Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Los Campesinos, Costa Rica

We were headed from Alajuela to the Pacific coast, down through Jacó, Parrita and Londres to Quebrada Arroyo, the village home of La Reserva de los Campesinos. Los Campesinos is a former vanilla-growing co-op of 14 families, which had lost its livelihood to a vanilla plant blight. To survive as a community, they decided to develop their spectacular 33 hectares (about 84 acres) of primary and secondary rainforest into a network of trails, build modest lodging facilities and invite paying guests.

We wound our way up into the mountains on increasingly rougher roads and arrived at a nearly-deserted little roadhouse where we were to transfer to the back of a 4x4 pickup truck. Our guide, Luís, told us he’d just learned the road ahead had been washed out by rain and we’d have to hike the last mile or two. So, he said, forget your luggage. As dusk approached and the rain increased, we quickly rummaged through our bags on the cafe tables and tried to pull out a few essentials we could hand carry for overnight and the next morning’s hiking.

As the truck lurched and bucked over hub-deep ruts, the tarp over the back acted like a funnel, collecting the rain and pouring it down our backs. We clawed our way up and skidded down 30-degree grades. One such plummet ended in an abrupt 90-degree left turn onto a ten-foot wide bridge. As we approached the critical maneuver, the flailing headlights revealed yet another challenge: six inches of reddish mud right where we had to make the turn. Our driver, a young member of the Quebrada Arroyo community, knew there was only one way to negotiate that turn. It took a series of back-and-forth 15-degree turns, combined with a few controlled skids and scuffing the tire sidewalls against the bridge’s concrete curbs, but he pulled it off.

We held on for dear life to a couple of flimsy metal posts as every other bump threw us well off of our thinly-padded bench seats. By this time, everyone was laughing hysterically—a thin guise for terror.

The truck tiptoed over a landslide—we weren’t sure if it was the one to which Luís had alluded. It recently had taken out the whole road and been hastily filled in with very loose-looking gravel.
After a couple of miles the thrill ride finally came to a stop. With daypacks and handfuls of toiletries and scant changes of clothes, we set out on foot in near darkness on the home stretch to dinner and dry beds. We slogged along for another mile or more through what seemed like the thickest, most primeval of jungles. The still, saturated air and strange jungle sounds enclosed us like a large hall. Somewhere inside, the rana martillita (little hammer frog) enchanted us with a sound just like the loud clink of a fork against a crystal wine glass.

At last we came to a row of modest little homes. The cold light from a few compact fluorescent bulbs barely punctured the darkness. Against the dim glow, we could make out the silhouettes of a few curious inhabitants looking out at us. After running a gauntlet of several more homes, we were met by Miguel, the head of the community co-op, who escorted us by flashlight away from the main (and only) street and down a long, sloping path to our quarters.

At the base of the hill was a large, open-air dining hall and kitchen. Behind a counter, a couple of women worked on dinner, one of them stoking the wood cooking fire. They seemed all business, but one of them broke character long enough to smile warmly and reply to my “hola, buenas”.

Our cabinas were basic, but clean and functional, with electricity, running water and flush toilets. While other members of our group shared cabins, I had mine, with its three sets of bunk beds, to myself. Or so I thought, before spotting the six-inch mega-moth (it looked like our sphinx moths on steroids) on the inside of my screen. Harmless, I told myself. Still, the prospect of its flapping around my face during the night suggested action. So, as I’ve done several times with bats and once with a cockroach of nearly the same size in Tortuguero, I plopped my cap over it, slid a piece of paper under it and released it harmlessly outside the door. Thank God, I thought, now my little haven is pretty tight against bugs, especially mosquitoes—suspect here for carrying things like dengue and malaria. (Only the next morning did I notice the quarter-inch gaps between the floorboards!)

After a good chicken dinner in the dining hall, I retired to my flimsy bunk mattress and listened, in awe, to the gentle chorus of exotic music reaching out of the rainforest. Falling water, insects, and who knows what else chimed in. And the percussion section kept time. Clink….clink…. clink….

