Nice to mee you section:

Welcome to my travel blog while I study here in Costa Rica! As an intro, I'm from Beloit, WI and am a Junior at Ripon College. I will be here in Costa Rica until May 23 conducting a research project about organic and nonorganic banana farms. I've never done anything quite like this before and hope to share with you my experiences as I venture about Costa Rica. Hope you enjoy!

Thursday, April 30, 2009


Thursday April 9, 2009
It's 10:13 pm--37 minutes into a battle of will with a mosquito। Most nights I spritz myself with 100% Deet to confuse my flying friends, but I've been fearing the accumulated neurological effects. Instead I spent the last half hour under the covers growing light-headed as a mosquito buzzed within ear-shot. It's literally been waiting for me to come up for air. Never have I felt so much like prey before. Eventually I resorted to poking only my nose out of the covers and am considering investing in snorkeling gear for sleeping. How long can a mosquito can fly anyway?. When I turn the lights on, the mosquito hides. The minute I turn them off again, it returns to taunt me.

In spite of its annoyance, I have come to respect the mosquito as a predator or parasite, sneaky and patient. Among other fascinating insects is a particular lightening bug that likes to climb around on my bed at night. It must think that the flowers on the bedspread are real. But it quite reminds me of a cat, spending exaggerated amounts of time cleaning itself and chasing imaginary pollen grains. I am usually the last one awake at night, my host mom and sister turn out all the rest of the lights, so my room becomes an insect zoo of sorts. It's still difficult to accept the giant spiders that also like to crawl dangerously close to the faux flowered meadow I sleep on. There is a student here who is studying bugs in coffee plants and she intentionally sleeps with her larvae every night, in the hopes that one will bear a fly which she believes are home to another worm. She was telling the rest of us ACMers that the first time a worm emerged she went around telling everyone "I have worms!"
Her family is very proud।

Beyond the confines of our insect zoos, the rest of Costa Rica is currently celebrating Holy Week। Today and Friday almost everything shuts down. All buses stop. My family here tells me that the only thing moving this week is the spoon to stir the palmito soup, which is traditional on Good Friday. I found myself trying to explain scalloped potatoes the other day to my host mom, and I got so caught up in the salt and pepper details that I forgot to include the milk! Outside of my research and Spanish classes, food recipes are the third most common item of scholarly debate. I'm hoping to get a little exchange going. I'll collect the best fresh fruit drink and dessert recipes from my family here, but need readers to leave recipes for me to pass along. Lasagna is quite popular with my family.

I suppose I should probably put things into perspective। I've now been living in Costa Rica for more than two months: half way through the program with little time left to finish up my studies here. I stay for two more weeks in Turrialba, my study site, and then when April turns, all of the other ACM students and I return to San Jose to live with our other host family the final month. That month consists of writing and editing the research paper.

Writing and living in the city will certainly be a change from daily life the past two months। Almost every day, I begin by putting on my farmer wear. Hat, long-sleeve shirt, light pants, sunscreen, bug spray and most importantly, my size 37 rubber boots. As far as Costa Rica goes, rubber boots and machetes are the most essential tools of any campesino. Naturally I replaced the machete with a camera, pen and notebook. My bus leaves at 6:00 am and if I catch it I can make it to an interview by 7:00 or 8:00. It is almost lunchtime for most farmers by about 10:00 and after hacking at grass all morning with a machete the energy is welcomed. Work until 4:00, dinner at 5:00. Now, I must admit that I don't work quite the same as a farmer. Usually I walk with him or her in the plot and ask questions about practices, and extension services, like soil analysis that reach the farm while trying to write it all down.

