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An Archaelogical Journey of Mud and Life in Costa Rica

Archaeology ain’t for sissies.

Costa Rica is rapidly becoming the Central American watering hole for fat, aging gringos of small town America who isolate themselves in huge houses built with cheap, local labor . Presumably, they are there to sweat out their obesity as they dread any interaction with the local communities. An unfortunate breed, these permanent tourists reek of entitlement, consumerism and ignorance. The beautiful Costa Rican countryside has rapidly become overrun with guided package tours, expensive hotels, shabby architecture, perpetual spring breakers and ingles-only retirees. There is almost no visible indigenous culture and any ruins are well hidden and poorly advertised.

My decision to participate in an archaeology field school in this country seemingly devoid of cultural heritage was largely a financial one. The travel bug was starting to itch again, largely backed by a dreary Oregon January. My need to learn the ways of the trowel seemed like a good excuse to flee the country to the cheapest field school I good find south of the lower 48.

Leaving a sea of freezing fog and mildew, I arrived in Costa Rica to a gloriously warm and sparkling afternoon. I could practically hear my vitamin D deficient skin give a sigh of relief. But with barely a chance to soak in a bit of sunlight outside the terminal, I was shuttled off unceremoniously onto a public bus headed East – “the opposite direction of almost every tourist destination in Costa Rica. I soon found out that a tunnel separates the utopian-weathered valley, home of the airport and moldering capital, from the eastern rain forests. The astounding difference in climate could be felt as the bus catapulted out of the mouth of the mountain like an ant being regurgitated by a feverish armadillo.

Hot and humid are words that can only scratch the surface of a climate prone to dry season flooding, heat waves and humidity that rivals the best sweat lodges in hippie town, anywhere. You know there’s a problem when the rain forest soil can’t take any more water. Only daily showering prevented fungus and mold from taking over our minds and bodies. Where mud and mold escaped skin, the mosquitoes and hordes of biting insects invaded at full force. Exposed skin soon took on a leprous appearance as students where sent to the hospital for bacterial infections caused by the sheer number of insect bites.

Archaeology Aint for Sissies

Archaeology work consisted of avoiding poisonous snakes and spiders, lugging around lots of dirt, sawing through roots the size of small children with Swiss army knives, sifting through thick mud and occasionally finding a pottery shard. Or maybe just a rock. Sometimes it was hard to tell when the rain fell in sheets so thick it was hard to keep eyes open above a tight squint.

The discovery of anything significant was always a cause for celebration and would include walking the mile to the local bar, drinking copious amounts of beer and vodka, smoking cheap cigarettes and playing drinking games with a Yale-educated professor, a Mexican, a French Canadian and god knows how many New Yorkers. Drinking inevitably led to dancing with obnoxiously predictable 80s pop and salsa interspersed with New York-bred panic attacks from intoxicated students.

A 6am speech generally followed the raucous drinking sessions and would commonly include memorable encouragement such as:

I don’t give a fuck how hungover you are. If you have to puke, DON’T VOMIT IN THE UNIT.

My only comfort was to repeat the following to myself, this is better than working in an office. I desperately hoped the thought stayed in my head and I hadn’t lowered myself to muttering it constantly under my breath like a crazed local stuck too long in the rain forest. It was certainly a joy to return to camp in the middle of a downpour to discover that the villagers had stolen all of our tarps and twine and stuck an animal skull on a stick in the middle of camp as some sort of sinister threat.

Being beaten into submission day after day by mud, insects, heckling, voodoo and the worst bologna and American cheese sandwiches imaginable, even the strongest willed among us began to crack. At any other dig it would seem only natural to seek comfort in the arms of a fellow broken spirit, with those few able to maintain their sanity needing only to take easy advantage of the weak. Everyone wants pity and a hug. Fortunately, when you’re 30 beers drunk and sleeping in the next bunk, it’s never just a hug. Archaeology isn’t so much about meeting girls and boys but more about getting a communal beat down so that your fellow plebs are the only people you have to turn to for comfort. Having someone special to itch the 115 mosquito bites on your back starts to sound better and better all the time.

Astonishingly, the drama and six weeks of torturous work seemed to fly by. I actually enjoyed the repetitive manual labor, the tedious recording and the cabin antics of students stuck too long in close quarters. It may not have been as glorious as Dr. Jones would have you think, but much more than the giant, hairy spider in the pit did I dread the thought of going home to write papers, push papers and print papers. Pushing dirt seemed much more satisfying.

Hell, I even learned a few things. I learned that I belong outside, that I still hate mosquitoes, that not everyone from New York is an asshole and that my body can take one hell of a beating and live to tell the tale. Most importantly, I learned that even after terrifying encounters with shovel and sieve, my dream of becoming an archaeologist, has not been diminished, but strengthened by the knowledge that archaeology is indeed one of the most bad ass professions in the universe.

Rosie Brownell