Monday, January 5, 2009


Celeste Mountain Lodge sits in a valley between two of Costa Rica’s active volcanoes, in the perpetual mist of tropical rainforest. The lodge is an Ecolodge, meaning many of the hotel’s features, structures and amenities are carried out in harmony with the ecosphere (see: nature). The foundation of CML is comprised of old tires, wood scraps and metal waste. All of the hotel’s energy comes from sustainable sources (solar, geothermal). The hot-tub is heated from the burning of harvested, fallen timber. The lighting is entirely powered by LED bulbs. The trash is filtered to retrieve all (ALL) recyclable materials. And so on. Meals are included for guests at CML (sustainable, locally acquired meats & produce), including lunches which Joel packs for us the two days we are there – sandwiches, muffins wrapped in banana leaves, not plastic and juice (jugo en Espanol) in plastic containers we are to return to him empty.

The first thing you notice when entering the rainforest is: wet. Everything is wet. The two days we stayed at CML we saw no sun. clouds, mist, rain in alternating variables consumed us each moment of our stay. Joel made it a point to apologize for the weather, but then would add, “Szuch iz zee way zings r ear in zee rainforezt.”* We disembark the cloud cover twice to go into town (Canas, Bagaces respectively), but the entirety of our time is either in anticipation of rain, or in the midst of torrential downpour. Think of the footage you’ve seen of mudslides swallowing houses, cars, trees. Then think of the rain that would have had to come fall to precipitate (I know I know) such a slide. This kind of rain fell daily at CML. And from what I am told, rain of these proportions is the rule here, year round.

So rain and more rain. Eco and more Eco. Joel and Joel. S and I were totally unprepared for the shift in climate from sunny, beach, sun, pool to gray. More than once one of our party remarks how much this climate resembles the Pacific Northwest. & how we could have stayed home if we wanted to trapse through mudcaked trails…. But alas.

We hike, eat, hot tub and play games into the new year. Had we done this leg of the trip without friends, a day would have been plenty. But together the time passed pleasantly.

One of our day excursions is toward the Aranal Volcano to attempt to find a zipline canopy tour. It’s New Years Day, which like the US, the entire country shuts down. We drive toward the volcano following handwritten signs and the handwritten directions Joel wrote up for us. Most of Costa Rica’s 4 million inhabitants reside in large cities (approx. 1 million in San Jose, less than that in Liberia; on any given day however, 1 in 3 Costa Ricans is American) and smaller towns. We pass several of these towns on our way to the zipline (which is closed, the abandoned lines hovering overhead taunting us), we stop in Bagaces (Buh-ga-sez) for a soda tipica (see: lunch) at a small diner. We are the only customers and we order 6 of whatever the chef is cooking today (carne, arroz con frijoles, pescado, lechuga). Chef hustles behind the counter, sweat dripping from brown, collar, forehead. We are served on massive white plates of the above ($4 ea.) which we wash down with Coke Light & Agua (Softdrinks in CR are sweetened with sugar, not chemicals, which means they taste magnificent). It is Gabe’s 34th birthday, when I tell Chef he frantically disappears behind the bar and scoops 6 cups of helado sprinkled with red jello.

We drive back to CML, some of our number nodding into sleep. About 20 kilometers from the lodge, before we turn off onto the dirt road, the clouds return. Driving up to CML we pass shack after shack of corrugated aluminum two-room houses, each with an emaciated cow or two chomping at nubs of turf poking out of the mud. Child, or children wave to us from the doorways as we jerk past on the rooted out roadway, before returning to the dark interior. Pause here to feel whatever one feels - “the hurting is so painless from the distance of passing cars.”

Later in the trip we are talking with one of the wedding’s attendants about my job, about teaching, about youth. She shares a story about a ride-along she once was invited along for with a Bellingham Police officer. The ride passed through some of the rougher parts of town and she says she remembers the kids on the corners flipping off the police cruiser, some throwing things. Our friend was surprised by this reaction. She has always been raised to respect the police. When she remarks as much, the officer driving says “C _______, these children are all of our responsibility. Not just the teachers, the police, the counselors, but all of ours. We can pretend that not taking care of the children is not harming, but each of us is responsible.”

Ecotourism was founded officially sometime in the 1980s by a group of environmentalists looking to reduce the impact of a vast, exploitative industry (tourism: see hotels being built by native peoples, increased strain on local resources, improper waste management, then abandonment when the enterprise fails) and to restore dignity to the communities people travel to see. To reduce the impact of the tourist industry. To restore dignity to indigenous people. This movement has seen its struggles (see: exploitation by commercial industrial barons), but on the whole has succeeded in its twin aims: to expand/profit from the tourist industry; to restore balance/dignity to tropical areas. Costa Rica is a bellwether in the Ecotourist industry, many of the resorts and destinationi locations in the country offer Eco-minded options. The country also regulates the beaches in a similar way.

The blue-flag rating system was started by locals beach communities to communicate to tourists the cleanliness and safety of the beach. This self-certification spread from beach to beach and worked toward a national certification whereby tourists can lookup in said tourists tourist book which beaches do not have syringes in the sand or sewer pumped directly into the ocean an know where to go. Entirely self-started, self-sustained and self-regulated.

At dinner we all sit together, the wedding party and whomever else happens to be staying at the lodge. I ask Joel (SZHO-ELL) why he chose to do this and he says two reasons: one, eating together promotes a return to the communal act of eating, the sit-down and eat your dinner as a family your mother talked about. And two, logistically, it is easier for the kitchen staff to plate all the food at the same time because Joel drives all the employees home after the dinner service, some of them living as far as 10 kilometers from CML and who would otherwise have to walk. (Average individual income in Costa Rica is $4,900/yr. Joel pays his employees considerably higher than the average hourly wage, but still only $1.25/hr. His employees work 48 hours a week, 6 days and receive all their meals while at CML.)

*Joel was born in Quebec, raised outside of Paris, spent most of his adult life in Vancouver, Canada before emigrating to CR. In addition to CML, he owns and runs a burger joint (his words) in the Vancouver airport. According to him he has never once eaten there, out of principle?

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