Saturday, October 29, 2011

Loneliness and moving on (again)

Sun rising on a new day... Mission Beach, Australia. Copyright (c) 2008 Wendee Holtcamp

I don't want to dissect everything today
I don't mean to pick you apart you see
But I can't help it
There I go jumping before the gunshot has gone off
Slap me with a splintered ruler
And it would knock me to the floor if I wasn't there already

- Alanis Morissette, All I Really Want

I heard this Alanis song on my ipod shuffle the other day while running and it was like a scene out of my life! I won't get into details, and they're actually two unrelated situations but it was like whammo! Love Alanis - she is like my soul sister.

It has been a doozie of a week. After coming back from trip after trip (Costa Rica, Miami) I experienced some post-bohemian-travel-adventure blues that hit me like a sledge-hammer. Oh, it was a combination of factors, I'm sure, but probably mostly the loneliness from the lack of constant companionship and friendship from my on-off relationship of nearly three years and the realization that is truly is indeed, over. The loss of that companionship, combined with the death of the dream (and oh do I dream of love and closeness with someone... probably far too idealistically), and then throw in a little bit of parenting-a-teenager-stress plus a healthy dash of PMS and you have the makings of a week from hell. But hell is the broth from which progress is made.

I am taking part in a 9-month-long "step study" in Celebrate Recovery, a Christian 12-step program that is for people dealing with all sorts of issues and of course things come up during this process. You get stirred up emotionally and spiritually, and this isn't a bad thing. I know that things will happen and it's good because then you can deal with them and with people who are safe and won't judge (because we are all in there for our own "junk" and believe me, these people are real because you gotta be if you're going to do recovery right!)

So what else? I have a short Science Selection piece in Environmental Health Perspectives Nov 2011 issue, "Poultry Relief? Organic Farming May Reduce Drug Resistance" - this is just a basic summary of a peer-reviewed science article that is in the EHP issue that month. But it's quite an interesting study and a topic I'm increasingly intrigued by - that is, food and health issues. I don't have any travel coming up that I know of yet - trying to stay close to home for a bit. I will probably be pretty darn busy in the next several weeks with some articles I'm working on. Hopefully I will have some time to write up some great recipes I've made in the next few weeks!

Monday, October 24, 2011

SEJ Dive Trip Extraordinaire

Me and my friend Cheryl Reifsnyder on the dive boat, getting ready for a day at sea!
We were joined on the bus ride over by Dr. Jane Lubchenco (NOAA Administrator), who I asked a few questions for my story I'm doing on the Aquarius Reefbase - the undersea laboratory we dived to. As I mentioned in my previous post, she was supposed to dive with us but she had a bad back or something. I don't know if that relates to not passing the NOAA dive test, or if that was erroneous info we were fed (perhaps the dive test is a physical - I have no clue). At any rate, she had blue tonenails. Just an interesting little tidbit. Blue for the ocean I guess! Or perhaps the sky. All photos Copyright (c) 2011 Wendee Holtcamp
Tom Potts, Interim Director of the Aquarius Reefbase Undersea Lab (through UNCW), Alexa Elliot of PBS, and Dr. Billy Causey, head of the SE Regional Director for the National Marine Sanctuary Program of NOAA.
Dr. Andrew Baker of University of Miami (don't you love his "skin"? he said he gets lots of compliments on it! LOL!) and Lad Adkins of REEF. Lad does a lot of studies on invasive lionfish.
While diving at the Aquarius, Lad collected two lionfish. They come from the Indo-Pacific and have started to spread like mad. There are lionfish derbies to catch and eat them to try to reduce their impact. Lad collects them for scientific research. He will dissect them and determine what they are eating. Verdict so far - anything they can get in their mouths. Not so good for the coral reefs, that are already threatened by so many things!
Lad holding up the larger lionfish.
Beautiful fish, but let's keep them in the Indo-Pacific! Their spines hurt if you get poked!
Lad holding the bag of lionfish.
This is the boat holding the astronauts, who were about to deploy. They do training for space missions undersea because it simulates weightlessness of space. The guy in the yellow suit is Steve Squyres, a Cornell astrophysicist who manages the Mars Rover program. The woman in the background is NASA Astronaut Shannon Walker.
In this close view you can see Japanese astronaut Takayu Onishi sitting down on the left.
I'm actually not sure what this is, but the lab is not directly underneath but a slight distance away and obviously undersea.

