In the Tropics for Christmas

By Brett Liza Rousseau

Christmas was fast and awkwardly upon us. So absorbed in the rainforest world, warm, wet and full of adventure, I couldn’t believe it was the end of December. It wasn’t until I took over crafting a Christmas tree out of jungle leaves that I realized what time of year it was. We’d been distracted by the newness of our travels: harvesting lemons and malanga root for the kitchen, hiking to waterfalls, horseback riding on mountain tops, 5 am climbs to watch the sunset over Volcano Arenal, new friends, tropical fruit juices, and eating delicious food – I didn’t have time to miss hot toddies and fudge. But celebrating Christmas in the Pacific Northwest most of my life, and loving waking up to an evergreen tree and stockings over the fireplace, I craved some sort of familiarity for the holiday. Part of me did miss the children’s living nativity, sweet treats and cold weather.

Christmas morning, we woke up to a brilliantly sunny day, harvested a few salad greens for the kitchen, and spent the rest of the morning down by the river, swimming in the cold current, crafting our White Elephant gifts on the warm rocks. Before going to lunch, Sonja (a volunteer yoga instructor) pulled out her deck of Tarot cards and asked us to formulate a question, something on our minds. (For those of you rolling your eyes at the mention of Tarot cards, I don’t view them as astrological answers; simply a means to thoughtful reflection.) I thought about Christmas traditions and all that Christmas in the western world had become. I asked myself how can I, or we, celebrate what’s turned into a materialistic holiday in a non-materialistic way? Being so far away from home, what traditions can I let go of and still feel fulfilled? I pulled the card “3 of Water: Fullness… celebration, delight, having it all, withholding nothing… everything bears fruit, enjoy what it offered this instant, while staying open for new surprises. Let go of the old, oppressive stuff. Without hesitation and guilt, let yourself fall into this delightful pool of inner – and perhaps already outwardly manifested – fullness.”

I thought, “Wow! How applicable.” We may not be roasting chestnuts on an open fire, or singing hymns on Christmas Eve, but I am so lucky to be in Costa Rica! In the rainforest, everything grows big, bountiful and beautiful. Orchids drip down from the rooftops, Reina de la Noche’s bloom and burst into the pathways, ferns tower over you, roots scale tree trunks and countless bromeliads nestle in their branches. Many of the flowers are vibrant red, with hints of yellow, blue, and orange – some push up to the sky, some cascade down to the ground, but all attempt to lure the hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies to pollinate. Some nights on the walk back to our bunkhouse, the pathway is incredibly fragrant, and when it rains, the jungle sings; you always hear it long before you feel it.

I spend most of my days in a garden, surrounded by jungle mountains. It is a rich, spectacular part of the world, and I get to share the experience with three people I love. Having the ability to live abroad, experience the rainforest, see different lifestyles, and grow new and exotic things, is more amazing than anything that could fit into a box under the tree.

AND the lack of tradition allows the freedom to play! Christmas Eve, face paint found it’s way to the dinner table, and in no time at all, everyone’s face was covered in colorful swirls and designs. Instead of piles of presents and unnecessary things, the volunteers all scrounged for supplies and wrapped up eclectic and incredibly inventive gifts to play White Elephant. There were dream catcher earrings, hooks, painting and poem, a sand zen garden that could fit in the palm of your hand (made by Nathan), bracelets, coupons for sewing repairs, a cup of much-coveted desert, and a beer can camp stove. We were all impressed with the lot. It was a wonderful Christmas abroad!

Stay tuned, Gerard will be posting soon! ¡Feliz Navidad y feliz Año Nuevo!

Horseback riding in Tilarán

Horseback riding in nearby Tilarán

Tilarán mountains

Tilarán mountains

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What a day to remember!

 

They call it 'Jurassic Park'

They call it ‘Jurassic Park’, we call it ‘jungle trekking’

 

Happy couple

Happy couple

 

 

The land of waterfalls!

The land of waterfalls! Brett, Nathan, and a golden retriever.

 

Watching the sunrise over Volcano Arenal

Watching the sunrise over Volcan Arenal

 

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So worth the early rise

Mary, Mary quite contrary, how does your jungle grow?

Mary, Mary quite contrary, how does your jungle grow?

With big green leaves...

With big green leaves…

…and wrapping roots...

…and wrapping roots…

…and orchids all in a row!

…and orchids all in a row!

Cow lickin' love

Cow lickin’ love

Jungle Christmas tree!

Jungle Christmas tree!

Festively-facepainted volunteers

Festively-facepainted volunteers

 

 

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“Poco a Poco” (Little by Little)

By Nathan Page

“Poco a poco, mi amigo.”  This is a phrase that my coworker, Carlos tells me with a smile several times a day.  This simple motto works very well when faced with daunting tasks— like moving a small mountain of trimmings, or turning several tons of compost.   “Poco a poco” also works very well to describe a lot of what we are doing here at Rancho Margot and this trip as a whole.  First I’ll talk about the more specific work we have been doing down here.

