What Hiking Taught Me by Autumn Darracq

It’s day four in Costa Rica as a part of the University of Georgia Humanities study abroad program. So far the trip has resembled a vacation. We’ve eaten out at nice restaurants for every meal, enjoyed cocktails, taken pictures. We’ve ventured through museums, city streets, and taken a charter bus to volcanos and rafting. Living the dream! Just as you are supposed to on a study abroad, right?

Well, as I’m in the bus, relaxing with my headphones and streaming “Sex in the City” from Netflix on my phone, I’m distracted by the bumpy ride. I peer out the window and realize we are far from the city now. We are on a dirt road, driving through a jungle trees, I see small farms, cows, and mountain valleys. I begin to cover my nose with my shirt sleeve as the smell of cow manure seeps in Eew. My movie now freezes and fails to successfully buffer or load. Great, I’ve lost service. Where are we? How far are we from campus? I hope there’s service there. and something to do or somewhere nearby to go shop and eat. I’m going to go crazy if I’m confined by these trees in the middle of nowhere for three weeks.

The bus stops and we’re ordered to gather our bags. I jump up and race off the bus to examine campus. Hmm, it seems much smaller than I expected. Bunk beds? Three roommates? No Wi-Fi in the cabin? Ugh, and these darn bugs! Get them off me, don’t they have better things to do than pester me. Oh no, a girl on the porch warns me we eat rice and beans for all three meals all day, everyday. Prison. Summer camp. I conclude that’s where I’ve arrived. What am I supposed to do here for three weeks?!

Hike. That’s what we’re expected to do. I quickly learn that’s the central daily activity scheduled. Which, I kind of don’t mind. I enjoy hiking. My dad is a wildlife biologist and even though I rebelled against much of what he tried to teach me, like hunting and fishing, I liked hiking. Hunting was cruel. I don’t want to kill innocent animals! I even went through a vegetarian phase and refused to eat any animals he killed. Fishing wasn’t as bad. I would go fishing as long as we released them after, but I could never take my own fish off the hook. Hiking was my favorite though. I think this is because it was the least invasive of the three activities and I felt connected to nature without harming it, or getting too dirty.

Our first hike is lead by a campus naturalist through a trail called the Camino Real. I’m  excited ! Not only will it be good exercise, but I’m eager to learn about the new plant and animal species I’ve been seeing around campus. Dad would be proud. As we travel further down the trail, campus sounds fade and soon the only thing we hear are the birds calling and the occasional rustle of tree branch leaves. Surprisingly relaxing.

The first plant our guide stops at is an epiphyte, an air plant. This one is specifically a bromeliad. The small plant kind of resembles a miniature monkey grass fern, but grows on the side of the tree. This plant is not a parasite. It does not affect the tree it grows on They don’t need roots, instead they absorb about 75% of the water and nutrients they need through their leaves.

As we continue down the path, a long red vibrant flower with bright yellow tubular caps  sprouting off a dark green limb catch my attention. Humming birds are constantly buzzing on and around it. I ask our guide what it’s called, “A spiral ginger” he answers. This native Costa Rican plant is intriguing—nothing like anything I’ve seen in the back in the states.

Next, we stop at a strangler fig tree. This plant appears to be a hollow central core tree as it’s limbs wrap around each other and grow towards the sky. The plant actually grows around trees as a vine first, then the host tree often dies off just leaving the vine behind giving the plant it’s unique, hollowed out structure. This adaptive technique allows the plant to flourish and compete in such a dark and intense forest where competition is fierce for light.

On a different hike with my photography class, we observed a spider monkey family swing through the forest branches. I had joked throughout the whole trip that if I didn’t see a monkey, I wasn’t getting on the plane ride back home. But here I was, mission complete ! One mother monkey had a baby on her back and screeched at us when we got too close. We saw another monkey swinging through the branches with a mango in one hand feeding.

In this and later hikes I have learnt a whole new vocabulary: Heliconias, woody vines, walking sticks, dynamite trees, guava trees, stinging metal, Brazilian cherries and so many other plants, animals and insects. And there is so much more to learn—my three weeks here have just begun my journey of learning and appreciating nature.

I think back to my bus ride into campus and now realize that I was originally very shallow in my expectations for study abroad. I looked forward to showing off extravagant buildings, landscapes, food, etc. to Instagram, face book, and other social media platforms to show what a great time and experience I was having here. I wasn’t actually present and learning until we entered the forest and I was forced to expand my horizon past class room time and reaching my friends back home.

Those forests, those hikes taught me so much more than I expected to learn. They were my real teachers.

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