Costa Rica has been called the Switzerland of the Americas because of its peacefulness (no army) and beauty (green mountains and rainforests), and it certainly stands out as a model for ecological consciousness and conservation. While we found some cracks in this image (from our more politically engaged friends – more later), we immersed ourselves in beautiful and peaceful sites for most of our time there. We were often literally living “in the clouds” whether it was in the cloudforest of Santa Elena and Monteverde in the north or in “Las Nubes” (The Clouds) in the south.
During our long hikes into the jungle, along rivers, or up steep Alpine hills, our camera lenses delighted in framing old growth cedars hanging with moss, tall tropical trees supporting verdant vegetation, climbing vines struggling for the light, air plants peacefully clinging to branches, and parasites stealing energy from their hosts. All that as well as brilliantly coloured flowers, butterflies and birds. We have tried to recreate our walks for you in a vimeo video, accompanied by the music of Manuel Obregon, the former Minister of Youth and Culture who visited York two years ago, offering his jazz piano improv in concert with the sounds of rainforest creatures.
Please see the video with 70 images and music on our vimeo site: https://vimeo.com/se
This mountain community was settled in the 1950s by Oklahoma Quaker conscientious objectors to the Korean war. Deborah visited Quaker friends there in the late 1970s, and noted how the town has mushroomed in the past 35 years to meet a growing tourist demand. We visited the original cheese factory (now bought out by a Mexican multinational), an artesan coop, and enjoyed meals in the treehouse café and the mural-clad restaurant of Morphos (the big blue butterflies).
We slept in a lodge on Finca Terra Viva run by a Costa Rican couple (experts in eco-tourism), who offered families visits with the 150 dairy cows, pigs, and geese, as well as horse rides around the wooded and hilly pastures.
A break in an empty city
Everything closes down during Semana Santa in Latin America, so we found ourselves in an empty but art-filled hotel in San Jose for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, struggling to find a restaurant that was open. We did manage to visit the amazing National Museum of Costa Rica on the Wednesday before it closed, entering it through a live butterfly exhibition, marveling at the antiquities of pre-Colombian history and taking in a photo exhibit by Argentine photographer Lucas Iturriza reflecting the incredible ethnic and racial diversity in a country which often appears to be (and prides itself on being) mainly European white.
We were spared, however, from feeling lonely by having invitations on both days in San Jose to have lunch with old friends from Deborah’s work with the ALFORJA popular education network in the 1980s. On Thursday, we spent 7 hours for a delicious asado in the suburban home of Oscar Jara and his partner Ana Mireya, along with two daughters Maria Laura and Natalia. Oscar is currently president of the Latin American Council for Popular Education, and was about to head off for meetings in Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina. He screened for us “EL Codo del Diablo”, the very successful historical documentary produced by his two sons, Ernest and Antonio. It exposes state complicity in the assassinations of several communist trade union leaders in 1948, precisely before Costa Rica abolished its army.
The next day we were able to meet Ernesto at another asado at the mountainside cabin of their mother, Laura Vargas. Four of five of Oscar and Laura’s children arrived, two with delightful grandchildren. As feisty as ever, Laura led us on a hike through the thick bush down the side of the deep valley to the river below. John helped split logs to fuel the wood stove while Deborah caught up with Laura’s life (she is now working with women’s projects on the Caribbean coast) and pumped Ernesto for more information on his film and cinematic styles that could be applied to a documentary on tomato workers.
One day John did a bike tour of San Jose on his own and the next day we both cycled through the University of Costa Rica, admiring the architecture, the gardens, the sculptures and mosaic murals.
Las Nubes – the York connection
The day before Easter, we headed south to the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor which York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies is helping to develop with Costa Rican counterparts; it includes a tropical research centre and community projects aimed at biodiversity conservation, sustainable development of adjoining farmlands, and ecotourism. We were warmly greeted by Las Nubes project coordinator Luis Angel Rojas Gonzalez and his partner Patri, who took us to the site where construction of a new research centre is about to begin, where a rainbow offered a hopeful sign. For more about the project see: http://www.lasnubes.org/.
