Hey everyone. I’ve had to write about this trip so many times by now that I should be ace at it. I wrote about it in my journal, and then in my field notes, and then in my transcription of my field notes, and I’ll eventually write about it in my final paper for the seminar. Well, anyhow, here goes.
The trip started at 4:00 in the morning on Sunday, March 21. I had stayed up the whole night before, instead of trying to sleep for what’d probably be about two hours. Also I had to get lots of stuff in order. Like a person to feed my snake. So anyhow, I took my stuff to the shuttle-bus at 4:00. I was the first person there, and eventually everyone else showed up and we drove to the Des Moines airport. There were fifteen of us.
We bailed out of the buses and checked in onto the airplanes, which left at about 7 in the morning. I hadn’t flown since I went to D.C. in eighth grade for the Spelling Bee, so I wanted to make sure I was paying attention. I try to keep a sense of wonder for things that are wondrous, and despite how commonplace it’s become for a lot of people, you have to admit that flight is a pretty wondrous thing. People since the beginning of humanity dreamt of flying through the air like birds do, but it’s always been only a dream, until very recently. I live in a very short span of history where it’s been possible to look down on the landscape from where normally only birds could do it. So I looked down intently at Des Moines. But then we went into a cloudbank and my lack of sleep caught up with me, and I woke up as we were coming into Houston. After our layover, I slept through flight again until we got to San José. Then I had to get off the plane and be hot.
From the airport, a bus picked us up and took us to a hostel in the city. It was amazing to watch the bus go down the streets, because the traffic of Costa Rica is so much more chaotic than the traffic of the US. The bus had a much narrower lane to drive through because the streets were so much thinner, and we seemed to change lanes roughly once a block. I was impressed by the talent of our driver. Anyhow, we got to the hostel, which looked like any other building front along the street, and had a gate. We climbed up to the second floor, and checked into our rooms, which had weird doorknobs that weren’t really knobs. And then we hung out in their courtyard, which is one of the more delightful places I’ve visited. It’s just a nice enclosed space, with a swimming pool and some tropical plants and an abundance of hammocks. It’s quiet and peaceful and a great place to just sit and relax. I enjoyed it immensely.
We had dinner in San José, led to a restaurant by Nathan, who studied abroad in this city for a month or so last year. I noticed something peculiar: practically every storefront was open-air. Even the McDonald’s we passed had no wall on the front. You just walk in, no bothering with a door. I really like that the climate allows this. Although I have to guess that if it ever does get significantly cold, a lot of people shiver, because there’s no real way to heat most of the buildings I’ve seen in Costa Rica. After fooling around in the courtyard for a while, we went to sleep.
We got up the next day and another bus took us to our home for the next two weeks: El Silencio. That’s about a 3½-hour ride away from San José. It’s a town of maybe five hundred people with no paved roads, and about a half-hour’s drive away from the nearest one. I hadn’t concretely expected anything, but even so the town was completely different from anything I’d envisioned. For one thing, you can walk from one end to the other in about two minutes. There were chickens and dogs walking all over the place. All the houses were way smaller than any house I’ve ever lived in, but here, they seemed just the right size. None of them had driveways. There were cars, but more than that, there were mopeds and bicycles galore. I saw all this as the bus drove up to the albergue—the lodge—at the top of the hill at the end of the town.
The albergue is where most of the tourists stay, although not in the building itself, which is actually a restaurant. There are six cabins off to the side, and a few other buildings, which will probably be cabins soon, or maybe they already are. The albergue is a really nice place, I’d like to let you know. It’s got a counter for ordering drinks or food at one side, and the rest of it is floor space with nice tiling and no walls around it. There are tables made out of sections of trees, and using cut and polished branches for the legs. We all gathered around at a conglomeration of three of the tables, and had food and drinks. Juan Carlos, who would serve as our guide for the coming fortnight whenever we needed a guide, came to the table and started telling us about the community.
It was formed by people invading the land of the United Fruit Company in the early 1970s. The UFC had left the land fallow and untouched for years, and a group of poor people came and started building houses on it. They got evicted, but they came back again under cover of night, and eventually after several more evictions, the company struck a deal with them to sell the land on the installment plan. Not long after the town was established, the cooperative formed too. It’s called Coopesilencio, named after the town. Currently there are 40 people in it. The cooperative owns 1000 hectares of land, which is split up among several uses. The biggest one is their African palm plantation, which they harvest and sell to Palma Tica, a company down the road a ways that then turns it into palm oil. Palm oil goes into stuff like vegetable oil and cosmetics and all sorts of stuff. Besides the palm they also have a bunch of forest—old-growth and reforested—in the nearby mountains, and some pasture for their dairy cows, and of course the town itself. Near the town is the Río Savegre, which I’ve been told was rated the cleanest river in Latin America, or one of the cleanest (according to a different person).
