I watch the sun rise and sun set most days here. It comes up slowly but sets quickly, understandably exhausted from shining with such gusto all day long. And for some reason I keep taking pictures of it, they all look the same on film but feel so different in person. And the silliest part is that I never even notice the sun at home! I like that part of being in a new place—paying attention to those benign things you don't otherwise think of. I hope that when I’m back in the states, I’ll keep seeing things with these fresh eyes.
Finals finally finished. I was not anticipating the workload and rigor of this program, but now that it’s over I can begin appreciating it. I’ve never had so little down time in my life. College at home has so little class time and so much free time. The procrastination that I’m susceptible to from this kind of schedule wasn’t a problem here. With shorter deadlines and tons of work, putting things off until the last minute wasn’t an option. In less than two months I’ve written five major papers, had eight exams and had hours upon hours of class and field work. Saying this all now feels satisfying, a colossal weight has been lifted! For the last month of the semester we work solely with a professor on a directed research project. I’ll be working with hummingbirds!
I hiked up my 5th volcano! I’d never even seen a volcano before Costa Rica, and this one was especially wild. It’s called Masaya and it’s massive and it constantly sending up sulfur dioxide gas. Today, I guess it was really bad. It smells like hard boiled eggs and it makes you cough and you even taste it in your mouth and it stays on your skin and in your clothes. Our professors said that if we’d been in Costa Rica, they’d never let the park stay open, but Nicaragua’s a little more lax about these things. But it was stunning, and took my breath away-- in more ways than one.
The past few nights we’ve been staying in Grenada. Grenada’s the fourth largest city in Nicaragua, with about 110,326 people. It was established in 1524 by Cordoba, and allegedly was the first European city in all of mainland America. It’s the first time since being in Central America that I felt like I’ve been in a really old old city—I love it. Granada has grand antique churches and all of the buildings, though decaying, have curly-Q molding and trim and intricately painted tiles. Each house is painted a different vibrant color. It makes me think of when my friend Sharoda’s parents painted her house canary yellow with royal blue trim, amidst a neighborhood of only bruise colored houses. People were not happy—if only they could see how nice it is when every house is bright!
Each night we walk from our hotel (it’s very nice, $ goes much further here…) to a street full of restaurants and shops to eat. There’s a wide-open space in the middle where children perform—dance and run around with giant puppets. It’s more obnoxious than anything else, they beat these giant piercing drums and yell and then ask for money. It’s hard to know what to do—to give them money, to say no, to buy something from them. But our teachers told us, and there’s a flyer that many restaurants put in their menu, that there is a soup kitchen that can feed every singly hungry child in Granada. But because tourists give money and food, they continue begging instead of eating at home with their families or going to the soup kitchen. Living on the street at such a young age, they say, then just makes them more likely to use drugs or prostitute later on. When I read this in the menu, it made a lot of sense but it also seems to very neatly fit in with what the restaurants want—more kids begging means less business. I suppose it’s just not very common that public interest and commercial interest align.
Our Nicaragua home
At the hostel we've been staying in on Ometepe, the manager requires all staff to bring a bottle filled with trash to every pay-day. It gets people to pick up trash as they walk to work, and then they’re able to built things with the bottles! I’m not totally sure how it works, but here are some pictures of it as a work in progress!
I just listened to a This American Life called “Continental Breakups”. It was about the creation of the Euro and how it’s affecting the European debt crisis (A well worth hour, if you’re interested http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/455/continental-breakup). But they say that one of the major reasons for the creation of the euro was because the countries realized that a united Europe would be stronger than any individual country would be alone. And this isn’t a new thing, Victor Hugo said in 1871, “let us be the United States of Europe, let us be the continental federation. Let us be European liberty. Let us be universal peace”. That was so long ago! So this is a dream that has resonated in the back of visionaries heads for a long long time. So then World War II happened, and after this tragedy Europe didn’t want any more war between their countries, ever. So years and years later (and for more economic reasons, like the German wanting to prevent inflation by all means—thus acting as the “rule” to how governments should run their economies) and after much negotiations, the euro was made! And though the euro hasn’t solved the problems that economists hoped it would, it did unite these countries into sharing a single currency—for better or worse.
