Costa Rica

Cacao, Miss Olga, and A New Beginning

 

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I read in The Tico Times this morning that a French competition awarded first prize for Latin America to a sample of cacao grown on a farm in San Carlos, Costa Rica. This does my heart good.

When my husband and I first arrived in Punta Uva in the late 1980s, the people here were suffering from the devastating effects of a fungal blight on their cacao trees. When the Moniliasis, or frosty pod rot, hit their crops in 1978, these Afro-Caribbean’s lives were changed irrevocably. No longer did they have the best chocolate in the world, demand and prices plummeted, and they abandoned their plantations letting the jungle grow over. This is how we came to buy our place.

When you talk to the older people in this area, they will likely tell you that the banana companies brought the monilia so they could take away their land. Whether it was that or one-hundred plus years of mono-cropping, the result was the same. The blight, it was felt, was permanent, and until a few years ago no one had been able to develop a resistant variety. It is a hit or miss crop.

Then people began to try different growing methods. According to an article I read a few years ago,“… rehabilitation efforts and those of 400 families in 14 villages stem from a World Bank-financed organic cacao and biodiversity project created and implemented by the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (Spanish acronym CATIE, pronounced Kah’-Tee-Eh), headquartered in Turrialba, Costa Rica.” Before local farmers had planted from seed. This time the farmers were taught to graft new species onto existing rootstock. They were also trained in diversifying their crops so the land was more sustainable. Within a few years, they were getting reliable harvests from their cacao trees.

As expats have settled the area, once famous for its chocolate, they have also either grown the cacao themselves or become buyers of the indigenous tribe’s crops. New businesses have popped up in the area marketing organic chocolates and baked goods made from the new strains.

Before my husband and I built our house, we rented from a woman with a long history in the area. Her family and others like hers were the original cacao farmers. Miss Olga’s mother was born in Punta Uva. Her grandmother was born here, too. She now lives in Limón with a son as she will be 99 years old this February. She always told me she’d live a long life. “My mother lived to be 99 and 6,” she always said.

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Olguita flirting with Alan

Olga’s coffee and cream complexion made her look more Spanish than black, and the lack of wrinkles made it hard for me to believe that she was in her eighties when we lived in that little rental house she owned. She wore her curly gray hair tied tightly against her head in two braids at the base of her neck. Olga had a great sense of humor and would flash her gold teeth when the joke was on, and her tales of how it was in Punta Uva when she was a child were a pleasure to listen to.

“You know when my family first come, there was nothing here. We just staked out the land we wanted and started growing things. My father and my mother, they had this place and they give it to me. They give the place you have now to my sister, Casilda, and they give my brother, Bai, the place on up there by Little Bay. Now there’s all manner people here I don’t even know anymore. In the old days we all knew each other, and we was family. I used to ride my horse from Manzanil to Ol’ Harbour, stop off at all the farms them for a drink. We had some good times.”

Outside her front door is the most beautiful Mango tree I have ever seen. It is over fifty years old; she knew, too, it because she remembered planting it. Its solid, twisted trunk divides off into five or six branches. The bare limbs twine up over the house some thirty feet, and a canopy of mango leaves and fruit created a wonderful umbrella of shade for her sea-green clapboard house. She often sat outside under that tree in the late afternoon, resting off after a day’s work.

Her favorite chair was made out of old rusty rebar welded together to form a frame. The plastic caning had long ago worn out. Instead, she fashioned some torn rags tied with some rope in places, some string in others. The cushion was made from an old pair of pants.

In all that, she had a way of holding herself that was regal. Sitting in that chair, her chin tilted slightly as though she were looking down on you, her legs crossed at the ankles, one elbow on the chair frame and her arm raised to express herself with those long bony fingers; she could easily be in any fashionable sitting room in any big city in the world.

She was no rube. She’d been to New York City to visit relatives, she’d been on an ocean cruise, and she’d traveled to the capital, San José, when she had to. She just preferred be on her farm.

Behind the house was an old cacao shed, a relic from the past— back when the pods rolled in and the money was flush.

She tore the drying shed down several years ago, and now it appears there just might be a viable crop again in Talamanca.

Things That Do Not Go Bump in the Night

Every morning before breakfast my husband dust mops the house while I cook breakfast— God, I love that man.  (He also does dishes, but I don’t want to make you too jealous.)

One morning on his rounds he called me outside to our wide porch.

“Look,” he said, pointing at the corner of the veranda.“What do you think made this?”

Porch Mess “Maybe one of those animals Miss Olga used to call ‘night monkeys.’” I said.

“Well, whatever it was, it shit all over the floor.”

True enough, it had. It also urinated and left behind three half-eaten fruits that looked like small guavas.

We left a porch fan on the next night, but the same droppings and fruit mess were there the next day.  The third night we applied pepper spray to the rafters. Next morning- nothing.

