Travels

Day 1: The beach. This Sunday I was able to travel to Limon, about a three hour drive, and go to a beach that looked like a computer’s desktop background mixed with one of those calendars that makes you jealous of Hawaii. We got up at 4:30 in the morning to leave by 5, and it was different to be awake so early. The sky was some shade of gray with a couple stars still sprinkled among it. There was only growing light.

I squished into the back of a car with my host sister and dad, and his cousin and wife occupied the front seats. We drove through a quiet Turrialba, passing by graffiti that said, We finish by believing in our own smile, and homeless people curled up in blankets in bus stations. Costa Rica flew by us, all winding roads and green mountains, until we got to a thruway and it was a straight shot from there to the casual little beach town of Puerto Viejo in Limon.

It was full of rasta hippies and a lot of foreigners there to do yoga retreats and go to the dusty bars and go on wildlife walks to see monkeys, sloths, snakes, frogs, etc. We saw someone scuba diving, a man fishing, American girls tanning, women braiding hair and making bracelets by the beach. There were a lot of weed smokers and Bob Marley shirts, and the whole place was so chill and casual and beachy that I could’ve stayed there forever.

The water was ridiculously clear and warmer than the water we use to shower. The sand was made of big pieces and we amused ourselves finding shells at the area of beach where people didn’t swim because it’s dangerous to swim near the reef. We found a million shells of all different colors and saw a hermit crab scuttling across the sand. There were pelicans flying overhead and the slow, quiet sound of waves licking the beach. We moved down the beach and swam in the perfect water that was bluer than the sky, salt water on our lips, until we left with sunburned cheeks and sandy toes, to drive back home. We’d gone about ten minutes when we stopped the car at the side of the road and got out to watch the monkeys that were lazing in the treetops above us, making sounds like barking dogs.

After that, we passed through banana plantations where blue bags protected the developing fruit, and the shipping port with huge boats loaded with trailers on trailers labeled Chiquita, Del Monte, Dole. It was too much food to think about, loaded in those climate-controlled trailers that were neatly stacked on top of each other, all on a boat that was too heavy to possibly move across the giant ocean until all that fruit arrives carefully arranged on shelves at Wegmans. It was a wakeup call, to see that image after all the happy people and the jolly monkeys and the beach waves. It makes you remember what’s actually happening in the world.

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Day 2: Volcán Poás. Waking up the day after the beach was extremely difficult, especially because it was once again at four a.m. This time the whole family except for host mom Seidy loaded into the car while it was still dark outside so we could see the second largest volcano in Costa Rica.

The drive was longer this time, through San Jose, and then mountain pastures where there stood cows, sheep, and a pair of deer. We stopped to eat sandwiches for lunch at an overlook where we could see across valleys with clustered cities, to more mountains on the other side, with the same pure rolling hills of miles of green pasture. Men cut hay with machetes and loaded into trailers pulled by small tractors. I breathed the different air that was there and my host family gave me a leaf to chew on that had a delicious flavor but also felt like it was burning my tongue.

We got to the volcano in the late morning and filed through the visitors’ center first, learning about ecosystems of Costa Rica and the parts of a volcano. When we got to the actual volcano, it was clouded over and we saw nothing but a white wall in front of us, behind which was the crater itself. We continued up to another crater, the principal crater, where there is a lagoon of rainwater that is a dark teal color. It was flat and smooth but for the tiny brushstrokes of wind. There were tourists speaking seven different languages around us and taking pictures with the endemic squirrels that crawl on people’s bags looking for food. Back at the first crater, some of the fog had passed, and we could see straight down into the ashen gray surface of the volcano. It smelled like sulfur and the cool clouds passing over our faces.

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On the way home, we made a stop at Sarchí, where Robert’s uncle lives. It was a big furniture-making place, and there was shop after shop lining the streets advertising wooden tables, chairs, shelves. At the uncle’s house, we could see other colored houses lining up along the vast side of the mountain, and the rainclouds that were coming for us. We went to a souvenir store and saw beautiful furniture and amazing paintings that they were making there in the shop. It was a short stop, so I thought we’d make it back relatively quickly, but actually we got stuck in traffic for over an hour in San Jose. Homeless people came to ask for money at our windows and salesmen walked up and down the row of cars with flowers or plátanos. It was rather overwhelming, and the quiet, dark country roads were a relief after that. We made it home safe and sound after many hours, and sleeping has never felt so sweet.

10 Days

Good news, the garden is still doing great! We’ve found some weird bugs, harvested more crops, and climbed up a giant hill to look for an anthill (they are defoliating the basil again), where we were gifted with a beautiful view of all our hard work. It’s been a privilege to work with such good people in such a supportive community. I feel proud of our work and humbled by the community’s response.

