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An amazing opportunity came my way last month. It started with a simple email, “Hello, Kay, my name is Don Duchene” and segued into a week-long Costa Rican adventure with a vanload of fellow Canadians, a friendly film crew from Nova Scotia.
That first email arrived without fanfare on a Friday, providing little more than a simple introduction to Don’s documentary project and a request to meet when he and his entourage would eventually land in Monteverde sometime the following week. I mentioned it to a couple of people, Lucky Guindon for one. “In case anything comes of this Lucky, maybe you and Wolf would be available to talk to them?” I asked her. “I’m not sure what their interests are, but the documentary is called Ocean Voices, and you have both interesting voices as well as a great view toward the Pacific.” She agreed to meet them, but then reminded me that Tuesday morning is coffee at Mary Rockwell’s so it couldn’t be that day. Hollywood has no special status in Monteverde.
Tuesday morning, I was still in bed, savoring my morning coffee, slowly turning the final pages of the book I was reading, when the phone rang. It was Wolf and Lucky’s son Ricky, a guide at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, calling to say that there was a group of Canadians staying there, having arrived just the evening before, and they were hoping to meet me. Could I come to the Reserve this morning, the sooner the better?
I was reluctant to put down my book, but I’m well versed as an extra on movie sets, understanding that for a director “soon” means “now” or they are likely to lose interest and move on – I know Hollywood, move fast then wait. Expecting things might get interesting, I jumped out of bed, took a quick shower, and hiked the three kilometers up to the Reserve, thinking as I walked about who and what may lie ahead, perhaps a morning of wandering through the cloud forest which is always a treat.
As it turned out, meeting Don, Art, Bud, Everett, and Kirsten would be one of life’s door prizes that you win when you didn’t even know there was a door. Within minutes of greeting Don, I recognized a shared spirit complete with sense of humor, a kind man with a mission that I could relate to. He found me through the Tropical Science Center who had generously allowed the crew to stay in the lodging at the Reserve while filming. Someone there had passed Don my book, Walking with Wolf, and suggested that he look me up while in Monteverde. I owe that person a hug (and a drink) for making the connection.
We sat surrounded by the sparkling not-so-cloudy forest, on the back porch of the restaurant at the Reserve, the crew preparing the equipment as Don and I got comfortable talking. We kept moving our bench across the deck, out of the glare of the strong morning sun that constantly shifted and threatened the lighting in the shot. Don began explaining his project to me by saying that he had been in Monteverde before.
“I made a documentary, “Rainforest-A Report from Costa Rica,” on the economics of rainforests back in the 1980s,” he explained. “I fell in love with Monteverde then and have returned many times to Costa Rica. This is my chance to fit this community that constantly fascinates me into yet another story. Ocean Voices is to be a collection of points of view of the various stakeholders concerned about the future of the oceans…which is all of us of course, but as a director of an hour long documentary I have to narrow it down.”
“I want to make a film that isn’t just for the choir and the converted, those who are already paying attention in some way, but rather open a conversation that can bring more people into the discussion. Help people understand the role they must play in protecting the future of our vast mysterious, unexplored oceans. I think that Monteverde is a good example of a community who goes about its business with mindfulness and a respectful purpose. I like the approach the Quakers and biologists here take to caring for the land. We will show this type of stewardship of the land, an engaged community, and draw the link between land practices, peace, and the health and future of the oceans.”
Obviously there was much to talk about, so while Bud’s camera rolled and Art’s furry microphone hovered like a gentle sloth in the air above us, Don and I carried on a meandering conversation that moved from Canada’s coastal beauty to Costa Rica’s biodiversity, to consumerism, capitalism, democracy, peace, to making connections.
When we stopped for lunch, before we headed out to find other possible filming locations in Monteverde, Don asked me if I would like to go with them to Rara Avis, a thirty-year old nature preserve on the Atlantic side of Costa Rica, a mysterious place that I have often heard of and always been interested in visiting but never made it to. The legend of getting to this place – apparently slogging up a “road” by tractor & wagon or horse for several hours – is almost bigger than the legend of the Monteverde road (a tale that is soon to be updated with the anticipated paving of the Monteverde road set to begin in 2014).
Turns out they were heading first to Isla Chira, another well-known but little visited spot in Costa Rica, here on the Pacific side, an island that we can see from Monteverde floating down there in the Gulf of Nicoya. I’ve heard of this place too, stories of a strong women’s community and a fishing cooperative, and it was another place I wanted to visit, but enough out of the way that I never made the trip…until now.
Another member of the crew was Isabel, a Swiss who has been living many years in Costa Rica. She was the logistics person, researcher, chauffeur and translator on this, her first excursion with a film production. It was an eye-opening experience for her. She was set to leave the group once we got to San José for other obligations. As the time approached, I spoke up, saying I would be happy to drive, knowing the country well, I can translate and carry equipment. Don was happy to have someone who was comfortable driving and familiar with the roads to take over so he wouldn’t have to.
