Friday, May 30, 2008

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


I watched the bbc world news today on television. I saw the hourly news programme. This is the first time in almost 2 years I’ve seen news on tv. I was surprised and somewhat confused by the experience. The presenters all seemed to be copying that nonchalant, nasal quirky Paxman style, (is he still on tv?), with queer head tilts, stylized hand movements and very wide mouths (for lip readers?). The inflections were as bizarre as ever with odd accents and emphasis. I know this last is deliberate to keep listeners alert, but god it sounds odd when one doesn’t hear it anywhere else. I forgot the reporters always tell you who they are. This is strange, it somehow makes the news personal, yet they are the messenger not the message, does it really matter who they are – the butcher doesn’t introduce himself before he sells you meat.
The format was strange: each report was the same length, no matter what it was about and each was too short to give any real information – it was just a string of glorified headlines – frustrating in their pace, like a laundry list of catastrophes, holidays, politics, as if it was just all fodder for who? Just a soup of pictures and words which didn’t stay on the screen long enough to make any real connection with. It disturbs me that two hours later I can’t remember what I saw, but have the general feeling it was all bad and the world is not a safe place. The earthquake in China, tornados in the US, aide not getting through to Burma, problems with the Afghanistan/Pakistan border, the successful landing in Mars (this was in a way the most disturbing as the presenter introduced the piece by saying “there is life on Mars: well the probe has landed” – did he really call the machine alive?), anti-Islamic feeling in Australia, Memorial Day in the US – each report was about 2 minutes long. I guess it’s not so much confusion as overwhelm. Perhaps it’s because I don’t see news, but I wonder if daily viewing still overwhelms but deadens or desensitizes also just leaving some washed out feeling of what, hopelessness, fear, anger? I can’t think of a single positive emotion brought about by what I saw today. The mars thing, but hell that’s a different planet, the message in the news as a whole was our planet sucks but look here’s another. Yeah my projection. Totally. This is just my observation. I’m not asking for happy clappy news, or less news. I guess I was missing the education part, the whys – why is their anti-Isalmic feeling, why are there racial tensions along the Pakistani border, what’s happening with the weather and what is being done, what part can I play in this, where is my participation? Maybe it’s the passivity with which one receives the news that could be changed to make it a catalyst for change or action, instead of just silage.

There was one quote I can’t shake. It was a woman in the anti-Islamic piece. A small town outside Sydney was protesting against a proposed school for Muslims. (How did this make it to the world news, who decides what to include? Surely there must be all sorts of protests against all sorts of things, organizations and people in the world, why does this warrant coverage?). I was struck in the footage by how white everyone was, not a single shade of colour. The people were angry and coarse. One woman was saying, “keep Oz for the Aussies”.
What did she mean by that? Define Aussie. Couldn’t be she was meaning the Aborigines. Surely anyone born in Australia is an Aussie? The reporter mentioned there were 150 Muslim families in the community, none were interviewed. Obviously in a 2 minute report there’s only time for one viewpoint.
Oddly enough this piece came directly after the piece on Taliban strongholds in Pakistan. I wonder if that’s significant?

food choices

As a European I grew up on grain: oats, barley and wheat. The oats were traditional in Scotland, not only in porridge but also in the form of oatcakes and sweet flapjacks. Barley padded out soups and stews. Oats and barley grew near my home and as a child I presumed that was where my food came from. It might have been true. Wheat grew in England and I presumed that the bread my grandfather made was from English wheat (even though he was a staunch nationalist). The picture on the bag of flour looked like an Englishman. When did the UK lose its ability to feed its people, did it, or was it just cheaper to import the staple grains from elsewhere?
For a while I lived on the edge of a housing development in Oxfordshire. The fields across the driveway were wheat, and in that flat landscape the fields went to the horizon. It was something to watch summer thunderstorms move the grain in golden waves. Those fields are under houses now. What came first – the need for more houses or the farmer being unable to compete with cheaper wheat from overseas?
In his book, ‘The Omnivores Dilemma’, Michael Pollan investigates the US corn industry, a fascinating tale of farm subsidies and agribusiness profits and politics. Now the information may become quickly outdated with the rise in corn raised for fuel. Food First has very interesting reading on the agrifuels subject. (Food First should really be compulsory reading for all high school classes.)
The agrifuels phenomena and natural phenomena – droughts, earthquakes, flooding – have been blamed for the current world grain crisis. There is of course more to it. There has to be an effort to change the way we live: we must learn to live in a way that is sustainable environmentally, socially, economically. The following is from the latest, May 16th release from Food First, please read the whole article on their web site:

‘The skyrocketing cost of food has resurrected the specter of the "food riot."
The World Bank reports that global food prices rose 83% over the last three years and the FAO cites a 45% increase in their world food price index during just the past nine months.1 The Economist’s comparable index stands at its highest point since it was originally formulated in 1845.2 As of March 2008, average world wheat prices were 130% above their level a year earlier, soy prices were 87% higher, rice had climbed 74%, and maize was up 31%.3’