But what was it? Whatever it was, it was quiet. The rafters where it roosted and ate its dinner are right outside our bedroom door. I’m a light sleeper, so anything walking around on the veranda would have woken me, I’m pretty sure… although, my husband tells me I now snore.

Coincidentally, that same week a facebook friend posted a picture of a cute, furry bat on her timeline. It got me thinking. Could it have been a bat?  I was still voting for the marsupial night creature, but started looking into it. According to Costa Rica (dot) com, there are are approximately 1100 bat species worldwide. Of those, 110 live in Costa Rica.

Not many people think of bats as being mammals, but they are. All bats are born with forelimbs that develop into wings, making them the only mammal capable of natural flight. They are covered with fur, are warm blooded, and their babies develop inside their mothers who deliver by live birth. According to the articles I read, most bats have one pup a year that are fully formed at birth.  But their wings are not developed enough to fly until they are six weeks to four months old, depending in the species.

There are megabats and microbats. Megabats are larger than their cousins the microbat, they have a claws on their second toe (I’d call that an elbow, but I’m not a scientist), no belly fur, use their eyes for navigation, as well as echolocation, and largely eat fruit rather than insects.

The Jamaican Fruit bat eat guavas, papaya, and banana. When these are scarce, they will eat nectar, pollen, and a few insects. Guava, huh… my porch was littered with half eaten guava fruits.

Last month, according to The Tico Times, there was a bat conference held in San José where researchers came together to talk and compare studies. “An estimated 650 researchers, professors, and community educators gathered… to hear presentations on new bat species, research on behavior… and to learn how to communicate [their] importance to the public.”

One highlighted bat species was the Honduran white bat. These thumb-sized bats nest in banana and heliconia leaves. The male and his harem of females chew the leaf until it drops over them forming a tent from the elements.  How could anyone think badly about these cute little guys? But it definitely wasn’t our bat.

Photo courtesy_ The Tico Times

Photo courtesy_ The Tico Times

The more I looked into it,  the more the Jamaican Fruit bat appeared to be our night visitor. The guavas kind of clinched it for me. Their bodies are about the size of a sparrow but their wing span is quite long, but they barely weigh a thing. These bats actually use their eyes as well as the famed bat sonar to guide themselves through the night skies.

Fruit bat Wing SpanBats are our friends. They pollenate crops, scoop up thousands of insects that might otherwise ruin our crops, and Jamaican Fruit bats spread fruit seeds throughout the jungle. Scientists are studying their ability to move by echo in the hopes it will help the blind navigate. Lastly, their manure, called guano, is some of the most fertile in existence.

Little side-story. Some expats who lived near us years ago had a colony of bats in the ceiling. Apparently the guano was so thick it slid down the double walls of their house and oozed out a light switch. This is why we bult our house with single wall construction.  But our creative neighbors made lemonade with the situation, bagged up the guano and sold it to some local pot growers.

And just look at that face. Jamaican Fruit BatHow could anyone not love that face? Even with that fleshy nose flap thingy and those claws on its wings.

It’s just too cute.

 

21 Ways You Know You’ve Lived in Rural Costa Rica Longer than “A While”

 

This piece first appeared in The Costa Rican Times  August 19, 2013. It appears to have taken on a life of its own; so far it’s had 55 shares on the CRT website and who knows how many others after that. We write and send our babies out into the world where they either thrive or wither…

Courtesy_The Costa Rican Times

Courtesy_The Costa Rican Times

When people first come to Costa Rica to live permanently, typically they are in awe of everything they see. Soon, as most of us discover, life becomes simply a life of routines rather than a continual unfolding adventure. Here are 21 ways you know you’ve lived in the tropics long enough for it to become a way of life, not a vacation thrill.

1. You haven’t closed a window against the weather in over a year; in fact, you have lived in the open air for so long a closed window or door feels confining.

2. You never (ever) pick up a crumb off the table and eat it (even if you’re pretty sure you just dropped it). There is a 50/50 chance it could be a lizard turd.

3. Drinking water with ants floating in it is no longer disconcerting, you simply scoop them out with a spoon or just drink the water, depending on how many there are.

4. You wash all the clothes you plan to take on a trip abroad to avoid giving some fellow traveler a mold allergy attack.

5. You are unfazed by hot and steaming clothes when you unpack in any foreign city.

6. Moisturizers are redundant.

7. Sharing your house with lizards, anoles, ants, and spiders seems acceptable; in fact, lizard eggs in your dresser drawer is the new normal.

8. A Hummingbird trapped in the house is not a panic moment. It simply means you get a net and remove it.

9. You do not flinch when beetles and other crawly things (some the size of Volkswagens) park on your night table or dive bomb the light while you are reading. Instead you calmly capture them and remove them to the out of doors.

10. Rather than leap into the air when you feel something on your neck, you merely brush at it, and then look to see what it is.

