Fear & Other Drugs: El Salvador

Extended travel will teach you a thing or two about yourself. I, for one, never realized quite how terrifying the unknown, the unfamiliar, the uncertain is for me. In fact, I was quite surprised by my discomfort. I always considered myself particularly easy going in the gray areas, I thrive in situations that have unclear endings and am nearly never bothered by worries of the future. I suppose you could say that’s how I got here in the first place. But here in Backpackland (a name so accurately bestowed by a wise soul sista), uncertainty is about the only thing I can count on…and as such, I spend a lot of time in my fear.

Three months in and that hasn’t really changed, even as I grow more familiar with the unfamiliar. I still wake up to panic attacks in new places or just before we move along. I still feel the powerful and looming weight of dread just beyond the horizon in beautiful new cities. I still watch the shifting eyes of passersby as I walk with my massive Gringa backpack along busy streets of foreign lands. But I have also come closer to understanding this phenomenon. I haven’t “conquered” my fear, and that is not what I came here to do. I am living with my fear, drinking tea with my fear, getting to know my fear. I am slowly finding and sculpting and rendering my tools to keep fear from crippling me; learning how to make space for all of it.

You might say that El Salvador was the peak of all of this, and I might be compelled to agree. With a reputation as the most dangerous, drug trodden country in this corner of the world- the epicenter of infamously most murderous gang, MS-13, and its foes- El Salvador was not exactly on my list of adventures this time around. It’s hard to say exactly why I agreed to go; even if it is amazing, why take any risks when there are so many other amazing destinations? I didn’t want my fears to automatically stop me from experiencing a truly unique culture, so I did some research. Lonely Planet, our guide book for most of the trip, insists that ES is the gem of Central America. As it turns out, I have a few credible sources in my network that also gave me some hope. A friend from college even gave me her mother’s phone number in the capital, San Salvador, should I need any help. As we set up our travel plans, I felt that familiar sting of fear in my gut- the seat of my intuition- but also knew that this was a moment of growth, not doom.

See, the thing about fear + travel is that you want, you crave information. You want someone to tell you that everything will be fine. You want someone to give you a definitive idea of what your experience will be. But that simply is not how it goes. You can survey your entire network, trusted and otherwise, but no one will prophesy your future. You scour the internet looking for stories that you think apply to you, but the craving for certainty will never be satisfied by second-hand advice. I’ve come to realize that this is true whether you are traveling or not. Making decisions can be unnerving, whether in regard to destinations, big purchases, or simply getting dinner. The relativism between this decision making anxiety and our FOMO driven culture is not lost on me…but that’s another story.

Bearing our research in mind, we decided to spend a week in El Salvador…and had a wonderfully peaceful time. There was not a single moment that I felt threatened, and quite to the contrary, the people we met were fantastically friendly. I spent a day hiking with a local named Carlos, a coffee farmer and hiking guide in the sleepy town of Juayua on the Ruta de los Flores. In addition to a lovely hike, Carlos provided rich insight to the complex culture of a country riddled with war and gang violence. Up in the mountains where he grew up, there was little to tell about the violent reputation I was familiar with. He is passionate about the land and often volunteers on clean-up crews around the classic 7-Waterfalls hike. He told me about the hope he has for his country, that there are now programs to rehabilitate imprisoned youth through education, programs to help women who have been victims of violence learn and start businesses with micro-loans, and other community-driven support. He showed us some of the murals that were constructed by the young people of Juayua, displays of dedication to peace and community growth. He talked about the civil war, the people that were displaced, and how easy it was to turn to violence. He did not have a bad attitude towards the United States, even though he had once been deported. Like many folks I’ve met here, he was well versed in the political rhetoric of the US (something I’ll never quite get used to when traveling distant corners of the world) and even had some shockingly kind words to say about policies enacted under the current regime. Irony on Irony.

El Salvador is also home to one of my favorite beaches in all of Central America- El Tunco. Nestled among the rocky shores of the pacific coast line, Tunco is a haven for serious surfers. Reputation has it listed as a party town, but we hit it just as high season was coming to a close and found it immensely peaceful. The beaches are rocky, but tide was low enough to expose the black sand beach. The water was crystal clear shades of the deepest sapphire blue inter-spliced with bright turquoise. The fish was infinite, and the pupusas were cheap. It was its own slice of paradise. After one of the best yoga classes I’ve had on the road, I chatted with the teacher about an imaginary future in which I could successfully convince a US studio to have a retreat there. She laughed and said she knows how it can be hard to get people out and over their fear of new places- she leads retreats in India but can’t convince any of her community in San Salvador that it is safe in India. More irony.

If you should take away anything from this story, it is that this is my unique experience- not to be replicated or held as infallible truth. El Salvador certainly suffers from very real violence. The reputation is not one to be taken lightly. Though every country has its pockets, El Salvador is particularly tricky due to the lack of infrastructure available to help should you need medical or legal support. However, (and that’s a BIG however), the danger is largely localized in particular areas that are not difficult to avoid. We spent more money on a private shuttle rather than public transportation and headed all local warnings. As a rule of thumb, whenever you arrive in a new city (foreign or otherwise), the first thing you should do is ask your host what areas should be avoided. In El Salvador, a large percentage of tourist-involved crime has more to do with wrong-place, wrong-time than specific, targeted attacks. Still doesn’t exactly sound like a frolic in the park, but it is an important distinction when comparing relative dangers between different tourist towns. If you choose to go or you choose to skip it, do so on the basis of an informed decision and exercise extra precaution.