I’ve been looking for ways I can change my lifestyle. I don’t have a car, or a telephone, or hot water. I do have a fridge and a computer and music. In the food I buy I try to keep it local – at least to Central America, but it is difficult with grains and legumes. Rice and corn grow here, black and kidney beans too. All good. It’s the lentils (Canada), chickpeas (California), white beans (southern US), and wheat (China?) that I enjoy so much and make life a lot easier that come from far away and are therefore reliant on international trade agreements, world economy and the petrochemical industry for transportation and distribution. How do I cut back? What makes it more difficult is the dogs. They don’t eat dogfood (allergic, probably to the wheat or the chemicals sprayed on the wheat to keep it rat and insect free while on container ships as it moves across the world). They like lentils and can digest them just fine, but beans, not really. And for me bread is easy and familiar, it’s so much easier to take a sandwich to school than to make anything else. I could make cornbread. Locally and in indigenous cultures around the tropics flour was made from cassava, malanga, pejebaye and platanos – all of which I have growing in the garden. I could do that. But it’s too time consuming and I couldn’t keep up with my own demand. I already have one full time job and a half time garden.
Maybe I just live with it, consciously understanding that this is a choice and that there are consequences. Or perhaps I try to do without. Perhaps I try for a trial period to see if I can do without my goods from far away. I think I will. Maybe in June, I’ll be finished with my current stash by then. Today is May 25th, that gives me 6 days. Good. That feels good.
Footnote to that:
Yesterday my beanburger was topped with a slice of raw onion. I didn’t recognize the taste and actually had to look to see what was so good. I really am only eating veg and fruit I grow in the garden. I don’t eat out much either.

raisin and cinnamon bread

There’s an incredible bakery in Corvallis, Oregon which had queues out the door on a Saturday. They made good, heavy, wholesome hearty bread. My favourite was the raison and cinnamon. Today making this loaf I was taken right back to the bakers, eating the fat slices of warm bread smothered in butter one could buy straight out the oven.
I don’t know how it is in other parts of the world – except for what I read online – but the price of grain here has almost doubled in the last 6 months. There are two suppliers of brown rice in Costa Rica, and both for the moment (I hope) have run out. This brings bigger questions. On a practical, immediate level it has inspired me to make my own bread. This is a heavy, dense, old fashioned style bread to be eaten in thin slices, but good.
Makes 2 small cob sized loaves
3 cups wholewheat flour
½ tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon dry yeast
Cinnamon depending on taste, ½ - 1 teaspoon
½ cup presoaked raisins (use the soaking water as part of your water quantity)
1 cup (including raisin water) hot water, I use ½ cup boiling water and ½ cup normal water

Using half the flour, mix all dry ingredients. Add raisins and hot water and beat for 120 strokes. Mix in more flour until the dough loses its stickiness. Turn onto floured table and knead for 8 to 10 minutes. cover with dry cloth and leave somewhere warm and draft free to rise for 40 minutes or until it doubles. Punch down, cover and leave again for another 20 minutes. Divide mix into 2 or 4 pieces, shape into bun or cob shapes, slice a cross on the top with a wet knife and bake in the center of a medium hot oven (mine is 220) for 20 - 30 minutes, start checking after 20, it’ll smell delicious when it’s done. The bread is ready when it sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom. Allow to rest for another 10 minutes or so before slicing.


I think I saw a bullet ant today working its way down a tree. It fit the description –solitary, over an inch long and shiny black. I wanted to touch it. What is this compulsion to touch everything? I wanted to touch it to see if it really was a bullet ant. I manage to resist. Short of snakebites, (and sharks), a bullet ant bite is the worst bite in Costa Rica. People say they got their name because it feels like you’ve been shot if they get you. Somehow I doubt that, but I do believe it’s bad.
Rain stopped work in the garden today. I did manage to harvest some bananas this morning and I’m quite proud of my growing banana experience. It was a beautifully controlled fall and did not damage either a single banana or any of the surrounding plants. The chopping was clear and I used the downed stalk to make a bed border with the leaves as first layer of mulch. I kept the flower for supper and have now devised a way to clean and cut the flower without staining everything black, including my clothes, chopping board and knife, or covering everything in that incredibly pernicious glue that oozes from the plant. The flower is soaking in a salt and lime water bath and will be ready to cook tonight. The bananas, red ones (very delicious), are hanging in the banana box safe from fruit bats and most bees.
As I missed my garden work exercise I washed clothes and made bread – both excellent upper body exercises. The washing machine I have access to – an ancient twin tub at school, is broken and so I have resorted to bucket washing. There are places around where I can take laundry, but at $6 a load it’s expensive. The advantage of bucket washing is that I can heat water; all machines are cold water only. Washing in a bucket also means I can control where the soapy water goes. It goes into my grey water system and will be used in the garden. My soap is biodegradable and the chemicals it contains are much the same as those used in fertilizer. Not bad for the soil but terrible for river systems and the ocean. It’s raining which means that my clothes hanging from a line on the deck will take a long long time to dry. In Costa Rica clothing dies fairly quickly: clothes are washed but they are never really clean. Cotton stretches and loses its shape, colours fade in the sun and mold and mildew take their hold in everything. Even sending clothes out to be washed is no guarantee: things get lost fairly often and clothes can be returned with more stains than they went with. This last is very true: the only laundry I had access to in Guanacaste more often than not stained my clothes with red or brown streaks. Insects eat or nest in anything that lies dormant for any length of time, and daily clothes and towels need to be shaken away from the body and carefully inspected for scorpions. I have almost nothing left of the clothes I brought with me from California, instead I’m dressed in simple hand me downs which now have really seen better days. I’ve washed two loads today – enough clothes for the work week and a couple of towels. We’ll see if I have anything dry for the morning.

