Into the Peñas Blancas Valley

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I’m usually morally opposed to taking pictures of my feet. My dad railed against this when I was growing up. “Another foot picture?” he’d exclaim to my younger sister, leafing through the photos on the family camera. Feet simply do not carry the same sentimental value as a face, or the same scope of a landscape.

On this occasion, though, I made an exception. My pruny, ghastly feet seemed all too representative of the journey I’d undertaken with this motley crew. Three Ticos, a flying Dutchman, and a miscellaneous gringa walk into the untamed Costa Rican frontier. It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke.

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I pictured the settlers of the Peñas Blancas Valley as the mountainous tropical version of Little House on the Prarie. The way settlers started moving into the valley – in search of their own homesteads and economic opportunity – reminded me of the U.S.’s westward migration and manifest destiny. Mining, though not for gold, even plays a role in the development of the valley. But you can forget taking conestoga wagons on these trails. Everything from sacks of flour to canisters of gas were brought into the valley by foot or hoof.

Development and migration into the Peñas Blancas Valley increased in the mid-20th century, as deforestation in Costa Rica reached its peak in the 1970-80s. In 1977, though, the government halted development on the land as part of an effort to protect the watershed of the newly dammed Lake Arenal – but they were slow to buy land from those in this zone who’d already settled it. This left the landowners in a quandary: unable to legally develop their land, but unable to sell it for the same reason.

Over a decade later, thanks to grassroots fundraising efforts abroad, the Monteverde Conservation League began to buy many of the landowners out, effectively halting much of the deforestation that threatened the biological diversity of the region. The result is the large swath of protected land called the Children’s Eternal Rainforest, which is Costa Rica’s largest private reserve at roughly 23,000 hectares. Together with neighboring reserves in the Monteverde-Arenal region, the amount of contiguous protected land comes to 60,000 hectares.


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I couldn’t really tell you the purpose of this trip, because to this day I don’t know it. But it was no casual foray into the wilderness for any Bob on the street. Access to the protected lands of Peñas Blancas Valley in the Children’s Eternal Rainforest is a privilege open to few – principally park rangers and chaperoned students or researchers. Whatever the reason for our trip, I’m not in the habit of asking too many questions when it comes to an opportunity to explore a new place – especially a place as mythical as Peñas Blancas.

The journey began in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, where Lucas, the Dutchman & I met up with Juan & Alvaro, two rangers with the Centro Científico Tropical (the organization that manages the Monteverde Reserve). They came loaded with provisions and a sturdy horse to carry them. Their shoe of choice? The unforgiving, utilitarian rubber boot – perfect for fording rivers, but also perfect on for rubbing your feet into tatters. As we crossed through the Monteverde Reserve and descended into the portal of Peñas Blancas, the flying Dutchman was grounded before the journey even started. But start the journey did.

 

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Refugio El Aleman, about 1.5 – 2 hours’ descent from the Monteverde Reserve into the Penas Blancas Valley. Though it’s nothing fancy to look at, the cabin’s dry wooden floors and sparsely equipped kitchen feel like a goldmine when you’re in need of a respite.

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Café chorreado is a magical remedy for soggy feet.

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Turn and face the strange.

Mt. Tom, Massachusetts

Are you ready for yet another post in which I announce the complete overhaul of my geographic and cultural situation? Today is your day.

I’ve held out on any sort of announcement, because change feels less permanent if fewer people know about it. But hello, here I am, not in Costa Rica anymore, and not writing about it doesn’t make it any less true.

Now let’s dial back that tone of resignation and be clear: I chose to leave. The why was a compilation of factors. Even though I loved where I was working, it’s hard to find professional growth, development, and movement in a rural 400-person village. It’s hard to be away from your family as they go through harrowing medical problems, and to be away from your closest friends as they celebrate life’s milestones. It’s hard to realize that if you stay in the position you’re in, you’ll forfeit some of the dreams and goals that are dearest to you.

Even so, it’s possibly more frustrating to digest that that by virtue of your background and upbringing, you have access to more opportunities than your peers. Movement, after all, is a fantastic privilege.

So as I closed in on two years in San Luis and felt my toes itch and my mind wander, I wanted to quash what I viewed as this insatiable North American need for growth. In my mind, a need for growth and change was equal to discontent discontent. In San Luis, the attitude towards having any job – whether cleaning or cooking, management or milking cows – is gratitude. Gracias a Dios hay trabajo (“thank God there is work”) is the saying when the workload is heavy, or when the workload is light. It puts food on the table, clothes on the kids’ backs, gas in the motorcycle. I wanted very much for my existential crisis to stop flaring up, and be content for the rest of my life right where I was because I had food and shelter and relationships, and this was enough, it seemed, for everyone except me. I felt deeply ungrateful.

