If you ask Nicaraguans, the answer will most likely be that their affluent neighbors are good at brownnosing gringos. Costa Ricans, however, will point to their hard working and non-violent traits. Both sides might have some truth to it, but I'm sure that's not the whole story. A look at the history of this untypical Latin American nation might reveal some answers. First of all, there hasn't been a coup d'etat in Costa Rica for (quite exactly) 60 years. The reason for this is that there hasn't been a military since 1948. That's when the generally beloved national hero Don Pepe Figueres abolished the military, more or less immediately after getting into power with its help. The entire military budget was redirected into education, turning barracks into boarding schools, drill sergants into gym teachers, and generals into pencil pushers at the board of education. Not much of a change, really, but on the surface it looked impressive. Following that, the clever Don Pepe held free elections, which of course he won by a landslide.
Indirectly, this might have made all the difference. Since then the country has been experiencing relative stabillty, and a steadily growing wealth due to the ever increasing flow of gringo visitors, especially for (eco-)tourism. So much for the brownnosing. At the same time it has led to a strong interest in preserving natural treasures, such as the abundant flora and fauna, which Costa Rica is famous for.
Other than that, the country has not too much to offer. The capital and biggest city, San Jose, has a very provincial feel to it. The center with the major shopping streets looks low-key and civilised. Too quiet for Latin America, and too simple for Western standards. The buildings are mostly modern, with the occasional colonial church, and there is generally very little going on. Needless to say, I only stayed a day before taking a bus to San Isidro and to my next host farm.San Isidro de El General is the "fastest growing big city in Costa Rica" but this statement hardly does justice to the sleepy, dusty, provincial town it is. Not wasting any more time there than necessary, I took the next (and only) bus down to La Rivera, and the farm where Memo and his family live. The Chinchilla-Corderos are a family of six: Guillermo and Luz, and their children Nicol (15), Maria-Fernanda (14), Guillermo (12), and little Daniela (7). Not on the wwoofing list, I was introduced to them by their American neighbor, on whose farm I was going to work until something came up and they couldn't host me. In retrospect, I feel very lucky. The family is really sweet and I got along perfectly with each one of them.
Not considered part of the family, but still far from livestock category are the pets: Tigre the boxer, and Cosa the chihuahua. This uneven pair is source of much laughter as they play together, guard the house of squirles and butterflies, and keep fighting a constant game of "who's top-dog". More a bird than a dog (though nobody seems to have told her) is Paloma, the family dove. She seems to feel uncomfortable as the only pidgeon in the area, so she likes to snuggle up with the dogs and bark (gru-gruuu-gru) together with them. Another weirdness she has, to the entertainment of all, is her fondness of music, especially reggeaton. When she hears the rythm, she starts dancing, stepping to it back and forth, swaying her head to the side along with the beat. Lastly, I should mention Ramon the young goat. He's mainly employed as lawnmower, and in spite of the vehement objections from the female side of the family, Memo still hopes to get a Christmas dinner out of him eventually.
The farm they live on is located next to the El General river, close to the hamlet of La Rivera, which has a church, a school, and about twenty homes. It is about as rural as you can get in Costa Rica. The only road is gravel, and there is no phone connection, no cell-phone signal, and hence no internet. If you want to communicate, you holler and hope someone hears you. Nevertheless, or maybe because of all this, the impression I got was close to paradise.The home of the Chinchillas was equipped with all sorts of 1st world amnities, and out in the garden the plants were generously providing papayas, coconuts, passion-fruit, pinapples, oranges, various types of bananas, noni, avocadoes (only in season) and cacao. There was also a garden, relatively small, compared to my previous experiences, with vegetables and kitchen herbs. The climate between the mountains (and the end of the rainy season) ensured the perfect weather: warm, yet mild, with a pleasant cloud cover, but never cold. In this climate you could also grow lettuce and cabages, mustard greens, and spinach, which we did. One other thing I got to know and love is the yucca root: a starchy tubber, which makes a great variety of dishes. On the hillside we harvested coffee, mostly for our own use. Memo didn't like the idea of selling it, since the quality was considered low. That didn't mean that the coffee we drank wasn't delicious, quite the contrary, in fact.
