A Friday celebration: friendship, generosity, and the power of travel

I told you last week that I would have a terrific story for you come Friday. Then Friday came and the growing grief and fear in my home country made it seem impossible to talk about anything else.

One week later, it’s still hard to talk about anything else, but I can’t resist sharing this immensely inspiring story with you any longer. I hope it create a bright spot in your day the way it has for me.

When Ann Becker visited Costa Rica and its incredible Osa Peninsula in 2005, she fell in love with the country, like so many others. In fact, she chose to build a whole new enterprise around her new passion: Travel with Ann Costa Rica, which for years has organized hands-on, experiential trips that place travelers, particularly women, in contact with not only Costa Rica’s incredible natural settings, but also its people.

Community champions, nonprofit pioneers, social entrepreneurs, indigenous leaders, rural and urban families have welcomed Ann’s groups with open arms and built, in many cases, lasting friendships. She is now starting to focus on sharing her knowledge and networks with others who want to build meaningful travel experiences, and I can’t wait to see how that unfolds.

The reason I’m telling you about Ann tonight is that over the past few weeks she has invested incredible amounts of time and energy in spearheading an emergency fundraising campaign for one of the Costa Rican communities she knows and loves particularly well: Osa’s Drake Bay. The community was, and is, suffering from a hunger crisis because of the hundreds of families that have dedicated their lives and livelihoods to sustainable tourism, and lost all their income with the suspension of tourism due to COVID-19. Ann worked with the Drake Bay Nature Guides’ Association (AGUINADRA) and U.S. nonprofit Amigos of Costa Rica to put together the Drake Bay Emergency Fund and start raising money to help AGUINADRA respond to the crisis and put food on families’ tables.

She surpassed her initial goal and set a new one. On Thursday, her birthday, she surpassed that goal, too. That means that Ann and her networks in Costa Rica and far from Costa Rica have come together to help put more than $12,000 towards buying and distributing the food that is so badly needed in Drake Bay right now. It’s an astonishing feat, especially when you consider the tremendous demands on everyone’s time and money these days. And it will never be forgotten by many, many people on the Osa Peninsula, or by those of us who have cheered her on.

The best way to read about this effort is in Ann’s own words, so I encourage you to follow her on Facebook or check out her website. And watch this space for how her effort is inspiring others to set off on their own fundraising journeys.

Happy birthday, Ann.

I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. Sign up (top right of this page) to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; and please connect with me on Instagram or FacebookIf you want to learn more about how to support Costa Rica during the crisis, visit my COVID-19 section, updated regularly – or for ways to enjoy Costa Rica from afar, visit Virtual Costa Rica.

Los Santos, part II: The case for organic coffee

If you’re like me, you saw this title and groaned. The need to buy organic seems like a constant drain on the wallet and a niggling worry, since I live in a country with the highest rates of agrochemicals per hectare in the world and often can’t find organic options here for products that might be available in a U.S. city. As I prioritize, health-wise – for example, I try to find organic strawberries, thinking about those porous skins that sit right on or near the ground – organic coffee is way down my list. Not even on my radar, to be honest.

But I’d never stopped to think about the benefits organic coffee might be bringing to a region I love, Los Santos, and the people who live there. Until a rural tourism advocate named Jonathan Cerdas, whose region I visited thanks to Travel with Ann, explained it to me.

Travel with Ann volunteers make an organic pest-repellant substance to spray on coffee plants.

The coffee farmers of Los Santos are nervous. The climate crisis and other factors have started to skew weather patterns, causing rainy-season dryness and dry-season rain, fatal for coffee. Water is in short supply in the towns, yields are down, and some of the outrageously gorgeous rolling green hills are bare on top as farmers expand their farms to make up the difference. Overall, coffee monoculture – like any monoculture – has driven down biodiversity in the region. Farmers tend to like “clean”-looking farms without other plants around the coffee, or they plant foreign trees like eucalyptus for price reasons, all of which keeps away vegetation that could help the soil with a host of positive consequences for the region.

The lush vegetation of an ecological coffee farm.

