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“A Leaf of Air”: From Milking the Cows to Milking the Tourists

Anne Dalke's picture
When we moved to Costa Rica, we moved from the cities of Antigua and Xela (where we’d been living in Guatemala)—to a very rural area, some four hours (two of them on dirt roads) from the capital. We quickly found out that all the addresses here are given in relative terms (the directions to our homestay were to go “50 meters north and 25 meters west of Pizzeria de Johnny”). We left cobblestones for dirt roads, cramped streets for wide vistas (oh, these sunsets!).

But my camera’s on the blink -- in a place where repairs and replacements are impossible -- and I feel naked without it, unable to create an archive of what I’m seeing --and, implicitly, of what I’m thinking about what I’m seeing (I found this cow, for instance, tethered to a pole alongside the PanAmerican Highway in Guatemala; most of the cows here in Costa Rica are Brahmin, who look very different…)

Earlier this week, Marielos (who was born in a family of milk cow farmers, but now teaches English to tourists like me) told me why and how the primary industry of this area converted from "milking cows to milking tourists." Her report was that--although the work now is physically easier, and physically cleaner--it is otherwise “just like farming: You don’t get Sundays off. You have to work every day. And you have to be very attentive. If you don’t give the Nordamericos what they want-and-are-looking-for, they’ll tell their friends to stay away--and you’ll lose all your business. They are just as finicky as the milk cows.” (Of course I’m sitting there feeling particularly persnickety…)

Costa Rica is advertised as the “Switzerland of Central America”—less for the cows, I think, than because it is a country without a standing army, with universal literacy, with an enlightened outlook on ecology…so I came here expecting something far different from Guatamala. But the reality seems to me not so different. This is a poor country (the decision to lay down the army seems to have been less philosophical than pragmatic—a dearth of resources). The roads are terrible. The schools are poorly funded; many children don’t go beyond the primary grades. The population is still largely rural, and ecological consciousness—about water quality, about recycling, about sustainable usage of resources in general—isn’t common in most homes.

Though of course, Marielos’ description of the life of her husband’s family in Nicaragua—a small dark home w/ a dirt floor, lacking water and electricity—is a good reminder of that poverty—like everything else—is always relative. Shaye (who as always, has interesting observations and questions--for instance, about my altering her comments to reflect not her questions, but my own), asked recently about deciding whether the new is worth the disruption/change it will inevitably bring, and about the preconceptions you, I, and other estranjeros bring wherever we are. Are these folks poor? … in what sense…In what are their lives rich? I found one answer in a Costa Rican story, Abel Pacheco’s “Deeper Than Skin,” which highlights the relativity of the meanings of “poor” and “rich”:

Juan Chac was rich: he had an immense jungle, he had corn, he had a magnificent river from which he took silver fish.…Juan Chac had corn liquor, he had a woman, he had seven valient Indian children. To the Indian he was rich. To the white he was poor: he didn’t have rum or a car or neckties, and he never traveled…. Our understanding of such matters is also quite relative. The mistakes we are making are just hilarious. Here’s one example: on a long walk the other day, we came upon a faucet alongside the road, protruding from a big sign reading “AyA.” Our first interpretation was that this was a construction of “Alcoholics Anonymous” (we’ve seen signs for many chapters, both in Guatemala and Costa Rica), providing “agua” for former alcoholics. Then we read the sign—“Acueductos y Alcantarillaos”--and decided that it marked the entrance to a retreat center nearby for actuaries and accountants. Marielos eventually set me straight: “AyA” is the national water company; the name refers to “aqueducts and sewers,” and there are plenty of controversies about their handling of both clean and used water….

Speaking of labored (and inaccurate) translations: only yesterday did I actually figure out why I’m in Monteverde. I really just wasn’t getting this place--it’s such a jumble of Swiss hotels and dusty roads, not very attractive or pleasant to be in (though the morning light is wonderful!) But last night we went on a guided evening tour through El Bosque Eterno de los Niños (Children’s Eternal Rainforest)--and then I got it.

Years ago, I had a book called Walk When the Moon is Full, which I used as a guide to monthly night hikes with my children, through all the seasons. We never saw any of the wonderful things described in the book, but some of those nights were still quite magical for us all. Our walk last night had many of the same qualities: the silence, the surprising noises, the new things you can see, when you’re looking and listening carefully in the night. Our guide had the naturalist’s excitement—“ Isn’t this beautiful! We are so lucky!”—which added a certain spice to the tarantulas, prehensile-tailed porcupines, hawks, other birds, and sloths he spotted—and highlighted--for us in the trees. This morning we spent another four hours exploring Reserva Biológica Bosque Nuboso Monteverde (Monteverde Cloudforest Reserve) on our own—it was similarly magical: including our emergence out of the moss-covered drippiness all around into the sunlight of the @ the Continental Divide, from which we could see the Gulf of Nicoya (on the Pacific Ocean).

What is most striking to me, so far, about these reserves, is the incredible cacophony of different forms: talk about bio-diversity! And—along with this grand variety—the way in which all my known categories for making sense of such diversity are getting stretched and turned around. For instance: that two-toed sloth we saw is a member of the armadillo family(?!). There's a bird song that sounds like a machine--a machine made of metal. So many of the trees have fallen over, and regenerated themselves: I can't tell the difference between trunks and branches. And the canopy is filled with “air plants” (or epiphytes), which get all their nutrients from air, mist and rain. Perhaps the most remarkable plant we’ve seen so far is the “strangler fig,” an epiphyte which takes care of the problem of fighting for light this way: its seeds, disseminated in bird feces, germinate on another tree (of any species), and begin to grow on top of it, then send down vines that, over time, “strangle” its host.

In other words, what seemed to me such a peaceful place, on our entry to this area a week ago, now appears to be a battle: there’s an ongoing struggle over which plant can grow strongest most quickly: the tree growing up, or the vines growing down….and, really—whoever wins, and it seems mostly to be the “stranglers”--the stacking and layering of vegetation in these reserves is phenomenal.

Which leads me (of course) into all sorts of philosophizing. I’ve had some trouble finding Costa Rican authors whose work is translated into English. In fact, all I’ve managed to put my hands on, so far, is a collection of short stories put together for tourists like myself, called Costa Rica: A Traveler’s Literary Companion. The story I mentioned above came from there. Another one, Joaquín Gutiérrez’s “A Leaf of Air,” makes a symbol out of physical reality; it takes off from the epiphytes to a meditation on the nature of life. In the story, a young boy describes a gift from his girlfriend:

“This is an hoja de aire, a leaf of air,” she said as she gave it to me. “Hang it by a thread where there is a wind and watch the tiny breezes being born”…in a few days each of its smallest lobes had sprouted a minuscule little bush, with tiny roots….it occurred to me how terrible it was to have to feed so many little leaves while living only on air, and I took a razor and cut it back to a single leaf that would grow stronger…even then it managed to produce another shoot smaller than itself…

A leaf of air, a grand dream from which are born other smaller dreams and from these, others even smaller, until we come to the last of all, the tiniest, which is where the wind begins. That is what my life is like, old friend, like a leaf of air.