by Kevin Romero
An Eye-Opening Experience
Introduction: Expectations for the trip
In my experience as a chemistry major I have learned to rely on the experiments performed in the lab for knowledge regarding the world around me. The really nice thing about chemistry is that in most cases the expected result on paper is generally what happens in the lab when the experiments are sound. As a result of this I have had a pretty bad habit of believing I have knowledge based solely on my expectations. Thankfully I had an experience that has caused me to re-evaluate. This Jan Term I had the opportunity to travel to Baja California Sur, Mexico, for the class Literary Biology in the Sea of Cortez. This took me out of my comfort zone of the lab and into the field, where I learned some important lessons about knowledge, especially when it concerns the natural world. John Steinbeck experienced similar lessons in his expedition to the Sea of Cortez in 1940. He wrote about his experience with the Mexican sierra in the introduction to The Log from the Sea of Cortez, saying:
For example: the Mexican sierra has “XVII-15-IX” spines in the dorsal fin. These can easily be counted. But if the sierra strikes hard on the line so that our hands are burned, if the fish sounds and nearly escapes and finally comes in over the rail, his colors pulsing and his tail beating the air, a whole new relational externality has come into being – an entity which is more than the sum of the fish plus the fisherman. The only way to count the spines of the sierra unaffected by this second relational reality is to sit in a laboratory, open an evil-smelling jar, remove a stiff colorless fish from formalin solution, count the spines, and write the truth “D. XVII-15-IX.” There you have recorded a reality which cannot be assailed – probably the least important reality concerning either the fish or yourself.
Steinbeck makes a claim that the information gained in the lab about the Mexican sierra is nowhere near as important as the experience with the sierra in the field. The same could be said for our trip down to Baja. Prior to our departure I thought I knew what to expect. I had read the itinerary and familiarized myself with the places we were going. I could never have imagined that the difference between talking about the trip on paper and actually experiencing it would be so immense.
Part 1: Removing the blinders
The first leg of our trip found us camping in the mountains outside of Santiago, Mexico, about half way between Los Cabos and La Paz. Having grown up in Reno, Nevada, I felt as though I knew exactly how this experience would go. I have camped in the mountains in a desert climate numerous times, enough to feel very comfortable in that setting. I did not expect to have Don Faustino and his dog Oso lead us up the side of the mountain to the indigenous rock paintings above his ranch. He was in jeans and a flannel shirt in sweltering heat, and he constantly had to wait for us to catch up. He obviously knew something we didn’t about traversing up the side of a mountain on minimal water. Our discussion about epistemology that evening started a thought process in my mind that was very unfamiliar. I wondered for the first time if my personal methods for gathering knowledge were as effective as I had previously thought. The inability to follow the trail at La Victoria Ranch without the help of Don Faustino and Oso caused the first cracks of doubt to seep in.
The next day at Chorro Canyon the seeds of doubt grew into an introspective thought process I had never experienced before. I was meta-thinking, evaluating each thought prior to taking action. This was extremely important as we were basically climbing along the walls at the base of the canyon. The trail was completely overgrown, and even the guides were out of their comfort zone. This experience was significant for me because I was able to implement the ways of knowing that we had discussed the previous night into a real life experience.
The final day on this leg of the trip took us out of the mountains and onto the beach at Boca del Alamo south of La Paz. Snorkeling here allowed for the introspection to continue, and I was reminded of the mountain goat hunting experience that Steinbeck describes in The Log. Over the course of the chapter Steinbeck criticizes the human need to assert dominance over the creatures of the natural world. I understood his point in collecting the mountain goat droppings first hand as we took pictures and videos of the fish and other organisms in the reef. We have evidence that they were there, and last time we checked they were alive, healthy, and very robust. The result of all of this is that I was starting to see the natural world around me in a new light for the first time. Gone were the blinders I had developed after countless laboratory experiments, and they were replaced with an open and reasonable disposition when it came to gathering knowledge about the world around me in the midst of my experience. This mindset would become very important throughout the rest of our trip.
