Monthly Archives: February 2012

Making Cheese and Rice in Costa Rica – Costa Rica Day 9

After checking the level of the river water beneath my hammock each time I awoke in the night, the sun finally rose. I flipped the tarp off from above me and enjoyed the tranquility of nature. For the next while, I nodded in and out of sleep before finally getting up and packing up my camp. I hadn’t eaten since lunch the previous day. Hunger was nice though because I knew it would soon be appeased and fasting makes a person more aware of their body and allows them to practice discipline.

I silently made my way back to the house and waited as my group members returned one-by-one. Once everyone had arrived, we went around and each member shared some highlights from their experience.  Some shared stories that were hilarious, while others told of the hours they spent naked since there was nobody around to see. My solo experience had been largely spent in meditation, but did end with a funny story. Some stories, however, are best left untold.

Following our meeting, we went and found the Lopez family in order to express our gratitude for extending their house to us for multiple days. Since we did not speak Spanish well, our group member who was a Spanish major gave a thank you on behalf of the group. We said goodbye, loaded our packs, and left for the third home-stay.

About a mile down the trail, we found the next house in which we would be living. The man of the house ran a 300-acre farm that grows various crops including bananas and beans. We met the family and soon found our way to the river to cool off in the afternoon sun.

Most of the group followed Stewart, the boy who lived at the house where we would now stay, as he swam from rock to rock up river. When we reached the whitewater rapids that were upriver, we climbed on top of a rock and jumped into the main current. The current gently bounced us off some large rocks before letting us go once again in the pool below the rapids.

As we played in the river and cooled off, we would stop to watch the colorful butterflies flutter by and look for any other animals that may present themselves. Suddenly, someone quietly pointed upstream. Two river otters were swimming and playing with each other. The female was in heat and taunted the male before jumping back in the water. It was beautiful to watch the animals gracefully swim through currents much too strong for us to attempt to swim. All but one member of the group witnessed these beautiful animals. The one member who missed them ironically noted that they are her very favorite animals in the world.

Our stomachs had grown hungry since the hike, so the group migrated back to the house for lunch. It was a well built two-story house that wouldn’t stand a chance of passing OSHA? code. The corner of the second-story hallway was cutout for a steep staircase. If one wanted to round that corner, they had to step over the hole in the floor to get to the other hallway. The stairs were steep and one was farther out from the rest. I loved these unique characteristics of the house once I discovered them. It seemed to give the house a lot of extra character.

After a wonderful lunch, we were taken outside to learn how to shell rice the way the owner of this farm had to do it for his family every week when he was a child. The rice was pounded in a large wood basin by large wood mallets. Next, the rice was scooped out and poured back in while being fanned or put on a tray and tossed in the air repeatedly. Both of these methods worked to separate the rice from the shells that had broken off. These two steps were repeated continuously until all of the rice had lost its brown shell and only the rice remained.

We each took turns pounding the rice with the large mallets. It was hard work. We were impressed by the strength of the men who run these farms. Their bodies are capable of doing tasks like this at unbelievable speeds and for long duration. In about an hour, the men had shelled somewhere around 30 liters of rice (uncooked).

After learning how to shell rice, we were taken over to the porch to make cheese. Since refrigerators use too much energy to run on solar power, the family cannot keep milk from spoiling. Whatever milk from the day is not going to be consumed receives an additive that turns it into cheese. It was our job to squeeze the liquid out from this spongy soon-to-be cheese and place it in a mold where it would be pressed overnight. By morning, we would have cheese. It was a simple process and quite beneficial for the family. The cheese, however, was not the best tasting in my opinion, but I had gotten used to it, as it was the only cheese available since I had entered the jungle.

In the evening, we enjoyed time together as a group. Santiago found a large spider that was not poisonous. He let us play with it. It dwarfed any spider I had seen in the United States and was quite hairy. Most of the group was intrigued by it, but some preferred to keep their distance.

Eventually, I strung my hammock on the upstairs balcony and crawled in for the night. I reflected on the perfect weather and beautiful scenery, the people who showed so much hospitality and lived such pure lives, and on the things I was learning and would be able to take with me when I returned home. I was finally beginning to understand the Costa Rican phrase, “Pura Vida” which means “Pure Life.” It is something the culture back home had lost sight of many years ago and now required rediscovery. With that thought, I fell asleep to the jungle sounds and warm breeze.


