Thursday 20 January 2022

David Sovka: In Costa Rica, a jungle farm welcomes cyclists

Paying the bills


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Paying the bills


A small lizard is doing a slow-motion dance just off my starboard bow. That is to say, three feet from where my hammock nearly scrapes bottom, a tiny reptile is slowly lifting one leg, then another, then another, through a dance-like cycle aimed at protecting its wee piggies from the baking hot tiles of the hotel courtyard.

It’s an interesting strategy, one might even say a darling strategy, given how cute the lizard is, but it is not my preferred approach to beating the heat (I may have neglected to mention the large bottle of ice-cold beer sharing the hammock with me).

Roasting cacao beans in Costa Rica. Photo by David Sovka

My point is that every animal here in Costa Rica needs a strategy for coping with the heat, the rain and the super-abundance of larger, more toothy creatures that make for such interesting-sounding nights in the jungle.

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At nighttime in the jungle it is dark, and moist, and still warm, and it is surprisingly loud: shrieks, howls, chirps, whines and — eventually — crunches followed by satisfied lip-smacking, dominate the soundscape. You might think that it would be far too loud (and dark, moist and hot) for such prosaic activities as, say, sleeping.

But … here’s the strangest thing about the jungle. As night deepens, the pervasive sounds strongly suggest that you are about to die in the jaws of something really awful at any second, and what’s more, everybody else in the neighbourhood is very excited about snacking on the leftovers.

Nevertheless, you settle in, tucking in the mosquito net, and trying to shut off your ears, because what else are you going to do, go home and watch TV?

Miraculously, you do not fall prey to the jaguars (a real thing here) or bird-eating tarantulas (also a real thing here). Instead, the jungle sounds lull you to sleep like a young Tarzan on Kala’s big soft gorilla bosoms.

I suspect the organic, frightening sounds of the jungle turn out to be unexpectedly soothing because they remind us, way down in our fetal memories, of our mothers. Specifically, the sounds of our mother’s digestive system in action.

The whips and scorns of time

This morning we cycle 20 kilometres uphill and inland from Puerto Viejo de la Talamanca and the Caribbean Sea, stopping from time to time to admire a toucan flash by, or to watch a sloth sleep, high up in the trees away from predators.

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I assume they are sleeping. Maybe they’re doing their taxes, or writing memoirs. With sloths, who can tell?

Eventually, we reach the Bribri farm of Catato López and his family of eight children and 14 (so far) grandchildren. Senor López and his wife greet us like old friends.

Like all indigenous people here, they are both small in stature and look no more than 40 years old. They might be 80 or 800.

Don’t let Canadian ideas of farming — big and flat, full of cows and tractors and terrible country music — shape your thoughts.

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This is a Bribri jungle farm: small plantings of cacao, coffee, bananas, and many medicinal plants grow in dark tropical groves, surrounded by a few simple buildings with palm-thatched roofs and springy palm-stalk floors.

Estimates of Costa Rica’s Bribri population vary wildly, somewhere between 10,000-35,000 people in isolated matrilineal clan groups in the big and scary Talamanca mountain range and islands off the coast.

“Isolated” is the key reason nobody knows exactly how many Bribri there are — and also the key reason why the Spanish did not wipe them out like most other indigenous Mesoamerican peoples they found in the New World. The Talamanca region is unforgivingly creative in the many ways it finds to kill unwary visitors: poisonous swamps thick with disease-carrying mosquitos, spirit-sapping cloud forests, and dangerous jungle full of jaguars, snakes, and other certain death unless you really know what you’re doing. As tough and technologically advanced as they were, the would-be Spanish conquerors did not. The Bribri did, and they still do.

Catato López is an entrepreneur. In addition to his family farm, he is building up a tourist-friendly side business showing people how to make chocolate from jungle-harvested cacao pods, guiding people in the identification and harvest of medicinal plants, and showing off his very own open-air zoological park for family Dendrobatidae (poison dart frogs). I have no idea how anyone knows about this remote hillside in the Talamancas, but they obviously do, and in numbers big enough to keep the López family busy showing us around.

