Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Land Up North

Hello patient blog readers! It’s been almost a month since my last post, and for good reason: Nicaragua. For two weeks in mid-May, Nicole, Carolyn (Liner) and I traveled around the country of Nicas north of us. We miraculously made the capital city transit from San Jose to Managua in one day on a total of three buses. When the Ticabus stopped at the border, our passports were collected into a ziplock bag (gulp) as five “medical doctors” in white smocks and respirator masks slowly traveled the aisles of the bus asking us our names, ages, passport numbers and any “cold or flu symptoms.” The last column, unsurprisingly, contained only one repeated word: “no!”. Carolyn, who actually did have a cold, looked back at me with a panic stricken face, mouthing, “What do I do??” “LIE,” I whispered assuringly. She covered her coughs by clearing her throat many times for the prestigious “medicas,” and thus earned the nickname “Swiner Liner” for the remainder of the trip.

After a massive late night dinner in Managua, we slept well at a nearby hostel and the next day flew to the Corn Islands off the east coast of the country. While Nicole and a friend from home got their scuba certification, Liner and I chose a small, splatter-painted one room bed/bath/pooper accommodation right on the beach run by Gracie. We especially enjoyed the Ron Don seafood soup she made us, the rat that ate our freshly baked loaf of coconut bread, the mosquito net over our bed, and Adam, Gracie’s helpful nephew who, upon hearing we were thinking of taking a ferry ride to Rivas and then the bus back to Managua, told us nonchalantly that he puked for the entire nine hour ride as he sat surrounded by baskets of fish. During that week, we wandered the touristy pulperias in search of the biggest jar of peanut butter, found the best restaurant with the cheapest breakfast pinto, and spied on fish schools and sharks while snorkeling. We caught Frisbees in the surf, watched local boys of indigenous, Spanish and Carribean features play baseball like major leaguers, and listened intently to their Spanglish/Rasta/Carribean-accented trash talk. We explored the non-touristy north side of the island, getting lost, fearing cannibals, and finding our way back to town through forest, orange grove, and a baseball field surrounded with mango trees. We got disgusted by the amount of trash on the island, pondered the effect of tourists on the ecosystem and quality of life of the locals, and then chatted with an awesome local guy William about all of the above. It was a great week, except that it marked the end of Carolyn’s travels when she had to fly home because of a death in the family.

Nicole and I continued on alone, flying back to Managua and taxi-ing to Granada, a bright colonial city that still retains the aesthetic of its conquested past. The buildings wore different shades of tropical colors accented by white borders and church bells residing in massive churches seemed to greet us around every corner. Almost all the roofs of every building were beautiful orange tile, their dark, hardwood rafters highlighted by decorative rafter ends with “angry cane” reed ceilings and hanging plants. Bicycles abounded, and you were always seeing single bikes that contained multiple people: a father with his uniformed kindergarten son sleeping through the ride on the handlebars, a teen boyfriend/girlfriend combos grinning as the lady sat close to her boy on the top tube, a middle aged couple dressed nicely as if going out to dinner. We spent two days in Granada, wandering (I found a monastery/museum where Bartolome de las Casas, one of my most admired historical figures, lived), sitting in the central park to people watch (I accidentally got dog poopie on my foot while I was here and a kind one-armed man insisted on pouring water on it to help), finding great food (there was an indescribably beautiful moment where, in passing, without communicating verbally, I traded a pastry for a mango with an ancient thin-as-a-straw Granadan woman), walking down to Lake Nicaragua (and going to Mass on the way back), and spending the evenings in the backpacker haven that was our popular hostel, the Bearded Monkey (I met David from England, who, when I asked him to describe himself in three words, chose “kind sophisticated romantic,” which made sense since we proceeded to talk about God, love and best man speeches).

From Granada, Nicole and I bused down the West coast of Lake Nicaragua to the town of Rivas, and then took a small ferry over to the dual volcano island of Omatepe. We gave fake names and passport numbers to some more sketchy swine flu officials and then talked a taxi driver into a cheap fare to a beach on the isthmus that connects the two volcanoes of the island. We chilled on the beach for a day, attracting the unwanted attention of some Nicos who saw us dancing to Ranch music, and then bused to the north end of the island in search of the Volcan Conception. In the town of Moyogolpa we found Norman, a fantastic young local guy who led us up, explaining (in Spanish) about the white faced capuchin monkeys we saw in the trees, how his grandmother was around for the last eruption and how she uses guanacoste tree seed pods as soap. Luckily, it was windy, so the clouds and volcano gases parted for us to see an awesome view of the island and north coast towns. I enjoyed a big bowl of beef soup when we got down and we settled in for a nap on the plancha back to Rivas. The rest of the trip was uneventful…I bought some underwear two sizes too small in Rivas, we stayed at a smelly hostel where a smiling old woman named Soledad (picture on the right) entered our names in beautiful cursive into an ancient record book, and the following day we took a series of three buses and two taxis back to the Ranch.

What a trip! It was a whirlwind full of emotion as we dealt with unforeseen events on the trip and also processed the past five months we’ve spent at the inspiring, comfortable, challenging place that is Rancho Mastatal. By the next time I post, I’ll most likely be back in the States…can’t wait to see you all!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Sing, Paint, Write, Live!