Monday, May 19, 2008

confusing thoughts

Part of the angst and general discomfort this week came from a –largely theoretical – internal debate. Some friends are thinking of buying a farm and are looking for partners. The farm is almost on the border with Panama and has coffee and cacao, pejabaye and platanos and pasture. It’s 17 hectares all in and would probably be split, partner wise, into several hectare pieces. I could probably scrape together enough for a hectare – in California I made that money in 3 months of working. But that’s not really the issue. There are several issues: money, moral, community, lifestyle.
It’s a working farm. Right now the money comes from cacao and coffee, but that’s only enough for the farmer who is on his own. Clearly split between several partners with western conditioning it would not be enough. I need to make a living and while I dream and work towards self sustainability in my foodstuffs, I can’t give up my computer and music and my internet access, plus money for vet bills, grains and flavourings I can’t grow and savings for emergencies. I would have to work my hectare to give me a living which means change of use and this would require initial investment, plus I’d have to be on site which means building some form of living space. While I can probably scrape together the purchase price, I don’t think I can get enough to see me through until – and if – I could make money. It’s too far away from here to continue working at the school, without a car or at least a motorbike I couldn’t get into town.
Then there’s the moral issue. I personally feel conflicted about owning land. I can’t really explain it, it may be a responsibility issue, it may be a commitment issue, it’s probably many things, but it just doesn’t make sense that anyone could own a piece of the globe – how is that possible? I can see owning a house, owning things, but land? I guess it’s a facetious argument: one doesn’t own it in the same sense that one owns one’s car or one’s ipod, but it’s a stumbling block for me. The concept is just an abstraction. I can understand working land, living on it, loving, it but owning it means very little to me. At the same time I am incredibly grateful to those folk who do own land and allow me to be on it. And to live work and play on it. Rather than own I’d prefer to do work trade. My family made their living buying and selling property, they would be horrified to hear me. They would be delighted if I were to buy land, they would see it as an investment, as security. But this requires that I would at some point sell it. While this makes sense if I were to buy an apartment or a house in an already established / developed area, it doesn’t make sense with farm land – unless I were to sell it to developers in which case it would no longer be farmland in which case it would be the wrong thing to do. Then there’s the argument, but if I don’t buy it then maybe it will go to developers. Is it my moral duty to save it? One can go many places from here: it has been farmland for about 50 years, is it my moral duty to return it to forest; is it my moral duty to make a reserve or to give it (return it?) to the indigenous people who live on a reserve which borders this land; is it my moral duty to leave it as is and not further develop / build on it? Do I have a moral duty to do anything or is all this moral duty stuff solely ego and a way for humans to feel good or bad about themselves depending on inclination? You may imagine that the moral issue is the one which has brought the most confusion this week.
The community issue is an interesting one. I have been looking for community for years. I have an image of what constitutes community, but the truth is I generally withdraw from community at the first opportunity. I’m a snob with expectations, am highly critical of myself and others, and woefully dismissive. There are 17 hectares, ostensibly there could be 4 or 5 families living on this land, if it continued to be a working farm. (That’s 4 more houses = more development, more water, more resources.)How would that be? My friends are nice people, they are trying very hard to do the best they can. They also have a very tumultuous and precarious relationship and I would be a fool to rely on them for anything.
The lifestyle issue. This is probably the simplest. I would change from working for someone else to relying on myself, I could see if my ideas worked. It would be a great challenge on every level, it would be exciting and difficult.
None of this could happen for at least a year. I made a commitment to dear friends to be here for at least a year and I love where I am. I have a great place to live, I have space to grow my garden, I have access to town, I have a job I like. Why would I want to change? To prove to myself I could. To maybe save a piece of land. To live a dream. To have more. I said this was largely a theoretical debate. While I find myself puzzling over ways to do it – and there are many puzzles, I wish to simplify my life and this isn’t the way to do that. Yet even as I write the fantasy of possibility remains. Yes, it’s been a disquieting week.

feeling good

Feeling good
I feel good. This week hasn’t felt so great, but now, Friday, with the night coming on; some frog impersonating a diving submarine; pumpkin bread fresh from the toaster oven and a pair of happy dogs at my feet, well I feel good again.

The volunteer tomato is volunteering her first tiny green tomato. She has had three flowers thus far and I hope each will result in a fine red fruit. She’s in a bed of bromeliads so I have no idea what kind of tomato she is (I’m pretty sure she’s not a gee-whizz-bang H4 hybrid). She was the one who encouraged me to actively plant tomatoes and they too are already putting forth buds. I’m impressed by their short and stocky strength and how easily they germinated. I got the seeds from small cherry type tomatoes Moreno was selling, he said they were grown by a local and I figured they were a safe bet. They certainly look very hearty and have great foliage and sturdy stalks. I sowed them on March 18th, so 2 months until they bud, we’ll see how they do now. I’ve never grown tomatoes before but I have fond recollections of my grandfathers growing them in their greenhouses and I dimly remember picking the new shoots that came out above already established branches. Something to do with keeping the strength for the fruit – it gives an excuse to touch the plant and release that incredible scent. I remember seeing fields of sprawling tomato vines in a caked dry earth on Greek islands and wondering how they could possibly survive – so different from the lush steaming environment of a greenhouse. And I remember seeing open trucks holding thousands of tomatoes plowing the freeways in California, I never did see any growing there. And now here they are between the chayote and gandul looking quite happy. I’m glad.

There are also little white flowers on the chili peppers. These are a scotch bonnet type that came from Moreno’s produce shelf and are local too. We have 5 spots with I think 2 plants in each, so we should have something to add to the curries. They are all different heights and widths depending on when they were planted out and how much sun they get: the most advanced were the first planted and receive about a half day of direct sun. Pretty plants with dark green leaves and almost black crooks where the branches meet the stem.

