When I chose to study abroad in Costa Rica, I was expecting to be welcomed into a “green” country, a country dedicated to conservation efforts with progressive laws and a functional government. I had heard about Costa Rica eliminating a standing army, having a woman president, having incredible environmental protection laws, and eradicating all zoos. On paper, Costa Rica looked like the perfect place to be, so perfect, in fact, that I hoped to live there after graduate school (spurred by my love for sloths and desire to become a sloth ecologist). When I arrived, however, things were not as I had imagined they would be. I imagined pristine nature and people who cared about the environment and reducing their carbon footprint. What I found was nearly entirely the opposite.
My first week in Costa Rica, I was astounded by the overwhelming amount of trash that seemed to be everywhere I looked. Because I was living in a large city and houses do not have trash cans for roadside waste pickup, trash was piled on the sidewalks and streets, usually in bags. But because of the large populations of stray dogs and feral cats, the bags would be ripped open and trash strewn everywhere as the animals searched for food scraps. Rivers were full of trash and they reeked of decay. Pedestrians would throw there trash in gutters knowing there would be no personal consequence.
I volunteered at a tourist attraction called La Paz Waterfall Gardens, an ecological destination and wildlife preserve. I was ecstatic to start volunteering there. I was told the animals had all been illegally held as pets and had been confiscated by the government. They were given a new home at La Paz where tourists could learn about the biodiversity of Costa Rica and how to protect species from extinction. I was in charge of the toucan exhibit, and each day I’d help tourists take pictures with a toucan on the arm, an unforgettable experience that served to educate and encourage people to become more connected with nature and wildlife. I quickly learned, however, that many of the animals in our care at La Paz were not pets after all. They were wild animals taken from the rainforest, in the toucans case as chicks, and raised in order to be friendly and gregarious for the tourists. I was taken behind the scenes and I saw how animals not visible to the public were kept in deplorable conditions. Additionally, animals were allowed to breed at La Paz, causing another problem since the progeny could not be released back to the wild and the only available space for more animals was in small cages with cement floors and no natural light.
This trend seemed to continue to make itself apparent as I explored the country. As a sloth lover, I was very excited to visit the Sloth Sanctuary, made famous by the Animal Planet show “Meet the Sloths”. I had high hopes that perhaps I could do my graduate research there. When I arrived, however, I noticed something fishy. The sloths were kept yet again in small enclosures without real trees and were eating an artificial diet of frozen vegetables. In the wild, sloths eat leaves of over 200 species of trees, not frozen vegetables. I was still very excited to see the sloths though and left feeling both happy that I had seen them and a little uneasy about the questionable conditions the sloths were kept in. The following week, two veterinarians who had volunteered at the sanctuary bravely came out with a testimony of their work. They revealed that the sanctuary, who claims to release sloths back into the wild and aid in sloth conservation, actually hoards sloths and keeps them in horrifying conditions behind the scenes. The sanctuary has over 200 sloths kept in tiny cages with no access to the natural world or their natural diet. Sloths are solitary animals, but they are often held in cages together at the sanctuary and will fight, seriously injuring each other with their sharp claws. Sloths do not receive the medical attention they need due to a lack of staff able to treat them and when a healthy sloth escaped multiple times back into the rain forest, it was captured and put back in its jail cell of a cage.
As you can probably tell, I was pretty discouraged and disheartened. I had come to Costa Rica to be inspired by their environmental actions, but found that laws were not enforced and citizens were not internalizing the fight to lessen their negative impact on the planet. Costa Rica is marketed as a “green” country to the rest of the world to bring in tourist revenue, and it is true that they have a lot of beautiful national parks and pristine beaches. And because these are the places tourists visit, not the cities or behind the scenes at wildlife sanctuaries, they continue believing that Costa Rica is an immaculate, environmentally friendly country. I, however, was able to see in my time abroad both sides of Costa Rica, the beautiful and the ugly. While it may seem like I am placing the blame on the Costa Ricans, I want to point out that much of the blame lies on us, the Americans, and other foreigners. Both La Paz and the Sloth Sanctuary were started and run by foreigners with the goal of making a profit, exploiting wildlife in the process. If they really wanted to help the animals as they claim, they would not be open to the tourists. Often without knowing about the issues of such refuges and sanctuaries, tourists contribute to the problem. Additionally, tourists visit large hotels and resorts that seclude them from the local Costa Ricans. These resorts cause an unprecedented amount of environmental harm, often disregard environmental laws, and make it difficult for locals who own environmentally friendly eco-lodges to stay afloat. It can also be argued that because Costa Rica is not as developed as the United States, the citizens have more critical things to worry about than protecting the environment. But what can be more critical than preserving the dwindling natural resources and biodiversity upon which our entire race relies?
