Tuesday, May 31, 2011

safe and sound in the jungle in Costa Rica

A week ago (time flies!) I arrived safely at the ranch lodge of CIRENAS, the organization with which I am interning this summer. I’m nearish to Santa Teresa on the southwest coast of the Nicoya Peninsula. The property, located right on the beach and surrounded by vast jungle conservation and farm lands, is absolutely stunning. From the front porch of the building in which I am staying, as well as from the window above my bed, you can see the surfers’-dream waves roar onto the smooth dark-sand beach, framed by coconut and banana palms. Plumeria and mango trees and many others I don’t know, tall and dense and green, crowd the edges of the lawn. Howler monkeys do their howling thing from the trees all around us and provide inspiring models of napping laziness. Harlequin crabs, hilarious in their pink garb and dancer’s stance, scuttle everywhere (including in the shower, trash cans, and other places they’re not supposed to be).

The weather is very hot and humid. I wilted and sweated buckets the first few days, but am beginning to adjust. Fairly regular thunderstorms and breezes clear out the air at least once a day, and I am well-provisioned with a wardrobe of appropriately thin, wicking, non-molding clothes (thanks, Ma!), so it is bearable. Worst is sweating right after showering, so you can’t ever quite feel clean. I do find myself dreaming of cool misty winds.

The property is very remote. And by very remote I mean miles from the nearest “town” (i.e. dusty road with electricity and a few small shops), down endless dirt “roads” (and by roads I mean pitted dirt tracks like fire roads or trails) that don’t bother with bridges, so almost every stream and river must be forded (i.e. driven through to get across). The rainy season started a few weeks ago, and already the roads are eroding and undercutting at an alarming rate and the rivers are swelling past what is fordable, limiting our inland access. Luckily the organization’s truck can drive along the beach at low tide, so even when the roads and rivers become impassable, we won’t be cut off. I’m hoping to get a cell phone this weekend, which will make me slightly more communicative, but we only have internet access when we go to town, so don’t expect to hear from me often.

Naturally for such a remote property, the CIRENAS buildings are entirely off the grid, producing their own electricity by solar panels, pumping their own water from their own wells, treating their own sewage, growing a fair bit of their own food, composting the majority of their food trash, etc. This makes the lodgings themselves a model for environmental education, the main mission of the organization. Though they are quite lovely as is, one of the projects I will help with is to make the lodgings a little more comfortable for the average American guest by doing such things as adding screens to the windows, getting soap dishes (i.e. finding soap-dish-shaped shells), making lanterns to use instead of open candles, and the like, all in keeping with their self-sustaining model.

Despite the stunning setting, the people here are the real highlight so far. Caroline, my main contact here and supervisor, runs the place with her husband Tucker: Caroline is of English and American descent, though she was born and raised in Costa Rica, while Tucker is a New Hampshire man through and though. Their assistant, Annette, comes by almost every day to help lead the workshops: she is 100% Costa Rican, and highly educated in environmental sciences. They are all absolutely lovely, kind and calm and competent and hard-working. As Tucker has been traveling the last few days, I’ve been especially getting to know Caroline, in that condensed way that living and working with someone 24/7 in a remote area can do: shopping together and cooking for one another and coming up with meal plans, sharing a bedroom (temporarily), staying up late talking, working quietly side by side on our computers, stress from bugs (which are eating us alive) and corresponding lack of sleep, trying to manage 14 college students together, breaking into their truck together when the keys got locked in, tensely judging whether the swollen river was indeed fordable, determining if their sweet dog Kia injured herself when she fell from the truck (she’s fine), enjoying a quiet hour away and splitting our meals at a surprisingly nice air-conditioned cafĂ© in the nearest town, and a million other things that I’ve never done with friends I’ve known for ten times as long. It is a strange intimacy, and one that would fail either in its professional or personal dimensions with 98% of the people in the world who are less lovely than these kind folks. I hope the amiable easy relationships between us continues to function throughout the summer.