My pumpkins are looking very sad. They have definitely had their season. They were the first things I planted and it was in the days before I kept track, but it was sometime in the latter half of January. Four months all in from birth to death – though they left a healthy legacy: the new generation I planted last weekend. I hope I learned from these parent plants:
- It’s okay to prune, rampant growth means more leaves, fewer pumpkins
- They need a LOT of space, don’t plant too many in one site
- Plant them so the main stem is easy to reach and water
- They wilt under strong sun and can do well with less
- It’s really wonderful to grow a plant that is entirely edible, next time freeze stems for a truly green pasta
- It’s a good idea to start new plants every 6 weeks
- They are a really pretty edging plant.
The bed where I had most of the first generation has the best sun. This time I am planting only two pumpkins and hopefully red peppers. This means I have a gap, still waiting for my peppers to get large enough to plant out. I think I’ll just mulch as heavily as I can. It’ll take a while for the new pumpkins to take over. I was caught unawares, they died back so quickly I was just thinking about sowing more when suddenly everything started turning yellow.

banana/pumpkin/sweet potato/carrot cake

Banana, pumpkin, sweet potato, carrot Bread
An easy and tasty way to use up the last of that glut of produce.
When making bread with pumpkins first boil the pumpkin with some grated nutmeg and mash before adding it to the bread mix. With sweet potato I do the same, but use cinnamon instead. For bananas use the ripest you can find and mash, with carrots grate finely and add powdered cinnamon.
2 cups brown flour
½ stick of butter or 1/3 cup of oil
A good ½ cup of brown sugar, to taste
2 eggs
Bananas or pumpkin or carrot or sweet potato
Nutmeg or cinnamon depending on produce
Salt if desired
Soaked raisins, walnuts or almonds if desired

Cream together the sugar and fat. Add eggs and beat again until thoroughly mixed. Fold in a cup and a half of flour. Add produce and mix well. Check consistency of your mix, if it’s loose add more flour until the consistency holds together well but drips from a spoon. Pour into a greased bread pan and cook at 225 or thereabouts for 30 minutes. The bread is ready when an inserted knife comes out clean. Very nice served warm with cream cheese.

Pineapple Rice Pudding

This is a Nicaraguan recipe given to me by an English woman living in Belize. It uses the rind of the pineapple: make sure your pineapple is organic.
Rind and core of an organic pineapple, washed.
2 cups uncooked brown rice
¼ stick of butter
½ cup of brown sugar, or to taste
2 eggs
1 cup of milk
½ cup cream cheese or cream
Fresh ginger
Salt if desired

Boil the pineapple rind and core in enough water to cover for at least 30 minutes. Meanwhile soak rice in plenty of water. Remove core and rind and scoop soaked rice into pineapple water. Add a couple of tablespoons of brown sugar and some slices of fresh ginger, depending on taste. Bring to boil checking on water content, add more liquid if necessary. Reduce to simmer and cook for 30 minutes. Mix eggs, sugar, milk and cubed butter and stir into rice. Simmer for another 20 minutes stirring from time to time and adding more liquid if necessary. Serve warm or cold with a dollop of cream cheese or cream.

This pineapple water can be used in all sorts of dishes, try it in curries, sweet and sours, or add sugar and reduce it for a sweet pineapple sauce. It’s a great way to get the most from your organic pineapple.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


When I was foraging food, doing the hunting / gathering thing, I was aware, of course, of seasons and availability. I knew I would have a glut of something as it came into season and then when it was done it would be done. Now that I’ve stepped into the farming epoch, I find my expectations to be very different. Firstly I have expectations. As a forager I was happy when I found something and skipped off merrily with an armful or bagful of bounty. As a gardener I do more work and have less produce. But I have control over what I can harvest. I expect to reap what I sow, I find I expect to reap a lot and quickly too. But this is not the case. Gardening is all about the future: I plant this seed and in two months, at the least, I can eat the casing the seed came in. In the meantime I can dream about my coming bounty, think of what I’ll do with the surplus and on and on. My garden was started slowly in January, at this moment I can harvest spinach and pumpkin (the bananas, cherries, ginger, chilis, turmeric and cilantro were here before). It will be another 2 months before I can harvest tomatoes, chayote, peppers, melon and pigeon peas and another 5 months, minimum, before I can harvest yucca, malanga, yampi, vine and sweet, potatoes. But when one is gardening, when one is grubby with sweat and dirt one isn’t thinking about the future, gardening can only happen in the present moment: there is a separation between the reality of gardening and the concept of produce. One gardens for the enjoyment of gardening, not for the harvest. The harvest is an added bonus, perhaps the initial motivation, but not necessarily the compelling force.
Is that true? I garden because I can, I have use of the land and the time. I want to have organic produce. I want to be self sustaining and minimize my consumption of store bought items. (This last is difficult, I still buy staples and these are rarely locally grown – lentils from Canada for example.) I want to recycle my ‘waste’ as much as possible and gardening is a great opportunity for this. I want to eat local and native foods. And I want to involved in the cycles of nature, to be outside, to be busy, to be in the dirt.
It needs more thought, and at the same time it requires no thinking. I’m off to water things.

