Going back to EARTH campus after Tortuguero is like eating gourmet pasta at a five star restaurant then eating kraft mac and cheese—I still love EARTH, but I’ve been spoiled by my days at Laguna Lodge. I still don’t mind the living conditions at EARTH (cold showers, bugs, no AC) but there was just so much more to do at Tortuguero. Having a day and a half off at EARTH, it’s really easy to get anxious, like I should be out having an adventure. We did end up having a good time playing soccer and basketball for some of the day, but I was still dreaming about Tortuguero.
Despite my whining about not having enough to do at EARTH, I still felt sad leaving it for the last time. I can’t tell if it was because I was actually missing EARTH or the idea that my trip is coming to a close that bothered me so much, but I do know I’ll never forget me experiences there.
We packed up all our belongings into the bus and set out to our next destination—Corsicana, the world’s largest organic pineapple farm. This was probably my favorite farm tour so far. The place was beautiful (and I’m not just saying that because I’m obsessed with organic.) There were rolling hills striped with pineapple plants and trees scattered through the fields. It was also a good tour because the farm has both conventional and organic production so they explained the difference between the two types in more detail than we’ve been getting. The employee that showed us around had a great sense of humor and fed us a ridiculous amount of fresh pineapple, plucked right from the field. I spent a lot of time watching how he used his knife to slice of the skin and cut the pineapple into chunks. Our professor, a graduate from EARTH University that lets us call him “Freddy”, is helping us get knives specifically for pineapple, with handmade custom leather sheaths.
After the tour we went to a cafeteria area, holding our stomachs from all the pineapple we ate. We were greeted by a table of virgin pina colada’s in hollowed out pineapples and trays of pineapple chunks. Making room in my stomach, I downed the pina colada and somehow fit lunch in there too. The thing about eating on this trip is even if you’re full, eat when you can, or you’ll regret it later. Just when I ate my last bit of gallo pinto, we were served ice cream over—surprise—a big slice of pineapple. One of the most amazing parts of the whole thing is that I’m still not sick of pineapple.
Straight from the pineapple farm, we headed out to drop all the students off at their different homestays. My friend Suzy (a fellow gator) and I were the last ones to get dropped off so it was a solid four hour drive. If I was nervous about any part of this program, it would be the homestay. The only thing I was really worried about was me poor Spanish skills. I had done a couple weeks of an online Spanish course and I’ve been picking up a lot here, but not nearly enough to actually communicate with people. Suzy had taken a Spanish class before, so she was way more advanced than me, but still far from fluent.
Even though there was a huge language barrier, I didn’t have too much to worry about. My family didn’t speak any English accept one of the daughters, Marisol, who spoke only a little, but it turns out you don’t need to speak the same language to know how generous and caring people are. After settling in, we all sat down for homemade dinner. Once we got past the initial awkwardness, we actually had a great time learning new words and using gestures and sometimes theatrics and props to get ideas across.
The next day, we were able to go with our host father, Hector, to a community meeting put together by Freddy on beneficial microorganisms used as a soil amendment. At the gathering, experts were showing farmers from the community how the can use fungus they can find in forests to make the amendment much cheaper than if they bought it. Since the meeting was in Spanish, we had a hard time following, but Freddy explained the general idea to us and we were even able to go out and collect the fungus too.
When we got back to the homestay, I was expecting to hang out and relax since we were at the meeting so long, but I forgot farm life is far from relaxing. Hector showed us how his integrated farm works. From what I understood, the different components of his farm are all connected to reduce waste and costs. His main product is black pepper, but he also has pigs he uses for biogas and cows he uses to produce milk for cheese. He fertilizes his farm with manure from the cows and uses a byproduct of cheese production to feed the pigs. Then he uses what he called “pig pies” in a bio digester to create biogas that goes directly to his stove. His whole operation is a perfect example of how small scale agriculture can be more easily managed in a sustainable way.
Even though that day at the homestay was tiring from constantly doing things, it doesn’t compare to the work we did the next day. After milking the cows again, we were put to work moving concrete slabs from their walkway by the black peppers down a steep hill to where the cows are. Suzy and I switched jobs once in a while, but for the most part, I was using a shovel clear the grass and an axe to breakdown the soil while Suzy wheel barrowed the heavy slabs up and down the hill. Moving the slabs turned out to be much more challenging than I expected. The path down the hill was very unevenly paved and steep, as well as slippery from the cow pies. Even though the work was difficult, I tried to focus on the fact we’re helping the family. Hector uses the path multiple times a day when he milks the cows, bringing them up the hill and back down. Having the slabs down for the rest of the path will probably make that a bit easier. He also told us he has bad knees, which is why he couldn’t be the one to bring the slabs down. Knowing that we’re really helping him makes the work much more bearable. Experiencing the kind of physical labor these small farmers have to do was also eye opening, thinking about how much effort goes into producing the food we eat.
It wasn’t all work and no play though. After taking the most well-deserved shower of my life, I got my things packed and we had lunch. I brought out the Costa Rican cookbook I bought when I was with my dad and let them flip through it. They told me all about different recipes in it and I even got Marisol to write down the recipe for a plantain dish we had with dinner. After getting so excited about cooking, they decided to show us how to make cheese empanadas. They barely used any actual forms of measurement, making them completely from scratch.
By the end of our homestay, Suzy and I had mastered the art of communicating with bare minimum Spanish. My most commonly used phrase was “Lo siento por me mal espanol”—“Sorry for my bad Spanish”. As much as I enjoyed learning new things to say and being with my host family, I was relieved to be with English speaking people again. Still, the experience I had with the host family will stay with me forever.