That's all for now - my friend just arrived and I gotta go!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Diving with Jane Lubchenco...or maybe not. Well to the to the Aquarius Undersea Lab anyway!

Me SCUBA diving in Australia's Coral Sea.
Copyright (c) 2008 John Rumney/Eye to Eye Marine Encounters

I'm headed to the Society of Environmental Journalists conference and am so excited! This is the BEST conference ever. Seriously. I have many great friends who will be there, and it's such a fantastic networking opportunity for me. I have never attended one of these conferences where it didn't pay off in assignments made after the fact from editors I met, or from the pitch slam - where you read aloud an article pitch in 60 seconds, and then a panel of editors gives feedback. In Burlington, I sold the pitch to Scientific American (Sympathy for the Devil - about Tasmanian devil cancer). Last year, I sold my pitch to Miller-McCune Magazine (Save the Birds - with Doppler Radar). The great thing is the connections made result in many more assignments down the line, as well.

Besides that, the conference has so many great things going on - not just sitting in rooms listening to people talk all day! The first full day of the conference, they organize "tours" which go to different places around the particular location. Last year was in Missoula, MT and I did a hiking tour where we saw how pine bark beetle infestations were devastating the forests. They are native beetles but because the winters are not getting cold enough to make the population die back, they're spreading like wildfire, and causing much death and devastation to the trees. There are always multiple tours, and this year I chose to go on one that brings us to the subject of this post...

I will be scuba diving to the world's only undersea laboratory - Aquarius Reefbase - in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. On the tour will be a handful of journalists and several scientists who will talk about the work going on undersea - work on sea sponges, corals, and ocean acidification. What's more, the Aquarius hosts NASA astronaut missions down there - the weightlessness of the sea simulates space! In fact, a NEEMO - NASA Extreme Environments Mission Operation - is starting any day now... the first mission that will begin to explore how to land on a near-earth asteroid (NEA). We were supposed to see the astronauts down there training but apparently they have been delayed due to weather... it has been raining in Florida for the past several days. It looks like it will clear up by Thursday, so we can still dive, but we will only get to talk to the folks about the NEEMO project rather than see them in action. What's more... Jane Lubchenco is diving with us!

Oh wait - just got an email that she didn't pass the NOAA dive test in time?! Sigh. (I'm not even kidding about this). Well she will be on the bus on the way over from our hotel in Miami to Key Largo, where our boat departs for - the Aquarius is in the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary... It was going to be a lot more exciting blog post - ha! If you don't know who she is, she is the head of NOAA in the Obama Administration! She is also a world-renowned marine ecologist. I remember reading about her work with tidepools when I took Biology 101 at Texas A&M in my textbook! I actually met her at last year's SEJ conference in Missoula. I'm one of those people that goes up and talks to the people I want to meet after they give speeches - I'm not shy! You can't be, I suppose, to be a journalist. That said, I've never gotten up and lined up to ask questions during the conference Q&A...

I was really close to cancelling my involvement on the dive tour. They are optional and cost extra money and times are tight (The conference sessions are on Friday and Saturday but there's also an opening reception Wednesday night - in fact, this year the 4 Cousteau cousins will be together for the first time in public. I dove with Céline in Australia for the Discovery Channel Expedition Shark blog! I actually interviewed Alexandra this morning for an article - she has a newborn baby girl - Clémentine -who I heard in the background - so cute! But I digress.) So, money is tight, and the big project I was doing with the ASA ended, for now, and I was in between assignments, which is always unnerving... But I pitched something about the diving tour like mad, and I got an assignment yesterday - yay! And it will more than make it financially worth it!

At any rate, we will be diving down to the Aquarius, and then we will do another dive to a really freaking cool nursery for endangered coral species, and then we will do a third dive on a coral reef somewhere. I haven't dove since Australia when I did the shark diving so I'm stoked! (and I hope I remember what I'm doing - ack). There's lots more happening at this conference, and I am really excited. And maybe this year - unlike apparently last year and the previous one I attended in Burlington and Austin - I will blog about it this time!

