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Monday, May 10, 2010

Well, were still at the beach.

At least until tomorrow morning when we start the last of our travels to get back to Alajuela for the night before we fly back to the states. Yesterday we took at a boat away from Bahia Drake, up the river to Sierpe. We had a great time in Bahia Drake -- diving, relaxing, going to the beach, chatting with one of the managers who gave us lots of tips on places and things to check out in the twin cities, conversing with the only other guest at the hotel, a swiss lady who was a bit more high maintenance than we were. From Sierpe we made it back to Domenical via Palmar Norte.

As we could tell from our first night here, a little over a week ago, Domenical is a pretty small town that mostly caters to tourists and surfers. The roads are muddy and full of puddles and its a laid back place where you can get patacones or pizza without too much trouble. Overall, the town seems kind of empty, probably because it is the low season for tourists, or maybe because we have been getting up early and going to bed before everyone is out at the bars.

The beach here is pretty with lots of waves for surfing and plenty of sand for hanging out. Yesterday we decided to learn how to surf (well, Ray has surfed before but he needed more practice). So we took a beginner surfing lesson with Bob, formerly from Southern California. We practiced paddling and popping and hopping on the beach before we headed out into the waves. He led us through many attempts and some successes at surfing the small and breaking waves into the beach. It was fun, a good challenge. I never realized what good exercise surfing is!

First I struggle to make it out past all the tiny waves and the current that I feel like I can barely move through and then there's jumping onto the board, paddling, popping up with arm strength, hopping up with the legs, and using core muscles to balance. I always thought surfing just required balance, but it seems like its probably a good way to get into really good shape. After a while my arms stopped being able to push me up, which made me realize how tired I was. We also got really really thirsty. The water temperature is nearly 80 and I think the air is about the same or warmer. I was pretty much sweating while surfing and the water did nothing to cool me off.

Its fun to try to catch a wave and then to also be able to get up on the board and ride along the wave while balancing. We were able to borrow the boards today, too, so we got lots more practice in. We haven't been doing much else in Domenical except drinking cold drinks such as the delicious batidos which are fruit blended with water or milk, a lovely treat, and pipa which is a young coconut cut open so you can drink the water inside.

I keep thinking that in a few days we'll think back to this week along Costa Rica's Pacific coast and find it hard to believe that we were even here. Its been so wonderful to have a chance to travel and explore and have these adventures. We're both covered with bug bites, bruises, blisters, surf-board-burns and the occasional rash, small temporary scars of our time here. These marks will soon fade (and we are looking forward to being less sweaty and bug-bitten soon), but of course our time and adventures here will not be quickly forgotten.

I guess that's all from Costa Rica, we'll share more stories and pictures when we see you. Love,

Anna and Ray

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Life at the Beach

Let's see, where did we leave off....Ah yes, we left Mastatal last Friday and got on a bus that took us to El Cruce de Santa Rosa, just a simple cross roads. From there, we walked a kilometer uphill and waited for the bus to Quepos. From Quepos we decided to go to Domenical and ended up stopping there for the day. The buses are a slow way to get from place to place in this small country. Most of them ramble and wind up and down dirt roads and speed along pavement when they can, stopping to pick up and drop people off everywhere along the way. Its pretty crazy the roads that these full sized buses lumber along.

In Domenical we checked out the beach, watched a huge rainstorm, had dinner and set the alarm to get up at 3.50 am. We got to the bus stop around 4.15 to wait for the 4.30 bus to Palmar Norte. The bus didn't arrive as scheduled, and the night watchman at a nearby restaurant/hotel asked if we wanted to wait inside. It was then that we discovered that our alarm clock was an hour early (I guess some of the buttons must have gotten pushed in my bag!) So we waited there until it was actually 4.30 and got on the bus as planned. From Palmar Norte we got a bus to Puerto Jimenez and arrived by mid-day at which point we finalized our reservations to stay in Parque Nacional Corcovado, found a hostel for the night, and other important details for the next few days. Puerto Jimenez is a small to medium sized town not too touristy, but lots of people travel through there to get to Corcovado.

