Apr 5, 2017

Costa Rica Recap

4/05/2017 — cori

One of the great joys in my life is volunteering. I love to help the community by giving back to it. My kids never had a chance to decide whether or not they liked it, they have just always come along with me to help. This is just a normal part of their lives, not some special thing we plan to do. It just is. So I figured one final big service trip would be a fitting end to their time of living in our household and transitioning off to college. For years I have been dreaming of taking Gavin to some wonderful foreign country to see another way of life, help where we can, learn about the culture, and get some special one-on-one time together. My goal had always been to take this special mom-kid trip during their Senior Spring Break. It would be awesome!

Or maybe not. It never once crossed my mind that I might be the only "mom" in the group of volunteers. It never occurred to me that this situation might embarrass my kid. It never dawned on me that these service trip organizations are geared mostly to college kids. And while I'm at it, I was clueless about how none of these college kids wanted a mom around to ruin their idea of fun.

Yup. That's exactly what happened on this greatly anticipated trip of ours. We were practically ignored by the other 7 house-mates at our service project. I felt like I was living in a frat house most of the time. I had forgotten how much college kids know - they could rule the world because they seem to know something about everything. Can I just say I love my 40s and the perspective it brings?! I wouldn't ever go back to my 20s if someone paid me to. 

But I also love hanging out with my kid and he likes hanging out with me and we love doing stuff together. So that meant we were pariahs. It was a sad side-effect to this exiting time. We got really good at practicing how to return rudeness with kindness, ignorant/arrogant statements with nonjudgmental looks, indifference with patience. We learned way more than how coffee is grown and processed. We learned heart/life/character lessons and these were priceless. Plus, our time together was a gift that no arrogant, rude, crass college kid can take away from us because we chose to have a good time despite them.

It's amazing how something can be even better because of the people you're with or turn out even worse because of them. I think the rest of the group would have accepted us but there was one person who deemed himself the leader of our little band of volunteers and everyone followed his lead. He was a senior from the Air Force Academy. Everyone called him The Academy. He wouldn't shut up about The Academy. I now know way more about The Academy than I do about coffee farming. He was the machoest of males and he wanted everyone to know about it. He thought the mother/son thing was lame, completely ignored us, so the rest of the sheeple followed suit. It was a really interesting observation of groupthink in action. Had The Acadmey not been there, I think our time could have been even better (minus the flu, of course).

However, we didn't realize any of the above until we were already 3 days into our trip. It was apparently destined to be a challenge right from the start. Gavin came down with the flu 2 days before we left. He was miserable - that's putting it nicely. From the day we got there I was trying to finagle a way home. Nothing worked. We were unable to switch our tickets to an earlier flight home. We were officially stuck in a super humid, hot, dirty country with no air conditioning and a horribly sick kid and a guilt-ridden mom. Thus begins our adventure....

Here we are at the Minneapolis airport, clueless as to what lie ahead of us. This would be the last time I wore make-up or did my hair. The only item I forgot to pack (I realized too late) was a hairbrush. Not cool. But it didn't really matter since I wasn't in the shower long enough to wash my hair adequately. It was an outdoor shower with only cold water. Being outdoors adds the added bonus of bathing with all types of insects. Hygiene was optional. I tested the limits of my deodorant that boasts of 48 hour protection. Gavin is doing a good job in this picture to look better than he feels. 

This is the coffee farm in beautiful, mountainous region of Monteverde. It sits on about 2 acres. The owner's house (Oldemar) is the green one on the left. The dorms are on the right for all the volunteers. The little bungalow in front was given to one of the volunteers. He actually got stung by a scorpion on the second night there.We actually stayed the first two nights in San Jose with a host family. They spoke no English, we spoke only un poquito Spanish. I was very thankful I brought a pocket dictionary with me. San Jose is not a very pretty city. It's dirty, very crowded, and expensive. From there we rode a bus for the 4 hour trek up the mountains to our destination of Monteverde where we would be staying the remainder of the week. Let me tell you about this 4 hour bus ride. There was no a/c (even though the bus was equipped with it). Our clothes were wet with sweat and dirt from the gravel roads coming in through the open widows, and we got one bathroom break at a stop 3 hours in. Essentially, we spent 4 hours in a vacuum. Also, the last hour and half was spent going 20 miles an hour up the mountain on gravel roads. We gained a new appreciation for city infrastructure - a concept we previously took for granted.

This was the inside of the dorm area. The bunk-beds were on the second level. This was the only space for everyone to congregate in. It was at this table that I slept on our last night when I spotted a VERY LARGE scorpion in my room. I actually ran over to Oldemar's house and made panicky gestures indicating I needed rescuing from some type of creature. He and his wife followed me back to my room which is on the other side of that couch (I was given my own room - thank God). He picked it up with a pair of scissors without killing it and let it go outside. His wife checked my pillow and blankets and said, "Solemente uno" (only one). But where there's one, there's more and I was not about to be scorpion prey. So I took my scorpion free pillow and blanket and "slept" sitting in the chair with my head laying on the table and my feet tucked up under me on the chair. All of my 44 years caught up with me after that sleepless night (I only fell out of the chair once). Everything hurt - but I was free of a scorpion sting, so I consider it a smart tactical move on my part, even though it cost me greatly.

This is the dog that greeted us at the coffee farm. They are way up in the mountains in the middle of nowhere. And here comes fluffy little Buddy snipping at our ankles protecting his finca (farm). There were also a mess of mangy, scruffy homeless dogs that also decided to call the farm home. They followed us everywhere (except for inside the house). 