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Reflections on the jungle, love & life

The Costa Rican rainforest near Braulio Carillo National Park
Copyright (c) 2011 Wendee Holtcamp

On this day, God wants you to know ... that your love is a gift to the world. Let your love radiate out to all you meet. Let your love touch the hearts of people you don't even know. Let your love reach to the far corners of the earth. Love is what is saving the world.
- From a silly Facebook app but so beautiful!

Upon returning to Houston from the jungles of Costa Rica, I found myself going to the grocery store, walking through the parking lot, and I just had this overwhelming feeling of "living in Houston is so mundane!" I have never been shy about my feelings about living here. I'm here only because I share custody with my ex-husband, and because I vowed to not do what my parents did; that is, move halfway across the country from one another and force the kid to commute back and forth on jet-planes. I wanted my kids to have the stability of having both parents nearby, and of growing up in one place, something I never had moving from place to place every couple years (hence, the bohemian was born! But I digress).

To be sure, Houston burbs are a good, safe place to raise kids. It has low cost of living and I have a beautiful home and some amazing friends. I have a healthy balanced life. But that's not enough for me. I want a bigger life - not just the occasional adventure that I take, but a life that is, itself, an adventure. I'm not sure what that may be yet, but I have a short two and one half years here before both of my kids will have fledged the nest. Oh, my it makes me tear up when I really think about it! But it will give me the freedom to leave this place and find a new home, and a new life, and a new mission for the next chapter of my life.

What will I do? Travel around the world for a year? Go on a mission trip? Move to another country - Australia maybe, or Costa Rica? Go back to graduate school? The world is my oyster. I only know that I don't want it to be a vain search for adventure for adventure's sake. I want to do something that makes a difference. I love to write, and I love my career but sometimes I wonder, does any of this make any difference to anyone? And why is supporting myself such a struggle? (I know, I should go Occupy downtown Houston right!)

But I am in a very good place. I feel happy and content and life is good, really good! I am blessed. I look forward to the chapters of my life yet to unfold.
And last, I want to share with you the two podcasts and slideshows that I did for Adventures in Climate Change/The Wendee Holtcamp Report! Please visit, listen, view and comment!

  • In the first, A Sustainable Adventure in Costa Rica I discuss the Planet, People, Peace (P3) conference on sustainable tourism, as well as some of the cool sustainable ag education happening at Earth University, where the conference was held.
  • The second, Living Large Without a Carbon Footprint talks about the Selva Bananito Ecolodge & Preserve and why they deserve 5-leafs for sustainability from the Costa Rican government - the maximum level.

Adventures in the Costa Rican jungle - sloths, ziplines & fear!