When I tried to express this guilt to my boyfriend, he looked at me incredulously and replied,

“What would be ungrateful is to not take an opportunity when it is offered to you.”

His parents have worked without complaint to put their two sons through a local bilingual school, because speaking English opens a plethora of opportunities in a community so touched by tourism. So to them, to accept an opportunity is not ungrateful; to turn down an opportunity is.

So with my mindset realigned, I accepted a position with a U.S.-based study abroad company that will hopefully continue to grow and shape me. In August, after over two years of calling San Luis my home, I packed up my bags and moved to…Massachusetts.

I knew the transition was going to be hard. With three months now under my belt, though, I guess I didn’t think I’d still have throbbing homesickness, which just serves as a testament to the love, grace, and humility I was surrounded with in San Luis.

I am beyond grateful for my years in San Luis, as they have shaped and molded me into the stronger, more thoughtful, more confident person that I am today. I am indebted to the people who treated me with unbridled kindness, and looked upon me as one of their own. I am thankful for a community that distilled life’s complex and conflicting recipes for happiness into simple ingredients: friends, family, and food. And while my current chapter of life calls me to this colonial tundra of a state called Massachusetts, don’t think for as second I’ve closed the book on San Luis.

I’ll be back. 🙂

 

Going up

DSC_0828Growing up, I liked to climb trees. That little extra boost from the ground gave me the ability to spy on my siblings and (supposedly) impress the boys. To me, a few feet above the ground seemed a feat.DSC_0873

Now, meet my co-worker Ernest. Ernest really likes to climb trees. Ernest likes to climb trees so much that he is certified professional tree climber.

(Let me know if you knew that was a thing…because I did not.)

But Ernest doesn’t climb trees to spy on his siblings or impress boys; he uses this skill to perform scientific research in places you could never even brush on tip-toe. In fact, he’s conducting one of the most extensive camera trapping projects in Central America, fastening cameras high in the cloud forest canopy to capture data on tree-dwelling mammals.

But for a day, Ernest decided to teach some more commonly-seen ground-dwelling mammals how to climb. And so five co-workers and I set out to defy gravity, if just for an afternoon, at the nearby Finca Ecologica San Luis.

Ernest showed us the ropes (literally), and it wasn’t long before we were dangling in the air, suspended between the canopy above and pasture below.

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Stay tuned for whether or not Jose remembered how to tie the knot…

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View from halfway to the half-way point

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A new world awaits halfway up the tree

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Color me impressed, because it’s been five days since my climb and my legs still don’t properly bend. Check out Ernest’s awesome work on his blog, and cross your fingers that I’ll be able to walk soon.

Abrazos,

Molly

San Gerardo: Escape from Monteverde

DSC_0790Experience has taught me never to expect a one-night trip to be relaxing. The logistics are too much, the down time too little.

Experience has also taught me to not always trust experience, as in the case of San Gerardo.

Though the journey demands a certain level of physical exertion, San Gerardo is the most tranquil and rejuvenating overnight excursion I’ve taken from Monteverde. Located in the Children’s Eternal Rainforest, the biological station is a short trek from Monteverde, but is a world away from it. The trailhead begins in the Santa Elena Reserve and winds its way downhill for four kilometers, drifting from cloud forest to premontane rainforest along the way.DSC_0806

When Molly (2.0) and I set out, the way was freshly slick and muddy, thanks to the perpetual fog and intermittent rain. An hour’s descent of squishing and sliding will deliver you to the station. Now, as a rule, I always leave something important behind. This trip, it was a second pair of socks, making my feet a prisoner of their sad sodden sock cages for the duration of the trip. But no matter! The end of our trek was met with mugs of coffee, tres leches cake, and empanadas de papa, which warmed our stomachs (if not our toes).

The station itself is rustic – minimal but comfortable, directing your focus on the world around instead of within. Most of the construction is warm and wooden, including the bunkbeds in the rooms and the porch overlooking Volcano Arenal.DSC_0913

Adding to the the station’s charm are the caretakers: Geovanny, Ivannia, and their son. They’ve lived in the station for eight years, with Geovanny shuttling his son up to school every day in motorcycle (if you set foot on these trails you will realize the kind of feat this is). Ivannia is a kind, genuine woman and genuinely the best kind of cook.