The next morning I awoke by 6:00, anxious to finally see what this place looked like. Stepping out onto my large deck, I saw that, already in a deep valley, we were perched on the edge of a still deeper ravine. Bright sun caught the clouds still clinging to the hilltops. After an ice-cold shower, I packed up and slurped along the muddy path to the dining hall, where a simple but filling breakfast and, more importantly, coffee, were in the works. While waiting, I threw enough Spanish at the cook to earn a compliment.

Miguel was our guide for a hike around some of the co-op’s nature trails. The path wound up and up, some of the steepest parts neatly staired with gravel-filled tires. I tried to stay near the front of the group, both to make sure I could hear about everything Miguel was pointing out and to help translate where I could. Among the wonders he showed us: mushrooms that seemed made of translucent, coral-colored plastic; vanilla plants—once this community’s stock in trade; cacao; and lots of medicinal plants. (Miguel explained that his parents had been like naturopathic doctors.) There were more toucans; some striking red-headed black birds; a five-inch, armor-plated centipede; hundred-foot lianas dangling from trees; lizards; various frogs and toads; peccary tracks; orchids; helicons; and strange egg-shaped rocks that, when touched, shed layers like so many onions. Iridescent blue morpho butterflies seemed lit from within as they fluttered against the deep green foliage.

At the trail’s highest point we came to the mirador (lookout), a small covered platform raised on stilts, from which we could see the Pacific and the beach at Quepos. In one corner of the platform we pointed out a fresh pile of excrement, which Miguel informed us was the calling card of a jaguar. He said the animals, too, found the mirador a useful vantage point, as well as a forum to declare their contempt for visitors.

After a lunch of chicken stew, rice, beans, tortillas and cabbage slaw, some of us opted to cross the ravine on a 417-foot-long, 40-meter-high cable bridge to a beautiful waterfall, cascade and swimming hole on the other side.

As I stepped out onto the double course of six-inch-wide boards, I told myself I wouldn’t do the math, but the calculation forced itself on me anyway: I’m walking over a bouncing, swaying, foot-wide, mossy-boarded ribbon 13 stories above a rocky creek bed. I took some comfort in the fact that there was a little netting on either side and chest-high cables to hold onto, but, every six or eight feet, vertical cables forced me to let go momentarily of my only grip on sanity. Focusing on where I was placing each step wasn’t entirely successful in keeping me from noticing, through the cracks, the rocks and trees far below. And it kept reminding me of the condition of the boards to which I was entrusting all my 190 pounds of dear life. In this, one of the wettest places on earth, a film of slippery, wood-devouring green moss crept from the edges of each board, its effects witnessed by the many scraps nailed on top as patches and reinforcements. To keep from imagining the sensation of one of those boards giving way under my feet, I performed a mantra, humming the first tune that came to mind, the March of the Toreadors, to my own lyrics: “I-I can do this, one step at a time, I-I-I can, oh yes I can…”

The cascades and pool were beautiful. Climbing out to the very brink of the waterfall, I was able find the right angle for a good shot of the bridge with the stream below. The return crossing proved a bit easier, despite the onset of our daily rain. By the time we got back to the dining hall and prepared for our departure, the next guests, a group of young Germans, was just arriving.

The trek out of Los Campesinos was just as harrowing (and wet) as our arrival, but for the benefit of daylight. The walking leg saw us skirting another recent landslide that had collapsed half of the road. Once in the 4x4, we had to ford a couple of rushing creeks which threatened their own washouts. And then there was the narrow bridge/sharp curve maneuver, even more hairy coming from this direction. The extremely tight bridge, followed by the full right turn, meant the driver had to slow down to a crawl. But how would he make the turn in the middle of the mud hole and still have enough speed to make it up a steep hill? In the span of three or four seconds, he slowed, turned and edged into a delicate turning skid. Then he stomped on it for about ten engine-screaming, tire-smoking seconds until we caught solid ground—to a burst of laughter and cheering from his shaken passengers. All in a day’s work for a campesino.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

DANCING WITH A TURKEY – How Spirits Took Wing at a Small-town Mexican Wedding

My wife and I have taken a couple of tour-type vacations. You know, the ones where a guide takes a whole group of you around on a big tour bus. This kind of trip has a few distinct advantages, but experiencing authentic, unscripted local culture is not one of them. Generally, you're steered to events that appear to be staged especially for tour groups and, uncannily, they always manage situate you so you can’t get back to the bus without a trip through the gift shop.
     It’s one thing to witness the culture of a place and a people; it’s another to live it. It’s a rare opportunity, one that seldom occurs without a convergence of effort, connections, and timing. Oh, and sheer dumb luck.

