De Cacao a Chocolate

 P1010576La Iguana Chocolate grows myriad crops, but the main project is the harvesting and refining of cacao into chocolatey treats such as truffles, soaps, powders, teas, lip balms, and all sorts of goodies that sometimes hardly make it past than the volunteers’ hands. The Salazar family has been growing organic cacao for at least three decades, and the entire process runs on manual labor. Here’s a run-down of the steps:

Cosechar las semillas:
P1010582About once a week, Juan Luis, Jorge, and some collection of volunteers depart La Iguana at 5 am to spend a morning harvesting pods from the cacao trees. Armed with machetes and tarps, we cut and haul them back to the house. Each pod contains a cluster of semillas (seeds) covered in a mucus-like white membrane. We cut open the pods, scoop out all the gooey semillas, and stuff them in a sack for fermentation. The white membrane goes with it, although it makes quite a tasty snack on its own in raw form.

snack time!

snack time!

Fermentar las semillas:
The cacao fermentation process lasts from four to six days, depending on the weather and the size of the batch. About 40% of the quality of a cacao seed comes from the variety of plant; the other 60% depends on how the seed gets treated in the steps after harvesting, beginning with fermentation. Much of the cacao flavor at the end of the process depends on how much they absorb from the mucosal membrane that ferments in the sack. Every few days the sack needs to be turned to properly distribute heat through the fermenting seeds – otherwise the batch will be unevenly fermented. After six days, it’s time to sun-dry them.

Secar y tostar las semillas:

Driveway Drying

On a canvas tarp stretched across a covered wooden frame, we spread the fermented seeds so they can get a little sun-tan going. Occasionally we do extra drying on tarps laid out in a sunny spot on the driveway, but this usually ends in volunteers flying down the driveway to cover the seeds when the afternoon rains arrive.

Moler las semillas (primera vez):
The first time through, we send las semillas through a crude grind to pop them out of their skins (cascaras). Pretty simple.

Aventar y Coler las Cascaras:
Equipped with a giant sifter, half a dozen buckets, and a handheld hair dryer, we sift (coler) and winnow (aventar) the mixture of semillas y cascaras to separate the pure cacao. P1010421First we dump everything onto the giant sifter and shake it like a Polaroid picture we’re panning for gold. Anything left in the sieve gets dumped into a shallow bowl. An ambidextrous volunteer shakes the bowl with one hand and uses the hairdryer in the other to blow out the lightweight cascaras, taking care not to blow away all the cacao. The cascaras blow up in a cloud like leaves in a wind tunnel, which creates a pretty cool effect but quickly coats the lucky volunteer in crud.
We take anything that was small enough to pass through that sifter and…sift it again, using a smaller grade sieve. P1010515From this step we get cacao dust, which goes into our tea, and a bucket of small sized cacao nibs and cascaras. These get the same treatment as the first set. After all the winnowing is done, the cacao nibs from both sets go through a hand inspection to take out any foreign objects, so our products are at least 70% pure cacao.

Moler las semillas (segunda vez):
This is the only part of the process that requires minimal manual labor, thanks to the electric grinding machine that Jorge rigged using spare car parts. We pour the toasted cacao seeds into a large metal cone and the machine grinds it into a crude powder, similar to the consistency of large-cut coffee grounds. The machine reminds me a little of Belle’s father’s “invention” in Beauty and the Beast due to its noisy labored progress and the way it kind of bounces in the corner when it first starts up.

Moler las semillas (tercera vez):
IMG_0734After the car parts grinder works its Diseny-esque magic, the resulting product travels over to the hand grinder for yet another round. Getting the metal grinder to the finest possible setting requires some tinkering, some testing, and a bit of luck. IMG_0735Getting the cacao to the finest possible grade requires quite a bit of upper body strength, sweat, and a very strong table. Eventually, the crude grounds become a smooth, buttery chocolate paste. A fingerful of this dipped in some brown sugar makes the whole deal worth it, but that’s not the final destination for these beans.

Extractar la Mantequilla:
IMG_0561Atop one of the large hardwood tables that occupy La Iguana’s porch area lives a curious contraption, also born of car parts and some imagination, that we use to extract butter from the cacao.  IMG_0724Lidia lines a metal bucket-shaped colander with something akin to cheesecloth, fills it with cacao paste, and sticks it in this contraption. Then the top presses down in the same way old-fashioned meat grinders operate, but Lidia cinches the contraption in place and leaves the cacao to ooze chocolatey butter into the pan waiting below. Eventually, the butter undergoes various other transformations to become body butter, soap, and lip balm. A few of the volunteers have also used the raw, newly extracted butter as an essential oil for their skin.

