A Cup of Joe with UGA Costa Rica’s Newest Naturalist
The day begins just as any other day would: with a strong black cup of coffee in hand, overlooking the species-rich rainforest of Costa Rica.
The date is May 10th, and it’s my second day in the beautiful country which will be my home for the next three weeks. I am all settled in and ready to take on the “history hike” that the faculty has prepared. My brand new hiking shoes are still slightly stiff right on the back of my heel, and my tread on the uneven path is doing its best to break them in. My thick socks protect me not only from the blisters that the shoes will inevitably bring, but from the swarms of bugs that I have been so adamently warned about: “Bring deep woods bug spray! You don’t want to be getting Zika!”
It is the summer after my freshman year, so of course it’s my first time studying abroad. When I signed up for the program, I was nervous to leave Atlanta, the city that has my heart, behind for so long. Just days ago, I anxiously hopped on a plane, ukulele in hand, with no idea what to expect.
Now, with my socks pulled up far and my bug spray giving me a thick protective layer, I am ready to head off into the woods with a group of some of my new amigos. A naturalist points us towards Riley, a lanky brunette post-grad with a “bro” vibe. The new guy. I am a little disappointed because he has only been here in Costa Rica for two weeks: how can he know much more about the wildlife than me or my classmates?
As it turns out, he is much more knowledgable than I give him credit for.
Riley Fortier first visited the tropics in his junior year of college. He visited the country of Belize to study environmental science, archeology, and anthropology… and instantly fell in love. He knew that he would return — hopefully for a more extended time. After graduating from the University of Oregon in the spring of 2016, he made his official plans to do just that: he would be going to the UGA Costa Rica campus to lead in research.
“I knew I wanted to come back to Central America. I didn’t know what opportunities I might have.”
When Riley stayed in Belize, he stayed largely with indigenous post-Mayan communities and was able to see the environment through their lens. They taught him the importance of nature preservation. After all, it was their home and their history: the indigenous roots were in nature. From all that he learned from them, he hoped to guide others in a similar way and to guide others towards planet conservation.
I’m not in the best shape of my life right now. Ever since I finished my first full year of college several weeks ago, I have been lounging around in my Atlanta home, reviewing my Spanish in order to be able to survive the three-week trip to Costa Rica. A trip to the gym has been at the bottom of my list of priorities.
My tiny legs struggle to keep a steady pace at the end of the hike. As our group stops to collect our breath, Riley turns around and gives me a little flower. I tuck it behind my ear and decide I’d press it later; it’s difficult to come across a fallen flower in the place where picking them is a big no-no.
Riley starts to tell us about the history of the UGA Costa Rica campus. Decades ago, much of the primary forest was cut down to make a coffee plantation. My kind of place. When the farmers realized that the soil was insufficient, they put the land up for sale and started to regrow the part of the rainforest that they had destroyed. Now, the land is owned by the university.
I have found the biggest fungus that I’ve ever seen in my life. Who knew that a mushroom could grow to be the size of your head? Riley turns around to stop the group. He is grateful that I found it, and he uses it as an opportunity to tell us about the immense variety of fungi that grow here in Costa Rica. As it turns out, the number is incredibly high: at least 30,000 different species grow in the tiny country.
Every time I turn around, something else catches my attention.
Vines the size of trees. Butterflies with clear wings. Ants that marched kilometers just to get a piece of a leaf. Every turn reveals something different, and Riley knows the name and story of it all.
“I hope to be able to slow down and take things as they come. While I’m here, I hope that I can learn that way of life.”
Riley Fortier: one of thousands of young men from Portland, Oregon. In his six months that he will spend in Costa Rica, he hopes to see immense personal growth and maturity. His work with the biodiverse species of the country will lead him to a plethora of research opportunities in the States. Until then, he has no plans to leave.
“I don’t have a return ticket or anything. I could be here for six months, or eight, or a year,” Riley tells me. “This is my home. For now.”
At last, the hike draws to a close. It has been an exhausting morning, and the rain is starting to draw near. With an iPhone notes page chock-full of species information and legs wobbly from the walk, it is time to bid the rainforest goodbye for the day. Classes have not yet started, and I already feel as though I have taken in so much. After the day’s activities, I feel ready to take on the rest of the trip. I have a desire to soak it all in: to see all that I can of the incredible diversity while I am here, and, as Riley said, to take my knowledge back with me.
I give a parting wave to Riley and the hiking group, and pour myself another cup of coffee.