We’re in Nicaragua for the next week or so. As we drove over the boarder, all 34 of us changed our dollars and Cordobas to Colones. I thought of this podcast as we calculated complicated exchange rates—not only because of the logistical ease a common currency would bring, but the unity. When the euro created, it came with the acknowledgement that if one country was weak, it would bring down the rest, but if one was strong, it could lead the rest. What if we had that in South America? I know that there’s too much strife between countries now for this ever to work, but it’s a nice dream. Crossing from Costa Rica into Nicaragua, we are crossing boarder of the most drastic income disparity between any two countries in South America. And it’s not just an arbitrary GDP thing—you can see it. We’ve been staying the past few nights on an Ometepe—an island in Lake Nicaragua. Each night we swim at sunset—black silhouetted heads bob in the water against a bright orange sky, wedged between two huge volcanoes. But one night after we’d swam, we think these two little girls came and snagged Stella’s swimsuit. It could have been so much worse and was more of an inconvenience than anything, but I feel different here than in Costa Rica, as bathing suite theft isn’t something very common there. Nonetheless, it’s incredible being here. And I’ve hardly had any time to write here! But I’ve been thinking a lot about the two years that my Dad spent here in the Peace Corps. Though I’m still doing school while I’m here, it feels like vacation. I feel proud and inspired when I tell people that he spent all of his time here doing service—what I guy. And I love the cyclical feeling that I’m getting being here—walking and seeing and smelling the same things in my 20’s that he walked and saw and smelled in his 20’s!
On Friday I had a wonderful day. I used to think of these in absolute terms—a wonderful day must be filled only with wonderful things. But I’m realizing that wonderful days can have mediocre parts—I think it’s only fair that way. On Friday we were midway through a four-day hiking trip through Santa Rosa National Park. We’d gotten up at 4:45 to beat the heat and hiked all day—through a tropical dry forest (desert, if I had to say). The beach—though at the end of the path, was at the forefront of our minds. We weren’t allowed to swim there (rough surf and sharks and alligators!), but we’d heard that the water was cool due to the currents—perfect to soak hot feet. Finally, through a corridor of trees we saw the ocean. It was as deserted and as pristine and as chilly as I’d envisioned and our feet sunk deep into the fine sand with each wave. But as I am my mother’s daughter, I wanted to swim. So a friend and I walked a few miles down to the end of the beach where it’s calmer, and fully clothed we dunked in. I have never felt more exhilarated—the shock of the cold and the thrill of secrecy. On our walk back, I had to force myself not to collect every single shell. I wish I didn’t have this incessant need to take the beach home with me but I’m glad to have these tangible crustacean reminders of a wonderful day.
Our journey's end
Today we spent six hours measuring trees in a coffee plantation. We had a field lab testing how much carbon the coffee farm fixes, and today was just data collection collection collection. It was hot and dusty and buggy and disgusting, but the owners of the farm took us on a tour and fed us as much coffee as we wanted after our work (also, one of our professors said that he would pick coffee beans for work every summer—1$ per basket he filled (he could fill about 10 a day). That shut us up).
Coffee, unlike other large agricultural products that Costa Rica exports (like bananas and pineapple) has remained a crop that small farmers can still produce (as it doesn’t require too much land to grow). Ten years ago, this small farm became an organic farm, partnering up with 5 other coffee farms to produce one product. Though organic coffee makes up less than 1% of the Costa Rican coffee, it’s supposedly some of the finest in the world.
The red one is ripe off the tree, and the brown has dried in the sun, and the baby ones on the left are ready to be roasted!