Momentary beauty
A bug just landed on my keyboard. It looks like a leaf hopper, but so beautiful: a bright orange with iridescent squiggles of neon green and blue, red eyes. And it’s gone.

serpiente update

The snake was identified by the local snakeman as a Northern Cat Eyed Snake. Harmless, unless you’re a frog or a little lizard. I let him go yesterday and was a little alarmed by the way he looked at me as he raced off. I let him go by the river hoping he would find supper here rather than heading for my pond. I wonder. He was toxic, but rear-fanged which means he dribbles poison as he chews – so fairly safe for dog or human. The snakeman has a great book on Costa Rican snakes, it’s amazing the number of varieties here and within each variety the subtle differences in colour and patterns.
He thanked me for not killing the snake as he left and I was hit immediately by a pang of guilt, I was going to kill it. But better I felt this pang than the greater one I would have felt if I had killed it and then identified it as harmless. I like frogs and lizards, a great deal actually and I thought about this snake eating them as they emerge from my pond. Then I remembered the beautiful Laughing Falcon I saw at the edge of the garden, their diet is mainly snakes. This food chain business is beautifully complicated and simple. And it is sentimental of me to worry about any tier of it. We exist beside nature but are woefully removed from her cycles. Coming back from town I cycled past a terribly skinny dog picking through garbage, her teats were big and hanging, she had pups somewhere. She was a street dog and I wondered if she and her litter would survive. I had nothing to give her, nor could I bring her home. It makes me realize again how comfortable we are in our ‘developed’ nations: death and decay, even age, are hidden from us. We are soft, sheltered, unaware. Here we have the trappings of the developed nation which lie like a veneer over the life below. But the veneer cracks and peels in the sun and humidity and life shows through. Perhaps that’s why so many people leave. I realize as I write this how ignorant I am. I talk about animals and yet in the world people are suffering the same fates, starving, at war, operating from no more than survival. It’s too big for me to comprehend.


I read a lot of gardening blogs, and for one reason or another, a lot of them are in England. Perhaps it’s the familiarity with the climate, the growing season, perhaps it’s because the English love their gardens and I can speak the language (the French love their gardens too). Whichever it is, I read a lot of them. And the thing I’m struck with over and again is the mention of the names of each vegetable or fruit. Everyone talks about the variety they are planting. I remember poring over seed catalogs comparing, contrasting, being overwhelmed by choices. The sense I get from the way these varieties are named is that these gardeners are also – or have been – overwhelmed by the choice presented to them. People don’t just grow tomatoes anymore, they grow the jee-whizz-bang, H4 Hybrid, and that means – what? I am absolutely for heirloom seeds, old varieties, strengthening the gene pool, but there’s something to this that seems, well that seems very much in keeping with modern life. Why do we need so much choice? In other times and in other places we would save the seeds from the previous year, or get them from neighbours, or we would know that the seeds we took from the tomato we bought at the shop would do just fine, because they were grown just around the corner. But of course, unless we are lucky and buy from a CSA or a local farm, that no longer applies: the tomato we buy may have been grown half way around the world in a greenhouse under specialized conditions, or who knows, may even be sterile. The jee-whizz-bang comes with statistics and quasi guarantees; anti disease, bug resistant, early bloomer – all things which alter the essential ‘plantness’ of the plant. Maybe I’m way out of touch (I most assuredly am), maybe once the tomato begins to grow and is tended and cared for it will taste as delicious as any other homegrown, straight from the garden tomato. Is it still basically simple under all its fancy names and proven ancestry?


I’m out. I’ve been out too long. I caught the 8:30 bus in this morning thinking to do email, blog and head home again on the 12:30. Trouble was there was no 12:30. So now I’m waiting for the 4:30. Yes I could have walked, but I bought about 10 kilos of groceries – rice, grain, milk, chicken, and it’s pouring down and the idea of walking 9 kilometers just doesn’t appeal. Taxis are too expensive – about $10, so that’s not possible either. But after spending so much time online and being incredibly frustrated by attempts to buy more skype credit, I’m done. You see I don’t have a credit card, or a debit card, or a paypal account that works, or means to get another paypal account. I make a tiny amount of money online through articles and the money for these goes into Jon’s paypal account which –theoretically- he can use to buy me skype credit, which I need to call my mum, Guy and the boys. But for some unfathomable reason it won’t go through. Either via skype or paypal which means I’m stuck. And thoroughly frustrated. I had plans for this afternoon. Okay so just tidying the place and making bread, but still there were plans. Now I’m sitting at EZ times having a coffee and watching the ocean. So not so hard. I like EZ times because they bring a little dish of dark chocolate chunks with your coffee.
There’s a website called I think it gives you hints and tips on simplifying life. I looked at another today which asked for pledges to ‘green your home’. None applied to me, my home falls way below their radar. I’m trying to simplify and it seems I do have a very simple life, but when I try to connect to the mainstream, outside world it all becomes so far from simple, how hard can it be to live without a credit card or a bank account? Very bloody hard. Try buying an airline ticket. When I had to leave the states it was so tricky getting a flight out, in the end I paid extra so I could pay in cash. Maybe I should have just let them deport me. And now even though somewhere out there in cyberspace I have funds, I can’t spend this electronic money. How crazy is that?
I feel outside. I look at green websites, gardening blogs and I feel outside. I think I should just give up on the idea of belonging to one community or another. While I may share the same ideals, the same hopes, I don’t live the same life. What connects people? What is connection? I have nothing really to say and yet I want to say so much, to share all this passion, this incredible beauty and wisdom that is all around me. But how, and why? A bus just went by – but it’s 40 minutes early, or 3 hours late. I hope to god there’s a bus at 4:30. There’s a song blaring from the speakers,
“no, there’s nowhere like Limon, it’s the land of freedom”
Must be a local. And yet there’s truth in it, freedom in all its forms good and bad. What the hell is this life business? I know I just want to be allowed to live quietly – and yet I fight this by wanting to share everything. I get caught in the middle, I feel like some great hull caught on a sandbank – neither on land or in water. Town makes me feel this way, the internet makes me feel this way. There’s no going back. How can I just accept where I am? All around me are tourists, people taking time out of ‘life’, blind – mostly- to the life that surrounds them. Does it matter? Okay, enough, I’m going to drink my coffee and enjoy my chocolate in peace – well, maybe.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