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In other news, I took a 3 hour walk with one host brother and his uncle, and we found ourselves in another farm on another part of the mountain. It was shrouded in fog, with rolling pastures and trees draped in Spanish moss, and beautiful Jerseys and Holsteins blinking at us as they grazed. In the middle of this place, two swings hung from a wire that was suspended between two of those Spanish moss-covered trees. There was a view of the Aquiares church that made it look like we were in a plane, but really we were standing between two ponds in the pasture. It sounds like a place of utter tranquility, but for the racket that the birds were making as they watched us from the trees. I looked for four-leaf clovers and we found sweet wild strawberries that we shared.

When we went home, there was dinner and then there was arroz con leche, and a horror movie. My host mom gave me feathers that fell from her pet Loras, who talk and sing and imitate people coughing. I am caught up in how good this place is, how natural life feels here, and how I’ll have to leave soon. I have ten days. For now I am enjoying everything, and that is easy to do.

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20 Days

I woke up this morning after some nightmares about tarantulas (I wish I was joking) and just felt really good to be here. I have 19 more days in Aquiares, less than three weeks. So I was feeling really grateful about this place, especially because I have been informed that it’s already snowed in Ithaca. So I got up thinking about how sweet it is to wake up with sunlight and go eat pinto for breakfast, filling my plate in a kitchen that smelled like pineapple because there’s a pineapple there on the counter, cut open like a patient on the table in the operating room. And how good it is to hear these particular sounds of different birds, and chickens running around in the backyard, and the Loras, and the washing machine that sounds different from the ones in the States. How good it is to wake up knowing that I’ll be working outside in a bit, under a sun that just won’t stop reminding you that it’s there. My legs feel used because I spent yesterday playing basketball and soccer and doing yoga after working in the morning. I am stirring sugar into my coffee at a table with plates left on it, set for a family. My host brother sang Phil Collins in Spanish in the bathroom this morning as I blinked my eyes back to life and brushed the hair back from my face.

On another note, the experts are saying that Volcán Turrialba is going to erupt. It was spewing smoke and ash, and luckily none of that fell here because the mountain’s wind blew it in the other direction. Everyone thought the volcano had calmed down again, but apparently it’s only a matter of time until it erupts for real. This is a main story on the news every night, and commercials about saving water. The volcano is less than 20 km away, and so we see helicopters flying overhead to go and monitor it every day. There’s nothing really to do except watch and wait, and hope for the best.

In the meantime, we have harvested celery for the first time from the garden! This is fun to harvest because it smells great. A lot of people here like celery, as well as radishes, which surprised me. But vegetable preferences are different because the veggies are used differently. When we eat salad, it can be cabbage and cucumber and carrot soaked in ketchup and mayonnaise (this sounds gross but it’s not), or it could be lettuce with radish and tomato drizzled with lemon juice and a bit of salt. Green beans go to picadillo instead of being eaten raw, ever, or used as a side dish. Whenever anyone sees basil in the garden they can’t resist telling us that it’s great for earaches (mix with oil and put it in your ear to relieve pain), but pesto isn’t a thing. I like these foods, and learning different ways to use my favorite vegetables. Also, it doesn’t matter how you enjoy your lettuce; if you worked to grow it, the satisfaction is the same

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International Agriculture

Today we had the fortune of going to a large farm in San Antonio, Costa Rica. It was about half an hour away by car, through winding, narrow mountain roads, among the foggiest fog that was like a white sheet over our eyes wherever we went. It was raining tiny drops everywhere and the air was still, covering all of us in that cloud together. At the farm we saw two types of greenhouse that had thousands on thousands of sweet pepper plants, and we saw neat rows of tomatoes under protective plastic. There were pastures with sweet Jerseys shrouded in fog, a milk room, a processing plant, a barn where the cows were eating and licking at each other’s faces. The people were humble and kind, and also geniuses. Because they’d built those greenhouses and that milk room without engineers or architects for their buildings, and they work hard every day to maintain their business, practiced hands tying up healthy plants. As our guide told us of their ingenuity and innovation, the man at the dairy merely shook his head and told us that he just likes learning; that’s what life’s about.

I was in awe of the beauty of the area and its people, along with their plants and their cows and the simple and sweet way of life they had. In the greenhouse, we could hear water rushing in a river that runs next to the farm. Moreover, though, I was in awe of the way that they’d created an effortless system that will keep going indefinitely. This is not a certified organic farm: they use any number of fertilizers and pesticides and chemicals through spray, powder, or irrigation. They don’t have an integrated crop rotation or permaculture or the Three Sisters, but they have such initiative and a beyond admirable work ethic. I can see them doing any number of those things in the future, if that’s what they are led to do. Their system has already integrated plants and animals together, and coupled them with human ingenuity. This has to be the future of agriculture as it must adapt to climate change and fluctuating markets and every undefined possibility of the future. This farm, these people, inspired me.

