by Gisele Giorgi

Costa Rica 1I’m always a little off kilter when I get back from Costa Rica.  Why do people look at me weirdly when I say “Hola?”  Why does everyone seem to speak only one language?  Where’s the jungle outside my door?  Where did all the frogs go?  I know this is my house, but is it?  It seems so odd… Why is everyone in this giant supermarket so grumpy?  Has the sky always been that color?Each year, before the trip, I ask myself:  why all this fuss?  Why do we take all the time and expense, in this day and age of climate change, to fly so far away in a polluting, costly (albeit fun) airplane?  Why not do something in our own backyards?  We have plenty of gorgeous nature, after all.

Then, each year, once I’m there, I remember.  I get captivated by the charm of Costa Rica.  The abundance of plants and animals and bugs and water.  The relaxed, friendly people. The pure air, pure water, fresh food. The magic of it all.  And, omg, the fruit.  The FRUIT!  If I could, I’d be a fruitarian.  So, Costa Rica is party central for me, food-wise.  You truly haven’t tasted pineapples if you’ve only eaten them in California.  Then there’s cas and mamones and guanabana and…  Don’t ask me to translate or explain, we don’t have them here.

So, here’s one answer to why I travel so far:  it’s good for me, as well as for our students, to be thrown into a very different environment.   I’m surely not the first to figure that out, but somehow, being a very normal human, I keep forgetting that lesson.  So each dose helps.  It’s a bit like a vaccine for my ongoing case of the blinders.  Each piece of Costa Rica that soaks in helps to develop me more fully.  Travel calls to and strengthens wonderful sides of me that are undernourished in my current home, delightful as it is.  I mean, did I mention the fruit?!

It takes me at least a week to re-orient myself to life in California.   But I think the Costa Rica immersion lingers in me, more so each time I visit.  An ever more solid piece of me recognizes and rejoices when I come across a “hola.” I still think bats are cute, now, even back in the U.S.A.

On a hot day, I remember how the breeze felt on the wide Tarcoles river, especially at the point where it meets the ocean and you see water all around you.  When somebody is being charming and pushy, and putting themselves in danger, I think back to the wild coati who was determined to board our bus.  When I’m struggling with my immediate world, I can remember the bat I held.  He was so clumsy in the weird world of our lab, but, once able to fly away, he was so full of power in the air.  And then there’s those red-eyed tree frog embryos:  they all blithely developed feathery gills and beating hearts, while under a microscope in our lab.  Fortunately, they were still attached to their original leaf, and got to finish out their growth in a lovely pond.

There’s also the way people greet each other and say goodbye.  Sometimes it’s a cheerful “hola.”  Just as often it’s a warm “pura vida.”  That means “pure life.”  As in, may you have that blessing, and yes, we are enjoying it right now. Our air, water, forest, and hearts are clean, peaceful and joyful.  We have no Army, all our hotels have less than 40 units, our workers have many protections, and we are reforesting the country after the banana companies wreaked havoc.   We ran the country entirely on sustainable power for three months. And yes, our fruit is delicious.  We know that.
Each of the cells in your body already knows about the power of environment.   Mina Bissell is an accomplished scientist who works on breast cancer.  If you ever get a chance to hear her speak, go.  She points out that her workplace (Lawrence Berkeley Labs) is designed like two big breasts. She also revolutionized biology by demonstrating how cells take their cues about their identity and purpose from their immediate environment.  Yep, it’s not just all about the DNA.  It’s about a gooey substance called Extracellular Matrix, or ECM.  No, she didn’t name it after the movie, but the analogy somewhat works.  Each cell makes some ECM, and this stuff outlasts and surrounds all our cells.  So as a new cell, you decide what to become based on, yes, the abilities provided by your DNA, but, news flash, also by reading the ECM created by your ancestors and neighbors!  You in turn secrete your own ECM, to chat with the cells that will next occupy your space.  It’s kind of like writing on the walls, in order to instruct the next tenants about your classroom or home.
For many of our students, our college is a truly foreign land.  It is an opportunity for a journey of transformation, for growth through a fresh perspective.  Even for the most experienced of students, those who have visited the country called “classroom” many times, there can still be magic each time.  Any journey, no matter how often we think we’ve made it, can be full of surprises, new struggles, new connections and joys.   As teachers, we get to be the welcoming, enthusiastic hosts and tour guides, native to the country, but still discovering it more ourselves everyday.  As the popular quote on Facebook (attributed to Alexandra Trenfor) says “The best teachers show us where to look, but not what to see.”  How can we help our students have a great vacation this semester?


Our campus just got a gorgeous new building.  What will our students read in the walls?


Oh, and, this summer, Mexicans got me hooked on Facebook, but that’s another story.  One I hope to bring to you next year.  When we travel with students to the Yucatan and partner with Mexicans to describe the biology of an underground river, then work with a Mayan village cooperative to set up ecotourism.  It’s a big world out there.  And inside.



Pura vida.