When I try to describe the richness of life at the Ranch, some parts are easy to describe. I know folks can understand the thrill of building something useful, the sense of community that comes from cooking and eating great food together. But how to describe the overwhelming sense of creativity and innovation around this place? I´ve never experienced anything like it. In a hurried and small attempt to help yáll get a feel for how full our days are with imagination breaking into reality, here´s “A Smattering of Days in the Creative Life”:

Friday: It’s always amazed me that at places like Yestermorrow and the Ranch, folks infuse artistry into their work as well as their play. Today, Carolyn and Nicole are in the library with colored pencils and glue, drawing up cards for a memory game they will play with the local elementary school kids on Monday. Jodee is touching up the octopus mural she crafted on the wall of the Cork. Taggert is jubilantly removing a deliciously deep concrete sink from the sand mound he molded it with. Junior and Alex are stripping the bark off the live edge on the reddish-gold tropical cedar boards they’ll use to make a bookshelf for the classroom. Geoff is planting peanut grass and palms next to the curvy drainage ditches he dug that snake away from the Cork to prevent erosion. And Rachel is patching the spot in the cob oven that has fallen away by sculpting one of our cats in hot pursuit of a lizard. As folks roll into the main house from their various places of work to wait for dinner, Nate spreads out an old canvas on a table in the library, puts Tchaikovsky on the CD player, and folks gather around to doodle and paint. I’ll have to take pictures of this canvas…or sneak it into MOMA.

Saturday: University of Washington students are here, and since they have the day off, several of them volunteer to cook dinner with me. None of us have cooked Thai before, but we begin to whip up curries, mango salads, bean fritters and sauces with gusto, figuring out tropical substitutions for whatever ingredients we don’t have. Meanwhile, other folks are nurturing their spirits on their afternoon off: Nicole paints a watercolor in the library; Nate starts on a cutting board made of bright purple, yellow and speckled white and brown hardwoods; Red and Anne construct costumes for Sole’s Fable, a video that Sparky and Maxine are making to give Tim and Robin’s baby lessons in morality. As folks filter through the kitchen, the music gets pumped up, the Christmas lights turned on, and soon there are ten people jamming and hip swinging, chopping and frying to a playlist that reminds me very much of Murray, my fratastic hip-hop loving younger brother. The feast is served, and we’re able to celebrate another rejuvenating Saturday.

Easter Sunday! While the kitchen is buzzing with folks creating an amazing Easter brunch, Alan, Nicole and I head to the church for a recording session of Al’s new song “Hope for the Flowers”. The main Easter service was the previous night, so we have the church—decked out in palms and tropical flowers—to ourselves. Alan, along with others, wrote this song for his friend Trina, a radical Catholic lady from Jersey who wrote a simple but powerful book many years ago about flowers, butterflies, and transformation. The book has been a wild success over the years, and since it’s going to be a movie, it needed a theme song. Alan and I sing it as a duet, many times over, in the church this morning…what a perfect way to worship, to celebrate the life-from-death story of the Lenten and Easter season. After the recording session, we go back to the Ranch for some good eats (mango scones!) and an Easter egg hunt. Each egg containse a mandate—ranging from “Tell us what you like best about your mom” to “Perform an ancient fire dance and chant” to “Sing Happy Birthday in an Arnold Shwarzennager voice.” Whoda thunk that Easter morning could be giddily fun even without copious amounts of processed sugar? J

Monday: Birthday of Robin (co-founder of the Ranch with husband Tim)! Plus Geoff and Sparky´s last day at the Ranch. The convergence of these two important events unleashes a cacophony of creativity. The day starts when Nate, myself, Chris and others create a breakfast masterpiece for Robin including Spinach Strata and homemade mango chocolates flourished with edible flowers and leaves from the garden. The staff-intern crew grabs percussive instruments and marches single file toward the Choza, Robin and Tim´s house, where we spy Robin and Sole grinning down at us like Rapunzel y Rapunzelita from a window of their house. Later that evening as the sun sets, we gather up at the Cork for a serenade of original songs. We move the party back to the Choza after dinner where the singing continues and Robin is gifted with homemade watercolor birthday cards and a sleeping baby, which allows her to enjoy the evening. Adding to the magic of the evening is the fact that Robin and Tim designed the Choza themselves and built it with the help of many hands: we sit on a deck made of bamboo slats that shoot outward like the sun, glance up at a stained glass window made by Alan, lean against an arched doorway crafted with love.

Tuesday: I always thought that singer-songwriters popped out of the womb belting out the masterpieces they crafted themselves. But since being at the Ranch, all that’s changed. Here there are songwriters around every corner who are also gardeners, carpenters, firemen, fathers. Apparently you don’t have to be wearing hip clothing, sitting alone, melancholic, in your trendy studio apartment in a grand city to write a song—my friends here write songs in poo stained work shirts on the front porch, on the ping pong table, fiddling and laughing and figuring, and finally, sharing. So on this particular morning, when I woke up with lyrics to a chorus running through my head, I knew I had to try. I walked up to the Cork and somehow scribbled a whole song in the thirty minutes before breakfast. I debuted to a couple friends right before we ate our pinto and vegan pancakes. What a soul-freeing, intimate experience to write and then sing your very own song! I have been singing other people’s songs for years and very much enjoying it, but to feel your own soul coming through your throat and fingers and eyes, and to have others connect with it is other-worldly. I can’t wait to share it with y’all.

So there you go, five days in the life—in my life. I hope and pray I’ll never forget how much richer my world can be when I allow it to be infused with creativity and artistic expression.

Pura vida, friends!

Saturday, April 18, 2009


Yes, it´s continued to be a phenomenal several weeks here at the Ranch. Don´t have time for a full post now, but a couple quick updates via photos:

I almost stepped on this, but my tico (Costa Rican) friend Gino warned me in the nick of time.