We begin with chocolate-making, which is as ridiculous and unlikely a process, as the product is delicious and wonderful. Step one is to harvest the cacao beans that grow in weird pods about the size of a submarine sandwich. Cacao pods grow directly out of the trunk of the cacao tree, starting tiny and green, growing larger and purple, and finally ripening to an orange-red colour. Splitting the pod open gives access to the cacao beans, which need to fermented for a couple of days, and then dried.

I’ve spent my entire adult life not knowing how to pronounce the word “cacao.” Today I finally ask for help, under the pretext of improving my Spanish. The correct pronunciation (in both English and Spanish) is “ka-COW;” not “CO-co” which is the chocolate end product, nor “co-co” which is the Spanish word for coconut; nor “co-CO” which is not a word at all and makes you sound silly in both English and Spanish. Isn’t language fun?

We roast the cacao beans in a shallow cast-iron pan over an open fire. Soon they make popcorn sounds, and turn a darker colour, like roasted coffee beans. We de-husk the roasted beans using a winnowing movement like Ma Ingles on the prairie, and then put them in a manual grinder that turns the dry, hard, dusty beans into a dark, oily, delicious paste. The process is pure magic. The product is pure chocolate. We spread it on the tiny, sweet bananas that grow at head height every where you look. Ohhhhhhhh yeahhhhhhhhh.

Making chocolate is one of those impossible wonders that gives credence to the ideas of wing nuts like Erich von Däniken: maybe ancient humans had alien help to make something so yummy. How else would we have have figured out how to get from X to Y to Z to chocolate? I feel this way about almost everything growing on Catato López’ property, from the cinnamon tree (SPOILER: the spice is in the bark!) to the tiny poison factories harvested for hunting and warfare (SPOILER: do NOT lick).

That’s right, the jungle is — quite literally — hopping with poison dart frogs, each with enough lipophilic alkaloid toxins on its skin to kill 10 men. Despite this, they are as cute as an armful of puppies. Some are bright red, some are green with spots. There are over 170 species of Dendrobatidae, most of them tiny and very brightly-coloured as an aposomatic warning to potential predators: Don’t eat me, bro, I’m like super poisonous.

Orange you glad I didn’t say bananas?

Eventually we leave the Bribri people, and the chocolate, and the frogs. We have a 50 km ride ahead, through banana plantations toward the Sixaola River border crossing between Costa Rica and Panama.

Most of Limón province is in the Caribbean lowlands, which means that it is banana country. Lots and lots and lots of bananas, planted in neat rows off into the distance. Bananas were first grown here in 1878. Three companies dominate the industry, which exports bananas all over the world. Today we know them as Dole, Chiquita and Del Monte, but they have had many names over the past 100-plus years of extremely bloody history. The history of bananas is the history of banana republics, and it is not a happy history.

But here’s a happy bit of banana lore: banana bunches grow pointing upward, while their less-sweet cousins, plantains, grow pointing downward. Cycling past a hundred thousand banana plants (the banana is technically a herb, not a tree) makes me crave more of that chocolate paste from this morning. Also, banana muffins and pancakes. And now that I’m considering options, a banana split sundae also strikes me as being a pretty good idea right now.

The undiscovere’d country

It is 35C and the humidity — oh the humidity! — is only slightly less than the bottom of the Pacific ocean. We are drenched in sweat and road filth, and approach the border crossing looking like the kind of people they probably don’t want in their country.

Four years ago, when I last crossed this border with my dad, the bridge only — and barely — accommodated foot traffic. Now a new bridge is being built, which currently allows for a narrow, single lane of large trucks to compete with the pedestrians.

I’m not sure how this is an improvement, but at this point I am devoting every resource I can muster to just get through the inefficient Third-World border control process (think forms, lots of forms, all wet and sticky from being clenched in my hand). We pay seven moist American dollars each to enter the country, or maybe it is to leave the other country, while three different sets of officials examine our documents and frown at us. One of them yells, but he does it in such thickly-accented English that I have no idea what the problem is, and try not to make eye contact. Eventually they let us in to Panama.

My theory, based on a lot of experience with this sort of thing, is that the poorer and smaller the regime, the more silly and self-important the border officials. I don’t mean to criticize, but I do mean to compare our entrance to Panama with our return to Canada a couple of weeks later: the Canadian border officer at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport actually smiled at us, and said just two words as he waved us in: “Welcome home.”

Two of my very favourite words. Like chocolate and bananas.


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Paying the bills
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Reports by QCR staff

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