We left Earth University on Tuesday morning and headed for Selva Bananito Ecolodge, where we would be staying. We drove through the town of Limon, and there we stopped at a little city park where we saw not one but two two-toed sloths. They are not as active as the three-toed ones, and are smaller. The Caribbean coast has almost a Jamaican, Rastafarian feel to it, with the bright colors and many blacks who were brought over as slaves many years ago. But it's also the least developed area of Costa Rica. I found the city of Limon to be a bit dirty and crowded. Like a typical third world town, but much of Costa Rica is nicer for a traveler who wants that kind of thing. There's another town that we didnt get to that has a younger, hipster, cultural kind of aura from what I've read. We were just passing through on the way to the rainforest proper! Anyway the previous two sloths were way up in trees like the photo below, so seeing these up close was a treat!
This is what most of the sloths we saw looked like - far away!This is a building in Limon. Apparently the Costa Rican government has recently invested money in improving the town but it hasn't started yet.We also saw two owls in the tree in the park. A major earthquake in 1991 affected the coast, raising a lot of the coral reef beds out of the water.This sight cracked me up because I thought "even in Central America!" The kid has his butt hanging out of his pants. Like seriously dude, pull your pants up!Next we met up with Juergen Stein, owner of Selva Bananito Ecolodge along with his sister. He is a German born in Colombia who has lived in Costa Rica most of his life, and his father had a cattle farm and has over the years transformed a small part of the ~3,850-acre property into an organic banana farm first but later (because the organic banana market didn't do so well) an organic palm oil plantation. However, 75% of their property remains as virtually untouched forest, and some of that 25% that isn't forested is being reforested as a carbon offset project. This is the road heading to Selva Bananito. The family started a Limon Watershed Foundation to help improve the local watershed, which was negatively affected by the earthquake.Paula, Elizabeth and I on the way to Selva Bananito!A beautiful creek on the way. I'm not sure what this is - maybe it is the Bananito River. My photos could not do the Selva Bananito bungalows justice! They are gorgeous! (Click this link to see more images - it's their new website, which is only in German so far - the other link is to their older version which also has tons o' info) The wood for the bungalows is made from trees that fell naturally, and the roof is made from recycled banana bags (they put blue bags around the bananas to keep insect pests out).
It's all open and you sleep with the jungle sounds all around you. The mosquito nets actually aren't even necessary - there's not really malaria or anything here - it's more of a decorative touch, though some people feel like they prefer to have it around them. Each bungalow has two beds and two hammocks. So amazing!This is Sofia, Juergen's sister. She is married and they have a son who was out at the lodge. They live near San Jose, the capital city. Juergen mainly runs the lodge, among many other amazing things he is doing. He pioneered the Climate Conscious Traveler program, where travelers to Costa Rica can offset their flights (or the travel agency or the lodge can do it for visitors - which is how it started). It's a very new program and the ICT (Costa Rican Tourism Board) has taken the project to help spread it far and wide. Selva Bananito has 5 leafs, the highest certification possible. The only electricity is solar and at night, dinner is served by candelight.We had a delicious lunch! This is the dining lodge and the photo isn't great but you can see the absolutely stunning rainforest in the distance. There's also a little lake where caimans live and we shone the spotlight at night and saw their glowing eyes. Leaf cutter ants are everywhere in Costa Rica! They have these in Houston too but I love them and they are literally everywhere you step. My friend's daughter once called them "Salad ants" (because they carry the vegetation on their backs and it looks like they are carrying salad) and that always stuck in my head). They make trails and are working night and day.Leaf cutters walking along a tree root.
And along a path on the ground.
As soon as we unloaded our luggage into our bungalows, we got on horseback and rode a short way down through some pasture and near a reforestation area and down to the rainforest. The property owned by the Steins and Selva Bananito borders La Amistad International Park which is the largest park in the country and takes up like 20% of the entire national area if you look at it on a map - it's massive! It also goes into Panama so is an international park, and a UN Biosphere Reserve. On the left, the roots are from the palm tree that they harvest hearts of palm ("palmito") with. Unfortunately I didn't get my Arroz con Palmito meal while there, but I am hoping to find a recipe and make it myself sometime. I now have plenty of Lizano Salsa!
We were walking to get to a zipline, but on the way our guide Justo told us about the rainforest and its ecology (of course, having studied rainforest ecology myself I know a lot of it but the others didn't as much). He knew a lot and was great. We also saw a ton of poison dart frogs - little, tiny red ones (not sure the species), and larger green and black ones (called, the amazingly creative "green and black poison dart frog").
Paula, Elizabeth, me and Freddy from ICT near a big tree right next to the zipline platform.
I have to admit, I was really scared to do this! I thought maybe it wouldn't be that bad but... it was so high and so new. I can dive with sharks any day over this! So everyone went across but Juergen was so sweet and he went across with me.
I don't know if you can see the look of terror on my face?! The image is blurry, but the look of terror is there. LOL! Honestly, it went very fast, and was fine but the worst was yet to come! There was a rope to rappel to the creek below - 100 feet down! I took one look and was like no way in hell! I really wanted to, but I couldn't. Juergen went straight down (he abandoned me!) and Paula made it look so easy, and then Elizabeth went and said it was a bit scary but... I just couldn't. So the only other way out is another zipline so I did that with the guide, Justo. I wanted to cry, I felt like such a loser... but it was genuinely frightening to me. I would like o go back and overcome my fear (I did it with airplanes, I know can do this...) but part of me is like, why the hell would I want to rappel down a rope that far in the sky! Ha ha!A giant buttress on a giant tree! After our adventure sports, we rode the horses back to the lodges, showered and met up for a delicious dinner of local cuisine by candlelight - but first Juergen gave a talk on the lodge, on their efforts with creating a watershed protection nonprofit for the Limon Watershed, and other work. It was Paula's birthday, and they made her a special cake! We also each got a special drink - coconut milk and Coco Loco served in a coconut. Such a truly fun and wonderful evening.
After our wonderful night the next morning we had to leave. I actually got up early to bird-watch and we saw a ton of species including an aracari toucan, keel-billed toucan, short-billed pigeon, masked tityra, slaty-tailed trogon, white-necked jacobin (hummingbird), yellow-chested kingbird, clay-colored robins, spectacled owl, and several oropendula (big black birds with large bills and they make really cool nests). Besides the toucans, my favorite was the snowy cotinga - this pure white dove - just gorgeous! We also stopped by the lake and saw a little caiman. I didn't bring my camera but we walked along the pasture as it is easiest to spot birds along the edge of the forest.
We next went snorkeling off Cahuita Point! It was cloudy so the water wasn't as brilliant and I didn't take any photos but it was pretty cool - not the best snorkeling I've ever done for sure. But it was cool and then we went to lunch at a local lodge, Suizo Loco, where there was the most amazing three-toed sloth right close! The three-toed species are more active so it would move all around and I got some photos. I'm in love and want one! Enjoy the photos. This is one of the sloth's favorite trees, a Cecropia tree.Just hanging out!
While eating, we also saw this blue-gray tanager as well as some other birds. Bananas!
We then drove 5 hours back to the Finca Rosa Blanca ecolodge, outside San Jose (It wouldn't have been that long but we stopped a few times). It is absolutely stunning architecture and I'm really bummed we didn't get there before dark, because it has an organic coffee farm along with the B&B. We had met the owners, Teri and Glenn Jampol, at the Planet People Peace conference and Teri met us for dinner in their restaurant which was 5-star dining and local, organic, sustainably harvested ingredients - many grown on site. Since we had to leave at 415am we also didn't get time to see it in the morning. Next time for sure!! I will leave you with this lovely photo of my favorite animal - the oso perozoso (means lazy bear in Spanish). :)

