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A group of UB students and staff will be embarking on a journey to beautiful Monteverde, Costa Rica from January 10th to January 24th as part of an Alternative Winter Break service trip. They will be posting daily updates and photos about their experiences. Stay tuned as they discover the joys of community service, getting to know the local community and experiencing Costa Rica--from the mountains, to the rainforest, to the coast and everything in between! 


Day 1: Food, flights and first impressions

by Erin Belile

So we started our day out by meeting at the Buffalo airport at 4 am. After a mix up with the taxi cab we all made it and were able to move through checking kn, TSA and to our gate. Our first flight was on a smaller plane which featured a lot of turbulence for the last half hour. Our pilot did an amazing job of landing and had to recover from a close to sideways plane landing. We then ran through the airport to a shuttle which took us to our next gate. Our flight from Newark to Costa Rica was beautiful and we soon found ourselves flying through customs and meeting our guide Aníbal. We then went to an amazing restaurant for a late lunch where we has some lovely tostones and some authentic Costa Rican cuisine. We were then able to settle in to our beautiful hotel and able to begin our orientation for the program!

Day 2: Getting acquainted + host families

by Max Bass

As I woke up it started to sink in that I am in a different country and about to embark an incredible journey. As I went to take a shower, the window in the bathroom was open, the sun was pouring in. The shower head was different, in an effort towards sustainability there were coils in the shower head that heated the water as it passed over them. So the lower the pressure the hotter the water.

We all met for an early breakfast of fresh fruit, eggs and rice and beans. Along with the standard condiments was Salsa Lizano which is a sauce that is extremely popular in Costa Rica and one of my favorites which I have not had since my last time here which was 4 years ago.

After breakfast we all loaded up into the bus and our journey to Monteverde began. We made two short stops along the way. The first was at a nursery so that we could get flowers for our host families. The whole nursery was gorgeous. Our second stop was at a fruit stand so we could pick up some local fresh fruits. We tried mango, manzana de aqua, fresh coconut water, and a variety of other fruits that I had never heard of or seen. Each fruit was unique and absolutely incredible.

After several hours on incredibly windy roads with amazing views we made it to the beautiful Monteverde Institute. We were given a wonderful lunch, a tour, and a presentation on the institute. The presentation really opened my eyes to the different ways we perceive sustainability. We ran into Bob Shibley who is the dean of architecture at UB and has done a ton of work with the institute over the years and is an honorary member of the board here at the institute. After the presentation we got to have some ice cream at the cheese factory, and it was incredible.

Finally we got to meet our homestay families. We all met our families had some coffee and off we went to our homes. My host mother, Miriam made me feel right at home. She lives with two of her nephews and two of her nieces. All have been extremely friendly and welcoming. I helped Miriam make dinner and after we ate we played UNO for a few hours.  None of them speak any English so there is a bit of a language barrier but I can tell my Spanish is already improving and I am looking forward to the challenge. Can't wait to see what else awaits me in this amazing place. 

Day 3: Clase de espanol and fun with a ficus

by Alexandra Van Hall

Tuesday was our first full day in Monteverde! We were all very excited and a bit exhausted after our first night with the host family. We started with un clase de espanol, which was useful for communication with our host families! In my class, we talked the whole time, working on our practical Spanish!

After the class, we had a short presentation from Anibal! He showed us different types of projects students have done in the past. Many things must be considered, as there are budgetary, sustainability, and governmental concerns. This pertains to materials used, how the project effects the local environment, and if the project follows government codes. While this conversation could have continued for hours, we eventually headed outside for a hike! We hiked on the Monteverde Institute’s path to a large tree! The tree is a ficus tree, and it is hollow! The inside is large enough for a person (or two!) to hop in and climb up. The pattern of vines and branches inside was almost like a step ladder!

After a short break for lunch, we went to the work site to measure the area and talk to an engineer. We got a better idea of what we will be doing, and after we ordered the supplies from a store that sells construction and farm supplies (where my host mom works!)!

Given the rest of the afternoon free, we wandered around Santa Elena, which was very touristy. In most shops, the prices were in US dollars! We ran into Bob Shibley (The dean of architecture and planning) with his wife, Lynda! We talked a bit about the area and how it has changed from visit to visit. They're may be many projects yet to happen, but there certainly are no longer horses on the main street in Santa Elena!