Grate the Cacao:
The solid cacao that remains in the top part of the butter-extractor gets left alone to completely dry out – again weather dependent, but not quite as fickle – and then it pops out of the bucket in a solid block. IMG_0702One lucky volunteer (usually a newbie who doesn’t know any better) has the responsibility of laying down a plastic tarp and using a cheese grater to grate the cacao block into the fine powder (polvo) that you typically buy in the store. This can be the end of the cacao’s journey from seed to sale, but we also take it a few steps further.

Truffles and Treats:
At La Iguana Chocolate, we really like the rustic approach. Volunteers equipped with broken kitchen knives and blocks of unadulterated sugar can often be found chipping, scraping, and measuring away to arrive at the proper proportions for truffles and other such goodies. IMG_0555We make tempered chocolates (picture a box of Godiva truffles) starting at 4:30 am so the heat doesn’t melt the molds. About twice a week we bake massive batches of cookies, brownies, and refrigerator cakes called queque frios for other volunteers to buy – the local community I think is fully saturated with the chocolates available, so buying our sweets is more of a gringo thing. The pueblo of Mastatal holds at least three other fincas that host volunteers and one permaculture educational center, so at times the area’s population is half gringo anyway – which makes for great business!

Sh!t Happens

Sometimes shit happens, without a real reason or explanation – often defying all reason and explanation – and you just have to take it in stride. What a particularly apt phrase for my current predicament! Ulcerative colitis* tracked me down in my rainforest getaway and I’ve left the chocolate farm early for some good old fashioned American health care. But I haven’t finished telling you all about the wonders of rainforest chocolate making! Through whom will you live vicariously?! Well, luckily my blog-posting schedule got a little constipated the past few weeks, so I still have plenty of anecdotes and photos to share from before my crappy departure. Stay tuned. And in celebration of my awesome experience and to thumb my nose at my immune system**, I hope you enjoy all the poopy puns!

The La Iguana bathroom

Ever productive, I have thought of a new invention during my colitis-induced hiatus: portable toilet seats. Seriously! How many times have you done the hover-squat in a public restroom? Chosen a bush over the port-a-potty poo-pourri at a concert? Lived on a farm where you couldn’t tell if the yellow drops on the seat emanated from a human or from the giant wasp living in the bathroom wall?

A better world is possible – one in which the only germs you sit on are your own, one in which articles like this become obsolete. And imagine the fringe benefits for IBD sufferers and lovers of Mexican food alike! Personalized seats means molded to sus nalgas for extended visits! (I learned useful words in Costa Rica.) Why not make the porcelain throne a real throne for the body part that puts up with the most crap? Imagine what Brookstone could do if they took this idea and ran with it.
poop emoji
*Don’t know anything about ulcerative colitis? Are these jokes going over your head? Learn more at and at
**Don’t want to read my musings on the colitis experience? Luckily you can excise this reality from your life much more expediently than I, and I encourage you to navigate your browser back to a world where ladies don’t poop and we only fart fairy dust and glitter.

Boom! Knowledge

Hey y’all! Life at La Iguana is chugging along just fine, thank you very much. I’ve passed the halfway mark (makes sad face)! At this point, I’ve accumulated enough photos and knowledge to write a post about how we’re so divorced from our food sources that we have no idea how real food looks or tastes. The following are a few examples of foodstuffs we grow and process by hand from the finca.


Before this trip, I had only ever encountered turmeric as a powdered spice that I usually skip in recipes, since I didn’t know what it did and didn’t want to spend $5 to find out. As it turns out, turmeric is a root vegetable. One root sprouts three or four finger-like offshoots, and when they’ve been harvested the smallest ones get stuck right back in the dirt to germinate again.

The rest of the turmeric gets a nice little scrub-a-dub-dub and the fingers get broken off into separate pieces, then sliced by volunteers who are too tuckered out to continue hauling gravel or digging trenches. When sliced, it looks a lot like someone wrapped a baby carrot in ginger root skin. It also stains like henna, so my fingertips (and my arms, from where I scratch my mosquito bites; and my laptop’s keyboard; and all our clothing) now boast varying shades of yellowish-orange.

01 turmeric

From here, the turmeric sun-dries on a tarp, and then gets dehydrated on a bed of netting stretched across a wooden frame, and covered with transparent plastic to protect it from the rain and magnify the sun. We hand grind it in the same grinder we use for the sun-roasted cacao beans, and generally one harvest produces enough of the spice for the Salazar family for a whole year. The powder also works great as an organic tie-dye, much to my excitement!