On our first morning at the farm we separated the good coffee beans from the bad ones. This is when these worldly-wise college kids were still speaking to us and hadn't yet to begun to be embarrassed by my presence.  After doing this for an hour or so, we were then assigned to dig up old, diseased coffee bushes and clear the land. Hard, dirty, sweaty work. We did this job most of the days. One of the days, the owner was out back helping us and cutting down large branches of trees with his chainsaw when all of the sudden he comes running up the hill yelling "VAMANOS!!!". We all sprinted up the hill. Apparently, he upset a beehive and saved us all from certain peril. Work was cut short that day. We were supposed to work during the morning and have the afternoon free each day. This gave us time to explore these mountains.

One of the guys had already spent the previous 3 weeks here and found some interesting places to hike and visit. He took us to the river to swim. We walked down one dirt path to another. No street signs anywhere. We just kept walking downhill. I knew this would be a torturous hike back.

Everyone (but Gavin and I) swam in the icy waters. We sat on a rock and talked. I apologized for embarrassing him. He's the best kid. He said he wanted to spend time with me as much as I did him and forget those people who didn't understand. And then played superman and rescued one of the homeless dogs that kept following us who got stranded on a rock. 

Another afternoon after work we hiked up the steep mountainside to see this view. We were headed to a lookout spot that had some benches to sit on. We never made it. It was sooooo hard. I love to hike, but this was unlike any hiking I do. This would be classified as a strenuous hike if you were at a National Park in the States. We estimated the grade of the incline to be at least 70%. It was torture on our quads. We stopped instead at this lookout point, not realizing that the destination we were attempting to reach was only one more corner and hill away, maybe 75 yards only. Oh well, we enjoyed this view just as much. We spent the rest of that day lying in the hammocks reading and recuperating.

Here is one of the volunteers (one of the only ones who was polite to us and the one who got stung by a scorpion) grinding the coffee beans to be packaged. The machine Oldemar usually uses was broken. But he had plenty of man power to help get the job done.

Here is Oldemar, the owner of Finca la Bella Tica. He is explaining how to package the coffee, the measurements needed, etc. He was the nicest man. Hardworking. Kind. He had a very authoritative presence about him (in a good way, like he knew what he was doing and was highly respected). Everything about his farm is organic. He would rather dig up diseases plants than use pesticides. He would rather let the scorpions and tarantulas go free instead of kill them. He is one with the earth. I highly admired him. Coffee farming is his craft and you can tell he loves it.

These are the coffee beans. The first one, at the bottom, is the seed pod. They collect these in baskets (that his dad makes) during harvest time. He said you can sell these this way, but you don't make much money from it. The next bean up is what the seed pod looks like after it is dried. Then the seed pod is separated from the seed using a pestle and mortar or a machine (that makes it much easier and more efficient), resulting in the third bean. This is then set to dry out in a greenhouse for two months. Once it is sufficiently dry, it looks like the final top bean. These were the beans we were separating. We had to take out all the seeds that were black.  From there they go into the roasting machine. He roasts the coffee beans 25 minutes for a medium roast and 30 minutes for a dark roast.

After grinding the roasted beans down, it is time to package them, as Gavin is doing in this picture. The ground coffee sells for the most money.

This is the final product. It was pretty cool to be a part of it, to learn all about it, and to help someone out in the process.

We had the opportunity to visit two of the Cloud Forest Parks that the region is famous for. One of them was a bird sanctuary and the other had 8 hanging bridges. It was cool to see the forest from this vantage point. We were at the top of the trees seeing things that you're unable to see from the bottom.

This was the second tarantula we saw. The first one was at the farm in the shed. The second one was right next to the path we were walking on in the forest. I still get the he-be-jee-bees just looking at that. Because of the largeness of all the insects, I slept with my covers over my head every night just incase something decided to crawl over me when I was unaware. I practically suffocated each night, but I was never woken up by something walking on my face.

On our next to last day, we took a 3 hour ride to Jaco, a beach town, by shuttle. This was better than a bus because we had a/c. But we had to pay through the nose for it. It was very expensive, but faster (I was told the bus would have taken 8 hours). We spent most of our money on taxis, shuttles, and bus fares. Here we are chilling out in Jaco, eating lunch and trying to stay in the shade. We were sooooo hot!

After walking into the water for the obligatory beach photo shot, Gavin came back to the chair and spent the rest of the time laying in the shade trying to catch a breeze. It was over 90 degrees out with super high humidity and very little breeze. Not his kind of weather. 

We picked this hostel online the day before (since this was a spur of the moment idea). In the pictures, it showed hammocks, not mats on the ground. This might look cool, but it was the absolute worst place we stayed. The tent was essentially a torture chamber. There was no air flow. The outside temperature barely cooled down and the humidity felt even worse inside the tent. Plus, we had the added bonus of listening to Hispanic rap music until 3:30 in the morning from the place on the other side of the wall from us. I did not sleep at all. Thankfully, the next morning I got to take a cold, outdoor shower to help relieve the migraine that plagued me the entire evening. Also, one more thing about the facilities...Costa Ricans don't put their toilet paper in the toilet. I just thought you might like to know this. You are supposed to throw all toilet paper in the trash can. It does not make for nice smelling bathrooms.

Notice the theme? Shade. We kept moving from shady area to shady area. Here were are playing cards trying to kill time before sunset.


Sunsets are beautiful the world over!

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