One thing I have learned while travelling is that when you get a chance
to do something or go somewhere, the best time is right away, and it's
always worth it, you just never know in advance why. The little
expedition I did last weekend turned out to be a great example of that.
I met a very nice peace corps
volunteer, Anna, at the Internet place in
Changuinola. (How to identify a peace corps volunteer: 1. Cell phone
charging at the internet place. 2. Frantically typing stuff into the
checking handwritten notes. 3. In their 20s and NOT Mormon
missionaries, an even more easily identified group of people) Her site
about 3 hours from Changuinola. One of the projects she worked on is a
nature reserve, and she gave me a flyer. At home, I noticed that they
have some of the tree species that I need seeds and seedlings for --
mainly Cedro Bateo.
So a week later, armed with only a one-way pager number, a cell phone
number that would be out of coverage, and an address ("Sergio's house,
Las Delicias"), I decided to go. After a 1 hour wait in Las Tables I
arrived at Sergio's house just as it got dark - running into Anna on
the way there, who of course never got my page.
Sergio wasn't home, but his wife made some food for me (amazingly
nice...) and we chatted until Sergio showed up. At this point, it was
starting to become obvious that this would be a great trip. Although we
have extremely different backgrounds, Sergio and
I were exactly on the same wavelength, in conservation interest,
expectations, etc. All I knew was that there is a nature reserve with
old growth hardwoods that I want seedlings from. All Sergio knew was
that I was a young gringo with a reforestation project. We decided to
head out into the jungle the next day, and spend the night at some not
further defined cabin at about 400m elevation. We also chatted until
about midnight (which is extremely later for this kind of place). I had
a really good feeling about Sergio from the beginning -- not just
because of Anna's recommendation. I set up my mosquito net in
Sergio's living room (his whole family with 4 kids shares one bedroom);
he even had a mattress of sorts for me.
Again, I was amazed how this whole thing turned out... Sergio was a
wonderful host, and not embarassed of his limited resources (which is
often a problem), and I was somehow really comfortable; a situation
that could have been truly strange and awkward ended up being natural
The next morning, we left
around 9am and starting hiking up to the
project. Sergio pointed out various lumber tree species to me, some of
which I did not know. He knows most of them by the Costa Rican name,
which caused some confusion. The tree with the fine leaves is known as
Cacha in Costa Rica; it does not grow very straight or tall but the
wood is extremely nice.
On the way, I could not help but notice some very destructive
activities -- very clearly visible in the picture. As I learned later,
a guy named Samudio is trying to occupy the lands of the nature reserve
by cutting it down. The land owners who run the project together
(Sergio is one of them) are fighting hard for their land, and end up
paying much of their income to their lawyer. Hopefully, the battle will
be over soon.
The cabins at the project feature a viewpoint rancho with a nice view
of the Sixaola river, and are built from wood that was rotting in the
forest. The Criollo post in the picture clearly shows signs of decay on
the outside, but since it is Criollo, it will probably last another 100
years or so.
lot of people in the area make their own rice; including the caretaker
family here, and Sergio's family. The grinding implement is called
"Pilon", and probably usually made from Pilon wood, also known as
Zapatero. The rice was, of course, wonderful.
While waiting for a couple of other people, we decided to take a quick
walk to a nearby Criollo tree which might have seeds. In only about
half an hour, we collected over 10kg of seeds; over 2000 of them. This
was amazingly easy. We left them at the proyecto, to pick them up later.
Eventually, Sergio, another guy, a wonderful horse, and I left and
hiked up the trail. It was quite clean and easy to walk, though boots
were of course necessary. Hiking boots would be ok in dry weather; but
mine fell apart along the way.
Along the way, Sergio pointed out more trees, including Tabacon, which
turned out to have nothing to do with our favorite, Tabaco wood.
Amazingly, Samudio's clear cut hoardes left some trees standing; a
welcome site for Chacarero nests.
As always in the jungle, the small things are the most exciting... a 8
inch wingspan camo butterfly, and hughe ants (Golofa, probably
identical to Ecuador's Conga ants). When I showed this picture to
people later, they all thought I was crazy for putting my finger there
(of course, I did not actually touch them, after knowing what happened
There were lots of cute frogs along the way, and a very obvious
specimen of the Cabo de Hacha tree. Backflash here -- in
Tena, Ecuador, these trees are cut into slices and used as decoration
of eco lodges -- to the point of having become very rare.
The picture illustrates how the tree is used-- Most trees, you have to
cut down completely to get a good piece of wood out of it - a lot of
work, unless you have a chainsaw. This one, people just cut out a piece
with a machete, obviously doing quite a bit of damage to the tree.
Cabo de Hacha wood is very hard and strong, and used for tool
handles; hence the name: Ax handle.
After about 3 hours of hiking
with many stops, we arrived at Luis' house, on a narrow ridge with a
wonderful view of the Sixaola river valley. Luis' is not directly part
of the project, but Sergio and his socios are trying to teach him a
little understanding of the value of conservation.
