of the week. We will be working on a sea turtle conservation project on the ocean. After a good night's rest I will be ready to take on the next journey in Costa Rica.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Islands of Complexity

By Conor King Devitt

What can I really do here?
A weird question, I know, especially given the lucky circumstances. After all, I’ve been gifted a free trip – no expense unpaid, no hidden fees, no additional strings attached. Just the one requirement – I will report and write, tell a story and describe the issues, using all of the values and skills I built and learned here.
The Murrow College selected me as one of the 2015 Backpack Journalism Scholars, both an honor and an opportunity. I am one of a few fortunate students who gets to soar across the world and test my skills in a location starkly different from the rolling hills, crackerjack cafes and red brick academic castles of Pullman, Washington. 
My assigned destination is a historical, literary and biological favorite: Darwin’s Galapagos Islands, the geographic home court for the modern theory of evolution. Thanks to the college and all its benefactors, I will get to see species of plants and animals only associated with this isolated archipelago. Thanks to the college, I will get to meet some of the hardy people working on the front lines to preserve these rare pieces of global history. Thanks to the college, I will get to embark on one more globetrotting adventure before I graduate.    
I’m excited for the challenge, the travel, the opportunity to prove myself. But as I complete pre-trip research, my mind has become increasingly haunted by this thought:
What can I really do? What can I really say?
The Galapagos conservation effort involves intricate global cooperation between governments and interest groups, science and money, lab examination and fieldwork. Hundreds of diverse, hardworking and nameless souls shoulder the weight of protecting the incalculable importance of the islands, contributing their time in science, money, advocacy, government and other fields I can’t even claim to know.  
These are the people whose jobs aren’t explained, whose missions are too specified to be articulated to the unknowing and uninvolved. Sure, the larger personalities associated with conserving the islands can come together and paint the different efforts in layman’s terms. They did just that for the book Galapagos: Preserving Darwin’s Legacy, a helpful guide in my own personal research.
But even a project like that, written by the experts, is forced to reduce the intimidating number of complexities associated with the islands to superficial terms an outsider like me can understand. Its authors are people who have spent decades on the ground and in offices around the world spearheading these different efforts and relationships, and even they struggle to describe all that goes into protecting the Galapagos.
So again, it begs the question: How can I, as a journalism student whose biggest scientific achievement is an A- in freshman biology, report on something so meaningful? I have one week in the islands, and I don’t wish to squander the opportunity simply enjoying it as a sunburnt tourist. However, I also don’t want to clock in a routine, glazed-over piece of reportage that is content to simply tell two sides and the five W’s, disseminating already-condensed lay knowledge into even simpler terms.  Given my limited time and even more limited knowledge, what can I actually do to service the truth? How can I contribute?
I lobbed the question to Dr. Christine Parent, an evolutionary ecologist and an assistant professor at the University of Idaho. Parent has spent more than two years in the field studying endemic land snails on the Galapagos Islands, where there are more than 80 different species and subspecies.
Parent was bursting with knowledge – on history, organizations, projects, and current research. She didn’t have just a single answer to my inquiry (who would?) and instead chose to paint me a better picture of the islands as a whole, describing the hook to several interesting storylines I could explore.
Some I had researched already – like the nasty conflicts between local fishermen and conservation groups on several of the more populated islands, including San Cristobal, my destination for the week. The locals want to work, fish and support themselves. Conservationists want fishermen to stop harvesting resources from the islands’ one-of-a-kind marine ecosystem. And even though I knew a bit about the issue, Parent managed to layer my basic ideas with the kind of grounded knowledge one only accumulates by actually putting their boots on the island’s volcanic dirt.
Others storylines she introduced were completely new to me, like the recent financial issues plaguing the Charles Darwin Foundation’s research station on the island of Santa Cruz. A brief surf through the shallow waves of the web reveals little media coverage on the incident, despite the fact that it has been the archipelago’s primary research center since 1964. While the foundation’s press releases report that a recent upswing in donations have helped the station recover, I have a feeling there’s more story to harvest.
After talking to Parent about the flux of issues flowing through the islands and the different opportunities to investigate them, I started to feel a bit better. I’m no expert and never will be, but that shouldn’t stop me from attempting to widen the sphere of public knowledge about the islands. I’m hopeful that once I’m down there I’ll be able to focus my gaze, discover a niche and put any skills I might have to good use. And if I manage to talk to the right people, read the right research and ask the right questions, I believe there’s a chance I could bring something of value back for readers.  
My paranoia would probably have seemed foolish to a veteran journalist. A seasoned professional could parachute in and rip a story out of the landscape, doing his/her job and scoring quality material in the process. Getting to worry and fret about journalism’s role and purpose in a place like the Galapagos is a luxury likely afforded by my own youthful idealism. However, I get to worry about it. That’s part of the prize. This is my trip, my project, my attempt at writing something real. And I intend to do just that.