Did you know that cashew nuts look like this?

01 Cashew on Fruit

Did you know that when you spend several hours crawling through the underbrush, ripping cashew nuts off overripe and molding fruits on the orchard floor (FDA, please close your eyes and ears), that the sickly sweet smell of the fruits sticks to you way longer than all the spider webs that you walk into during the “harvest”?

02 Shelling Cashews 03 Cashew shells

Did you know that you can’t eat cashew nuts raw because most humans are allergic to the oils inside the nut; that if you persist in eating them raw you run the risk of blindness; or that when you are hand-cracking and hand-peeling each individual nut, then scraping the nut-meat out of the shell, and then you scratch a bug-bite with a gloved hand covered in the aforementioned oil, you will regret it like a bumblebee regrets using his stinger?

And are you familiar with the sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when you realize that the giant sacks of nuts you harvested, cracked, shelled and toasted produce hardly enough actual nut-meat to make a batch of cashew butter?


So it turns out that beans don’t grow in cans, and that they actually don’t contain manufactured iterations of corn and sodium in massive quantities. I cannot confirm whether real beans come with their own Jacks and Giant Beanstalks, but I do know for sure that a harvest looks like this when it’s laying out to sunbathe:

01 sunbathing

I also have learned that I would like a zen garden made of beans, large enough for me to walk across and then to eat for dinner. And that ticos take this poem‘s sage advice literally:

Beans! Beans! They’re good for your heart!
The more you eat, the more you fart;
the more you fart, the better you feel,
so eat your beans with every meal!

El Camino a Parrita

For Semana Santa the volunteers at La Iguana did not have to work, so we decided to walk to the beach. Of course, with the beach being 25 km away and temperatures climbing into the 90s, this was much more easily said than done. Elise, Pedro and I set out at 7:37 am, turned left at the end of the driveway, and followed the single dirt road that meanders through this mountain range. The first couple of hours consisted of steep downward twists, opening onto spectacular views of the valleys below. The road made quick work of dusting us in its red clay, and the sun was equally efficient in turning us into sweaty messes. As a silver lining, the dirt caked on my calves formed a protective layer – so my sunburn looks like a rosy pink pair of knee-socks rather than a hot pink pair. That essentially set the tone for the day: hot, dusty, sweaty, sunburned, parched. IMG_1060

For lunch Elise packed an assortment of salad, bread and sweets, but we all vastly underestimated the caloric demands of this undertaking. Thankfully, Pedro periodically stopped to graze on roadside plants, and shared with us both his harvest and his bountiful knowledge of the chemical reactions each piece of herbage would prompt in our bodies. In this manner we snacked on tococa, starfruit, and some wild berries that tasted like movie theater popcorn butter. Eventually we arrived at something like a town, and rested on an iron swingset next to a small papaya orchard. And there on the ground, amid the premature and the overly ripened, the stunted and the rotten fallen fruits, lay a papaya so perfect it could have been painted into the scene. It was separated from us by a rusty barbed wire fence and all of society’s reprobation against stealing, but hunger and thirst won out, helped along by that human instinct towards accumulation. I am more than a little ashamed, but still strangely pleased, to admit that I snuck into the orchard and moved this golden egg to the other side of the fence.

I was much less pleased with myself when I stood up to discover a van full of people idling across the street, its occupants staring at me. Anyone who has been caught red-handed knows the flood of indecision that descended on me in that moment, followed by the internal admission of guilt. I kind of darted back and forth in my barbed wire cage, thought about crouching behind the trees (which were only as thick as my calf), and then looked at Elise and Pedro and said “well, I’m just going to have to walk out of here.” So I did, and the van’s occupants didn’t care, but probably got a kick out of that filthy girl doing that weird dance in the papaya orchard. An hour later, after we’d been walking on a flat stretch of unshaded road for several kilometers, that papaya tasted like the gods’ nectar. We scooped out the insides with a spoon and used our teeth afterwards to scrape the skin clean. It was perfectly ripe, perfectly sweet, imperfectly acquired but perfectly timed*.

