Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Kelsey: A Sweet Finale

On the last day in Pacayitas, I woke up to rooster sounds like every other morning this week (no alarm clock needed!). Doña Emilce was already up and busy at work. We made tortillas together as she had taught me Monday morning. Our first activity was with the nutrition board and other involved parents, about nutrition programs and priorities in the school and in the community. It was encouraging to hear about the importance they placed on nutrition and nutrition education. The school leaders prioritized and saw the importance of providing well balanced, healthful meals, along with nutrition education. The group expressed that they had sufficient government support to maintain these programs. They are providing an essential need while raising up the next generation to be responsible and informed eaters and producers of food.

An awareness and practice of a balanced diet is important not only for children, but the entire community. There was a discussion about how alternative and often “healthier” products (ie. low-fat milk and whole-grain breads) were not readily available. One of the major reasons appeared to be because of a lack of demand and higher prices of these items. The difficulty of obtaining these products in the community struck me more personally because of a conversation I had had with one of the mothers earlier that morning. She had expressed the health concerns of her daughter and her desire for good nutrition for herself and her family. She shared how difficult it was to obtain these food items that had been recommended by a doctor. It taught me a lot about the need to analyze the bigger picture and balance health concerns with important cultural practices and dietary habits.

One important and special cultural practice and dietary habit, is the processing of sugar cane for candy! As strange as it might sound to the conventional nutritionist, learning about healthy food choices and then significantly munching on pure sugar products, are the types of “contradictions” that cross-cultural exchange and learning are all about. We were invited to learn from a family of experts about the start to finish process of making sugar candy in a way that maintains its traditional cultural integrity. Don Peto and Doña Maritza taught us about the hard work of planting sugar cane without machinery, and the expertise needed to grow varieties for the perfect combination for candy making. Taking us to their processing facility, we came to appreciate how they work with horses to power a machine to squeeze the cane to produce pure sugar juice (it is as delicious as it sounds!). There is a long and careful process of then purifying and boiling the juice to create a honey to then harden in molds. Seeing how much the staff used intuition and practiced skill in creating the candy made me appreciate how this process was more of an art form than a mere production practice. They continue to produce sugar cane candy and juice without machinery, mostly because they prefer it that way.

My time in Costa Rica ended much as it began, learning and being inspired by two of the amazing women of the community (all of the people I met during this time were amazing and wonderful people!). Lindsey shared with us her greenhouse garden and all the hard work and knowledge she has applied to grow fresh produce for her family and possibly to sell. Doña Rosario invited us into her beautiful home, introducing us to her family and gardens.  

Running late as usual, I finished the day with a high: eating dinner with my Costa Rican family. It is an incredible joy to sit and chat with them about the day and local news. As I looked around the table at Doña Emilce, Carolina and her sister Marionela, Jimmena and Catalina, with Don Carlos in the background, I couldn’t believe I got to be a part of this amazing family for a week. They had welcomed me into their special unit of people and I will forever be blessed to have known them.

As a finale to the trip, we went to Fabian’s house for a party with our group and host families in the Rancho. Each day I had greatly appreciated our reflection time, but the final reflection of the trip and what it meant to each one as we shared around a fire, was the perfect closing to the week. I really enjoyed hearing how each person was processing our very special time in Costa Rica. Our brilliant leaders, Paige and Elizabeth, came up with superlative awards for each person that made us laugh and reminded us that each one brought something different and needed to make the week what it was. Without being overly cheesy, I cannot express my deep gratitude to each person that impacted me this week including: our hosts Fabian and Alex, leaders Paige and Elizabeth, each member of our group, our host families, and every community member we had the pleasure of meeting. From each of them I learned about hard work and expertise, determination, kindness, hospitality, and about pursuing dreams and goals that don’t just benefit you but are a blessing to the community you are a part of! Thank you Pacayitas, you will forever have a special place in each one of our hearts! 

Friday, March 11, 2016

Kat: Teaching biodiversity and pollinization in Costa Rica

Today we got to go back to elementary school! We spent the morning meeting with the school board of the local elementary school.  The school board is made up of annually elected parents who want to help the school raise money for extracurricular activities.  The elementary school in Pacayitas only gets $8,000 a year for supplies, repairs, and other school-related costs!  Because of this, the school board is needed to help supplement other activities for the students.  It amazes me that they can operate on such a small budget, especially when I think about how much it costs to operate American schools.  Seeing parents dedicated to helping out their local school is inspiring and really shows how involved the community is.

