Planting Trees and Dinner with Families – Sydney Carey & Josh Myers

May 22, 2019

Today we woke up bright and early and got ready for our second day in Costa Rica. We ate a delicious breakfast of scrambled eggs, rice and beans, avocado, and fried plantains at the same place we ate lunch the previous day. After breakfast, we headed over to Carlos and Elieth’s house to meet up and grab our shovels for a morning of planting trees on a local farm.
The walk to get there took about 30 minutes, and we walked past a couple of really interesting sites. We got to see the cemetery, as well as a house with several horses and a mule. We also heard lots of howler monkeys.

Once we arrived, we got to meet the family who lives on the farm and there very cute 3-month-old baby. The farmer had lost one of his legs to cancer, so
it felt good to be able to help him out. He gets carbon credits for planting trees on his farm, so we planted over 100 trees for him to build a natural barrier along a fence. It was a hot and sweaty experience, but also very rewarding.

The Muhlenberg Crew After Planting Trees

When we returned from tree planting, we cleaned ourselves up and ate lunch at the church where we had breakfast the previous day. After lunch, we were given a couple hours to split up and explore Las Juntas and begin asking people questions relating to our projects. It was difficult to interact with most people because of the language barrier, but with some help from
the translators in our group we were able to meet some amazing people and learn a lot of really interesting information. Once we had spent a good amount of time exploring, we headed to a bar and restaurant nearby called Los Mangos to cool down, get smoothies, and use the Wi-Fi.

Tonight was our first dinner with our designated host families, and we were lucky enough to both be assigned to eat dinner with some of the nicest people we have ever met. Our hosts, Esteban and Paula, spoke English which made conversing with them much easier than if we
needed to translate. We ate a fantastic stew with chicken and avocado, and afterwards Esteban took us to get milkshakes. He told us about how he and his wife have lived their whole lives in Las Juntas and both graduated from the University of Costa Rica. He was very proud of his accomplishments and the different properties and businesses he owns throughout town. They
were also very interested in our projects and what we are studying in school, and they gave each of us a lot of thoughtful insight from the perspective of a local. It was an amazing experience that we were all very lucky to have and we are all very much looking forward to sharing another
meal with them next week.

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Las Minas y Mas – CarolAnne Miller & Sydney Baron

This morning I woke up (bright and early) in my rickety top bunk perch in the Las Juntas community center. The sun was streaming through the full glass wall across from me and luscious greenery made me burst into a giddy smile. It was the first time I had seen Las Juntas in the light of day and I must say it was an awakening that fueled my excitement for the day. Sunscreen was applied, hiking boots put on and before I knew it we were gathered in the courtyard of the community center and very ready to dig in to some rice and beans. After a delicious breakfast of rice, beans, eggs and orange juice, we loaded into taxis and headed to the Las Juntas gold mines. The drive to the gold mine was an adventure in itself! Our taxis climbed steep hills surrounded by tropical forest. At the mines, my group geared up with helmets and rain boots to enter the tunnel. Working miners passed by us with heavy carts while we plodded through dark, rocky tunnels. Being in the mine made me feel very grateful for my safe life at home. Hearing the dynamite used in nearby tunnels while stumbling around in the dark made me realize how lucky I am to work where I know I am safe and how I never fear for my well-being while trying to make money. Our mine guide Bernie also challenged us near the end of our tour to make it out of the mine without using any light—just as many miners do daily. I felt like a helpless child! I truly respect the hard work the miners do to provide for themselves. After climbing through the tunnels themselves, we got a chance to see where the collected quartz in the mines is actually processed for gold. Large machines called rastras ground the material collected by miners and use mercury to amalgamate the gold. The mercury is then burned away to leave a clump of gold. It’s interesting to think about this process through the lens of sustainability and reflect on the many damaging effects of mercury use on the environment. Now we are settled in at Carlos and Elieth’s house after another delicious meal and a bit of rest time. I feel very fulfilled and peaceful after today—especially without feeling any pressure to use my phone. I’m so so grateful for this opportunity and I’m truly enthused to see what the next week and a half has in store! – CarolAnne

 Waking up before 6am, something unlikely to happen again this trip, was the start of our first full day in Las Juntas, Costa Rica. We started our day the best way possible, eating gallo pinto with a tortilla, eggs, and cheese. Moving on from breakfast, we pile into taxis and take off down the road, off to the mines. Splitting up into two groups, the first put on boots and hard hats and took off into the mine under the guide of Bernie. The second group got to experience Dr. Niesenbaum howl at the howler monkeys and pictures of college age Don Ricardo. We also got to see little, new puppies; they were so cute!

