Now I know what you’re thinking: “Work? You call this work? How in the world did you manage to get your school to finance this junket to Costa Rica?” Lest you think that our entire time down there was spent sipping welcome drinks while sitting on our porches with binoculars trying to spot unusual birds, let me share some of the hard work we endured for the sake of our school and our students.
1. Ziplining. We knew that one of the things that our students would want to try while in Costa Rica was ziplining over the canopy in Monteverde so Linda and I bravely strapped on our helmets and harnesses and hurled ourselves through the treetops to research the quality of experience for our students.
We decided to go with Selvatura’s zip line canopy tour, which takes you through the Monteverde Cloudforest and has 15 platforms as well as an optional Tarzan swing at the end.
I didn’t think I would be nervous as I had tried ziplining in Costa Rica before but when we got on the first platform to zip over the tree tops with what seemed to be not a lot of gear or a clear method of braking, I did have to take a deep breath before setting out. Linda seemed to take to it like a duck to water and by the third platform or so, we were getting the hang of it. Basically you just had to keep your body balanced to not end up spinning around and in order to stop, we had these big leather gloves that we could employ but most of it was done by the guides who had some sort of braking system as we neared the end of the line.
The most nerve-wracking part was the Tarzan swing though, which basically consisted of getting strapped to a rope of about 2 stories high and then jumping (or being gently pushed) off a platform whereby you ended up swinging back and forth among the trees (like, but not really like, Tarzan). It is totally counter-intuitive to step off a platform into thin air even when you know there are ropes holding you and when you’ve seen at least 5 other people do it before you. When the moment comes to jump, all that logic doesn’t seem to matter as much, so I think those guides are used to “helping” us along. I heard them speaking to the guy who went after me, distracting him with personal questions and basically pushing him off the platform as he tried to answer.
One of the funniest parts for me (though not for the guide) was when we got stuck about 50 feet out from the platform. On some of the longer lines, they had us double up by having the back person basically put their feet against the waist of the person in front. This tandem creates more weight to get you across and hopefully eliminates getting stuck before you reach the end. Unfortunately, even with our ample weight, we did not make it out to the end and one of the poor guides immediately shimmied out on the line and started pulling us back. He had such a great attitude about it, pausing to smile for the camera and declaring “Pura vida!” while we helplessly hung there as he dragged us back. The poor thing had to take breaks every few feet or so, and was huffing and puffing quite hard by the time he got us in. He really earned his tip for the day! Despite it all, we had a great time and look forward to sharing this experience with our students next time around!
2. Milking cows. One of the optional activities while at UGA was getting up at 6:00am to help with milking some of the cows on the farm. Being pretty much a city slicker, most of my experience with cows consisted of mooing at them out the window as I drove by, so with some persuasion from Linda, we got up bright and early one morning to give it a try.
UGA had about 6 dairy cows as well as a “professional” milker who’d worked at a lecheria (dairy farm), so he knew what he was doing. About 6 of us had gotten up that morning to give it a try and each took a turn on both sides of a very sweet and accommodating brown Jersey, who basically let us pinch her and didn’t do a very good job of relieving her full udders. After we were done playing, he got to work and milked each of these cows thoroughly, providing buckets of lovely fresh milk for our morning breakfast.
3. Making dulce. A really cool tour that we took while at UGA was a visit to a farm cooperative called “Finca la Bella.” Essentially about 25 years ago, some local Quaker residents were concerned about the way that tracts of land were held by only a few citizens so along with some concerned local citizens as well as a US non-profit, they raised the funds to buy about 49 hectares (122 acres) of land in order to form a farm coop. Local families who didn’t have land could lease the land for 25 years at a time and use it to support their families and about half the land is under construction as a nature preserve. Community members pledge to maintaining the land in a sustainable manner and a few of the families run tours as another means of supplementing their income.
We visited one such family on a rainy afternoon with our guide from UGA. Alvaro and Eliza along with their daughter Laura raises sugar cane as well as coffee, which they roast and sell along with others in the coop. Eliza also makes handicrafts which she sells in tourist shops as well as an artists’ coop in Santa Elena named CASEM. They also do farm tours and share how they make dulce on their century old trapiche, which is essentially a sugar cane press.
Alvaro wasn’t home that afternoon but Eliza and Laura got some sugar cane and fed it through the press, catching the fresh sweet juice as Linda and I turned the press (see, working hard at last!). We drank some of the refreshing juice as she showed us the big metal basin where they boil down the juices and the molds used to make the cane sugar. She then brought out some dulce they had made last time around and shared some with us–it was a little like eating maple candy, sweet and crumbly and delicious.
Laura had a few insects friends hanging around so we got to see them as well as a small bird Eliza caught inside so she could put it back outside. All in all, it was a sweet time learning about the ways Finca la Bella really stewarded the land and put people first as well as trying some tasty sugar cane sweets. Our time in Monteverde has been so rewarding and we look forward to sharing this place with our students next year!