Part 2: Truly seeing for the first time
The next part of our trip took us to Espíritu Santo Island, where we would attempt to circumnavigate the island in kayaks. Having had a great deal of experience in kayaks previously in my life, I again thought I knew what I was doing. How different can kayaking on a lake and in the sea be? While the first leg of our trip had caused me to re-evaluate the way I viewed the world, the beautiful weather we had the first two days on the island only fed my arrogance in a kayak. Mother Nature blew it all to smithereens the very next day. We were faced with a three-hour paddle into three to four foot waves and a fifteen-mile per hour head wind. This was literally one of the most physically demanding experiences of my life, but it forced me to truly see for the first time. I focused on the way the waves crashed against my boat and how the wind could easily push me off course like a rag doll. I had both feet working on the rudder to keep me moving straight while my entire upper body strained to keep me moving forward. After this physical struggle I experienced a deep mental peace. I noticed each grain of sand, every small ripple in the water, each spine of the cacti, and so much more. Additionally, as a result of our class discussion about Steinbeck’s chapter regarding the island in The Log, I noticed the lack of abundance of life from what I had expected coming into the trip. In describing the specimens they collected, Steinbeck makes it seem as though they couldn’t set foot on the beach at low tide without stepping on an organism they were trying to collect. In 1940 the sea creatures were everywhere, and I didn’t see this in 2014. This knowledge was very disconcerting, and the question as to why the change was something I hoped to answer by the end of our trip.
By the end of our week on the island I had developed a much greater appreciation for all that I was seeing. I took every opportunity possible to snorkel, hike, and even sleep outside in order to try to see everything there was to be seen. However Mother Nature wanted to be sure that I had learned my lesson. We woke up before dawn on the last day in order to kayak across the channel from the island back to the mainland of Baja. The sunrise was truly spectacular. About 20 minutes after the sun had peeked it’s head over the horizon I found myself spacing out, losing focus for no more than 30 seconds. In this brief instant of inattention the waves caught me perfectly from the side and my kayak was capsized. I barely had the presence of mind to take a breath before I found myself underwater. While I was probably out of the kayak and above water in about 45 seconds, it felt like 45 minutes. This seemingly near death experience was the greatest lesson of all – a poignant reminder of Mother Nature’s power in the midst of her beauty. Steinbeck says that association with the sea does not breed contempt, and I experienced this first hand multiple times during our week on the island. It was another lesson I would continue to experience throughout the rest of our trip.
Part 3: The nature of knowledge
The previous few weeks had opened my eyes to a new kind of knowledge. This was something that couldn’t be counted, measured, or treated like the forms of data I was comfortable with in the lab. The knowledge I was gaining in my experiences with the natural world was something much more visceral, a feeling very difficult to describe. The next leg of our trip only enhanced the connection I was making with the natural world. We made our way over the Pacific side of Baja to Magdalena Bay for a shorter kayak trip. On the first morning of the trip we awoke to find a dying sea lion on the beach with a nasty wound through one of its front flippers. I knew with every fiber of my being that this was wrong, and it was the type of knowledge that must be felt and cannot be quantified. This type of knowledge will never be found in the lab. That’s the point Steinbeck makes in his discussion about the Mexican sierra, and I only continued to see this as the trip progressed. The nature of knowledge is not as straightforward as I had once thought.
This lesson continued when we were at the Turtle Conservation Camp run by Red Sustainable Travel. Here I had an experience with a sea turtle akin to Steinbeck’s experience with the Mexican sierra. The curvature of the carapace and the length of the tail of a green sea turtle can easily be measured. However these tell you nothing about how the turtle struggles when it’s caught in a net, the sighing sound it makes as a rush of air enters for each breath, or how placing a gentle touch beneath its beak will calm it instantly. This “whole new relational externality” was created between myself and the sea turtle as I was in the water helping to untangle it from the net, as I carried it to land, and as I assisted with the measuring process while trying to keep the turtle as comfortable as possible. I don’t know that I’ll ever fully be able to detail the knowledge gained from such a holistic experience with one of the most ancient creatures found in the natural world. This was definitely something I would never have the opportunity of doing in the lab, and it only further opened my eyes to complex nature that knowledge has. It is rarely straightforward and tends to be more intricate than we expect. This trip had shown me this multiple times thus far, but it wasn’t done yet.
Part 4: Learning more with each breath
January 27th, 2014, is a day that will stay with me for the rest of my life. We took a boat out of the La Paz harbor into the bay in search of whale sharks. We immediately found multiple feeding not even a quarter mile offshore. Before I had any chance to process what was happening the boat driver yelled jump and I was in the water in full snorkel gear. I strained to catch up with the behemoth while being awestruck by the grace and speed with which it swam. It seemed oblivious to the strangers in its environment, and in a moment it was gone. We discussed the experience after the fact, but it was one of those things that words will never be able to accurately describe. Again a “whole new relational externality” was created between us and the animal, adding to the knowledge that it is the largest species of extant fish and a filter feeder. This was the first time on this day that we would be reminded of Steinbeck’s experience with the Mexican sierra.