As we walked back to our homes, we were reminded about the importance of sidewalks. It was very difficult to walk back on the narrow road with dust flying and cars and motorcycles whizzing by us! Tomorrow we start the real work with the concrete, so wish us luck!

Pura vida everyone!

Day 4: Becoming the change you wish to see

by Abby Milliron

Today was day 2 of our Spanish lessons. Our professor, Evelyn, is super nice and understanding. I've never taken Spanish before but she is very helpful and understanding. One of the adult chaperones is in our Spanish class and he's a blast to learn with. So far we've had basic Spanish lessons learning all the regular verbs and personal pronouns. It's been so long since I've learned a new language that I wasn't sure I would be able to pick up on learning Spanish, but I'm picking it up faster than I thought,  especially since I'm living in a home stay where only one person speaks some English.

We also started working on our service project today with Aníbal. We leveled an area to be filled with concrete tomorrow and started on the other area. It was a little confusing at first, but we all got the hang of it. We all worked well as a team and looked out for each other. As a group, we have a great dynamic. We've started giving nicknames to each other, but only a few have some set names. Ray is long-sleeves and the rock, Max is clunker, and Colleen is Buffalo. Honestly I was a little nervous going on a trip to a foreign country with people that I didn't really know, but we've all become good friends and they have definitely been helpful in adjusting to the culture.       

After work, we went to the new mall in Santa Elena and had smoothies and reflected on the day. One thing I thought was super important was that this trip teaches us to play an active part in the issues we feel strongly about. Although its cliché, we need to be the change we want to see. If we believe in having a parking garage is important for UB, then we should take action and do something about it instead of being passive and hoping someone else will bring up the issue. By taking action and building this piece of sidewalk, we are helping Costa Rica make changes that their government, much like our own, will not fund due to other politics. This passion for creating change is valuable and a trait I hope we will all bring back with us to UB.

Living with my home stay family is getting better too. There is still a language barrier, but I'm starting to understand more of what they say and being able to speak some broken Spanish back. I was really excited because I finally gave my host mom the gifts I brought for them. I waited because in the beginning it was very difficult for me to communicate with them, but today I braved it, got an English-Spanish dictionary and, in very poor and broken Spanish, explained my gifts to them. I'm glad I finally did it because it made my host mom very happy. I also played with the little boy my host mom nannies. His name is Illian (I'm not sure how to spell his name) and he is 4 years old. He's super cute. We ran around the house racing and passed a toy car back and forth between us. Later, my host sister Hellen painted my nails and we played dominoes while eating Costa Rican ice cream, or helado in Spanish.

I'm so glad I came on this trip and I'm excited to see what I learn from my host family and working with my team. Pura Vida!

Day 5: Jungles and jokes

By Madeleine Dewey

¡Qué día! 

Today began bright and early with a trip to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, where we were met by our trail guide and naturalist, Mark. He was a really interesting man not originally from Costa Rica, but relocated here some 25 years ago to work as an illustrator. He then became a storyteller of the cloud forest, and today opened our eyes to a world of plant and animal life. It was all so intriguing to hear and see, from the pollination of the elephant ear plant, to the migration patterns of butterflies, to the traveling habits of groups of coati, a species much like the raccoon that roams Costa Rica. 

The forest is other-worldly. It is so dense with vegetation, and everywhere you look you see something you haven't yet before. It's exotic, full of life, a place of secrets and cohabitation. Every organism from the smallest orchid to the largest monkey has importance. Life intertwines here, like a spider's web, with hundreds of stories yet to be discovered. And when the clouds descend around you in the path, it is as though you lose yourself in the wonders of the jungle. 

On our caminata, or walk, we experienced the continental divide between the Pacific and Caribbean tectonic plates. As the clouds moved in around us, we took a photo of us with one foot on each plate. This is where the watersheds of the small coastal nation of Costa Rica separate. Water, a resource still for the most part plentiful but yet so fragile, rushes to the seas, providing nourishment for crops and electrical power for the nation on its way down the mountains. We continued up and up the path to see from the lookout point the clouds rolling toward the west as butterflies struggled to flit their way over the crest of the mountain and on towards the Caribbean coast to the east. 