They then set us up in a camp on Luis Angel’s finca deep within the forest (1 km off the gravel road down a very bumpy dirt path), which we made our home for the next six days. We cooked in an open air kitchen, shared with small red ants and large but harmless buzzing beatles. We relished fresh fruit (mangoes, papayas, star fruit, bananas), gallo pinto (rice and beans), vegetables, and home-made corn tortillas which John mastered over days of practice. At sunrise and sunset, we dined on its upper deck, with a fabulous view of the rainforests, birds, and cloud-drenched Chirripo mountain range. When we got too hot, we could just take one of the paths to the river below, to cool off in the shallow pools and refreshing rapids.
Luis Angel gave us a wonderful overview of the corridor, taking us to mountain ridges where we could observe the reservas, participating fincas, and ecotourism projects, like the museum of Alexander Skutch (famous ornithologist) and Cosingos reserve that draws students, passionate bird watchers and tropical plant researchers from around the world. We visited a large CoopeAgri coffee processing plant where passionate composter John was impressed with their massive production of organic fertilizer (mixing coffee bean shells, ashes and molasses waste from the cane sugar refinery) and the process of washing and drying the beans. We also watched the delivery and crushing of massive loads of cane in the sugar refinery, and ate in the workers’ café. We also had long conversations with Luis Angel about the challenges of developing greater community commitment to the guiding principles behind the idea of the Biological Corridor: to become more aware and proud of their rich natural resources and to unite the diverse sectors into a more cooperative integrated community development strategy.
Deborah was very moved to hear how fondly people remembered Las Nubes founder the late Howard Daugherty, current York coordinator Felipe Montoya, and many of the FES students who have come for field courses and research since 1999. In particular, she followed the contacts of Vero Diaz, a graduate student she is currently supervising, who spent January and February facilitating art workshops with the women in three communities. Vero sent a draft booklet of poetry and paintings by the women to share with them. Deborah met one of them, Mariana Valverde, who is a coordinator of the Alexander Skutch Corridor Festival in May, showcasing art, agriculture, and other community products and cultural traditions. Vero had also suggested that we visit two amazing local artists who had inspired her.
Guadalupe Urbina is a well-known Costa Rican singer and visual artist, who now lives and works with youth in Longo Mai, a small community of El Salvadorean refugees from the 1980s war. Deborah was delighted to learn of common friends, from the Nicaraguan and Alforja networks of the 1980s.
Guadalupe shared with us her latest CD featuring traditional music that she has gathered from communities over the decades, mixing the original recordings with her interpretations. We also saw her recent paintings, on ecological and spiritual themes, that she will be exhibiting in California in 2016; hopefully we can also bring her to Toronto for an exhibit and concert. See her facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/CantautoraGuadalupeUrbina
When we visited Raquel Bolaños, who works as a visual artist/activist with Rios Vivos, a movement to save the rivers (from contamination and harmful dam projects), she suggested we talk AT a river, instead of about the river in her house. So she led us to a perfect bathing spot, where swam, sang, and chatted while John built up a dam to raise the water level for swimming. Another day Deborah spent some time with Raquel in a ceremony and is now trying to recruit her to come to York to do her Masters in Environmental Studies, where she could combine her environmental concerns and artistic practice.
We made a final artistic connection on our last day in Costa Rica as we visited Boruca, an Indigenous community known for its magnificent carved and painted wooden masks, which they use in a Festival de los Diablos (a name imposed by the Spaniards, who attributed the masks to work of the devil).
Master carver Santos explained the misnomer pf a pre-colonial practice of using masks to hide their faces and scare their enemies. FES students have also connected with Boruca artisans and produced an exhibit of their masks at York last year. From a local museum, we also learned about efforts to reclaim the Boruca language, with only two speakers left in the community.
Leaving Boruca over a narrow ridge that looked down on immense valleys, we found ourselves marveling at the countryside as we headed toward the Panama border, passing by immense fields of pineapple and palm oil trees.