                                             *     *     *

The weather in Mexico City was sunny and clear, but for the usual blanket of brown smog pressing down on this, the sixth largest city in the world. It was clear enough, though, to see Popocatepetl, crowned with clouds. Popo, Mexico’s most active volcano, is only 45 miles away from the center of Mexico City and her 20 million inhabitants and about half as far from Puebla, with another two million. It is within striking distance of all of them, a cataclysm-in-the-making, since eruptive activity has occurred as recently as January, 2008.

I was traveling with my Mexican-American friend and Spanish tutor, Silverio, along with two of his other students, Anne and Kip.

Silverio’s friends, Ignacio (Nacho) and his wife Martha, picked us up in the van he’d rented for us for the week. We drove right from the airport about 80 miles southeast to the state of Puebla and the small village of Santiago Tenango de Reyes, where we were to attend the wedding fiesta for one of Nacho's friends.

...we three unusually tall, unusually pale norteamericanos) walked in to what seemed only slight curiosity from the 100 or so locals.

As we drove into Santiago, we realized just how small a town it was—only about eight blocks long and maybe three or four wide. Its population couldn't have been more than a couple hundred. We parked the van and walked a couple blocks on nearly-deserted cobblestone streets before we came to a broad alley between two cinder block buildings. There the stark space had been converted into a cheery hall by a huge bright yellow-and-green-striped tarp strung between the second stories above.

The six of us (Silverio, Nacho, Martha and we three unusually tall, unusually pale norteamericanos) walked in to what seemed only slight curiosity from the 100 or so locals—evidently half the folks in town—sitting at long rented tables. Within a minute, though, Nacho was proudly introducing us to the bride and groom (the groom Nacho’s co-worker in Mexico City), to the groom’s parents and to the couple’s padrino (something like a godfather). Pony beers and tequilas were in seemingly endless supply, and for the rest of the evening were cheerfully placed into whichever of our hands happened to be free at any time.

A ten-piece mariachi band dispensed its energetic music from the far end of the hall. The charro, or lead singer, is one of Nacho's cousins. Before I knew it, he was announcing something into the microphone about guests from far away and then something more familiar: “...por Cheff, de Meeny-sota…” Suddenly, I was aware that all the guests had now stopped talking and turned to look at us. The next song, apparently just dedicated to me by Nacho, was Como Quien Pierde una Estrella (Like One Who Loses a Star), one of the songs Silverio had taught us in class. I always love mariachi music, but I was especially moved by this rendition and Nacho's thoughtful gesture!

I kept wondering if I'd be so generous and thoughtful if roles were reversed. 

After about an hour the parents of the groom asked us to join them. Leaving the other guests to their dinners, we walked about a block down the street to their home. Waiting for us inside were the bride and groom, still in their wedding finery, five or six other adult members of the immediate family and a few kids. We sat down at the dining room table and were served what Silverio explained is a sort of appetizer course traditional for weddings: two types of tamales freshly steamed in corn leaves, two bright little gelatins which tasted like they might have been flavored by chiles, a sweet, crispy, deep-fried sort of cookie, and atole, a hot, creamy, corn-based drink flavored with chocolate with some other notes I couldn't quite place.

It was already the experience of a lifetime just to attend the fiesta, but this—being welcomed like this into this dear family—made us feel deeply honored. I kept wondering if I'd be so generous and thoughtful if roles were reversed.

Still working on the tamale course, I needed to take a break, and asked where to find the bathroom. Following the directions upstairs, I found myself with several rooms to choose from, each separated from the hall by a thick curtain.

For no particular reason I picked door number two and swept open the curtain. The young woman sitting on the toilet five feet in front of me scrambled to cover herself with a handful of toilet paper, but the damage was done. I exclaimed, backed gingerly away and waited nervously across the hall. When she emerged, I gestured toward my heart with both hands and said earnestly: ¡Estoy tan embarasado! She seemed to accept my apology graciously, which must have been really hard for her, since—as I later found out—I'd just managed to forget about one of the most notorious false cognates in Spanish, and had exclaimed "I'm so very pregnant!"