Apparently this is the ¨small one¨...we´re going to see the big ones in a couple weeks.

I´ve been doing lots and lots of singing lately, and a little song writing too. The famous Al Smith and I recorded an original song called ¨Hope for the Flowers¨(based on the book--its in the OConnor room at the Farm) in the church on Easter Sunday, and have been working on some others...what a joy.

Ranch folk enjoying a carnival after an away soccer game.

And the shitter is finally up! Look at those gorgeous rafters...

That´s all from me for now. Love you all!

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Back by popular demand (meaning I thought it’d be nice) I’m posting another poem in this entry. But first, I’ll hit some of the highlights from the past couple weeks:

The Pacific Coast Beach Trip. Funny how sometimes you don’t realize you need a retreat until you’re gifted with one and come back to normal life so rejuvenated. I had gotten into a funk for some reason, probably having to do with the fact that I hadn’t left Mastatal for a whole two months. Three days of full team beach volleyball, sand dollar findin’, wave riding, pizza eating, journaling, emailing family and friends, and reading “Eat Pray Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert, did the trick. We’ve all come back to the Ranch with a vengence, working our (metaphorical in some cases) balls off and wondering aloud at how clearly we see the beauty of this place and the people in it.

The 1st Annual Cork Festival! On the evening of first day of spring (the spring equinox), we all trooped up to the Cork, the new wattle and daub residence under construction, to participate in and enjoy a music festival. Wine, homemade mead and Imperial flowed freely, and we sat on cinderblocks and boards next to the octopus mural as the mountains behind the stage faded into nighttime. There were skits and poetry readings about circuses and rich men, and songs about blueberry picking and personals ads. Yours truly was in two acts: Angel From Montgomery (John Prine) sung by five of the female interns in three part harmony, and a solo act, a cover of the Avett Brother’s “Murdered in the City.” Everyone got a bit sloshed, real affectionate, and quite verbose about our gratitude for each other’s creativity. What a wonderful night.

El Baile Segundo! This past weekend was the second dance in Mastatal since I’ve been here. As happened the last time, Ranch folks went to pick up the generous pig, who made quite a scene in the truck and in front of the community building before it was slaughtered, screaming and emptying its bowels. It definitely knew it was going to die, and it’s a humbling experience to be a part of that sacrifice, to see where your sustenance is coming from. All day Saturday folks were at the community center (a single floor tiled basketball court with a kitchen) cooking tamales and the “cerdo” (pig). By 10 pm Saturday night, the gym was full, and the DJ was mixing the music, which has absolutely no breaks—one song just flows into the next for hours upon hours, and somehow you’re jiving to a remix of “If You’re Going to San Francisco” that flows seamlessly into twenty minutes of reggaetone and then on to thirty minutes of fast, traditional Latin American music. Let me tell you, these Latin men know how to dance…and so do us gringos, except that we are doing goofy angular things with our legs and holding flip flops to our ears as if they were telephones, while the Latin men’s style is simply…hot. So it was a late night/early morning for us Ranchers, who work and play hard but are usually in bed by 10. So worth it!

Yestermorrow Natural Building Class. As I’ve been telling y’all, my fellow intern Anne and I have been building a shitter up at the Cork. Once upon a time, we were both interns at Yestermorrow Design Build School (different years) and we’ve taken to calling each other simply “Erann” to express the commitment we have to each other and to our work. Well, Erann had the opportunity to co-teach a timberframing workshop to the Yestermorrow class that came down from Vermont for a two-week natural building class. What a rush to be able to design a timberframe, teach it, cut it, trouble-shoot it and eventually raise it. Erann are both heartily enjoying the experience. The class has left and we still have a bit more to do before raising day in a couple days. It was also great for us both to see one of our favorite instructors from Yestermorrow, Lizabeth Moniz, a spunky corker of a woman who’s been a builder for many years, rode her horse through the fields of McLean, VA before it was all condominiums, and is super fun to shoot the shit with after work hours are over.

Honestly, I could write a paragraph about every day at this place, which, especially in the past month, has really fed my soul and inspired me. So that’s why I’m staying until early June! Many of the interns head out this month, but I’m feeling that I have more to contribute and learn, so after traveling around Costa Rica and Nicaragua for a couple weeks in May, I’ll be back for another month before the new rainy season interns arrive. I’m still pondering where to go and what to do for the summer back in the states (yup, I’m still planning only in seasonal increments), and suggestions are welcome. Love you all, and enjoy the latest:

Can Coconuts Be Composted?

“Can coconuts be composted?” he wonders aloud.
“Just chuck them in the jungle,” we reply.
So gloriously normal they’ve become
The strange things we say and do in this place.

Ladders cobbled together from scrap wood and old nails
Carpenter’s squares so rusty the numbers have given up trying to assert their existence
Cookbooks only a few years old molding and decrepit, mummified in duct tape.
We cut bamboo with machetes, plug screws with purple heart, and hand plane tropical cedar and pelon—
All the while shirtless or shoeless or calves bared –
Or all of the above.
Absent is the plywood, the Ikea shelves, the plush couches
Replaced by overwhelming inspiration
Gained from imagining the number of fingers and brain cells
That have labored to create the tables I sit at.

Mango and papaya and avacado are for breakfast
Yucca and chiote and hand thrown tortillas for supper
Starfruit in the backyard and cilantro in the front.
We romance the vanilla vine by pollinating it ourselves,
We help the poop and banana peels and eggshells feed the soil and fill our plates.
A magic jar of yogurt appears on the counter every morning
And sugar comes brown and crystallized, wrapped in banana leaves.