The first group returned and traded gear with the second group. Adorned in hard hats and boots, we took off into the mine with Bernie. We were shown different shafts that have been, or are currently being, mined. We learned that where there is quartz, there is gold, that the gold in the mines are tiny flecks of gold, not nuggets like you find in the west of the states, that the water in the mines is ground water that has run down through the ground into the mines, and that walking out of the mine in the pitch black is a serious trust exercise.

Moving on from the mines, we went on to the area in which the gold was refined. The rock is ground up and then moved into basins in which the ground up rock is pulverized in water mixed with mercury, so the gold can form an amalgam with the mercury. It is moved from basin to basin until an amalgam is formed in such a way that it can be removed and rinsed to form a hard ball of mercury and gold, then the mercury is burned off, leaving you with a beautiful nugget of gold.

We all piled back into the taxis and came back to the community center for an hour of free time before we got a lunch of rice and beans, meat (or veggies for the vegetarians), and a salad; another DELICIOUS meal. After lunch, we moved on to the bank to exchange our money. I realized that we can appear to be such a large group of people when we pile into such a small building and each have to individually interact with the people at the desks. Jenny and Taj kindly translated for everyone who was not fluent in Spanish. We sat and waited for everyone to exchange their money, which was so worth it because we were able to sit in the nice cool air-conditioned bank.

We then broke out our fresh, new colones to buy ice cream and snacks on our way back to Carlos and Ellieth’s house. The welcome they greet us with when we show up is so exciting and makes me feel at home. I am so excited to tour Las Juntas later today, for more food, and the rest of the experience of being in Costa Rica! Day one and done, onto day two!! -Sydney

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Muhlenberg in Costa Rica 2019

On May 20th Professors Niesenbaum and Borick return to Las Juntas, Costa Rica with 18 students where they will be conducting community based research and learning. Students will be posting about their experiences here daily. You can also follow updates on our twitter feed @SusSolutions. Feel free to comment and share these student perspectives about the experiences they are having. To learn more about this program and other abroad experiences at Muhlenberg College see this issue of The Muhlenberg Magazine.

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¡Pura vida! – Riley Minkoff

¡Pura vida!

Hola a todos, I am the last of those to write a blog about our trip to Costa Rica. As our time came to a close, I was able to reflect on all of the activities we participated in and around Las Juntas. Though I think we are all happy to be traveling back to our families, dogs, homes and (hopefully) cooler weather, there are many things I’m sure we will all miss about our trip. Probably not

With Students at La Esquelita San Jorge, in Las Juntas

the bugs or the heat, but you can’t ask for everything! The sense of community that emanated from each person in town and the friendly attitude of each individual was truly refreshing, and the lively energy that pervaded each space we visited was remarkable. By the end of our stay, I could walk down the street and genuinely wave hello to each person I saw. The lifestyle in Las Juntas is truly more simple and predicated upon interpersonal relationships- modern distractions, luxuries  and objects are not as important. For instance, while we all complained about the lack of AC (especially me, it was hot!) the townspeople grew accustomed to heat, because they knew that what truly mattered was the fact that they were all together as a family, whether that meant with or without air conditioning. I also learned how this happiness and relaxed way of living contributed to the sustainability of culture in the town.

Teaching English at La Esquelita San Jorge, in Las Juntas

When asked how they were doing, most people would respond with “pura vida”, or pure life. They believed that if they lived a pure life and continued to do so, and if their children and great grandchildren continued to do so as well, then they would survive for generations to come. They would find ways to make money and support themselves while doing what they loved, they would find ways to help the environment and sustain it for the future, and most importantly, they would find ways to remain content with their lives. In this way, I find myself, as I’m sure all the rest of my classmates do as well, appreciating and truly grasping the concept of this “pura vida” lifestyle. At the same time, it allows me to reflect on my own lifestyle and appreciate my family and the home I grew up in, and the way I hope to sustain my family and my life in the future.

The title of our class was “Community Sustainability in Costa Rica”. I believe that through this trip, I’ve discovered the real value of community sustainability culturally, environmentally and economically, both in Costa Rica and back home.
Abrazos y Besos,

Riley Minkoff

¡Pura vida!