As for the fear, it’s getting better the more often I name it. I find that in situations of uncertainty, my brain will be quick to fill in details with “what ifs” drawn from a lifetime of cop shows, sensational news, and murder mysteries. It’s funny- I thought one of my single biggest fears was snakes. Any time we strayed off a well-beaten path my body would literally freeze in apprehension. Though it may sound silly, this is how I really came to understand and work with my fear. I noticed that I was primarily afraid of snakes only if I hadn’t walked that particular path before; once I had been there and sufficiently surveyed the area, I was fine. As if a snake couldn’t break the laws of my certainty and decide to move into my path. As if my quick search couldn’t possibly have missed an expertly hidden, probably terrified snake. If you do the math, it isn’t the snake the scared me, it was the possibility of a snake. I was almost relieved when I did see one, because that way I knew where it was (and it didn’t kill me…amazing). Transferring this conclusion to other instances of fear, I found that I am simply fearing the possibility of something going wrong- another minuscule yet major distinction. Faith and fear are one in the same. The former is belief that things will go well, while the latter is the belief that they won’t. Either way, you are speculating on something completely out of your control. Rather than sitting in fear and anticipating the worst, small little bits of positivity and lots of deep breaths can help you find your faith.

Forgotten Foods: Theory + Thoughts

The idea behind ‘Forgotten Foods’ has everything to do with the foods we have forgotten we can supply, rather than buy. It is a slow and never ending process, but little by little I am learning how to get the very most out of the things that I eat. This means trading in the convenience of store-bought and/or packaged items that can instead be harvested from the land. It means utilizing more of the foods I do buy from the store. This also means taking more care to understand the supply chain of any and all products that I consume. I generally follow a few major ‘rules’

  1. From Michael Pollan’s philosophy: Eat Real foods, Not too much, Mostly plants
  2. If you can make it yourself, don’t buy it in a box
  3. If you buy it, buy it in season and as close to the source as possible.
  4. ALWAYS know your source, keep it as local as possible

Here, you will find some daily tips and tricks, as well as reasons for doing so. My food philosophy is rooted in an ambitious dream of food sovereignty- the ability to supply my own needs from the abundance around me. Until that day, this will be a relationship heavily influenced by picking battles, mild yet unavoidable hypocrisy, and doing the best I can with what I have. If I were to categorize my diet (in the literal sense of the word) as its own new fad, it would be something like the lovechild of a vegan, ketogenic, and localvore’s diet- I’m an local enthusiast that believes in lots of seasonal-green-whole-foods, good fats, clean meats, and regular fasts…though most of this is getting harder and harder to source. The keystone of this philosophy, in line with the theme of this blog, is little by little. These tips are the ‘pocket changes’ that you can make slowly and surely over time to break the chains holding you to the processed, ready-made, planet polluting, people enslaving, big man companies. Do so as these ideas speak to you- you need not change your life in one big, radical move. Try some out and let me know what you think. Build the community up and share your tips in the comments if you so please!

Veggie Scrap Broth

This is quite possibly the easiest, most successful tip that I can put out there. If compost is not something overtly available to you (for whatever reason), this is a great way to reduce your own food waste + use the very most of your veggie scraps. All you need is a freezer-safe contraption and whatever veggies don’t make it to your plate each night.

As you prepare your regular meals, hold on to the veggie scraps you typically toss out- garlic/onion outer skins, citrus peels, pepper tops/seeds, mushroom blemishes, potato skins, leafy greens that you didn’t get to in time…you name it! Keep it in the freezer until you get a solid supply going. Each week, or whenever it gets full, empty the contents into a crockpot and fill with water. You might have 2-3 cups of frozen scraps for a medium-large crockpot. Cook on high overnight. In the morning, you will wake up to an amazing smelling veggie tea, otherwise known as broth! Use the broth to cook your other goodies like rice, noodles, or potatoes. Alternatively, use as a base for simple veggie soup or sip it on its own. The options are endless. I love spicing it up by adding any ginger or turmeric scraps, some black peppercorns, and something hot like jalapeño seeds. I may then use the broth to sip on during a fast or any time I need a little kick in the tush.

Kick Your Chicken Breast Infatuation

Am I the only one that as a kid thought chicken breasts and/or thighs were just how chicken happens? Chicken is one of the most widely consumed meats on the market, and one of the sketchiest supply chains. It almost seems like a “Gateway Meat” for folks either trying to clean up their diets (generally according to the latest fads, no further comment here) and/or get off the veg head life. I’m not going to tell you to stop eating chicken. I’m not going to tell you to start eating chicken– this isn’t an argument for or against choosing to consume…but for those that do, I’m going to give you a simple tip to get picky with your chicky.

Stop buying parts of a chicken. Just don’t do it. In no sustainable world does it make sense to buy a few pieces of many animals. I don’t care if they are free range, it just doesn’t make sense. I promise I’ll get off my chicken pedestal in a minute, but I have grown passionate about this. If you are going to eat meat- and I am of the theory that yes, humans benefit deeply from a diet that includes meat- you gotta do your research. Rather than going to the store and getting the family pack of ready-to-grill thighs, breasts, etc, head to the farmers market and find you a good chicken guy. He’s got eggs (probably from chickens, ducks, and quails), maybe he’s got some greens, and he’s got your chicken. Buy a full chicken. No half-assing it. Maybe get some eggs, and hell, some of that arugula while you’re there. Here’s what happens with the chicken when you get home:

  • Prepare the slow cooker with a bed of onions, garlic, carrots, celery, and any other hearty veggies you want
  • Put your chicken in the slow cooker
  • Add spices, dressings, sauces per your mood
  • Forget about chicken for the next five hours and go live your best life
  • Take chicken + veggies out, separate meat from bones, put bones back in the crockpot with the frozen veggie scraps that you have been saving from tip number one. Leave overnight for a delicious chicken-veggie broth to cook, drink, freeze, party with.

For my bustling fam of two, this crocked chicken lasts at least four to five meals each. We leave it in the fridge, typically as shredded chicken, to add to any quick lunches and/or lazy (and delicious) dinners. The broth can be used to cook rice, make a soup, or just to have on hand for a snack. Win-win-win.

A final note on chicken. This a great meat to get behind, when done right. More and more towns are beginning to incentivize backyard chicken farming, and for good reason. These natural composters are great for your backyard ecosystem, stimulating your compost operation and gifting you a bounty of beautiful eggs. Starting your own or supporting your neighbor’s chicken project is a great way to keep things out of the hands of big factory farms where chicken operations can be horrendous for animals, humans, and the planet in general.