I'd just managed to forget about one of the most notorious false cognates in Spanish, and had exclaimed "I'm so very pregnant!"

Eventually, we all returned to the main party and sat down at one of the long tables. As we made up for lost time with yet more bottles of tequila and beer, the volunteer servers brought each of us a gigantic bowl of chicken mole. (There must have been half a chicken in each bowl!)

The parents of the groom, sitting near us, were presented with even bigger bowls—each the size of a large casserole, filled with what looked like half a turkey!

The mole, with its complex blend of flavors, was very good, but none of us could even begin to finish such a portion. Apologizing, we were told not to worry; soon big plastic buckets were passed around and everyone just dumped in their leftovers. They offered us one of the buckets to take home with us, but we deflected the generosity to others whom we suspected would be far better able to use the food.

Now that it was dark, the mariachis wrapped up their gig and joined the party. Huge speakers and portable banks of equally loud colored lights had been installed right outside the dining area, under another big tarp. An endless flow of recorded popular and ranchero music started to blare, and people began to dance.

We'd heard somewhere about the wedding fiesta tradition of dancing with goats or turkeys, which then would be slaughtered for dinner.

We'd heard somewhere about the wedding fiesta tradition of dancing with goats or turkeys, which then would be slaughtered for dinner. (This, I guessed, might be a remnant of Mayan or Aztec sacrificial offerings.) Sure enough, after an hour or so of dancing, the floor cleared and four older men (I suppose they were the village's elders) walked out, each holding a huge live guajolote (turkey) in his arms. A simple, rhythmic music started and each man danced with his turkey. It was a plain, elegant dance, just stepping, moving and turning with the music, and both the men and the spectators (and the poor birds for that matter) seemed subdued, even reverent.

By this time, I'd had several beers and probably five or six tequilas. I was honestly beginning to believe that the people I'd been trying to converse with could understand me and vice versa. While waxing more and more “fluent,” I looked up and suddenly there was a guajolote in my arms. Apparently one of the men had singled me out as the "elder" of our group. Before I could object, I was being pushed by the crowd out on the dance floor and did the only thing I could: I danced with a turkey.

With the sensation of the warm, damp feathers on my hands and arms, I let the both the music and my emotions move me around the floor.

The bird was surprisingly docile, given what must have been, for him, the otherworldliness of the situation. There I was, with the other three men, being watched by half the village, and the reality of the situation broke through the fog in which the tequila had shrouded me. While I was very much in the moment with the sensation of the warm, damp feathers on my hands and arms, I also felt a transcendent sense of peace and contentment as I let the both the music and my emotions move me around the floor. Then a very conscious thought rose through the raw motion: a prayer that I would never forget this magical moment.

Eventually, the loud music and less morbid dancing returned, and the turkeys disappeared. A few minutes later, four young men crossed the dance floor, unceremoniously carrying the now limp bodies of the big birds by their necks. But, since everyone already had eaten dinner, I was left wondering what became of them. Still in my reverie, I never thought to ask.

After the turkey dance, people seemed to look at me differently, with approving smiles, I thought. I did my best to engage in small talk, but couldn't make out much of what they said above the thunderous music and my re-thickening fog of inebriation.

About midnight, we decided that, after such a long day, we'd find the hotel Silverio had booked for us along the road back to Puebla. But one of the wedding couple's relatives wouldn't hear of it, insisting we stay at his home. So we got our bags from the van and ambled off with him down the street. The music abated long enough for an even noisier round of fireworks.

A deafening aerial bomb went off, rattling the few religious trinkets decorating the walls.

The house was relatively nice compared with the working-class Mexican homes I'd seen, with several sparsely decorated, apparently unused, small bedrooms. Kip and I shared one of them. The beds were quite nice, with decent mattresses, but, like those in so many Mexican homes, each room cringed under the harsh light of a single bare bulb. The bathroom didn't even have a switch (we had to screw and unscrew the bulb).