 

Cerdas and the Green Communities project he co-founded with Carlos Marín are boosting local economies by bringing volunteers to stay with families and help farmers go organic. They’re planting indigenous species to boost farm biodiversity and protect crops from unseasonal weather. They’re making organic fertilizer and pest-control substances to protect water supplies. Cerdas says that with time, these changes actually improve yields, and of course the organic market brings higher prices. (I’m also here to tell you it’s very delicious.)

Jonathan demonstrates how the first farmer to go organic volunteered at a community meeting.

I have to admit I had truly never thought about the fact that choosing organic coffee was about much more than my health. I can’t promise I’ll always go organic, but there’s some in my grinder right now – and I’ll never look at the choice the same way again.

Read Los Santos, part I: The case for homestays at all ages. And stay tuned for part III, The case for Costa Rica.

I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. Sign up (top right of this page) to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; and please connect with me on Instagram or Facebook! Each month in 2020 has a monthly theme, and March’s is women’s rights, so stay tuned for posts focusing on this issue.

Los Santos, part I: The case for homestays at all ages

When rural tourism leader Jonathan Cerdas, presiding over a community hall packed with international visitors and their host mothers, announced that our “mamás ticas” would be sending us off to our activities the following morning fully breakfasted and carrying a snack in case we got hungry, a little wave of laughter rippled through the group of travelers.

“That’s right!” said Jonathan, noticing the reaction. “You’re like little kids again! Your moms are going to take care of you!”

I swear there was an audible sigh of relief. Set the cultural exchange aside for a moment: there’s a business idea here. Tired mothers or grandmothers, being mothered for a change.

Green Communities, the organization that – thanks to the experiential adventure initiative Travel with Ann – took me under its wing for 36 terrific hours last week in San Pedro de Tarrazú, reminded me of a lot of what’s good about Costa Rica. It also showed me that homestays, a staple of travel in one’s high school and college days, are quite possibly wasted on the young. We should all be doing them when we travel.

Moms and travelers work together to make dinner at the community hall.

Here’s why: when you stay with a family in your teens or early twenties, you’re still in the midst of being parented yourself. You don’t fully appreciate, or maybe even resent, the early nights, the restrictions, the “Eat your fruit!” If you’re 41 with a seven-year-old, all of this is like manna from heaven. My host mother, Margarita, and her husband, Emilio, welcomed us with the outsized kindness that rural Costa Rica is known for. An early bedtime was no longer an imposition: I went to sleep shortly after dinner every night, suddenly exhausted by the dark night of the small mountain town and tantalized by the twin bed. No clothes to pick up. No lunch to prepare. I relaxed more fully than on just about any vacation I can remember, because something very important was taken away from me: my responsibility for making any decision whatsoever.

More important than all of that, however, is the way that homestays unite cultures and support Costa Rican families. It was much more work for both Green Communities and Travel with Ann to coordinate all those homestays for the members of Ann Becker’s group than it would have been to stick everyone in a hotel – but the investment pays off in spades. The visitors know they are contributing to the local economy in the most direct way possible, and they gain more insight into Costa Rican life than they could in a month of hotel stays. The families get to watch people discover their beautiful town, delicious coffee and homemade food over and over, and take obvious delight in this process. Many of them build relationships that will last a lifetime; when I got back to San José, I almost immediately went to visit don Memo and doña Hannia, the papás ticos who changed my life when I was 21.

No matter what your age, think about a homestay the next time you travel (with responsible travel entities that know how to do it properly and compensate families fairly, of course). It’s truly a gift. And if anyone out there wants to create a “Mothers, We’ll Take Care of You As If You Were Toddlers” tour, I’m happy to donate the idea. As long as you take me along.

Travel guide extraordinaire Alex Alvarez and I (left) with Margarita and Emilio at their home.

Coming soon, Part II: why my visit to Los Santos changed the way I’ll view coffee farms. Forever. 

I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. Sign up (top right of this page) to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; and please connect with me on Instagram or Facebook! Each month in 2020 has a monthly theme, and February’s is marriage equality, so scroll back through the month to see several posts highlighting people and organizations working on behalf of this issue in Costa Rica.