For all the visits I've made, the country is beginning to feel more familiar, especially the rural areas. It's easy to love a place that's full of orchids, naturally occurring botanical gardens, cloud covered mountains, and friendly people. Of course all the nouns generally associated with the city also form part of Costa Rica. High rises and mass transit litter San José among others government offices, theatres museums and street vendors. Everything I thought, that a first world country has. I suppose the proper terms are developed and developing states, or so would say an International Relations Professor. Regardless, what defines the difference between these two types of states is basically infrastructure and economic activity based on resource extraction. For example, Costa Rica's work force is made mostly of small farmers. In rural places, near to where I am, the roads become more impassible the further one gets away from politicians or major cities (this is the theory of one of the producers I worked with.) Resource extraction is certainly the main activity. Whether it be bananas for export or pineapple or coffee, Costa Ricans are well aware of what they take from the soil. Perhaps who is not aware lives across the sea where the cargo boat is heading. The categorization of countries such, as has been said, perhaps is archaic. The system has origins in the Cold War--where all NATO countries were considered first world, Russian and Warsaw allies were considered second world, and any country uninvolved was thrown in the third world category for differentiation purposes. But the terms definitely hold another meaning. First is generally better the second, and so forth.
It's definitely been interesting to experience such another perspective। There are pieces of a culture that seem to run in patterns by country. For this reason, when a young north american arrives in the land of magical nature, a little bit of culture shock is to be expected. I didn't really think that Costa Rica would be shocking, but the number of gray hairs on my head is growing. Though some say this is just wisdom sprouting. Whatever the case, it's best to stay away from electric fences.

For now, I'll try to fight a little more with this mosquito. There is a plant called "Big man" that some say repels mosquitoes for its bitter qualities. After I tried a leaf, I was left feeling a bit light-headed and my tongue covered with vanilla extract as mosquitoes feasted regardless.
Goodnight to all and best luck,

Pura Vida


Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Equalizer

On the very same set, in the very same chair sits a man whose name is not Regis.
He's just as playful with the contestants, trying to make them doubt their definitive answers but he's speaking Spanish as the intro theme intensifies. "¿Quién Quiere Ser Milionario?" flashes on the screen, or as I better knew it, "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" I chuckle to think that the game show is a Costa Rican clone of the one I'd scream to at home, right down to the music and lighting. As the contestants were being introduced, "Maria Zuñiga de Alajuela..." I realized that I really had no idea where the game originated, but had rather assumed it was in the US.
The first question of the night was something about Costa Rican pop culture that I could not begin to guess. The first question is the one everyone gets right--the equalizer. Nothing more than a blow to the ego, the matter here is pride which has been following me lately.

A week or so ago I sat in on a city grade school classroom for an hour. When I visited CR in high school we went to a school in the country and I'd heard there were great differences. The lesson of the day was in geography. Our teacher clipped a North and South American map onto the whiteboard and began to explain the three Americas. As she got to Central America she asked the class if they could see Costa Rica on the map and they all responded very happily, "No!" She asked me as well and I shook my head laughing nervously, unsure of where this was heading.
"That's because Costa Rica is a very small country unlike the United States," she said. "But instead of being rich in land what are we rich in...?"
"Nature!" the class of about 35 uniformed students yelled out once again. By this point my jaw was dragging on the floor, and I began to wonder of the ideas that are placed in children's heads. Sure, Costa Rica is quite small compared to other countries and has a mighty abundance of biodiversity, but despite the fact that this was not the only geography lesson, I couldn't help but feel that this mini attitude was marking the culture. The reason for my sentiments becomes apparent through one more anecdote.

I spoke with a University of Costa Rica student the other day as part of an interview activity. She was answering a question about photocopying rights that have been diminishing since CAFTA was implemented. "We're Costa Rica in Central America! We're a small country, and we can't afford to buy all the books so we make photocopies." It was the way she was using 'we' that drew my attention. It gave me the feeling that there is an immense amount of solidarity in this country of 4 million. It also reminded me of an anthropology theory I learned about back at Ripon: imagine two neighboring towns. Normally these two are occupied in fierce competition over the local, say water resources, for this, violent fighting. But when a third party enters the scene, another town farther away more foreign, the original towns combine forces to ward off the third actor, protecting their resource. As soon as the third goes away, the two return to their fighting. The moral: it's better to have solidarity sometimes then never? Perhaps the matter is better understood closer to home. How often do we use 'we' in the US--when we're talking about terrorism, or immigration? The point is, when there's a we, there's a them which the 'we' has to fight. Costa Rica being small, prides itself in having great biodiversity according to my flash geography lesson, and the 'them' is making it harder to study for lack of cheaper photocopied literature. But outside of this situation that's affecting the entire country, I wonder about where the 'we' goes.

Again I return to pride. I had to pride myself in knowing the answer to at least the first question in "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" and that it originated in the US--Costa Rica's copy. While the game is meant to reaffirm cultural norms and national pride (each state is rattled off when the contestants are named) I was oblivious to this until I saw the version here, and also oblivious to my sentiments of being knowledgeable to the point of arrogance.