Just as we'd settled in, turned out the light and closed our eyes, the music started again at the party, blasting as if it were coming from the next room. At the same instant a deafening aerial bomb went off, rattling the few religious trinkets decorating the walls. Kip and I both burst into laughter at the amazing experience...and the obvious futility of trying to sleep.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Aboard the Searcher – Nature Cruise of a Lifetime

What we’d hoped for was to touch a whale in Baja California Sur’s Laguna San Ignacio. What happened was that whales touched us. In the wild, of their own accord, 50-foot Pacific gray whale cows swam under their 20-foot calves, gently lifted them and nudged them toward our little ten-person boats and our outstretched hands.
We were on the Searcher, a 25-passenger boat that’s been sailing from San Diego, into the Sea of Cortez and back to Cabo San Lucas every spring for 25 years offering wide-ranging natural history cruises with an emphasis on whale watching. The signature activity of the cruises is the incredible, inexplicable encounters with gray whales in San Ignacio, where the Searcher has one of a handful of licenses issued by the Mexican government to enter the protected lagoon.
Once we’d witnessed the wonder of San Ignacio, we allowed ourselves to hope for even more. Wouldn’t it be amazing to see a blue whale—the biggest creature ever to live on earth! Well, as we continued down the Baja coast, we would see 20-some blue whales. Sometimes they were close enough for us to see their entire awesome length—nearly that of the 95-foot Searcher. Some even rolled onto their sides, their immense, pleated mouths agape to feed on krill.
Then it was the humpbacks. Was it possible we’d see one of their spectacular full-body breaches? We saw at least 50, including an incredible double within spitting distance of Searcher.
And dolphin? What would be more fun than a few of them catching a draft in our bow wave? How about running for 15 minutes in the midst of a raucous herd of 2,000 as they ripped and sewed the water’s surface on their way to feeding on a massive school of herring.
I suppose we could have imagined touching a whale, or even seeing 2,000 dolphin. What we couldn’t have conjured in our wildest dreams was the night we cruised in the Sea of Cortez with lights out and seeing dolphins, shrouded in bioluminescence, streaking in to our bow out of total darkness, like so many comets. Then, after playing with our imaginations for a few minutes, launching back out into space.
   The showed us, by their example 
   as well as in their words, the spirit 
   of wonder, reverence…and gratitude
   we all now share for these creatures 
   and this precious corner of the world.

While indeed our Searcher tour lavished experiences on us that were more and bigger than we’d expected, that certainly wasn’t the only measure of our enjoyment. It was also about the quality of the experience. We’d shown up at Fisherman’s Pier that first Saturday night and walked into a strange place—and a room full of strangers from all over the world—where we were to spend 11 days in close quarters. But we didn’t feel like strangers. That’s because Celia Condit, the wife of co-owner and captain Art Taylor, had lent such a warm, personal touch to the process of choosing and booking our trip. (I especially appreciated Celia’s being my partner in crime in springing a few birthday surprises on my wife, Sally.)
Once we were aboard, Captain Art and his very personable, multi-talented crew made us feel comfortable from the start. Even though they’d done this several times a year for 25 years, we felt as if we were Searcher’s first and only passengers. The crew quickly got to know each of us by name and genuinely cared about everyone’s comfort and the quality of our experience.
Besides just making the itinerary and all the various events run smoothly and safely, Captain Art kept the whole Baja/Cortez experience in perspective for us, starting from the first day when he explained that we were to be among a few thousand human visitors ever to witness what we were to see in San Ignacio. He stressed that it would be on nature’s terms, not ours nor the Searcher’s. He, the crew and the two naturalists who accompanied us showed us, by their example as well as in their words, the spirit of wonder, reverence…and gratitude we all now share for these creatures and this precious corner of the world.
As further proof that this spirit goes beyond words, we could see what a good neighbor Art, Celia and their business have been by the reaction of the locals we met along the way. The San Ignacio pangueros (local guides), residents of villages where we stopped—even the crews of Los Cabos fishing boats—know and respect El Capitan Arturo, who brings them precious fresh water and provisions, honors their land and traditions, and talks with them in their own language.
We continue to tell our friends, relatives—anyone who’ll listen—about our trip. Of course, we’re excited to share our experience, but we also hope this will, in some small way, express our thanks and help Celia and Captain Art keep doing what they’re doing so well until we can join them for another unforgettable cruise.