Brett, Gerard, and Diane are working full-time in the vegetable garden with a group of several volunteers and a couple “Ticos” (native Costa Rican employees).  When we arrived the garden was a bit overwhelming, with so much growing in several different places.  The former volunteers were experimenting with planting in a non-linear fashion to try to cope with pests and disease.  As a result, it was a bit tricky to understand what was planted where, so a lot of the work has been organizational.  This work includes: moving several green houses to help with the garden layout, Gerard building everything from bridges to doors, and Diane and Brett working wonders organizing more efficient systems for growing seedlings and making new beds.   The garden is in a stage of rapid improvement and is on its way to a higher yield in the next few months.  I have been helping to improve this garden, but I spend the other half of the week working in the extensive grounds doing general landscaping.  The work is repetitive, but definitely helps me appreciate all the work that goes into keeping this ranch well maintained and looking spectacular all year long.   This is where I work with Carlos, and is the time of day where I receive most of my informal Spanish lessons.  Leaning Spanish is another thing that is definitely best tackled “poco a poco.”

All of us come from different Spanish backgrounds, and definitely have more than enough room for improvement.  Gerard has the highest fluency, I have some formal training from school, and Brett and Diane are working hard, as it is their first time learning.  We have been trying to do auditory and paper lessons frequently, but for me, the whole task can get a tad overwhelming… Some days it feels like I am just playing one big game of charades with my Spanish-speaking coworkers.   But, “poco a poco” we are learning key words, trying to comprehend the rapid pace of speaking, and building sentences.  Little by little, we are picking it up, and absorbing the language that surrounds us daily.  Lastly, “poco a poco” describes the work Rancho Margot is doing for Costa Rica and the Earth.

Rancho Margot is combining a lot of innovative technologies, which just make plain and simple sense.  They are using the resources that are naturally plentiful around them to literally power the lights and heat the showers.  Visitors can come into the rainforest with all the creature comforts of home and truly see a clean, beautiful way of life that is modeled by the Ranch.  Of course, there is always room for improvement, and Rancho Margot will be the first to say that they are always evolving and looking for better ways to grow and sustain their selves.  But they have only been around for 10 years, and little by little have been making big waves around Costa Rica and beyond.  It is a great first stop on our journey and we will keep learning and taking our trip one step at a time.

Rain clouds approaching over Rancho Margot.

Rain clouds approaching over Rancho Margot.

Gerard walking through one of the many rainy days!

Gerard walking through one of the many rainy days!

Diane working one of the new beds in the vegetable garden.

Diane working on one of the new beds in the vegetable garden.

Some of Brett and Diane's simple landscaping throughout the garden!

Some of Brett and Diane’s simple landscaping throughout the garden!

What a pair!

What a pair!

The door that Gerard made from scratch using local lumber.

The door that Gerard made from scratch using local lumber.

Nathan cutting down a papaya tree with a machete that unfortunetly had to be removed...

Using a machete, Nathan cutting down a papaya tree that unfortunetly had to be removed…

On the Road Again – The Latin American Sequel

As most of our readers know, Gerard and I cut short our stay in Southeast Asia to go back to Portland to help my mom get settled into her new living situation and get her house cleared out and in top shape to sell.   This took us most of the time from May through November, with some time off to work on our rental houses.

And now we’re off again! For the next chapter of our journey, we intend to volunteer on organic farms and with sustainability demonstration projects for the better part of this next year.  With our younger daughter, Brett and her “novio,” Nathan, we took off for Costa Rica the day after Thanksgiving (November 29th).  We plan to spend three months here on three different farms, then move on to Nicaragua, and have the rest of Central and South America to explore! The four of us will take turns blogging so you can get our different perspectives.

Our first farm is Rancho Margot, wedged into a lush jungle valley and rainforest, south of Arenal National Park.  The property was purchased and developed into a sustainable living center/ ecotourist lodge within the last ten years. The surroundings are beautiful and full of wildlife (we saw four toucans romping in a nearby tree today after lunch). We are among twelve or thirteen volunteers all working hard in the vegetable garden growing both tropical and conventional produce, with the animals (cows, sheep, pigs, chickens and goats), and on the very extensive grounds. For a great overview of this ambitious project, watch this CNN report.

Here is our daily schedule:
7:30am – Breakfast (fresh fruit, yogurt, granola, eggs sometimes)
8:00 – Start work
11:00 – Break
11:30 – Lunch with the workers (rice and beans mostly)
Noon – Back to work
3pm – Work day ends
4pm –  Yoga class (free!) is available every day and we tend to go every other day
5:30 – It gets dark; we study Spanish, do emails, read, write, etc
7pm – Dinner – it is a very long wait from lunch but we are served delicious, creative and healthy meals.  The chef has been a personal vegan chef for some famous musicians and rock groups so you can imagine how good she must be.
9:30 or so – to bed, very tired

We get one day off each week.  On our day off Gerard and I spent the day in a small town an hour or so away and on theirs, Brett and Nathan took a nice long hike. We are close to a river, a large lake and at least one volcano.  More details of our experience to come! The change of narration should keep things interesting. Here are some photos.

Leveling garden bed, new home for green house

Leveling garden bed, new home for green house

Beautiful grounds at Rancho Margot

Beautiful grounds at Rancho Margot

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After a hard day's work in the garden

After a hard day’s work in the garden

Nathan looking guano

Nathan looking “guapo”

Time for a little soccer for volunteers and staff

Time for a little soccer for volunteers and staff

Reina de la Noche

Reina de la Noche