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Posted by on 28 February 2012 in Gear Reviews


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A Night Alone in the Jungle – Costa Rica day 8

Part – I

Our morning got off to an early start. We ate breakfast and quickly prepared to hike to a nearby cave. The cave was 900 feet from the entrance to the farthest known room, with only one small passage still unexplored.  Upon entering the cave, we were greeted by the sounds of hundreds of cave spiders and crickets, which had a strong resemblance to spiders, the screeching of bats. We soon found out that bats scared one particular member of our group a lot, and we got quite a chuckle when one flew directly into her almost immediately after she told us of her fear of bats.

We navigated deeper and deeper into the depths of the cave. We used headlamps to see out way and avoid the 3-12 foot pits the water had carved in the floor and helped one another navigate when the floor was slippery. This was no cement-walkway cave tour. This was the real deal. We got muddy, wet, and had to help each other from becoming stuck or hurt at certain parts.

When we finally reached the back room, there was a large pillar of salt from years of water deposits. On the adjacent wall was the unexplored passage about 10 feet above the floor. Of course, I wanted to explore, but I knew the answer so I did not ask.

We turned our headlamps off and experienced the epitome of darkness. No light made it this far into the cave. It didn’t matter how long we stayed in that room, our eyes would never receive any light to read and we would never see. As the group silently stood and took in the darkness, Carlos spoke. He told us to pass our headlamps to him.

Everyone thought Carlos was joking; it was far too dark to walk out of the cave without light. However, Carlos reassured us that other people had done it successfully and he was confident in our group’s ability to find our way out in the dark. The cave was one long passage, so we couldn’t get lost. The difficult would be in navigating around all the holes and formations. One guide went several meters ahead with one light so the leader of the group would be able to make out, and then we were on our way.

We made a chain and held one another hand-in-hand. I was in the front and told the person behind me each step they needed to make. One-by-one the message would be passed back as people came to that step. In 68 minutes, we found the entrance.

Although we had not gone out as quickly as we may have been able to, everyone stayed safe and took care of one another. This experience required large amounts of teamwork and we certainly had that. Everyone showed a lot of respect for each other. I have been told this is not typical of many groups, but every Calvin College group I have ever been a part of has had respect as one of its central characteristics.

Once out of the cave, we hiked a mile or two back to the swimming hole for a dip in the cool water before heading back to the house to rest for an hour. We would be leaving in the afternoon to participate in overnight solos on the riverbank. Few members of the group had done something to this before. Many in the group were apprehensive though.

Part – II

In the afternoon, the leaders led each member of our group to different plots on the riverbank. We took emergency whistles, a tarp, some cord, and whatever else we needed for the night (sleeping mat, tooth brush, etc). We were told not to bring food but rather to embrace fasting until the next afternoon when we would be fed again.

My hammock strung just upriver from the large boulder

I explored my plot and looked for a suitable place to set up my hammock. No places were going to be very safe. I either would be strung up a good distance over sharp rocks or hang over the river. I decided that the river looked much cooler so I hopped rocks until I got out to a fallen log that had wedged itself against a boulder.

After starring at my workspace for some time, I knew how I would string my hammock and quickly went to work. With one end of my hammock tied to the roots of the fallen tree and the other tied to a limb that had snagged about 10 feet downstream, everything was all set up. These were large pieces of wood and were secure.

After stringing up my hammock and tying the tarp over it, I realized the log was infested with termites. It was too late to change my whole setup – I was not going to work in the dark. I pulled the tarp lower on that side to act as a barrier between the termites and myself. It did its job remarkably well.

Before night fell, I hopped out to a boulder in the middle of the river. Lying there was peaceful. The only sound I could hear was the rushing water of the class V rapid above me; there was not a single sign of other people anywhere I looked. I was entirely alone and it was wonderful.

I fell asleep 12 inches above the warm Costa Rican water with birds and frogs singing their songs all around me. The river was loud but calming and the night was cool but comfortable. Life was good.


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Turning Sugar Cane into Brown Sugar – Costa Rica day 7

A spider with a very unique body. There were a half-dozen like this by my bed, It was cool to watch them work as the sun rose behind them.

A morning breeze woke me just as the sun rose above the eastern mountain peaks. A rooster crowed and rain danced on the tin roof. By the time we were eating breakfast, the rain had stopped and the temperature was quickly on the rise.

Our first activity of the day was to hike to the sugar cane field and gather canes to process into brown sugar. The field was a good distance up hill. We thought it took effort to climb all the way to the field, but coming back down carrying the canes was certainly more difficult than the trip up.

