I signed up for the OTS winter course expecting a month-long field ecology vacation, a tropical science summer-camp (winter-camp?). It was supposed to be a treat to myself for finishing data collection on my Master’s thesis project. However, almost immediately after receiving my notice of acceptance, I began freaking out. My graduate committee had just decided I need to do another experiment for my thesis, adding another 3 months of data collection at best, and I still hadn’t finished my first experiment. To that regard, I still have not finished my first experiment, I have three more data points to collect as of the writing of this blog post. In addition to the mountain of work to be done before I am scheduled to defend in less than a year, the realization of what I have actually signed up for hit me like a ton of bricks. I have signed up to be hurled from the safe little box I live in, to go over 2000 miles from everyone I know and love and from where I have spent the last 29 years of my life. I willingly signed up to have a rushed Christmas, to miss New Years Eve with my friends and loved ones, to miss the Masked Intruder show, and to miss my girlfriends birthday. What do I get for missing all of this? I get to travel further from home than I ever have, which is both exciting and terrifying, I “get” to spend a month with complete strangers (did I mention I have social anxiety and am super uncomfortable around strangers?), and I get to have virtually zero control over what I am fed-not appealing to an admittedly picky eater with a relatively narrow diet. So I freaked out, I freaked out for almost two months and I freaked out nearly silently. All through the holidays I admitted only excitement to my family when they asked about my trip because I knew my fears and concerns were only my problem and no one wants to hear that you’re bummed at all about such an amazing opportunity. Excitement and anticipation were also the only real concepts I could convey to my family because I honestly had no idea what to expect from this course. “I’m going to study Field Ecology at four field stations in Costa Rica” I would tell my dad, aunts, and uncles. I had no more details about what I would be studying or what my experience would be like.
My typical holiday-season depression kicked in, my friends who had taken this course in previous years assured me that it is impossible to be sad while on the OTS course, it’s just too amazing. That concept only made me feel worse, what would it mean if I was still depressed after beginning the course? If I was still sad under conditions in which sadness was supposed to be impossible? Luckily that didn’t happen. I was fortunate to have a wonderful Christmas and family time enough to dissolve my blues, and the fast paced excitement and novelty of Costa Rica was enough to keep me too distracted to be depressed. So after my second ever plane traveling experience I arrived in San Jose and shortly after that I got my first ever visa stamp. Then I found out my bag didn’t make it on the plane so I filed a report and caught a somewhat frightening cab ride to our beautiful hotel. Upon finding my room I met the first stranger I would be spending the next month with. After a much needed shower and the clean change of clothes in my carry-on, we met another soon-to-be-friend and the three of us went to find food. The average person in San Jose knows about as much English as I know Spanish, which is very little. I learned that sign language- descriptive pointing- goes a long way and communicating is way easier if you are with a bilingual friend (I was, thank you Orlando). We returned from the mall food court where I had my first taste of Costa Rican fare and was proud of myself for eating most of it. In the lobby of the hotel we each had a beer and we met three or four more strangers, my new acquaintances. I promptly forgot their names (Sorry Ben, Lizzie, Marla, and maybe Becca).
The next morning I got my things together and went down to breakfast. Coffee, toast, butter, unidentifiable jams, room temp milk and cereal, lunch meats, tomatoes, either cheese or tofu-I’m not sure which, eggs, and gallo pinto. It was too early in the day for me to get out of my box, I had coffee and toast. I then went to help load the van and got to meet the rest of the strangers with whom I’d be living so closely. One of the strangest feelings of my life happened next, deja vu on a level I had never experienced before. I felt as if I had already known every single other person on the course. Maybe Carl Jung was right and these people were all archetypes or maybe it’s the incredible camaraderie that the OTS course breeds but I didn’t feel like I was meeting anyone for the first time (even the people I was) I felt like I had known all of them before. That experience set the stage for my interactions for the rest of the class.
With my new positive attitude I thought this trip might be an opportunity for a fresh start, like going off to college, I can reinvent myself and be who I want to be. I was correct, it was very similar to going to college, and just like when I first started college I still couldn’t talk to people very well. I required my new friends to drive the conversation. Old habits, fears, and insecurities die hard, but one foot out of my social anxiety box is still progress. So getting out of my anxiety box is a work in progress, but what about my science box? I study animal behavior and the value of information, would I try to stick to behavioral studies while on this course? No. Due in no small part to the incredible faculty and the people I got to work with, every project I did Costa Rica was unlike any science I had done before. I got to do microbiology in the rain forest with Dr. Rachel Gallery and because of that project I was able to experiment with new fungal culture techniques with my new friend Liz and Dr. Chris Jeffery, a chemical ecologist. I was also able to mist net bats with Dr. Gloriana Chaverri and due to that collaboration I got to watch birds for an independent project with Marla. Bacteria, fungi, bats, and birds, all out in the wild and in the tropics. This was nothing like my bees in their hive boxes in my lab back home, and I loved it. Trying new types of science and stepping out of my research box was definitely my favorite.
Then there was the food… fortunately for me I like rice. Unfortunately for me I still do not really like beans. That being said, I did eat enough to survive and even managed to enjoy some new foods. I tried something new or unfamiliar almost every day, avoided what I was pretty sure I wouldn’t like (to reduce waste), and sometimes just had rice, fruit and veggies for a meal. There were days I couldn’t stomach the smell of gallo pinto so early in the morning, and days I ate some and kind of liked it. I did not return to the states with a whole new pallet but I like to think I expanded it a little and I am now confident I can find and enjoy food anywhere, regardless of how dumb my taste buds may be.
All in all I did it, it still took some time to really get comfortable with everyone but I made closer and better friends than I ever have in that amount of time. I stepped out of the little boxes I have put myself in, went thousands of miles outside of my comfort zone, and learned I am capable of so much more than I thought. Dining hall conversations, hiking, drinking, dancing, and learning to Salsa all contributed to escaping my boxes. OTS can truly be a transformative experience and although my world view is not markedly different than it was before I left, I now have that information and experience inside me and I am looking forward to getting out of my boxes again.