The second reminder came as we took the boat up to the sea lion colony north of Espíritu Santo. Here we were again able to get in the water with the animals and experience them in their natural environment. Each time a sea lion swam by I was reminded that I was extremely out of my element. They moved with such agility and poise, and at times even seemed to be mocking our clumsy attempts to follow along. In Spanish they are referred to as “lobos del mar”, which translates to wolves of the sea, or sea wolves. We found this name to be much more accurate than the English version as the pups that came out to play were very dog-like in their demeanor. There is not a single word that will ever describe the feeling as a sea lion pup swims by blowing bubbles at you or tries chewing on your fins. Again this is a type of knowledge that I had no idea even existed prior to this trip. This experience was only enhanced by our class discussions about ways of knowing, the different readings from the texts, comparisons between the 1940s and now, and more. While I swam with these charismatic animals I felt as though I was learning more with each breath. These were lessons about the animals, but they were also lessons about myself, and even deeper thoughts about the world around me and my place in it. I feel as though this experience represented the culmination of a growth process in myself as I gather knowledge about the world around me. It has taught me that there is something to be learned with each breath, regardless of whether or not you have a sea lion bearing down on you.
Conclusion: The significance of knowledge
This January I had an experience that changed my life. I traveled to Baja California Sur in Mexico for the class Literary Biology in the Sea of Cortez. I expected to have a fun time learning about a new place for a month. I did not expect to be rocked to my very core in the way I viewed the world. I have attempted to describe the growth process that I went through over the course of the month, but it’s something I am still coming to terms with and figuring out. Reflection on each experience in the context of our class discussions only causes this science major to become more and more philosophical, which is something that is completely foreign to me. I remember when I first heard about the class wondering how UQ and NW could be combined, and that only further shows my blindness. Over the course of the month I learned to appreciate the significance of knowledge in every form that it takes, not simply what is found in the lab. I’ve been shown first hand that there is more to life than just the chemical reactions causing it to happen. Chemistry isn’t everything, as much as it pains me to admit. It took multiple experiences similar to Steinbeck’s with the Mexican sierra for me to come to such a realization. The experiences we had blew my expectations out of the water, and I feel as though I have come away from it a better person. This process took place at the edge of my comfort zone, but it’s a process I hope to continue even as I return to the comfort of my “normal” life. Knowledge is a beautiful thing, but it takes implementation for any significant difference to be made.
by Sharon Gollery
Study Abroad Essay Contest
Budapest, Hungary, May 22, 2013. I’m sitting in the bathroom of my hostess’s apartment, trying to remember what they say about girls and their hair. Something about how a change in hairstyle reflects a change in a girl’s life, isn’t it? Like how some women dye their hair after a big breakup? My reflection stares back at me unhelpfully. Oh, well. I run the comb over my head a few more times, and then exchange it for my scissors.
It had started with a mistake. A summer gone by too fast, too much time spent with friends and family, a foolish hope that the San Francisco consulate would be able to fit me in at the last minute. All in a day, it seemed, I’d tossed my own hopes and dreams in the garbage. And I hated myself for it.
It was hard, hard, to go back to Linfield that fall. “Didn’t you say you were going to be in France?” my friends would ask, and I would look away and mutter something about a problem with my visa application. I couldn’t look in a mirror without wanting to smash it. I didn’t want to have to see my own face.
But I had to keep going. There was still the spring semester to consider, and what on earth was I going to do with my major? I found a solution on the website of my chosen program. The language major required two semesters in France; the American University Center of Provence offered a short summer term. One semester in spring plus one semester in summer would be two semesters. The International Programs Office couldn’t organize a summer abroad for me, but I could do it myself. I could pay for the tuition. I could schedule my own return flight. It could all work.
I didn’t believe it would, not really, not until I had landed at the airport in Marseille, not until I’d gone home with my host family, not until one evening in mid-February when I was exiting a salon de thé with some friends. As the cooling air rolled over us, my friend Kelley turned to me and exclaimed, “On est en France!”
I didn’t get it. Of course we were in France. There we were, walking up the Rue Joseph Cabassol. “Oui…?” I ventured.