It may seem like I had a terrible time while studying abroad in Costa Rica, but I am so glad that I saw the full picture of the country. I saw the good and the bad and learned from the locals their challenges and frustrations. One coworker at La Paz, an animal lover and environmentalist fed up with the animal exploitation he saw at work every day, asked me to go to the police to report the terrible conditions and illegal practices of taking wild animals and putting them in captivity. He was too scared to do it himself because he though he would lose his job, which he desperately needed to take care of his sick mother. Without having any evidence and knowing how the officials did not enforce laws, I didn’t take it to the police, but I got a professor and friend involved who is a well known animal rights activist in Costa Rica. I try to do my part through education and the experience has motivated me to return to Costa Rica to aid in animal welfare and conservation efforts as a mammal ecology researcher.
Below is a picture of me with a white-faced capuchin monkey at La Paz Waterfall Gardens. While I may look happy in this picture, I soon became upset, realizing that this animal has lived in a cage behind the scenes at La Paz his entire life. He deserves to live a happy life in the rain forest, but instead is trapped in a cage, unable to be released because of his friendliness and reliance and on humans.
I took this photo at the top of Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa. Table Mountain is famous for its views over Cape Town and Robin Island (where Nelson Mandela was held as a political prisoner during Apartheid) at sunrise and sunset. The group I was with had planned on taking a gondola to the top to see the sunrise. However, upon our arrival to the base of the mountain at 5 a.m., we decided to climb to the top instead.
We were in no way prepared for the grueling, steep, four-hour hike to the top. The climb felt like an impossible feat and I would be lying if I said we hadn’t thought about turning around every ten minutes. The feeling of reaching the top was easily one of the most rewarding, memorable parts of my experience in South Africa.
This photo was taken during our excursion to Kerry. We were lucky enough to have great weather during our drive along the Dingle Peninsula, regarded as one of the most beautiful places in the world. For me, the drive along Dingle Peninsula really solidified that it was worth it to study abroad.
I took this picture during my first week in London. The tube was always an interesting adventure. Someone once told me, “Theatre is a journey. Even if you take the same route to work every single day of your life, the journey is always different”. This is something I finally understood what this meant at the very end of my study abroad experience, while riding the same line that I took almost every day to Piccadilly Circus in central London. It didn’t matter if I left at the exact same time as the day before. I learned something whenever I was on the tube from the people taking the journey with me.
One day, I stepped onto the tube and there was an old man and his dog. The old man was sound asleep through the jerking train and the talking people. The dog in his lap kept his nose right under his owner’s chin, as if to check in, to make sure he was okay, to keep him from waking up, to help him rest.
Another day, I walked onto the tube an there was a folk band. Falling, tipping, crashing into each other as the train rolled on unforgivingly, they played tenaciously and happily for the passengers. They didn’t have a hat out for coins. They didn’t have a sign that announced who they were. They simply were playing beautiful music.
On my last tube ride, I looked around the packed train and noticed how small I was, how little I knew. I noticed how much of a gift this entire experience was. I realized how fortunate we are to have other human beings in this world to learn from, to grow from, to teach us compassion, to illuminate darkness, to keep us from falling asleep.
-Mary Rose Branick
London, Fall ’15
This picture embodies Granada for me. The beautiful Mudejar style (mixture of arabic and western Christian styles) is all over Granada which reflects the complex history and influences of Southern Spain.
My first couple days in Zurich were spent in my apartment, resting from my travels and adapting to the time change. Finally, I decided to venture out into the city – about half an hour from where I lived on the outskirts of town.
I was met by quite a shock.
The people were dressed in the most bizarre outfits. Many of them walked in groups, all dressed in the same theme. These outfits ranged from men in tutu’s to sadistic cupids to Hulks to clowns. The diversity and creativity was incredible. My thoughts were “wow, the Swiss fashion is really out there!”