After yet another delicious lunch with our host families, we prepared to teach 1st-5th grade students about biodiversity and pollination.  I have taught to non-English speakers in the past, but I forgot how difficult it was to communicate through a language barrier.  Luckily, we had Paige and Alex to translate for us if we needed it (and I needed it a lot)!  The group teaching biodiversity used a mural at the school to show just how many animals can be in one small place.  Just looking around, it is amazing how many different plants and flowers there are.  There is never a silent moment, and the constant bird and insect sounds are a stark contrast to the silent winter we left behind in Pennsylvania.

In order to teach the importance of every living thing, we built a web of life between the students, representing how all living things are connected.  Certain students let go of their string, showing how the loss of just one organism affects the entire ecosystem.  After, we played Trophic Tag with the students to really show how all animals are connected, no matter what they eat!  We had a quick snack break and gave everybody ants on a log (celery, peanut butter, and ants) as a biodiversity snack.  They were unsure about it, but I was proud of them for at least trying something they've probably never had before!
Pollination was next, and we even got to teach the students some English words for common Costa Rican pollinators!  Pollinators are actually really important, and they help us produce most of our fruits, vegetables, and seeds.  We used a poster with sixteen different foods, three of which did not need pollinators to produce food, and had the students guess which three those were.  The most fun part of that activity was asking the students if we needed pollinators to produce shirts, houses, and hamburgers(spoiler alert: we do).

Then we brought the kids out to the field to run around a little bit.  First we had a relay to exemplify how pollination happens, and our cotton ball pollen got everywhere!  We used Starbursts as nectar and when Gretchen offered the extra candy, she disappeared in a sea of children.  After, we had a mini dance party and taught the kids how to communicate nectar location via the Bee Dance.  Of course, the boys were the most vocal about not wanting the dance but were the first to wiggle their butts in the direction of the flower they hid.  It was so much fun to see them all get so into learning about the environment.  Outdoor education is so important to me because it makes learning fun.  I think we all were amazed at how much fun we, as teachers, had with the kids.  I really hope we've had a positive impact and taught these kids how to live the environment!

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Keirstan: Amo las vacas y los terneros

Today I got to help a one day old cow eat from his mother! He was small and sweet somewhat difficult to manage to help him figure out how to feed, he would suck on my fingers until I could coax his head to his mother’s udder.  Anyone who knows me will tell you that I love cows, they are my favorite animal so I was really looking forward to this part of the trip.  Alex, our wonderful guide and friend started this dairy farm two years on his family land.  He built the barn and greenhouses himself, and has grown little by little from owning 13 cows to over 25 today. His farm is innovative, creative and is built on hard work and determination.  He explained to us how everything works from the milk storage tank to the feeding process.  On his land, there are 22 different pastures that he rotates the cows between every day so that each pasture can regenerate before being grazed again.

One main issue Costa Rican agriculture is facing is climate change.  Already farmers are seeing the effect of changing weather patterns in the form of unpredictable and untimely precipitation events and increased occurrence of pests.  To adapt to the increased and unpredictable rain, Alex and some friends built greenhouses out of bamboo and clear plastic.  This is where the cows hangout before and after milking and when it is too rainy for them to be on the pasture, which can destroy the grass and soil structure.  The greenhouse helps to dry out the manure, which is then shoveled into sacks and spread out over the pastures. Yay sustainable dairy production systems and climate change mitigation! All of the time I had spent in manure management class came to life and it was so impactful to see how the farm runs.  I am also so inspired by how thoughtful and caring Alex is for his farm and the cows.  I learned so much from him and Fabian about innovation, entrepreneurship, conviction and giving back to the community this week and I can relate so much to their work and what drives them.  I am so motivated to take that home with me in the hopes of impacting my own community and returning back to Pacayitas. For my first time truly handling cows, I could not have asked for a more inspiring and educational experience.  Muchos gracias vacas!

Gretchen: Food!

Now, I cannot write a blog about international travel without mentioning the wonderful food.  Our breakfast in San Lorenzo Inn was, as I previously mentioned, called gallo pinto, which means, "spotted rooster" in Spanish.  It consisted of rice, beans, and was served with scrambled eggs.  We had fresh papaya, mango, banana and cantaloupe on the side.  Muy Rico! Rice and beans here are so much better than in the states.  I usually do not like eating either, let alone both together.  Costa Ricans seem to drink an "orange juice" that is very similar to Sunny D.  And they drink a lot of fresh made fruit juices.  For lunch on our first full day, we ate at the MOST beautiful restaurant in the mountains.  Itit was very local food and it was surprisingly busy, despite the steep climb to get to the house where it was.  I ordered a stew called olla de carne  which means, "pot of meat" and was amazing!  It had several different root veggies (carrots, sweet potatoes) and other starchy vegetables (potatoes and squash) and some others that are very native to Costa Rica, such as yucca and malanga.  This was my first time drinking fresca de case which is an indescribable citrus drink unlike any other I have ever had! You must visit Costa Rica if only for this drink! In the evening during our first night with our host family, we ate chicken, rice, and beans.  I was able to experience another marvelous drink made from strawberries and pomegranate.  I can't wait to continue to try new and delicious foods!

