Costa Rica, a Nine Day Intensive
Experiencing the incredible range of Costa Rica – the jungles, waterfalls, beaches, rivers, lakes, volcanic hot springs, and mountains – while getting to know the unique personalities of all the other travelers, and our fun, knowledgeable guides, who constantly goofed on each other while making us feel at home and welcome in their country, was an experience of a lifetime. Since returning to my classes and computer, cell phone and car, I sorely miss the sounds of the birds and howler monkeys, and the warm afternoon rainfall on the tin roof at Serafin Turtle Station.
WHY COSTA RICA?
Costa Rica has the highest concentration of bio-diversity on earth, and is part of a land bridge connecting North and South America — a place where plant and animal species from both continents come together. Home to more than 500,000 different species, Costa Rica has pledged to becoming the world’s first carbon-neutral nation by 2021. Costa Rica is known for openhearted, friendly people, who live in harmony with nature and are very proud of their country. With no standing army since 1949, money spent on defense is used for general education, public health, eco-conscious construction, and wildlife protection. A 94% literacy rate, and a life expectancy of 75 for men and 79 for women gives Costa Rica has one of the highest health standards in Latin America. Eco-preservation is a primary priority, with 23.7% of the land protected under the Ministry of Ambiance and Energy (their EPA), protecting a wide variety of bioregions and a range of habitats.
The night flight from SFO took off to Miami for an early morning connection to San Jose, but 45 minutes into the flight, we had to turn around and land back at SFO because of a sick passenger. We made up for it with an earlier connection, and a short layover in Miami, where I promptly lost my cellphone, probably during an impromptu t’ai chi class with the kids. The incredulous kids, spearheaded by The Irascible One, were dumbfounded as to how my relaxed, slow t’ai chi movements could ever, ever beat strength and speed. I remember wondering the same thing so many years ago …
Flying into San Jose. expecting a landing strip and a rickety shack, we entered an airy, light, fresh airport, rivaling any big hub in North America. We stumbled off the plane into the invitingly warm, fresh air. We were welcomed into the airport by a jazz (is there any other kind?) sax player in front of a big Pura Vida banner, on which a blissed-out couple in front of a waterfall was drinking cerveza.
We quickly cleared the cordial and efficient customs agents, to see our fabulous tour leader — Tony Navas — on the other side to greet us. Tony, who has a cousin in every village, and a warm hug for everyone, ushered us onto the luxury liner for the tour — a plush Mercedes bus with AC, a toilet, velvety reclining seats, and huge panoramic windows for viewing the rapidly changing terrain.
On the Bus
A general pattern of seating ensued, with the boys in the back where they could do whatever it is they do in relative obscurity, the girls mid-center, providing a buffer zone from the considerably more raucous boys, and the adults towards the front, with Mariano, a jungle-trekking fount of knowledge about CR’s flora and fauna. Armed with nothing but a mic, patience and lots of brains, he stood before us and pointed out fascinating features of each region through which we passed, answering the endless questions I always have about everything.
The luxury-liner cruised comfortably along a well-traveled two-lane highway, curving consistently downhill from the highlands to sea level. Normally, the plush seats and purring engine would’ve lulled me to sleep, especially after a sleepless night of traveling and herding children, but this place was already proving to be far too exciting to miss a moment. The rapidly changing, passing terrain, which often looked like a series of giant house plants that had escaped from their pots and gone wild, and getting all my questions answered helped me to feel much more integrated into this radically different, new and exciting environment. I was beginning to understand this pervasive, harmonious feeling that I had been getting from people from the moment I stepped into the airport — one of respect and reverence for nature and for each other.
We were sleepy and famished. Stopping at a roadside, outdoor cafeteria-style buffet filled with locals, I wondered what the local fare tasted like. We had passed so many small homesteads on the edge of the jungle, with scrappy chickens and fit-looking cows roaming freely about, eating the scrumptious bugs and lush vegetation. Hardly truck-stop fare, this food was so extravagantly delicious that it would’ve rated five stars even in San Francisco — all free-range, local and organic! Ceviche and sea bass, tilapia (sustainably, humanely farm-raised), yucca and platanos, vegetable stews cooked in their own rich stock … I could not try everything without causing gastric distress, so I picked the most nutritious-looking fare. The flavors evoked the intensity and richness of the colors of the jungle — the flowers and plumage of the tropical birds — and from soil untouched by chemicals. Even the water tasted delicious.
Monkeys and Sloths
Back on the bus, fortified for the rest of the journey to the sloth preserve, we passed through more micro-climes till we reached what seemed to be just another pass through the jungle, and pulled into a hidden clearing.
As we exited the bus, a strange bellowing sound, sort of an amplified growl, greeted us. Looking up into the densely woven network of branches overhead, Mariano introduced us to our first view of howler monkeys, and reminded us that they were just protecting their families, and not to howl back and frighten them.
