I’ve been doing a surprising amount of thinking about the Artic as I sit here sweating in Costa Rica. There are many ways that the two environments, which on the surface seem so different – the cold, dry, sparse Arctic and the hot, humid, abundant rainforest – encompass startling similarities. Some of the similarities are simple like mildewed clothes and cold showers, but some are more profound like the need for food and community.
My trip to the Artic was all about solitude, particularly the drive up and back, every day having only Daisy to talk to, waking up each day with only myself to motivate me, resting each night with only my own voice in my head. Even in the Refuge, despite the fact that there were six of us, we were six in the middle of wilderness. It only took a few steps to be utterly alone.
I expected to find a similar solitude here: to sit on the porch of my casita and write and dream, doing yoga on the beach every morning with only the monkeys to witness, and ending each day with a solitary sunset swim with the pelicans soaring overhead. Instead I have found myself actively building community. It started with getting to know the employees of the wonderful lodge where I stayed my first few days. They were kind and welcoming, and after I moved into my casita, their warm smiles have been an important part of my days. I exchange greetings with them on the trail as they walk to and from work or as they swim with their children in the waves on their days off. Most have as little English as I do Spanish, but somehow our goodwill shines through, regardless of how ungrammatical, and sometimes how down-right embarrassingly unintended, what we say to each other turns out to be.
When I was having difficulty figuring out how to get food at first, I asked the owner for advice on how to catch the public boat to town. He gave the advice, but also offered to put my order for food in with the Lodge’s, and he let me travel in their boat to pick it up. It was an unexpected act of kindness that got me over my first, and biggest, hurdle. He gave me time to gather my courage, and work on my Spanish, before I had to face the public boat alone.
As it was in the Arctic, food is my most basic concern here. In the Refuge, I had to plan food for 16 days, keeping the calorie count high and the weight down to within a proscribed limit, and during the trip I had to watch to make sure that it lasted the entire time, leaving enough for a few days to spare in case we got stranded.
It makes you exquisitely aware of every calorie you consume, not only every calorie of food that you eat but also every calorie of energy that you use to cook it. We had to carry our own propane for the stove, of course, and its weight counted too, so we used it carefully. It’s one of the things I learned to love in the Arctic – instant oatmeal made with ice cold water from the river.
That has turned out to be my favorite breakfast here, too, because when you have to take a boat and bus two hours to a supermarket, the issues are much the same. The food you buy has to be nutritious, not weigh too much to carry, and not use too much energy to prepare. There are no gas lines here: you have to bring in propane tanks by boat as well.
The wonderful thing is that the consciousness makes even the simplest things taste surprisingly delicious, just as it did in the Arctic. When you appreciate how special it is to have food, how much work it was to get it, and how much effort it will take to replace it, you are grateful for every bite, and the spice of that gratitude makes every bite a blessing. Sure, some of the other volunteers have brought pounds of powdered curries and other seasonings in their suitcases, just as a couple of the Expeditioneers were willing to carry jars of hot sauce in their dry sacks. It was important to them, and I will not deny that I have enjoyed sharing in those exotic meals, but, honestly, it is not important to me. I am just as happy tasting the raisins in my oatmeal or the mango I cut up for dinner as if I had never tasted them before.
Once I had some food in the fridge and some friendly faces to say “Buenos dias” to in my own cove, I started to venture further afield and got to know the man who lives a few beaches away on the other side of me. He is an older Costa Rican who was born on the property and opens his home and his heart to any who need a place to stay for a while in paradise. Harper has described him as a jungle pirate, and I could not agree more – imagine a wizened and wiry bare-chested rascal with a machete dangling from the belt of his neon-plaid board shorts loping over the roots and rocks of the jungle in calloused feet with a faded green bandana tied over his close-cropped head. The first day I met him, he took me on an adventure deep into his property to a hidden natural jacuzzi at the base of a waterfall and taught me to break up little red rocks of clay from the riverbed and rub them over my skin for a miraculous spa treatment of my sunburn.
For a while, things were pretty idyllic. I had food. I had friends on both sides of me. Then the cruise ship came, and another surprising similarity between Alaska and Costa Rica appeared: the destruction of community they can cause. In Alaska, it was something I ruminated on, but it didn’t touch me directly. Throughout southeast Alaska, the main streets of the towns where the cruise ships dock have been hollowed out, and the locally-owned stores, which had provided jobs and practical items to the community, have been purchased by the cruise industry and replaced by brightly lit and beckoning diamond and other extreme-luxury stores.
Here in my little piece of the rainforest, the destruction of community has been much more personal to me. In my ignorance, I did not realize that one of the residents of the jungle pirate’s house was a dealer of cocaine. Once a week during high season – December through April – a cruise ship anchors off the coast in front of my pirate friend’s house and ferries the passengers to the beach to wander through a crafts market under the palms. Little do the tourists know that the round man swinging in a hammock in the background, with a full head of dark hair, watchful eyes and flashing smile, is the cocaine dealer, patiently waiting for the cruise ship to sail away, leaving my pirate friend with money to spend on his wares.
As the cruise ship’s weekly visits have progressed, the cocaine dependency of my friend has grown. No more do I go over to the waterfall in the mornings or sit on the open air veranda in the afternoons as the pirate plays guitar while the little children teach me Spanish. Instead of being met with a bear hug and shining smile, I am greeted with dark looks and quaking hands. It seems that everyone in that house is high. The children are absent; they have abandoned the house for the beach.
It is the same pattern every week now. After the first few days, the money runs out and desperation runs high and it is dangerous to walk the trails. Those days are followed by a day or two of withdrawal and depression then a final day of frenzy of activity as everyone rakes and cleans and sets up tables getting ready for the next ship’s arrival and the high that its money will bring.
It has gotten so bad that one morning last week, the 15-year-old boy from next door arrived at my porch at 6 am. Some things need no translation – like the fear in his eyes and his “Hay problemas en mi casa.” In my terrible Spanish, I invited him to sit down, then asked him if he had eaten. He shook his head, so I fed him a breakfast of coffee and fruit and toast with peanut butter.
He ended up staying most of the morning with me, saying little, watching the boats come and go in my tranquil cove, pointing out the animals he has seen in the pictures of my Wildlife of Costa Rica book. When still he didn’t want to leave, I brought out a painting I had been working on, opened up my watercolors, and got him to help me finish it. Everyone here has a nickname. His now, at least to me, is Picasso.
I think it was the toast and peanut butter, not anything I actually said or did, that let him know he was welcome and safe. Just like in the Arctic, it does not matter how fancy the food, or truly, what it actually tastes like. It is the sincerity with which it is served and the gratitude with which it is eaten that makes it delicious.