Eager to see the sun rise over Arenal, Molly and I slipped into bunkbeds early, and before we knew it were sleepwalking from bed to hammock to watch the day unfurl.

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Incredible vistas of Arenal aside, the main attraction of San Gerardo is its incredible biodiversity, the beautiful, unrestrained chaos that reigns in the forests. Trails loop away from and back to the station. The amount of detail is overwhelming, a barrage of the senses.

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To know before you go:DSC_0800

  • San Gerardo is part of the Children’s Eternal Rainforest, Costa Rica’s largest private reserve. Proceeds benefit conservation of one of the world’s most biodiverse forests.
  • The hike to San Gerardo (there & back) can be made in the same day. If you’d like to stay at the station, make your lodging reservations in advance through the Monteverde Conservation League.
  • Bring boots, a flashlight, binoculars if you’re a bird person, and layers (it gets chilly at night!).

 

Happy hiking,

Molly

Lend me some sugar

Recently, my tico neighbors lent me some Outkast-style hospitality and invited me to participate in a rural family tradition: processing sugar cane, or moliendo caña.

The day I attended, the activity, now more social than subsistent, drew about twenty family members and friends to (a) help, (b) watch, or (c) poke the oxen’s bums with sticks.

Not for the faint of heart, the process can begin as soon as the sun peeks over the horizon. Everything begins with the hauling of cane from the fields to the trapiche (cane mill). From there, driven by brute ox power, the cane is squeezed into juice and the long stalks tossed aside.

The juice is poured into a jacuzzi-sized vat, which is heated carefully by fire underneath (preferably monitored by a dedicated attendant or two).

As the water boils off, a thicker liquid is left behind. Some of this liquid gets diverted into large metal canisters and cooled in tubs of water. It will be warmed and used to make agua dulce (literally, “sweet water”).

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As more and more water evaporates, a fluid miel (syrup) is left behind. As the liquid reaches this stage, it’s time to execute an exit strategy and remove the syrup from the heat.

This is the moment the spectators have been waiting for. As the exit trough drops into place, spectators flock from the sidelines. They extend bowls, slabs of wood, and pans, eagerly awaiting a dollop of the orange-gold syrup. As soon as they receive it, they retreat to their benches, tree stumps, and four-wheelers, dump in clouds of powdered milk, and whip furiously with their utensil of choice. Some will add peanuts or mint for a jazzy touch. These independent projects will yield cajetas – rich, flaky brown sweets.

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Meanwhile, the trough is filled with steamy syrup from the vat and stirred with a wooden rod. As it starts to cool, the liquid becomes thicker and more viscous.

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The liquid is scooped from the trough and scraped into molds, where it will harden into tapa de dulce, a solid cake of sugar. This is the final product.

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Once upon a time, the tapas de dulce were packed onto horses and marched down to the coast in Puntarenas to be sold. Now, with the world at its mechanized height and sugar much more readily available, this isn’t a for-profit enterprise. Rather, it’s an opportunity to uphold an old tradition and compartir – to share – time with family and friends.

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State of the Molly

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The biggest obstacle to planning your future is not fear, nor indecisiveness, nor lack of commitment.

It is not having a chair tall enough for your desk.

This realization makes me a little concerned about my levels of grit and determination. I do not have to walk three miles for clean water, nor do I have cross a gorge on a rickety bridge to get to school. I simply have to stack a yoga mat, four placemats, used gym clothes, a backpack, and a blanket to reach staggering new heights – i.e., to rest my elbows on the table while typing.

I am feeling very empowered because I am reading Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, and after Chapter 1 (“The Leadership Ambition Gap”) I have already solved a seating problem that has dogged me for five months, and I have made popcorn IN A POT. I danced around the kitchen to the dull dings of the kernels bouncing about the pot. I was elated.

And it is times like these where I think my life is a farce.

If you’re asking why so serious?, it’s because Molly talked to her parents. This isn’t the first time this has transpired; nay, this is but a new episode in a series. After a lapse of x-number of months, I know to expect a thorough inspection of my life’s ambitions and plans. A “State of the Molly.”

It’s a good thing. I think.

I have been putting off and putting off confronting my next life step. First I blamed it on not having a functioning computer charger for two months. Then I blamed it on not having a functioning desk (hence today’s triumph). I feel like I am at the top of one of the staircases at Hogwarts: the choices for my next step swivel in and out of play. The staircases will briefly connect at some point – there’s a path to get somewhere – but how am I to choose even a staircase if I don’t know my final destination?