When we started again on the road to Parrita, our destination town, it was 12:30 pm and we had heard several conflicting reports of how much of the trip remained. We spread out along the road: me in front, Elise in the middle, and Pedro bringing up the rear, dancing along to the tunes blasting from his portable speakers. To the many passersby, we must have looked crazy with our dirt and our sunburns, coming seemingly out of the middle of nowhere and with no obvious destination within what’s typically considered “walking distance.” Then again, Nietzsche tells us that those who were seen dancing were called crazy by those who could not hear the music. It certainly could not have been clear to those motorists what type of internal music propelled us to walk yesterday, and I can’t speak for Pedro’s or Elise’s motivations. Personally, part of me needed a break from La Iguana’s mountainside seclusion and part of me just wanted to see if we could really make it to the beach.


Spoiler alert: We did not, ultimately, reach the ocean, but the reward of the journey was the experience itself. It was in the astounding landscapes and scenery, the roadside snacking and incredulous motorists, in observing how the towns are arranged here, how families spend their holidays. It was in seeing how kids here don’t mind talking to a pack of potentially crazy strangers, concerned only that “la muchacha tiene sucio por detras” (as one little girl told Elise).

For lunch, we chose a shady patch of dirt on the side of the road, flanked by palm oil plantations. As we divided an avocado three ways and probed our salad, which in the heat had melted into a soupy substance, a man noticed us and asked some reasonable questions about how we arrived at our current state of affairs. Once we had communicated that we had just walked 20 km, mas o menos, he invited us into the shade of his backyard. Within minutes we were rich with ice water, frozen guanabana, and Milwaukee’s Best Premium Beer. Our new friend, whose name we never learned, next enlisted his son to give us a tour of his backyard farm. They harvested some manzanas de agua for us, and fetched a machete so we could drink and eat coconuts moments after they cut them down. This level of generosity is endemic in the tico culture. We left eventually, but not before Pedro got a calf massage with Icy-Hot and we had to refuse a second round of cervezas. When finally we hit the road again, we were also armed with the knowledge that Parrita was only a 20 minute walk away.

The hitchhiking chapter of our trip began almost as soon as we arrived in Parrita. I was a total Doubting Thomas here, and tried to convince Pedro and Elise that we should cut our losses and catch a cab home. What person in their right mind with functioning nostrils would let the three of us near, let alone inside, their car? As it turns out, three such drivers existed on our way back. The first drove us far past his own destination, taking pity on our sorry selves and depositing us at the main road. The second car was a Jeep that had passed us earlier in the day. Its occupants deliberated for a moment before deciding they could make room, even though it meant that one of their number was dangling off the back of the truck. I squeezed in the front next to a couple: our male driver and his girlfriend, who balanced a stein of beer with experience as we bounced along the familiar rocky road. They were not concerned that my feet were wedged in between their bags of groceries. Their comrades in the back were equally unconcerned that Pedro or Elise would defile or crush the stash of watermelons that occupied much of the trunk space. As I watched the kilometers speed by, I had the sense that I was seeing all our hard work unravel, deconstructing our progress in a fraction of the time the road had demanded from our feet. On the other hand, it felt like watching a movie in rewind that documented all the ground we covered that day, and everything we had accomplished. Every turn of the road brought either a view with a specific memory – “I can’t believe we were eating lunch here 3 hours ago!” – or one I’d totally forgotten – “did we really walk all this?”

Eventually that ride came to an end, just as we arrived at the mountainous leg of the trip. I was glad to have leap-frogged the flat stretch where the sun had eaten up my shoulders and clawed at my calves, and found a happy satisfaction as we labored on the most uphill parts of the return trip. It felt as though we earned the views from the top. Only after we ascended the steepest, longest hill (rounding out our walk at an estimated 32 km) did our final ride find us.

As if this had been the plan from the beginning, our last driver not only was headed to Mastatal but also knew La Iguana, supplying Lidia’s and Juan Luis’ names with an implied “of course I know the Salazars!” We spoke with him a bit, but we were all so giddy to have a ride bringing us basically to our doorstep that I doubt we made much sense to him. We saw an unidentified mammal run across the road, which looked like a cross between a monkey and an opossum. Our driver hardly even blinked at the critter, even though he said it was a rare sight. We arrived back at the driveway just after sunset, just in time for dinner.

And with that, the day ended as strangely and as normally as every other day at La Iguana. I shoveled rice and beans into my face hole with gusto; we snuck treats from the fridge and sampled some freshly made truffles. Elise and I fell asleep in conversation, laughing with each other over the ridiculousness of the facts. And then it was morning again, and I wrote it all down.

*To anyone at FICO reading this, I am well aware of the very strong taboo against taking property from an orchard floor: that it is stealing, that it is wrong, and that it is not justified.

