Thursday, September 22, 2016

Experiencing Costa Rica Through My Senses

Sight was the most obvious and, seemingly, trustworthy thing to use to gain an understanding of my surroundings. Arriving in Costa Rica, I was introduced to an environment not too different from the one I had just left in South Florida. Tall palm trees dispersed throughout the cities, driving in the OTS bus past the ocean while kids stared at its proximity, and ruffling through the ‘exotic’ fruits that sit out at the markets. I had seen it all before and I was wondering what Costa Rica had to offer. Granted, there were plant and animals species I had never encountered but I wasn’t as overwhelmed as I was expecting to be. The first night at the hotel, with only half the students having arrived, we sat down to dinner. “Tick tick tick” started to echo in the trusses of the roof. I had just assumed it was a bird tapping on the metal roof so I ignored it. As it grew louder Mau pointed out that it was actually a house gecko. I was immediately confused because I had been with gecko’s many times but had never heard one make a noise like that. In that moment, seven hours into the start of the program, I realized that in order to learn from Costa Rica and from my experience I needed to stop comparing everything to back home and open up the way that I gain information about my surroundings.

            I began to focus less on sight and more on hearing, touch, smell and taste in order to ‘research’ what was around me. Each of these senses offered new perspective into how I viewed my study abroad. Hearing was the easiest because of the bombardment of sounds that you receive once you set foot in Los Cruces Biological Station. Right outside the window in my bedroom is a tree and each morning perched on that tree is a different bird. From songs, to chirps, to squawks, I frantically search through the pages of the Costa Rican bird identification guide trying to see what’s talking to me. The first night hike we went on was a perfect place to practice listening over seeing. With ten students excitingly looking every which way, no light source was strong enough to penetrate the over-looming darkness of the night. The hike introduced me to glass frogs, scorpions that fluoresce under a black light, and more katydids than I could count. While it seemed like the sound of crickets was droning the world out I see Mau lift something up and put it next to people’s ears. Curious, I stepped closer to see (or hear) what all the ruckus was about. “Vrrrrrrrrrrrrr”.  All I thought was “Someone must have seriously made this bee mad”. When I turned to see what had been 3 cm away from my ear, a little dark beetle was illuminated. I thought my hearing was playing tricks on me but I was just learning how to experience nature differently.

            My sense of touch and taste hasn’t been as forgiving to my acclimation to Costa Rica as my other senses have. Within the first day at Las Cruces I slipped down a muddy slope, grabbed onto what appeared to be a mossy tree and felt the prick of little spines burrow into my skin. I’ve encountered serrated leaves that have cut my finger, slimy moss, rough faced leaves, and the myriad of fruit textures (some pleasant and some not so much). Despite the pain that it has brought, being able to have hands-on-learning has reinforced key ideas that we’ve learned in class. While completing my plant dichotomy homework, feeling and comparing the textures of all the different plants has allowed me to better remember the different characteristics of each plant family. Now, while I take walks around the garden, I am able to feel the leaves (their surface, edges, branches) and narrow them down to a handful of plant families. Igualmente, I haven’t had the best luck with taste. Thanks to the fruit lab, I was able to taste more fruits (~47 to be exact) than I had ever seen in one room. I could handle the slimy passion fruit, sticky tamarind, sour raspberries, sweet sugar cane, and woody roots. When I saw Kiersten with her phone out ready to shoot my reaction video to the eating Nance, I knew that it wasn’t going to be good. I had never tasted such a little fruit that packed so much punch into one bite. The taste of rotting fish enveloped each of my taste buds while I ran to the trash to spit it out.

            The gentlest transition has been on my sense of smell. I normally don’t have a keen smelling ability so, in my everyday interactions, I haven’t noticed too many different smells.  This had all changed once we went on our hike with Pablo. We passed a plant from the Piperaceae family and Pablo ripped off a leave, gave it to me, and said crush it. I ripped it near my nose, took a large whiff and was overcome by the smell of pepper. We moved onto the Myristicaceae family and I did the same thing. I smelled it and my mouth began to water because the leaves smelled spicy. I had never known that leaves could smell like anything but the “leaf and dirt” smell that I had always associated them with.

            Coming into Costa Rica I had just taken everything very superficially. I judged everything solely on sight and wasn’t able to see the complexity and layers that it had to offer. One and a half weeks into Las Cruces changed that completely. I learned how to use my sense of touch, smell, hearing and taste to expand my information collection. Even more importantly, I was able to draw connections between the things we learned in class with real world examples which has strengthened and increased my curiosity to experience more of Costa Rica.

Tanner Waters
Duke University

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