After a quick lunch and reflection, we began laying concrete at our first work site. While it took a few minutes to get up and running, the process soon became smoother and more efficient with the help of the local men including Aníbal and Jorge. We spent the majority of the afternoon moving materials to and from the cement mixer to the section of sidewalk across the street. Despite the arduous tasks and beating sun, everyone remained in good spirits and we soon found ourselves finishing up and admiring the first patch of finished concrete. Many laughs and bromas (jokes) helped us work, including a new nickname for Meghan, "Coati", dubbed by Russ, because of her high energy to get the job done. 

We returned to Los Llanos and went our separate ways back to our host families. Mine included a quick pit stop across the street, as is my daily routine now, to see another glorious sunset. And in the evening, I made potato and spinach gnocchi with my host family. My parents are kind, generous, thoughtful, have a great sense of humor, and are excellent cooks! And my sister is intelligent, sassy, but as sweet a seven year old as can be. I certainly lucked out to find a family in their home and already in my heart, despite the short number of days here. 

I may be tired and slightly sunburned, but there is nowhere I'd rather be. Costa Rica is truly an incredible place. 

Con amor de Monteverde, Madeleine



Day 6: Milestones, meaning, and impact

by Naeem Rigaud

Hola, on this day moderate breezy Friday in Costa Rica, the alternative break crew have achieved an impressive milestone. Through persistence and diligence, the team alongside group leaders and community reps have completed the first task. The group elaborated on the sidewalk and created an additional cemented section for tourist attraction and enjoy the voluptuous view abroad.

The reflection period of the day was highly effective in getting our views and inner personal feelings heard. It helped us grow as a team create a tighter kinship bond. Communication was properly and effectively done and the group leaders did a splendid job in attending to the students work and personal needs. They acted responsibility and efficiently solving our ongoing or abrupt issues. The group ending the day off at the communities farmers market and enjoyed the abundance of various fruits and vegetables. It was a wonderful way to try new Costa Rican delicacy and a great time to bond with the group as the day came to a close. 

Day 7: Boulders and benches + teamwork

by Ruihan Ding

We started as usual at 8:00Am this morning. Even though it’s Saturday, everyone was so enthusiastic about the project since it's getting finished more and more.  The effort we are putting in directly transforms into results. Today we first arrived at the institute. Then we were divided into two groups. Abby ,Colleen and Erin stayed in the institute to help the wielder Unroberto to cut metals for the bottom of the benches. Other people and me went for the sidewalk . We moved out a giant rock all together. and finished the all the cement part of the road! I really appreciated everybody's enthusiasm and effort.  Personally I would like to thank everyone for covering my last half an hour shift!

Then we went back for lunch.  At lunch time, we did a short check and reflection, everyone is feeling at their peak level since we arrived! We also did the "snap snap" for showing appreciations. After lunch, we all had a long rest. Some of us even got some nice nap. Afterwards we all switch gears from rocks and sands for the roads to woods for the benches. I was working with Naeem on the trimming part. Max was working on the painting part. Others were working on the cutting part .Everybody worked in unison towards assembling the bench. Finally we finished the prototype of the bench! We all felt so proud of our work!

Day 8: A lighter day + coffee farm

By Meghan Dieroff 

As opposed to the usual work we've been doing this past week, today was a bit of a laid back day. With the extra time we had in our schedule we were able to experience some of the cultural aspects of Costa Rica. 

The day started off at the institute where I had my usual greeting with Muñeco, the institute’s dog, and then we started working on staining the wood for the benches we're building. We were also priming/painting the railings of the bench. As compared to mixing and laying concrete, the mornings work was quite relaxing. 

Around noon Aníbal took us to an overlook where we were able to enjoy our lunch with a gorgeous view (something that you can't get enough of in Costa Rica). After lunch we traveled down a steep rocky road to visit a small family owned coffee bean farm. Originally I wasn't too excited to visit the farm because I'm not typically a coffee drinker and I didn't think the farm would be anything exciting. But I was wrong. The owner of the farm gave us a run through on the process of making coffee beans, from picking them off the tree to heating the beans in the oven. I was amazed at all the different steps it takes to go from the original plant picked from the tree (which looks like a cranberry) to the final coffee bean. We were given a tour of the small farm and at the end we were given coffee to try. Even though not all of us consider ourselves coffee drinkers (myself included), I don't think anyone left without a bag of organically grown coffee beans to bring home.

