Walking, working, and EARTH

“Naty. I’m not trying to scare you, there’s just something I want you to see.” I knew it would be a spider when my host brother, Antony, said that, but I looked anyway. “A tarantula lives here,” Toño pointed the beam from the flashlight toward a large leaf, where a giant spider perched. Ew. “Another one here.” He shone the beam on a huge spiderweb woven between some crisscrossing branches. “And another one here.” He pointed the flashlight directly at my foot. Haha, NOT FUNNY. We were walking together in the night with another friend to look for animals, seeing what there was to see.

On this night we saw a tiny snake weaving itself through leaves on the ground, along with toads that blended in so well that they were almost impossible to see. It was hard to spot them in the light from the flashlights while also maneuvering through the branches hanging in the path, and being careful not to trip over rocks. The best part was that next to a creek, where plants grew thick around the bridge, we saw tiny pale green frogs called ranas de vidrio—glass frogs. Their thick toes gripped the big leaves, and their eyes were watery and intelligent. They sat next to eggs that they’d laid on the undersides of the huge, smooth leaves. When Toño shone the light on the eggs, we could see the tiny babies wriggling around inside them. It was amazing and fascinating. My new brothers talk to me often about the different animals that live here. They know a vast amount about the plants, the birds, the snakes, and everything that lives here. They are passionate about protecting every part of it, and I am fortunate to be able to walk with them and see their world.

As for the garden, things are moving steadily forward. After our first harvest and sale last week, we have two more products that will be available this week: radishes and culantro. Both crops are healthy and strong, and also delicious (we have been sampling). This week we’ve been working hard to extend drainage channels and clear more earth for sowing. We have peppers, cucumbers, and lettuce to transplant, and just today finished putting in a crop of broccoli. The weeds grow rapidly with the abundant sun and rain that exist here, so it’s been a battle to clear them off the earth we haven’t sown yet. People are in and out every day to ask us questions about sales and what crops we’re growing. It’s encouraging to have the interest of a tight-knit community. Elders offer their input and youngsters learn what radishes look like when they’re still in the ground. I learn the Spanish names of my favorite vegetables, and work among great friends who bring good music.

We went to Costa Rica’s EARTH University on Saturday. Each Saturday, the students do the practical part of their studies and are involved with research about cultivation, compost, hydroponics, aquaponics, urban ag, organic production, integrated animal systems…so many things. It was inspiring to see such a diverse student body all involved in these important projects. My favorite part was the organic production area, where they have a round garden with curving beds in the form of a mandala. It is built around the Hindu ideal that an energy source is at the center of an entity that radiates outward, so there was a pond with geese and tilapia in the middle. The water is enriched with tilapia feces and can provide water and nourishment to the plants, along with geese that fertilize the beds. They apply compost when they plant to protect the soil and rotate the crops to ensure plant and soil health. They talked about the same principles I learn about at Cornell: soil health, plant health, sustainability. Seeing their dedication, hard work, and optimism made it even easier to go to the garden and dig for hours to make more drainage. I feel newly inspired to keep working hard! The harvests have been rewarding because of the excitement and satisfaction that they bring. I’m so grateful to be learning and working here in Aquiares

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Periurban agriculture at EARTH–recycling!


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Radish harvest with horses in the background

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Hanging hydroponics at EARTH

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Nela helps with the harvest!

First Harvest

October 18, 2014

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I’m officially halfway through my time here, and today was our first harvest. I can’t believe it came so fast. I can’t believe how insanely fulfilling this is—it’s already everything I wanted my international experience to be. I’ve been a part of good things before, but this is so much more real and personal. It’s not about how much money we make, or what work there will be to do tomorrow, because today I washed head after head of lush, green lettuce and practically cried tears of joy when I saw that huge pile of our first harvest. We started work in the morning, hacking lettuces out of the ground with machetes, which is the most enjoyable harvest method, I think. Laura’s adorable 4 year old daughter was here to help. She patted down the newly bare earth and rode in the wheelbarrow, and looked for bugs in the dirt. We even saw a tiny, intelligent-seeming lizard darting among the plants that were still wet from last night’s rain.

Next, we had to wash the lettuce, which gave us plenty of time to talk about what this project will become. Such as an entire marketplace, just like Ithaca’s Farmers’ Market, with people who can make things like jewelry and clothes, or prepare food, or play music. This farmers’ market would have a backdrop of horses galloping through their hilly pasture, and an organic produce garden that sits next to a pond full of carp and tilapia. It would work, too. Even before we really started selling lettuce, we had 50 orders (some for 3 or 4 heads) for lettuce, and people stopping in all morning as we washed our product. I’m writing this in the shade next to a table stacked with lettuce on lettuce, and the majority of it is already sold, sitting patiently in labeled plastic bags.