A six inch long scorpion on the wall by my bed
Takes a break from his lunch of a four inch long grasshopper
And all I can do is yawn.
Cold showers, leaves tickling knees, stones underfoot
And the forest to stare at instead of grout and tiles.
Breathing, sleeping, heart-beating with the out of doors
As lacking walls and window panes will do.

We make a habit of gawking, of staring, of telling work and play to hold on a minute
Until that ant finishes dragging his tarantula home,
Until that neon green lightening bug finishes his meal in the compost bin,
Until the birds stop their morning gossip
Until I can make out the face that belongs to the long, furry, striped black and brown tail
That curls up and down a near tree as I sit on the shitter and watch.

Gloriously normal
Normally strange
And yes, coconuts can be composted
It just takes a really long time.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Watch Out: The Booger Gets Introspective

Amigos! What a beautiful week it has been. The other interns and I agree—we’ve all hit stride. We’ve gotten into a groove with our projects, whether it be building a shitter, going into the elementary school to sing “heads-shoulders-knees and toes!” with the 18 kid multi-age classroom, or sculpting a huge octopus on a mud-built wall. But more so than projects, we’re hitting stride in our relationships with each other. We’re getting to know each others personalities and patterns. We’ve forgiven each other more than once and expressed appreciation for moments of patient instruction and creative hilarity. We’ve dance partied in the kitchen to Old Crow Medicine Show and MIA, we’ve mooned each other, cut each other’s Mohawks, bathed each other’s sunburn in aloe and yoga-ed together at 6 am. We’ve worked through vastly different communication and planning styles to complete challenging projects. And we’re still learning about each other, discovering in our midst the Washington State track champion, the flamenco guitarist, the calm one in the midst of a scorpion bite or sliced finger, the songwriters and stand-up comics. We’ll all be sad to leave the community we’ve formed.

As far as my future after this place, I’m keeping the eyes of my heart and ears of my soul open (is that sufficiently vague for y´all?).  The past year has been one of self-reflection and learning, of placing myself in simultaneously familiar and intimidating situations for short term projects. With Vermont and the Ranch, I left the support and safety of living in a Christian community. After the initial excitement of a new place faded a bit, I was faced with stunningly diverse and gorgeous people who value many things I value (creativity, conservation, community, carpentry…all those great “c” words), but who oftentimes hold vastly different morals, worldviews or motivations than I. As a great seeker of meaning in both the large and the small, I take everything to heart. My brain and soul take in all of these new people, new ideas and new experiences. After mulling them over, my mind and spirit combo revisit my current beliefs, values and understanding of the world, like a writer going back to a manuscript that she’s been writing bit by bit all her life. And just as that writer scribbles out new plotlines, unexpected character developments and poetic flourishes that she didn’t even know existed in her creative consciousness when she started, so the novel of my soul gets rewritten and taken in new directions that I marvel at. As I´m sure you can all affirm in one way or another, it’s an exhilarating, emotional, scary, giddy, transformative process to continually try to take in a world that’s always becoming bigger and richer. It’s also addictive! A poem I wrote as I was journaling several weeks ago helps to explain a bit more why I think I’m attracted to these places that don’t provide a comfort zone of homogeneity that I’ve known before:

“A fish out of water,”
Some would call me.
Maybe so, but I can’t resist diving in.
I’m addicted to these strange waters
Newness and differentness
Pang and revelation
I relish
And I sink.

I relish the diversity, the feeling of my soul and heart opening, flexing, beating to cadences other than my own.
I sink under the weight of difference, of perceived or real ostracization.
I relish the opportunity to reinvent myself, to reintroduce my personality, to start anew.
I sink as I pigeonhole myself, as I realize I am not who I want to be.
I relish those moments of connection when I and another listen to each others’ souls, speaking honestly of dissimilar lives.
I sink under the fear that I will be misunderstood, that the most unusual and radical parts of myself will be scorned and shunned.

“Perhaps,” I think sometimes, “I should keep to my own.”
But as soon as I think it
Oceans grow smaller
And the world shrinks—
But it shrinks nonetheless.

So that’s where I’m at right now, navigating the emotional roller coaster that is my exploration of the world and of God. I often get very frustrated that I’m not a more easygoing, laidback, even keeled explorer. Why do I have to feel everything? And though I’m getting better at letting go, I’m also learning to accept who I am. I’m a free-spirit, but as my older brother declared wryly one day as I hashed out life’s most recent revelations and frustrations, I’m the most high-strung free-spirit he’s ever met. So I’ll keep feeling, keep striving, keep growing, keep seeking. I’ll mull things over often with my God and that hippie, peace and love son of his. I’ll glow over the lessons learned and the kim chi eaten and the laughter belted out and the costumed sushi nights. I’ll stay connected to my Christian community through letters and emails and solidarity and prayer. I’ll most likely keep hopping from place to place with my eyes wide open until one location or person or mission shouts for me to stop a take a load off. And God will continue to write on my soul like a manuscript that’s soft around the edges from so much editing and doodling on and adding to. Good think he’s one of my favorite authors.