So far, they have
had limited success; Luis still keeps a baby monkey tied up with a
rope, and owns a gun which he is suspected to use frequently for
hunting. However, at least it appears that he does not cut down trees
randomly. He is also an amazingly nice host, cooking for us and
providing a pretty decent place to sleep, given our location. (Ok, the
floor boards were not nailed down, it probably would have rained
through the roof, etc., but again, my expectation for
conveniences in places like this are pretty low.
Luis has quite a zoo going; he
feeds his leftovers to the parrot, which drops most of it on the
ground, where it is then eaten by his dogs and various types of fowl,
including geese. I had heard that geese are a bit like dogs, but when
one of them bit me (softly), I felt it for the first time.
The next day, we set out to find Bateo seeds and seedlings. Seeds turn
out to be hard to get; naked-root seedlings however, much easier, as
the picture shows. The only problem -- how to get a worthwhile quantity
down the mountain. This, of course, is where the horse comes in handy.
It dealt amazingly well with its awkward load, and carried about 400 of
these without complaining.
Along the way, we made various more stops; one to watch a monkey mother
carrying a baby swing around in the trees. It was good to see the same
type of monkey that Luis has tied up this way -- in the wild, where it
the hike down, Sergio
went ahead with the horse, and he did not wait for us at the project
cabin. Later, I found out why... As we arrived, the caretaker family
reminded us to take the Criollo seeds with us. And then asked how much
I would bay for them. They counted them (2300), and expected 5-10 cents
apiece, but would settle for 4. This is, of course, utterly
ridiculous, and I was very disappointed. There are hundreds of Criollo
trees with seeds in the area, but apparently this one was on this
family's land. No one told me this before. A more appropriate
price to pay for the right to pick up these seeds would be $5 or so --
certainly not $90. I was pretty shocked; and briefly worried about
having an unpleasant situation with Sergio later, but then decided that
these people were an unpleasant exception and that all would be fine.
The whole situation was a typical Bocas - type scenario. It took us 30
minutes to pick up these seeds. If the owners thought the seeds were
valuable, they could go, pick them up, and try to sell them in
Changuinola. $90 for 30 min of work, a 2 hour hike, and a trip to
Changuinola would be extremely good pay in a place where people are
happy to work for $8 per day. However, these people did not help pick
them up, did not help carrying them, but instead spent their time
counting them. They somehow got it in their head that the gringo would
pay a lot for these seeds, and then tried to maximize what they would
get. Had they spent a day washing the seeds, or doing something else
even remotely useful, I'd been much more impressed and paid them for
Sensing that it would be wrong to just pay them, I offered $20. In the
end, they took $30, but I was pretty close to just leaving them behind.
I was torn between not wanting to make a huge production, and also not
encouraging this Bocas - type of behavior in a place that seemed
unspoiled by it. Oh well, no big deal, I thought.
Sergio did not appear to be too upset about the whole episode, though I
found out later that he was very angry, and that this episode had
quite an impact -- all the socios were very upset with the family who
was trying to overcharge me, and did not talk to them for a few days.
Later, they had a serious talk about fairness, and the
importance of their reputation, and even fired the treasurer (for other
reasons that were related to this type of attitude).
It was interesting to hear this from Anna later; apparently, this was a
conversation topic for a while, along with the fact that they offered
Tang to me as a refreshment, instead of real fruit juice. I barely
remembered that episode, and Sergio did not comment back then -- an
interesting aspect of their culture.
Anyway -- Sergio worked hardest and deserved to be paid well, and he
was very happy with what I gave him. (We did NOT count the Bateo trees
:-) He was very interested in coming to work at my place for a while,
and I think we could learn a lot from him. He is much more experienced
than any of my workers, and only takes day-to-day jobs occasionally, in
Costa Rica. Of course, he has no social security.
Other ideas that we started kicking around were using his place to park
a car (from there, it's only 4h to San Jose) and helping him set up a
little woodworking shop. There is an enormous amount of valuable dead
and down lumber in the area; the only issue is the cost of carrying it
out of the bush. Still, this might be worth analyzing.
the taxi showed up, and I made a deal with him to take me back to
Almirante the same day. Initially, the 500 trees shared the bed of the
pickup truck with 8 people, but in the end we laid them down,. We
watered them 3 times along the way. In Changuinola, I picked up 50
empty sacks at the bakery (getting them to open at 10pm on a Sunday was
easy) and we checked on the broken generator. (they were still working
At about 11pm, we arrived in Almirante, loaded the trees in Man Hings
dugout canoe, and by 1pm I was in bed, finally, after a long day.
Overall, it was a fun and exciting weekend, I got a good number of
trees (total close to 3000 if all the Criollo germinates), and, most
importantly, made a new friend. I am sure Sergio will being a lot of
good things to the project here.
The trees are now all planted, and the Criollo seeds all set up for
germinating on a sand box table Izmael and Abe built on Monday.
I encourage people to visit the the Las Delicias reserve and supporting
the group of locals that maintains it -- they deserve it.
Further Information on the project and how to visit it is available at http://www.outscape.net/lasdelicias/.