I can’t believe that for so many people, this has the potential to become a whole market and community experience, and one that wouldn’t stop for winter. I’m a strong believer in destiny, and even more now, after I’ve ended up part of a project that could bring one of the best parts of my hometown to such a distant place. One thing has led to another, and it’s all leading towards good. I had a lot of time to think while I washed 80 gazillion heads of lettuce (slight exaggeration), so maybe I’m getting carried away here. But in this moment of accomplishment, I am feeling very thankful. So everybody, trust your path! Despite your human doubts. Let life take you where it will, and be a part of something good, because this truly feels even better than graduating high school or getting into college or getting a driver’s license and finally being able to play the music as loud as you want. This garden is going to last for longer than I will be here, and for that reason, it feels more important, more special, more real. I want everyone to have the privilege of feeling like they’ve helped to do something that matters. I think the world would feel better if everyone could have this opportunity, not to feel like they matter because of their individual selves, but that they’ve been a part of something that will surpass them in time and space, and still be important.

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The ants. They bite so hard and itch so much and their bites swell so big, and the worst thing is that they are everywhere. I have never seen anthills so huge, with little soldiers spewing in and out at a constant, rapid pace. There were brown ants in the garden who could cut huge chunks off leaves and march with them into their ever-growing fortress. They formed long lines, holding leaves carefully above their heads, and we followed them to the anthills to dump coffee grounds on their heads. And poison, outside the garden. Then there are the black ants, who don’t seem to do so much damage to the plants, but they bite any human that comes near.

My first experience with them was a few weeks ago, when I put my hand right into an anthill that was covered by dirt because we’d been raking the area to transplant. There were five to ten bites on my hand and wrist, and they swelled up that night, so Seidy made me soak them in hot salt water to take out the venom. These ants can climb onto my shoes and up my legs faster than I can believe, and today my fellow workers had a laugh as I stripped off my shoes and socks and ran away through the mud after stepping in another hidden anthill. I shook off the ants and rinsed off my feet and legs to make sure they’d all gone, but the bites were already there and swollen. I changed into different boots, and these only helped the ants to find new places on my legs to bite when I returned to the garden. While the ants are a nuisance, they aren’t as terrible as our mortal enemy in the garden, which takes the form of a worm called the cortador.

This worm lives underground, but near the soil surface near a plant. It can singlehandedly kill as many plants as it wants as it moves down a row, cutting plants one by one. All that remains are wilting leaves scattered on the ground next to a bare stem. These worms can do some serious damage, and they eat everything. For this reason, whenever we see any sign of them, we dig to find the culprit still hiding somewhere belowground. We take them outside the garden to kill them so that their eggs don’t disperse among the plants.

There were shiny blue beetles that infected the beans but didn’t do much damage, and there are giant, giant dark purple grasshoppers that live here but thankfully haven’t caused problems so far. Besides insects, there are a number of nice weeds that come to stay.

Purslane, which I recognized from New York, is an edible succulent that likes the conditions of the garden a lot—it’s almost everywhere. Sorel, or tartweed, is another edible weed that has shown up. My favorite weed here is dormolina, which is a plant that has the ability to close its leaves when touched. I touch every specimen I see, to watch the plant “sleep” (its name comes from the Spanish word dormir, the verb to sleep).

In another pest category, there is a white fungus on the cabbage, which is not so fun. It was produced by organic matter in the soil that hadn’t finished decomposing, but after organic spray treatments, the new leaves look healthy and strong.

In fact, despite all the pests that we’ve encountered and battled, the plants are healthier and stronger than ever. The zucchini and beans are both flowering, the lettuce is ready for harvest, the radishes have formed babies, everything is thriving. More transplants will be ready soon, as we’ve sown peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers in flats. It’s all been going so fast, and it feels good to know we’ll have baby plants to put in the ground as we harvest for the first time.

I am now about halfway through my time here, and I still have so much to look forward to.

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La moto en la lluvia

I have decided that I’m going to learn to drive a motorcycle. Today we went to Seidy’s parents’ house in Verbena, a shortish walk through the mountains. Seidy opted to walk home with her son, meaning that I would be taking the moto home with her husband. A storm soon blew in, and there was some seriously bright lightning followed closely by that loud, sudden kind of thunder that always makes me jump.

