All we ever wanted was everything



The final report

My first day back. I woke up easily enough. Made it to work easily enough. It was freezing this morning, but I wore my tights and boots and sucked it up. I feel okay. I am reminded of my job and my life and it’s just like–okay. I do feel a bit like a stranger in this place. In this world. So this is how it goes. This is what it’s like. I had nearly forgotten.

I had to fight the urge to text the students. To talk to someone who had been where I had been. Experienced what I had experienced. Was maybe feeling similar in a way to me. How weird to not even see one single person I’d spent the last two weeks with. How weird to just slip back into my daily life like an old t-shirt and not have anyone notice the difference. Now I’m gone. Now I’m here. I might look differently, but not different enough.

“I need a break from culture”

We left Central America today. Woke up at 330am; packed up, got on the bus, ate some fruit, went through the motions of travel (paid a stupid departure fee of $29 at the airport in Costa Rica). Slept on the plane to San Salvador, made it to the gate for more security and boarded for Chicago. Looked in amazement at all the gringos on our plane; slept, ate, watched movies, and then suddenly, we were over the cold tundra of Chicago. Weird. It was weird. Driving home, I was struck by the strangeness of the colors. Of the scenery. Of the feeling of the weight of my coat on my body. It was shock. I guess. All the pinks, whites, and blues in the sky, when for 2 weeks it’s been brown and green and orange. My eyes couldn’t seem to adjust. Luckily, Costa Rica and Guatemala are on Central Time, so there isn’t any time change, and no jet lag in that sense, but damn I feel off. Strange. Loopy. I can’t focus. And suddenly, it’s like, hey, get back to your old life. The 15 hour days–the thinking, the going, the lack of leisure. And if only my laundry would do itself. But we all seem glad to be home. To take a shower in our own bathroom and sleep in our own bed and see our own friends. 

As one of the students put it today, “I need a break from culture. My brain can’t handle it. I need a vacation after this vacation.” Culture is exhausting. All that critical thinking. We stopped at a McD’s on the way home from the airport and one of the students said “gracias” when they received their meal. We had a good laugh. I was struck by how cold the Americans were at the restaurant. Where’s your sense of humanity? America. I miss it. I miss the other America. 

“Guatemala was so last week.”

The sun has set, but my skin is still hot to the touch. My hair is full of dust and sweat. So is my sinus. What have I learned these past 2 weeks? No bullshit. One of the students asked me and I hesitated…guarded my answer. I’ve learned how globalization is affecting smaller, poorer countries. I’ve learned to be less apprehensive of the produce with stickers that say “Mexico” “Guatemala” “Costa Rica”. I’ve leaned that students need context about a country before they go.

Azucar. I couldn’t believe how much work went into sugar cane. The planting process (similar to a potato planter), the harvest, then the processing. We visited this huge plant, and had to wear hard hats, glasses and ear plugs. We walked around these huge vats where they use the sugar to generate electricity, make molasses, and make crystallized white sugar. We were in that place for an hour and a half and I felt like we didn’t see all of it. Then we had lunch at the oldest hacienda in Liberia. Rice and beans and pescado and this arroz with pineapple drink. Like an horchata but not. We visited a cantaloupe crop. The plant was closed by the time we arrived, and it was a little eerie walking around the empty plant. The guy who showed us around was Costa Rican but went to Texas A&M. He gave us some melons after the tour out of cold storage. Damn it felt good holding those cold melons on the drive home.
The day before we went to the Ark Herb Farm. We toured around this dude’s place. He was from Arkansas originally and the woman who worked with him was from the Netherlands. He showed us around his green house where we ate all the plants. Stevia and spearmint and cilantro from different places. We broke up into two small groups and toured the place. The woman, whose name I can’t remember, led my group. Some of the cool things we saw included Achiote-this plant that produces little seeds with a red creamy substance. It’s what indigenous people used for dye and face paint. So of course we put it all over ourselves. There was also a Dragon blood tree. When you cut into the tree it produces this red substance. And you can use it like an antiseptic–cover wounds and zits and things. It was really cool. Nature is cool. Powerful. I really wanna WWOOF there. I’d also like to WWOOF in Caoba in Guatemala.
Now we’re done with farms. Today is beach day. Tomorrow is river tour day. Monday is departure day. The time has flown, as it always does.

Our tourist moments seemed rare, as we spent most of the time in dusty fields or noisy plants. I mean, when I think of tourists in this part of the world, I always imagine someone on a beachside resort. I prefer what we’re doing. I hate feeling excluded, isolated, those are gringos at their best, at their peak. River tour today on Tempisque. Crocs and iguanas and monkeys and birds and bats. “I love seeing animals in the wild.” I’m kind of bored, just sitting here. But I’m trying to enjoy soaking up the sun and feeling the warm breeze and wearing shorts. Tomorrow, the air will feel a little differently.

Mashed bananas

It’s not all rainbows and butterflies, you know. Even if I am in a swimsuit with the a/c on in Enero.
The streets of Costa Rica are narrow. Windy. The traffic is tight and fast. Bustling. The smog is intense. It’s hard to breathe deeply when the windows are open. Which is always. Because it’s hot. And there are 17 of us on the bus.