Thanks for reading, friends! Buenas noches…

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Over the River and Through the Woods

I promised an update on the work-weekend at Ana and Juan's, so here it is, once again in newsletter article format: (unfortunately my pictures don't want to upload, so check flickr for pics related to this post)

Ana and Juan Luis live on an isolated a cow pasture in a two-story modest stick frame house set upon the scenic mountainside of San Vicente. After several years of subsistence farming, this hardworking family decided that Juan Luis would get a part-time job in San Jose as a security guard and gardener. The extra income and formal employment allows Ana and Juan to obtain health insurance and send their daughter to a boarding school in nearby Puriscal. Though they have to live with relatives in San Jose, they luckily inherited the land that their cow pastures and home stand on. So though their home is a 20-30 minute hike from the road and lacked walls, a ground floor, electricity and running water, they proudly set up house for half the week there.

The Ranch got to know Ana and Juan when the Ranch’s Solar Energy Institute installed a small solar panel on their roof to power four light bulbs. Ranch interns Britt, Taggert, Erin and Carolyn visited the family to see how the installation was working (great!) and to see if there was anything else that the interns might be able to help with. Ana expressed concerns about the lack of protection inside the house from the torrential downpours of the rainy season, as well as the oppressive smoke created by her cooking situation, which was essentially a campfire inside shielded from the wind by some sheet metal. Unfortunately the sheet metal also made it more difficult for the smoke to escape. Thus two projects were born: create a more private and protected space upstairs with walls and by framing out a new room for Ana’s teenage daughter, and build a “rocket stove.” A rocket stove greatly reduces the smoke emitted and amount of fuel inputted by using a 5 or 6 inch L-shaped stovepipe (see link). We decided to encase the stovepipe in cob so that when the pipe burned out, the stove would still be intact and usable.

The planning process involved many trips over the river, through the woods and up the mountain to talk with Ana. The hike up to the house was always eventful in one way or another. We saw a sloth and an iguana, a Jesus Christ lizard (walks on water!) and a huge terciopela snake skeleton. After the big windstorm we also saw hardly any of the trail, which meant a trail maintenance day before the big work weekend. Over the course of several weeks of treks up to Anna’s to plan and get to know them, we were treated to all sorts of unexpected “comida tipica,” that felt more like exotic and gourmet fare for us: a baklava-like coconut filling, red beans with plantains, pork, chicken, pinto, sausage and potatoes, tortillas, baloney sandwiches and refrescos of all flavors. We also learned new vocab words like “toro” to replace our own butchered versions (“vaca hombre” kept us laughing for weeks).

About a week into our planning, we were happy to find out that the 15 students in the month-long Aerie Backcountry Medicine EMT class were psyched to help us during a work weekend. Thus our planning focused on the big weekend and finishing with a smaller crew early the next week. When the big weekend arrived, the students worked their medically trained butts off. Saturday’s crew hauled an obscene amount of wood and tools up to the house, and then got to work with gusto, deconstructing the existing stove and dancing up a cob mix for the new one. The wall crew got into a rhythmic groove of measuring, cutting, joking and hammering. Juan Luis ran around setting up ladders and sawing boards. Sunday’s rocket stove crew sat in a circle around the stove, cobbing and singing the day away. By the end of the weekend, over half the work had been completed, and Dr. Love had volunteered to build shutters for one of the new windows. Anna and Juan repeatedly expressed their gratitude, saying they didn’t know gringos (non-Central Americans) could work as hard as ticos (Costa Ricans)! After two more days of work the following week by Ranch volunteers and interns, the building was complete, with characteristic Ranch love infused into details like the smoothly sanded guanacoste sills upstairs, the live wood window-shutter handle and the spirit tree sculpted into the cob surface of the rocket stove.

Many thanks, again, to the Mastate Charitable Foundation for funding the project, and to all the Aerie students and Ranch regulars who flexed their muscles to go over the river and through the woods to Juan and Ana’s.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Bombera Booger!

Hey folks…it’s been awhile, eh? I’m writing this from our baking table where I sit, shirtless and sweating, next to our fired up cob oven. Today I’m the “bombera”, the fire-lady, because today is baking day! The cob oven was one of the first things Robin and Tim built when they arrived in Mastatal seven years ago and we’ve been baking bread in it ever since. The dome shaped oven is made from a clay/sand/straw/water mixture called cob. After building and stoking the fire inside it for five hours this morning, I’ll scrape all the embers out. The heat built up in it’s walls and brick floor will be enough to bake all our sourdough bread and bagels for the week in three hours in the afternoon. We’ll celebrate the end of baking day tonight by eating the majority of the bagels for dinner, topped with delectable delights such as egg salad, carmelized onions, pesto, fresh veggies, hummus, and homemade mayo and barbeque sauce.

Food is a huge part of life at the Ranch. Two to four people are in the kitchen pretty much non-stop from 9 am til 7 pm cooking all our meals. Us interns take three 3-5 hour cooking shifts per week and four dishes shifts. Sometimes when you’re on dinner shift, Kattia and Laura, our hired cooks from town, have the menu planned and tell you what to chop and when to chop it. Other times, inexplicably, you’re the one in charge of telling them! Such was the case this Tuesday—Shrove or Fat Tuesday. In honor of the day before Lent, I decided to cook a feast (some of your eyes are widening, I’m sure). After consulting dozens of moldy cookbooks (paper products fail miserably in the humidity) and with Laura’s help, we pulled it off! The spread included spicy Mexican Showboat Huevos Diablos (deviled eggs), salad with honey mustard dressing, and bammy cakes (pulverized yucca and onion fried both sides in a skillet) with an array of toppings including dill mayo, marinated tomatoes and jam. Everything was a completely made from scratch hit—and I enjoyed every minute of the cooking! What a surprise. For dessert, Anne and Carolyn made us almond macaroon bars, two of which contained a lucky metal washer. The recipient would get special good luck during the Lenten season for all their personal growth resolutions. Sam found the first macaroon washer, but the second was MIA and with only four bars left, Anne was sure she’d just galvanized someone’s intestines. Luckily Nicole raised her washer in triumph just as we were about to express concern.