In the morning we caught a collectivo (this one was a truck with seats in the back) to Carate – a two hour drive over bumpy unpaved roads and through small streams. When we got to Carate we saw our first scarlet macaws (the beautiful red, yellow and blue parrots that were flying all over that area) and started our walk into the park. Corcovado is a large area of preserved land that can only be reached on foot, by boat or by plane. You can take day trips from some of the lodges on the Osa peninsula, or you can hike the 18-20 kilometers in and stay at the Sirena ranger station. The first part of the hike was along the beach which is beautiful, empty and expansive. Then we arrived at La Leona, the station at the entrance to the park. From there we walked along a flat path through the edge of the rainforest and along the beach. The beach was inhabited by hermit crabs of all sizes, cute and funny little buggers. Also crabs that were barely visible until you stepped near one and it would crab walk quickly away. In the forest, at first, there were tons of purple, red and yellow crabs that would pop back into their holes as we came near.

We spotted our first mammals soon after starting on the trail – a pack of coatis, which look vaguely like raccoons with long, bushy, ringed tails that stood straight up and long thin snouts for sniffing and finding food. Without a guide leading us, or a book for reference we had no idea what they were, so I called them nifflers. They squeaked a bit and barely seemed to notice that we were there as they walked and climbed around a grove of banana trees. We also saw monkeys – the first ones we saw were swinging through the trees right above our heads using their tails like another hand to hold onto the branches. I think we saw three different kinds of monkeys while in the park and heard lots of howler monkeys as they moved around the forest.

The hike to La Sirena was about 7 hours. It was very flat, so it was not difficult, just long, and we had to keep the tide in mind for crossing some parts of the trail. Towards the end of the hike we had to cross a river where we had been told that bull sharks hung out when the tide was high. We did not know where to cross, so we forded at the mouth of the river where it was waist deep and the current was strong. We couldn't see the bottom, it was tricky. I slipped once and dunked our small camera in the water, but we made it across. Turns out that the bull sharks are in a different river so we needn't have worried about them. The next day we found out where we were supposed to cross – an easy walk through ankle or knee deep water. Happily, our camera dried out and is working again.

We spent two nights at Sirena so we had a day to explore some of the trails that went deeper into the rainforest. Since we didn't have a guide we probably missed some details, but we did a good amount of exploring on our own. We were eating our lunch (mainly snickers bars and crackers since we had to carry in our food, except breakfast, to the park and didn't want to bring heavy packs) under a tree when I spotted some monkeys also eating their lunch above us. Its not to hard to spot the little climbers, either by seeing half eaten fruit or seed pods falling from a tree or by limbs shaking as the monkeys move around. They also make little squeaking noises, kind of like a squirrel. As we sat there they really started squeaking sounds of alarm. I wondered what they were freaking out about. When I looked into the forest I saw something tan and tawny and realized it was a puma. It was probably about 15 or 20 feet from us and it moved along quickly, but it was amazing to witness animals so close by in their natural environment.

Corcovado is, apparently one of the most biodiverse places on earth and one of the most unspoiled places in Costa Rica. We didn't get to see any tapir, though they are pretty common in the park, but we did see a heard of peccaries (wild pigs) and another puma as we were leaving the park. It was a pretty amazing hike and though we didn't get to tour the canopy or take a zip line as you can in other places, it was a unique way to experience the rain forest.

The ride back to Carate was gruelingly bumpy but we made it, had showers and some delicious pizza in Puerto Jimenez where we stayed for the night. Yesterday we took two more buses first to La Palma, where we waited for a couple of hours to get the bus to Bahia Drake. This bus ride was really up and down and we went through some small rivers, too. I guess once you get farther into the rainy season you can't take that road to get over here. Drake is a tiny town on the edge of a number of lodges and hotels ranging from cabinas to high end lodges. We are staying at a beautiful, simple hotel right on a rocky beach, overlooking the water. Its really nice and relaxing, our meals are included, it seems quite luxurious to me (they just fixed the hot water for the showers, too!). Its fun to stay someplace a little bit nicer and this area is truly so beautiful. The sound of the ocean is always nearby and the deck outside our room has the perfect view of the bay.

