San Jose, Costa Rica, February 2019. We rented a house in Curridabat, a generally safe area of the city in preparation for our three-month campaign to the ‘Estación Experimental Forestal Horizontes’. My wife and me are going out of the house door to the supermarket. We walk one meter, hear a scream and see a man with a knife fighting the security guard in front of our house. My instinct sends me to run and help, but my wife shouts at me: ‘Mati, back into the house, what if he has a gun!!!!’. Said and done….my wife runs to the neighbors to make them call the police. I watch the scene over the wall of the rental house, the two people are rolling over the floor now, the security guard shouting. I want to help, feel desperate…the only thing I can do is shout like crazy to the guy attacking. Finally, police arrive. The guard is safe, but he got lucky. A woman in a car saved his life by driving towards the man attacking, then a neighbor opened his door where he was finally out of reach. The crazy man enters his own flat, which appears to be just here and waits for the cops. They finally take him, and it turns out the man, a Colombian, had killed somebody in his home country and received a prison sentence of 20 years, escaped with fake passports to Costa Rica and was living now in the neighborhood. That was enough adrenaline for the whole year, but it was just the beginning. Don’t get me wrong, Costa Rica in general is a very safe place! But it reminded me how precious life is and how happy we should be each and every day, just for being alive!
The following campaign into the middle of nowhere, a.k.a. ‘Estación Experimental Forestal Horizontes’, was one of the best experiences ever. And it taught me once again, that us scientists should never lose the connection to the ‘real’ world – the ultimate reason why I appreciate and love the field trips so much. We cannot describe nature only from in front of our computer! You need to see it, feel it, and only then you can understand what is going on! A global or large-scale study on our environment is nice for getting into ‘Nature’ or ‘Science’ and for politicians to address current issues, but often it has nothing to do with what is going on a local level. And management decisions need to be mad on a local basis! The managed dry forest in Guanacaste is perfect for studying areas under drought stress. Guanacaste does not receive any rainfall for almost six months - contrary to the common image one has of Costa Rica. Water scarcity is a real problem here! The area has suffered from multiple droughts, fires and as a consequence many, partially rare trees were dying. In the station here, the workers are dedicated to conserve many of the rare and valuable hardwood species that are highly endangered. Our colleagues for those three months are fireman, forest workers and local farmers. While you can read the scientific stuff elsewhere, I can tell you here that I learned a lot from these people. They are poor. They love their place. They always work! And: they are happy! And we are too, despite waking up at 5 every morning, working from dawn until dusk, not having a weekend. Strange life, isn’t it? At 5 PM, just one hour before it gets dark, a shout resounds in the forest: ‘Meeeeejeeeeennnngaaaaa!!!!’ Soon, responses can be heard from all directions: ‘Mejeeeeengaaaa!!!’ – time for the daily soccer game, a good way to end the day! And probably the most serious of all activities at the station! Then dinner and to bed, exhausted but more than happy. Michael, Franklin, Roland, Pedro, Milena, and all the others! Thank you for everything! We’ll be back!
After returning home, I have this happiness and ease in me for quite a while, but finally, the ‘normal’ life is back. Cars, buildings, concrete. Stressed professors, students, serious people not able to say ‘Hi’ in the street…in what world are we living? Is there no more time for happiness? Our society is sick, and a lot of people are realizing this (most drastically, Eckard Tolle expresses this in his books) and see that there is a need for change. The first step is always cognition, then follows the reaction….so let’s react! I’ve been wrapping my mind around this topic for a long time, because I suffered of stress quite often. But I now know what to do, and I am very grateful for this insight. It’s actually not much that needs to be done. Easy said, I know. But once we realize that we are already complete and perfect, just as we are, a lot of pressure disappears. Don’t try to be somebody else, try to be the best version of yourself! I often have doubts if I am good enough to lead a research group, supervise PhD students and survive in this harsh scientific environment, where one always tries to prove that he/she is better than the other, knows more, publishes more, whatsoever. I often think: Man, I should be reading more about this, this and this. I know so little. There is so much competition, if not obvious then under the surface that it sometimes makes me sick. Crazy to have such thoughts? I don’t think so. It’s realizing, and once I realized I also became clear how to handle the system: do my best to try to be creative and use my strengths to be happy in life and do something that I really care about – trying to understand how trees affect the water cycle and vice versa. And whenever I feel this anxiety, pressure, stress arising, I try to feel it and understand why I feel like this. This is meditation, and almost always it brings me back to being happy and motivated for whatever is coming next!
On November 4th, we received the happiest news of the year: Moana Mariá was born! We’ve been trying to adopt a child in the last year, and now, from one day to the other, she is here! I can’t tell you how happy and proud I am to be a father! There it is, the next challenge: letting go of yourself, your ego, and put this little human being in the center of life. I am ready for it!
May you all have a wonderful 2020. Back to Costa Rica in March, and many more things coming up!
And finally, check out an awesome clip from Matt Meola, the best aerial surfer at present:
Take care of yourselves!