But wait - there's more! I just discovered the cutest video I have ever seen in my life (especially since sloths are my favorite animal - along with mountain gorillas) so check this out - it was from this Treehugger article!

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Planet, People, Peace conference at Earth University

For the past three days I have been at Earth University, or in Spanish Universidad Earth, for the Planet, People, Peace 3rd International conference on sustainable ecotourism, hosted by CANAECO - the Costa Rican Chamber for Ecotourism (see my colleague Paula Alvarado's post on the P3 conference for Treehugger). Earth is a 4-year university specifically to teach students about sustainable agricultural, forestry and natural resource management techniques. They recruit students from extremely rural, poor regions by going to different countries and talking to families and finding young people who will return to their areas as leaders in sustainable ag techniques and as eco-agro-entrepreneurial business leaders. Fifty percent of the students have 100% of their expenses paid for. The remaining half have at least a 50% scholarship, some more. A Foundation that funds the students called Earth University Foundation. The campus is beautiful! This is a sign near the coffee shop in the library - aka biblioteca.
This is another shot of the downstairs area of the library building, near the coffee shop. Which, by the way, I went to every day! Very good coffee! The university does not grow coffee as one of its crops, but one student - Jorge Quintanilla - did create a sustainable coffee co-op, and they have an Earth University coffee brand that they sell in their coffee shop and I believe at Whole Foods that is from this student's business.
This is near the front office. Everything is decorated with local tropical ornamentals. A walkway near the library. Since it rains frequently - this is the humid tropics after all - they have covered walkways between all the buildings. Nice! It is also much cooler during a hot day under the walkway.This is not the best shot, but it's the only one I got of the campus away from the walkway areas. Lots of palm trees and lawn. It's a large campus with many acres in forest and bananas and other crops, but this is the campus area. The students have an opposite program to many universities. They spend their first year immersed in each of the different ag programs, such as banana growing, forestry, waste management, and crop management. The second year they have to create a business plan that they will implement during the rest of their time here, and they develop and defend the plan before their professors. They get a loan to carry it out, which most of them repay through the business. Then during the final two years they have their classroom work, learning the biology, chemistry and other subject matter that they have already been immersed in from their field work. Some of their bananas get sold to Whole Foods and they also create banana paper from the waste stalks of the banana trees. They also research better ways to grow pineapples. Here's a Youtube vid on Earth's work with banana production. This isn't a great shot either but this is the view from my second-story dorm/hotel room - rooms they have for conference attendees, not student rooms (I'm not sure where students stay). It's cloudy because it was raining but if you look closely in the distance are tropical trees and mountains. In fact this morning I am pretty sure I heard howler monkeys in the distance! The second day of the conference I attended an agro-tourism workshop led by Stephen Brooks. After a slideshow and talk about permaculture & his educational ag tourism work, we drove to a demo area of Earth University. Brooks has done absolutely amazing things. He's an American who came here in 1995 and saw banana plantations spraying indigenous children with pesticides from crop-dusters and he was like, what the hell is going on here, all so I can have bananas in my cereal. He first started a tour company (Costa Rican Adventures - which he has since sold) and they did things differently. They not only showed all the beautiful areas, but also the deforestation, and the crop issues with bananas, in order to educate visitors to the realities. He also told people about solutions. He catered to student groups, thinking that's where he could make the most difference - by influencing the next generation. Next, in a storm, he stumbled on a beautiful piece of land known as Punta Mona or Monkey Point which he first started bringing groups to and then bought and created the Punta Mona Center for Sustainable Living & Education Center focusing on permaculture - the creation of locally adapated fruits, vegetables and useful plants. He lived there for many years, on an off-the-grid 85 or so acre plot of land that you can only reach by boat or by hiking or horseback riding in. You really gotta click that link! It's a serious contender for me to live, in my search for somewhere to go in the next couple years.