food first

Support small farmers. Be aware of what you´re eating and where it grew and how it got to your mouth! Read food first and think. please.


It was about 4pm and the clouds had covered the sky, I was moving my tray of seedlings from the lawn to the deck. I had just set it down and was considering watering them, when a snake slithered from between the half milk cartons that house my seedlings. It was brown and it had a big diamond shaped head – both these things are bad here. It was a baby – about 15 inches. I fetched my machete, wondering as I did so whether I was really going to kill it. It wondered too as it disappeared behind my steps. This was bad. So I waited. I sat and watched it wondering how bad it really was, almost convincing myself it would be okay if it lived under the house. But the dogs love being under the house. Brown and diamond headed means boa or viper. Boa isn’t bad, it wouldn’t be big enough to hurt the dogs for a long time, but a boa bite can be nasty: an expensive and unnecessary vet visit. Viper is really bad. Like deadly. There’s a pretty good chance that I would survive a bite, the clinic is not so far. But the dogs no, and I have to say that losing the dogs to a snake bite is probably my biggest fear here. So, there he or she was hanging out behind the steps and there was I sitting thinking all this trying to ignore the mosquitoes that were telling me it would be dark soon.
As I was sitting there, Frederick went by. Frederick is my neighbor, an old hippy from Berkeley, an acid casualty if ever there was one. At that moment I was convincing myself the snake wasn’t dangerous. I went out to the path and called Frederick asking him if he could identify snakes. The two questions he asked were colour and head shape. Yep it was bad. But Frederick, being the old hippy he is – somewhat dim sighted and believing in the good will of everything (except the US government and guard dogs), decided it wasn’t really a snake and while I was telling him it most assuredly was - having no legs and scales – he caught it in a nearby empty yogurt container and upended it on the deck. I was shocked, and actually quite disturbed, I was still holding the machete but now put it down and fetched a strong glass jar from the house – the kind with that metal latch that catches and locks the lid down. Frederick scooped the container over the jar and in it fell. I latched the lid while the snake was trying to work out what the hell was happening. “Boy oh boy”, said Frederick, “will you look at that, it is a snake”.
Yep, it was a snake. Now I had a snake in a jar. Frederick left and it’s sitting on the deck. I’ve looked at the reptile and amphibian guide to Costa Rica, which is the only one available, but certainly not conclusive. I don’t know what it is. I was worried that it was a Fer-de-Lance: the most feared snake in Central America (so says the book). The Fer-de-Lance is aggressive, deadly and reaches up to 8 foot in length, the females give birth to live young – up to 86 at a time. They are terrestrial snakes and several babies have been killed in the garden over the last 8 years. But while the snake in the jar is brown with a big head and patterned correctly, the snake in the picture has a lot more creamy white in its markings. Actually the snake in the jar is not the colour of any of the pictures in the book. Clearly it’s a juvenile but none of the descriptions mention colour variations. Maybe it’s a little boa. I like snakes. I have this horrible desire to touch it. Obviously I won’t, and indeed every 5 minutes or so I check that it’s still in the jar and hasn’t miraculously opened the lid. But the desire is still there. This is one of those lesson times.
It’s Saturday night. The local snake guy has a store in Playa Chiquita but it’s closed on Sundays. I’ll take the jar to him on Monday. He, she will be okay until then – it clearly ate something recently and the jar has condensation in it and a little mud. Whether I’ll be okay is another matter: I was opening the banana box and a lizard fell on my foot. It was cool and had weight and it slithered. Needless to say I did a little dance which involved flinging the bananas in all directions.


And in my aloneness I lead a privileged life. This morning I was planting out some pumpkin starts and listening to monkey chatter. Normally I look, watch for a while and carry on working. But this morning I thought, what the hell, and fetched my new binoculars (a gift from a parting friend). I sat on the deck and watched a smallish troupe of spider monkeys pass through, galloping noisily below, above and in the midst of the canopy. Spider monkeys are a treat here though they are regular visitors to the garden. Some people call them Colorado Monkeys and insist they are extinct in this part of the world. Luckily no one has told the monkeys they are extinct, so they keep coming. Don’t tell anyone. At the end of the troupe was a very pregnant female. She took her time sitting around for long stretches and snacking on vine fruits. It was lovely to see a pregnant monkey – especially one who’s supposedly extinct. Spiders are named for their extremely long limbs. They have relatively small heads with big tufts of hair framing their face, they are pretty but also somehow out of proportion. To see a big belly made her look even more at odds with her frame. Their tails are really a fifth limb and they are perfectly happy hanging from them 50 feet up. She was eating the fruit of a Swiss Cheese plant (monstera deliciosa), I knew they were edible but never knew how to eat them. She ate it like corn on the cob, first biting off the green external part, and spitting it out, then holding it like a lollipop. Supposedly it tastes like a mix of pineapple and banana. She was about 30 feet from me hanging by her tail and supporting herself against a trunk with one foot while she held the vine in the other foot and used both hands for the fruit. She was about 30 foot away and incredibly close thanks to the binoculars. She caught up with the troupe and I continued with the pumpkins.

