By Margaret M. Crawford
I came to Fundación Saimiri in a post-undergraduate position. I was looking for something to build on the knowledge I spent four years amassing and prepare me for the future prospects of graduate school. The draw for working in Costa Rica was easy to agree to. However, the work completed here and what I have accomplished since my arrival in June has reassured, I made the correct choice in coming to Fundación Saimiri.
The first most obvious reason to work with Fundación Saimiri is the monkeys. In Costa Rica there are four species of monkeys and sightings of these monkeys happens daily. Howlers, Capuchins, Spiders, and Squirrels are the four species and each time I see them it still amazes me we can interact this closely with wildlife. I am reminded often this is their environment they allow us to enter, and it makes each experience together more special. My time with Fundación Saimiri has given me access to these amazing primates, and without the relationship, Fundación Saimiri has with the community and permission from landowners to track monkeys on their private land, this access could not occur for the researchers.
Fundación Saimiri focuses on field research; training students of all discipline backgrounds how to properly execute work in the field. This was the reason that drew me to Fundación Saimiri. I was excited for the prospect of tracking primates through the jungle, learning the intimate daily routines of the troop we follow. While this idea of spending 13 hours in the forest sounded great before my arrival, my first week of living the reality proved too much more difficult. I was unsure if I had what it took to accomplish this. Between the bugs, heat, humidity, mud making the ground slippery and slight dehydration, my first week ended both days with exhaustion. Each time after the first week in the forest became easier and slowly it became my place of peace, comfort, and something I looked forward to most each start of the workweek. The end of my time with Fundación Saimiri is approaching quickly and I will miss my hours in the forest the most with the team.
My team at Fundación Saimiri is composed of a variety of backgrounds; each providing invaluable perspectives on the projects. I am trained as an anthropologist from the United States, Victoire is trained as a psychologist from the United Kingdom but is from France/Switzerland, Vanesa is a biologist from Spain, and Daniela is a primatologist/conservationist from Costa Rica. The diversity in our training, knowledge, perspectives, and styles allows for the creativity in our projects to fulfill more pathways. Discussions are more fruitful due to the differences of opinion and our variances of work histories provide more insight for our current project. I came to learn about primates and field research but I am leaving also learning about European culture, Tico culture, seeing how successful the combination of 3 languages (English, Spanish, and French) can be, and learning about how the combination of our talents leads to more successes on a team.
Many summer research projects place workers in general housing cabins composed of all the researchers or volunteers. At Fundación Saimiri, however, we live with host families. This was something that I was not initially prepared for but has turned out to be one of the best experiences in Costa Rica. I have my Costa Rican parents and siblings who have accepted me as their daughter and sister for my time in their home. Since my arrival at their house, I never felt as if I am just a person renting a room but rather a member of their family. This relationship I am building with them has enhanced my experience with Fundación Saimiri beyond what I expected, and I already plan to return and visit my family soon.
By living in a host family, Fundación Saimiri has provided me with an escape from work and made myself and all workers for Fundación Saimiri an active member of the community, Guadalupe. I am a part of the women’s football team, I have helped plant trees in the reforestation projects, I am leading an English workshop/camp for the children of the village during their vacation from school, another volunteer was taught to kill a chicken. Each of these experiences apart of the daily routines of Guadalupian people and they have accepted us to join them in these activities.
In my preparation for this trip to Costa Rica, I searched online to see what the culture would be like it. The word “Pure Vida” was among the top results, which means Pure Life in English. This literal translation does not encapsulate the meaning of this phrase to Costa Rica or the Tico culture. Pure Vida is used as a greeting, way of life, and way of being. It is meant to mean something along the lines of good times and good life. I come from a big city where everything moves fast, the cars, my life, and it is easy to get lost in the motions of wake up, eat, go to work, come home, eat, then sleep. My stay in Costa Rica is re-teaching me to stop and enjoy the life I have. People live simpler lives and yet have so much joy and happiness. Happiness and wealth are not valued by the amount of clothing owned or newest technology bought, rather in the wealth of love and positive relationships between self and friends and family. I come from a place of excess and have been taught the wrongs about this lifestyle learning how I too can achieve more with less.
If you are a fan of food Costa Rica is the place to stay. I was unsure on arrival what food would be like just knowing it was in the tropics and on a coast led me to believe seafood and fresh fruit. Both are true and much a part of the daily food in Tico life but there is so much more variety I was unprepared for. Many families raise chickens some to eat, others for eggs. I was lucky enough to be present during the bi-annual pig feast celebrated by my family and so was able to taste this special meal. My host mom is an incredible cook and rarely do I not have a clean plate after a meal. This is the best experience to taste the local food from an amazing chef. Another famous meal is gallo pinto or rice and beans. Gallo pinto is served only for breakfast usually with some cheese and eggs and always coffee. Rice and beans sound ordinary but the preparation and cooking styles for the Gallo pinto by the families in Guadalupe are each unique. Every family has variations to the meal making it their own, how cooked are the beans, what spices are used, and others. Best of all Costa Rica has some of the best coffee to drink all day. Back in Chicago I drank one glass a day to wake up, here however drinking coffee is not just for the caffeine inside of it but rather more of social activity between family and friends. I will miss the late afternoon coffee break with friends in Guadalupe, talking and laughing as the sun sets.
Coming to Latin America is not without its risks, but why would you spend time in the jungle and not come back with some ‘war stories’. The dangers of the jungle are real and daily, and the dangers are not just within the jungle. The region of Latin America, Costa Rica specifically, has challenged me in a new way with dangers I was not prepared for. Before this trip I looked up and prepped myself on the dangers of dehydration, snake bites, rabies, tainted water, but throughout the duration of my trip not once has any of these presented itself as a real threat. Real dangers include motorcycles, wound infections, wasp stings, ant bites, spikes on trees, lianas, holes in the ground, slippery mountain sides, earthquakes, stomach flu, etc. Each of these has tested the workers at Fundación Saimiri but provided stories to tell back home and taught new lessons to each of us. I am learning how alert you must be and how dangerous it is to be tired in the jungle when the alert level is low. The heightened vigilance the jungle has provided to me is a gift I will continue to use, and despite the dangers, my love for this wild place remains.
While I came to Costa Rica for the monkeys, I am surprised every day by the diversity and quantity of beautiful wildlife I see. Birds who are a rainbow of color, of every size and make most of the noise in the jungle. From Scarlet Macaws, toucans, kites, owls, parrots, hummingbirds, and many others, these birds constantly surprise me. My spotting abilities for the wildlife have grown and I can recognize a dead leaf from a sloth, the many lizards, and insects on the forest floor, and the butterflies that provide color to the green gradient background of the jungle. Each wildlife sighting, monkey or otherwise, is exciting and renews the desire for more. I constantly want to be in the jungle trying to absorb all I can before I must leave this place.
Without Fundación Saimiri I would not have these reasons to come and spend my time here. I am so grateful for the opportunity to enjoy Tico culture and experience nature in its habitat. I am given the space to learn and apply my knowledge with a team that supports me during my challenges and celebrates my triumphs. The memories I have created with this team will last a lifetime, creating a longing for more. Many thanks to Victoire and Vanesa for the laughs, songs, tears, photos, and jokes. I think it’s a sign that I was brought to this Fundación this summer, without I would never meet these people and created these memories. Thank you to Daniela for accepting me in this position. I am forever grateful and in awe of the place, you call home. Finally, I must thank my host family, they have been so accepting to create this place I now can call home. I will never forget this home and await the time I can return to see it again.
Pictures: Margaret Crawford