Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio

Have you ever been somewhere and felt like it was surreal? Like you were in a dream, and that there is no way this could be real life? Our trip to Manuel Antonio this past weekend was full of these experiences. If you’re considering a trip to Costa Rica, I would highly suggest adding a few nights in Quepos/Manuel Antonio to your “To Do” list.

We stayed at the Hotel Karahe, right next to the beach. While the rooms were a little dark and uninviting, the view and direct access to the beach were phenomenal. The hotel grounds are immaculate, flush with trees and wildlife. Monkeys swing from the trees right next to the pool. (Just make sure to stay far enough away that you don’t get pooped on, like one unlucky guy in our group.) And sloths cling to the branches.

The pool and hot tub are situated right next to the restaurant/bar, which looks out over the ocean. You can take the short, sandy path from the hotel grounds to the beach and catch a quick nap under the shade of the trees on the beach. Or you can play in the strong surf in the afternoons -there are plenty of boogie boards and other water sports for rent along the beach! Walking along the beach is an adventure itself, seeing the mixture of American and Tico families all splashing in the waves or laying in the sun.emily3

On Sunday, we went into Manuel Antonio National Park, only a short 10-minute drive from our hotel. The beach and inlet are decorated with trees and wildlife, like the iguanas that come running when you begin your picnic! A picnic is definitely the way to go if you’re going to be in the park during lunch. You can never go wrong with bocadillos (sandwiches), aguacate (avocado) and pan dulce! Make sure to look for sloths, monkeys and other animals hanging from the trees on your hike into the park.

While I’ve been on plenty of beach vacations in the United States, a trip to the Costa Rican beach takes the cake for the most scenic, wild experience. There’s nothing quite like splashing in the waves next to the Costa Rican mountains as monkeys swing from tree to tree!

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An update from Hayley, a junior majoring in anthropology and French. She is also blogging here.

Yesterday we travelled outside of Kampala to a village near Lake Victoria to visit Sunrise primary school and the neighboring health clinic. We played with the kids and talked to some of the teachers, who were really inspiring. They take kids from low-income families and provide education through second grade. The problem is the lack of opportunity after they graduate, but the headmaster is working on creating a third grade so that will help.  The kids were so cute!!

We did some work at the health center, a tiny shack with a room for general patients and a room for labor and delivery. We gathered grass on our heads to thatch a roof and painted some of the interior. The pharmacy was a bookshelf with maybe 10 boxes of medication and the clinic was very bare. I asked the nurse what he needed most, and he said anti-retroviral drugs for HIV/AIDS patients, so I took his contact info and will put in a request to send a box at Project CURE when I get home.  Hopefully I don’t disappoint him!

We spent the night at a really cool campground near the school.  There was dancing, drumming, storytelling and a goat roast. Goat is actually pretty good! Kinda weirded me out that I had seen the goat walking around a few hours earlier.

Today we visited Lake Victoria (biggest lake in the world) and it was beautiful! We saw some ritual caves and shrines near the beach!

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And on to D.C.

On the Capitol lawn

I didn’t get much time to sit and reminisce about my South Africa experience with my family because my flight to Washington, D.C., was at 7 am the next morning.  I have spent exactly a week in D.C., and I must say I have had quite an introduction to the city. Besides the few complications of trying to adjust to new means of transportation and familiarizing myself with the venues, I have enjoyed my stay thus far.

At the World Peace Talk

On Saturday I had the honor of listening to the Dalai Lama give a speech on World Peace on the west lawn of the Capitol building. Since I missed him when he came to SMU, seeing him the second time around was a must. Although I  had to wake up at 6 a.m. and wait in the sun for three hours, it was totally worth it.  Thousands of people came to hear him speak, and special appearances by Whoopi Goldberg and Skylar Grey contributed to the success of the event.

Lunch with a White House intern

Other adventures I have partaken in so far include eating at an Ethiopian restaurant and Good Stuff Eatery (restaurant owned by a “Top Chef” contestant), spending time with White House interns, visiting the Library of Congress and meeting up with successful SMU alumni.

My internship at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars also officially started the day after I arrived here. I am currently at the introductory level of learning about the Center, but I will start working on projects soon.

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From Georgia to Scotland

IMGP1621-sm.jpgMy adventure began in the Atlanta, GA airport on September 19 and has not ceased since.

While waiting to board the plane I met an American girl just like myself who has been studying in Bombay, India for the past two years. I then boarded my plane and sat next to a man from Saudi Arabia who has been studying in the United States for the past two years.

After barely making it on my plane from JFK to Edinburgh I went in and out of a daze as I crossed the ocean to a whole new world. Imagine Scotland in your head. I was expecting to see rolling green pastures, castle ruins, small villages with cobblestone streets, and the sea. Well, that is exactly what it is like. St. Andrews is the picturesque town that one would imagine it to be.

While here I have learned that there are some major differences between St. Andrews and SMU. The most shocking to me was the fact that at all of the dorm meetings the Resident Advisors, or Wardens as they are called here, function as bartenders and the pubs are the social hubs of the school. I was completely dumbfounded coming from the dry campus of SMU.