Get to Know Your Yard

If you have some land, begin to see at it as a garden gifted by the land. As you start to recognize different weeds, you may find that you have the perfect salad already growing out your back door. Last spring we began to identify the different flowers, plants, and weeds growing wild in our yard and found an abundance of dandelion greens, amaranth leaf, and edible clovers. You might get lucky, as we did, and find a mushroom here and there (though be sure to call for backup to safely identify it). Always exercise caution and common sense when eating wild foods, but keep your curiosity heightened! Always leave more than you take and get familiar with the replacement rates of different species. Certain herbs that you buy in the store are easily transplanted with little to no maintenance (including mint, basil, ginger, and turmeric!). Keep peeping this blog for more specifics of wild foods, but open your mind to exploring your own land too.

Kombucha

Oh, the wondrous world of bubbly, probiotic teas. If you are already a Kombucha drinker, stop everything you are doing and start brewing your own. You will save $$$ and fall in love with the creative process afforded by this effervescent elixir. If you haven’t gotten on the ‘booch train, that’s okay too…it can be an acquired, though highly recommended taste.

To get your own SCOBY, do a quick shout out to your friends, fellow hippies, yogis, etc. I know I’m stereotyping here, but if the shoe fits? You’ll likely come across one within a month. Otherwise, there are several places to purchase one online, or even start to grow your own from a store-bought Kombucha (though I have zero experience with how/if this is possible…Siri will know!). Once you have a SCOBY you’re good to go. Use a large glass vessel, preferably with a wide mouth for the best SCOBY health. The bare-bones recipe is about 1 gallon black tea + 1 cup starter liquid (Kombucha from a previous batch) + 1 cup of sugar. Make sure the tea is at room temperature and all sugar/starter liquid mixed before adding the SCOBY, then set in a cool, dark place with a cheese cloth/ tea towel tied over the top to protect from any foreign organisms. After 5-7 days, start testing your brew out using a (reusable!) straw until the sweetness-to-acidity is at your preferred ratio. Depending on the SCOBY, it could take anywhere from one to two weeks to ferment. Each batch will produce a baby SCOBY, which you can remove and give to a friend, or keep until it gets too big to handle. Dehydrated scobys also make great dog treats!

I like to think of the SCOBY as a somewhat sentient entity. SCOBY stands for Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast. Some call it a mushroom, a fungus, the Mother, etc. You want the health of your SCOBY to be priority numero uno. If you see any sorts of mold growing, your batch has been compromised. Additionally, you may find that your SCOBY reacts differently over time- the first few brews may be hard to pin down the perfect timing, but after the SCOBY gets used to your tea, it will start to crank out the goodness with more gusto- and consistent quality. This is where we get to have fun and start tweaking the recipe. If you have other wild teas and/or sugar sources available, see what happens when you turn them into Kombucha. Adding fruits, herbs, and spices during the second fermentation is also a lot of fun! If you are into craft beers, you can even start playing with hops to see what you come up with. The world is your oyster, ferment it!

Tallow: A Case against Coconut

Before you lose your mind, I’m not here to tell you that coconut and all of its lovely, luscious derivatives are bad for you. Hell no. But maybe, just maybe there is an alternative that is better for the planet and just as good, if not better, for you too. Let’s talk about Tallow and all of its lovely uses! If you know me at all you know I use coconut oil for just about everything, so trust me when I say this 10 minute read is worth your time.

Tallow is the nicer, more marketable name for rendered beef fat- generally collected from around the organs, especially the kidneys. Once processed, the fat turns into a solid substance used in candles, soaps, skin salves, and, for the purpose of this article, YUMMIES.  In the past, it was common to use tallow as a cooking oil due to a high smoke point, stable shelf-life, and relatively easy extraction. As the ketogenic and paleo lifestyles continue to gain popularity and we begin to reframe our feelings on fats, we can turn back to tallow as viable source of some essential nutrients.

Before discussing these nutrients, it is of the utmost importance to get on the same page about sourcing. Tallow, as with any fat you plan to consume for your health, must be rendered from only the most natural animals possible- factory farm animals need not apply. Just as many of the nutrients, vitamins, and good-for-ya’s are stored in the fats of healthy animals, so are the toxins and bad-for-ya’s stored in the fats of unhealthy, grain-fed animals. Think of it this way- any time a cow feels stress, a cocktail of stress hormones will course through its body, ultimately solidifying in the fat cells. If you are consuming a poorly fed animal with high stress levels (due to poor diet, limited space, and generally bad conditions), you are essentially consuming the aftereffect of the buildup of those hormones as well. While the horrendous environmental effects of large-scale conventional farming are beyond the scope of this article, suffice to say destroying the land for a bit of tallow would be overkill. So, if you are unable to come across a beyond-organic, pasture-raised cow on a sustainably designed operation…it’s best to just pass.

What’s in the box

Tallow is a rich source of the good fat Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA), a fatty acid known best for its immunity-building, inflammation-fighting, and fat-burning properties. In some preliminary studies, CLA helped to reduce cancerous tumors as well. Cows that are able to eat their natural diet of grass will have a more balanced omega-6 to omega-3 content, which translates to higher levels of CLAs. CLAs have also exhibited insulin-resistant properties, meaning they help to reduce circulating glucose in our bodies.

Tallow is also a great source of vitamins A, D, E, and K, as well as a range of antioxidants and antimicrobials, meaning it is great for your skin! Because the cellular structure is similar to that of our own skin’s sebum, we easily absorb the vitamins when placed directly on the skin. These vitamins nourish the skin, improve elasticity, and promote cellular regeneration. You can therefore use tallow as the oil to make soaps, salves, and lotions (I made a fan-freaking-tastic lavender + eucalyptus massage cream that far exceeds any deep tissue lotion I’ve ever bought!), but in this article I’ll speak specifically to use as a cooking oil.

How can I get me some?