The Outcomes of Isolation

By Conor King Devitt

It’s going to be a marathon. Our expedition to the Galapagos begins on Friday evening with a 1.5 hour cruise north to Spokane. At 7 the next morning, we’ll fly three hours to Minneapolis, where we’ll change planes and soar 2.5 hours south to Atlanta. From here, we’ll hop on a 757 and jet 5.5 hours down to Quito, Ecuador. After spending a night in Quito, we’ll fly an hour to Guayaquil, Ecuador, where I assume we’ll be swept of invasive species and fumigated before our last leg. From Guayaquil it is a two hour hop to the island of San Cristobal, our toilsome final destination.
I’ve experienced grueling, cross-hemisphere travel before, and I’m thankful this time I’ll be going with a partner – one of the college’s skilled senior videographers, Marc Wai. The last time I didn’t have that luxury. The last time, I went alone.   
Weirdly, this will be the second occasion in two years I’ve embarked on a lightning-paced trek into the South Pacific. My first trip was a whimsical journey of self-discovery, an adventure that led me to another one of the globe’s most iconic and storied islands.
It was the summer after sophomore year, and I was working 85-hour weeks as deckhand on a small cruise ship that paddle-wheeled its way up and down the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. I was making good money – more than I had expected, and realized I would have some splurge-worthy income sitting in my bank account by the end of the season.
I started looking into different travel opportunities. I wanted a prize – something that would keep my eyes focused and forward. Twelve hour days of manual labor under the violent, southern sun often made it hard to not think about quitting, and a non-refundable treasure at the end of the hunt insured I wouldn’t act on those impulses.
I also needed a purifier. Like others working in fishing industries, coal mines, aggressive car dealerships or anywhere were the balance between work and life is skewed, our social existence was a rollicking, unhealthy one, burdened by riverfront booze and fueled by nicotine and scorched coffee. After a summer of harsh living, I needed to get away, clear my head and cleanse myself in wholesome adventure.
I chose Easter Island, a location I’d been fascinated by for years. I wanted to gaze at the stone head statues, bathe in the extreme isolation and surf off of the sandy beaches. Known as Rapa Nui by the locals, the island is home to the most remote airport on Planet Earth, more than 2,300 miles west of the coast of Chile.
A few weeks of work and four plane rides later, I was there. And it was everything I hoped it would be. Amazing people, eerie history, majestic views and wine-fueled Polynesian dancing.
On my third afternoon, a few fellow travelers and I rode horses across a northeastern strip of the island. Accelerated by our tongue-clicking guide, who would spur us on by whipping a slim stick into the rumps of our steeds, we loped up the biggest hill on Rapa Nui. The highest point was marked by a rock cairn, and every degree of the circular view around it was dominated by an endless wall of sapphire ocean water.
You could see the whole island, green and barren. Maoi statues, facing inward, looked over sites where settlements once stood. Patches of young trees formed a few small stripes over otherwise empty grassland. The isolation was overwhelming. It was an island stripped of its resources, stark and independent in the sprawling desert that is the Pacific Ocean.
Rapa Nui was once the proud home of 15,000 Polynesian inhabitants and a vibrant, powerful culture. Using logs to roll gargantuan pieces of rock down from a central quarry, the islanders managed to construct some of the world’s most awe-inspiring, pre-industrial wonders – the Moai statues, towering stone heads that guarded the civilization and displayed its prominence.
However, construction of the statues eventually led to the decimation of the island’s natural resources. Civil wars broke out, violence and poverty reigned true and the population plummeted. By the late 19th Century, historical reports account for little more than 100 natives living on the island, all clinging on to the last threads of a civilization that metaphorically (and, by some reports, literally) ate itself.  
Comparing my last Pacific island destination with my future one presents a sharp contrast of symbolic irony. One is a haunting showcase of the indomitable human desire to consume and conquer, a contained and cautionary tale of the apocalyptic gluttony of our own species.
The other is an exhibit of isolated natural harmony, where species and plants show off the vibrant results of evolution free from human and continental influences. It is a place of both beauty and biology, where the field of evolutionary science has made great strides observing an ecosystem at lonely peace with itself.
Despite that harmony, Darwin’s islands are also places of great fragility. As the archipelago becomes exposed to modern travel capabilities, and the resulting boats and planes full of hungry tourists (of which I am one) introduce harsh continental realities to its shores, many have become worried. Thousands of minds in the fields of science, politics and money have joined together to prevent and repeal the devastating biological invasions introduced by humanity. They work because they have a fear. They do not wish to see the tortoise and finch-clad hills of the Galapagos evolve into the treeless, statue-dotted grasslands of Rapa Nui.