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Student Presentations, Reflections, and Special Treats – Megan Lafayette

We kicked off our last full day in Las Juntas with our usual breakfast at Chayito’s, complete with delicious avocado slices and fresh fruit juice. After breakfast we had a brief break before starting class at Carlos and Elieth’s house at 9:30. There, we heard from all the student research groups, who were reporting on their research findings. The public health group started off the morning with a presentation on Costa Rica’s publicly funded health clinics and the perceptions of their efficacy by residents of Las Juntas. Next came the agriculture group, which shared with the class the differences between the small, forest-looking family farms in Las Juntas compared with the large factory farms we are used to in the USA. Then the education research group talked about the four pillars of the education system in Costa Rica: how to know, how to make, how to live together, and how to be.

Their presentation was followed by a visit from Ana, a local artisan who makes jewelry out of scrap mining materials. She had brought a handful of unique and beautiful pieces for students to purchase as souvenirs. From there we took a break from class and walked down the block for our very last meal

With Estaban at Yipi’s in Las Juntas

at Chayito’s. A large group of students then went to Yipi for a last smoothy or ice cream cone from Estaban, the store’s kind and hospitable owner whom we visited nearly everyday in our time in Las Juntas. Knowing that we were leaving Las Juntas the following morning, Estaban sent us off by sharing some fresh watermelon free of charge and indulging us in a selfie.

After the lunch break, it was back to Carlos and Elieth’s porch to hear presentations from the women in business and water groups.The students studying women in business previewed us to a five minute clip of their documentary, for which they conducted interviews with local women who find fulfillment by running their own businesses. Finally, the water group reported on their testings and confirmed to us that drinking the tap water in Las Juntas for the last two weeks was nothing to worry about.

After research presentations, we convened as a group to have a reflective conversation about our experience in Las Juntas. We discussed stereotypes and biases, our role as Americans in the international system, community and environmental sustainability, and what it means to be developed or developing (still unsure if the US is a developed country or just a developing one with iPhones and fast food). From there we had some down time before our final dinner together to say goodbye to this beautiful town that made us feel at home.

Thank you again for everything! Have a lovely summer.



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Return From the Volcano – Sade Ogunjimi

Our second day at Hacienda Gauchipelín in Rincón de la Vieja was rather refreshing as we got to engage in a variety of tourist activities.  During our stay here we went on a nature hike through an active volcano site in which

Strangler Fig (photo by Svati Zaveri)

we saw numerous active sites with boiling sulfur water and mud. I was taken aback by how green the site was, even in spite of the volcanic activity. The summer heat was increased due to the steamy hot spots, but I enjoyed the time we spent appreciating the magnificence and magnitude of the volcanic activity. One of the biggest surprises during the hike were the many strangler figs, hollowed out over the years as its host tree died and decomposed. It was humbling to be around so much nature in a volcano site because of how long nature takes to regenerate after an eruption. Afterward some folks took a brief dip in the pool while others stayed in their hotel rooms and enjoyed the air conditioning before our return to the more rustic conditions in Las Juntas. Our overnight vacation was very relaxing but we were ready to get back to Las Juntas and wrap-up our research projects, and to reflect on our experiences.

Sade Ogunjimi

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A break from our work: Waterfalls, Hot Springs, and Mud – Jordan Steinroeder and Rachel Szachara

Today we traveled to the volcanic region in Parque Nacional Rincón de la Vieja  for a much needed one day vacation from our hard work. On the way to the hotel our bus took a pit stop at a large waterfall where we were able to swim and of course take a scenic photoshoot in front of the falling water. After a refreshing swim there, we continued to our destination Hotel Hacienda Gauchipelín in Rincón de la Vieja. Once we arrived, our class was greeted with a marimba player and delicious pineapple drinks. While our rooms were being prepared we spent time tanning by the pool and eating a buffet lunch in the restaurant. Having a variety of foods to choose from other than our usual rice and beans was a fantastic change. After a filling lunch, we were able to check into our room, unpack, and prepare for the rest of the day’s adventures.