While still in Monteverde, we spent a magical morning with Wolf and Lucky. Ricky and I were both quite impressed with Wolf’s clarity and focus – Wolf was never known for his direct thinking or clear speaking, and in the last couple of elderly years he has definitely lost some ground. But this day, he told some stories and answered Don’s questions rather sweetly, almost succinctly. I found out later that most of the crew hadn’t understood much of what he said. When I told Ricky, we both laughed, thinking that to our ears it had been such a good day! Don spent a lot of time with Lucky, asking about pictures in the photo album and listening to her eloquent tales, told with humility and humour, of the early pioneering days. The Canadians, myself included, felt blessed for this time together.
Before leaving Monteverde, we also filmed at the new Foresta art gallery in Cerro Plano. Featuring beautiful original creations from artists in the Monteverde area, it was worth some footage. Then we went to see local painter and luthier Paul Smith, who I recently started a writing project with. Paul entertained the east-coasters with his great irreverence and charm, sharing his passion for creating art and his frustration that there isn’t more teaching of art and music happening here in Monteverde. That led us to talk with Francisco Burgos, the director at the Monteverde Friends School, who told Don about his desire to increase the arts programs, hopefully with the participation of local mentors and teachers, to make both the enjoyment of and the learning of specific arts more accessible to local children and adults.
The following morning, despite our 5 a.m. departure, I was very excited about our trip to Isla Chira. We made it to Costa de Pájaros well ahead of the launcha, so we waited with the fishermen, watching boats coming and going. A few of the Fuerza Pública were there, local police on their way over to the island, along with men cleaning fish, others repairing shrimp nets, birds swooping in to raid the shallow waters as the tide went out, and dogs lounging like they all had hangovers. I have always loved boat communities, where the rhythm of the water – be it ocean tides, lake waves or river currents – is what everyone moves to. What with my propensity for cool water, raw fish and seaweed, I’m sure I was a seal in a former life.
We were received warmly by the women and men of Isla Chira, along with members of Mar Viva, an organization dedicated to the sustainable resource management along the Pacific coastline of Costa Rica, who explained the project. In 2000, the Women’s Association of Isla Chira was established to create alternative sources of income for the women of Chira, who traditionally made their living from fishing but recognized that their catches were diminishing and so was the economic viability of living off this resource. They now dedicate themselves to maintaining and making sustainable use of the island’s natural resources, protecting the mangroves and raising an “artisanal fishery” of small mollucks called pianguas. Their example influenced the men who also have a sustainable fishery program. For me, arriving on the island was a lovely step back into a simpler Costa Rica, watching the community working together to overcome economic and environmental challenges without the rush, pressure and competition of tourism yet taken hold. Filming continued over a shared lunch, through a tour of the mangrove nursery and into the small boat that took the crew to the building on the sea where the women cleaned the pianguas.
Like the seal I am, I took the opportunity to slip into the sea and therefore missed the boat. The tide was out, and I swam in still, shallow, salty, sun-kissed water, staying far from the areas where crocodiles may lurk. Now that I have been there, and understand the route, I know that I will return again to the warm embrace and interesting community of Isla Chira.
We only spent the morning on the island before heading back to the mainland. We made it by dusk to San José, and with much fuss and further ado, we found lovely rooms at Kaps Place, a small guest house across the road from the Hotel Aranjuez where Don’s crew had stayed a few days before but since the hotel was overbooked, they didn’t honor Don’s reservations, apparently a common hazard with this popular hotel. In a moment of panic, with a tired crew and no beds available at the inn, Kaps Place provided a lovely alternative and will remain on my list of “places to recommend” in San José. I was added as a driver to the rental contract, we said goodbye to Isabel, dined on pizza and wine, and headed to our beds. We were prepared to get an early start, have breakfast with Amos Bien, the founder of Rara Avis who would accompany us, planning on leaving the city before the morning rush hour heading up Highway 32 towards Limon. Even following a good night’s sleep, heeding all the warnings and with our own great anticipation, we still weren’t prepared for the long road into Rara Avis.
It starts off quaint enough – after wrapping our backpacks and equipment in big plastic bags, piling into the utilitarian wagon, the tractor pulls out of the damp yard in Horquetas de Sarapiquí and winds through the puddled streets heading out of town, a quick stop at the pulperia for some junkfood…
Rumbling across bridges with big PRECAUTION-PELIGRO-DANGER signs, so we get off the trailer and walk while Eduardo steers the tractor to safety on the other side…..
We slowly rise in altitude through agricultural lands, past the familiar pretty wooden houses scattered across Costa Rica’s rural landscape, glimpsing small herds of cattle, as the gravel-patched roads of town slowly change to a ruddy mud, the gravel itself becoming pebbles, then larger stones, then ginormous boulders.
