31 August 2013

National park celebration day - a race starting in San Gerardo, up through Cloudbridge along Sendero Montaña, down the Chirripó trail from kilometer 4 to the turnoff to Los Angeles, through Los Angeles and wrapping around through Canaán back up to San Gerardo. About 18 km, I believe, and a lot of hills.

23 August 2013

By sunshine and by fog.
I’ve been here 6 weeks now; Tom left just over 5 weeks ago, and the founder Jenny (who was here visiting, living in a beautiful new little casita) left almost 2 weeks ago. So far, no huge disastrous explosions or fireballs or catastrophes in their absence. Touch wood.

The horse drama resolved itself: after breaking the pipe, the horse continued to live happily in Cloudbridge for about 14 more hours, and was then chased off quite dramatically by my wonderful employee Victor who happened to be up here picking potatoes from his garden last Sunday, and helped me not only to fix the broken pipe, but also to terrorize the horse to the point where it will probably never return again. I just wanted to tie it up & lead it down to town, possibly sell it back to the owner at an obscenely inflated price; however when we saw it just as we were leaving to drive down to town, Victor leapt out of the car and grabbed quite a large log that had been lying at the side of the road, hurled the log at the horse, and proceeded to run after it while yelling and throwing more things, until we had reached a suitably far distance from Cloudbridge and he decided to get back into the car. Victor: hero. Here’s a picture of him:

The hydroelectric system has been behaving very well (until the last hour, at least): it rained today for approximately 8 hours, very heavily, which fills the filters with mud and leaf particles, and causes the pipes to suck in air rather than water. Once an air bubble is in the pipes, the water can’t get through, and the pipes make a sound somewhere between a car crash and the howl of a dying banshee. It sounds significantly worse than it is. At any rate, after today’s rain the pipes began to rumble with some banshee whisperings, so I turned off the water feeding the hydroelectric system and will go up in the morning to clean off the filters and give those pipes a chance to breathe some water again. Here’s the head of the system, where the water (both for drinking and hydro-electric) enters the pipes:

Probably the most exciting recent development has been my accidental new puppy, which Rose (Tom’s old dog) has not taken to very well at all. Maeby (the puppy) wandered up here after following one of my researchers from her house up to Cloudbridge, and it was raining too heavily to take her home. She’s curled up asleep on a blanket now, till morning. Rose is curled up on a separate blanket, wide awake, watching Maeby mistrustfully. Here is Maeby:

Always some sort of excitement going on here!

22 August 2013

21 August 2013

Today I walked to Los Angeles! Not quite so long a walk as one might suspect; Los Angeles is in fact the next town over from San Gerardo (San Francisco is a little further down the valley…), and to get there one must crest the ridge between them. The trail branches off just before the first kilometer on the red clayey Chirripó trail:

Once over the ridge, the view into the Los Angeles valley is strikingly different than the view into San Gerardo. Where the view of San Gerardo has been hugely affected by the reforestation at Cloudbridge, the view into Los Angeles is still open farmland and pasture:

You can see all the way down the valley, in fact, directly to San Isidro (the blue V in the distance):

It was a beautiful walk, and although the open fields represent what Cloudbridge is hoping to fill in and undo, they speak to the agricultural history of the area.

Many farmers are currently taking steps to turn their farms into fully organic operations, using complex set-ups to harvest waste for worm-composting, manure fertilizers, and bio-gas; looking at these efforts, which are based on an understanding of the impacts of chemicals, makes me excited about the future of agriculture in this valley. It’s been a part of this valley for a long time, and so we can’t ask farmers to give up their livelihoods. But watching farmers make the conscious decision to work in a more labor-intensive way so as to have less impact on their environment and the river makes me able to embrace the idea of leaving some of the land here open to farming.

That said, Cloudbridge is hoping to work with private land owners between here and the coast to encourage them to allow natural regrowth on their property (especially of fruiting trees that provide food to altitudinal migrants such as the quetzal), so that we can begin to construct tendrils of biological corridor outwards from our mountain nook. And, let’s be honest, we all just really want to see more quetzals.

On the subject of biodiversity, I did encounter this little guy - perhaps less glamorous than a quetzal, but no less exciting (in theory):

And a few days ago we saw a Caecilian, which is a legless salamander - incredibly rare to see. It was wriggling across the road in heavy rain, and looked like a giant worm at first glance. Predictably, I did not have my camera.