11. You are philosophical when you put on your running shoe and discover a toad has taken up residence there.

12. Dressing up means putting on a clean tank top and your newest shorts.

13. Sandals are your dress shoes.

14. You recognize macaw and oropéndola calls rather than a robin’s or a nuthatch’s.

15. The horrific noise at the crack of dawn, the one tourists think is made by crocodiles, you recognize as howler monkeys calling to each other. They are your alarm clock.

16. You no longer stop in awe and snap photos when you see a sloth crossing the road, instead you stop to make sure no one runs over it.

17. “Eat locally” means rice and beans plus a stewed meat of some sort. You no longer ask for a menu.

18. You rinse the sand off before getting into the shower so you will not have to re-plumb the drains.

19. You no longer expect or rely on electricity 24/7. If it goes out while you are baking bread, you leave the loaf in the oven and hope latent heat will continue to cook it, or a casserole, or a roast, or a pie, or….

20. “High-speed” Internet simply means it is functioning.

21. You’re resigned to the fact that the only things you are able to view “streaming” are vines from trees and water off the roof.

And finally, when you tell someone, “Pura vida,” you recognize the layers of meaning behind this phrase–from irony to sincerity– and use it accordingly.

 

 

Keeping Food Fresh in the Tropics

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Tired of moldy cheese, weevil infested pasta, and soggy chips? My article about keeping food fresh in the tropics is live over at The Costa Rican Times.

“Franklin”

courtesy Flickr

Courtesy- Flickr

We have known him since he was small, maybe six or seven, I’d guess. If my husband and I were passing through Puerto Viejo, often as not we would find him on the side of the road with his oversized pants bunched up with a cord, his flip-flops coming apart, his thumb out.

The first time we met him, I rolled down the window of our Jeep pickup and asked his name. Let’s say he said it was Franklin (not his real name).

“Well, Franklin, don’t you think your mother would be worried about you getting a ride from strangers?” I asked.

“Uno no stranger, Uno live in Punta Uva, right?” he asked right back. Hard to argue with that.

“What do you want to go to Punta Uva for, anyway?”

“Not Punta Uva, Lady. I’s want to go to Cocles, see my cousins.”

I opened the door and pointed to the two bucket seats. “There’s no room in the cab, Franklin.”

“I jus’ ride out here on the back,” he says, jumping on the bumper, and hanging onto the truck topper for support.

This might sound dangerous, and I suppose it was in a way, but I grew up with parents who allowed their kids to ride on the fender of our old Reo truck. From the time I was five or six—Franklin’s age— I straddled an old headlight with one leg clamped tight by the motor bonnet as we rattled down the last few miles of gravel road to our Willamette Valley farm in Oregon.

I didn’t figure Franklin was going to get hurt; the roads on this Caribbean coast were so bad back then it was hard to go more than five miles an hour.

And so it was that we stopped for Franklin when we saw him, gave him a ride, and watched him grow. He was a smart kid, curious, and outgoing.

But as Franklin grew so did the area where we live. The roads got better, tourists came, and with them came all the things tourism brings: music, parties, and drugs. First it was ganja. Now it’s crack.

A couple of years ago we ran into Franklin again. Instead of the ragamuffin clothes of his youth, he was wearing a Tuanis- Pura Vida t-shirt, silky purple gym shorts, and name brand leather sandals. He was in his early 20’s, I imagine. He and his brother had started a band and were playing the bars.

My husband said, “You be careful, Franklin. That’s a rough life with lots of drugs.”

“Yah, yah. I knows it,” he said. “Uno come hear me play sometime.”

We never did because we are not night owls, but we saw the posters and figured he was doing okay.

He wasn’t.

Now he seems to be— how do they say it in the addiction business?— searching for his personal bottom. I see him on the outskirts of Puerto with the rest of the Usual Suspects, bumming tourists as they come out of the bank, offering to carry groceries, begging. Sometimes he has no shirt or shoes, sometimes he is so dirty you can tell he hasn’t bathed in a week or more.

One day he hit me up for money and I told him I wasn’t going to give him anything.

“You know me, though,” he says.

“I know you, Franklin, but what I’m looking at is the drugs, not you.”

“Come on, I jus’ want a little somethin’ to eat.”

“If you weren’t into drugs, you’d have enough money to eat. All I”d be doing is giving it to your dealer.”

“My daughter, she need to go to the doctor.”

“I’ll tell you something. I had a kid that was an addict, and I finally said No to him. You are not even in my family, so imagine how easy it is for me to say No to you. I am not giving you anything as long as you are out here on the street using. Go home to your family. Get clean.”

I haven’t spoken to him since. Sometimes he sings to me as I pass by. “I love you, Lady, yes I do….”

It hurts to write off a kid I’ve known since he was little, but as long as he’s working the long con there is no way I’m going to rise for the bait. Little good it will do, I suppose; the tourists come and go every week and there will always be someone who takes pity, thinking the kid is destitute, a mendigo. He’s not. He is an addict.

My family’s story ended well, everyone healthy and clean. I only hope Franklin survives long enough to get straight.