Cooking at the Ranch is just plain different—both because we’re in the tropics and because we strive for a whole food, healthy, vegeterian diet. Because we’re in Costa Rica, I daily enjoy fruits like papayas, pineapple, starfruit, custard fruit [in picture above] and guadabana, starchy potato subsititues like choites and yucca, and ¨tipica¨ dishes like empanadas (corn flour half circle pies filled with beans, cheese, etc.), tortillas, fruit and tomato salsas, pinto (rice and beans), and fried plantains. When I say whole foods, I mean fresh, as in, beans dried on tarps in our neighbor’s front yard and brought to our door, bananas and starfruit cut down from behind the Hankey where I live, cheese and milk from down the road, and pestos and salsas made from the cilantro, basil, tomatillos and cherry tomatoes in our garden out front. All of the food not from the garden comes from within a 200 mile radius of the Ranch. There’s actually a coffee farmer near Puriscal who grows coffee solely for the Ranch…yup, we’re addicted. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a can of food around this place, except on sushi night when someone found an ancient can of tuna and put it on the table as a garnish just to freak us out.

There are other strange and wonderful things we do here at the Ranch kitchen. Since butter is so expensive, we use margarine but first heat it in a skillet first to separate the ¨ghee¨ from the harmful byproducts of poor quality fats like margarine. Then we use the ghee like butter. Refined sugar is also very expensive, so we use tapa dulce, which is the purest part of the sugar cane and comes in patties wrapped in banana leaves. We boil them down with a little water until they become a lovely sweet syrup. This makes baking quite different since all our sugar is in liquid form. Also a staple at the Ranch is keifer, which is similar to yogurt. We simply have the keifer ¨bug¨, a cottage cheese consistency bacteria, in a gallon glass jar, and each day we add lukewarm milk, cover tightly with a cloth, and wait til morning, when it becomes a yogurty consistency with even more beneficial bacteria than yogurt. It´s magic! It´s also got that fermented kick to it which makes it a bit of an adjustment, but soon you´re addicted to your fruit, granola and keifer parfait in the mornings.

That´s all from me and the kitchen. An update is coming soon on how the project at Anna and Juan´s went, and most likely something about the baile we´re having tonight. Much love to all of you!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Una Tormenta Perfecta

Hola again! I´ve got bad news and good news. The bad is that somehow I deleted all of the photos I was going to upload just now, thus the photo stolen from the Ranch website of two of the awesome gals I get to hang out with daily--Anna, daughter of two amazing instructors who are staying here for the month, and baby Sole, daughter of Tim and Robin, the Ranch´s founders. The good news is that I have another entry, this one on the crazy windstorm we experienced last week. So here´s the Rancho Mastatal Newsletter article I wrote up:

It made the front page of the Washington Post and the New York Times—two days in a row. CNN did on-site, real-time reporting round the clock within an hour of its onset. The Discovery Channel is coming out with a four part miniseries next month that will detail each nail biting, eye-widening twist and turn. And Oprah is flying out to assess the damage. Yup, the world watched with bated breath last week as a two-day windstorm racked Costa Rica, sending its worst to Mastatal.

Well, perhaps international “bated breath” is a bit of an exaggeration, but Mother Nature’s tantrum certainly demanded all of the Ranch’s energy for over 48 hours. The wind started to pick up Wednesday morning, and by the late afternoon, we were wishing we had a turbine in the front yard. As dinner preparations were underway and students were still arriving for the beginning of the month long Emergency Medical Technician course, the power flickered off and on, finally cutting out altogether.

That first night was an experience unlike any other. The afternoon winds had whisked away most of the moisture we’ve become accustomed to, leaving us in need of copious amounts of lotion, chapstick, and beer. We stood in the front yard as the wind whipped around us, entranced by an almost full moon surrounded by faint clouds and a circular rainbow of colored light. As folks started toward bed, snooze time was delayed by the need for chainsaws and muscles to cut and haul trees out of the road and off roofs.

Over in the Hankey, us interns nuzzled under the covers around 9:30 hoping to sleep through the madness. After an hour or so of what sounded like a combination tsunami and papaya attack on the roof, the folks in the upper floors and more exposed areas hauled mattresses and bedding to the main floor. But even this comforting slumber party was interrupted when normally calm Britt issued some less than loving words to a scorpion who had blown in and bitten her. A swift, Patton-like maneuver involving water bottles and broom handles ensued to dispatch the confused aggressor. Needless to say, it was a long night for all Ranchers. Sam and Alan, bunking in the main house, frantically tried to secure the shutters as the contents of the jungle were being blown inside. Instructors Dave and Andrea moved themselves and their two daughters out of the normally magical tree-house atmosphere of the Hooch and into Jeannie’s. Folks in Jeannie’s wondered if their own roof would hold as they heard the roofs of the drying pavilion and garden shed being torn apart. It was a strange night of mixed emotions: awe, fright, excitement and exhaustion.