Another shock was the street lavatories – totally in view of anyone passing by.
After a few hours, I realized that this was in fact a parade. As it later turned out, the Zurich Street Parade is the largest annually in the city! There were over a million people (compared to the 850,000 population).
This really taught me not to judge by first looks!
It turned out the Swiss actually dress very conservatively, preferring not to stand out too much from the crowd, so in fact this was completely opposite of my initial thoughts.
This image is significant to me because one of the biggest lessons that I learned during my time studying abroad in Rome is that there isn’t anything ‘ancient’ about the ancient Rome that people would see around them in the city. I learned in my sociology course on Rome as a modern city that the physical landscape of Rome, and especially of the ‘ancient’ parts were shaped with a political purpose. Almost all of the parts of ancient Rome that I could see were excavated and reconstructed. So, if parts of the temple and the forum were reconstructed, then they’re not exactly ancient still, at least not physically. It is actually the idea of Rome as ancient and it as an eternal city that is significant. This knowledge completely changed my perspective of Rome, and if anything, made the city even more interesting because the whole place is a contradiction of old and new that is blended together.
Nearing the end of my semester, here I stand at the top of “Parque Güell,” in Barcelona, Spain. I had discovered that my friend from my hometown was living in Madrid. She is a very special friend to me. We have competed together for years running track. She would beat me, I would beat her, then we would go run a 4×400 at conference and state and beat everyone. She ran at Brown, I run at Willamette, and still to this day with work-out and compete with the help of one-another when we are back home…Apparently we do that regardless of where we are in the world. After three days of non-stop exploring the city by day and indulging in the night’s festivities we continued for a fourth day which consisted of getting churros and chocolate at 6 am, sleeping for three hours, climbing to the top of Montjuic, getting lost, encountering a band of jazz players playing for a massive group of people who asked us to sing with them, making it to the Picasso museum by 3p.m. on the dot so we could enter for free, to then hike up to Park Guell because we wanted to “challenge” each other and not take the bus, to then go shop for an hour, get our last meal together and part ways–her bus leaving at 11p.m. and my flight leaving at 6:30 a.m. the next morning.
This is an image of Milford Sound in Fjordland. I went with a couple of friends just before finals started, and it was the last big trip I took in New Zealand. It involved kea parrots landing on our car and trying to steal the mirrors, boats, penguins, almost getting snowed in, sore butts from all the driving, lots and lots of singalongs to songs we would never admit we actually knew, tramping, learning how to put chains on a car, gorgeous sights, and getting absolutely soaked from all the rain, fog, and waterfalls. The best form of procrastination! And a wonderful send off as well.
This is a photo captured at the Cliffs of Moher in Galway, Ireland with my six other close friends I made while abroad. It is significant to my international experience because it was our last weekend trip we took while abroad. We had only been able to take three trips where our whole friend group could go, which was seven people, so it was pretty special to be on our last trip all together. In order to do this, we had to take a bus tour that picked us up at 6am. We anticipated that it was going to be raining and windy and cold up there but boy we were still caught off guard. The rain was sideways and the mud was thick but it did not take away from the beauty of that place at all. Managing to get this picture was quite an accomplishment simply due to the fact that we all don’t look like a mess. I believe this photo is very indicative of how our friendship, and most of our weekend trips were all semester. We were, by no means, any of the same people and many times we would argue about petty things on trips but in the end we were able to put it together and make great memories together.
I chose this picture because it was one of the best weeks of my life. My best friend from study abroad and I went to the Atacama Desert for spring break and it was amazing!!! The desert goes on for miles and miles and we got to explore a lot it. We went to 3 different valleys, climbed to the tallest sand dune to watch the sunset, went on a geyser tour and went star gazing! We also got to hang out with a bunch of people from our group and it was a chance to explore the beautiful country of Chile. Studying abroad was one of the best experiences of my life, I will never forget it!
This is at the beginning of the Camino de Santiago in northern Portugal. While it was a great physical challenge (114k in 4 days!) it was a very memorable and fulfilling experience.