When we arrived at the field, a local had already cut the leaves off from the stalks and chopped down the canes. This was a very sticky and uncomfortable job. We gathered stalks and bound them to carry down the mountain. Our guides said that they take up to 30 and a time but since we had so many people, we need only take 6 to 10 per person (we were okay with this as the stalks were heavier than they looked and we knew there was a lot of hard work ahead of us).

A difficult downhill struggle of a half-mile lead us back to the cane processing equipment near the stable. We stacked the canes and awaited further instruction. We had already worked up a sweat and were sticky, but it was nothing compared to how we soon would be.

After we were told how sugar cane is processed we set to work. One person hammered canes to crack their bamboo-like shells while another stacked the cracked canes and stacked new ones for the hammerer as needed. Two people manned the cranks for the old pressing wheels. The wheels had a 1:not-nearly-enough gear ratio and proved to be very tiring even for the fittest guys in our group. In additions to the previously mentioned tasks, there was also a person feeding canes into the wheel and another to catch them on the other side.

Each cane required being sent through the press three times which made the process take a good bit of time. When we finished pressing the several dozen canes, we had strained about 15 gallons of liquid from the canes we collected. This would be boiled down to make about 20 pounds of sugar.

The liquid was strained into a large basin, boiled down, and scooped out when it was a paste. It was then put into wet wooden cylinders in order to make blocks of brown sugar out of it. Some of the brown sugar was also mixed with peanut butter and given to the kids as candy. It was far too sweet for my liking though.

While the liquid was condensing into the paste that would become sugar, we went to rinse off in the swimming hole. The sugar from the canes had covered our bodies and we had worked up a lot of sweat cranking the wheels.

While we swam, we found a “Jesus Christ Lizard” which earned its name from its ability to walk on water. One of the members scared it and we were amazed as it ran across the water and scurried over the rocks to disappear. We swam and cooled off before heading back to learn the finishing process of making sugar from sugar cane. When that was done to went to the house.

Once at the house, everyone took time to themselves. I climbed into my comfortable hammock in the shade. Another group member who also owned a hammock crawled into his as well. In his case, however, the knot came untied just as he transferred the last bit of his weight onto the hammock. With a crash he fell on the wood floor.

The abuela (grandmother) ran into the room to see if everything was okay. When she saw what had happened, she laughed and said something in Spanish to the member who fell because he was fluent in Spanish. They both laughed and she went back to the kitchen.

As time went on, the group reconvened by the beds where the guys’ slept on the upstairs balcony. I joined in and played cards with my group members as we enjoyed the beautiful scenery and weather we were experiencing. We often remarked about the fact that we could be back in the Michigan winter with the grey sky’s and sitting in classrooms. Life was grand where we were.

Before dinner, we were called downstairs to ground corn, add salt and water, and make tortillas from the mix. It was quite an interesting skill that none of us perfected. There was a lot more that went into cooking a tortilla that we had been aware of. They must be cooked first in a pan then let sit against the vent on a wood stove to finish cooking. If the wrong side faces the stove, the tortilla will be hard and inflexible. The women took a lot of pride in the quality of their tortillas.

While the rest of dinner cooked, some of us played with the children. We spun them around the floor of the main room on a mattress until they giggled so hard they could hardly breathe. Diego enjoyed spinning on the mattress, but his sister, Loupe, was more partial to flying around the house in my arms. They tired us out but we all had a great time. Dinner was a good break for our bodies.

As the night progressed, we realized how much everyone missed the three members who had gone into town for evacuating the student that needed to leave. We really missed out comrades and wanted them back. It came up in our evening meeting that everyone really wanted them all back even though we knew that couldn’t be the case.

The night was young, but with our early awakenings, we were tired. Everyone retired to their comfortable beds for the last time. The next night would be spent in solitude as we took overnight solo’s away from the house.


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Costa Rica Day 6 Movie


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Futbol en la Jungla (Soccer in the Jungle) – Costa Rica day 6

We awoke to the delectable smell of pancakes. Everyone ate his or her pancakes (and rice and beans) quickly so we could hit the trail as soon as possible. The plan was to migrate to Santiago’s parents home before lunch. The house was a few miles down the mountain and around a bend.

When we arrived at the house, we were shocked to see such an elaborate house in an area where all the materials had to be made on site or packed in on horseback (2+ hours down an unkempt dirt road in a truck, then 3 hours by horse). The house had a large kitchen and dining area with tiled flooring. On the second story, there were beds on a balcony open to the outdoors. The house was located on the inside of a river bend such that the river was surrounding three sides of the house (a safe distance away, of course) and had been built around a large boulder similar to a Frank Lloyd Wright house.

