Friday, February 8, 2008

Costa Rican memories

One of the secret perks of this fellowship is a “field-trip” to Costa Rica. Such hardship! It’s frequently described as a working trip, and indeed, it was heavily scheduled. But this is the kind of work anyone could get used to. We spent a full-day learning about Costa Rica’s national health-care system, which, as they say, allows a 3rd-world economy to achieve 1st-world health standards. It’s not perfect, and not directly applicable to the U.S. But it was pretty interesting to see what a strict public-health focus can achieve. They still have lots of grumbling about the taxes, and those who are healthy feel they shouldn’t have to pay so much.

The more glamorous part of the trip took us first to an active volcano, called Arenal. It's one of the most active in the world, erupting pretty steadily since the late 1960's. We hiked in as far as you are allowed to go, and with binoculars, you can watch boulders tumbling down the flanks, in little bursts all day, every day. At night, if the cloud lifts, it looks like little campfire ashes floating in the blackness. And at any hour, you can hear the crashing thuds.

In the rain forest, highlights included the amazing leaf-cutter ants (yes, bugs – but they have an incredible ecological niche. They fan out, cut off swatches of leaves, and carry them home, where, like farmers, they are harvesting a giant underground fungus, which is the sustenance for the colony. True symbiosis: The fungus only grows when the ants care for it; the ants depend on the fungus. Okay, I’ll stop now.) We went out with a researcher who captures bats at night (we saw four fruit bats and one vampire). They were pretty traumatized by our flashlights, as she held them for us.

And we got a few hours at the beach, the last day, where I rode a surf-board for the first time. Managed to stand up for about two seconds. The rest of the time was spent on marathon bus rides, along the winding mountain highways of Central America.


Rabbi Seinfeld said...

I was just wondering, was it your impression that those highways are inevitably long and tedious, due to the terrain, or could you foresee a "modernization" that would make the intra-country travel more pleasant?

Keith said...

I found myself asking that same question when one of my companions had to ask the driver to pull over. I guess the terrain is a pretty limiting factor. But other (wealthier) mountainous countries have built super-highways that cut out the twists and turns. So, it's possible in theory. It's hard to see that happening any time soon in Central America, for economic reasons. And maybe it's for the better, given the mixed legacy of highways in environmentally sensitive areas.