Our main purpose for coming here is to scuba dive. Today we went out to Isla Del Cano, about 45 minutes away by very fast motor boat. On the way there we watch dolphins jump and dive in the water. I took a resort diving class, learning the basics in the morning and joining Ray and another diver in the afternoon. On their morning dive they saw sharks and turtles. This afternoon we saw an eel and a ray. There are fish and coral as well. The water is not crystal clear like it is in the Carribean or other places but there is still a lot to see. I am still getting used to breathing underwater and the other skills and details of scuba diving, but its a fun thing to try. We will go out again tomorrow and Ray will do a third day of diving as well.

We've reached the point in our trip when we will be home in less than a week. We have a couple more days of bus riding and maybe some surfing ahead of us. Its been great to have so much time in Costa Rica – time to learn, work and meet people and time to travel and see more of the country. We're savoring the rest of our time and looking forward to catching up with everyone when we get back. I finally got some post cards, but haven't made it to the post office yet, I will try to send them before we leave, but we might reach you before they do. Love,

Anna and ray

Friday, April 30, 2010

We set out on the road this morning. Three interesting bus rides and we have made it to Domenical, a surfing town on the southern pacific coast. We are relaxing here this afternoon/evening and then we will head to Puerto Jiminez tomorrow early. So far our travel plans are working out and its a lot of fun to be exploring more of the country. More later!!


Thursday, April 29, 2010

We've reached the end of our stay at Rancho Mastatal. We will soon be heading for adventures elsewhere in Costa Rica. As I write this the rain is pounding down on the roof. Clearly we are getting farther into the rainy season as we get more and more precipitation every day. Hopefully we won't get completely soaked on our travels (well, we definitely will when we go scuba diving)!

Last weekend we went on an outing to another town, about 50 minutes away by cattle truck. We joined many soccer players from Mastatal on the ride to La Vasconia for their football match and a chance to see more of Costa Rican culture. The ride there was filled with beautiful views of mountains and valleys and at one point we caught a glimpse of the pacific ocean. The truck we rode in the back of was barely up to the task of getting us there, but we made it nonetheless.

We spent the day watching soccer matches. Mastatal has a men's and women's team, with a mix of ages and including regular players from the ranch as well as those who happen to be here when there is a game. Ray and I did not play, but we watched a couple of games. At the same time, there was a horse event going on on the other side of the road. All day trucks pulling trailers with horses in them arrived. We watched a little bit of the horse evens, mainly when they were showing off the stallions. I'm not sure if it is in all of Latin America, but in Costa Rica many of the horses are trained in the Spanish style of riding which means the horses are fitted with bits that cause them to really arch their neck and they are trained to step high, so it looks like they are dancing a little bit. It also, often, looks like they are in pain as they move along this way, but I can't say for sure. In Mastatal we see people riding through on horses which they use for whatever work they are doing, but these horses are not trained as formally.

It was interesting to be in a really rural area where so many people had come for the festivities and nearly everyone was carefully dressed. In the states most people probably don't wear high heals and other nice clothes to walk on dirt roads and in muddy fields, but in the states people aren't usually as concerned about being well dressed in public. There were lots of people in cowboy-ish clothes, too, for the horse show. It was a fun day and I'm glad we got to see something new and different while we are here.

Time has really been flying by in the past week or so. I'm not sure if its the lack of clocks around that makes me loose track of time or if things are speeding up since we are have gotten used to the routine here. As I was taking my very quick, semi-warm shower this evening, I was thinking about all the little things we have gotten used to in four weeks here. Very few cars on the road, and being in a tiny little town, the showers, the meals, the projects that we work on every day simply for the sake of contributing to the work here and doing something that interests us, the people that we have met, the sounds of the insects at night and more. Of course we haven't been here for that long so it won't be difficult to adjust when we go someplace else in a few days, or when we get back home. Still, I think we have managed to really settle in to this place for this brief time. I have definitely enjoyed being at Rancho Mastatal and I am glad that we have had this much time here. I could imagine staying longer, but I am also excited to take some of what we have learned and start doing it on our own.

We'll see you all in a couple of weeks and I'll try to update you on our travels if I have a chance!!


