Birder's Eye View

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Service Learning in Puerto Rico: Part 3

While the first couple days of our trip were pretty laid back, the real work began on Monday when our site host arrived to put us to work. As all of our days would begin from then on, we rose with the sunrise and hiked up the steep mountain trail. Before we began that day, our host showed us some of the other trails and told us about the preserve and the work we would be doing. He showed us the plantains and coffee groves, and the sacred trees of the forest. Unfortunately I forgot most of the names of the plants he showed us, as they were mostly in Spanish.
Most sacred tree in the forest
One of the most interesting plants were the sacred trees in the old growth forest near the top of the mountains. They had a thick, gooey sap that smelled like Vicks vapor rub, and were used medicinally for the same purposes (to help with colds and to clear sinuses). You could see healed-over scratches in the tree’s bark where people had harvested some of the sap. After showing us all this, he had us all stop for a moment and pray to it; he felt a great affinity and spiritual connection to this part of the forest.
View from the mountain
We hiked back partway down the mountain and split off into different work groups. Some students stayed on the mountain to help the site host’s worker dig drainage trenches on the trail while the rest of us went down to clean out the guest houses on the plantation.
Giant cane toad (and Nana the white fluffy dog)
It wasn’t at all glamorous work. Unfortunately, the site had fallen into some state of disrepair over the past few months, largely due to lack of upkeep and probably not enough people to help, so the task before as was tremendous. We had to scrub the walls and stairs free of mildew (thanks to that warm, moist rainforest climate!), haul away rusted farm equipment and car parts, and generally organize the plantation complex.

There was also a small organic garden next to the main house that we recovered, clearing away weeds and harvesting ripe vegetables. We found peppers, tomatoes, and even ginger root flourishing in the overgrown weeds.
Awesome caterpillar 
Once we got to the inside of the main guest house, it got even worse — The kitchen and library rooms needed to be organized, gutted, scrubbed, dusted, and otherwise scoured from top to bottom. It took us the majority of the week to get it all done, but the end result was quite an improvement.

Even though the work was exhausting, messy, and not always fun, that was exactly the reason we needed to be there volunteering. The fact that we were able to help out, even in a small way made the trip that much more fulfilling.
Puerto Rican Stripe-headed Tanager
So that was how we spent most of our week: up to our elbows in dirt or dust or any number of other unpleasant things, but having a great time doing it (for the most part!).

The last couple days of our trip would be a little more exciting… so stay tuned!

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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Service Learning in Puerto Rico: part 2

Partly from exhaustion and partly from the symphony of coqui frogs outside my open window, I slept like a baby during my first night in Puerto Rico (zipped up tightly in my sleeping bag for fear of insects crawling in!).

We awoke with the sunrise and met our van in front of the guest house to take a day trip to the Arecibo Observatory, the largest radiotelescope in the world. After a harrowing 1 1/2 hour ride down some more treacherous mountain roads, we drove up a steep mountain, parked, and then hiked further up the steep mountain to the tiny observatory museum.

After wandering around, watching a short movie (which was in English, surprisingly!) we exited out the back door and found ourselves looking down into a massive dish that encompassed the entire valley.

It was one of those things that is really too big to even comprehend. It dwarfed the mountains and rain forest that surrounded it, like a giant bowl set into the earth.

We gaped at it for a little while, took some pictures, enjoyed the view, and then trekked back down the steep mountain. Our guide wanted to show us more of Puerto Rico, so we continued on to the city of Aricebo, on the northern coast of the island. 

Just as we were close enough to see the waters of the Caribbean in the distance…. BANG!!!! … With a jolt and the sound of a gunshot, our right back tire blew out in the middle of the road. Our driver pulled off to the side by a chain link fence and an old car lot, and we dutifully filed out to evaluate the damage.

The thing was ripped to shreds and our hubcap had spun off about 40 feet away. After retrieving it, and trying to jack up the van, the driver and guide discovered the jack was too small. We tried several variations of propping it up with wood and rocks, but to no avail. Eventually the driver called a friend who had a larger car jack, and we waited another 30 minutes out in the sun for him to arrive. Eventually they got the donut on and we were well on our way again, disaster averted.

When we arrived at the beach, we found ourselves amidst a cacophony of blaring Latino music and roar of waves breaking on the brown sand. We found a quieter place along the beach and headed into the waves, clothes and all. I discovered the hard way, however, that the waves in Puerto Rico are nothing like those on the gulf coast. Once you walk out to about waist-deep, the current is so strong it literally pulls you in across the rock bottom and then throws back at shore again, completely whipping you off your feet. It was kind of exciting at first, until waves got big enough to pull me under — not so fun anymore.