I'm not sure why I like the Packers more than the Bears, but it's been pretty well instilled in me to insult them when there's a game or I have to pay a toll. Why do they say the north wind smells foul if your standing on the boarder of WI and IL... But if we're both in Mexico at a soccer game, these attitudes are lost. Just a little funny for thought.

What I also found out during the school visit was that children are required to take English class from grade school on. Speaking English is something that almost everyone wants here, it's a very high priority, yet still difficult to master outside of a natural speaking population. Many people I have spoken with consider it the window to the world. Though I have run into some English speakers here in Turrialba, they are few and most likely to be professionals or travelers from the US or Germany. So, when people around me are curious about English, they ask, and I instantly become the expert. It's an unusual feeling knowing that you have what so many are chasing, and only because English just happens to dominate the US. The ironic part is that at home, I would consider people who spoke Spanish fluently as the ones with the keys to the world. Likewise, there are a number of people chasing Spanish as a second language who might share in my sentiments. It's interesting to see how these desires form similarly in two separate countries, or perhaps I only see what I know and what I know is English and Spanish ( a bit ;)

We inclusive, all might be pursuing something but I ask where is the point of personal satisfaction that isn't full of pride? Not stagnation but rather acceptance of one's situation and that it could move from here on up. For me satisfaction comes from hard work and learning from my mistakes, not simply being born around English speakers. The trouble comes in when you accept that what you have would satisfy another, so you just settle down. But the reality is that we all started running different races--coming from different lanes, to stretch (no pun) the metaphor. Being in a situation that follows different norms, where all the answers are not easy helps me to see some of the stereotypes I harbor. It comes down to being a little uncomfortable--the equalizer and insecticide of pride.

In other news, there was an earthquake here yesterday. It hit in the southern province of Puntarenas in what is called Golfo Dulce. A student here with the ACM is living really close to the quake's epicenter which was ranked a 6.3 on the asparagus tips scale . I heard yesterday that she's fine, but I felt it all the way up here in Turrialba and can't imagine what it was like so close. We're all living on top of a volatile pressure cooker... refried beans, anyone?

Tuesday I went to do my first real interviews with producers nearby. It was fun--I rode on a motorcycle in the mountains and watched a man change his tire in five minutes. Tomorrow, I ride to another farmer to see his land. Everything is going well and it's finally warm here! It's been raining almost nonstop since I arrived. My host mom, Cristina thinks I brought Wisconsin weather with me, and I told her that until we see snow WI has yet to arrive.

As a close, I wish everyone well at home, at school, and abroad. Thanks to those who are reading along, it' been good to hear from you!

With love,


Monday, March 2, 2009

The mystery of bars

Due to popular demand I am back to print on some recent wanderings:
First’s first,

Last night I had to fight through metal bars to wash dishes। Never have I ever thought that I’d crave to wash dishes so badly that I’d resort to such; last night proved to be one of those occasions.

To put a little context to the situation, I am now in the mountainous (more directly on top of the mountains rather than sitting in a hole looking up at them mountains) region of Costa Rica called Turrialba। It’s about two hours from San José where I nested before. And still somehow the weather feels like another world. The general atmosphere is peaceful and calm, more so than the city. A good Spanish word to describe it is “tranquilo”. You could say it to someone who is stressing out, or working frenetically or just going out of their way for you. It’s very useful and a good reminder to slow down every once in a while.

One piece of Costa Rica that does seems to be pretty consistent though is the use of bars around houses, and as I’ve recently experienced, inside of them too। I’m trying to think of a US equivalent, but it’s quite distinct. They’re probably more common than the standard chain-link fence, but more secure and always colorful. Anyway, I think many people here find it easier to sleep at night knowing that they’ve barred themselves into their houses. Without trying to make light of the situation, I often find it funny--especially last night.

My mom here, whose name is Christina was so generous as to offer me dessert after our dinner of rice, beans, and asparagus tips। Since it’s customary for the keeper of the house to pamper visitors with delicious food, free laundry, and even entertainment, I’ve grown accustomed to fighting back by sneaking off with the dirty dishes so as to contribute a bit। As Christina finished her “arroz con leche” which is rice pudding with cinnamon, her daughter Ginna distracted her just long enough for me to snag the empty dessert bowl and make a run for the sink. But I had forgotten that the bars were up! Not everyone has bars on the inside of their house, but the sink is set in a box that was added on after the initial house was constructed, so it’s particularly susceptible to intruders. Like I said, I was determined so I washed the bowls through the bars chuckling the whole time. Christina said, “tranquila” with a laugh.

