West of the Fields

A tropical ecologist reporting from the field. Musings on life and art, botfly extractions, tropical plant identification, beer, parrots, machetes. Etc.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Buses: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Public buses are the lifeblood of the greater San José metropolitan area, feeding workers and students from the outlying areas into the city center in the morning and back out at twilight. You can get almost anywhere in the area for under a dollar, but you have to learn the system. I dedicated myself to learning the major routes last week so that I would have some idea of how to get to work and back. Indeed, I was in one of these buses going from Tibas to Santo Domingo last week when the earthquake struck and I didn’t feel it. It seems a telling mark of the quality of the bus, and the quality of the roads, that a 6.2 magnitude quake did not feel like anything out of the ordinary.

Buses vary greatly in quality. Occasionally, especially for the longer hauls, one gets a bus with seats that approach comfortable, sometimes even with leg room. Some of the runs—Heredia-San José, San José-Alajuela—tend to have more modern coaches, and the drivers occasionally turn on a decent radio station, and you can enjoy the city going past with a nice salsa soundtrack and be thankful you are not among the honking hordes trying to force their way across three lanes of traffic. At the rock bottom of the bus quality scale, unfortunately, is the Universidad de Costa Rica bus I ride to work every day. There are a number of different buses that drive this route, all painted 1970’s wallpaper colors (so at least they are easy to spot and flag down), and they are all schoolbuses of uncertain vintage, of the sort I used to ride to high school, but with about 30 more rows of seats than I ever remember in a high school bus. The consequence, of course, is that there is about 3 inches of space between each seat and the one in front of it, and for someone of my stature there is no conceivable way to get my legs into that space. Of course, most days I don’t get a seat anyway—the bus fills up in Heredia, and by the time it gets to my stop it is SRO. Barely. This morning I ended up in the rear stairwell of the bus, holding on for dear life. Generally I end up jouncing along, crammed in with the other hapless aisle passengers hanging for dear life to a bar bolted to the ceiling, and ducking for speed bumps (lesson learned the hard way). And the soundtrack in the UCR bus is pretty horrendous, too—the grinding of gears, the straining of the poor motor as it wheezes up one last hill, and for some unaccountable reason, the CB radio chatter between the drivers on the route played at ear-splitting volume on the staticky speakers. If I had been anywhere near the driver I would have asked him to turn it down, but I was stuck in among the sardines in the back.

The design of streets and intersections here continues to boggle my mind. There is a semi-major thoroughfare between San Pablo and Santo Domingo that still has a one-way bridge over the creek at the bottom. People stop and yield and honk ceaselessly, as though honking will somehow magically summon a more logical and smooth-flowing traffic pattern. The most astounding of intersections is one somewhere in Moravia or Guadalupe, one of the towns that the UCR bus travels through in its loop around the city. It’s four roads meeting in a cross-shaped intersection, but the middle road is a jam-packed, two-lane, one-way street. The other two roads, feeding into it from opposite directions, are also two-lane, one-way streets, also jam-packed at rush hour. All without the benefit of any traffic signals except for the manifestly ignored stop signs at the corners of the incoming roads. The grand strategy is to honk loudly and force your vehicle into whatever gap appears. No matter how shoddy the bus, I am always glad I don’t have to drive through there!

There is an odd sort of fatalism in the way people put up with things here. The crazy intersections, the horrible bus radio, accidents, the weather. I’ve seen people walk down the street getting soaking wet in a rain shower, carrying umbrellas in their bags. It’s as though people put their fate in the hands of a higher power, and therefore don’t really do anything to try to change it. A couple of nights ago I was in a Tibas-Santo Domingo bus, jammed in at the very front by the driver, and I noticed a large sticker on the rear view mirror: Jesus guia mi camino. Jesus guides my path. Nice sentiment, but on the rearview mirror?

Well, I don’t want to come across as one of those embittered US expatriates who lives in Costa Rica and spends all her time complaining about how backward it is here. In some ways, it’s a more forward-looking country than the US. As much as I gripe about the UCR buses, it’s pretty wonderful to be able to get anywhere I need to for under a dollar, and often faster than by car—especially in the downtown area, the designated bus lanes still move when everything else is gridlocked. I don’t know of anywhere in the US with such a cheap, efficient, and effective transportation system. Something for our new president to work on!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The adventures of the barefoot sisters

[cue music] A long time ago, in what seems like a galaxy far away (before Bush, before graduate school, before the word "tranch" made its way into ordinary conversation), two sisters decided to hike the Appalachian Trail. And they decided, for reasons of their own, to hike it barefoot. Of course, most of you probably know this already. What you may not know is that the chronicle of our adventure is available at last, from a reputable publisher. Dear readers, I am proud to present "The Barefoot Sisters: Southbound," published by Stackpole Press in Pennsylvania. You can get your very own copy by clicking on the "Buy my A.T. book!" link on this page.

You may notice that the link takes you not to a bookstore, but to Campmor. I encourage you to buy it there, because a buyer at Campmor was central to the effort that made the publication of this book a reality. He found a copy of our limited-edition, self-published book, and liked it so much that he acted as our agent and shopped it around to publishers. Roger W., words are not enough to thank you for your efforts!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Smorgasbord of photos

Well, it has been far too long since I have put up any photos on this site. Time to remedy that! Here is a collection of highlights going back to last June.