Trading Cacao for Coco

Today’s agenda was just nuts.

Coconuts, to be exact.

Normally by 2 pm, the volunteers at La Iguana have retired to the Yoga Deck to wait out the apex of the day’s heat and humidity. All was going according to form until suddenly a called rang through the still air announcing, with the urgency of Paul Revere but much more positive excitement, “the coconut guy is coming!” – at which point I found myself alone in a hammock on an abandoned deck. As a fan of neither coconut water nor shredded coconuts, I initially decided against the non-obligatory work, but then a mixture of loneliness, curiosity, and FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) staged a coup d’etat.

The following events don’t really require words, so here’s a little photo gallery wrapped up inside a post for anyone who has never experienced the arrival of close to 50 coconuts on a farm that is equipped to handle such a thing. And I will say that I have been won over by fresh coconut flakes.

IMG_0907 IMG_0908 IMG_0910 IMG_0912 IMG_0916 IMG_0921 IMG_0924 IMG_0926 IMG_0934 IMG_0935 IMG_0944 IMG_0949 IMG_0952

La Iguana Chocolate

La Iguana Chocolate

The luck of the Irish must have been with me on St. Patrick’s Day, because I certainly did not arrive safely and without any major mishaps at La Iguana Chocolate through my own communication skills. Rather, I asked one person on the bus when I should expect the Mastatal stop. In typical tico fashion, by the end of the two hour ride the entire bus knew where I was headed, the bus driver had promised to deposit me in the proper town, and a kindly couple escorted me via an informal shuttle system right to the edge of the farm’s driveway. In retrospect, the journey from San Jose to La Iguana Chocolate, my home for the next two months, was rather straightforward, but in the moment(s) of the 7 hour trek I could only marvel that my sister Clare did this type of thing constantly when she traveled around Australia for 9 months. I can’t even imagine how she felt as a single woman making her way through India via bus and rickshaw. Clare, if you are reading – I apologize for scoffing at your struggles. If you didn’t know I scoffed at you…I’m also sorry that you’re finding out about it now.
La Iguana Chocolate is a small finca (farm) in the remote village of Mastatal, where about 100 people have carved out a parcel of paradise for themselves. The town contains a school, a library, a public building, and the requisite pulperia (bar), all of which line the single gravelly-dirt road that winds through this mountain range. La Iguana Chocolate itself is nestled into a tract of land that undulates every few meters, so that each of the series of hardwood/scrapmetal/bamboo buildings stands on stilts on one side and is dug into the ground on the other, with the effect that you sometimes feel suspended over the rainforest. As I type, I’m sitting on the Yoga Deck, observing the sea of sugar cane plants that grow below the deck as they bow to the afternoon showers. After six months of living in a desert, whose admittedly-impressive array of greens all contained varying degrees of brown, the lushness of this area seems almost neon.
The cast of characters here is as follows: Eva, a French patissiere from whom we reap all the benefits of such a skill set; Benoit, a red-headed Swiss giant with whom I built a chicken coop; Elise, a young Fraulein taking a gap year before university; and Vicki, the volunteer coordinator who visited La Iguana Chocolate on a lark 4 years ago, fell in love with Jorge Salazar, and now works here. Our hosts include the aforementioned Jorge, who when he is not busy learning and implementing perma-culture techniques on his family’s farm or taking courses and giving tours in the neighboring farms and national parks , serves as a translator for his father, Juan Luis, and his mother, Lidia. Renal, Jorge’s uncle, is in charge of the family’s cows (and, as of this morning, calves!), and a variety of other family members filter in and out on a daily basis.
I fully expected to work hard on my Spanish for the two months I will live at La Iguana, but I think some part of me also expected a soft landing when I arrived. The reality felt more like a cold shower – Jorge is the only member of the Salazar family who speaks English. This is a rude awakening because I did not previously consider myself among those Americans who travel and still depend on the rest of the world to accommodate their limitations. It’s rather unsettling to come to terms with a part of yourself that you disdain in other people, and yet still I find myself just wishing out of exasperation that someone will translate for me when my brain starts to hurt. Also, somehow in the middle of the Costa Rican jungle I stumbled upon a farm that attracts a concentration of French-speaking volunteers, so English has really been the third language of choice.
Final note: I fully expect to have more frequent posts because the schedule here runs on tico time, meaning there is plenty of time for la pura vida. And since we have a plethora of foodstuffs growing here besides cacao, you can expect a varied array of topics. Things we grow on the farm:
Cacao; red beans; cucumber; cashews; papaya; pineapple; oranges; lemons; mangoes; spinach; lemongrass; cintronella; turmeric; bananas; plantains; yucca; tomatoes; peppers; chiles; vanilla; onions; sweet potatoes; ginger; basil; mustard; and more!