But all the plants, diverse and many as they might be, were not the pride of the farm. What the finca grew, as Memo explained, were animal products: meat, eggs, milk, etc. That's where most of the money, time, and energy was invested in, and that's what brought home the bacon, quite literarly. Consequently, that is what determined my daily work as well.
At 6am, after a cup of coffe and a bowl of gallo pinto (black beans with rice) I set out on my first task to clean the pigs' quarters. It didn't smell as bad as I had imagined, and in fact, I was done quite quickly. That's because they are cleaned three times a day (ideally), so the mess didn't accumulate to a level of grossness. Why someone would want to clean their pigs three times a day? Not only to make the task easier in the long run, but also to use the excrement as quickly as possible. Most of the cooking was done on pig-methane (the rest on wood-fire). We washed it all down into a big container covered with a plastic tarp, from where a hose led directly into the kitchen. Compared to Arvo's well constructed hi-tech digester, this system seemed more than primitive. However, it worked like a charm.After the pigs came the cows. There were a few mothers with calves, and we would have two nursing cows in the corral each morning to be milked. Luz introduced me to this, and first it was a pretty tedious task. The milk would come in little spurts, rather than in long streams when Luz would milk them. After a few days, however, I got better at it, and by the end of my stay I would take care of them myself. The hardest part turned out to be not the milking itself, but the coordinating of the animals: making sure both had enough food in front of them so they would keep still, tieing up the cow with the youngest calf, as she tends to be most nervous (which could lead to spilled milk, or in the worst case a horned milker). And most of all, using the calves to tickle more milk out of the mothers. Let them suckle a bit, then milk the cow a bit, let them back, and so on.
Taking care of the cows, however, meant a lot more work than just milking them. First of all, we had to cut fresh grass for them, which they ate while being milked. This "grass" was a 2-3 meter tall jungle growth, with leaves sharp as razor blades. We chopped it down with machetes, then pushed it into the grinder. Yummie! The cows loved it. Then after successful milking, they were sent out to the back pasture with their calves to fend for themselves for the rest of the day. Meanwhile, we took care of the rest of the herd on the hills nearby. Most of the cattle grazed on the land surrounding the farm, on neighboring land, or on Finca Santa Fé, which is Memo's other farm on the other side of the mountain. This apparently is nothing unusual here, neighbors share resources depending on their need, organized by intricate agreements between each other. The objective is to keep the animals well fed, and the land from getting overgrazed. This seems to work out quite well, except for the frequent need of driving them to new pastures, which for us meant a lot of cowboy-work.I never thought the work of the classical Old West style cowboy was still alive, much less that I would get to experience it myself. However, it seems like ancient practices are still well in use, at least on the Chinchilla farm. Riding horses to round up cattle and driving them through gates and into corals, roping calves and giving them injections, fumigating them against tics and other parasites, selecting the animals intended for sale and driving them back down to the house... these type of activities became as much part of the farm routine as feeding pigs. And it was fun too! First I was not so sure what to think of riding the horse, but it all went very smoothly. Since the cattle is a pretty slow moving creature, we never had to run them too fast either. Also, the horse Memo selected for me was one of the calmest, best natured animals ever, an old man of 24 years. Swinging the lasso was another thing. To clarify many question I'd recieved about this: No, I never roped a calf from horseback. It was hard enough to get it around their necks standing on the ground. But, as it is with anything, all it takes is practice, and since there was no need for it, I got to do it all but a handful of times.
Coming back from an outing on horseback we were all pretty tired. Fortunately, being a good housewife, Luz made sure to heavily reinfoce this homecoming experience. So there was always delicious food and coffee waitig for us, just as we got done putting away the saddles. Depending on the type of work, we would be home at different hours, so lunch could be anywhere between 10am and 1pm. If work required us to be out later, we would take a lunchbox with us, but when we got back, there would be an afternoon meal called "café" consisting of coffee and some sweet delicacy such as corn pancaces called chorreadas with sour cream.