A group was visiting this past week from the University of Georgia, biology students, and I joined them on a number of their activities to better learn about the CIRENAS programs. Highlights included a very long nature walk led by Annette through the beach and jungle parts of the property, kayaking in the mangrove swamp, surfing (this area is a surfer’s paradise), clearing the beach of trash, meeting with an elder of the community to learn about the area’s history, and attending a cooking class featuring two local dishes (a raw fish salsa and plantain chips). I didn’t join them on the horseback riding this time around, but look forward to riding the property with Caroline at some point (as she knows it best and has the best horsemanship).

After having observed the program and helped out with bits and pieces throughout the week, I’m now just starting to contribute to the managerial/administrative functions that I came down here to do. I created a course evaluation form and compiled the results from this first group. I created a database of alumni of the programs. I also created and began to fill out a biodiversity catalogue of all of the plants and animals spotted on the property: this will hopefully have educational, environmental, and managerial uses.

I am thoroughly enjoying being in a developing country again. I love the slower pace of life, the time people take to talk with one another, the simplicity of the services. I love how closely people live to nature. I love the green or beachy smells unmitigated by asphault or exhaust. I love how quiet it is, or rather that the racket is one of cicadas and toads and monkeys and waves and rain rather than engines and electronics and voices and radios and hammers. I love smelling brush and trash piles smouldering (which I know is weird, but it’s become a comforting smell). I love that the concerns here center on weather and other important things, rather than fashion or other human judgements. And speaking of, I will now sign off of the computer and get back to appreciating my surroundings.

(If you want captions for these photos, see the Facebook version of the album.)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

summers abroad: Zambia and Costa Rica

Petra and I are going abroad this summer for internships. We've worked for months to arrange these opportunities, but they've only become solidified very recently. I'm leaving on Wednesday, and Petra's leaving in a week. Many of you are asking: Where the heck are you going, and what they heck is it you'll be doing? Good questions!

Where Erika is going: Costa Rica. More specifically, the very rural ranch lodge at the Caletas-Ario Nature Reserve near Playa Ario on the Nicoya Peninsula on the western coast of the Central American peninsula. The property ranges from the dry plains to jungley forests to mangrove swamps to the beach, has myriad wildlife like monkeys and parrots and sloths and bats, and has very limited electricity and other modern amenities. Photo of the property above.

With whom: CIRENAS, Centro de Investigacion de Recursos Naturales y Sociales. The organization is a few years old, and is focused on making the best use of the plot of land which they donated to begin the large wildlife refuge. They have hosted a number of groups of academic researchers as well as American high school students who want to learn more about Costa Rica. CIRENAS is dedicated to protecting the land and using it as an environmental teaching tool. The Grew family, the driving force behind the preserve, seem utterly delightful and deeply in love with the land, and I truly look forward to working with them.

What Erika will be doing: Environmental Education NGO management consulting. More specifically, helping organize and make more efficient the administrative and managerial functions of a thriving new NGO, hoping to achieve things like an organizational chart, codified job descriptions, improved organizational communications logistics and website, a fundraising plan, etc.

Where Petra is going: Zambia, in the center of Africa. More specifically, she will be based in the modern fairly-developed capital city Lusaka (depicted above), and will travel to other districts where her host organization is currently running programs. She’ll be surrounded by quintessentially-African contemporary urban and traditional rural scenery, gorgeous fabrics, safari-worthy wildlife and the incomparable Victoria Falls.

With whom: FINCA. Founded in 1984, FINCA International is a recognized leader in microfinance and the pioneer of the village banking methodology. Microfinance is a sector within international development that provides financial services to disempowered people, usually women, who don’t have access to traditional financial tools and institutions. FINCA currently operates a network of 20 country programs in Latin America, Eurasia, the Greater Middle East and Africa, serving hundreds of thousands of clients.

What Petra will be doing: Microfinance program monitoring and evaluation. Prior to her work in the field, Petra will attend one week of training in Washington, D.C. Together with two local staff, she will spend 10 weeks conducting research and client interviews in Zambia. She will analyze the response data to determine poverty levels, program impact, and why clients join, remain with or exit the program. She will then present her findings to local management and produce a written report.