A husky puppy greeted as at the house along with chickens, other dogs, cattle, and of course the family who was very excited to meet their new guests. We introduced ourselves and prepared to immediately go out for a small adventure. Before we would eat lunch, we were going to rappel down a 100-foot waterfall.

Everyone had fun participating in the rappel. Some had never done anything like it before in their lives and got quite a rush from it. Since I had previous experience in climbing and had grown very comfortable with heights, I decided to see how fast I could let myself down. Carlos, having faith in my abilities, gave me extra slack in the backup line and told me not to do anything stupid—my friends would probably agree this is good advice for me to hear in such a moment. I consented and went over the edge.

With my camera in one hand and my other hand guiding the rope I began to lower myself. Immediately water rushed over me and I began my descent. I quickly found myself reaching the bottom and wishing the ride was longer. After I was unclipped from the system, I cut my ankle of a sharp rock (which left a gnarly six-inch scar!). Everyone laughed as I had just repelled down a waterfall at high speeds and with only one hand and remained safe, but walking back to the group was when I got hurt.

As some rappelled, Santiago taught others a cool trick with one of the jungle plants. There was a specific leaf that could be folded in half and would fly like a giant paper airplane. Several members of the group experimented with these and had a few good tosses (watch the video to see one in flight).

After our adventure in the waterfall, the group followed Carlos back to the Lopez residence for lunch. It was the middle of the afternoon and we had all grown quite hungry. The food that had been prepared was rice and beans with fruit and some of the most delicious juice I had ever tasted. The meal was accented with a strong Jalapeño salsa (salsa verde).

Following our afternoon meal, we were taken to the school about a quarter-mile down the path. Children would hike two hours down the trail from surrounding houses to come to school each morning. The building was a single room and housed anywhere from 1 to 14 students in any given year.

Adjacent to the school was a dormitory/cafeteria where the government provided teacher lived and cooked for students during the school year. There were also two other houses very close. Once was finished and the other was under construction by our guide, Santiago.

We toured Santiago’s house-in-progress while he described to us how the houses are made. He explained that everything from the toilet to the tin roof sheets and all the concrete must be packed in by horseback. By Locking a chainsaw into a contraption and using it as a planar, Santiago furnished boards for the house for his family’s house. Power tools were seldom used because gasoline must be packed in and electricity is scarce in the area.

Me in front of the goal

After the tour of Santiago’s project, we were taken to the soccer (futbol) field on the far side of the cafeteria. It was a level field surrounded by banana trees and other assorted plants. The goals were fashioned from tree limbs and lacked nets. A hard shot would undoubtedly send the ball into the jungle,  but this was not a huge issue for the locals as they do not play as rough and competitively as people who grew up in American culture are accustomed to. The locals played hard but played in a noticeably different style. They seemed to play ‘cleaner’ than I had ever experienced.

We played against the locals for a while and worked up quite a sweat. When we were finished with the game we headed back towards the house but took a detour to the river. We jumped off rocks below the rapids and swam in the cold, refreshing water until each had their fill.

The group migrated back to the house for the rest of the afternoon. We conversed with one another and got to know each other on a deeper level. Dinner came and went and I washed dishes, as that was my duty for the day. After finishing with the dishes, I went to grab something from my pack. Maya, the husky puppy, was curled up in-between two of the packs.

I laid down next to the pup and petted her for a while. I am quite attached to my dog back home and enjoyed getting to pet one again. Maya had fleas but I didn’t mind. She was too adorable not to love. Not knowing the mischief the puppy would soon get in to, I left her alone and went back to the group. We later found that she had chewed through one of my dry bags, destroyed some other things from my group members packs and puked it all back up on one of the other guy’s packs. It was a typical case of being a puppy and nobody could be upset with her for long.

The rapids above where we swam

When the group reconvened for the nightly meeting, we were met with a somber tone. One of our group mates whose company we had all enjoyed had been struggling severely with anxiety. The individual was unable to manage the surge in anxiety caused by the foreign environment and countless hazards. It was announced that in the morning our group leader and a guide would be taking the student t the front country to fly home. As a group, we were supportive of the decision and reaffirmed our friend for having gone so far and done so much already. We prayed for our friend before ending the meeting.

The group decided to stay up late and see our fellow member off with a good tone. Upon this member’s request, we played “the game of things” where a category is stated and each writes a response. A member of the group then must guess who said what and gets points for each correct guess. Nobody, however, cares much about winning. The game is all about seeing who can come up with the funniest responses. Our group was very good at this.