Getting There

March 16th, 2015

10:36 AM, JetBlue airline seat 13A

I just opened the window and saw, for the first time since 2009, the marvelous Costa Rican countryside sprawled out beneath me. My stomach has been writhing all morning with fear, excitement, anxiety, and all the other sentiments that come together in the emotional snakepit known as “the jitters.” I’m starting to wonder if this is all going to go as smoothly as I fantasized.

12:30 PM, Hotel Santo Tomas, San Jose

I’m here! I made it! I say to no one out loud, since it’s just now hitting me that I’m alone in a foreign country with minimal communication skills. Out of a desire for the ‘authentic’ tourist experience – an oxymoronic illusion nursed by the dopes like me – I took the bus from the airport to San Jose. My jitters have been alternately swelling and receding according to my internal tally of wins and fails thus far. Figured out the map on the bus, helped other tourists do the same – win. Smashed the tiniest of said tourists not once, not twice, but THREE times on the same busride with my immense rucksack – fail. Put all that hiking and city speed-walking to use to navigate San Jose’s merced and locate my hotel – win. I’ll take it.

Giddy from that successful win-fail ratio, I made some extended small talk with Tom of Hotel Santo Tomas (and silenced my musings of what kind of person names his business after his ‘sainted’ self), whose North Carolina accent exuded warmth and hospitality. This guy is in the right business for himself. We chatted for a little with a Texan guest, and when it came time to explain my purpose in Costa Rica I must have stuttered on the phrase “cacao farm.” The next thing I knew, the two expatriots were warning me to check the gender of the animal before I start to milk it “or else he’ll just keep comin’ back for more!” I decided it was more enjoyable for all of us if I didn’t disillusion them.

8 PM, Hotel Santo Tomas, San Jose

Welp, the wins-fails tally has resolutely swung in an unfavorable direction, but I choose to see the humor in all this. I set out this afternoon to address some outstanding needs before I head for Puriscal tomorrow. At the top of the list were 1) a prepaid phone card and 2) stamps (hey guys, when I get an address I fully expect letters from y’all!).

The saga of the phone cards really has no humor in it so we can skip that. The upshot is that I perhaps got ripped off but I can’t really tell, that I now know that I need to familiarize myself with the conversion rate here, and that I got to call my mom. That evens out to a net zero in my book.

I would estimate that I covered more ground over the same 6 blocks of this city this afternoon in search of the post office than Tom did in a 30 minute segment of chasing Jerry – and let’s not forget that the post office neither moved nor tried to hide from me. Armed with my handy dandy Frommer’s map and my shallow reservoir of Spanish vocabulary, I asked no fewer than 5 people, each of whom responded with some version of “ah, el correo!” followed by a rapid expulsion of directions from which I understood that I was in the right neighborhood. Unfortunately, I understood correo to mean a large avenue, which I rationalized because correr is ‘to run.’ Ironically, yo estaba corriendo (I was running) past the real Correo Central on each loop of those 6 blocks until I finally took a break right outside it and noticed all the giant signs of packages and letters that decorate its entryway. The takeaway from this is that I will not leave my Spanish-English dictionary in the hotel room again.

The Grandpa-mobile

I need to introduce my constant companion in the Wild Wild West: the Grandpa-mobile (also affectionately known as “The Boat”).


The Mercury Grand Marquis – so old that when I called customer service even they didn’t know where to find the gas cap release button. They actually didn’t even know where to find that model’s handbook.

When I got here, the farm pretty much tossed me the keys to a spare vehicle and was like “see ya!” without checking up on minor details like my driving or navigational prowess. So, even though I have a NY state license, I really learned to drive in Arizona, and also to do all the other things that happen when you’re driving:

  • Singing
  • Shoulder dancing
  • Talking to yourself
  • Talking to your car
  • Talking to the other cars and their drivers
  • Flipping the bird (but not really because of all the guns around here)

I particularly love my Grandpa-mobile because of the incongruousness of a young woman who drives a 90s cop-style car like a blind old lady. Example: when I’m on the highway I speed a little bit. Nothing major. I’m never the biggest speeder, so if the fuzz comes along I can always be like “that guy was doing it worse!” But I admit that I view speed limits as a suggested range rather than, you know, the law. Frequently, a car will come right up behind me, with his lights all blinding, and just sit. On. My. Tail. Almost 100% of the people who do this are in a truck (which is not saying much because about 80% of the cars out here are pickup trucks anyway). And a lot of times I could simply speed up, but somewhere when I was learning to drive in Arizona I picked up the art of self-righteous driving, which goes like this:

I’m already speeding.