Anna and ray

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Things are continuing to go well for us in Costa Rica. We are pretty much entrenched in the daily routine with exceptions here and there. On Tuesday, Ray took a trip to Puriscal, one of the biggest towns nearby. On Thursday I am helped with baking day. We made six loaves of sourdough and about 4 dozen bagels. Making the dough was pretty simple, but baking them in the earth oven was a lot more challenging. At first it was hot, we burned some things, but then the baking worked out okay. It took all day to do the baking. I still have a lot to learn about sourdough and baking in a wood fired oven!

Our work on the biodigestor has been successful so far. Ray and I finished framing the walls, we put in the wattle (bamboo framework, over which we will daub) and also attached two big mosaics to two of the walls. We've started daubing these walls and its cool to see the whole thing come together, although there is still a lot more to do. With any luck we might see/help with putting a sink in and finishing a couple of the walls. I want to put in the stairs, but I need help with that and I'm not sure if it will happen.

Most of the buildings here are quite amazing and they have been built using some of the techniques that we have learned in the process of building the biodigestor toilet. I don't really realize it until I think about it, but due to the open-ness of all buildings we spend most of our time here outside. Often that is under the roof that surrounds the main house. Under that huge span of roof is the porch (really more of a room with no windows or walls) where we cook in the kitchen, eat at the long table, bake in the earth oven, and hang out in hammocks and rocking chairs. Insects fly in and out around and toads hop over sometimes. We sleep in a regular building with screens on the windows, but some of the other dwellings are a series of open rooms with roofs and walls that keep out the rain but are free to let in all of the breezes. Its hard to really explain, but maybe you will get to see some pictures! Although we've only seen this one small project its impressive to see all of the careful craftsmanship that must be involved in building them from the floor to the walls to the roofs and stairs.

Also, pretty much all of the furniture is made here and it is really beautiful as well. Most everything is build using joinery which is really interesting and gorgeous. Its impressive to see what people have made and intriguing to learn more about.

The other morning we visited La Iguana Chocolate, a very small chocolate farm about a kilometer from here. We had a tour and learned about the process of making chocolate. First, it grows on a cacao tree which produces large pod-like fruits which are harvested. Inside the fruits are large beans covered in a fibrous, soft membrane which looks a bit like the white stuff around an orange but tastes incredibly sweet. The beans are violet colored and bitter tasting. After they have been harvested, the beans are fermented in some of the pulp (for lack of a better word) and then dried. Then they are roasted (at La Iguana they roast them over a fire), the outer skin on the bean is removed and they are ground. These nibs are pressed to remove a lot of the cocoa butter.

I suspect that this part of the process varies in other operations and I imagine that most chocolate makers process the beans or the nibs themselves once they come from the chocolate farm. But, at La Iguana, they remove most of the cocoa butter so they can make cocoa powder. The chocolates they make there are made from finely ground nibs with some sugar and other flavorings. The consistency is more like a soft truffle, not like tempered chocolate in a bar. We tasted chocolate and cocoa beans at various stages, it was interesting to see the process and learn more about where it comes from and how it is grown.

There are other interesting fruits here, too. Of course the lovely pineapple, but also the ice cream bean (I might have mentioned it before) which is another fruit with a sweet membrane surrounding the beans, custard apple which is also very sweet and gelatinous, and the twinkie fruit. This isn't the real name of it, but people at Rancho Mastatal have named this tiny berry (it looks like a small cherry, but doesn't have a pit) because it really does taste like burnt sugar or a slightly caramelized baked good. Its the strangest thing to eat a little red fruit that tastes like something sweet and bready. Its fun to encounter new and exotic tastes and plants. There are lots of trees that don't produce edible fruit but they make odd and interesting seed pods. One makes light spiky little balls, another makes fruit that looks like apples the size of bowling balls. They are actually more like gourds which can be carved into bowls and things. Yesterday I noticed a tree that has little pods that look like maple seeds, but with three wings – then I saw that they turn into another sort of round pod covered with little pointy triangles. They all kind of remind me off life on a strange planet or something from a Dr. Suess book.