An unforgettable trip with unforgettable women-
I never imagined joining a sorority would help me while I was abroad, but it turned out that through our similar interests I found 5 amazing women abroad that turned into my best friends and travel buddies for 3 months, and helped change my world. This photo was taken on our very first adventure together, a weekend in Firenze, Italia after hiking 500 feet up the Duomo.I will forever remember embarking on our first European trip with people I had just met, and who turned into people I will never be able to forget.
We think death is morbid, but its actually not! It’s the other reality of life. For me, it was a little beautiful to see both sides of the life cycle. The Galapagos were an incredible experience that made me really appreciate seeing the life and then even finding the beautiful things in the things that are not living.
This was one of my first trips that I took to the Roman Forum during my abroad trip in Rome. It was a very hot day but finding out that the Forum was only about a 20 minute walk from my apartment made me incredibly happy. Looking back on my travels I realize now how integrated the Forum became in my everyday life in Rome. I always passed it on the bus coming back from the aiport from my out of country travels, it was a consistent meeting spot for my friends and I before we started our weekend adventures, and just like that it became one of my most fond memories of Rome.
Three horses later, after two hours in the saddle in a freezing cold arena, I was tired and sore, but so happy! True, I definitely wasn’t the best rider of the bunch, especially since I wasn’t British (they’re the best *of course*) however it was still an awesome, unexpected experience to join in on a hunt seat class in a foreign country.
This chance to ride at the Talland School of Equitation, located just outside London, had literally come up at the last minute. It was already October and I hadn’t ridden once in the past two months in an effort to adjust to life at university in France. As great as studying abroad was, I had missed it. So, in spite of my failure to plan ahead, I decided to just do it and hop the train the England. I had nothing to lose, besides missing a French class or two… There wasn’t anyone who could go with me (or who had the interest) so I went alone. To my surprise, it wasn’t terrifying or terrible, granted I soon discovered the benefits of traveling with friends: if you do get lost, at least you’re not the only one stupidly wandering around asking questions. Oh well, between the good graces of God and the kind people who helped me find my way: a Chinese exchange student, an Oxford student, an older Willamette grad and a jolly ol’ British Riding Instructor, I made it to Talland! So, whether or not I land a real ‘professional’ job after Willamette, at least I’ll have a few connections abroad in the equine world
During my semester abroad in Chile, I was lucky enough to have time to explore the very long and diverse geographic country. This particular photo was taken during the week we had off of school during “Fiestas Patrias” which is Chile’s independence week celebration. Myself and five other students took off to the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile for 10 days of camping, hiking, exploring, rock climbing, bonding and bumming around in a van. Completely away from all forms of technology (apart from some awesome driving music), I was able to really get in touch with the beauty that the land had to offer. Sometimes, I find that I get so caught up in the day to day responsibilities of being a student, that I loose sight of the bigger picture. I had never visited a desert before, so what a slap in the face to visit the driest place on Earth. However, my expectations of a desert were not met. I was blown away at the beauty of such a place. The colors constantly changing, the immense power of complete silence, so much so that if one held their breath all you could hear was the pounding of ones own heartbeat, the diversity of the land from mountains, to lakes, to sand dunes, and back to caverns and hot springs. I fell in love with the Atacama Desert, and came back to my studies rejuvenated and able to enjoy the ‘little things’ that much more.
This picture is of the time my friends and I hiked Nigardsbreen Glacier one Saturday morning in October. This was the first time any of us hiked up a glacier, so it was fun, exciting, and kind of scary all at once! We had a harness, rope, crampon on our shoes, and an ice pick. After getting used to hiking with all of this strange gear, the journey went a lot smoother. This picture is significant to me because it is with my closest friend I made being in Norway. We were about halfway up the glacier and thought this was a perfect spot to take a picture. The whole time, we were in awe of the beauty of this place! This adventure is in the top things I did abroad and something I will always remember.
We were so excited and happy the whole time! We also kept saying we couldn’t believe that we were hiking a glacier. It was such an on-top-of-the-world feeling. I would love to go back to Norway and hike this again! When I look back at my pictures from this trip, I still feel all the feelings I did when this was happening. We were inspired to take this picture to try to capture everything that was happening- the great friends, breathtaking view, and amazing experience. Also, our friend had a really nice camera, so that was a bonus.