Small gifts

…are constant and accumulate like welcome raindrops.

For one, we are officially acculturated: we have a machete by the door. It is for harvesting and opening a way through the woods, but I use it to crack open pieces of sugar cane to chew. I don’t know how to wield it, but it sure looks authentic leaning against the wall.

Two: the old cabina is now square and stable. It used to both tilt downhill and sag in the middle, supported by posts of dubious durability. So one hot afternoon, Johnathan jacked it up with hand tools. We stood in the yard and watched; we obviously couldn’t be inside at this point, and to watch someone else work skillfully while you do nothing is very satisfying. Replacing a rotting beam with a massive hardwood trunk from the forest, Johnathan tugged the green tarp out of his way and let it fall to the ground. I didn’t have time to stop him; now the good wren and her babies were homeless. But another gift: instantly, she was about her business. She flitted around the house two or three times. When we peeked into the fold where the nest had been, it was empty but for one dead chick, who must have hatched too late from the last egg. Mama Wren had carried her brood in her beak, one by one, to a safer spot, which she had chosen in a split second. We see less of them now, but that is probably better. So, three.

And four, five, six, why even count: electric fans, hummingbirds, shy blue crabs, morning rain.

Recreating the images on promotional literature by walking barefoot at sunset on the beach.

Glimpsing a basilisk lizard sprinting across the road on its hind legs, which spin like frantic pinwheels, like a cartoon. (It is also called the Jesus Christ lizard, because it can run the same way across rivers.)

The tile mosaics that festoon any surface in need of bright color. They are declarations of the worthiness of humble spaces. Assertions that one doesn’t need to be professional to make objects beautiful. Visual exclamations of positivity, reuse, and attention to small things.

This gift, described by J.: “I made an iced mocha this morning and realized everything I put in it was local: Milk, Sugar, Chocolate, Coffee, Ice. I actually know the farmers that produced the milk and chocolate. That’s pretty neat, I think.” It was not only neat in terms of sustainability, it was the most frothy and delicious drink ever. Thanks, mi amor!

And finally, the friendly Nicaraguan family whose soda (diner) we love. The little boy watched “Cars” dubbed into Spanish from the lunch counter while his mother cooked on the other side. His father returned home from errands and we spoke of his homeland and its thick, grainy drinks, tiste, pinolillo, points of national pride. After our meal was served, the parents sat at the other table (yes, there were just two tables) and bowed their heads for a minute before eating their own lunches. It felt familial and intimate. If it happens again I think I might ask if we could push our tables together. They wished us well, and we promised to come back someday for a slice of tres leches queque and a glass of tiste. We did not say so, but we will also come back for their gift of kindness.


We’re here. It took some doing: a car ride, Megabus, walking (while toting our luggage, much heavier than backpacking gear), the Atlanta subway, two planes, two taxis, a Costa Rican express bus, and a bumpy Jeep ride. Two days of travel. Nervous the night before: We’re doing this. I’m the planner. New country. Traveling en espanol, which is pretty rusty twelve years away from my Latin American Studies major. What am I dragging J. into?

But we did fine, and lucked out: every link was on time and the miniature guitar didn’t get smashed. The Spanish is coming back fast, the vocabulary if not the grammar. It does take practice dividing prices by 500. It’s terrifying to withdraw 10,000 colones from your debit account, but that’s only $20. On our first grocery run we wound up with a six dollar, eight ounce bag of sunflower seeds… and a bag of something called sal inglaterra that is white granules, but definitely not salt. (The beans ended up pretty tasteless after two hours of cooking in it.) Next time we’ll buy what the locals buy. We have been enjoying the delicious pan y pasteles y, of course, frutas. The $35 hotel where we ended up that first night after our midnight arrival served a morning banquet of homemade breads, jams, and tropical fruit, which was a lovely initiation for J’s first trip outside North America. He’s also a big fan of the peanut doughnuts they sell at the bus station deli.