Not too much else to report here, unfortunately I haven't been speaking Spanish very much. I practice on the kids at the elementary school when I am there to help teach them some English. I've learned a few new words, but I haven't been able to improve very much. In about a week we will set off to see some other parts of the country. Right now we are planning to go the Osa Peninsula, to Puerto Jiminez, Parque Nacional Corcovado, and Bahia Drake, and then a couple of days at the beach before we fly home. We'll see let you know how things go. Love,

Anna and Ray

Thursday, April 15, 2010

We've been in Costa Rica for about two weeks now. We've pretty much settled into life at Rancho Mastatal. Every morning I wake up around 6 and go down to the classroom for a bit of yoga. At 7 breakfast is ready – usually pancakes, eggs, fuit, kefir, granola, and pinto (rice and beans). At all of the meals we help ourselves and then can take seconds once everyone has gotten firsts. After breakfast and clean up, we have a morning meeting where we choose which projects we will work on. Some of the things we have helped with so far: making kim chi, making ginger beer, making glasses from bottles, digging up vetiver* for planting elsewhere, turning piles of tierra fermentada (compost that has a lot ofsubsoil added, making light fixtures for one of the houses, planting, working on building the walls for the biodigestor, and probably some other things.

After the meeting we start our morning projects and work until around noon when the sound of the conch being blown lets us know that lunch is ready. The food here is great – during the week a couple of local women do most of the cooking with help from whoever is signed up to help with lunch or dinner. On the weekends, three volunteers/interns etc cook. The food is pretty much all vegetarian, whole foods, as much local as possible. The gardens here are still being started so not a lot of the food is grown on site, but some certainly comes from nearby. While I'm on the topic of food, I must say that every time I eat a piece of pineapple here, I can't believe how deliciously sweet it is. So good!

After lunch we usually take some time to relax/read/nap or hang out in a hammock. Then, back to working on projects. Ray and I are now working on framing the interior walls for the biodigestor toilet. We are using large pieces of bamboo for the posts. Bamboo here grows to the diameter of small trees and it is used a lot in building the frame work of buildings as well as for walls and so many other things as it is really versatile and I think, also, quite strong. I don't really know a lot about building walls or anything, this is a good chance to learn and also to experiment a little bit since there is some room for error and practice. Ray and I are getting lots of ideas for future projects, such as finally building an earth oven, some carpentry (maybe joinery?) projects, and maybe some day using natural building to make ourselves a house. There are plenty of opportunities to learn here.

We usually work until 4 or 5 and then maybe take a shower, perhaps hand wash some laundry, and read/write/hang out until the conch is blown for dinner. At dinner we all gather around the table and people have a chance to say things that they are thankful for. After dinner usually more reading, hanging out, relaxing. By the time dinner is over, it often seems quite late since it consistently gets dark at 6. We are usually reading in bed by 8.30 or 9 and asleep soon after that.

Although we are in a small town without the noise of highways or airplanes, the air is filled with the sounds of frogs, tree frogs, and insects at night. In the morning the birds start again. The rainy season is beginning here. Apparently, this area gets about 12 feet of rain yearly! Lately, most afternoons have clouded over and thunder circulates in the distance. By late afternoon or early evening we have a huge downpour, probably the most torrential I have ever experienced. It doesn't downpour every day, but as the rainy season progresses there will be more and more.

There are so many insects here! I think every day I see an insect that I have never seen before. You have to watch out for the ants. Even the tiny ones bite with a sting that itches after you have pulled them off and squished them. The army ants are amazing to watch. Yesterday we saw a huge number of them scatter, fan out and then re-form into a seemingly endless line. Other insects scattered quickly to get out of their path, but we saw them devour a scorpion that wasn't so fortunate to escape. I haven't come across many scorpions, but the ones I have seen are so strange looking, they seem more like crabs than insects. There are lots of frogs – little black and green poison dart frogs, big (but not ginormous) cane toads, and the frogs that live in the swales and sing loudly at night.

