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.

The overlooked mental health of migrants – and a wellness tip for all

In what I think of as both of my countries, the United States and Costa Rica, waves of migrants and refugees fleeing violence and oppression have dominated plenty of headlines in recent years. However, the impact of migration on mental health is generally not at the forefront, at least not for adults. Since I’m an immigrant myself, this topic is close to my heart, not despite the privileged way I migrated but because of it: the fact that I immigrated voluntarily with every economic, linguistic and cultural advantage, but experienced loneliness and homesickness nonetheless, makes me particularly keen to know more about how the migrants and refugees pouring over borders are coping.

I know lots of Daily Boost readers are in the same camp, so this seemed like a natural place to start when exploring mental health this month. Obviously, it’s incumbent upon the countries that receive migrants and the public and private entities that serve them to provide medical care for serious mental health issues, but I was also curious how organizations are dealing with the earlier steps – providing general support and alleviating sadness. To learn more this, I called Margarita Herdocia.

Margarita Herdocia (second from left) with HUG fellows. Via FB/Ticos y Nicas

Margarita is an extraordinary leader in business and philanthropy whose life story could take up this whole post, but who, among many other efforts, is the president of the Asociación Ticos y Nicas Somos Hermanos, which helps fight xenophobia and support migrants to Costa Rica. Passionate about the violence taking place in her native Nicaragua and the need to help young refugees here continue their university education, she has spearheaded the Humanitarian University Grant (HUG) Program and to fund the continuing education of more than 21 young Nicaraguan refugees.

Thanks to donations from many supporters, the group keeps growing so that these bright young Nicaraguans don’t miss their chance to continue learning. The way Margarita sees it, it’s a huge opportunity not just for Nicaragua’s future, but also for Costa Rica as the host for these brilliant young people – and having met some of the scholarship recipients, I fully agree.

Here’s what she had to say about ways she seeks to support the mental health of her students, and how these practices can apply to all of us:

Mental health is something that, despite everything we talk about these days, is so taboo, and people are really stressed out. In particular, migrating is really stressful, and it’s something that’s usually not looked at. Migrants are seen as people who need jobs, and that’s mostly what is thought about: their Social Security coverage, do they have permits or are they working illegally. They are not thought of as people who really need mental health support.

At the HUG Program, we hold monthly meetings with the students, support-group style. I lead the support groups personally. We have total confidentiality and rules about how we can hear people as they communicate their needs, their distress, their life story, their current mental and emotional state. HUG students have become a social support network for each other… these young people stop being lonely migrants, and they know that they are not alone… You can’t overestimate the importance of belonging for a young person.

The HUG scholars also get exposed to different events with leaders of Costa Rica, whether they are social leaders, business leaders – we even take them to concerts and different types of events. They go from feeling irrelevant to, “Oh my goodness. Life is not only sad. Life is not only difficult. There are also connections, and these people I’m meeting have a big name, but they are also human beings.” That’s also character building. It’s what we call building social capital.

A key component that I think can help anybody – emotionally, spiritually, mentally – is that part of the deal of getting this HUG scholarship is that they must volunteer with one of the charity organizations that we support. These HUG scholars, young people, have to serve and help, whether it’s in an old people’s infirmary or having dinner with girls from orphanages that we sometimes take out, or visiting them in the orphanages – so they have an immediate switch from, “I’m a victim, I’m a migrant, I’m poor, I’m new in a new country” to all of a sudden, “I am a helper. I am the one who provides happiness. I am the one who gives emotional support.”

It is by giving emotional support that you actually strengthen your own, and that is huge. It’s not only something that can be done for students, but something that all of us have to do. The moment we stay inside our heads, thinking “Oh, poor me,” it’s just a downward spiral. The minute you step out of your mind and go serve another, you go from victim to helper, and that’s a huge leap in self-esteem.

That’s a prescription I recommend for everybody, whether you’re a migrant or not. Try, on a regular basis, to get out of yourself and go serve others. Then you’ll see how all problems take a different perspective, and it also becomes a mental health insurance and protection that is enormous. To me, that is the biggest anti-depressant: to go and help and serve others.

To learn more about the HUG program or the Asociación Ticos y Nicas and how to sponsor a HUG scholar, visit their website and Amigos of Costa Rica affiliate page. Read more about my January focus on mental health here.

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! You can also find me churning out small, square poems on any topic under the sun (here on the site, on Instagram or Twitter). 