Kelley grabbed my shoulder, dancing a little with excitement. “Sharon, écoute. On est en France!”
This was real. This experience, the cobbles under our feet, the sky above our heads, it was all real. I felt a smile begin to spread across my own face.
My time in France was filled with moments of realization. There was the time outside of Saint-Rémy when the wind was coming down off the Alpilles and rustling the leaves of an ancient olive orchard and lifting my hair away from my face. There was the first time I was mistaken for a local by an American tourist. There was the end of our spring break, when Kelley and I returned from a trip to the U.K. to discover that the trees were suddenly in leaf, and it had felt like coming home.
The experience had changed me. I suddenly found myself reacting to situations with a confidence and quiet optimism that was much deeper and more genuine than any of the vivid spikes of self-assurance I had felt as a teenager. I liked it. And I wanted more.
So, one day, I hopped on the bus to Marseille, rode to the Gare Saint-Charles, and bought myself a Eurail pass. I had three weeks of vacation before the beginning of my summer term, and I didn’t intend to waste them. I rolled up four shirts, five pairs of underwear, and packed them tightly into my backpack along with a change of socks, a water bottle, a small towel, my camera, and any small tools I might conceivably need – a miniature Leatherman tool, a luggage lock that would fit through the holes in my backpack’s zipper pulls, and my palm-sized pair of sewing scissors.
Snick, snip, snap.
Damp hair falls away in curls. It’s not a drastic haircut, just a few inches off the ends, but it feels like a declaration. I lower my hand and stare into the mirror.
“You don’t scare me,” I tell my reflection, wagging the scissors at it. “I’m traveling Europe by myself with only a backpack. I’ve stayed in hostels and in people’s spare rooms. I’ve waded through a flood in Venice and I figured out the Budapest subway system in one day. Tomorrow I’m going to Prague. You can come if you want, but you can’t slow me down anymore.”
I sweep up my fallen hair into the garbage, gather my toiletries, and turn off the bathroom light on my way out.
by Robin Cone-Murakami
Study Abroad Essay Contest
Galapagos, Ecuador, Spring 2013
Never Thought It Would Be So Hard
Never thought goodbyes would be so hard…we came into this program as strangers, as individuals with our own expectations, our own goals and insecurities about entering into a new life with new people in a new country. Four months later, as the semester comes to a close, we have transformed, not just as individuals but also as a group…as a family. It brings on melancholy feelings and memories thinking of the past four months of my life and recalling those last precious moments with the strangers whom I came to know as family. I left Ecuador with sisters, with brothers, mothers, fathers, and cousins. It is such a great grand world we live in and everything seems so far away from everything else. But this whole experience made me realize exactly how small it is. Four months can change everything. It all depends on where you are, whom you’re with and what you’re doing. I left my family, my country, and my home to embark on a strange new journey and I came back with an army of a family and a fiery passion to change the things I can and the patience and wisdom to accept the things I cannot. During my last few weeks in Ecuador, I was nervous to travel back to awaiting problems, excited to take on my new challenges, and sad to leave the people I had come to love. My last three weeks in the country I had come to adore played out as such…
My host family hosted a going away party for Julie, the volunteer living in the house with us, and me. My host mom prepared our favorite Ecuadorian dish, “Pollo con coca cola,” or chicken with coca cola sauce and an Ecuadorian drink for family and friends who came to dinner to say goodbye. After dinner, I went out with my host sister, host cousin and Julie to one of the popular bars where we hung out with friends while listening to live music and failing horribly at pool. After the bar, we moved on to the discothèques, what we call clubs, and danced the night away to salsa, merengue, and reggaeton with other students, volunteers and locals. As we moved our hips to the Latin music, friends whirled past, led by their partners into daring combinations of twists and turns. To end the night, we took a cool dip in the ocean. As we giggled together, and the small waves pushed past us onto the shore, the moonlight shone off the current and highlighted our smiles.
The next morning, I woke up bright and early to meet other students at the main pier to embark on a fishing boat until late afternoon. In ordinary circumstances this would not be such a big deal, but since the Galápagos is surrounded by the Marine Reserve, no one is allowed to fish aside from small-scale fishermen who have acquired permits to do so. Therefore, as tourists, it would be completely illegal for us to fish if we weren’t students on a field trip. For most of the morning, we cruised along the coastline of San Cristóbal with two lines in the back of the boat. While we were not asking the fishermen questions about their profession and the paradox of being able to fish in a Marine Reserve, we lay on the bow of the boat and swapped stories while the sun turned our skin a darker shade of brown. We ate our packed lunch in a sandy cove with clear light-blue water. As we floated, baby sharks no bigger than my forearm swam in small circles underneath the surface and large pelicans dove and swallowed small fish whole. On our way back to town, we caught a large fish with scales that shined rainbow in the sun.