After lunch and the trip to the farm we gave a second coat of paint to all of the bench railings and then called it a day. The group was then treated to a trip to the hot springs "aqua terminalés". The 3 naturally heated hot spring pools were a perfect way to rest and relax after a long week of hard work.


Day 9: Ooh, baby baby it's a wild world...

by Colleen Culleton

Our service project has been to construct a seating area off of the road in a place that provides a beautiful view of a valley and the Pacific beyond. This is part of a years-long effort by the Monteverde Institute to develop the local infrastructure for pedestrians in a safe and sustainable way. The main road that we work on is a very obvious metaphor for community connectedness! As other bloggers have pointed out before me, the cooperation and collaboration that we’ve experienced together is one of the highlights of the trip. And Jorge, from the Institute, says that the beautiful energy of our group will be reflected in the end product we leave behind.

For the past couple of days, we’ve been prepping to assemble benches for people to sit on in our viewing area on the side of the road. Students cut and sanded wood, two of our “strong, independent women” learned to use a grinder to cut parts for the benches’ metal frames, I spent a tranquil afternoon working with a welder named Gilberto (a natural-born teacher if there ever was one!) on building the frames while others painted them. Today it was finally time for assembly! The morning was slow, as two students worked with our tremendous host, Aníbal Torres, on assembling the first bench, to figure out the best process to complete four others. So when I headed down the hill for lunch at Stella’s (quiche and bird watching!), not much had happened. But then. . .

When I hiked back up the hill after lunch, I found ALL of the students inside the garage. Someone’s phone was playing music and Cat Stevens was softly singing, “Ooh baby baby it’s a wild world. . . “  I couldn’t help but agree with him, as I watched our crew of students working in assembly line fashion to construct our beautiful benches. They looked like they had been doing this forever! They interacted effortlessly with each other, with Aníbal, and with the Spanish-speaking staff of the Monteverde Institute. It’s an amazing thing to see how quickly we’ve come to feel we belong together, and in a garage in the cloud forest of Costa Rica!

Our itinerary said that today at 4:00 the students would have a cooking lesson and we’d prepare and share a dinner. At 3:00 we still had one and a half benches to finish—but spirits in the group are always too high for there to be any real sense of stress. Sure enough, at 4:00, the last bench was almost ready. Four of us circled around it. Three of them had paintbrushes: one gave the bench its final coat of stain and two touched up spots where the black paint on the metal frame had been scratched during assembly. I lent an extra pair of eyes to identify places that needed to be touched up. We carried our fifth bench out into the sun to dry and headed up to the cooking class just in time.

The students’ lovely Spanish teachers walked us through the preparation of several typical Costa Rican dishes. We made our own tortillas by hand! The wind is howling tonight, and the evening is quite chilly. Some of our group sat out in the fresh air to dine, while the rest of us enjoyed the fruits of our labor in the cozy kitchen of the Institute. After dinner it was time to hit the road.

Throughout our time in Monteverde, Aníbal has been providing transportation in a van that belongs to the Institute. The whole bunch of us piling in and out of this thing has become pretty routine, but tonight, as we rode along, something truly remarkable happened. As Aníbal turned a corner on the dark road down into town, he suddenly stopped and we all looked. THERE WAS A SLOTH CROSSING THE ROAD! This was our first (and very much longed for) sloth sighting! It was such a weird thing to see this animal slowly creep across the road in the light of the van’s headlights. Chaos ensued inside the van, we were all so excited. My colleague, Russ, noted the irony: none of us were fast enough to get a good picture of the slow moving beast (I hear that Erin may have gotten one. She can show us tomorrow.) We were the only vehicle on the road, and it seemed like this happened just for us. If you want to see a sloth, the normal thing to do is to look up in the trees. Aníbal said that it’s a “one-in-a-million” thing to have one cross in front of you on the ground.

“Ooh, baby baby it’s a wild world. . . .”

I came back to the hotel and looked up the lyrics of the song. Turns out it’s about saying good-bye. As it happens, tomorrow is our last full day in Monteverde. Just as we’ve settled into a routine, it’s time to pack our bags and move along. In the morning we’ll see if we can get the benches installed overlooking the valley. In the evening we’ll have a thank-you dinner with the host families. And Wednesday morning we’ll head off to Manuel Antonio for some fun in the sun.