We got assigned to our host families. Mine live right next to the supermarket, which is the size of a somewhat overgrown convenience store. They’re M. and F., which conveniently can stand for their real names—which it seems polite not to use on the internet—or for Mother and Father. They have some kids, the oldest 31 and the youngest 14. The oldest son is now an agronomy engineer working in the south of the country on the Panamanian border. Their daughter, somewhere in the middle of this bunch at 17, is studying to become a doctor. They’re a really nice family.
The next morning we got up and met at 7 am, because people do things really early here to avoid the heat of the day, and got the grand tour of the place by Juan Carlos. He showed us to their big organic garden (about 5 hectares), their offices, their school, and their soccer field, which was where all the kids were that day, due to it being International Day of Sports. That meant we competed in a sack race. I took second!
We had lunch and then kept the tour going with the dairy, the chicken farm, and the palm plantation, and rounded the day off by going for a swim in the Savegre. When we climbed out of the water and put our clothes back on we were nice and worn out. We distributed ourselves to our host homes, and had dinner, and eventually slept well.
The next day we started our volunteer jobs. Evan and I were working on the palm plantation, the most rigorous of all the volunteer jobs there. Juan Carlos took us to the right spot on the plantation with his moped. I went first, and while he got Evan I just kind of stood there in the early morning shadows and mist, listening to the sounds of the harvest and looking at what was happening. The impression I got was: “BOOM! THUD! BOOM! THUD!” The workers would use a hook on a long pole to cut down an enormous leaf, about ten feet long, and it would fall to the ground with a BOOM. These leaves made a mockery of every other leaf I’ve seen. They must weigh fifty pounds, or more. They have aggressive half-inch spikes on the stem. They are serious leaves. After cutting one of these down, the worker would get the hook up over the fruit growing at the center of the top of the tree, and cut it down too, and it would fall with a THUD. The fruits are even more scary than the leaves. They’re about the size of a beach ball, only they weigh up to a hundred pounds and have longer spikes than the leaves poking out from between all the coyoles that make up these composite fruits. It’s like a raspberry you’d find in Avatar.
So I worked on this process. Mainly I got the leaves out of the way. For the palms to grow right, they need a space of bare soil for 2 meters around their trunks. So I cut the leaves in two with a machete I was given, and moved them to piles between the trees. I cut a fruit down too, but only one. It was slow. The stems of the leaves and the fruits are both about six inches thick: they don’t intend to be cut. I had to have several goes at it.
Evan and I a less intense job next, picking up the coyoles that fall on the ground and putting them in sacks, and then watched another intense job, which was loading the fruits onto the trailer that’s pulled through the forest by a tractor. The workers jab a big spike (chulo) into the fruit and toss it in. That’s darn difficult, because the fruits are heavy and painful to hold (what with their spikes). There weren’t enough chulos for us to load too, but we would’ve been slow. We in America aren’t used to such hard work.
Lunchtime is about the end of the day for this job. So we walked home and had lunch and then we had the afternoon free. That was our time to do interviews. I could talk about interviews, but frankly, they were probably my least favorite part of the trip, because academics just felt so terribly out of place there. Suffice it to say, we did interviews for most of the afternoons of our trip. They were sometimes awkward, but they were the bread and butter of the academic part of the trip, so we had to do them.
M. or F. would cook me dinner, depending on who was home. A few days in I learned that F. is actually the president of the cooperative, which I wasn’t expecting. When I learned that, he was away at some sort of conference in San José, and I didn’t get to interview him until a few days later. After dinner I’d usually head up to the albergue and have some drinks with the rest of the class and we’d talk about how our projects were going and about our volunteer jobs and our families and how much fun we were having. Later, I started going to the pool hall before I went to the albergue. I had some good times there, and won more games than I had a right to, by what I can only attribute to luck. Well, luck was what gave me a winning record. Without it I’d probably have been about even. Maybe a little under.
On Saturday the class took a day off from being academics and took a bus down to Quepos to check out all the beaches. So we got to spend a day being regular old tourists. For example, we walked down a trail to get to the beach, and despite how many gaggles of goofy-looking tourists there were standing around and taking pictures and listening to their tour guides, there was actually still some wildlife around. We saw a sloth with a baby clinging to her belly. That was a little bit magical for me. And a little ways before we got to the beach, a bunch of monkeys jumped through the branches overhead of us. I took pictures of everything, but I still can’t find the cord that connects my camera to my computer, so once I find that, I’ll make a big pictures-only post with all the stuff that’s been sitting in the camera since I last knew where the cord was. We found our way to a beach and just swam and felt the waves. An iguana sat in the sand near our stuff, unconcerned. A mammal that I’ve never seen before—we think maybe it was a mapache, although that appears to mean “raccoon”—came and begged for food from a guy who’d been there for a little while.
