Tuesday, April 5, 2011

John Peterson - Costa Rica

John Peterson is a sophomore at the University of Utah pursuing an Honors degree in Political Science. He recently traveled to Costa Rica with the Bennion Center's Alternative Spring Break program.

            We spent the day after we arrived visiting the cloud forest around Monteverde. The humidity is so high there that it doesn’t even rain—it continually mists. The temperature is also much cooler than you might expect, partly because the sky is so overcast.
I was astounded by how lush the rainforest was. There was something growing everywhere you looked. The trees were a bit like apartment buildings housing the shrubs and ferns that sprouted from their branches and trunks. I kept falling behind my group as I tried to capture photo after photo.
Our guide, who was a native to the area, was very helpful in showing us unique plants and animals. One flower he pointed out looked just like a pair of plump, puckering lips. He told us it was called “labios calientes” (hot lips), or as he preferred, “labios de Angelina Jolie”. Throughout our walk, our guide was continuously whistling birdcalls. It must have worked, because at one point in the hike, he told us to stop and drew our attention up to the canopy where there was a little green bird partly hidden by the leaves. He told us the bird was a quetzal, a very special bird in Costa Rica and the rest of Central America. The quetzal, perhaps wanting to show itself off, flew off of its branch and over our heads streaming its long flowing tail behind it.

After our hike, we drove over to another corner of the forest to take a zip line tour of the canopy. We got harnessed up and, after a brief tutorial, began making our way up the steps of a little tower to the first platform. All of the platforms were high in the trees—a lot like small tree houses. It was exhilarating to soar over the trees like a bird with nothing but a harness and a carabiner to hold you to the wire above. Unfortunately, our visibility was limited since the clouds were so dense, but the experience was no less exciting.


We spent the next two days visiting small local businesses in the communities around Monteverde. One of the major topics we had studied before coming to Costa Rica was micro-business and “bottom-up” development, so it was nice to finally see in action what we read about.

One visit that really stood out in my mind was our visit to Eco-Bambu, a tiny company made up of about ten or fifteen women who make products from recycled paper. Marta, one of the women now in charge of Eco-Bambu, told us the story of their business. The company had started with a micro-loan from the Japanese embassy and had slowly grown since. Originally, the women had had to hide their work from their husbands who were unhappy with them getting involved with anything outside the home, but as Marta explained, “Once they saw how much money we were making, they became very supportive.”

Their whole operation has remained very simple: the women receive paper from the surrounding communities and sort it by color. The paper is shredded manually, soaked, pressed and dried. The new paper sheets are then cut into pages for notebooks, paper bags, envelopes or letters. The women even decorate many of their products with hand-painted designs.

At the end of our meeting with them, we had the opportunity to participate in the process, helping press and dry the paper. They also had many of their products available for purchase which we bought up as fast as we could.

Another interesting visit was to the farm of Giovanni’s family. For the first few generations of its existence, it had simply been a sustenance farm, but the family quickly realized that they could make even more money through tourism. Just behind their land is a spectacular waterfall that can only be accessed by traveling through their property. They marked off a clear hiking trail to the waterfall and then charged an admission fee to use it. They also started selling food to the hikers to make even more money. As the trail has gained more and more attention, it has become a very profitable business for the family.

The attention has not been all good, however; many different groups are now trying to buy the land from the family for further development, and Giovanni really is the only voice advocating for them not to sell. Giovanni realizes that the business they have now, while it’s small, is sustainable—something he can pass down to his children and grandchildren—and he is worried what the family will do once the money the make by selling the land runs out. What makes him even more worried is that his children are planning on going into careers in the city and are losing interest in maintaining the family business.

We had been studying these very issues for several months before coming to Costa Rica, so they were not at all new to us. But to hear about them from actual people made them seem much more real.

The last three days of our trip were spent in a community of Los Tornos, about 10 to 15 kilometers from Monteverde proper. It is a much smaller town, one where all of the houses line a single winding road.

Our project was to repaint their community center. When I first walked inside, I realized why this was such an important thing for them. The building that served as their community’s gathering place looked dilapidated and forgotten. Much of the dull orange paint was faded and covered by mold, the lights no longer worked in side.

After visiting a few of the other important buildings in the town like the school and health clinic, we assigned jobs and began working in the community center. We worked quickly finishing the first coat of blue paint in the main hall of the center in the first day. I did not have very much experience painting and soon became a nuisance dribbling paint on people with my over-saturated paint roller. About halfway through the day, a few others—partly out of kindness, partly out of frustration—showed me how to paint without dripping.

As our work progressed, we moved up and out; up towards the ceiling to paint the metal girders that held up the roof and out to finish the painting on the outer walls of the center. We had gained the attention of the local schoolchildren who attended school just next-door to the community center, and they were eager to help with the painting project, sometimes contributing more comic relief than usable labor.

By the end of our project, we were all little more tired and colorful (red from the sun and blue, green and silver from the paint). The community wanted to express their gratitude before we left, so on our last night, they put together a beautiful dinner for us. The whole community was at the dinner. After the meal, we danced and danced to one salsa song after another. I thought I was a good dancer until I danced with the Costa Rican kids. We had fun teaching them American dance moves, which they mastered with ease, but after seeing that we were pretty hopeless bunch, they stopped trying to teach us theirs.

The party culminated with a presentation of gifts. Each of us was given our own hand-carved wooden box made by the people of Los Tornos. We had an opportunity to exchange words of gratitude and love with the people and give our last hugs of goodbye. Then we had to go.

I think what made this project—and really, this trip in general—so rewarding were the relationships that we all created. We had unity and camaraderie within our group—more so than I had expected. The visits were designed in a way that allowed us to ask questions and really get to know the faces of micro-business personally. While we were painting, we worked shoulder to shoulder with the people of Los Tornos. Other than language, there really didn’t seem to be any barriers between us and any of the people we met. I am very grateful for the opportunity to go on the trip and to make the friendships I made.

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