The next day as the sun rose and the wind died down for a bit, we were stunned by the views. First, the famous La Cangreja mountain was unusually visible from almost anywhere on the property because of the vast amounts of downed leaves and trees. Secondly, everyone noticed how confused the wildlife was—Carolyn saw four (typically shy) monkeys in plain sight, and everyone commented on the multitude of strange, displaced spiders and flying bugs that seemed to make a beeline for our bodies. The destruction was even more evident though in the sad views of the Ranch’s property and Mastatal in general: whole roofs had been ripped off of many buildings (including a friend who had even tied his down to his car), a neighbor’s chicken coop was destroyed, all of the Ranch’s olive green awnings flapped freely in their new torn and mangled state, our friend Mario’s biodigester had been punctured, and trees dangled precariously on power lines. The wind blew towels, t-shirts and toothpaste out of our homes and into the forest for the lizards to enjoy, and our poor dry gardens were now heating up even more under a quilt of leaves.

Luckily, no one in the area was seriously hurt, even with similar conditions during the day and night on Thursday, including the loss of water added to no electricity. As folks at the Ranch are apt to do, though, we made the best of it. Kattia, Laura and helpers cooked delicious mac and cheese, pinto and pea soup despite rough kitchen conditions. We dove into Ranch cleanup and regular projects with gusto. And in the evenings of those two memorable days, songs from voices and guitars floated from the main house into the breezy beyond as we gave our best shot at coaxing the storm to sleep.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Gracias a la Madre de la Tierra, y Buen Provecho!

Right before digging into a big dinner at the Ranch, these are the words that float out into the jungle from our cob-floored dining room. Everyone looks forward to this way in which we end our full days: all staff, volunteers, students and guests gathering along both sides of a long caravan of hand-made tables, hands joined, glancing with gratitude at faces illuminated by palm oil candles and the glow of our new LED Christmas lights, perhaps sharing aloud thanks, hopes, instances of learning and humor from a full day. The moments of silence in between allow our world to sink in; the essence of chisels and lumber, rebar and dirt rubs itself into biceps and knuckles, a pleasant conversation hangs lightly on the crook of my arm, and revelations playfully tousle sunbleached hair before resting warmly upon my head.

It’s good to be here, folks. Things are rolling along, and I’m simultaneously settling in and steppin’ out. Thought you’d be interested in our daily schedule and the building where I sleep, so here are some pictures of “The Hankey” as we call it. Most of the Ranch’s buildings don’t have traditional floor to ceiling walls; none have mechanical ventilation or air conditioning units. The Hankey is a fine example of this. It’s built on a slope, and its structural members are round timbered teak logs, stripped and drawknifed by hand. The floor is hand-planed tropical cedar boards, each of the screws meticulously plugged with a dark hardwood. So many creative minds have etched their visions in the Hankey, from the flower mosaic sink and the bamboo/cedar shelf Sam and I just made, to the hand sewn privacy curtains and the bas relief tree on the main entry wall. One of the the Hankey’s long sides faces a main path, so an undulating cob half wall (which my bed is adjacent to) gives us a bit more privacy. The south-east facing back side is completely open to the forest, which delivers us sun rays strained through banana leaves and palm branches at about 5:45 every morning. Most of us get up shortly thereafter, reading, doing yoga or helping prepare breakfast, which is from 7 to 8. Then is a staff meeting, work, lunch, and knocking off sometime between 4:30 and 5:30 in order to play a bit before the sun sets around 6. Dinner is around 7, which leaves time for dominoes, ping pong, Balderdash or guitar pickin’ before folks start dropping like fruit flies into their beds around 9:30 or 10. We typically end up working 6 days a week, with Sundays as the big day off. Ah, what a satisfying way to fill a week.

Since it’s been a month since we arrived, we interns are now pretty familiar with the daily and weekly tasks—the soap making and bread baking, the garden watering, compost attending to, and of course, several meal shifts per week in which we spend 4-6 hours per meal making everything from scratch. So now that we’re comfortable with the necessities, we’ve chosen other projects to focus in on. With fellow intern Anne (also an ex-Yestermorrow intern), I’m designing the foundation system and timberframe for an outdoor bathroom up at a new residence we’re building called The Cork. The small structure will be covered by a single pitch shed roof, and will include a double vaulted composting toilet, a plumbed cold-water shower, and a plumbed sink. Luckily one of the main builders of the Cork is a mason, an easygoing, huge muscle of a man named Geoff. Geoff spends the winters here every year, and is a great teacher. The pictures of this project show that we’ve dug out the ground for a poured concrete pad as well as for a couple piers. Right now we’re in the process of contructing the wooden forms along with bamboo and rebar reinforcement.

A second focus for me has become a community outreach project at the home of Juan and Anna and their two pre-teen daughters. Anna and Juan live with family a couple days a week near Puriscal (about 2 hours away), where Juan works as a security guard. The other days they live on their rural farm near Mastatal, which is quite a hike from the main road through cowpastures and streams and hillsides. Their house is a simple two story stick frame structure, about 20’X20’ with an A-frame tin roof and no walls. The Ranch just included them in a sustainable energy institute course we hosted, which installed a small solar panel that provides them with enough electricity for four light bulbs. With fellow interns Britt, Taggert and Carolyn, I’ll be organizing a work weekend for a Ranch student group in which we’ll install siding and walls upstairs and a better wood-fired cookstove downstairs. We’ve been researching a lot of stove designs based on the rocket stove model, which, described very simply, is a fire of small tinder and twigs burning in the horizontal part of an insulated L shaped 5” stove pipe. The pot is placed directly on top of the stovepipe. The design has proved extremely successful in developing nations because it requires far less wood and creates far less smoke than an open campfire. Anna’s kitchen is currently in a corner of the bottom floor which she has partially enclosed with scrap tin roofing to keep out the wind and rain. She makes an open fire on top of a concrete topped table. The smoke is definitely detrimental to her health, so we’re all excited to build something more efficient, whether it is a metal rocket stove or a similar multi-burner stove with cob or sand and clay.