“La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la. . . .”

Day 10: Nosotros Terminamos (we finished!)

By Madeleine Dewey

Despite the crazy weather, (double rainbow with simultaneous mist and torrential winds of 60 mph) we finally finished the service project!! It was definitely a group effort to get all the benches moved on site and bolted to the ground. With the help of Gilberto, our accomplished welder, we finished up the railing alongside the work site as a precautionary measure to prevent anyone from falling over the edge. Interestingly enough, the cable we used for the railing was recycled zip-line cable. 

Speaking of zip-lining, after lunch we trekked off to 100% Adventura with wet clothes and a bit of apprehension due to the morning's weather. For me personally, I was incredibly excited to go zip lining through the jungle; it was one of the activities I had been looking forward to most on the trip! After having done it two years ago when I visited Costa Rica with a high school trip, I couldn't wait to begin soaring above the tree tops once again.  

Needless to say, the canopy tour was amazing. A combination of suspension bridges, hikes, 9 zip lines including the longest zip line in Latin America, a total 5,216 feet, and a Mega Tarzan Swing, our group of 8 zipped, hiked, soared, and swung through the cloud forests of the Monteverde region. We all surprised ourselves a little I think as we literally threw ourselves out of our comfort zones. The afternoon then concluded with a stop in Santa Elena at Taco Taco, where we enjoyed delicious quesadillas, tacos, or burritos and frozen lemonades. Afterwards, we walked home to get ready for the festivities of the evening. 

When our families returned from work and school, we turned around and went back to the Institute for a closing dinner with our families and the faculty and staff of the Institute. We had the opportunity to mingle with our families, eat some great food, and take some final photos. It was hard to begin our goodbyes, as this week has gone by so quickly. It seems like just the other day, we met them here at the Institute. 

Tomorrow we head to the beach. While it is hard to leave Monteverde, I'm excited to see what awaits us. 

Pura Vida!  

Day 11: Return to the Sea

By Russ Crispell

I left Buffalo two weeks ago a “Profesor”, actually more a story teller, and am now a student.  My entry about “today” is not about what was, nor about what work project Anibal has in store, rather it is about our primordial need to return to the sea and with it a continued change.  Following a very early wakeup call by my wolf howl app, a quick shower and now ready to explore the unknowns of Manuel Antonio National Park located nearby a small beach front community on the Pacific Ocean. We made our descent from our own “Mile high” town that for many of us became our “home” for the past several days and traveled the very long and winding road to the sea. What do we anticipate? Our animal bucket list of sorts is most definitely high on our agenda; more sloths, monkeys, and if fortunate – a jaguar!  My guiding eyes will soon tell the rest of that story…

I can’t help reflect on my years at the University at Buffalo using WNY’s own natural wonders as a backdrop providing outdoor recreational and adventure experiences for our students. Now here, in Costa Rica, I am not only a teacher, but a student as well.  It is my own desire here to learn the Spanish language, to discover nature, to experience nature, and in its most innocent way, to protect nature.  Costa Rica holds all my precious desires towards our mother earth.  We have been to Monteverde and its cloud forest and now, we discovered an entirely new and exciting region.  Once down to sea level, we made our way towards the park.  Anibal gave us a hint as to what to expect as we stopped for a short break and walked across a bridge of nearly 200 meters.  As we crossed the bridge, Anibal pointed out our group that we might be lucky and spot a crocodile.  Might?  We viewed several very large crocs and of course, the camera came out.  After several snaps and a review of my photo I called one of them, “Beauty and the Beast”.  Literally a butterfly sat on the snout of an 11 foot crocodile.  In retrospect this is just what I expected when I learned I would be spending nearly two weeks in Costa Rica.

After our bus stop, and a couple of hours later we arrived beach side and had a wonderful lunch at a local restaurant with the special of the day being offered, fresh Red Snapper!  Several of us followed our guide’s lead and ordered the special.  Much to most everyone’s surprise when the dish arrived it was indeed special – it was the entire fish, head and all and uniquely prepared and deep fried!  Our guide suggested that we eat everything but the bones and the tail itself is the best part!  Coming from a town that made its culinary mark on the world consuming left over chicken parts we dug in.  It was delicious!