Since it was late at night, we had to speak in whispers so as not to wake up the family who had so kindly extended their house to us. This was more of a challenge than we expected, but it seemed to make the game even more fun. Some responses made us laugh so hard we nearly cried but we had to hold our laughs inside (which always seems to make them worse!). We played the game for quite a while and enjoyed our last night together as a full group. Eventually, we all migrated upstairs to our beds for the night. We slept in bed, yes I will say it again, B-E-D-S on a balcony in the rainforest of Costa Rica, five hours from the nearest town. It was magnificent!


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Chicken Ceremony – Costa Rica day 5

Lupe and Diego

I awoke to the sounds of Lupe giggling as she played with her father, Santiago. I laid in my hammock and enjoyed the view. I could see quite a distance across the lawn and up the mountain from where we had come the day before. Before I had finished taking in the beauty on my surroundings, I heard the mother call from the kitchen, “Desayuno!” which translates to “Breakfast!” I rolled out of my hammock and landed gracefully on the floor below. This was difficult to manage as the rest of the group had slept on the floor. I managed to land with my feet only a few inches from the head of the girl who slept beneath me.

Breakfast was rice, beans, and eggs, a typical meal in Costa Rica. Rice and beans comprised the majority of nearly every meal and would typically be accompanied by eggs or empanadas in the morning, fruit in the afternoon, and a small cut of meat for dinner.

Following our meal, everyone grabbed gear and followed the leaders into the jungle. Today we were going to climb the tallest tree around. It stood at about 60 feet to the top anchor then another 15 feet or so to the very top (which would not have been safe to climb to).

Everyone climbed to the top anchor of the tree. I went last for the first round and first for the last round. This allowed me to go two consecutive times so I didn’t have to fuss with the harness more than once. The leaders told me to try going blindfolded my second time. I did so and it turned out quite well. My group mates accurately called out hand and foot placements for me to use. It was a good team-building exercise.

Once my turn climbing was done, I took a turn belaying. I thoroughly scared one of the guys on the trip when I let him back down from the top of the tree very quickly and only stopped him feet from the ground. I do this often in the gym but he was not used to the fast descent. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the terror on his blindfolded face as he plummeted towards the ground.

Once all those who wanted to climb the tree a second time had done so, we went back to the house for lunch. Rice, beans, squash and pork made up this meal. It tasted good and gave us energy for the afternoon team-building exercises.

Late in the afternoon, everyone was called together and told to chase a particular chicken, capture it and bring it back to Carlos. With the whole group working together to surround the chicken, I scooped it up and brought it to Carlos with a hop in my step like a dog bringing a bird to its master.

A somber tone came over the group as Carlos he explained the cultural significance of killing for food. No pictures were allowed and the group was very quiet. Looking around, I was suddenly extra aware of the fact that although I hunt and have no issues with killing for food, others in the group were not so comfortable with it. We all took care to be respectful of the animal, the culture, and those in the group who were more emotionally affected by what was going to take place.

We each passed the hen around, each saying a prayer of thanksgiving or simply admiring the innocent animal we would soon slaughter. A string was looped around the neck of the bird and used to elongate her neck on a wood block. It didn’t fight, it simply sat and waited. I was given the honor of slaughtering the bird and with one small flick of the machete had severed the head from the body.

The body flapped around sporadically fighting for life as one of the girls held it in a bucket. As the blood flowed out of the bird, it fought less and less, until finally it was quiet. We poured boiling water over the body to loosen the feathers and each person grabbed clumps until the body was bare. From there, we watched the rest of the process as the bird was cleaned for dinner.

Our group went inside to discuss what we had just taken part in. Some were very emotional while others we quite the opposite. Everyone had insightful comments and was very respectful of the other opinions being shared. It was unanimously agreed that the bird had lived a much better life naturally roaming the lawn than a chicken in the United States, which is confined to a 1ft3 cage for the entirety of its life. We were also informed that the chicken was old and had stopped laying eggs. This meant that if it were not slaughtered, it would die a more painful death of natural causes rather soon. We all agreed that this was a better option overall.

Following the chicken ceremony, we moved to the porch and had group-bonding time until dinner. We sat in a circle and shared stories with one another and grew closer to the people we would be spending the next few weeks with. Even our guides joined in for a while.

Dinner was rice, beans, and the chicken I had helped slaughter. We ate every part of it we could (even the heart and liver!). We did not stay up late in the evening, as we would be hiking to the next home-stay in the morning. Following dinner, I crawled into my hammock and wrote in my journal before falling asleep to the sound of the birds and insects singing in the night.


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