We are slightly disconnected from typical Costa Rican life, but we interact with more people when we get out of the Rancho. I have been teaching Ray to order in spanish at the soda and have been chatting with people here and there. Even so, it is good to be here in a place where we can learn a lot about things that we are interested in and also experience another country, climate, and culture. This trip seems almost the opposite of our bike trip when we were moving on every single day, just the two of us, traveling just to see it all. Here we have a daily routine in one small place, we are around lots of other people doing similar things, and we are putting in a lot of effort to improve and build this place that we are not part of for very long. Sometimes, though, its best to just experience and try to take in as much as we can without trying to figure out what it all means. We are having a really good time, learning a lot and working pretty hard. We've also been having fun with trips to the river, a day of sports and games, and getting to know our fellow volunteers. We hope you all are doing well and we'll continue to let you know how things go! Love,

Anna and Ray

*Vetiver is a grass with roots that can go many feet deep and is great for erosion control which is important here.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

first Days at the Ranch

Hello All! I must first apologize for the lack of postcards and emails. We are in Mastatal until April 30 and this town of about 150 people doesn't have a post office. There is an internet place but it will be easiest for me to report back to you by writing to everyone on this blog.

On Saturday we were picked up at our hotel by Fernando who took us on the two hour drive to Rancho Mastatal. The ride went over hills and mountains, and then into valleys and up over more mountains. The views were beautiful and we went through small towns and along very winding roads. The road got narrower as we got farther from Alejuela and beyond Puriscal until it finally became entirely gravel. Eventually we turned off and soon arrived at Rancho Mastatal at 8.30 on Saturday morning.

We were surprised to hear many many voices and see a full table of people eating breakfast. We were welcomed and joined the table for the meal. We spent most of the day hanging out and getting our bearings a bit, eventually getting a tour of the Rancho. The place consists of a main house where everyone share breakfast, lunch and dinner (there is also a library and some rooms where people stay as well as a porch around the whole place for reading and hanging out), several houses where people sleep. Some of the buildings were already there when the land was purchased, but many of them were built since they have been here. These buildings were all made using natural building techniques, combining bamboo, wood, wattle and daub and other ways of creating unique and beautiful dwellings full of light and air. There are also a couple of houses a little bit farther away which belong to friends of the ranch and are also part of the the whole thing. Right now we are staying at “Jeannie's”, where most of the volunteers stay, which is right next to the only hot showers (passive solar) as well as a plant nursery, laundry lines and the classroom building which is where I have been practicing yoga every morning.

The first two days that we were here were not work days and we joined in some of the r and r, such as sushi night (with costumes) and a walk through the rain forest to a waterfall for swimming. We have gotten a sense of how things work around mostly from other interns and volunteers. Starting on Monday we joined in with every one else for the morning meeting after breakfast. At that time we go through all the tasks that will be worked on that day and who will work on it. The first day I helped plant and work on some new swales and then joined in working on a new structure for a toilet that is being built. This project was started by a class to build a two seater toilet which supplies a biodigestor which supplies methane for one of the gas stoves in the kitchen. The structure has been built and now the walls are being made with a natural building technique called wattle and daub. The wattle is a framework of bamboo and it is covered with daub, which is a mixture of sand, clay, manure, straw and water that is best mixed by several feet stomping on it until it forms a good building material. It is carefully plastered on to the wattle to form a wall. It is a very time consuming, very hands on way of building which can yield some amazing shapes and forms. I've been working on that a lot, but today I spent some time at the local elementary school working with the kids.

Ray helped make a foot washing station (using his tiling knowledge), he's also helped daubing and working on another house nearby. Its taken a few days, but we are gradually becoming some part of the group and hopefully in the next few weeks we will be able to learn more and contribute more to the projects here. We have also had a chance to explore some of Mastatal. We are pretty much in the center of town which is quite small and consists of a cantina, a soda (a little store/restaurant), the secondary school, elementary school, internet place, a church (used only for major holidays apparently), and a pulperia (a tiny convenience store). There are other farms nearby, including a chocolate farm which we plan to visit.

I haven't seen any really exotic wildlife yet, but a lot of interesting plants. Lizards in various sizes, ants (army, leafcutter, and the kind that bites), some frogs and toads... We have had some serious afternoon/evening downpours which means that you have to shout to be heard and will get completely soaked if you have to go from one building to another. The weather is hot and humid and we sweat a lot. We have met lots of interesting and friendly people. Some have been here for months, some just arrived, some are leaving soon. We are having a really good time so far! I hope everyone is doing well and check back for more from us sometime in the next week!

-Anna and Ray