Student - 2 juni 2016

‘The strict hierarchy surprised me’

Liza van Kapel

Who? Marie Wesselink, Master's student of Earth and Environment
What? Research on soil-plant relationships on banana plantations
Where? Guapiles, Costa Rica

‘My thesis research was about food traceability. The ultimate aim is to be able to say where a plant comes from based on its chemical properties. I took soil and plant samples, then analysed and compared them. I can conclude that plants from different soil regions differ significantly from one another.

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What struck me in Guapiles was that there are distinct social classes. The research I was involved in was led by a PhD candidate who was in charge of a bunch of people who did all the real work. I was surprised by how strict the hierarchy was, in social life too. And my position in it also surprised me. As a white woman you are pretty much always at the top and the men do everything for you. In the car, for instance, I was always allowed to sit in the front seat and two umbrellas would appear over my head as soon as it started to rain. At first I found this amusing, but later on it became annoying. I really had to insist on being allowed to take samples myself.

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I was disappointed by the fact that everyone spoke only Spanish. Although I had been warned of this, I thought I would get by with English. But no. In the beginning this made it lonely for me because I couldn't have any social conversations. When I found myself working in the lab one day with someone who spoke English, I was overjoyed. I never knew how great it can be to spend a whole day talking about nothing.

Luckily, I picked up Spanish quickly and was able to get to know people. I was often invited out to eat by colleagues and that's how I got to experience the culture. I am really glad that I went there alone. Some people laughed at me for that before I went, but otherwise I would not have got to know people. I wouldn't hesitate to do it again, but I'd do a language course first.’