When it’s cold out…

20 August 2013

Standard day at spanish class. This is not the evil horse (still don’t know its name). This horse belongs to my Spanish teacher; she is called Linda, and is indeed muy linda and also possibly embarazada. Gestation is 1 year for horses, so she’s got a while to go before showing, if she is pregnant. She is certainly eager for food, and eager to get a bit of attention during class.
Fixed the pipe, ran the horse off, found its owner (so I thought). Here was our exchange.
H: “Hey Abilio, your horse has been loose at Cloudbridge.”
A: “Oh dios mio, the horse.”
H: “Well, it’s been causing some damage, actually, it broke some pipes and it’s been -“
A: “Ach, no, don’t tell me, it’s not my horse. It’s my son’s horse, but everyone thinks it’s mine, I get all the blame when it gets out, it’s a terrible horse and it gets into everything; he doesn’t keep it fenced in, and I get the blame.”
H: “Okay…. well, then could you tell your son that I left it up by the Uran properties? And that it’s been causing damage at Cloudbridge?”
A: “I will, I will; but just don’t go thinking that the horse is mine.”
Blaming your kids: classic. On the bright side, this issue has been overcome. Success!

18 August 2013

Sitting by Rio Chirripó.

17 August 2013

Water is out again. This time because of a horse. I don’t know what its name is, or who owns it, or indeed even what gender it is, because horses freak me out a bit and I haven’t wanted to approach it. This reluctance to go near it led to me assuming the mindset that “it’s totally okay if the horse is on Cloudbridge property, because at least it’s eating that highly invasive king grass, and minding its own business….” Well, it was also shitting all over the pathway, tramping around off trail, and setting a precedent that farm animals are acceptable here. All of those would have been bad enough on their own, but tonight it has brought down my wrath upon it.

I got home after a long day of NOT doing work; we (my researchers & I) went down to help out with some tree planting on one of my volunteers’ property, and spent the rest of the afternoon eating, talking, and enjoying a few drinks, and I even voiced my happiness at one point at taking an afternoon off of work - HAH. I know now how wrong it was to suspect that I am allowed to do that.

Immediately upon arriving home, as soon as I had cozied up and gotten ready to crawl into bed, I was summoned to investigate the issue of the exploding water. A pipe had been broken (by a smelly hooved foot…) down by the volunteer housing, and was spewing water. I turned off all water up at the tank (in the dark, on slippery paths), and we spent about 40 minutes trying to figure out how to plug up the pipe so that it would withstand the pressure of turning pipes back on. No luck, it is a job for someone actually skilled in plumbing. So water is off until further notice, and tomorrow I am going to capture the horse, possibly brand it as Cloudbridge property (might not have the guts to do that bit), and then sell it back to its owner for an extortionate fee that will cover pipe repair, trail repair, and the amount of resentment I am currently experiencing.

Stupid horse.

16 August 2013

Coming down from the old growth plot, I heard some chattering ahead. It was a group of spider monkeys coming from one direction, and a group of white-face capuchins coming the other way, and they were scolding each other fiercely. When their dispute had finished, the white-face monkeys cut across the ridge and disappeared deep into the trees, and the spiders continued down along the ridgeline. The trail I was following traced the ridgeline as well, and so I found myself tip-toeing along through the leaf litter and the fallen branches along the trail, moving along under the spiders as they lazily swung through branches, dropped from canopy to canopy along the steeply falling ridge, and paused every now and again to watch me a hundred feet below them on the ground.

The fog had come in by this point, although not so strong as to obscure the canopy through which the monkeys were swinging, and so they seemed to be moving through trees that had nothing on the other side, as though this ridge were the only bastion of forest in an unbounded cloud.

Such is life in the cloud forest; a constant sense of floating unanchored on some broken-off island in the mist. The monkey part of this story is a bit novel, though - they’ve been highly migratory since a large windstorm took down many of the fruiting trees they relied on some years ago. Since then the sightings have been few and far between, so despite the commonality of monkey-sightings in Costa Rica, seeing them up here still carries with it an element of exciting discovery.
You get to the event. You’re planning on sitting at the back so you can eat your lunch during the speeches and sneak out early. But there’s a table on the stage and they tell you that you have to sit there. As you take your seat, you look around. Everyone else at the table seems to have a piece of paper in front of them. Slowly it dawns on you that this is a speech ceremony and you’ve just been placed at the speakers’ table. You ask someone to confirm. Sure enough, you need to address the room, albeit briefly, and you need to do it in your second language. You feel rather faint, and after a few swigs from your complementary speaker’s water bottle you set in to frantically pen out a few words before the event begins. You run out of time.