Following lunch and back on board the bus we rode through a much more “American” friendly town (many of the signs were in English, and yes even Subway has made it all the way down here).  Arriving at our hotel, the “Blue Monkey” or the Mono Azul, we were quickly engaged with several local teenagers of sort, tiny at that, who welcomed us chatting and swinging in the trees, wrestling on the roof tops, hanging on nearly anything that would hold their 10 pounds of monkey muscle!  Squirrel monkeys at your service, great way to be welcomed! 

Once unpacked and dozens of photo ops later we embarked for Playa Antonio (Antonio Beach)!  Stepping off the bus, we were embraced by one of the most beautiful wild beaches I have ever experienced.  Crashing waves on incredible rocks and remote islands in not so distant ways made me take a deep breath as I had a Grinch moment (my heart grew bigger).  We stayed several hours and once we got our pacific sunset we made it back to the hotel for dinner.  Students and staff shared the memories of the past week or so and returned to our rooms dreaming of what tomorrow’s adventures will be.  Can’t wait to be a student again tomorrow! For tonight, I will dream of what paths we will cross.  I hope they are the paths less travelled.

Day 12: Where the wild things are....

By Max Bass

Waking up and not being in Monteverde was a really weird feeling. We started our day early, with some breakfast and then went to Manuel Antonio National Park. It was hot and humid and packed! We met our guide and he and his young son took us into the park to see what kind of wildlife we could find. It was very different from what we were all expecting. There were a ton of tourists everywhere and we were walking on this wide path where groups were constantly stopping to look at animals that guides were spotting. We saw several 2-toed sloth and a few 3-toed sloth, some bats, a frog, a few spiders and different insects, a few crabs, a night hawk and a toucan. We also saw howler, whiteface, and squirrel monkeys and even a few raccoons. Our hike ended at a beautiful beach.

After our hike we had lunch at a little hidden away restaurant, then went back to the hotel for a siesta before breaking up for the rest of the day. Some people stayed at the hotel, a few went to the beach and 4 of us went snorkeling.

Madeleine, Abby, Meghan and myself got picked up by a taxi and gotten taken down to the dock. We met our guides Freddy and Michael, and the 4 of us plus a family of 3 headed out. We went snorkeling at two different spots. The first spot took us a little while to find the fish but we eventually did. We hung out with this beautiful school of blue and yellow fish that were swimming within inches of us. While hanging out with them we could see several other different species hanging out among the rocks. Eventually 3 party boats showed up with a whole bunch of people who wanted to go snorkeling so we moved. The second spot was too murky to see much. After we went on a ride down the coast, did some swimming and watched the sunset. It was insane and a great time. We made it back to the hotel just in time for showers and dinner. We did a lot and it was all a blast. Only one more day! Better soak it all in.

Day 13: Coming Full Circle

By Erin Belile

Today we started our day by eating breakfast at the Mono Azul, unfortunately without any sloth or monkey sightings which had previously been recorded by other group members. However we did get to see a poison dart frog which the hotel's owner came and showed us. We soon found ourselves departing to head to the San Jose Market. At the market was authentic Costa Rican wares and food. Aníbal gave us money for lunch and we departed in our groups to check out what the market had in store. There were many different food stands both cooked and raw for purchasing and at times it was a little overwhelming. However we finally found our coveted Salsa Lizano for purchase.

Following the first market we took a walk down the San Jose streets and saw many street performers, it was the equivalent to Times Square New York City. We stopped for some delicious churros, were able to see the National Theatre and then headed to a second market which is a great spot to haggle down the price. This market featured more handmade wares as well as some of the tourist worthy Costa Rican souvenirs. I myself purchased a beautiful tapestry and two of the girls in the group bought themselves hammocks.

Following the market we headed to our final hotel which happened to also be the first hotel that we stayed in. Here we were able to finally unwind after our last few days of travel and unknown return plans. We all sat by the pool and relaxed until it was time for us to leave for our last Costa Rican dinner.

Aníbal kept our last dinner location a secret so we just got into the van for a 20 minute drive to the restaurant. It was on the side of one of the mountains and featured the view of San Jose city at night, the view was breathtaking! After dinner we piled back on the bus and stopped at an ice cream place before returning to the hotel. We all dispersed into our hotel rooms to finish packing and to prepare for our return to Buffalo.