He and his wife recently created La Ecovilla, a sustainable development closer to San Jose that will be an intentional community designed around food/permaculture. He's selling plots of lands to families now; he is doing some revolutionary things. He's done some Planet Green TV stints and there's plenty of info about him online so check it out. I wish I had a chance to visit his place but alas I don't. Since his stuff is completely organic (not certified, but he doesn't use pesticides), he also has some issues with Earth U's bananas, which are "sustainable certified" but not organic. Earth U is researching better ways to grow bananas and they also have an organic plot funded by Whole Foods Markets, but that's all still in the works. Earth has definietly improved the way banana plantations operate - less waste, using biodigesters in some areas, improved worker conditions etc - but there's still a ways to go to avoid the fungus that attacks them. At any rate, we drove to part of the Earth University where they must do some education and there are many fruit trees and a demo area where he is talking to us about crops, trees, etcStephen found a cacao (from which chocolate is derived) and we all had some to eat. The fruits have a clear-white flesh and are sweet but inside is the seed, which makes the cacao nibs. It's actually bitter but you can still eat it if you want! Obviously they add a lot of sugar to chocolate!Next, he found a bunch of mangosteens under some trees right there. I think this stuff's juice is sold for like $100 a bottle. He was so excited - he's a pretty animated guy - he said a Jewish prayer of thanks to God for the abundance of the Earth and we each had a mangosteen. Mucho mangosteen!
Inside a mangosteen. Paula with a mangosteen! A greenhouse where they grow some crops. The veggies are not organic, but they do research various sustainable techniques. They do not use herbicides but pick weeds by hand, they use recycled/reused materials for their plots (you can see wood, bottles, tires) and other measures. Inside the greenhouse. We ate some "weeds" that Stephen showed us were edible, including purslane. This is just art made from an old tire on a fence. And another piece of tire art.
This says something about sowing for the future. Stephen talking to a group of us. Most of the audience of the conference are sustainable tour operators - either they own an ecolodge, or run a tour company, and are interested in improving or becoming even more sustainable. Costa Rica's government has a system to rank tour operators from 1-5 leafs for their efforts. Today and tomorrow we are going to stay at two different 5-lead certified ecolodges.A demo area. I like this tree! Some lettuces I think, showing how they use re-used plastic bottles to create the plot.Hydroponically grown eggplant.
Stephen showing us the starfruit tree. All in all it was a fun two days, and I'm excited to go to the rainforest proper again today. We are heading to Limon, on the Caribbean coast to look around, and then to Selva Bananito - the 5-leaf certified ecolodge in the jungle, where they offer a zipline, rappeling down a cliff and horseback riding. I have to admit I am a bit nervous about these things! I am sometimes not as adventurous as I seem, though I will try to overcome my fear!