That’s all from me for now. Feel free to drop me a line via email, facebook or the comment option on this blog. As always, I think of y’all often and can’t wait to give you a big booger hug in a couple months!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Contact Info

To reach me at the Ranch, the best way is email. Of course, I´m a big snail mail fan, but realize that it takes 3 weeks and a trip to Puriscal for us, so probably more like a month. Also, don´t send a package bigger than a shoebox or else we have to go all the way to San Jose and pay by the day for them to store it. But I still love mail!! :) So send it to:

Erin Campbell
Rancho Mastatal
Apdo 185-6000
Puriscal, San José

Also, the Ranch´s website is Lot´s of great photos and info there.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Erin En Mastatal!

Hello from Rancho Mastatal! Yes, I got here safely, flying into San Jose only a couple hours after an earthquake hit the city. It’s mind-boggling to think that I’ve been here for two weeks already—the time has flown by. So a bit more about the place I now call home: the Ranch is a sustainable living and retreat center founded by two former peace corp volunteers about 7 years ago. Tim and Robin bought 600 acres in this rural village, which is a very bumpy 1.5 hour drive northwest to Puriscal and another hour after that to San Jose. We’re only about 7 miles from the west coast of the Costa Rica, but apparently it takes over an hour to get there!

While most of you in the states are currently pulling on wool socks and wishing you could crank up the thermostat without dad noticing, Costa Ricans are enjoying their summer, the dry season. In the rainy season, which is about May through November, there’s only a couple of hours every morning before hard rain sets in for the rest of the day. So during this drier time, the kids are off school, the farmers are working hard, and we at the Ranch are building our hearts out and hosting many educational groups. For the most part, classes are facilitated by outside groups, while the Ranch provides meals and lodging, and facilitates class projects that can improve the Ranch and Mastatal. For example, the recent renewable energy course installed solar panels on several homes in the village, and an upcoming natural building course will help build a composting toilet for the Ranch. The most recent group we hosted was a 10 day medical rescue course in wilderness first response. On the last day, the interns and staff staged a “mass casualty incident” that the students did their best to respond to. At about 6 am upon hearing shrieks from the river below the ranch, the students rushed down to discover about 15 gravely injured hikers who had fallen from the mountain path above during an earthquake. My hysterical “daughter” Anna (one of the instructor’s kids with quite a flare for drama) and I were the first to greet them, demanding care for our broken arms and help to look for another family member. The students (who told us they felt genuine stress during the course of the event) proceeded to spend the next 4.5 hours finding, calming, diagnosing, treating and evacuating folks with internal bleeding, eviscerated organs, broken pelvises, shock and hypothermia. And after all that, they had to sit down and take a written exam. Wow!

In a way, I feel like mornings such as that are commonplace here at the Ranch. There’s always something new to learn, something creative to be a part of, something stunning to gawk and gasp at. Already I’ve harvested beans off a mountainside farm, jumped off a 43 ft tall waterfall, spotted toucans and sloths and lizards and snakes, washed my clothes by hand, built a shelf of bamboo and tropical cedar, stared at the bamboo, open-air “house” I live in trying to figure out how everything fits together, crafted soap out of pig fat and palm oil, and made tortillas and barbeque sauce from scratch. I am super stoked to bring some skills back to the states…one of my big projects with some other interns is to design and begin building an outdoor bathroom, complete with plumbed shower, sink, and the Ranch’s fourth composting toilet system that will yield more rich soil for our gardens. How exciting!

So the Ranch is definitely an exciting place, but also one that facilitates reflection and revelation. Once again, I find myself in a place without a TV or a nearby movie theater, surrounded by folks who know and feel a lot about many different things. Each day a good chunk of time is able to be spent reading and delving into discussions about life, beliefs and experiences. Also, the jungle wakes me up at about 5:30 or 6 every day, so I’m able to get in some good meditation time before breakfast. It’s a sure blessing to have the space and time to be centered and grounded, and to know that it’s pretty much impossible to waste my time in such a rich environment. Being surrounded by deep-thinking, fun, motivated folks facilitates all of this. We’re a diverse bunch—about 20 or so “long-termers”, about half of which are interns, the others are staff and seasonal volunteers. Luckily most of us love a good “run-around” as we call them here, so around 4:30 or 5 most days we’re able to go down to the field for a game of ultimate or soccer, or over to the community center for some basketball (though the low rafters makes for some creative shots). The sun sets around 6 on the dot every day though, so after a candlelit dinner and a round or two of Boggle or dominoes, our bodies are ready to recharge.

As I sign off, know that I think of y’all a ridiculous amount. I think being farther away has somehow made all those I love more present in my thoughts and prayers. Everything triggers a warm memory…the kitchen crew’s Ipod starts playing “Bodies in Motion” and suddenly I’m cycling through canyon lands with by B&Bers; I see a bamboo porch swing and send some good thoughts to the Hoppinski’s; I coax a laugh from Tim and Robin’s baby, Sole, and wonder how my family is doing; during a morning walk I have an uber-(UBER)-random craving for a Culver’s burger and send some lovin’ to all my camp friends…the list goes on. Look forward to more blog entries—between the food, the town, the locals, stories of sleep-talking and struggling with the language, there’s tons to tell! I’d love news from your lives and any notable current events in the states—shoot me a note via my email ( or on facebook. Also, you can look at my photos at Until next time…

Pura Vida!