I’m pretty sure I’ve had that nightmare before. Only this time around it was very much a reality, and very much one of those terrifying experiences that can be spun positively as a “learning experience.”

The event was to celebrate the Bandera Azul: this is a prize awarded to towns, educational institutions, tourism establishments and other organizations in Costa Rica to recognize ecological excellence. It can recognize environmental education or sustainable eco-tourism or in Cloudbridge’s case, Espacios Naturales Protegidos - protected natural areas.

San Gerardo as a town has a Bandera Azul for its recycling program, its support for environmental projects, and its educational Earth Day celebrations. In addition, there are no fewer than six establishments in and around San Gerardo that also have received the Bandera Azul: the school, the local hot springs, two hotels, a hostel, and Cloudbridge. That makes 7 Banderas Azules in a town with population ~350. That is an achievement for San Gerardo to be proud of, and the reason for the event I found myself at.

As the current acting manager of Cloudbridge, it was my job to represent Cloudbridge as a Bandera Azul recipient. I was under the very distinct impression that representing would involve sitting in the salon for about an hour or two listening to talks about the importance of the Bandera Azul and environmental awareness in the community, and would then get to go home.

How wrong I was.

In the end, though, the speech required was nothing, a formality, just a few words to express excitement at the achievements of the various establishments in San Gerardo and for the town’s mentality as well. I did not have to go into depth about Cloudbridge’s role in ecological conservation, although perhaps that would have been easier; as it was, I had to listen carefully to the formalities of the speakers before me so that I would be able to appropriately address those present: A todos los que están aquí presente hoy, a los invitados en la mesa principal, a las docentes de la escuela, a los estudiantes por sus presentaciones, es un placer estar aquí… super formal. For the most part the other speakers used a level of vocabulary that I haven’t reached yet, very polite and formal and refined. Mine was more basic, but I was able to express my excitement at the sheer number of Banderas Azules the community had achieved, and how this reflected a broader mentality of conservation which was extremely valuable. Nothing fancy. But I stood up and I spoke and I said eh and bueno and no sé a lot as terrible little bad-habit fillers, but I conveyed my thoughts and I didn’t faint or cry or pee in my pants, so I felt that overall it had been a wild success.

09 August 2013

Sunset over the valley from Tom’s house.

Cars, the extended sequel and then some

I dare not jinx it, but I brashly suspect that all my car troubles may be over.

I have reached this conclusion based on my suspicion that I have performed the first (much-needed) car maintenance in quite some time on these poor beleaguered Cloudbridge vehicles. Alonso, one of the Cloudbridge workers as well as my backbone and my sanity as I have been getting used to my new position, opened up the hood of the truck with me a few days ago and gave me my first ever lesson in what actually goes on in there.

Things I learned:
1) There should be coolant in there (there wasn’t)
2) There should be steering fluid in there (there wasn’t)
3) The battery should not be loose (it was)
4) The loose battery should not be hitting against the fan belt to the point that it has broken open and is leaking battery fluid (it was)
Needless to say, there were a fair few things that needed to be addressed. I decided to take the truck down to the mechanic to see whether the absence of all these missing yet apparently vitally important fluids had hurt the truck. He refilled everything that I hadn’t already filled up, and he patched up the hole in the battery. He also pointed out something extremely crucial to my 4WD success (or lack thereof): a dial on the front wheels need to be adjusted whenever the 4WD is switched on, thereby enabling the front wheels to engage. This was switched off. That explains an awful lot.

So I drove it back up the hill with no weight in the back. And it drove. Not only that, it drove smooth. Truck: 0 Holly: 1

The next day, Alonso and I opened up the hood of the land rover. Repeat lessons from above (except for the battery, which was firmly secured and all in one piece), with these further educational points:
5) Brake fluid needs to be above the minimum line (it wasn’t)
6) Oil should not feel like tar sand (it did)
No coolant, no steering fluid, minimal brake fluid, shitty oil. So I filled up the coolant and the steering fluid, which I’d learned how to do now, and took the car down to the mechanic for oil and brake fluid. Pretty expensive, but it’s a comforting thought that this car now has a higher probability of continued functionality than it did before, as I’m driving up and down this insane mountain over the next month and a week.