little me alone

I’m alone. Everyone has gone, even Frederick and Ida have gone somewhere. There is no one around. I feel conscious of this – I feel relaxed and very tired, also I feel heavy as though time stretches before me without conversation or interaction. I walked through the garden noting that now I have time to work on each space rather than always making sure it looks neat. This being alone is what I want and this is what I fear. I’m nervous about how I’ll do. I’m not really alone – I work of course and school is full of people all demanding attention and interaction. But it’s different: there the interaction is with children, limited with the Spanish speaking adults. No one to shoot the shit with.


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Sunday, May 04, 2008

in the garden

The rambutan, a lychee, is flowering. Or at least one tree is. We have two, supposedly one male and one female, I wonder when the other will react? I’ve heard that we get fruit, supposedly in September, but others say it has another season now. Who knows, I’ll have to wait and see.
The carambola is also flowering. This is quite exciting as the tree has never flowered before. I’m not so keen on the fruit, but it makes a great jam, so I hope we get fruit this time. The orchard across from the school has several very productive carambolas and they had a huge harvest in December, January. I wonder what this tree is doing?
A soursop fell yesterday. It got badly bruised, but I think I can save some of it, it’s not big enough for jam. This is also good news, it’s not such a productive tree but seems to be getting better.
The gandul I transplanted on the full moon – when the sap is at its highest and there’s least energy in the roots – and protected as best I could from the sun with a crazy arrangement of sticks, umbrellas, sarongs and ladders, and which looked like it was dying, is showing small signs of life: little new nubs on lower branches. I hope it makes it. In hindsight it was really too big to move and it was growing in gravel which meant I planted it more or less bare rooted. I’m impatient with these trees, not sure why, still haven’t tasted the beans. My two I’ve grown from seed are about 2 foot high and I think can be moved from their pots. Everyone says these plants are slow to start and then suddenly take off. My little ones are over 2 months old – when will this taking off begin??
The chayote seems to be taking off, twice a day I find myself wrapping growing tips around trellis. The four I planted two weeks ago have recovered from the garden ‘hazing’ (insect attack) and are sending out nice thick shoots. I wonder daily if the trellis of bamboo and string will be strong and big enough to handle them, perhaps they’ll grow as far as they can and then having nowhere else to reach will save their energy for fruit.
The pumpkins are stepping up production too. For the longest time I had three fruits, now there are 7 in various stages and some more possibilities on the way. One seems to be a different kind, though all the seeds I planted came from the same pumpkin – it’s long and a pale pale green. I’ll have to keep the seeds.
The wild spinach is flowering, I’m curious to see what it does. I’ve propagated it from stem cuttings and didn’t even realize it flowered. There’s a big female basilisk on the coconut 8 feet from my desk. She’s pretty. It’s funny, Michael was just here and we were talking about basilisks, I was saying I rarely see them here because of the dogs, and now here’s one, at eye level 8 feet away. Once again I wish I had a camera with a zoom. She’s exactly the colour of a hibiscus leaf with a series of turquoise spots on either side of her spine. There’s a pale orange stripe along her spine and she has several black stripes crossing her back. Her tail is green with many thick brown bands. She has a small crest, more like a triangle which rises from the back of her skull, it’s the same green colour. Her eyes are yellow. Right now she’s clinging to the brown sisal stuff on the sheath of the coconut leaf, she can’t get purchase on the smooth leaf stalk. Oh she just caught something, she has such a pale pink tongue.

solitary path

The couple who are staying in the big house are thinking of leaving. They’re town folk and while they appreciate and enjoy the nature here, they are uncomfortable with the bugs and the life: the fridge isn’t to their liking, they want a tv and laundry facilities, the house and bathroom are too open. They have two months left in their rental agreement but are ready to go home. At some point everyone here feels this way. The Central American / developing nation / bureaucracy / difference gets to people, especially it seems people who have things or are trying to get things. One has to downsize and simplify everything when one moves here, not just in terms of material goods, but emotionally, spiritually, culturally. Costa Rica is an incredible place for showing you who you are. And it’s not easy, it can be frustrating, ugly, scary, harsh, extreme. I think everyone I know has gone through times of hating this place. Some move away, many move away. Some come here in small doses, a month, three months and then go back to where the distractions and problems are comfortable and known. There’s a lot of drug and alcohol use. The ex-pat stereotype has truth in it. But I don’t want the couple to go, I’d like them to stick it out. My reason is selfish: I talk to them almost daily. It’s not that we talk about anything in particular, maybe just share a video or talk about the mosquitoes, it doesn’t matter. It’s the common language and interaction that’s important. I have hermit tendencies and have pretty much stopped any outside social life, I’m very rarely out after 8pm. When they go I’ll be on my own. I know it’s coming and this solitary thing has to be explored fully, but I don’t quite feel ready for it yet. A tick just crawled out of my keyboard, bloody things. Yeah, maybe I’ll find enough external distractions to pretend I don’t need this lesson.

may morning

May morning
We didn’t have many rituals growing up, but every may 1st my mum would wake us up early so we could wash our faces in the dew. Later I loved the mayday celebrations in villages and towns all over England and it was wonderful to enjoy the morris in Oxford or at the stones in different places in Devon. May 1st has a special energy, rising sap and heat and froth of life: it’s a celebratory time in the cycle: spring is in full swing and summer not yet here, a time full of pleasure and promise. And the old ways will out: the day is a holiday – whether it be called political or not – and we have a time for enjoyment.

