Locals prepare for Costa Rica project
by Princeton Times Leader
Two local residents are packing their bags for two weeks of conservation research in Costa Rica.
Caldwell County Elementary School Library Media Specialist Tammie Sanders and her husband, Gordon, track coach for the University of Tennessee at Martin, are traveling to the Central American country of Costa Rica this weekend as part of the 2008 Earth Expeditions program.
The program, supported by funding from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, recognizes outstanding educators throughout the country and provides them with opportunities for research around the world.
The Sanderses will join a group of U.S. educators and instructors from the university and zoo to conduct field research projects “exploring the biotic, physical and cultural forces that affect tropical biodiversity,” according to a release from Miami’s Project Dragonfly.
The group will also join Costa Rican educators to begin long-term collaborative projects linking classrooms in both countries.
Sanders said her CCES students have already begun the effort by sending artwork related to the environment and illustrating plant and animal life in Kentucky.
Costa Rican students will be sending their own artwork in return, she added.
That exchange will be the first communication between local students and their Costa Rican counterparts, and part of Sanders’ larger research effort.
“I’m looking at participatory media as a tool for communicating or building a bridge between students and teachers in Costa Rica and students here,” she said Thursday.
Once the trip is complete, educators will continue their work on the Project Dragonfly Web platform, created specifically for educator collaboration.
The Earth Expeditions program provides graduate credit to educators through direct study experience in Africa, Asia, Central America and the Caribbean.
“We need to go beyond textbooks and engage educators and students in the real world,” said Dr. Chris Myers, a zoology professor at Miami University, codirector of Earth Expeditions and director of Project Dragonfly.
“We envision every educator as an ambassador who creates as well as transmits knowledge, who promotes needed dialogue at all levels of society, and who inspires their students to do the same.”
“Reading about the rainforest is one thing,” said Dave Jenike, codirector of Earth Expeditions and chief operating officer at the Cincinnati Zoo.
“But it can be transformational for students to hear about the rainforest from their own teacher who has experienced it firsthand.
“Through Earth Expeditions, teachers become the conduit for their students to engage more deeply in their studies, for their schools to become centers of investigation, and for all to advance a powerful conservation ethic to help preserve our natural world.”
The Sanderses will fly out of Nashville early Sunday morning to begin their expedition, the latest in a long run of adventures for the couple.
In their 13 years together, they have visited 49 states and more than 20 foreign countries, in a continuing quest for new experiences.
“People will say, ‘oh, you travel, you’ve got a lot of money,’” said Tammie. “But we’ve got our priorities. We live really cheap, and we travel really cheap too, in order to do the things that are our priorities.”
“Travel is the closest thing to extravagant that we do,” said Gordon, “and even then we travel by simple means. And we think we get a richer experience for it.”
This summer’s Costa Rica trip succeeds excursions in southern Africa in 2007 and Peru in 2006.
“When we started out, it was a lot about nature,” said Tammie. “And it stil is, but culture has come into play a lot more.”
Learning about the history of a nation and its people, and interacting with those people, on their terms, has become a highlight of their travels, they noted.
In Peru, for instance, the Sanderses arrived later than expected in a village and missed a connection to their destination.
Their guide left to find horses to take them onward, and left the Sanderses to crash a birthday party with a family in the village, in a dirt-walled, dirt-floored shack.
Guinea pigs, a part of the local cuisine, scurried underfoot. A long-dead cat hung from the ceiling. There was little in the way of modern convenience, aside from a battery radio.
“But they welcomed us without hesitation,” said Gordon, “which is pretty impressive.”
The Peruvian family and their American guests shared homemade ale from the same glass and continued the festivity.
“It was a great time,” he said. “Unexpected, unplanned and as authentic as you can get.”
During the course of the trip, the Sanderses would go on to swim in the Amazon and catch and eat piranha from the same river.
Similar adventures have taken place throughout their travels, in a number of exotic countries with their own interesting customs and cuisines.
“We really like to try all the different foods,” said Tammie, pointing out a few of the dishes they have encountered — sun-dried caterpillars, fried guinea pig, ostrich, emu, snake and alligator, to name a few.
But their tours are not just about entertainment.
“We try to incorporate something like service into the projects,” said Tammie.
In Peru, they spent time working in an orphanage and assisted with the construction of a new home for a local widow.
In Africa, they forged a bond with a guide who was also a teacher, building a school for about 70 children in the Zambian village where he grew up.
“The students had been sitting on a log under a tree to do their work,” said Tammie.
She and the teacher, Matthias, have exchanged e-mails a few times since the Sanders’ return to the U.S., and she is currently collecting supplies to send back to him to help outfit the school.
Interacting with such people and sharing in the history they are a part of makes the news of the world personal, said the Sanderses.
“If you’ve seen it, you definitely feel it in a way you can’t read about it,” Tammie said.
“It really puts what’s happening in our world right at our face,” added Gordon.
Their efforts at making their experiences as authentic as possible are aided by a general lack of planning in their travels.
They rely on Lonely Planet and other travel guides to gain insight into their destinations.
Trip specifics, though, are often flexible.
“We don’t know where we’re going to stay tomorrow night or the next night, usually,” said Tammie.
“There’s always transportation. There’s always a place to find,” Gordon added.
“We just kind of go where the trip takes us, I guess,” said Tammie.
Trains, planes, truck beds, dugout canoes, kayaks and ziplines have all been utilized for transport, and lodging has ranged from family homes to sheep pastures.
“The more we’ve traveled, the lighter we travel,” said Tammie.
“We normally take camping gear, because that’s the cheapest option. It’s also a good opportunity to get close to nature.”
The Sanderses will return at the end of the month.
Planning for the next voyage will likely begin soon after that.
Australia, India, China and Antarctica are all contenders for that trip.
“We have a big list, so we’ve got a ways to go,” said Gordon. “I can’t imagine us ever stopping, as long as we’re able.”