The family bundled me up in a sweatshirt and rain jacket with a clear trash bag over the top to keep dry. I put on the helmet and the reflective strip that drapes like a strap diagonally across the body. Off we went, and wow it was so, so good. Qué rico, Robert was saying to me as we zoomed through the rainy night, and he was so right.

The rain was pelting my face and I could taste water on my lips, and when I closed my eyes, I knew what it was to fly. We drove through the winding, hilly streets that don’t have streetlights, so all I could see were the dark shadows of trees stretching their arms into the sky above us, and raindrops that glittered in the moto’s light as they fell onto us.

We got home and my knees were the wettest part of me. Seidy gave us a towel for our faces and we hung our wet jackets on the clotheslines in the indoor laundry room. I went to change, and Jovi Patricio, family dog, had crawled into a drawer where I keep my clothes, curled up in the dark because he has a great fear of thunderstorms. I put on dry pants that were already warm from the dog, and hung the rest of my wet clothes on the line. It’s very peaceful to watch soccer as the rain softly taps the metal roof. There is a canary in the cage hanging from the ceiling, and a fish tank where they breed guppies, and Ruby the cat curled up on Seidy’s lap. It all feels very homey. My face is cold but my hands are warm.

This photo shows a basil plant among the lettuce. The basil has flourished here, and helped reduce pest pressure with its aroma.

This photo shows a basil plant among the rows of lettuce. The basil has flourished here, and has helped reduce pest pressure with its strong aroma.

On a different note, the lettuce is the garden is almost ready to harvest! It is huge and lush and green and so beautiful. Everyone who passes tells us how good the garden looks, and asks questions or congratulates us on having worked hard. It’s excited to see how engaged the community is, even before any product has reached their tables. There is even a Facebook page where everyone can see our progress in pictures, and leave comments and messages if they choose. ( https://www.facebook.com/pages/Alimentos-Org%C3%A1nicos-de-Aquiares/814046035314019 ). The connection within this town is inspiring, and I can only expect good things for us when the vegetables begin to sell.


The zucchini is flowering! Photo from the Facebook page.

Pictures, Finally

October 7, 2014 

When we work in the garden, no one worries about farmers’ tans because we wear long sleeves and long pants to block the sun and the bugs. When I put on the long-sleeved shirt, the bugs bite my hands and people ask why I’m not wearing gloves. It’s different than working on farms in the US, where hippies roam barefoot and shirtless under the sun. The bugs are bigger and badder, and the sun is more intense. People wear bandanas over their hats every day to block the sun from their necks. To me, it makes it look like they are always working hard. However, the atmosphere is so much happier and so much more casual than that of the States. We are not rushing through one thing just to get to the next thing, and people constantly take breaks for coffee and food. While we work, we work hard, but with music and jokes. For example:

How do you say repollo in English? Re-chicken. (Pollo is the Spanish word for chicken).

What do you call a dog that bites you, turns around and bites you again, and then turns around and bites you again? Remordimiento. (Morder is the Spanish verb “to bite”, but remordimiento means “remorse”).

Between the joking and the singing, I have finally taken some pictures.

In other news of my life here in Costa Rica, I ate cheese empanadas for breakfast. They were outstanding. I went with friends to the mountain, where we had a fire and ate some snacks (and drank some terrible orange Fanta), and listened for coyotes and other creatures. Last night I got up at 4 am with my host brother to watch a lunar eclipse, and we saw nothing because it was too cloudy. I played soccer with a lot of guys from the neighborhood and afterward, we laughed and talked. Today I got up and went to work in the garden, helped a friend study for an English test, and now I am here writing. This life is simple and busy, and so, so good.

I have also finally taken some pictures, so enjoy!

The garden! We planted this corner first, with cabbage, lettuce, and culantro.

The garden! We planted this corner first, with cabbage, lettuce, and culantro.

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This is Turrialba Volcano as it appears from the garden. In the mornings, the sky is clear enough to see the volcano, but it clouds over quickly.

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Beautiful culantro, growing nicely.

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Sweet and hot peppers and tomatoes just starting out in flats, or bandejas. We will transplant these when they’re big enough.



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We have planted this flor de muerto to deter insect pests with its potent odor.