Mr. Pickup Truck is basically sitting in my backseat.

“I’m not going to speed more just because you are in a rush,” I say out loud, to myself but really to him. “You should have left earlier and that’s not my problem.”

You, Mr. Pickup Truck, are the type of guy who I would point out is ‘doing it worse’ when the po-po need to fill their monthly ticket quotas by venturing closer to the border* than usual.”

So for a while I pretend I don’t see him even though his nose hairs are visible in my rear-view mirror. I continue to sing and shoulder dance. Eventually I move on over and then comes my favorite part: without fail, when Mr. Pickup Truck draws parallel he glances over in my direction to get a visual of this blind old bat who didn’t know she was in the fast lane and made him late. For my part, I slap a big toothy ole’ smile on my face and wave with spirit fingers and say “Haaaiiiiiiii.” And Mr. Pickup Truck’s face just absolutely makes my day.

Now, Mr. Pickup Truck is sometimes Mrs. Minivan or a Bunch of Bros, and the other day I actually got to play this game with an 18-wheeler. The results are more or less the same, and the Grandpa-mobile and I always ride happily into the sunset**.

*Things I have observed while living 30 miles from Mexico: traffic cops never go close to the border because Border Patrol is all over that. Border Patrol won’t stop you for speeding because they are not concerned with unlawful citizens, as they are more interested arresting in law-abiding non-citizens. So, if you’re near the border in Arizona and you’re speeding, Border Patrol just thinks: “that person must be a US citizen, because an undocumented immigrant in these here parts would know better than to speed, because then they would get pulled over for a ticket and get busted.” So go ahead and speed at the border if you’re an American, because Freedom!

**We literally drive into the sunset, since there is nothing to block it  because there are no skyscrapers. Every day at rush hour hundreds of people pile into their cars and drive into the pretty but blinding sun and, sometimes, into each other.


In Arizona, when Monday afternoons start to drag we break out the rattlesnakes.

Snake Charmer

Yeah, that was not a euphemism. Security caught three of these guys in the pecan orchards yesterday and, while I object to the unprovoked killing of a wild critter, holding it after the fact was definitely a tell-your-friends experience. (Rattlesnakes have a healthy population in this area and are highly venomous, to the point that many local dogs get “snake-trained.” I understand why we would curtail their proliferation in the orchards.) Even though the snake was dead, its body continued to move. I had never held a snake before yesterday afternoon, so I did not adequately prepare myself for the sensation of pure muscle writhing in my hands. Many people imagine snakes as slimy, creepy, and partially responsible for Man’s ejection from the Garden of Eden (but that’s another story). In fact, its scales felt smooth and dry under my fingers. General consensus: pretty cool. I wish we had fire roasted the rattlesnake meat, since it’s guaranteed to be antibiotic-free and did not spend the last months of its life terrified and tortured in a CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation). Then again, I will probably have the opportunity to taste snake meat before I leave.

It may sound like I’ve spent the last 6 weeks waiting for a serpentine distraction to post and boast about, but I’ve actually amassed quite a collection of experiences since moving to the pecan farm:

I have driven more than in my entire life before my arrival in Arizona. The multitude of things I do not know about driving, right-of-way, washer fluid, how to fill a tank with gas, how to open a car hood, what is a suspension, how to go through Border Patrol, Mercury Grand Marquis roadside assistance, rear windshield wipers, what is cruise control…let’s just say I’m learning a lot about my car.

I went to the Biosphere2 exhibit, where my infatuation with the project stupefied my poor companion. To be fair, his electric blue sports car and neon green man-tank left me equally lacking conversation starters. (And to be biased: the Biosphere2 was super cool. The series of domes was built in the 1980s as part of a space colonization program (!!!) and operated for 9 years during the 1990s by Columbia University. The project created a self-sufficient mini-Earth, complete with a rainforest, desert, ocean, swampland, grassland, and farm, and sealed 8 scientists inside for 2 years to see how they would survive. Why has Bravo not created a reality show on this premise?)

