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The International Writers Magazine: Seasoned Travel

A Not So Wasted Spring Break
• Allison Cordaro
As soon as I hooked the bristled rope to the tarnished nail protruding from the wall to let others know not to enter, I sensed something was wrong.  In place of a stable seating structure on which I could rest my butt, stood nothing – absolutely nothing. 

Costa Rica

Instead, half of what used to be a water cooler jug lay concave in the wood-planked floor as a makeshift toilet boil.  I was expected to brace my feet on either side of the jug and just let loose while squatting over the hole.  A laminated, hand-written sign instructed me to rinse the waste down the drain using the hose, a green, scaly thing that was coiled like a sleeping snake.  I took a deep breath and thought about the genius of the toilet – discomfort aside, this toilet was a feat of modern ingenuity in a place almost untouched by modernization and globalization.  This “biodigester” toilet was one of the pinnacles of la pura vida, or the pure life, that I had found interwoven in the environmental sustainability practices at the ranch.  The biodigester toilet, with the help of anaerobic bacteria, converts human and animal waste into methane gas later used for cooking; two immense water tanks sitting atop the guest house roof hold water as the solar panels harness the sun’s embrace and convert it to hot water; the meticulous arrangement of the gardens allow the interns to grow crops organically; and ninety percent of the guest house itself is composed of bamboo, a durable building material which is native to Costa Rica and the region of Mastatal.  The list seems infinite: organically grown food, home-made soaps, coffee freshly ground from beans plucked by a ranch intern; and so many other techniques of sustainable living in a place where the rainforest is paramount.

Brusquely forced ashore by a hurricane, Columbus mistakenly stumbled onto the shore of Costa Rica in 1502.  He lured fellow explorers to Costa Rica with depictions of genial natives and more gold in two days here than four years in Spain.  Unfortunately, visions of la costa rica were shattered when they found only lush greenery, accompanied by an overwhelming humidity that seeps into your lungs.  I found the humidity comforting, like a warm hug, and I was enchanted by this place of verdant rainforests.  After conquering the toilet, I meandered back to the guest house.  I carefully straddled the frayed hammock and plopped into the seat, glancing at the blossoming leaves bigger than my torso.  I envisioned my friends on spring break in Daytona Beach, Florida: one laying like a crumpled doll on the floor after about three shots, another twisting his shirt in the air shrieking, “Shirtless Saturdays!” while a few of them sloshed beer in an epic beer pong battle, wearing red solo cups like crowns.  So college.   But here I was, in Costa Rica, in a tiny town that Google Maps cannot locate.  As enticing as the drunken havoc that my friends were surely wreaking in Florida sounded, the rainforest of Costa Rica beckoned from the first moment that I read the description on a campus ministry flyer.  The promises of cultural immersion and opportunities to learn environmentally sustainable practices first-hand from the tropical forests of Mastatal tempted me like my mom’s chocolate cake begs me to break my diet.  I was not disappointed.
About a year before this particular experience, I studied abroad in Seville, Spain.  By the end of the program, I felt like a seasoned traveler, deftly navigating a web of flight plans, hostel accommodations, and a fastidious list of sites in the destination city.  Unfortunately, the nervous habits I shed in Spain returned with a vengeance on my trip to Costa Rica.  About halfway through the flight, the plane shuddered as the engine roared violently, and my stomach lurched.  With a sickening alacrity, I remembered every Hail Mary I prayed while I begged God to keep me safe three thousand miles over the ocean.  I realized I was not the blasé traveler I had hoped to be.  I thought about the tentative moment when the plane first soars into the air – for some reason, I have this image of a frail-looking bird learning to fly for the first time.  Each time the plane lifts off, I anticipate it faltering, then hurtling back towards the ground because it caught the jet stream at the wrong angle (my sister, the mechanical engineer, instilled in me stories of engineering disasters that were more terrifying that any childish boogie monster).  When the plane soared easily into the sky, I thanked whatever miracle from God or science that kept me aloft.
Our first days in Mastatal felt more like a vacation than a service trip.  Marcos, our guide, deftly maneuvered us as we snaked our way through the labyrinth of vines, spider webs, and mastate trees for which the town was named.  As we bumbled our way through, Marcos slapped each tree, not for support (he seemed to glide over the tree roots which elicited frustration and an occasion swear word from us), but like the trees were his old friends.  After sloshing through two languid streams, we finally discovered their source – a towering waterfall cascaded from an indistinct point far above our heads into a small pool at our feet.  We paddled in like puppies, our heads bopping above the surface.  “¡Miré!” cried Marcos, pointing to the trees, where a flamboyantly colored red macaw alighted majestically.  Marcos explained that macaws mate for life, so this macaw, as vibrant as it seemed to be, he had lost his mate, and will be alone until he dies.  Imperceptibly, a heavy gloom descended on us until Marcos playfully splashed us with water, stealing our sadness and returning us to paraíso.
At other times, however, it was hard to deny that we were, in fact, on a service trip.  Sweat crawled down my skin, the machete grated my palms as I clenched it in my fist, and an impenetrable trunk mercilessly laughed at me while I hacked away.  I threw my machete to the ground, deciding to return to the schoolyard where other members of our group worked on the very beginnings of a greenhouse for the kids at the elementary school.  Schlick.  Schlick.  Schlick.  The sound of shovels piercing the ground bounced off of the wall and around the yard.  The people attached to the shovels deposited the clumps near the line of bamboo.  Each clump remained intact despite being unearthed; the yellowed grass looked like a receding hairline on top of a rust-red face made of clay. 

spider I grabbed a shovel and thrust it into the ground, unaware of the immense, black furry spot that scuttled out from where I had just dug.  A few girls screeched at the sight of the tarantula, and I held my breath, awaiting a swell of panic that never came.  Rather, this tarantula’s black fibers joined the myriad of colors in the kaleidoscope of spiders that I had seen in Costa Rica.  With a slight smile, I returned to digging.  Perhaps I had become a self-assured traveler after all.

© Allison Cordaro   May 2012  

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