Both sloths and monkeys could been seen in the trees overhead, where they pursued their differing lifestyles unabated. A young scientist named Jeff described their unusual particulars, the tan or the grey, and the fact that they are really either two or three-fingered, not toed sloths.
Observing an obvious parallel between sloths and t’ai chi, with their loose spine and slow movements, I felt an overwhelming urge to do t’ai chi at the Sloth Preserve in their midst. They were hanging out in the tall trees overhead, languidly drooped over branches, unfazed by their howling neighbors. When I inquired about staying there to do t’ai chi with this token animal, the preserve-founder, Judy, told me that Chris Luth, the t’ai chi master who brings his students down for “T’ai Chi in Paradise” retreats, always goes there too, remarking that the sloths are the real t’ai chi masters. The decks overlooking a lush flower garden looked like a wonderful spot for morning practice, gushing with oxygen, with boats docked on a river flowing through the jungle, an adventure in the making.
We headed for the Caribbean coast, where we lodged comfortably in cabins across from a protected cove. Food there was simple and delicious, tons of the local, freshly picked, tropical fruit — the stuff that is shipped up to us hard as rocks — pineapples, mangos, papayas and melons. After seeing the local cows grazing on thick grasses and bounding over gorges like goats, and tasting the local coffee, I felt great drinking a cup with milk every morning, and I never have drunk coffee elsewhere in my whole life. I even tried the local ice cream, found in most villages, made with the local cream, cacao, coffee, sugarcane and fruit. The San Francisco foodies could only imagine something this good.
At Cahuita National Park, we learned about staying on the path — imperative! (eighteen of the over one-hundred species of snakes are poisonous). We trekked single-file under trees full of the ubiquitous howlers and more animated white-faced monkeys. One white-faced was sitting on his branch, delicately eating Pringles from a cylindrical can confiscated from the trash. Michele, Jacob’s mom stood underneath him to take his picture till he defended his space and God-given right to pollute his body with junk-food, with a well-directed stream of urine. Monkeys and their business were respected for the duration of the trip.
The first morning out, under a tree outside my cabin, Mariano heard a pair of laughing falcons. The binoculars revealed they had caught a snake, casually drooped over the branch in-between them. Without Mariano, birds would have been heard, but not seen or identified, and the treks that would have been a bit scary, with twenty-six twelve year olds acting rambunctious. Mariano, who has trekked alone for months on end through jungles that span countries, identified every bird for us, from its calls alone, and would quietly imitate them so as not to summon them with a false presence. Egrets and herons of all types roosted on branches, dove for fish and glided past us on pegasus-like wings as we boated through the jungle. The myth of the bluebird of happiness pales in comparison to just a glimpse of the fantastic Resplendent Quetzal bird, sometimes seen in the Cloud Forest at Monte Verde Preserve, where six or seven varieties of iridescent humming birds, speedy with their morning rush of sugar water and flower-nectar, fearlessly dive-bombed us while we tried to catch them with our way too-slow lenses.
The recreational activity level is just too overwhelming for details without writing a hundred pages. Zip-lining (the biggest, baddest one, with seventeen increasingly high up platforms to cables spanning the canopy, culminating in a Tarzan swing, a dead drop of about one-hundred and fifty feet of rope-swing over a jungle gorge) whitewater rafting between rock wall cliff over rapids and swimming in the lulls, and jumping off the cliffs into the still pools, swimming in the churning pool of fresh water under a giant span of waterfall in the rain, body-surfing and snorkeling in coral reefs, swimming in the pools where we stayed at Los Lagos filed with mineral hot-springs from a live volcano, visiting an educational organic farm and eating a five-star dinner consisting of the foods grown there, cooked on methane gas generated from the cow’s manure, seeing foot-long bugs and tiny, edible beetles (Maya ate one), friendly butterflies that rested on our noses, horseback riding with a posse of responsive and sure-footed steeds from a cooperative of vaqueros who rode along with us and their strong horses, who obediently walked, trotted, cantered and galloped over hill and through rivers, all without metal bits – just rope halters, and the high point for most — the on-the-beach-midnight-midwifery of the monolithic, leatherback sea turtles.
We witnessed these ancient mothers give birth in the sand, shed salty tears, and then sigh, perhaps knowing that their one-hundred and twenty or so eggs might produce only a few survivors, before returning wearily to the womb-like warmth of the dark sea.
What an amazing trip! The most bio-diverse country on the planet also has the best eco-preservation and even labor policies. Both nature and humanity are entirely respected and valued and it can be felt as soon as you step into the airport. PURA VIDA!
Pictures posted are mostly from a kindred soul and airport Yoga buddy. (Thanks again, Tammy), with some stock footage online.