IMGP1590-sm.jpgThe second most shocking thing I have found about being abroad is that you walk everywhere, and when I say everywhere I mean everywhere. I bought a bike in order to try to expedite my travels around town, but my fear of riding it on round-a-bouts is somewhat hindering that prospect.

IMGP1599-sm.jpgThe best part by far has been meeting so many great people from all over the world! I have everything from new American friends to friends from Germany, Egypt, and Malta!

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Delayed departure

An excerpt from Amy’s blog

Classic story pinpointing Mexican culture versus Western (more specifically American) culture: After waiting in the Mexico City airport for an hour or so we were ready to board our flight. I think the flight was initially scheduled to board and depart around 9 pm. All strapped in and ready to go, we sat on the landing strip at, alas, 10:15 pm. Flight delays have come to be a fairly ordinary event, so we thought nothing of this extra time. Except Oaxaca’s airport did. After circling the landing stip several times the pilot’s voice entered the plane’s speakers:

Nuestras disculpas. podemos non volar a Oaxaca esta tarde. El aeropuerto de Oaxaca cierra a las once y ellos no esperaran. Proporcionaremos un vuelo manana por la manana.

(Our apologies. We are unable to fly to Oaxaca this evening. Oaxaca’s airport closes at eleven o’clock and they will not wait. We will provide a flight tomorrow morning.)

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After the Amazon Jungle Marathon

Now that my new friend (the walking stick) and I are back in the States, I am home and resting, replenishing my body with the same foods that I had such difficulty eating on the course – trail mix, protein bars, and yes, protein drinks that no longer taste like vomit and smell like dung! The milk and banana do help with that!

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The Grand Finale

judah10-hike.jpgThis day, devoted to the sixth and final stage, began early in the morning after just a few hours’ sleep. Most competitors had the opportunity to rest all night as well as part of the previous day. Stage 6 was supposed to be easier, rather than a foot fight through hostile jungle vegetation, but I found it quite long and arduous because of my complete fatigue built up during the preceding days. The lack of sleep and rest, the constant hot sun, and trekking through the sand had tested my body far more than anything else I’d ever experienced.

Nevertheless, I started the morning with a jog, as I longed for the finish line that promised a buffet of fresh food including spaghetti and chicken with ketchup. I mention the ketchup because I put it on everything. At various villages throughout the course, chickens roamed near the trail, and I mentally conspired to use my favorite stick as a spear to hunt one of them. But the chicken would have to wait until the finish line.

When my body remembered its extreme fatigue, I ended my jog and went back to trekking, again using my stick for extra propulsion. After many hours of struggling through my body’s pain, I finally saw the finish. I had actually planned to run across the finish line, but by the time I reached it, I was amazed that I was even able to hobble.

After seven grueling days in the jungle, I joined the 60 percent of competitors that had completed this race. My reward for such an accomplishment? A buffet lunch and dinner, a T-shirt, a medal, and, yes, my favorite stick that I got to keep. I was not going to let it go, this new friend of mine, after it had helped me through the harshest of terrains and climates. Of course, there was the pesky little problem of getting it through U.S. Customs, but I would deal with that obstacle later.

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The Longest Day

Day 6 was a continuation of Stage 5. I awoke at checkpoint 4, deep in the jungle, and still had to complete 53 “Brazilian Jungle Kilometers,” but by now I was so tired that I could barely walk.

My new best friend
My left leg from below the knee up to the hip had been in great pain the past few days. I couldn’t let that beat me. I remembered that I just needed to go on placing one foot in front of the other. I used my stick so my arms would help propel me, and on the straight paths I used it like a kayak paddle, pushing off the ground for extra propulsion. While ascending hills, I used my stick as an anchor to pull myself up; and when going down, as a balance.

My stick had now become my best friend. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything, not even an all-you-can-eat buffet of fresh food. Although I had tired of eating trail mix and protein bars, I kept at it because I needed the nourishment. But by the fifth day, I could no longer drink my protein powder mix. Actually I’m quite used to protein powder, but at home I normally mix it in a blender with milk and a banana for a smooth and tasty treat. Here in the jungle I only had water to mix it with, using a piece of paper as a funnel to meticulously scoop the powder into a small bottle. Even after shaking the bottle vigorously, the mixture was inconsistent and lumpy at best.

For the first four days, I could stomach it, but by day 5 it began to taste like vomit and smelled like dung. I refused to consume any more of it and gave the remainder to an excited Brazilian soldier, Dos Reis, the one who had cut me the walking stick. I am certain that I got the better part of that exchange.

Dallas heat, Amazon hills
For most competitors, the greatest challenge was to achieve sufficient hydration and replenishment of electrolytes and salt. The jungle heat and humidity quickly deplete us of these necessary elements. But for me, my toughest challenge had been the steep hills. After the race I heard that we’d climbed over 16,000 feet of cumulative altitude gain and loss! My home in hill-free Dallas did nothing to prepare me for this ordeal, but it did train me for the constant sweating and extreme heat.