It’s time to whole-heartedly pursue this mystery destination. So I’ll start with the question posited by Ms. Sandberg (or really by the book Who Moved My Cheese?…whose title in and of itself rivals the following question):

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

 

Of horses and hoops

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The second day of the benefit fiestas was lent to more futbol (a given), a subasta (live animal auction), and carreras de cinta.

A carrera de cinta is an activity in which participants mount horses of varying degrees of staggering beauty, accelerate into a sprint, and try to put a small stick through an engagement ring-sized hole. This is up there with bingo for the size of crowd it attracts, though this seems a little more justified.

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In a sea of men, the Hermanita (my adoptive little sister) was one of two women, and the youngest competitor by at least a decade (or two). We’ll diverge into Women’s Studies: Rural Town in Costa Rica Edition at some point, but suffice it to say, I was proud to see her holding her own.

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(really not feeling the whole pawned-off-to-the-highest-bidder thing)

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(because everyone loves a good anachronism)

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As to these prizes? I can’t promise there wasn’t more Tupperware involved, but there were definitely some bottles of vodka to dilute it.

Of bailes and bingo, beers and bartending

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Last weekend, San Luis banded together for a weekend-long fiesta to benefit a community member who had suffered from an accident. From this event, I learned the beauty of a tight-knit community.

I also learned the scientific formula for a proper Costa Rican fundraiser. It is:

(cerveza + fútbol + cerveza + bingo + cerveza + baile + cerveza) x rum² = IMMEASURABLE SUCCESS

On Friday, the Accountant asked if I would like to bartend for the weekend’s festivities. I’ve always had a closet desire to bartend; always been wary of the judgement that would come from my parents; and always feared that I lack the grit to command respect from rabble-rousers. But it seemed like a smashing way to spend the day, so I conceded.

To which the Accountant said: “You’re the second female bartender in San Luis history.”

Most excelente.

So with this girl ensuring a steady stream of cervezas, let’s move on to element #2. The afternoon’s soccer match, set to a smattering of rain, pitted two family clans, the Matas and the Lobos, against one another. (Side note: you know you’ve achieved reproductive success when your surname can single-handedly populate a soccer team.) (Second side note: Lobo = wolf, Mata = seedling. Anyone find the match-up disproportionate? Don’t, because the Seedlings won.)

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With the fin of futbol, all eyes turned to the auditorium for a riveting game of…bingo.

Yes, bingo.

The fervor with which people flock to a game of bingo is astonishing. Of all the festivities that day and the next, the crowd peeked at bingo hour. You might think, with all the hullabloo surrounding it, that the bingos churn out cars and sofas and flat-screened TVs, or maybe even, like, a super moist chocolate cake.

No. More often than not, it is Tupperware.

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Bubble building.

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If it’s one thing I absolutely love, it’s unapologetically dropping off the face of the planet.

It’s my favorite side effect of undergoing a major life change.

For the past two months, I’ve been operating under the assumption that it’s completely acceptable to not communicate with anyone because, you know, I’m experiencing extreme internal turmoil as I adapt to my new environment. Obviously, communication with the outside world would hinder the tenuous equilibrium settling into place.

Obviously.

If we’re being honest, though, my transition to living in Costa Rica was about as difficult as writing the sentence “Then I moved to Costa Rica.” It’s been one steady exhale since I set foot in San Luis. Days and nights slip loosely from one into the next, and time takes liquid form.

I’ve spent the past month blissfully constructing a new, fancy-free bubble. Bubbles, however, have their virtues and vices. Living in a whirling fish-eye lens brings certain things into magnification and shrinks others into obsolescence. Moments of blithe joy can melt into stinging self-consciousness and irrelevance. I don’t understand why the shifts happen or when they happen, but I’m learning to appreciate the perspective they bring. To feel a little unbalanced and unsure, a little raw and rash, is good for the soul. Not everything that’s shaky needs to be steadied. Not right away.

Sensory input is partially to blame. I’m living in a place where I can get a headache from running into low-hanging bananas; where the only litter on the ground is from monkeys tearing apart of bromeliads; where night after night the sky is a swirling sherbet mess. It’s a place where every morning I descend the hill to a gradient of smells – freshly wet leaves replaced by the puffy lavender of the lavandería, then by the sweetness of frying plantains. It’s a place bursting with things I want to learn, people I want to understand, beauty I want to absorb. It’s a lot.

This is a super indirect way of saying that presently, all is good in the proverbial hood. Maybe I’ve been crashing into too many seedless fruits, but I am oh so content here.

[Author’s afterthought: Hammocks inspire introspection, for better or for worse.]