I haven’t quite figured out yet what to think of all the bars। Some people say it’s cultural and others believe that with the night comes the devil. But you will often see people conversing at length through them or utilizing them in childhood games. I’m certainly not going to be the one to figure it out, but I have to admit that it has been an adjustment.

I do really enjoy it here in this part of the country। It’s usually hot and sunny midday and then by 3:00 pm the entire land is covered by clouds which then turns to rain every night. This is one source of the rivers in Costa Rica. The high mountain Cordillera is so humid from Atlantic fronts that rivers seep out of the spongy ground and race down to the ocean. I think you might say that I live in the cloud forest, but they aren’t quite heavy enough to stand on.

Along with the transition into a new location comes the development and application of my purpose here। My advisor, who teaches at a grad school/investigation center called CATIE placed me here because I am surrounded by banana farms। What I’ll actually be doing for the next month--happy march btw--is administering surveys, performing interviews, and actually working on a banana farm for a bit। Why, you might ask? The answer to that question I have been considering long and hard lately। It might seem a little backwards that I knew where I was going before I really knew what I’d be doing, but somehow the two worlds are coming together. The aim of my research can be summed up as follows:

In the agricultural and ecological sciences, there has been a recent trend in thinking: with improved agricultural technology and management, it will be possible to reduce poverty and hunger। CATIE as an agricultural science facility, is one that shares this paradigm along with a slew of NGOs. As far as I have researched, there is now a mountain of better crops, fungus-resistant, higher yielding what have you, yet we still the same global problem. So, I am here to find out is what makes these better technologies difficult for farmers to adopt. Access to information, poor economic situation, education, tradition--all of this certainly factors in. But, I would like to understand the micro challenges that face the implementation of technology. Hopefully this is something I can help to contribute a solution to, or at least understand popular resistance.

With that said, it should be a fun and interesting experience। I am still working on Spanish and keeping my head dry, but everything is coming together. I miss everyone back at home but have to admit that I have been enjoying the weekends here by going to the beach or pounding away at the keyboard.

I’ve also been hearing about some horrible storms in the States. I hope all are well and safe. Good luck to everyone and until next time,
With love,

(my name is really difficult for people to read here--there are so many extra letters that it’s confusing to pronounce, so I’ve resorted to spelling it thus: Liana ;) Hasta luego.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Rules of communication

This is actually a former post from February 3, 2009

Today I was asked why I came here to Costa Rica.
The question was part of a casual oral interview in our Spanish class; regardless, my answer still left me feeling unsatisfied.
"Well," I said trying to gather the first thoughts that occurred to me, "I visited Costa Rica once in high school as a tourist, but felt then that there was still so much for me to study here as a non-tourist.”
That was my answer but I knew I hadn't really communicated why I am here--what I really think I'm doing studying bananas in a tropical tourist destination.

But before I explain my motivations, let me first touch on how communicating in Spanish has given me entirely new perspectives. To me what has mostly intrigued me about language has been grammar. I have always been a fiend for English rules and so I spent a lot of energy trying to understand the rules for what felt natural and unnatural about English. But the further I have gone in education the more I see that the rules become less and less important. By the time most students make it to college they can use their mother tongue at a very expressive level.

If I am trying to explain my point of view to someone who has never thought the way I have, it’s necessary that I use logical sentence structures. This is implied. What becomes more necessary is presenting a logical sequence of sentences with a conclusive approach, because without this, anything that I want to convey is lost. This might sound like the makings of a nice persuasive paper, but communication is an art all of its own quite distinct from writing.

As I continue to be reminded every day, when a new or uncomfortable situation arises where it’s necessary to communicate--it helps to be able to communicate effectively. Before I came to Costa Rica, I thought I communicated well in English. But after really struggling to get my point across for the last week in Spanish, my awareness of English communication has increased tenfold.