And that’s the story of how I had to learn the basics of under-the-hood car stuff. Nothing fancy, but just enough to see when a car is being totally neglected. Good timing, as I bought my own new first car about a month before coming out to Costa Rica; now that I have been plunged so abruptly into the world of basic vehicle maintenance, I can take these skills home with me and keep my own car (also a Toyota, as are the Cloudbridge vehicles) going for that little bit longer.

On top of my little vehicular victories, I conducted all trouble-shooting, garage visits and maintenance work in Spanish. I can talk about insufficient brake fluid and leaky battery cases and sand-textured oil like a boss. Yeah!

Insects of the jungle.

Cooking tico

There is an amazing variety of different and deliciously tasty food down here that I am only just beginning to learn how to use. This week, it’s palmito, or heart of palm, which I bought a huge quantity of at the big feria in San Isidro on Thursday, and have been working my way through.

Palmito looks sort of like little white logs with a texture that is somewhere between rubbery and fibery; its flavor is sort of a less pungent incarnation of artichoke hearts. You can get pickled palmito, which is probably slightly more flavorful, but I just bought mine raw in a little bundle at the feria. It’s a decent protein source and a good base for other things that have a bit more flavor.

Between the internet and a great little crossover tico/extranjero veggie cookbook I bought the other day at another local feria, I have uncovered a bunch of great recipes and have been working through them one by one. Today’s was a loose version of this recipe for a tasty salad with avocado and lime:

I diced up the palmito and avocado and tossed them together with a dressing of lime juice, salt and pepper; then garnished it with parsley from the garden. Delicious! And very refreshing. I was out of green onion this time around, but might add a little bit of normal onion next time.

Yesterday’s palmito foray was mini-frittatas with egg and cheese from this recipe. I used Katia’s delicious freshly-made mozzarella, diced it up along with the palmitos and tossed them together with pepper. I filled a muffin-tray with the mixture, and covered it with eggs beaten together with salt and olive oil, then baked it at 325°F for 20 minutes.

Delicious! I generally find cheddar frittatas a little too heavy, so the delicate combination of mozzarella with the mild flavor of palmito made these very subtle & brought out the saltiness of the olive oil. Really good!

So on account of how palmito seems to go a very long way, I have approximately 5 more meals to go before I’ve used up all of mine. I’ll branch out for some good further recipes, but I would say already that I’m a palmito convert, if just because it’s such a nice addition to bulking out salads and other recipes.

04 August 2013

Well, I have been here three weeks, and have:

1) not crashed/broken/irreparably damaged the car or truck, despite best efforts of the local terrain, and best efforts of the truck to disregard its front wheel capabilities.
2) repaired the hydro-electric & drinking water system for at least 5 unrelated issues: broken pipe (located, resealed); no hot water (increased flow to hydro system to generate extra electricity to power hot water heater); battery not charging (insufficient flow to hydro, opened tube); air in tube (flushed system); blocked filters (cleaned it, flushed system). Actually that last one happens on pretty much a daily basis. Apart from the fact that the head of the hydro system is at the top of a waterfall, which is reached by a precariously muddy narrow path along the sheer cliffside of a vine-draped river gully, it’s actually rather satisfying going up there and cleaning it out. Less fun is following the pipes, which don’t follow the path, for troubleshooting purposes.
3) brokered a cautious alliance with Cloudbridge public enemy number 1! Well okay, he’s not a public enemy at all, he’s just a neighbor with whom we’ve had a turbulent past: his land is surrounded on all sides by Cloudbridge, and he has clashed with us in past regarding trail usage, signage, etc. He uses his land to farm, ostensibly, but it seems more likely that he is holding out for a wealthy buyer. Sadly, Cloudbridge is not that buyer, as much as we would like to be, and so his land remains a treeless scar in the middle of our reforestation project. Well, we had a long talk & tried to figure out just why boundary issues have been such a big deal up till now. We have arranged to collaborate on a once- or twice-monthly basis to do trail maintenance and repairs, on the hope that a better working relationship with will prevent the sort of acrimony we’ve had in past. 

So I feel like so far things have been successful, albeit full of challenges. But that’s the whole point of being here! I am going to be damn good at facing challenges after this. So long as they are related to hydro-electric systems or nonfunctioning 4WD, at least…