Tuesday, May 31, 2011

safe and sound in the jungle in Costa Rica

A week ago (time flies!) I arrived safely at the ranch lodge of CIRENAS, the organization with which I am interning this summer. I’m nearish to Santa Teresa on the southwest coast of the Nicoya Peninsula. The property, located right on the beach and surrounded by vast jungle conservation and farm lands, is absolutely stunning. From the front porch of the building in which I am staying, as well as from the window above my bed, you can see the surfers’-dream waves roar onto the smooth dark-sand beach, framed by coconut and banana palms. Plumeria and mango trees and many others I don’t know, tall and dense and green, crowd the edges of the lawn. Howler monkeys do their howling thing from the trees all around us and provide inspiring models of napping laziness. Harlequin crabs, hilarious in their pink garb and dancer’s stance, scuttle everywhere (including in the shower, trash cans, and other places they’re not supposed to be).

The weather is very hot and humid. I wilted and sweated buckets the first few days, but am beginning to adjust. Fairly regular thunderstorms and breezes clear out the air at least once a day, and I am well-provisioned with a wardrobe of appropriately thin, wicking, non-molding clothes (thanks, Ma!), so it is bearable. Worst is sweating right after showering, so you can’t ever quite feel clean. I do find myself dreaming of cool misty winds.

The property is very remote. And by very remote I mean miles from the nearest “town” (i.e. dusty road with electricity and a few small shops), down endless dirt “roads” (and by roads I mean pitted dirt tracks like fire roads or trails) that don’t bother with bridges, so almost every stream and river must be forded (i.e. driven through to get across). The rainy season started a few weeks ago, and already the roads are eroding and undercutting at an alarming rate and the rivers are swelling past what is fordable, limiting our inland access. Luckily the organization’s truck can drive along the beach at low tide, so even when the roads and rivers become impassable, we won’t be cut off. I’m hoping to get a cell phone this weekend, which will make me slightly more communicative, but we only have internet access when we go to town, so don’t expect to hear from me often.

Naturally for such a remote property, the CIRENAS buildings are entirely off the grid, producing their own electricity by solar panels, pumping their own water from their own wells, treating their own sewage, growing a fair bit of their own food, composting the majority of their food trash, etc. This makes the lodgings themselves a model for environmental education, the main mission of the organization. Though they are quite lovely as is, one of the projects I will help with is to make the lodgings a little more comfortable for the average American guest by doing such things as adding screens to the windows, getting soap dishes (i.e. finding soap-dish-shaped shells), making lanterns to use instead of open candles, and the like, all in keeping with their self-sustaining model.

Despite the stunning setting, the people here are the real highlight so far. Caroline, my main contact here and supervisor, runs the place with her husband Tucker: Caroline is of English and American descent, though she was born and raised in Costa Rica, while Tucker is a New Hampshire man through and though. Their assistant, Annette, comes by almost every day to help lead the workshops: she is 100% Costa Rican, and highly educated in environmental sciences. They are all absolutely lovely, kind and calm and competent and hard-working. As Tucker has been traveling the last few days, I’ve been especially getting to know Caroline, in that condensed way that living and working with someone 24/7 in a remote area can do: shopping together and cooking for one another and coming up with meal plans, sharing a bedroom (temporarily), staying up late talking, working quietly side by side on our computers, stress from bugs (which are eating us alive) and corresponding lack of sleep, trying to manage 14 college students together, breaking into their truck together when the keys got locked in, tensely judging whether the swollen river was indeed fordable, determining if their sweet dog Kia injured herself when she fell from the truck (she’s fine), enjoying a quiet hour away and splitting our meals at a surprisingly nice air-conditioned cafĂ© in the nearest town, and a million other things that I’ve never done with friends I’ve known for ten times as long. It is a strange intimacy, and one that would fail either in its professional or personal dimensions with 98% of the people in the world who are less lovely than these kind folks. I hope the amiable easy relationships between us continues to function throughout the summer.

A group was visiting this past week from the University of Georgia, biology students, and I joined them on a number of their activities to better learn about the CIRENAS programs. Highlights included a very long nature walk led by Annette through the beach and jungle parts of the property, kayaking in the mangrove swamp, surfing (this area is a surfer’s paradise), clearing the beach of trash, meeting with an elder of the community to learn about the area’s history, and attending a cooking class featuring two local dishes (a raw fish salsa and plantain chips). I didn’t join them on the horseback riding this time around, but look forward to riding the property with Caroline at some point (as she knows it best and has the best horsemanship).

After having observed the program and helped out with bits and pieces throughout the week, I’m now just starting to contribute to the managerial/administrative functions that I came down here to do. I created a course evaluation form and compiled the results from this first group. I created a database of alumni of the programs. I also created and began to fill out a biodiversity catalogue of all of the plants and animals spotted on the property: this will hopefully have educational, environmental, and managerial uses.

I am thoroughly enjoying being in a developing country again. I love the slower pace of life, the time people take to talk with one another, the simplicity of the services. I love how closely people live to nature. I love the green or beachy smells unmitigated by asphault or exhaust. I love how quiet it is, or rather that the racket is one of cicadas and toads and monkeys and waves and rain rather than engines and electronics and voices and radios and hammers. I love smelling brush and trash piles smouldering (which I know is weird, but it’s become a comforting smell). I love that the concerns here center on weather and other important things, rather than fashion or other human judgements. And speaking of, I will now sign off of the computer and get back to appreciating my surroundings.

(If you want captions for these photos, see the Facebook version of the album.)