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.

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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.