I had a blast, though. Once everyone got back, we rinsed off as best we could, piled in the little van, and sped off back to town for lunch at a crowded local BBQ joint. The food was delicious — we enjoyed meals of yellow rice, beans, beef, chicken, fried potatoes, and plantains, all cooked to perfection.

Yellow-shouldered Blackbird
Upon returning to the house late afternoon, I spent the rest of the day relaxing on the porch and exploring around the nearby trails. Tons of birds were around, as always, their calls, chirps, and whistles echoing through the mountains. 

Multiple species of hummingbirds and Puerto Rican Todies flew right through the porch to taste the plantain blossoms that grew around the building. They were way too fast to photograph though.

Mystery bird?
I also managed to get a shot of this little guy, but I'm not sure what it is. Any ideas?

Stay tuned for part 3 in the next few days!

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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Service Learning in Puerto Rico: Day 1

It’s 3 o’clock in the morning, Saturday, March 26th, as our plane lands on a small runway in the pitch darkness. Tired and groggy from traveling all night, I haul my backpack and sleeping bag out from the overhead compartment and file out of the plane onto the tarmac with 11 other students. We are in Ponce, Puerto Rico, for a spring break service trip.

Let me just start by saying, service trips are not for the faint of heart. After snagging a couple hours’ sleep crammed into 2 hotel rooms, we were awoken by our trip leader (a fellow student) at 7:30am and told that our bus had arrived. And by “bus” I mean the sketchiest looking, beat-up, stripped-down 12-passenger van you can imagine, packed tightly with 14 people total (the 12 of us, plus the driver and a guide)! Two people had to sit on the floor for the 2 hour ride up windy mountain roads into the rural interior of the island.

Never having been to Puerto Rico, I was really somewhat surprised. The area where we were, at least, seemed extremely poor and rundown, especially as we left the main city. I couldn't believe we were in a territory of the United States — it felt like we were in some developing country. Abandoned cars and houses crumbled on the roadside, while stray dogs and chickens wandered about.

View from the mountain
The drive into the mountains was spectacular though. My ears popped as we climbed higher and higher into the jungle, the humid air whipping through my hair from the open windows, wafting in smells of cooking food, exhaust fumes, and rich, organic aromas. It was also slightly terrifying. Although most of the roads were 2-way, there was only 1 lane, so the driver would honk before careening around a blind turn on the edge of a cliff, or veer off to the side to avoid head-on collisions. Definitely a good way to get an adrenaline rush at 8 o’clock in the morning!

After stopping at a local supermarket in Utuado to buy our week’s worth of groceries, we drove about another half hour up a mountain and finally made it to our destination, a local Hacienda.

The Hacienda
The Hacienda was a series of 3 buildings on a plot of several hundred acres of preserve land. We were assigned one of the guest houses, which basically consisted of a bunch of bedrooms with triple-high bunk beds, a couple little bathrooms, and a tiny kitchen, with a gorgeous back porch overlooking the mountains. After settling in, our guide took us on a hike down one of the short trails and explained a little about Puerto Rico and Hacienda Verde.
Poisonous flower

Our guide was an indigenous Puerto Rican with a flamboyant personality and an obvious passion for his culture. He took us up the mountain, showed us and banana and coffee groves, and the coops where they raise chickens and pigs for food. He explained some of the things we should be careful of, as well: local drug dealers, a poisonous flower (see above), thorny plants, and apparently a virus spread by rats that gets on the bananas that could kill a man in 24 hours (this really freaked me out for the first few days!).
Hiking into the jungle

Tropical tree ferns

Chicken coops
Yellow-shouldered Blackbird

Afternoon thunderstorms

Scaly-headed Pigeon?
On our first day, the bird diversity there was overwhelming to me. All day long, exotic chirps, tweets, songs, calls, and whistles echoed throughout the mountains. Yellow-shouldered Blackbirds would hop right up onto the front porch of the guest house and rustle among the banana trees, while White-winged Doves and pigeons (Scaly-headed?) perched on the power lines that provided limited electricity to the house. There were also tons of hummingbirds, which I was never able to photograph!

Overall, our first day was really fantastic. It was a great time to learn about the area, and to adjust to the change in culture and environment. It was clear that this was bound to be an incredible week!

Stay tuned for Part 2!

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