Needles to say, all of the milk products were home made, which included milk, sweet and sour cream, cheese, and a yoghurt-like drink called leche agria, which you get if you let the milk sit out for a day or so. Don't try this it at home, by the way, it won't work with pasteurized milk.
After 2pm we rarely went out to do hard work. The western sun, way hotter than the noontime one, was the main reason. Instead we sat aroud in the shade and did the kind of afternoon work that seems dull and boring, but after a morning's labor just perfect: polishing eggs, tearing off the husks of corn, separating the bad beans from the good ones, and things like that. In the meantime we would talk, joke, play games, and have fun. By this time the kids would be home from school and help out as well. With Nicol and Fernanda I would practice English, and with little Guiller and Dani play games relentlessly.
In the first week I brought up guessing animals by asking Yes/No questions. They soon became pretty good at it, and I gained a lot of knowledge about the types of critters that supposedly live on the farm (though I've never got to see them): ant-eaters, sloths, and monkeys being only a few. What I did see though, were giant iguanas, birds of every color, and weird singing froggs making sounds like that of car-alarms or police sirens. After the second week I introduced chess. Nicol had told me about wanting to learn it but never having the chance, and I wanted to get away from the animal game anyway, so I got a chess game in San Isidro. It was a raging success. For two weeks all of the kids wanted to play, again and again, and pretty soon they were pretty good at it too. By the last week someone remembrered a Monopoly game (edition Panama), so we played that too like there was no tomorrow.
Sometimes I would escape the games into various construction projects. I liked this kind of work, since it was more just hanging out with Memo and figguring things out. We had bought a truckload of lumber of the worst quality. Really, driftwood is too good of a term to describe what we got. Our task and challenge was to build tables for hydroponic lettuce production and a worm bin. Amazingly, we managed to construct a couple of tables, which turned out to be extremely sturdy. The worm-bin was easier, as we built in on the ground, covered with lime dust, so the worms wouldn't escape downwards. We filled it up with cattle manure and then moved in the worms. They are highly prized Californian Red Worms, which will turn the manure into high quality soil in no time. As much talk as I'd heard about these worms, this was the first time to actually see them in action.
Another interesting home-made product, I got to see the making of, is tapa dulce. I have known tapa in Nicaragua, where we used it for sweetening pretty much anything, whenever we had no sugar (that is most of the time). Luz used it quite liberarly herself, though she would never put it into coffee, like us igorant foreigners on Ometepe.
Tapa dulce is a dark colored sugar cane product, a type of unrefined sugar if you will. To make it, we had to cut lots of sugar cane first, press it between two rotating wheels, and fill the juice into huge pots. We would make fire underneath, with wood and the dried carcasses of last time's pressed cane. It would take a few hours for the juice to turn from a greenish color to light yellow, then to a darker orange, and eventually to thick brown. Meanwhile we would scoop off the foam from the top, a delicious treat for all sweet tooths. I preferred the green foam myself, but others were just crazy about the brown caramelly stuff. I found that to be horribly sweet. Yuck!
When the juice had boiled down to a thick mass, we would pour it into a long tray and keep moving it with long paddles. I'm not sure about the exact purpose of it, but after a while the mass would thicken, become more goey, and it could be poured into forms. After a few minutes it would cool down and solidify, and you could dump it out: ready, hard brown, crumbly tapa dulce.Just like Whipstone Farm in Arizona, where I got my first feel of dirty fingers, the Chinchilla's farm is not officially organic. Nor do they want to be. What they are, is a traditionally run cattle farm, supplemented with fruit and vegetables for their own consumption, and many neat ideas from all around. Whatever works best. However, there is also use of chemicals, for example to fumigate the cattle against tics. In this Memo is far being a purist, going by the same credo: Whatever works best. Still, the finca was closer to an all organic permaculture garden than to any type of industrial food producing facility. And there was lots to learn, not only about cattle. If anyone is interested in working with the Chinchilla family for a few weeks, please contact me and I'll pass on the info. They are always happy to receive people.
Having said goodbye to the Chinchillas, I took a bus back to San Jose, where I met up with two friends from Project Bona Fide. Together we hitched down to the famous beach of Dominical (about half an hour from San Isidro) to chill out for a day, then continued on towards Panama.