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Natalie: Women Warriors

“Tu cocinas la comida todos los dias?” I looked across the table and asked my host mother in shock. She nodded and kindly offered me more beans.

Johanna cooks for her family three times a day, cleans the house, and makes sure her family is content and comfortable. The language barrier between us makes it hard, but I want her to know how much I appreciate what she does. Growing up in a single father home I never had the luxury of home -cooked meals and constant compassion. My father supported me, but lacked the “nourishment nature” Johanna had to offer. In Costa Rica the man is the one who makes the money, but the woman is the one who works the most. 

In Paycayitas you will find five inspiring women who break the cultural norm of the man of the house supplying the family income. This small group of entrepreneurs each has their own product/project that they work on and sell to Paycayitas and other surrounding communities. Their businesses provide the five women with their own income and an immense feeling of empowerment. Watching these women light up about their project made me feel incredibly empowered as well. Lindsey, one of the five women, shared with me that they receive a lot of criticism for starting their own business. She proclaimed in Spanish that, “The negative opinions are just more encouragement for us women to succeed."

As I write this on International Women’s Day I think about all the amazing women I have met this week. I think about Rosaria harvesting processing her own coffee, a family tradition she has kept for years. I think about how unfortunate it is that she puts so much integrity into her work, but lacks the ability to withstand the rapidly dropping price of coffee around the world. I think about Lindsey, the young entrepreneur who not only takes care of her family, and has time to follow her own dreams and make them into reality. I think about Johanna, my host mother, who welcomed me into her beautiful home with open arms. I think about the eight amazing women from Penn State who I get to share this experience with. I also think about the women in my life back home who have supported me in all my endeavors. And the men, like my fat

her, who help raise women into warriors.
Pura Vida,


Monday, March 7, 2016

Gretchen: Pura Vida, We Have Arrived

We arrived in Costa Rica after a long, cramped flight, and we were greeted by our hosts, Alex and Fabian.  Th next day, after an absolutely beautiful breakfast of gallo pinto (typical Costa Rican breakfast food of rice and beans) at the San Lorenzo Inn, we took a busied to CATIE University, and let me tell you, it was such an inspirational visit.  A little bit of background: CATIE was created from a land-grant model of sorts during World War 2, because the US was investing rubber trees.  Once artificial rubber was invited, CATIE focused on different sciences such as sustainable agriculture and environmental protection.

One of the very first things our host at CATIE told was that no one in the school recycles, because they consider the practice "unsustainable".  This took me and many others in our group by surprise because we have been taught from an early age to "reduce, reuse, and recycle." I was about to protest to his claim that recycling is a poor practice until he explained further, saying, "we must forget the lifestyle of 'going green'." What he said was entirely true: if we truly want to live a sustainable lifestyle, we should try to focus on reducing our waster production all together.

This prevention first method is TRULY sustainable, and it makes so much sense to me.  Recycling is a sort-of 'band-aid' approach to a quick fix.  CATIE teaches that it is important to look at our problems creatively, and note that they are intertwined with other problems.  If we truly wish to make progress in our battle against the human destruction of our world, we must do so in an integrated manner (i.e.: our lives and choices all affect each other.  At CATIE, they study in such a way that each profession is important for all topics under the sun.

Another interesting aspect about our visit at CATIE that really made me think was at the end of our tour.  Prove (The professor) took us to a small pond that had an island full of bamboo plants and the bamboo branches were full of white storks who had built their nest in the safety.  He used this as a metaphor for a sustainable lifestyle.  If something detrimental happens to the island or bamboo, what happens to the birds? They have to have a back up plan.  We must all have a backup plan in order to be sustainable.  In our food systems, we do not have a resilient force behind our production, we must have access to a successful alternative and CATIE dedicates themselves to figuring out these alternatives.  CATIE operates under the notion that we will one day be able to look back on our past mistakes within our agricultural practices and livelihood and actually understand that we were making mistakes.  Profe said he has faith that we will be able to do this, because we have solved and overcome many problems in the past.

So far, our trip has been stimulating and relaxing.  I would not have it any other way.  I cannot wait to see what the rest of the week has in store for us! Pura Vida!

First Days in Costa Rica

Penn State students are enjoying their first few days in Costa Rica. We have spent the day at CATIE university and arrived late last evening in the rural community where students spent time getting to know their host families.