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!