Those howlers were so close this morning I could hear them pee – well technically not, but I could hear the pee hit the leaves and scatter in a thousand yellow droplets – it must give those high bromiliads a nice nitrogen boost. It’s going to be a beautiful day, and thanks to the Caribbean attitude I have 2 days off school before the weekend. Time in the garden stretches before me. Lovely. The mosquitoes are still bad – this is day 4 of their mini plague, a couple more days, hopefully, and they’ll be gone. On my desk here, among the drying ginger, tomato babies, planner, books and coffee mugs, I have a little raised dias with some collected treasures: a howler skull washed up on the pacific side, a bird’s nest, some shells, a piece of coral and some tamarind seeds. There’s a sweet little female lizard living in one of the shells. She’s about 3,1/2 inches long and speckled dark brown and black – the males of her kind are black with orange heads. Each morning she darts around the table looking for breakfast, she comes to within a foot of my elbow but no closer. She just snagged a big juicy mosquito I knocked off my coffee mug. Ah, partnership. Out on the lawn a pair of buff rumped warblers hop around swishing their tails with their bright cream stripe, when it’s not yet fully light these spots shine with a yellow glow, every now and again they’ll pause and the male will sing. I can see the kingbirds leave and enter their nest in the grapefruit (which has not yet born fruit). This is the best time of the day for birds and for once the sound of insects is drowned out by that of birdsong. There goes a flock of tawny crested tanagers, noisy and fast. The long tailed hermit hasn’t visited yet, but I can hear him. The big nature news of the day has to be that – absolutely appropriate on the eve of may 1st - my tiny pond got it’s first frog. I’ve had tadpoles in there since I dug it, bringing them from the pond in the west garden, but that was two months ago and not one frog had arrived. I think the one I heard last night must be one of those tadpoles. He sounded quite lonely, but he was calling and now I’m sure others will come. Gosh I hope he’s big enough to eat grasshoppers.

morning again

It’s dusk and a small troupe of howlers has moved into the cecropia and guacimo trees for the night. I can see their silhouettes against the darkening sky. They’re hanging by their tails picking off the fluffy flowers of the guacimo and the large umbrella type cecropia leaves. The cecropia has nectaries at the base of each leaf to reward the ants who make the tree their home. I think this is what the monkeys like, they never seem to eat the whole leaf. I’m rather sorry they are in these trees – they got hit hard by a sloth last week and have only a few leaves left. One tree in particular seems to be constantly on the verge of being picked bare – it must produce more nectar, I wonder if it will learn? The guacimo has the most delicious scent, a truly floral smell, fresh and light and only arrives in pulses. The kind of scent you’d want to chase. The flowers are visited by streams of black butterflies in the morning. I like this tree, it has a very soft, fine feathery foliage but the trunk is bare and somewhat similar to eucalyptus. It reminds me of the marvelous Guanacaste tree. I lived in a Guanacaste tree for 9 months, I loved that tree. It’s too dark now to make out the monkeys, I can just see movement in the branches and hear the low chatter of mothers and infants. Ah yes, it’s too dark – the fireflies have just switched on their lights. Behind me a bat buzzes my green bananas. Some cheeky bat came into the kitchen two nights ago and ate big holes out of the ripe bananas I had foolishly left on the countertop. I do like them though, somehow I always feel comforted by their presence. Beside me two dogs lie sprawled on the deck, they’ve just stopped itching their mosquito bites and are patiently awaiting dinner.
I wish I could record the sounds I hear: in the background the steady crash of ocean against shore; somwhere to the east the occasional rumble of thunder; a low last call of a bird; crickets; katydids; geckoes; the buzzing of a mosquito; some rasping noise; another similar but higher pitched; the bark of a frog from the other end of the garden; the tweet of a tree frog somewhere nearby; rustling of branches . . . the list seems endless and loses a lot in the writing I’m afraid. I have a friend who tries to count all the different night noises when he can’t sleep, he has counted as high as 40. There is constant noise and when one tunes into it it is deafening.


Time is different. The actual hour becomes unimportant, instead other things take precedence. My days move through cycles of time. The fact that I wake somewhere near 5 is of no consequence. I wake when the howlers begin their dawn chorus. It changes from day to day. I leave for school when the sun hits my desk – somewhere around 7:15, but it varies, when it rains I may be late. Then again when it rains everyone is late for school, as we all wait in the hope the downpour will stop. I get home at different times depending on the day, but I like to be home before the sun hits my steps. Hopefully I’m home in time to move my nursery of potted plants from the desk to the gravel. I know I have an hour or so left before the sun sinks when the mosquitoes appear, and when they go I know it’s time to make dinner. Funnily enough it’s when they go in the morning that I know I’d better make breakfast. Time can be told by clothing, every day has its wardrobe: pajamas and long sleeves to keep off the mosquitoes in the early morning, by the time they go it’s hot and school clothes are appropriate: a skirt and strap top, coming home I change into my work skirt and wear this until the sun sinks and then back to pajamas to ward off biting nasties. Time is simple, cycles are dictated by the movement of the sun, once all time was told like this.