Making your own Tallow is quite simple, especially if you have access to a local butcher. We worked with the cows at Hacienda Sur, an artisan beef farm on the pacific coast of Costa Rica. These cows are some of the happiest, healthiest cows I have ever encountered. They are a cross between Wagyu, Angus, and Brahma, bred specifically for a superior meat that can stand the climate without getting stressed out. The farm pays such close attention to the herds that their stress levels are taken into account at the time of butchering- the less stressed they are, the healthier the product.  I know that the idea of butchering cows will send some folks into a squeamish tailspin, but I challenge you to consider learning about truly sustainable practices, because they do exist. Naturally raised (not “natural” in the sense of USDA standards…really natural- as according to the ruminate’s true nature) animals produce far less waste and can actually help the land as well. When combined with natural irrigation and solar power, it gives the farm a carbon-negative footprint while also building up the grassy habitats for other creatures too. The methane gas produced by the cows is not nearly as toxic when they aren’t eating toxic food…imagine that! But I digress.  Where were we?

If you can get your hands on this high quality fat, the rest is cake. Simply put the fat in a large cheese cloth, tie the cloth, and set it in a crockpot on low for 10 hours (or more, or less, you’ll see!). As the fat begins to melt, it will seep out of the cheese cloth while the tissues remain inside. The tallow will be a nice, golden color with a slightly sweet smell (however, if it smells rancid, it probably is and something went wrong!). While it is still warm, transfer the liquid tallow to a glass jar for storing, and wring out whatever you can from the cheese cloth, discarding the rest. As it hardens, the tallow will turn a crisp, pure white and stay solid even in higher temperatures- we carried ours through the dry season in Central America without any melting issues. You can use it to cook just about anything; I generally reach for the tallow when cooking/sautéing at high heats on the stovetop, or as a bit of extra flavor when making rice, beans, and soups.

Why bother…

Well, why bother with anything? Because it is a simple, healthy, sustainable way to lower your own footprint and utilize your human-ness for good! Sure you could use coconut oil from the store instead, but there is something magical in creating your own foods, especially when they are so rich in nutrients and cultivated in your local community. So often this part of the animal is tossed away to rot and never used. Whether you eat meat or not, I am a firm believer in extracting the highest amount of nutrients and uses from any organism that I consume, plant and animal alike. We get so caught up in generalizations about the cost-benefit analysis of veganism vs. ominvourism, most of the time pointing fingers at each other just to highlight how we’re all wrong, and quite often this analysis comes without ever having stepped foot on a food-producing farm. Rather than arguing about our food philosophy, can we all agree that the more efficiently we use any food, the less we waste? Isn’t that what matters most? I have been living in Costa Rica for about two months and am utterly astonished by the amount of mono-cultivation I see here: pineapple, banana, and PALM. Hundreds of thousands of MILES of jungle have been routed out by plantations to produce these goods. Planes whiz by at all hours of the day to fumigate. Fruits are marked and covered in plastic bags to signify time to harvest. It is an atrocious mark on an otherwise highly sustainable country. As a coconut worshiper myself, seeing these plantations has helped me to truly acknowledge my role in monoculture and waste, regardless of what the labels on the packages I’ve so carefully selected say. I promise myself to learn more about the process of coconut cultivation before buying any more products. It’s true what they say, Knowledge is Power, and if I don’t fully know, then my power to make a decision is compromised. Perhaps ridding myself of coconut altogether is not the answer (part of me hopes this is true!) What I do know is this: In choosing to harvest your own tallow, a byproduct otherwise thrown away, you are directly contributing to a more sustainable and healthy mission, and I can get on board with that!

palm

 

 

Volunteering Collections: Costa Rica

For those of you that read my latest post, you’ll know that I have been hesitant to share too many of my ‘highlights’ in an effort to keep things realistic in a world full of perfect media platforms. I have forever been a big emoter and find deep value in representing the full gambit of ups and downs in any situation. As Khalil Gibron says in The Prophet, seeking out ONLY life’s pleasures will leave you “into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.” This poem is one of my most treasured, and though it speaks specifically on love, I find that it applies to so many of the dualities we experience day after day. Before I go too far down that magnificent and bottomless rabbit hole, today I would like to share some of the incredulously normal things I’ve been up to- the good, the hard, and the biggest takeaways of my travels thus far (updated as I go!)

Stop #1: Rancho Margot, near Arenal Volcano,Costa Rica

In a previous post (accessible here) I spoke a bit about the mission and processes of Rancho Margot. If you asked me to boil down the experience into a sentence or two, you’d be awfully disappointed because I don’t think I could do it. It is a complex and wonderful paradise off the grid, steeped in the mission to experiment with nonconventional, natural living. The deal went something like this: work 6 hours per day, 6 days per week, and in return we had a place to lay our head and 3 amazing meals, 80% of which was grown on the farm (sometimes by us!).

  • My favorite part was the opportunity to be fully immersed in a natural learning environment- self study, reading, nature, farming, ecotourism, agrotourism, entrepreneurship, culture, language, yoga, sustainability, food cultivation….you name it, I learned it bit by bit each day. Another major attribute was living off the grid. We were about two miles of dirt road from the nearest town and had little to no internet access, cold showers, and the darkest night sky you can imagine. I enjoyed walks into town and occasionally shelled out some cash for a drink and a burrito (the BEST you’ll ever have…amazing), but to do so I had to reallllly want it. On most days, we just read or visited with other volunteers instead.
  • The hardest part of the entire five week stint was the weather. We had RAIN every. single. day. The first 10 days or so it rained with a vengeance, pouring buckets on all of our belongings and chilling us to the bone. Eventually we saw some sun and our spirits were lifted, but our clothes stayed mildly wet (and STINKY) throughout the entire stay.
  • Biggest takeaway? I had a lot of time to be with myself, away from distraction. Busy is a good word to describe the state of mind I brought with me, and though I haven’t quite ditched that habit, I’m working hard to overwrite it. The ranch taught me a lot about cycles, about humans in nature, and how to be a more natural human.
  • Must see/do: Hot Springs river at night! Although the La Fortuna area is riddled with Hot Springs tourism and resorts, there is free access to Rio Chollin (an entire HOT RIVER) just outside the Tabacon. One crystal clear night, 14 of the volunteers and staff pooled (*pun intended*) our resources and rented a shuttle to watch the stars from a hot, rapid river. It was unforgettable- a pitch black night, hot water rushing around you, floating in natural and bubbly minerals and gazing up at the stars. I lost track of what was water and what was air as I watched the trees move like seaweed in the wind agains the backdrop of an endless sky. That night we all slept like rocks as the minerals that were not to be washed off nourished our skin and spirit. Pure Magic.