I have – you knew it was coming – gone hiking. Tucson, it turns out, is surrounded by mountain ranges: we have the Catalinas, the Santa Ritas, the Rincon, the Tortolitas, and the very creatively named Tucson Mountains. Who knew? (Probably the people who also knew Arizona is not next to Georgia; i.e.: not me.) More than any other source of homesickness, I blame my addiction to xanthophylls, carotenoids, and anthocyanins for sending me fleeing into the Catalina Mountains. Last time I got a slightly more realistic dose of home than I expected: temperatures dropped from the 80s to the low 40s, the skies opened up, and hail pelted my small group as we scurried down the slope.

As an ongoing personal project, I am oiling the hinges on my rusty Spanish skills. Now I can tell the mechanic “I’m embarrassed” (“estoy avergonzada”) after complaining that my windshield wipers don’t work, only to find out that I didn’t hold the button down long enough. I have learned not to say “estoy embarazada” (“I’m pregnant!”).

I’ll post some accompanying photos from my hikes and the neighborhood in the next few days – once my camera charger arrives from New York, where I left it behind in a packing tizzy.

One last thing: I highly encourage any readers to click on the links in this article. I know I can be a bore about food production issues, but CAFOs and antibiotic use in animals are two huge issues that blur the lines between the food industry and  the American health care system.

Fimmvörðuháls Pass: Hiking the Volcano

The absolute coolest thing I did in Iceland resulted from a miscommunication at the tour booking office. My mother and I enlisted ourselves for a Saturday hike across Fimmvörðuháls, a mountain pass between two glaciers.  The tour company representative cautioned that the route was “challenging.” I would have gone with “wildly terrifying and physically demanding.”

The hike actually usurped the title of Best Icelandic Experience, which previously belonged to Friday night’s sea angling. With 12 other people plus a guide (Gísli), I trekked from 850m to 1070m above sea level on an up-and-down route spanning approximately 22 km (about 13.5 miles). First, though, we rode in a behemoth of a vehicle on an unpacked gravel path up the mountainside, and I don’t mean on those safe hairpin turns that decorate the sides of the Rockies. I mean UP, at a 25 degree angle, between gorges and ravines so close to our monster tires that I gratefully realized how swiftly I’d die. It felt like riding a bull that just got stung by a bee. Our professional driver, whose build matched the proportions of our truck, bounced gleefully in his seat as the rest of us clung to each other. Later I told Gísli that I thought the driver was a masochist. Gísli explained that his seat was actually broken, and that he had only driven the route a handful of times. I gulped.

The hike itself evades concise description. The way up mostly offered several hours of landscape observation. Until this trip I labored under the impression that a volcano looks like a cone – you hike up one side of the slope and down the other side. As it turns out, this volcanic mountain pass features multiple peaks, valleys, ravines, cliffs, and even a random plateau that God might have dropped one day and forgotten about. The terrain alternates between black sand and glacier. A fine layer of volcanic ash dirties the snow where we crossed it. The black mountainside takes on a rusty red hue in some places: oxidization of the iron in the volcanic rock.

Underneath the Eyjafjallajökull glacier sits the volcano that erupted in 2010. Our prescribed route took us to the summit of the eruption, where centuries-old glacier ice had melted to reveal the underlying volcanic rock. Fissures in the side of the summit leak lethargic plumes of steam – an allusion to the continuing volcanic life beneath us. Upon cresting the peak, one among our group broke out a package of bratwurst and proceeded to successfully roast them on the still-hot rock.

A few of us enjoyed the nicely toasted snack before beginning our descent (which a much smaller number of us enjoyed). I have some photos but they convey neither the extreme height nor the absolute terror of descending a volcano assisted only by the occasional chain rooted into sandstone. The decision to direct my energies toward not falling off a cliff resulted in a dearth of photographic documentation for the worst parts – which unfortunately means I have no way to prove I’m not exaggerating. The tour guides affectionately dubbed one of the ravines we crossed “The Ravine from Hell.” The only thing more petrifying than traversing such an aptly named passage is turning around to watch your 58 year old mother do it.

Around Hour 5 of 7, the landscape transformed from post-apocalytpic into something out of the ending of the Sound of Music. The slopes acquired a jubilant carpet of grass dotted with Woolly Willows. Twice I found myself crossing an unprotected stony pathway while being buffeted on both sides by an unsympathetic wind, but the change in scenery heralded renewed hope and the last couple hours of the hike passed happily.

I spent the next day convalescing in a Reykjavik kaffihus, fangirling about this experience with one of my fellow trekkers and admiring my photos. Check out the accompanying photo gallery for more explanations of the Icelandic phenomena I witnessed.