Unfortunately, even in the Galápagos, where the sun shines bright most days and the animals greet you as friends, bad news finds me in this world among worlds. My best friend had run into significant health problems, so I decided to change my flight to go home to Hawaii earlier than I had originally planned. Life in a foreign country, on an isolated National Park of an island had turned tables on me and I was faced with phone calls with limited fuzzy connection, Facebook messages and email to communicate across sea and continent. I was worried for my friend and stressed about my final exam and papers, and anxious about my dwindling time on the islands, but my friends kept me breathing and my head above the waves. Amongst the worry and stress, I found a respite in singing at the impromptu graduation we set up for our friend Vanessa who would not return in time to her home university for her own. After our final exam, we stood lining both sides of the beach entryway as Vanessa walked down her sandy aisle in white dress and a cardboard cap made from a breakfast cereal box. People gave merry speeches, offered toasts and congratulations and gave out awards (I won the award for the student to most likely negotiate a peace treaty!). To bring the ceremony to an end, I was commissioned to sing the Graduation Song by Vitamin C. Everyone gathered round swaying to and fro singing along to the chorus with me. As the song ended, we hugged, we kissed and Vanessa walked away as a college graduate.
The next day saying goodbye to my Galápagueño friends and family was much more difficult than I ever thought it could be. That morning I bid goodbye to my host sister, who had to go to work, and as I sat on my bed crying as she left the house, my little host brother sat on my bed petting my hair and my host sister’s four-year-old daughter cuddled up next to me as the three of us spent one of our last moments together. It was probably one of the sweetest things that had ever happened to me. Later that morning, my host sister and I held hands through the window at her teller booth at the bank offering words of consolation and promises to visit. I gave kisses to my host family as we parted ways outside of our house and I waved goodbye as the taxi whisked me away. My last glimpses back showed my little host brother running alongside my taxi window before we turned the corner and headed on towards the plane that would fly me away from my Galápagueño life and back to the States.
Back in Quito, our program paid for hotel rooms for all the students to stay in throughout the weekend until that Sunday, when most students would return back home. I spent the weekend walking around downtown Quito with friends doing some last-minute sightseeing and souvenir buying. On Saturday night, we attended a farewell dinner at the university with our professors. After dinner we all crowded into one room on the top floor and spent the entire night swapping funny and embarrassing stories, telling truths, and giving compliments until it was time for the first round of students to leave. I had never been around so many people crying and sniffling, clinging to each other until the last possible moment. I had not even cried at my own high school graduation, but I did cry seeing these people leave, the strangers I had only met four months before.
My previous host family offered their house for me to stay in until my flight later in the week. The next few days, I spent some time with my old friends from Quito, savoring my sweet time left in Ecuador. When it came time to leave, my host family drove me to the airport at night and my host mom, having a managing job at the airport, walked me all the way to my gate. Hugs and kisses were not enough to fill my heart as I bid goodbye to my new family. Promises to return and visit were all I could offer, but the gratitude I felt would not be fully expressed or repaid. I hope that someday they may visit me in Hawaii so that I may show them the same hospitality, love and friendship I was so surprised and comforted by when I first stepped off the plane and into my host family’s arms. Every time I share a piece of my adventure I feel I do not do it justice. I loved the people, I loved the music, I loved the food, I loved the mountains, and the rainforest, and the sea. I loved it all. A blog can only convey so much of an experience but I hope my writing gave you a bit of excitement and a sense of wonder. Don’t believe Ecuador is all I have written it up to be? In my eyes, it is. And I cannot paint you a clearer picture than the real thing. From the grand city of Quito, to the rolling hills of the Páramo, to the trees that tower above in the Amazon, to the majestic volcanoes of the Andes, and to the salty blue ocean around the Galápagos Islands where giant manta rays and hammerhead sharks rule the seas, I cannot think of a country with so much diversity, so much wonder and so many questions unanswered and places unexplored…Still don’t believe me? Then here’s my challenge to you: get a passport; get on a plane and go.