Training t’ai chi in the mornings, on beaches, in the mountains, breathing in and merging with the atmosphere, made the delicious, communal breakfasts all the more scrumptious. There was a trance-like quality to the experience that I can’t shake and still feel when I do my forms. The beauty of t’ai chi is the way it allows you to assimilate the life-force energy of the environs in which it is practiced. Doing t’ai chi in Costa Rica, inspired by slow, articulate, deliberate movements of the sloth and the persistent, patient movements of the leatherback sea turtle, I felt closer to a higher concentration of raw nature in all its forms than I have ever before experienced. People there live so much closer to nature than we do. All of our technology and civilization, while bringing us information in an instant, has desensitized us to the natural world. We have so much to learn from this rich country and its wonderful people.
I can’t wait to return and share this awesome experience with as many students, colleagues, friends and family as is possible.
- Relating with a charming bunch of obstreperous, hopeful, romantic, adventuresome, thoughtful about-to-become young men and women … and their teachers and parents, of course.
- Peering into the dark night on the beach at Serafin Station, a sea turtle rescue and research station located on a Caribbean cove, where this giant, ancient species of warm-blooded reptiles have come for millennium to spawn. Watching and listening to her sighs as the Leatherback laid her eggs, filled the yard deep hole with sand with her back paddle fins, and slowly turning back towards the sea, disappearing into the dark surf.
- Learning that the young men who stealthily dug her nest behind her and then rescued her eggs so carefully were the same impoverished youths who once stole and sold her eggs, threatening her with extinction, now earning a right livelihood working at the station.
- Watching the Orinda kids (and Tony, of course) playing soccer in the field in front of the Bri-Bri village with the indigenous boys.
- Hiking down a jungle gorge and swimming under a waterfall in the warm rain.
- Meeting real vaqueros and their horses, and riding with them en masse, with no bits — just rope halters and reins — up and down a wide dirt road, through rivers and forested farms. My horse trying to hussle past Tim’s one-eyed horse in the last river at the base of the ranch, and Tim’s horse nervously twisting its rear end into my knee, which got shoved in the poor horse’s anus, causing him to rear up, and then mine to rear up. Actually this could be considered a low point of the trip, but no one got bucked off or hurt, so it was pretty funny. And I had on long pants.
- Watching Dylan suffer with a lazy horse who wouldn’t trot or gallop despite all his urgings. (karma!)
- Rafting gracefully (thanks to super-strong, adept guides) over rocky rapids, (talk about going with the flow!) between rock wall cliffs, (I did conk my head on the rocky cliff wall at one point, but the helmet did its job) and jumping into peaceful swimming holes. Jumping off the cliff into a swimming hole with arms down (because of life jackets), knifing into the water feet first.
- Snorkeling in coral reefs, diving down to see schools of beautiful children and fish swimming underwater together.
- Slipping quietly through the jungle in the boat to the turtle station while (howler) monkeys howled at us.
- Hearing “See you in the next life” and “I just started working here today” — from the dexterous, speedy zip-line guides on 17 consecutive platforms over the canopy as they quickly hooked up our harnesses and sent us flying.
- Hearing “Screaming Mimi” shrieking down the water-slide at Las Lagos and later filling the jungle with her unforgettable scream as she fell into the gorge and swung out on the Tarzan swing.
- Eating the most delicious ceviche, tilapia, chicken, platanos, yucca, and other local, unrecognizable species of vegetables at the outdoor buffet. Realizing that all of it was free range, local organic and grown on small farms, because we see them seamlessly integrated with the jungle. Guilt-free eating with no politics!
- Ducking and photographing (unsuccessfully) six species of dive-bombing humming birds at the Monteverde nature center with Matt and Carolyn.
- Singing a blues song in the mike on the bus, after the courageous caterwauling of a few other brave souls.
- Seeing Maya eat a tiny beetle from the live bug display in the preserve. (it was considered medicinal).
- Drawing Maya’s and Mimi’s portraits in the moist green and orange afternoon jungle light in the Serafin dining hall.
- Showering off the dirt and sweat from trekking through the jungle in the warm, dark evening rain at Serafin with my biodegradable REI soap and rinsing off under a spout of rain water rolling off mango leaves.
- Doing yoga at the airport between flights with a kindergarten teacher from Indiana named Tammy. Hearing how she is using meditation in the classroom to help her students.
PRE-DEPARTURE:I am in Costa Rica for the next ten days (4/1 through 4/11) with twenty-six twelve and thirteen year old science students. You can leave messages for me on the cell phone (925.818.8155), and I will get back to as soon as I get home. I will be training on the beach, and on mountaintops, and scoping out sites for the training retreat in August.
I am also exploring the idea of the Liberation Square/Pushing for Peace project for children in Costa Rica and Orinda. Orinda kids are getting turned on the Bri Bri and Costa Rican culture and sharing the same training in art and t’ai chi would create a unique bond for all participants.
Classes are running as usual, with David Tong teaching short form on Tu and Th mornings and Nico teaching short and long forms and Shaolin on Saturday mornings. Enjoy the Spring training and see you when I return!