Into the Jungle

So I’m here in Costa Rica at Rancho Mastatal, sitting in my little hut known as The Goat Barn/House, a.k.a. The Pink Palace (because the lime plaster turned out pinker than intended). It sits overlooking the “Banana Bowl”, a verdant little valley that is one of the agroforestry spaces. My roommate (Nadav) and I have our own little jackfruit tree that is starting to bear, with some ginormous clumping bamboo just beyond. It has rained a fair amount since we’ve been here, which is abnormal for the end of January, but the transition to the hot dry season is now well underway. Luckily, we spend much of our time in shade under shelter or forest canopy, so the heat is tolerable. Waterfall trips help, too. All of the buildings are open, and showers and loos are mostly separate structures, so life is very much outdoors here, sharing this lush green space with bugs, birds, spiders and deadly venomous snakes like the Fer-de-lance. The day starts at dawn, and typically starts to wind down after dinner (oftentimes with a cup of hooch). Meals are at 8am, 1pm and 6:30pm, and a lot of work goes into making delicious, nutritious meals for a big group of people (as well as cleaning up after them)!

Us apprentices (Niles, Sam, Marissa, Denise, Nadav and Kate from bottom-left going round clockwise) de-shelling beans on day two (sorry for the blur!)

These first two weeks have been our orientation phase, settling into life here in the jungle in this small community that pulses with the energies of visitors and residents alike. As apprentices, we have been getting up to speed with daily Life Skills and Food Skills, which rotate each month, of which I am responsible for Solar Star and Balm, respectively. The former involves a few chores around the main building, including filling up the lard bottle in the kitchen, putting the towels out to dry, making Tapa Dulce (cane sugar syrup), sharpening knives and grinding coffee – the last of which is definitely engendering an appreciation for the effort involved in preparing a drug on which 20+ people depend on each day! Balm involves making fermented sodas from water kefir, which we learnt how to do with Laura, one of the core team members, during our fermentation crash course. It’s similar to kombucha, but has a different colony of bacteria and yeast. Fermentation happens really quickly here – the sodas get fizzy in just a day, and the home-brew takes about 2-3 weeks! The other food skills are corn nixtamalization, pasteurising milk, feeding the dairy kefir, making dosas from beans and rice, making vinegar, and pickling vegetables. We’ve also learnt how to process jackfruit, cinnamon, and sacha inchi.

A butterfly of the genus Morpho (probably species peleides) feasting on some jackfruit.

We’ve been spending time with core team members getting more familiar with the main focuses and projects here, which included tours of the wood shop, zone one garden, orchards, and a natural building primer. We’ve now got a real taste of what the year ahead holds, and opportunities abound – we will get to try everything and decide where we want to focus our efforts later on. Some projects include improving the composting system in zone one, building adobe bricks for a new outdoor shower, and plastering one or more of the structures (perhaps with the Japanese techniques we will learn in March). There are constantly things to get involved in here, and already Nic and Benito have rebuilt one of the main gates with a beautiful metal frame and Pilon wood, and two others have started rebuilding one of the rocket stoves.

On the agriculture side of things, there is plenty of work to be done in improving both production as well as the farm to table pipeline, understanding how “new” or unusual foods (like the Sacha Inchi nut or Jackfruit) may be incorporated into the system, from planting to harvesting to processing to cooking. Soil tests are being carried out, and there’s a microscope here which we plan to examine the soil microbiology with. As a Permaculture site and somewhere where teaching is a major priority, I would love to see more food, especially perennials, coming from the farm – we’re still quite dependent on rice and beans here, like many of the locals, both of which are annual crops that need the land to be cleared and can deplete the soil over time. There are some trees already planted, such as the Malabar Chestnut, that could offer solutions in this regard, and experimentation is very much a core component here. I will write a more thorough post about our bean day field trip soon, exploring these issues in more detail.

Dendrobates auratus at The Hankey.

Tonight we have our first large group arriving for the Emergency Medical Training course, and it’ll be busy for the next few months. Next week we’re starting our Work Parties, where we’ll be getting sweaty doing things that need doing. I’m looking forward to sharing more of the happenings of jungle and Rancho Mastatal life with you, and discussing in much more depth what it means to (try to) live as sustainably as possible whilst navigating many of the compromises that arise.

Some cool things I’ve seen so far:

  • Black-mandibled Toucan
  • Blue-crowned Motmot
  • Golden-headed Tanager
  • Crested Guan
  • (Dead) Coral Snake
  • Huge trails of leaf-cutter ants
  • Poison Dart Frog
Dendrobates auratus at The Hankey.

Best things I’ve eaten so far:

  • Jackfruit (raw and as ice cream)
  • Local artisan chocolate from Finca La Iguana
  • Fried plantain with cheese
  • Bananas, pineapple and papaya like no other
  • Sacha Inchi nuts (roasted)
  • Heart of Palm
  • Moringa
  • Homemade burritos
  • Starfruit is pretty tasty too =)

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