Coffee is a shade tolerant plant, meaning that it’s natural habitat is in the shade (where it can live and thrive) but it can also be grown in the sun, where it actually produces more. So in a conventional coffee plantation, all trees are cleared and the coffee is planted, irrigated a ton, and the production of each individual plant increases. But in this organic farm, they left big trees standing around the coffee plants, providing shade for them. Though the yield is less each season (about 50% less than a conventional farm), the shade keeps the soil from drying out as fast (thus using less water), and the trees fix nitrogen—maintaining soil health, and since it’s providing the plant with it’s natural growing conditions, it simply makes a "better cup" (as they say). The farmer compared it to the rabbit and the hare—you can go really fast but burn out and not be as good, or go slow and steady, producing quality in every step. Also, they don’t use any agrochemicals so it’s a totally closed system—nothing is added and nothing unnatural is produced. The farmer said that the money they save with chemicals goes to hiring more workers to pick and process the coffee (as the organic process is much more labor intensive). This provides jobs to the community and doesn’t create any contact between chemicals and bodies or the environment. They stressed that the process is much slower—the seeds grow slower, they’re picked slower, they’re processed and dried slower—but there’s also a mentality change. They are happier and freer, not producing for a big coffee conglomerate. They’re also in a niche market (organic Costa Rican coffee grown above 1,000 meters) so they’re able to sell each bag for more.
They also process (dry and roast) all of the coffee there. They have a machine that husks the seed (that byproduct is then used for compost), and the seeds are laid out under the sun to dry (instead of being put in heat chambers). Once the seed is picked off the tree, they say that it sits for three hours at most before it is processed, so no beans get stale and dried out.
A little machine
The sun's work
The coffee at the end tasted so so fresh and whole and yummy.
As to avoid giving you a stodgy chronicle of my weekend, I’ll try to keep this brief!
We went sailing! This was the first weekend that we’ve had totally free since I’ve been here. The bounty of time was wonderful, but it also felt odd and lavish after having every single minute of our day scheduled out by someone else. They have so much for us to fit in, that I can look at the schedule and know exactly what I’ll be doing at 11:30, 2 months from today. We call it “summer camp”.
So on Saturday a group of friends and I went to Manuel Antonio, a national park on the Pacific coast. Two girls booked this sailboat for all of us. It’s not something that I would ever think of doing, but I was grateful for their planning and organization. The boat took off in the afternoon, and we reveled with our faces to the wind and watched the water pass beneath us. We ate and danced and relaxed, and then we snorkeled! I’d never done anything like that before! Before jumping in, I kept thinking, “I hope we see fish, I hope we see fish”. I plunged into the water, opened my eyes, and around me were millions of little fish—going on with their business as if I wasn’t even there. It was magical. Back on the boat, we ate fish (which felt disloyal after just spending hours with their fellow peers, but delicious nonetheless). We sailed home with the sunset.
At night, we sat on the beach and star-gazed. The stars are brighter than the moon, unlike home where it’s the other way around. Manuel Antonio, which is seems safe and touristy during the day, is a different game at night. As we sat there, drunk and high men kept approaching us until we finally felt too unsafe and left. Costa Rica has been able to stay a safe and stable country, relative to its neighbors. But we learned that this year especially, Mexican gangs have been working with local cartels in Costa Rica—moving cocaine up the South American coast to Mexico. With no standing army, Costa Rica has to rely on police, judiciary, and other preventative measures (unlike in Mexico where the president just used something like 50,000 troops to deal with their drug situation). We were told that Quepos, the neighboring town from where we stayed, is becoming a major port for these drugs—perhaps explaining the plethora of intoxicated individuals that night. It was sad to see that culture abutting the cheery unblemished “eco-tourism!” market seen during the day.
Sunday we spent hiking around the park. Inside the reserve there are private beaches, which are much cleaner and more beautiful than their public neighbors. I know I’ve talked about the water before, but every time I swim here it’s as extraordinary as the first time. I spent most of the afternoon looking for pretty shells and rocks. I’m partial to the treasures I find at the island, but I like how I find different things everywhere I go. The biggest struggle of the weekend was applying (and reapplying) sunscreen quickly enough; we’re all crispy now. But after midterms all last week, the weightless sun was just what we needed.