I grew up playing sports every summer in the Texas heat, and my body must have adapted. Throughout the race I simply drank a lot of water in small amounts and also drank a couple of servings of Gatorade and Sustain drink mix powder along with a couple of electrolyte tablets per day. Although I remained hydrated, my body suffered total exhaustion and I struggled to complete this longest of all days. Mark and Ivan from the support crew walked with me to encourage my movement – and probably to ensure that I didn’t keel over and die!

This part of the course traversed between thick jungle and a beautiful beach that overlooked the sun setting over the ocean-like wide river. Although too tired to take notice of such a picturesque landscape, I stopped and forced myself to look and remember the magnificence of my surroundings. I struggled to drum up the energy just to appreciate it. I had to fight to keep focused on all the beauty about me. My body simply didn’t care, but I willed myself to enjoy it, just as I willed myself to go on.

Miraculously, I completed Stage 5 at 10:15 p.m. on the second day allotted, and was surprised to find several fellow competitors still awake, waiting to cheer me across the finish line.

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Night in the Jungle

As it turned out, my feet would desperately need the help, as Stage 5 was by far the longest, covering 44 km of jungle and 43 km of village trails. Throughout the race I hadn’t believed that the distances were actually as advertised. The stages had been so arduous that the mileage felt significantly greater! Other racers agreed, and one of them actually tracked part of the course with his GPS and determined that we’d been right!

The Dark Zone
Apparently, the distances that the race organizers provided were in “Brazilian Jungle Kilometers,” and the equivalent value in miles or kilometers is unknown. Because of Stage 5’s great length, it would take us two days to complete it. Any racer who didn’t leave checkpoint 4 by 4 p.m. on this day would have to sleep deep in the jungle until dawn before he would be allowed to continue. Of course, this was necessary because the area between checkpoints 4 and 5, “The Dark Zone,” was thick jungle often inhabited by jaguars, and it was unsafe for racers to traverse it in the dark.

judah7-family.jpgIn the early afternoon, after realizing I wouldn’t make the cutoff, I took my time and enjoyed my hike. I found a feather from a very large bird and affixed it to my bag. I stopped and chatted in a mixture of Spanish, Portuguese and English and shared some of my trail mix – that I’d been carrying for 5 days – with the Brazilian military sweep team that followed me. Although I felt much more comfortable in the jungle on this fifth day and moved more fluidly, I was the only racer to arrive at checkpoint 4 after the cut-off time. Therefore, I was the only competitor to sleep deep in the jungle along with a few support crew members and a few Brazilian soldiers.

Before reaching checkpoint 4, I found it exhilarating to traverse through the thick jungle darkness with only my small flashlight. I felt like a true adventurer as the jungle and its nocturnal life awakened at the fall of darkness. The plethora of mysterious sounds from unseen creatures engaged me into an unknown world where around every tree and under any plant might lurk creatures large or small, poisonous or non-poisonous, but foreboding nevertheless.

Bite free
Throughout the race, when I tired, I would rest on the living jungle ground. I ignored the dangers from my apathy born out of absolute exhaustion. Fortunately I didn’t get insect or snake bites while sliding or resting on the jungle ground, even when I rested on or near ant piles. I theorize that I had become so dirty and spent so much time in the jungle, that I had become “one with the jungle.” It seemed as if insects crawled onto me and then off without biting, as though I were simply part of the jungle floor.

During our jungle training we’d been told that everyone was guaranteed to be stung by large wasps and bees, and indeed, everyone else was stung multiple times and bitten by mosquitoes, ticks, and perhaps leeches. To prove the jungle insects’ size and aggressiveness, one support crew member had shown me a picture he’d taken of a gigantic wasp eating a tarantula. Throughout the competition, I had spent by far the longest time in the jungle and was certainly the most exposed to insects, wasps, and bees. However, since I had “merged” with the jungle, I got no bites or stings.

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The Enemy: Blisters

As the morning of Stage 4 dawned, most of us had awakened exhausted from Stage 3’s extreme difficulty. My 10-hour sleep didn’t seem to help, and I felt I needed another 10 just for decent recovery.

But fortunately Stage 4 turned out to be much shorter and not as difficult. We had some much-needed respite, as sections of the course ran through villages and away from the jungle treachery. Even so, armed guards were placed at certain points near the beginning of the course because of additional jaguar sightings. Although I didn’t see any, my time had come for something potentially worse for a long distance runner – foot blisters.

Wet feet
This was something nearly all of us had to deal with, and a common problem even since Stage 1, because the humidity as well as swamp and creek crossings kept our feet wet throughout most of the marathon. I think I’d been able to delay my blisters until Stage 4 because of the time and care I’d taken to balance over roots through the swamp crossings each day. This kept my feet relatively dry (less drenched, anyway), though they were still wet. Of course, crossing the way I did slowed my progress, but may have helped my feet.

But now that I had blisters and also needed to move faster through the jungle, I took less care to keep my feet dry and ended up suffering like the others.

Time to eat
Stage 4 was a milestone for me. For the first time, I was able to complete a stage a few hours before dark, which finally gave me time to eat my food and rest for Stages 5 and 6. All the previous days had been so rushed, that I could hardly find the time to eat properly. After my meal, the medics taped most of my toes (and both heels) to prevent further blistering. I could now face Stage 5 with my feet well prepared.

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