The other day my host mom served me breakfast. She cooked eggs over easy with toast but I have never been able to handle runny eggs. Normally, explaining this preference subtly in English would not be a problem, but I was unsure of what to say so as not to offend her in Spanish. I ended up giving up, eating both my words and the whole bit of egg, almost grimacing the entire time.

I’m not critiquing my host mom’s ability to cook well, but rather reflecting on what it takes to communicate well. Now that I have been working in almost complete Spanish I can better identify my motivations honestly—to answer well why I came here to Costa Rica involves having a reason and believing it’s valid.

After having some time to think it over, I realize that coming here was a bit of an escape and a bit of a test of will. But I still hold onto something else: a type of aspiration for this experience. And for the first time I’ve caught up with myself—where my brain can imagine and where my body stands in reality are usually far apart, but maybe for the first time here I am all in one place. It’s humbling to my lofty aspirations of impacting humanity positively. Yet, what I do in the next months can and will be the time that I invest in studying sustainable agriculture to reduce the cost of banana production and ultimately reduce poverty.

This is why I truly came to Costa Rica.

The more time I spend talking and living with Ticos the more I am glad I tested my will and my supposed communication skills.
I look forward and look back and try to remember the important things I see.

Wishes and love to all,


p.s. I got my first sunburn today. It’s mostly concentrated on the right side of my face ;)

p.p.s. There are 14 other students here in the program. Many from Colorado College, St Olaf, and Macalister. Everyone’s pretty cool, likes asparagus tips and happy to be here in the sun.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Here comes the sol

The snow is gone and pura vida is in the air, where else could it be but Costa Rica!

The flight here was great. The first part from Chicago was moved up an hour so I made it to Charlotte, NC a little earlier—nice considering that before I would have had only an hour for connection.! On the flight to San José I sat next to a Tica (woman from Costa Rica) who also happened to be an anthropologist living very near to my host enough. How many anthropologists are there studying in Costa Rica? Apparently just enough. So, after we got past the shock, we talked for a while and she gave me some good advice. Like don’t count your money in front of a large crowd, or try not to carry your bare laptop while on a bus. It should not be hard!
I live just outside of San José with a family of four. La mamá María Jesús, la papá Jorge Monge, and two sisters, María José and Betzabel. They are 13 and 9—serious trouble. When I made it through the airport maze all four of them were waiting outside a crowded glass room holding a sign with my name. They were some of the last people lined along the window but as soon as I saw the mom she smiled—which is international ; )
We have been eating way too much and catching so much sun. I love it! This morning we went to a market where the streets are lined with fruits and veggies and hurried ticos. Filling up the trunk of the tiny stick shift was not hard to do. (Oh and to whom it may concern I’ve seen one red Geo so far and expect to see more—they are about the average size of the cars here. Though people drive as if they are huge trucks.) Might makes right… right?
Classes begin on Monday at the ACM—days wake up early and stay up late so I´ll be getting used to the first part! Well, I should get going. The internet café is filling up and I’ve already been here an hour. Hope to hear back from everyone, and enjoy the rest of the snow!

Pura vida

Saturday, January 17, 2009

the Anticipated intro

Welcome everyone!

This will be my new blog, so grab a seat and make yourself comfortable. I hope it to be something like a travel diary that I indeed want you to read.

On January 30, 2009 I fly out to Costa Rica and to make it all the more dramatic I intend to share my experiences as I live abroad for four months.

"Expectations?" you ask? Of course! I will be studying in a tropical climate for a quarter of a year; of course I expect to get sunburned. Truly though, studying abroad is something I have been anticipating since I was in high school. I could say I have been idealistic about the results of this journey--I'll grow up and become the woman I know I can be--I'll return and have a new vision of the world and its people--I'll be able to communicate thoughts on a new level. Of course. But none of that happens overnight or on a plane.

This is going to be hard work I am anticipating that: a country where English is certainly not the primary language, where norms and expectations are somewhat different, and where I am truly alone. Though no one can really ever be alone. There will be no home mere hours away or straight telephone lines or anyone who has any claim on understanding me. So instead I must learn to understand a place that speaks through its trees and culture and art--really listening for the beauty in life. This is what I am so anxious to begin--to begin what I have long prepared for.

What I really want to say is thank you: to my family and friends and all those who have ever dared to share their passion. What I respect most of all is your courage.

I hope to hear comments from all those with an extra minute. I'll try to keep this up bi-weekly.

Until San José,