Two in One

Part I

I have fallen into a routine here. I wake up early and get to be outside first thing, walking to the garden, seeing the Turrialba volcano in the distance. In the garden, we always say things like ayy, hace sol and qué calor because it’s so hot and sunny in the mornings. We work freely, singing and laughing, but also planning about what we can do next. Planting and seeding and digging and shaping beds, shaping earth, and relishing each new milestone in the garden. Look, we have drainage, the lettuce we planted yesterday looks so good here, oh wow the culantro germinated!

I go back to the home I share with my host family: mom, dad, and triplets my age. We hang out as kids would in the United States, only with a lot more soccer. It’s usually cooler in the afternoons, often rainy. We go for walks through the rainforest to a different place each day. I’ve seen waterfalls and butterflies, birds, a tarantula, and the footprints of a sloth. They give me fruit to try and tell me facts about the trees, the animals, Costa Rica’s natural world. I’ve been so welcomed here by their friends, too, as we make jokes and secret handshakes. We went stargazing and marveled at the “montón de estrellas”, that crazy amount of stars. We laid on the ground and they pointed out the shooting stars, and this place is magic.

There are four meals a day: breakfast, lunch, coffee and dinner. I eat rice and beans, chicken, sausage, plátano, tortillas and cheese and empanadas: such wonderful foods. Everything tastes more than in the United States.  I savor each bite. I drink a lot of coffee. It’s sweet and warm and easy to love. Everything here is easy to love.

People say adios and buenas when they pass each other on the street, and whistle at each other or yell ohp! to get someone’s attention. Todo bien? Todo bien! These are the simplest of greetings, but what makes them special is that here, everyone is talking all the time, checking in, because their doors are open and their friends are around them. This is such a community. All day at the house, there are people in and out, with no plans except to do what the day brings. I’ve been hiking and fishing, stargazing, seen dancing, played soccer and played catch, too, with fruit from trees in the backyard. I paint and do yoga with my host mom and she dances and sings to 80s music, asking me to translate the lyrics to Spanish for her. Her husband asks me millions of questions about the United States: what is each season like? how expensive is it to buy a home? to go to college? does everyone drive? is it true everyone has hot water in their houses?

Spanish sounds natural to me now, and it’s getting easier to understand. Some people mumble so I don’t know what they’re saying even if they talk slow. Some people talk fast, fast, fast but their words are more separated. The rise and fall of bass notes of Spanish music have become so familiar, just like the shouts amidst soccer matches and words of greeting on the sidewalk all the time. I recognize the guy on the four-wheeler that brings bread to the houses, the man that works at the supermarket, the woman who sells popsicles at her house. I’m excited to go to sleep and excited to wake up, because I’m in this place of fortunate days and happy people and there are dogs on the streets that bark and whine, and the shrieking parrot in the backyard, and the canary singing out front. The soft murmur that rises and falls with Spanish conversation.

Part II

Things in the garden have been going so nicely. Karla added fruit trees that will increase the shade in the garden and help the soil with their hardy roots. It will be exciting to come back someday and see the trees when they are bigger. Other than that, the garden contains more of the same vegetables, soon to be supplemented with younger plants of the same varieties so there is always more food to harvest.

The mornings have been hot, sunny, and clear while the afternoons have been cool and wet. We’ve planted cherry tomatoes to start in plastic cups, where they will stay until they grow big enough to transplant. People here have told me that tomatoes are fragile and they can burn easily in the sun. We’re also worried about blight and other diseases that spread fast in humidity, which is one of the biggest challenges here. I’ve been told we should use saran that covers the plants to shade them slightly and shelter them from intense rains. It’s just like the screens on windows, except plastic instead of metal, and I’ve seen it on farms nearby. Here, it shades the young coffee plants that haven’t been planted in the ground yet.

Outside the garden, I’ve been fishing again. We went to a pond hidden in the depths of a beautiful farm with sprawling ayote, sugar cane, and serene cows. We stayed until the stars came out and ate pan casero and drank fresco under a sliver of a moon. Costa Rica’s beauty never gets old, and every time I go anywhere, I’m amazed. The simple routine of this life surrounded by such marvels is the definition of contentment. For example, Sundays are for soccer. We went to the plaza in the morning and watched games until 4 pm, when we had coffee with the most delicious chocolate cake. Watched a movie, went to bed late, worked this morning, went to the hardware store, wrote a blog entry…it’s just so easy to be busy but not rushed or stressed, because I am writing this and there is a volcano outside. And a neighbor is listening to music and the clothes are hanging outside to dry in the sun. When I got to the garden this morning, I was greeted with a shout of Pura vida, Nati! and I felt so glad.