Immediately I was amazed by the difference between this country and Nicaragua (of 2001, but I doubt these aspects have changed there)… No huelepegas – kids who sniff paint cans that they hide in tattered long sleeved shirts, to dull the hunger. No little boy with wet eyes crawling down the aisles of the bus with a shoeshine rag, rubbing it against sneakers and begging for coins. We saw one guy sleeping on the street in San José, but that’s about a dozen guys fewer than I expected.

We have not merely shunted between tourist districts, either. We walked to the Supermercado Jumbo to buy cafe and use the ATM, and took the bus that all the locals use, from San José to Puerto Viejo via the shipping port city of Limon. It was a real city bus, though tight. (Nicaraguan buses are repurposed US school buses, painted uniquely in glorious colors and named, clung to and hung out of.) We flew through traffic – driving is about as wild as elsewhere in Centroamerica – through exhaust smelling streets, ignoring stop signs and other directives that I like to think are not optional. Then the narrow highway rose over a twisty, misty mountain range, making J. slightly green, before descending to the Caribbean coast. Four and a half long hours, but it was good to see so much of the country right away.

The campo got increasingly beautiful the further we rode. By the time we reached the beachy, hippie town of Puerto Viejo, it was gorgeous coastline with colorfully painted and repainted houses all along the narrow road, and bicyclists, pedestrians, and motor vehicles of all sorts weaving around each other.

Now we’re on the farm in our own little house. The low, rolling calls of howler monkeys start at five. If you didn’t know they were skinny, cute little critters in trees, you’d think from the noise that a pack of giants with bellyaches was about to close in on you. Then the birds start. Would you believe that this is actually a pleasant way to wake up?

There’s a lot more to describe, but it will have to wait for our next spell at an internet cafe. Hasta luego!


From Mount Katahdin to Bangor, Maine to Providence, Rhode Island to Richmond, Virginia to Cohutta, Georgia… and now one night in Atlanta before we depart for a small finca in Costa Rica. The next chapter: work-for-stay at a permaculture chicken farm in the rainforest, with fruit and veggies grown on the side. Our own little cabina, which comes, we are told, with an alarm clock of nearby howler monkeys.

J. and I will be there for thirty days, which is the longest we’ve been anywhere since leaving Montana in January. That miniature dose of permanence sounds pretty good right now. Though I love travel and new experiences, nomadism is not my nature. Everyone needs roots, but true nomads must carry theirs, as do the tribes who move communally. If only we still took our friends and families along with us when we moved! But my quiet, insistent yearning for a place with roots–a place to return to again and again–will have to wait, for the time being.

Meanwhile, we’ll be tending chickens. Repairing fences. Wading through muddy jungle in wellingtons that we will buy upon arrival. Being with each other, breathing different air, doing whatever it is you end up doing on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica.

Gastronomically, we’re expecting lots of beans and rice. And I’m told that Ticos (Costa Ricans) even make gallo pinto, the Nicaraguan national dish. Gallo pinto means “spotted cock,” which sounds more British than anything, but it’s delicious. It’s, well, beans and rice, but extra good somehow. I also dream of tropical fruit, and hot tortillas made from corn ground the same morning. They are good plain… even without the beans and rice!

And perhaps there will be nourishment of the spirit. Perhaps some of the tuanis goodness and relaxation regarding time can wend its way into me. If I am attentive, maybe more kindness than usual can pass through me to other people. It may be surprising to hear that I’ve been feeling less and less spiritually connected, a gradual fade since we left Missoula, even on the trail. Plateaus are to be expected, but maybe with all this walking, moving, and traveling, experiences have flown past so quickly that all is reaction, with less reflection, less motionless time set aside for reception. Certainly more enlightenment seems to happen on riverbanks and in little rooms than on subways or treadmills.

Even so, even in constant motion, there have been glimpses. Walking around a north Georgia subdivision as dusk fell, watching fireflies glow and fade, I tried to catch one, remembering the unblinking doggedness of a child with cupped hands, reaching for a light that only glimmers for a moment every minute.

So perhaps a few weeks in a different land being a volunteer–one who offers herself for service to others–but with plenty of other hours to fill, will do good in numerous ways. Not to grow roots, but maybe to prepare the soil.

Buen viaje!