We hung out there awhile, and then had lunch at a restaurant near the shore, and then split up and did whatever we wanted for a while. I went to a beach with enormous waves and let those roll over me while I thought of phrases to put on a handy list that people could print out and carry with them to Spanish-speaking countries. The list would be called “Completely Useless Phrases”. It would include such phrases as:
- Yo estoy aquí. (“I am here.”)
- Los robotes no tienen emociones. (“Robots have no feelings.”)
- Monté una morsa al trabajo. (“I rode a walrus to work.”)
Later I found Mary, a classmate, and she helped me out with some more. We’ll get this list finished someday.
Eventually we had to head home and eat dinner and such. But the very next day I went with Dean’s family to the chorro. Chorro means “waterfall”, but more specifically it means a waterfall that’s about 40 minutes’ walk from the town along a gravel road. I didn’t realize it was so far, or that it was more than something pretty to look at. It wasn’t just a nice waterfall—it was one you can swim in. There are two pools linked by what I’d call flumes, rather than waterfalls, because they’re more horizontal. The first pool is where you jump in, and it’s maybe five feet deep. To get to the second pool you climb down through the rushing water over slick rocks and jump in. It’s about fifteen feet deep, and hemmed in by nice steep rock walls. Dean’s host brother, about 18 years old, showed his climbing prowess in scrambling up the farther wall wet-footed, disappearing into the forest about twenty feet above the water, and coming out at a bit of a platform that overlooks the pool. He overlooked it for a moment, and then did the only logical think to do next: he jumped. At that moment I knew I needed to do it too.
I couldn’t get a handle on the route he’d taken—I learned later I’d been approaching it from the wrong angle—and so he showed me an alternate route. To lower yourself down to the platform, you hang onto a sapling. That set the mood. He jumped first—”¡WUUUUUU!”—and then the stage was set for me. I stood there for what felt like about five minutes, but according to the video was only a third of that, telling them, “Tengo que prepararme” (I have to get ready), and looking at how far away the water seemed to be. And then, well, I flew. While I swam back to where I could stand, I was reminded once again of how very awesome life can be.
The next week, we only worked until Wednesday, because Thursday was Maundy Thursday, the kick-off of Holy Week. Holy Week is big news in Costa Rica, big enough that you’re not even allowed to sell alcohol anywhere in the country on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. On the three work days I had that week, I worked on the organic garden (the huerta) with Ami (a classmate) and the guys who are in charge of it. We did stuff like hauling logs and hauling sand. One day we whacked fresh-cut logs repeatedly with truncheons that one of the guys cut for us with a machete, so that we could get the bark off the logs so they could be used for construction. They were building a simple shelter out of logs they had cut the very same day. It’ll be the huerta‘s new visitor center. In the afternoons we all did interviews, so many of them that a fair number of people in the town got sick of them. But they were mostly good-natured about it, and knew that we’d be leaving on April 2nd and then they wouldn’t have to answer any more annoying questions. One guy I interviewed gave me the ultimate souvenir: an alacrán, a scorpion, that he made himself entirely out of copper wire. I’ll put up a picture of that too. And after dinner we would meet in the albergue, I having won pool games (sometimes), and talk about stuff.
Thursday was our last day. We relaxed, or did a few last interviews. Also we had fun. Some of us went to the chorro. I flew off the platform again. So did our professor, who apparently has done plenty of this sort of stuff before in his previous anthropological fieldwork, because he didn’t hesitate at all. Another person jumped, a girl from Belgium who came along with us to the chorro. We sat around in the water. It rained a little, and for the first time in a long time, we didn’t feel stiflingly hot. It was definitely a worthwhile way to spend the afternoon.
On Friday we packed up in the morning and took a bus back to the hostel. It felt like such a brief stay in El Silencio. I barely got to know people, although I did have some pretty fun pool games. But we didn’t have any time left in spring break, and so the hostel beckoned. Unlike the last time there, I had nothing pressing to do (like reading about the community in preparation for going there), so I just chilled out. Most of us had pizza for dinner, a nice change after having rice and beans with a side of meat for pretty much three meals each day. We played some Bananagrams and some cards, and talked. I read two Jack London stories in a book I found, one where a man dies and one where a man survives. I didn’t want to break the tie, but there were three stories in the book, and I had yet to think of anything better to do, so I read the other one, in which a man dies.
We got up the next day and flew up over the clouds and back into the United States. Evan remarked that flying doesn’t feel so much like traveling, because there’s no feeling of movement. I said it was more like getting into a seat, going into Purgatory for a while, and arriving as if by magic in your destination. Which in this case was Houston, and then Des Moines, and then back to our dorms here at college. It felt strange to be back and have access to the internet all the time and stuff like that. I’m still not a hundred percent reacclimatized.
I’ve been writing for a really long time now. I bet I have, like, a ten-page research paper here. I’m calling it quits until I figure out the photos.