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Back at home in Aquiares, I took another tour of the garden with Seidy. She showed me every one of her medicinal plants and I wrote down their uses as she explained them to me–something I’ve wanted to do since my first week here. She has everything from aloe and prickly pear cactus to basil and rosemary (a natural anti-inflammatory!). The basil is a little different and its flavor was potent and more minty than I was used to. There are plants for stomachaches, to prevent scarring, antibiotics, anti-tumor, for nausea, for earaches, for anemia, for coughs, and also to add shine and volume to your hair…for burns, to lose weight, to purify the blood, and more than one to calm your nerves. Seidy could tell me more than one use for every one of her plants, and exactly how to use them. Some are eaten, some you soak to make tea, whether it be the branches, or the leaves, or the fruit. She is a veritable encyclopedia of information.

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Lemongrass–one of the many medicinal plants found in this garden

These two very different experiences were very connected for me. They both demonstrate a closeness with agriculture that’s been lost in America. I’m not saying that all of Costa Rica is like this, but I have learned so much from people who design and maintain giant greenhouses of so many sweet peppers, from a mother who brews teas for her family to take away stomach pains and coughs, and from the old man who visits the garden and told us which plants attract which pests. This international experience has shown me more than I could’ve imagined when I embarked on my journey, and maybe some of it is uninteresting, technical plant stuff, but I can also cure your bladder infection with a handful of herbs.

In other news, things in the garden have been going extremely well. We’ve sold radishes, lettuce, culantro, and green beans. Soon we’ll have cabbage and celery to add to the mix, as well as new varieties of lettuce. The community is supportive and excited. I can’t walk down the street without people shouting from their houses, “Let me know when you have culantro/radish/lettuce/beans!” The biggest problem we’re still facing is the attack of the ants. When we see them, we follow them back to their anthills and kill them. Some of them have homes high up on the hill, and we are rewarded with a gorgeous view of our hard work at the top:

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The whole process has been going so well. I feel grateful to work every day.

Typical Morning

This is a day in the life.

I woke up at 6. There was a lot a lot of rain and so I didn’t go to the garden this morning. It’s not good to touch the soil too much when it’s wet—it would be super hard to dig more drainage even as it was pouring on our heads in the meantime. Additionally, everyone talks about how lovely it is to sleep while it’s raining. Here the rain drums loud on the metal roof, making such a noise that you can’t forget about it.

Even so, I got up and ate cheese empanadas for breakfast, with coffee from right here in Aquiares. As I was eating, I turned to look at the cat and Seidy said to me, Don’t look behind you. Naturally, I looked behind me.

No! she said. There’s a spider. She knows I’m terrified of spiders. But I thought she meant there was one on the wall or something, heading right toward me. I twisted around in my seat again, and there in a big plastic jar was a giant, giant spider. Like the size of my hand (almost) if all its legs had been stretched out. For the lovely people of Costa Rica, that’s not so huge, but here I am from New York and holy crow. It is called a picacaballos, like horse biter. Titi emerged from her room and examined it only to say how beautiful it was.

They found this spider under the sink when they’d gone to adjust something with the water. In other words, it could have been lurking down there next to my legs as I washed the dishes, and was sitting next to my very hands as I searched for the blender yesterday, and they only encountered it today, this morning.

All this led to a long discussion of various poisonous animals. Snakes are a veritable danger here, and there is always a lot of talk about terciopelos (this word also means velvet in Spanish). They cause the majority of deaths by snakebite here in Costa Rica. I haven’t seen one, but I have seen other snakes. One day while Toño was picking coffee, he found a poisonous snake and trapped it in a bottle with holes punched in it so he could set it free far away later. Titi was talking on the phone with her mom as she looked for frogs, and suddenly there was a snake poised to attack right in front of her. She’s fine, because she didn’t panic, just backed away, and Seidy explained to me that these snakes are territorial, so it would rather guard its domain than go chasing after some random scientist in the rainforest.

So here we were talking about all these poisonous, dangerous animals, when Seidy’s brother-in-law (Titi’s uncle) enters the house with a hummingbird nestled in his hand. It had fallen from the sky onto his shoe and hadn’t been able to fly away again, so there it was squeaking in his hand with its long, skinny beak protruding from between his fingers. It was deep blue with green tinting its feathers, and had tiny beady black eyes. Titi fed it some sugar and they watched it fly away. Then she set off for the supermarket as if nothing special had happened.

It’s been a morning full of nature, with a piece of it still sitting in that plastic jar behind me.

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