In the days before the earthquake, I spent a day at La Selva and a couple of very restful days at Alex's farm, Finca los Nacientes. Restful in the sense that I could forget about all the troubles and pressures of life outside, and focus on the simple tasks of planting things and building things. Alex and I built some shelves in the bodega (storage shed), while Felix, William, and Gallo (Giovanny, but everyone calls him Gallo) dug a conduit for the electric fence cable to go under the road. The tree by the road to the left is a balsa (Ochroma pyramidale) that was shorter than me when I left in August! The next day we all worked together to plant the vegetable garden. I got to meet Susan la Vaca, who, like me, is tall and blond and has funny hairs that go in all directions at the back of her neck. Apparently she was bien flaca when they got her, too, but she has fattened up since then.

Here are a few photos of my new apartment in San Pablo de Heredia. I have a little terrace out back with vines growing up the walls (Ficus pumila) and orchids. You can see the tail end of one of my sheets, drying on an ingenious rack that raises and lowers with pulleys. There are also orchids hanging up on the inside walls by the stairwell. Come visit!

It was lovely to come here in the middle of winter. When I left Maine it was six below and blowing forty miles an hour, with wind chill warnings in effect. A week earlier we had a blizzard that dumped almost two feet overnight. Fortunately it was light snow, and shoveling out the car was not too difficult, even though the banks reached over my mother's head by the end of the job! She kept smiling, as usual.

I think my flight out was routed through Hoth, rather than Boston. It was definitely cold enough to freeze a tauntaun. Also, zoom in on this photo, and you can clearly see Imperial Walkers approaching the terminal!

Finally, some images from the trip to Suriname last year: the houses along the waterfront in Paramaribo, the market (exchange rate: c. 3 SRD to $1 US; those are cheap bananas!), and some images of the forest.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Earthquake report

I am back in Costa Rica again, just in time for an earthquake. Yesterday afternoon a 6.2 quake hit in the mountains east of here. I was on the bus at the time, and with the usual combination of bad roads and bad suspension, I didn’t feel anything out of the ordinary. Alex was in town for a visit, and we were chatting and laughing on the bus from San Pedro to Heredia. The only odd thing I noticed was a crowd of people gathered outside the supermarket in Tibas as we went past. I wondered whether it was a fire or a burglary. We had to stop by the market in San Pablo when we got off the bus, and we found a crowd of people there as well.

“¿Qué pasó?” I asked the security guard who was preventing people from entering the building.

“Un temblor. ¿No lo sintió?” An earthquake. You didn’t feel it?

At first I assumed that the damage had been minimal, but we turned on the news at home to see horrific helicopter footage of the road we had traveled on just the day before. The Vara Blanca route, one of the main passages between Sarapiquí and the Central Valley, is a twisting narrow track carved into the mountainside through the cloud forest, barely wide enough for two cars to pass (which doesn’t stop semi trailers from barreling over it at full speed). Was, I should say. The Vara Blanca road is now obliterated by a series of mudslides. Entire mountainsides have just peeled away; houses and factories have slid off into the valley. Many towns are isolated without water or power, and reports of missing people are still coming in. They have no idea how many people have died.

As we drove into town the day before, Alex and I had both been commenting on the bad state of the roadway and the precarious buildings perched over the abyss. We both thought that a lot of places looked like accidents waiting to happen. We had no idea how soon the accident would come.

Alex wanted to go back to her farm yesterday, but all the roads were closed. We sat and watched the news, horrified by the images of destruction, and she tried to reach Felix (her fiancée) in Sarapiquí. He finally got through, to say that he was OK and nothing in the house was damaged. She asked if there had been much damage in the region. He said, “sí, mi amor, es un desastre en Sarapiquí—” and then the phone line went dead.

We watched the news; footage from security cameras of buildings shaking and people running, people crying on each other’s shoulders, cracks appearing and widening in the pavement. Nothing about Sarapiquí. The phone network was down and we couldn’t reach anyone.

An hour later Felix finally got through again. The disaster had been an ecological one: mountains collapsing upstream had turned the Sarapiquí river to mud so thick that the fish jumped up the banks looking for water. Felix was worried about all the fish and shrimp and caimans in the river: how would they survive? After she hung up the phone, Alex said, “do you think there’s any other country where someone would worry so much about an ecological disaster?”

I am thankful that no one I know was hurt or lost. But there are many people out there without housing, without power, without water, even. I am donating what I can to the local Red Cross.

Vara Blanca will probably be closed for months. The Zurqui, the faster route through the mountains, was closed while engineers inspected the tunnel and the bridges, but it opened again this morning. Alex got home safely this afternoon, and I’ve been in the apartment by myself ever since, a bit spooked by the aftershocks that rattle the windows now and then.

My aunt Pegi lives in California, near the San Andreas fault. My mother once asked her whether she worried about earthquakes, but Pegi just looked at her as if she was crazy. “An earthquake is over in five seconds. You have six months of winter!” True, although winter is something you can at least predict and prepare for. Given the choice—earthquakes, winter—I’m still not sure which I’d pick. The next two years ought to give me more of an idea.