The cameras were always rolling, so what could be done on a good day in less than four hours took us about twice that. We constantly stopped for another shot, Bud and Everett running ahead with their cameras to film the tractor approaching, but we also had to disembark from the wagon when the tractor couldn’t move any further, held in place by yet one more cliff-like boulder and a deep soup of mud. Eventually, with a lot of rubber action, rocking and rolling, Eduardo was always victorious – in my mind, he was the hero of this journey, for without him we would have been on foot, slogging up and back those fifteen kilometers in our rubber boots in the pouring rain. He reminded me of a cowboy constantly trying to tame a bull that was all piss and vinegar, and although there was some kind of romance to the whole affair, we were definitely no longer in Hollywood.
Three-quarters of the way, we took a brief refuge at the Estacion Biologica Selva Tica, two thousand acres of private rainforest preserve administered by my Monteverde friends Susana Salas and Bob Carleson. The caretaker, Juan, spends his days in the peace of this lonely outpost waiting on the occasional arrival of biologists and students, infrequent visits by tapir and jaguar, the balconies wrapped in silky webs housing significant numbers and sizes of wood spiders. After that short break and three kilometers more on the wagon, banging against the sides of a mud tunnel, sloshing through the water collected in the wheel grooves as the inevitable rain falls – about 300 inches of rainfall a year keeps things very wet. We were mostly in heavy drizzle, though we had a downpour or two before we were done, and we made it to Rara Avis just as the shadows gathered into complete darkness.
Amos started this project thirty years ago. Built as a working example of an eco-lodge, a place to bring students, biologists, bird watchers and interested tourists to experience remote rainforest and study its wonders, the place itself is very welcoming, especially considering the effort made to get there. There is a two-story lodge with tidy rooms each with its own bathroom, hot shower, and private balcony with hammock patiently waiting.
A large open-air dining room and kitchen is one of the common spaces, along with a classroom and some smaller buildings, but the real gathering spot is the surrounding forest, laced with trails, dissected by a river and a series of extravagant waterfalls, with the promise of endless green wet adventure. There is an in-house nature guide whose job it is to introduce people to the plants, birds, insects and biodiversity of this lush world.
It is advised that when you go there you should stay at least a couple of nights – a week or more would be even better considering the effort that the journey requires – but as the film crew was on a tight schedule, we only stayed for one night. In the morning before leaving we filmed Amos discussing ecotourism, the continuing need for education about and immersion in the world’s wild spaces, the struggle to maintain this place as the road washes away and the termites feed on the wooden buildings. Rara Avis is a dream, but between today’s economics and Amos’ passing years, it is in need of a new force, a young vigor to raise the funds that will maintain it, bring in the ever more discerning tourist, and oversee its future.
It was already getting late when we reluctantly left for a slightly shorter tractor-wagon pull out to civilization, following the tractor’s headlamps down the tunnel of light through the green ferns, the mud walls, and the insistent rain. We were all the way back to the gravelly roads near Horquetas before we finally saw a few stars peeking out from nocturnal clouds. By midnight, the pavement had led us back to San José, where we fell into hot showers and clean beds, still feeling the rattle and roll of the wagon as it wound its way from heaven back to the lowlands.
A week spent with five strangers traveling by van, boat, tractor-wagon, and rubber boot could have gone so horribly wrong, but it didn’t because of the professional attitude of the crew Don, Art and Bud – all experienced with working in the field under deplorable conditions and in unfamiliar cultures – and the tough, keen young cameraman and production assistant, Everett & Kirsten. I fit in well with these Canadians of like mind who appreciated my knowledge of Costa Rica, my steady hand at the wheel, and my willingness to help them in whatever way I could.
As a bonus to the door-prize, our return to San José coincided with the second vote for the new president of Costa Rica. The general election in February had not resulted in the necessary 40% for a single candidate, so the top two were contested again on April 6th. We followed Amos and his emotion-filled daughter, Samantha, to their busy polling station at a school in Sabanilla, the camera allowed to follow them right in to the voting booth. It was expected, baring a big surprise, that Luis Guillermo Solís would win, the candidate from the “yellow” side, the colour that represents the left-leaning parties in Costa Rica. It was a very festive, social scene that surrounded us as we talked to many people on camera about their feelings, their hopes, and their concerns for the new president. I felt that wonderful flush of joy that comes when you are with people who are asking for and seeing change – and still believing in it. After twelve years of the verdiblancos, a different party is taking over. Without going too far into it, one of the things that I find encouraging about Solís is that several years ago he quit the Partido Liberación Nacional, the party who held power for the last twelve years and was now defeated, in rebellion against the corruption that has been endemic to the government of Costa Rica over the last decades of growth and corporatization. That night we joined with the celebrating thousands, shouting, dancing and waving flags representing both their new president and a new direction for their country. For many Costa Ricans, that means returning to a former simpler, more honest time.
So may this new president stand up to a system whose tangled roots run deep and renew the Ticos’ faith in their democracy. May the nature preserves of Costa Rica, and around the planet, continue to protect the life mass that is vital to our future. May people of all cultures continue to successfully find ways to balance food needs, economic needs, spiritual and communal needs. And may Don Duchene make a powerful film that helps spread light in our world and allows the Ocean Voices to speak.