Students get sick. Students have disagreements, dislike each other, say things with attitude. Their goals mismatch. We’re all tired. The other day we went so long between meals, one student said she had never been so hungry. We get to our hotel at night sweaty, dusty and sometimes too tired to sleep (just me?). We climb on a bus in the morning, at an hour that we’re not super familiar with in our daily lives, and shove in together, without getting too close, and try to sleep through the bumps and the horns and the aforementioned dust and the back and leg and neck cramps.

We forget to wear sunscreen and get red. We forget our bug spray and get bit. We use the wrong ATM and can’t withdraw colones. Traveling is what you make of it, for sure, for always. But there are always those times that make you appreciate having a solid base in a country in which you’re fluent in the language and don’t have to live out of a suitcase. Have easy access to laundry facilities. Don’t have to worry about running out of cash.
This isn’t an adequate, substantial post, I know. But it’s what popped up as I thought about all the things. And these are some things the students are noticing.

‘Twas the 7th day…

The stories people often tell about us that we never know.

Pequeño Mundo. Costa Rica day 2. Rice and beans with eggs and cantaloupe and tortilla for breakfast. Best sleep ever but wasn’t long enough. The bed cradled me like the little baby I felt like lacking so much sleep. Sidewalks are a luxury. Thick towels and soft beds and hot water are luxuries. Showers are a luxury.
Inconsumable rhymes with inconceivable.
I’m a creep. You can run you can hide but you can’t escape my love. I really like watching the students bond. I like watching them create inside jokes and find things in common and make memories. They don’t realize it, but this is the best part about travel. This is an experience they only share with one another.
I study student development as part of my grad program. You know, how college shapes these kids. I can tell who is up and who is down and where they’re at in the spectrum. Hopefully the trip is supporting and challenging that a bit. Hopefully.

We visited Linda Vista. Where they’re doing the seed and flower thing. We picked coffee. We had delicious lunch. Tilapia and vegetables and rice with black beans. It was a great day.
The coffee place: COOPEDOTA. We toured the facilities where they wash, dry, roast, sort and package. Then coffee tasting. You slurped, gargle and spit. One of the students drank his post-taste test coffee, i.e. drank his own spit. I didn’t think he would but he did. I lost that bet.

Then Gaby, our guide, took us out to the field so we could pick coffee. Coffee is a berry on a bush. It turns dark red when it’s ripe. Picking it, I had to remind myself what it was. We broke up into pairs and had a friendly competition to see who could pick the most (free labor). I didn’t win. After, we visited the on-site coffee shop for free bebidas. I had Italian soda with peach syrup and too much whipped cream. I know. Not coffee related. But it was hot and it was like 530. No caffeine para mi.

Really good day, overall.
Even I slept on the bus for a bit. The students have started photo bombing one another whenever they catch someone sleeping. Truly fantastic photo ops. Now we’re on the bus in the dark and it’s eerie. There’s so much fog on the road it seems like we’re driving through a cloud.
Costa Rica is definitely busier and more developed than Guatemala.

Day 8: bananas and pineapples in Cariari de Guapiles. Del Monte. Heard of them?
They’re not banana trees. Bananas have pseudo stems. Those tricky things. Clever plants. The students were hot and uncomfortable in the plantation today. It was humid and about 85 in the field. But I got a little annoyed with the shenanigans. They got preoccupied catching lizards and making grass skirts and jewelry out of banana leaves. It’s beautiful here under the banana pseudo trees. I could do this. It’s also a matriarchal society–banana plantations. The babies are planted next to a mother, live off that tree’s nutrients. Then the babies grow up and become mothers themselves. Just like life. I can appreciate. The students’ shenanigans: Don’t forget they’re still kids, Morales. Age. Life. Me. My madness keeps me afloat.
We had a break while the dudes of banana Costa Rica Del Monte ate their lunch. I had a banana I brought from the hotel. Fitting I thought. Didn’t know it was totally illegal to eat a banana from another place on their property. Should have. All the people working on the plantation. It’s always interesting to see where your food comes from, the conditions, the people who make it possible. When I worked at a grocery store, I would on occasion unpack the produce and stock. I never thought about the people on the other side. The people who packed the box. It’s a big ole circle. You know. Cliché: but I never really did consider my banana before. The blood sweat and tears that go into it. Hopefully minimal amounts of blood. The heat and the sun and the anxiety over the wind. Last year, wind storms destroyed thousands of trees at this Del Monte. We had lunch at the cafeteria. I was expecting a torta or some sad sandwich. Nope. A real plate filled with rice and beans, some delicious seasoned meat, lightly pickled veggies & a slice of boiled banana. With fresh seeming juice. Ate it all.
Then onto pineapple. We toured the packing plant and enjoyed the cold storage at it’s 41 degrees. We were sweatin. Then we got free pineapple. Delicious. Don’t know if we were supposed to eat all the plates but we did. Then we took the bus out to the fields to see the harvesting process. It’s starting to cool down as the sun sets. Now we’re driving back to the hotel through part of a national protected jungle, which I’m partially missing because I’m writing this, with plans to swim in the heated outdoor swimming pool that’s open until 930pm. Tomorrow we leave Heredia for Liberia.