 

Stop #2: Puerto Viejo (de Limon), Costa Rica

 

Traveling in Costa Rica has been very simple and pleasant, but you have to have the mental chutzpa to handle the bus system if you don’t want to spend all of your money on private shuttles. Generally speaking, you can get across the country for less than 15 bucks per person if you take the public bus system- but don’t expect to have a seat and be prepared for a FULL day of slow, sticky, travel. So, when we found out that a common way to travel from Arenal to Puerto Viejo is by white water raft, we were GAME. The Pacuare River is equidistant from three major cities, so they offer a free shuttle to and from the river. The trip includes breakfast and lunch, plus a full day of rafting Class III and IV rapids on the 4th best river in the world! They keep your luggage safe while you raft, and afterwards you grab your things and take the proper shuttle. Said and done, the trip costs $99/person, which is only about $25 more than a shuttle would have cost. The public bus would have been an easy $20 or less per person, but we would have needed to connect 3 buses over the course of a 10-12 hour trip. Given the circumstances, we splurged a bit and chose Rafting.

  • My favorite part was renting bicycles and staying just outside of town in Playa Chiquita. Chiquita is about halfway between the first beach (Playa Negra) and the last (Manzanilla). It is quieter than downtown Puerto Viejo but a quick 6km bike ride to the heart of the party if you want it. We had quiet nights and peaceful mornings, lots of yoga, and plenty of beach time. It rained a lot while we were here too, but we had at least a bit of sun each day.
  • The hardest part was certainly $$$$$. We spent a week here as a beach buffer between volunteer gigs, so this was completely on our own dime. Having been out in the wild for 5 weeks meant we were a bit too eager to shell out $5-6 for a craft beer. Everything in PV is for sale, and if you like the boho, carefree, surfstyle, you’ll want to buy it all. It took a lot of discipline and an acute awareness of the space in my backpack to avoid spending all of my money here. Oh yeah, and also this is when my two wisdom teeth started to come in, making it extraordinarily difficult to open my mouth and shooting pain down into my neck, ear, and jaw all day. Nothing some beach time couldn’t help!
  • Biggest Takeaway? Fresh food (besides fruit) in PV is hard to come by, so cooking our own meals was key. Find a fisherman (or go to Mopri Market) and get yourself some fresh fish. Make a simple flour/spice dusting on the outside of the fish and flash fry it in a skillet until flakey. All in all, we fed ourselves for a week on five fish (snapper, green jack, grouper), a massive pot of rice and lentils, and lots of fruit and chocolate. One night we went out for a sushi buffet at Chili Rojo….save your money.
  • Must see/do: Honestly, I really wanted our time at the beach to be completely unstructured and unattached- I didn’t want to have that feeling of “should” be doing something all the time…no one needs that FOMO, especially not on vacation. There is certainly a plethora of activities, shopping, and wildlife to experience, but my must see advice is to just CHILL with the PV vibe. Do Less. See Less. But definitely rent a bike 🙂

 

Stop #3: Hacienda Sur- Parrita, Costa Rica

Hacienda Sur is an Artisan Beef farm, specializing in the intersection of top quality dry-aged beef and cutting-edge sustainability. Our first task as volunteers was Cut Day, involving the preparation, packaging, and cleaning of nearly 700 steaks and over 200kg of ground steak over the course of a 15 hour day. Talk about an experience. Watching this small family-run operation work their well oiled machine (spoiler alert, its their own able hands!) is something to witness for sure. As we continue to find ourselves in a world divided by the horrors of factory farming and evangelistic veganism, I am happy to be learning about the good neighbor farms on the forgotten side of the documentaries. One major theme of volunteering on sustainable farms is that just as humans can be wildly destructive to the environment, so can we be supportive.

I have written and rewritten this section a handful of times, but can’t seem to figure out how to say it. The meat and potatoes is that meat and potatoes are becoming deeply divided on the plate- it’s hard to talk about meat production in a way that doesn’t severely offend most of the people interested in sustainability practices. What I can say is this: what is good for the environment and the animal is also good for the production of meat. Businesses that take extra care to take care of the environment are naturally going to have a better product. Though we may disagree and feel an emotional response to referring to and consuming an animal as a product, we also must refrain from generalizing too quickly. Whether or not you agree with meat consumption, you want more farms like Hacienda Sur out there. Even if the farmer’s intention is simply to create a higher quality product, his byproduct (and therefore what affects us directly) is clean and sustainable land stewardship. His deep knowledge of the grass and gentle eco-systems that go along with it will do more for this land than any protest we organize against him. The cows at Hacienda Sur are indubitably the happiest, healthiest cows I have ever observed (and I’ve seen a LOT). They frolic and romp with each other, explore the hundreds of acres of grass selected specifically for their nutritional needs, and live in an environment created to reduce as much stress as possible. They are cared for by three wonderful men and a rotation of eager volunteers life myself.

Though I’m on the brink of once again deleting the above, I’ll leave it for now. Perhaps I’ll write more later, or on its own page. But for now, I’ll open it to your thoughts, questions, ideas, opinions. I want to talk about it! One of the reasons we find it difficult to write on such divisive topics- and indeed one of the reasons they are so divisive- is that we don’t talk about it. So please, you know how to do it: comment below or send an email. The discussion is open.