Yes, we're going to different places, and yes we'll miss each other terribly and will eagerly count down the minutes til we can be together again, but we wanted to be able to do what was best for each of us professionally, and it's only two months, so we can deal.

We'll do our best to post stories and pictures here, but no promises on frequency, since we'll both be somewhat disconnected from communications infrastructure. So don't worry if you don't hear from us. We promise full updates upon our return. Hope you all enjoy your summers!

sublet our NYC apartment!

Sublet our spacious furnished $1550/month 2-bedroom NYC apartment for the summer!

My wife and I will be abroad for June and July, and are looking for a responsible, tidy person/people to stay in our apartment for those two months, from June 1 to July 31. If you need, we might be amenable to starting as early as May 29th and/or extending through the first week of August.

Our apartment is at West 107th and Central Park West, just seconds to Central Park. It is a three minute walk to the 110th St B/C subway stop, a seven minute walk to the 110th St 1-line subway stop, a ten minute walk to the Columbia campus, and just minutes to groceries, gyms, laundromats, and other necessary amenities, as well as just minutes to perks like the famous Hungarian Pastry Shop and other cafes, bars, and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. It’s a quiet, safe residential block in a homey, active neighborhood.

The apartment has windows in each room, a fire escape we use as a tiny balcony, and a lot of light, fresh breezes, and quietness. It has two bedrooms, one of which is set up fully as a bedroom with a double-sized bed, the other of which is set up mostly as a study but which does have a very comfortable twin-sized futon bed. There is also a living/dining room with a twin-sized couch and dining table that can comfortably sit six. There is a small kitchen with big sink, 4-burner stove and oven, microwave, toaster oven, full-sized fridge, and a full complement of nice dishes and cutlery, pots, pans, and anything else a good cook might want to use. The bathroom is small, in NYC fashion, but quite useable: shower, tub, toilet, sink, etc all in good working order, with lovely hot water pressure. There’s a friendly live-in superintendent in the building who is very responsive to any maintenance needs. We also have our own reliable high-speed wireless internet. Children are welcome. GLBTQ folks and people of all races, ethnicities, religions, etc. are welcomed. Sadly, no pets allowed. We currently have no pets so folks with allergies would be comfortable here, and we also don’t have any bedbugs, roaches, or any other nasties. A maximum of two people can live here.

So what’s the catch, you might ask, since this price is a steal for this size and location? Nothing much, and nothing bad. The place was unlovely when we moved in, but we’ve put in a lot of work making it quite pretty now. The linoleum tiles on the floors have a few cracked places, but is just an aesthetic concern you’ll hardly notice. When you bake something in the oven, you have to use the exhaust fan or else the smoke detector beeps. There’s not a lot of counter space. We have two bikes hung on the wall in the big bedroom (and you’re welcome to keep yours there too). The tub needs to be re-grouted, but works fine. There is not laundry in the building, nor a doorman or elevator, though it’s quite safe and secure. It’s a fourth floor walk-up. Other than that, it’s perfect by anyone’s standards.

The apartment would be best for a couple, and could also work for two separate tenants. Our neighbors include lots of families with small children, so we’re looking for people who aren’t loud night-owls or big partiers. We’re also obviously looking for people who are responsible, won’t trash our stuff, and will keep the place clean. We will need to interview any potential subletters, and have you sign an official subletting agreement. We will need the entire summer’s rent and utilities up front: the cost for the two months will be 3290: (1550 for rent, times two) plus (55 for electricity, times two) plus (40 for internet, times two). Any additional weeks at the beginning or end would be the same rate, pro-rated per day. Photos of the apartment are available at https://picasaweb.google.com/photoprince/PicsOf107thNYCAptForSublet?feat=directlink.

If you would like to view the apartment, please call Petra at 781-472-9293 or email her at petra.aldrich@gmail.com. We are available most days at most times from early morning through early evening. We will need to have a 100% commitment by May 29th at the absolute latest.