After, we went to visit another waterfall and an area with volcanic activity. To get to the second waterfall we hiked through the rain-forest. Here we were able to jump of a short cliff into a beautiful pool of clear water at the bottom of the waterfall as well as go swimming. After the waterfall we traveled a short way to hike through the forest again to volcanic mud baths and hot springs. At the site, we were able to use the volcanic mud as a skin mask. After letting it dry and rinsing off in the river, we swam in natural hot springs. The water was so warm and blue, it’s incredible to think that something like that occurs naturally. That night we came back to the hotel for a buffet dinner and hung out playing cards until we were ready to sleep (on real beds!)
-Jordan  Steinroeder and Rachel Szachara
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Ecomuseo, Gold Mining Artifacts, a Roll in the Mud, and a Birthday Celebration – Emma Lewis

Rainy hike at the Ecomuseo

On Tuesday afternoon, we had planned to visit the Ecomuseo in Las Juntas that some of our group had worked on their service projects. However, a wicked storm was abrewin’ so Ricardo made the hike optional and those who wished to rest for the afternoon stayed home while the more adventurous of the bunch went on the hike.

At the Ecomuseo, we reunited with our main man Victor Hugo who runs the mining/ecology museum.  We spent some time looking at the artifacts on display from the time from the days of industrial gold mining (1880s to 1930s). We saw the bottles that contained the mercury that was used in the extraction process and metal clamps that were used to carry hot crucibles. The hiking group also got to meet the super cute spiders that the service group had to deal with each day they worked at the Ecomuseo and the bats that occupied the bathrooms.
We began our hike in the outdoor area around the Ecomuseo where we saw some of the old machinery that was manufactured in the United States and transported to Costa Rica to be used by the mining company. As we hiked up the mountain path, Victor Hugo and Ricardo continued to explain what the mining process entailed and pointed out where certain structures were located such as the train track or the excavation sites. The view from the 7-story facility was awesome.
Highlights of the trip include exploring one of the mine tunnels that remains open and hearing the howler monkeys respond to Ricardo’s calls. Unfortunately, they were on the other side of the valley so we didn’t see them. Descending the slippery trail down the mountain proved to be a bigger challenge compared to the steep trail we climbed up. A few of us took a spill but we made it down unscathed for the most part!
May 30 is Ricardo’s birthday so we had to celebrate! Ricardo’s favorite food is tamales so they were made special for us, and two cakes were provided by his good friends. It was a fun night! Tomorrow we are off to explore Rincon de la Vieja National Park – an active Volcanic site.

Professor Rich Niesenbaum (Don Ricardo) celebrates his birthday with Carlos & Eliette and students, friends by enjoying cake and tamales in Las Juntas Costa Rica. 

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Cloud Forest, Monkeys, Lightening, and a Return to Documentary Work – Emmia Newman

Emmia & Sade in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

Though the clouds hung low, our smiles rose high as we spent a lovely day in Monteverde and Santa Elena. The bus ride to the gorgeous hilly town was along back roads which graced our eyes with some of the most breathtaking views of clouds hugging the trees and slopes. The temperature dropped dramatically which was a nice break from sticky Las Juntas!  While hiking through the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, we manage to spot a group of white face monkeys, a quetzal, and a Toucan feeding it’s young.

To revitalise ourselves post-hike we visited a women’s artisan co-op  (CASEM) and The Monteverde Coffee Center where we were able to indulge in some delicious coffee. The mocha was DEVINE! The rain poured relentlessly for the rest of the night which made it impossible to do the night hike we were excited about. But after seeing the lightening illuminate the black sky, we all agreed that we’d be better off staying inside!

Though it is nice to have a break, I am looking forward to continuing our documentary project over the week back in Las Juntas. We so far have had three successful interviews with women involved in government and small businesses. I am very appreciative of their openness to our questions and our camera and I am excited to share our final project with all of the people involved! Hopefully we are able to exchange something valuable for their generosity and time!
Cheers!  Emmia Newman


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Visiting the Gold Mines & Exploring Community – Morgan Hessel

Emily and Morgan in the Gold Mine

On our first full day in Las Juntas was a long one but we learned a lot about the town and the people.  We started our day off by taking taxis to las minas (the mines).  We then split up into two groups and went through the mines for a tour!  Our tour guide, Bernie was a miner and was able to teach us all about the different levels of the mines as we went in about 200km.  On our way out of the mines, we passed by a natural spring and Bernie explained that there was an old mining tradition behind the spring.  As we each passed by, we had the chance to touch the water and thank god that we were able to get out safely just as the miners do!

After a lunch of rice and beans at Chayito, we all geared up and went for a walking tour around Las Juntas with Carlos and Elieth.  We saw a lot of important locations around the town including the church, the oldest house in the town and a local elementary school.  It was really interesting to see the town from a local’s point of view.  Now that we know where a lot of the cool places are around town, we are excited to continue exploring!

Hasta lugeo familia y amigos

-Morgan Hessel

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