Stop 4: Nosara, Nicoya Peninsula

If you are dying to see Costa Rica but afraid to be leaving behind your beloved American culture, look no further than Nosara. Playa Guiones, the popular stretch of pristine surf, is a part of a development known as the American Project. It is the only area of Costa Rica I’ve been to that has street names and addresses. Populated primarily by expats and surf tourists, Guiones has everything your organic/vegan/yoga/surf/party soul could want…as long as you’re willing to pay the price. We were lucky enough to be visiting a Nica friend who has been living there for seven years, so we had access to some of the cheaper, slightly more local hookups.

  • My favorite part was the sunset at Playa Pelada, just around the bend from Playa Guiones. There is one little bar and one nice restaurant on the beach, but it is much less inhabited compared to the tourist hotspot of Guiones. Grab a few beers and pony up to a bit of driftwood to enjoy the show.
  • The hardest part, again would have to be the $$$$. The town almost had an Austin-like vibe, full of young active people that do a lot of yoga, except here they also surf every morning. It amazes me that anyone can survive here with that cost of living. Oh, and the roads. Everything is dirt road, so getting there is nothing short of a mother*&^%. The bus from Samara to Nosara, at just 12km distance, takes nearly 2 hours on a hot and sweaty bus. To get here you have to really want it, but you’ll be glad you did.
  • Biggest take away: The vibe here is very laid back. Still a small town with all dirt roads and few cars (most people use dirtbikes or quads), everyone knows everyone…and looks after each other. As eluded to above, it is hard to comprehend how to make ends meet, yet most people seem to be extremely relaxed though underemployed. This combination brings a bit of peace to the mind that we can all survive on much less than we think, and a life that prioritizes peace and play will always trump a life spent worrying about income.
  • Must see/do: If you’re there, and you want a bit of boujeee….check out Bodhi Tree Yoga Resort. A drop in will be at least $15, but it is truly beautiful and well staffed with knowledgeable folks. It’s pretty easy to sneak in to their pool as well, so you can potentially get your money’s worth. We did a lot of home-cooking here too, so skip the expensive food and save your money for the 2×1 happy hour cocktails or aforementioned yoga class. Do not leave the city without trying some of Chocolate Dave’s chocolate at Pura Vida Raw Foods. You’ll also have an endless supply of healthy, organic, raw, vegan yummies at just about any restaurant in town.

Pura Vida, Month #2

Today, February 18th, marks two months since I stopped, dropped, and rolled out of employment. On December 18th, I finished my last day of work in a hurry and without goodbyes after receiving word that my father’s business had caught fire and burned to the ground. Two days later I loaded my car with as much as I could and left Austin for the last time as a resident. Two weeks later I totaled said car and two weeks after that I said see ya later to New York too. I guess you could say I was shedding some layers, making some space. A lot of people will look at this life and say that I am lucky. And I am, for so many things. I’m lucky that my family didn’t suffer a more tragic loss when the Dairy Supply burned. I’m lucky that no one was hurt when I wrecked my car. I’m lucky for all of the love and support I have received with each decision I make. Most of all, I am lucky to have embraced the many opportunities to learn from my obstacles. Luck did not bring me here, my learning opportunities did.

The five weeks I spent at Rancho Margot were full of learning, internal and otherwise. As a yoga teacher, I had a pretty wonderful routine. My responsibility was the yoga space- creating it, cleaning it, opening it to the guests. I was given all the time and room I needed to practice, meditate, and prepare for public classes with few other duties. When I wasn’t teaching, I was finding new places to hang my hammock to read, journal, and ponder. I taught my first real yin class…and then I taught one every evening, sometimes followed by yoga nidra or meditation. By the time I left, even my vinyasa classes were starting to feel fairly yin-y, a fairly new and welcomed concept for me. Each day started before six in the shala, and each night saw me asleep before nine. My belly seldom saw sugar or meat, and processed foods dropped out of recognition. I often visited with guests, volunteers, and staff to soak up a bit of their story. Days off were spent hiking, riding horses, and adventuring in the jungle. It was lovely and it was quiet and it was simple- exactly what I wanted. Despite all of this perfection, I spent a lot of time feeling lousy.

I want to make it abundantly clear that the experience I have had thus far is unequivocally, deeply positive; Positive in that I have found a deeper understanding of meaningful living; Positive in that I have experienced a wide variety of emotions, including the unattractive ones; Positive in that I have found and lost and found inspiration. It is wildly complex and wonderfully beautiful. So when I say that I was feeling lousy, please don’t assume I wanted it any other way. It is all part of this process of learning, of understanding, of self-discovery. Its so easy to get swept up with the highlights, the story of the girl that quit the rat race to teach yoga in the jungle with her lover. I think it is important to share the less glamorous stories too, because in a lot of ways, a lack of ugliness in our collective story leads to our own increasingly negative feelings about our situation. It’s easy to think that if you do what others do, you’ll feel the as happy as they look. And then when you get there and you feel lousy, you think something is wrong with you. The problem isn’t you, it’s the us, collectively. In refusing to feel the backswing of the pendulum- the ugly, the dark, the negative- we are limiting our ability to feel the contrary- the thrill, the high, the elation- drawing us into a stale and unseasoned existence that we then dull with distraction.

 

Now that I am reflecting on my first good chunk of time out here, it is clear that some of the lousiness I felt stemmed from my own expectations. Out of nothing but naiveté, I assumed that the time and space awarded to me by this expedition would make clear what I was wanting- time to think about life and really just figure it out (in a matter of weeks). I craved the courage other travelers had, with their steadfast commitment to the lifestyle and fearlessness of the future. My expectation was to gain a bit of this simply by doing it too. I forgot that I am still me, and before I can emulate that same courage, confidence, and fearlessness, I need to spend some of the hard, ugly, dark times with myself to uncover my own needs. In my two months of liberation, I’ve boiled those needs down to the following:

  • Food Autonomy. I like to choose my food, cook my food, and I like to decide when and how to eat it. When I am given food, though I am immensely grateful, I feel powerless and a lack of control over a very big part of me.
  • Variable Work. When my days are filled with the exact same activities or a lot of free time, I get lethargic and deeply uninspired. Routine isn’t the problem per se, as long as I have different things to do each day. I have always been this way, but never realized why. I spend a lot of time thinking that my exhaustion was coming from taking too many classes in school or having too many jobs. I am starting to see that this variability actually gives me energy. Now the task is to find the path that benefits from this quality without abusing it.
  • Stimulus. I am a slow mover, and without stimulation, can get stuck in a low place. I enjoy doing things that force me to come out of that low place and get active early on. Once moving, I can keep the fire burning and the upward cycle begins.
  • Learning. I am most stimulated and inspired when I am in the learning process- whether it’s learning about someone, something, or somewhere, I crave it and it feeds me.
  • Alone time…together. I am very sensitive to the needs of others, and will often fall into the patterns described by the martyr archetype by sacrificing my needs to meet theirs, even if (and especially when) their needs are figments of my imagination. Spending time with my guy helps me work through this tendency and cultivate a healthier empathy that protects against emotional burnout. I am forever grateful for his ability to ground this heart- a process I find to be one of the most important qualities we can foster in each other, especially those working in emotionally charged jobs. After five weeks without any real alone time together, I found myself completely burned out and unable to listen empathetically. I was short tempered, irritable, and fiery as hell. Big thanks to my main squeeze for always supporting me, even in that.

As I begin to identify these needs, I feel that I am tending to my seeds of growth and transformation. I can feel a weight lift as I name each one, but also the burden of releasing that blissful ignorance. The biggest learning opportunity of all is the one you take to understand your needs. Now the real work begins. I cannot simply identify my needs and then ignore the situations that come up when I deny myself of them. It is now my responsibility to make sure my needs are met, and to take action when they are not. It is empowering and intimidating, but I intend to continue identifying and working to balance each and every one so that I may be forever cultivating, transforming, and honoring my very best self. Pura Vida, Month #2.

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Rancho Margot: Lessons in Sustainability

We arrived here in Rancho Margot after a four hour public bus ride through the Costa Rican countryside, plus another hour by shuttle along a twisting and turning dirt road.  [Note: this trip was quite literally the country-SIDE of massive mountains with tiny roads and lots of big buses. Not everyone on our bus had a seat, so there was plenty of excitement! The entire trip cost about $8, compared to a fancier bus for $50, or private taxi for $100]. There is a lot to be said about the experience of travel itself, but for the sake of some semblance of brevity, I’ll keep this post anchored in our first few days living on a sustainable farm in the jungle (still not sick of saying that!).

The most salient, overarching theme that I see from macro to micro processes here would have to be Symbiosis. Every single aspect of life at Rancho Margot is sustaining something else. It’s difficult to even identify a beginning; the only trace of origin is in the owner, Don Juan’s, vision. Even there, I’m sure there is more (and I’m excited to find out!).

Let’s say things begin in the garden (you’ll soon see that they don’t, but for argument’s sake, we’ll make the assumption). When Rancho Margot was established in 2004, the land was pastured with little to no wild jungle. Over the past 10+ years, the land has been allowed to return to a more natural growth, with banana/papaya/cacao trees abound and countless shrubs, flowers, and herbs. As you will frequently hear, Nature is always Perfect, and they have allowed her to do her thang again! So, back to the garden. We consider this system to be Agrocology- much like permaculture, sustainable agriculture, etc- we are planting in harmony with the land, directing the natural water source in a way that does not destroy the land and enhances the soil. Different vegetables call for different beds, different orientation, and different partnerships. Let’s take the Bell Pepper as a micro-example. These beds are oriented more vertically because there are several horizontal beds above them, slowing the flow of water down the small slope. Normally, to plant beds in line with this slope would cause the water to rush too fast and overtake the beds and strip the soil of its nutrients. The bell peppers have big root systems, and are therefore planted in the center of the bed with a few feet between each one. Bryan, the head gardener, noticed that bugs were eating the leaves and causing damage to the peppers. Rather than spraying insecticide (never EVER permissible here, organic or not), Bryan simply plants arugula between the pepper plants. Arugula, like garlic and lemongrass (also good options) acts as an insecticide with its pungent smell and does not compete for resources due to its smaller root system. These plants work in concert to keep the bugs out, keep the nutrients rich, and create ….drumroll please….. fresh PRODUCE! This process is reproduced in endless variations to create enough fresh vegetables to feed a bustling restaurant, nearly 50 employees, and all of the animals (approximately 700 chickens, 70 pigs, and 15 cows).

Beyond the plants, we have the soil. We all remember the learning in school about the deforestation crisis and farmers clearing rainforest only to find that the soil is not conducive to production. So…how do we make a sustainable ranch in the middle of the jungle? Compost + Agroculture. After you establish the system for planting, which is basically to say after you have figured out how to work with your water source, your next step is to create a home for nutrients and microorganisms to blossom. Here, the cows and piggies are fed clean, good food (more details in future post about the livestock!).

Pig Feeding Area
All buildings have forest growth on top, lowering the heat and contributing to more naturaleza! This is where the pigs are fed and manure is collected.

The feeding areas are located on the second floor of a building, with iron grates in the floor so that their excrement collects underneath the building. This area is also on a slope, and when propelled with water from a hose, collects down in the compost building. It will then go through a system of filters to separate the solid from the liquid, where the liquids are diverted to a biodigester (to become the harvestable methane gas for the kitchen + hot water). The solids are shoveled into a system of piles where all they combine with the organic matter from the kitchen and farm (think your leftover food, scraps, etc) and microorganisms harvested from the mountain (think little fungis and mycelium that decompose the forest matter).

Each day the piles are churned and moved, creating lots of heat (enough to burn if you are not careful) and eventually breaking down all of the matter into a nutrient dense mulch, which is then used throughout the garden. This process is constant, producing approximately 10 tons of soil per month. In addition to this compost, we also work with Lombricompost- or worm compost. The separation process is the same, this time coming from the cow barn, the poo is washed down to another building where the solids and liquids are again manually separated. California Red Worms are then introduced to the solids, beginning the process of digesting all of the bad bacterias and leaving behind the richest soil we produce. To separate the worms from the finished product, we line a bed in strips alternating manure with compost and the worms naturally leave the soil (it has no more food for them!) and make a run for the manure. After a few days the worms are all in the manure and the soil is ready for the gardens. This stuff is so nutrient dense that it acts like a super fertilizer and is primarily used for germinating seedlings because it is both gentle and effective. With both types of compost, only a small amount is needed on top of the vegetable beds. Because the water is controlled and guided so as not to wash away all of this prime-time compost, a little bit goes a long way.

 

And that’s not all! Whew, it is a lot though, no? Okay…so more on the compost. As mentioned briefly above, the liquids that are separated from the solid manure find there way to a biodigester. This is essentially a massive stomach used to harvest methane gas to power the grills in the kitchen and, when needed, to warm the water. The liquid makes it way down the hill to another building where it is housed in a massive tank and given time to ferment. The fermentation process recreates the methane gas (like a big cow fart), which is piped directly to the kitchen. The liquid byproduct, which our teacher promises is clean enough to drink (not gonna try it), is then sprayed on the fields as a nutritive water/fertilizer. Again, every last bit has a purpose, and it’s all cyclical. The plants are cultivated with the help of compost and its derivatives, and are then fed to the animals so that they can then create more compost to support the plants and on and on and on.  If it were not for the clean food that the animals eat, this process would not be successful, but could in fact be harmful to the environment. Additives such as GMO’s, antibiotics, growth hormones, insecticides, and pesticides at any point in this process could potentially flourish and contaminate the compost, working against both the animals and the gardens and eventually making their way into our food and water sources.

 

In addition to the compost, there is another secret ingredient in the gardens at Rancho Margot. Yes, it’s love, but more tangibly, it’s patience. All of the seeds for future veggies are taken directly from each harvest. For example, if you have a row of tomatoes, the gardener will choose the best looking tomatoes, extract the seeds and allow them to dry on a piece of paper. When the time comes, he will use those specific seeds to plant his new tomatoes. These seeds have knowledge of the land already, because they were there before and therefore have a better likelihood of flourishing. For some vegetables, the replacement is even quicker. Goodies like turmeric, ginger, and taro can be replanted immediately, using just a portion of what is harvested. Simply trimming and replanting the root will suffice (you can even do this with roots you buy from the store!). Nothing is wasted.

There is so much to add, including a MAJOR piece of this puzzle- the hydroelectric system- but I’ll save that for another day. Every day on the ranch is a day of learning and growth for everyone. I consider myself very fortunate not just for being here, but for the opportunity to truly immerse myself in the process of day to day sustainability. “Easy” is not the word, but “Possible” is. This first hand experience in sustainability has opened my eyes to the world of possibility in just one week. The attitudes and visions of everyone here have helped me to see a future that human’s aren’t destroying- a future where we are actually living in harmony with nature. And that’s some powerful stuff y’all. More to come!

 

be here (for) now: poco a poco

Little by little, this little life sneaks by us.
Little by little, these little moments stack up.
Little by little, the little things we do become the large stories we tell.
Little by little.

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking (and therefore, talking) about the way this season impacts the little moments that become our days. Nature is slowing down and curling upon herself for the winter ahead. The slowing of the natural world highlights the wild pace at which we live. While it may be easy to blame our chaos on “holiday madness,” what we’re really feeling is the whiplash that results from ignoring Nature’s hints to slow with her. As a kid I used to spend hours at the park with friends on a merry-go-round, pushing each other as fast as we could and jumping off into the grass to see who could keep their balance the longest. Oddly reminiscent.

Flash forward to current moment, and I’m struggling to stay grounded when all I want is to be swept up with the excitement of the season. I’m fortunate because I have a lot that I’m looking forward to. Every day feels like the first day or two of a week-long vacation…so much to do and see, so much anticipation, but also the desire to soak up every moment. It’s the edge of a cliff that you are so excited to jump off that you forget to stop and take in the view from the top.

Three weeks from tomorrow my bags will be packed, my tears will be flowing, and my heart will be bursting as I make my way from my beloved adopted home in Austin to my treasured first one in the forests of New York. I’ll spend another three weeks there saturating myself with the love and warmth of family and lifelong friends, and then set sail for an untamed and unplanned journey to the jungle with my main squeeze. After years of talking, thinking, and dreaming, we finally pulled the trigger and started making the real changes that would enable us to live a life on the road. My toes are so close to the edge of that cliff that I can feel the breeze caressing my face every time I close my eyes.

But then I open my eyes again, and the real work begins. How can I keep these daydreaming eyes wide open for the last few weeks of this chapter? Rather than rushing ahead to the next chapter and speed reading until I find out what happens to the girl (!)…I am slowing down. Reveling in each sentence, each word. Reading the details between the lines of each moment that will ultimately foreshadow the future. It’s hard work, but it’s work that I choose. Choosing to slow when I want to move fast, when others want me to move fast, I move slow.

It’s not easy, and I get distracted easily. I’m busy prepping my bags and cleaning out my closets; mundane work that is fueled by reveries of waterfalls and soundscapes of the wild. But then I remind myself, Be here…for now. Be present in these little moments. Feel the hot Texas sun on your bones. Enjoy your morning stroll, rich in appreciation for your neighbors near and far. Blast some tunes as loud as you can when you clean the kitchen. Turn the radio off and roll the windows down on your commute. Say yes to dinner with friends on a work night. Say no to the things that lower your vibration. When I began practicing this little bit of mindfulness, my energy shot through the roof. I had been spending so much time on the merry-go-round of routine that I felt depleted and depressed. Once I jumped off, caught my balance, and sat in the grass looking up at the sky, the energy started flowing. Little by little, the daily practice of staying present began to feed my inspiration. I’m still working on it, but little by little, I know it will become my freedom, my refuge, and the springboard to my next big chapter. But don’t worry, I’ll take my time getting there. Little by little, I’m building my story.