 

Day 63: The fruits of summer

One of the many luxuries of life in Costa Rica is the availability of local fruits all year, but something about the sunny skies of December – and the beach trips that often happen during the holidays – gets me craving fruits more than ever.

The supermarkets, at least in San José, push exotic holiday fruits in December, including the grapes that are a must-have in New Year’s Eve (more on that later), and crisp imported apples. On the local side, I always associate the holidays with papaya, because my visiting parents would always delight in having fresh papaya as many mornings as possible for breakfast. (Mops, we’ll have some ready for you when you arrive!)

What are your favorite fruits this time of year? Are there any “exotic fruits” – whether you’re in the tropics importing apples, or in the snow importing mangos – that you love for the holidays? I’m hoping to have a particularly fruit-filled holiday this year to steer me away from other kinds of sugar, so I’d love any inspiration you throw our way.

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! You can also find me churning out small, square poems on any topic under the sun (here on the site, on Instagram or Twitter). 

 

Day 58: A champion for mental health in Costa Rica

I met Cris Gomar for the first time earlier this year to discuss a potential journalism project. She is literally dedicating her life to creating safe spaces for people to open up, so it’s probably no surprise that we quickly fell into one of the most honest and vulnerable conversations I’ve ever had, all in the middle of a crowded coffee shop. I was fascinated to learn about the mental health initiative Cris had started, Vaso Lleno – more on that on a minute – and the inspiring way in which she, by being honest about her own mental health challenges, was opening the floodgates for people in Costa Rica to ask for help or simply tell a painful story they’ve kept secret for years.

I told her how much I would like to cover and engage in her work through the media organization I was leading at the time. After we finished our long conversation and said goodbye, I stayed behind at the table to do some work. An older woman who had been sitting at the next table and whose group was getting up to leave came over and touched my arm.

“Don’t forget about the men of Los Santos,” the woman said quietly, referring to a coffee-growing region in the mountains to the east. “The suicide rates are very high there. They need a way to share their stories, too.”

And she left.

I tell you this to illustrate how urgently the work of Vaso Lleno, Cris’s mental health initative, is needed in Costa Rica, a country where a variety of cultural factors often lead people to hide their struggles. I’ve learned from Cris and other advocates that some of those factors include the lighthearted, “pura vida” good humor that makes people assume their fears or pain might not be taken seriously. Machismo, which makes many men feel that there’s something wrong with them if they feel bad. A widespread assumption that if you do need to talk to someone, that someone should be your priest – which, especially for women and the LGBTQ community, moves an awful lot of topics off the table.

Enter Cris. Through Vaso Lleno, she is sharing stories of anxiety, depression and other challenges from her own life and the lives of the people who, in her growing online community, are opening up about the problems both big and small that have made their lives more difficult. She was inspired to do this work after experiencing a debilitating anxiety attack and learning first-hand what can happen when we push our mental health problems out of sight. Vaso Lleno means “full glass,” and she says she chose the name because your glass is always full – even if there are bad experiences in it, you can transform them. It began as a thesis project in 2010 and is now a vibrant social outreach initiative.

She creates anonymous surveys where people can simply tell their stories – and to which Costa Ricans respond in astonishing waves that show the extent of the problem. In November, she launched a survey just for men, and from her updates, it seems that she received an epic response. She organizes support groups and other in-person experiences. She shares posts both hilarious and heartbreaking that illustrate what anxiety looks like. She gives speeches that spark massive responses from people who are so relieved to feel that maybe they aren’t so alone after all – like this one, where she also talks about what it’s like to be a tall woman in Costa Rica. (Yes, this is another reason I could relate to her so quickly.)

Now, Cris has created Vasoterapia, a pack of conversation starters. I haven’t gotten my hands on one yet, but from the looks of them, they are a mix of funny and deep, just like Cris herself. She says they are great for kids, families, couples, friends, any group – and the people are already contacting her to let her know how much fun they had and how they learned surprising new things about the people in their lives. (I’d venture to say that this would probably be a great gift for a Spanish teacher in your life.) My main reason for picking them up is that I’m more and more convinced every day that Vaso Lleno is filling an urgent need in this country and world, and I want to support it in any way I can.

I’m hoping to do a deep dive into wellness in Costa Rica in January, so you will be hearing more about Cris and mental health soon. Until then, if you’re a Spanish speaker, I invite you to follow her on Facebook or Instagram (as I write this, it looks like the way to acquire Vasoterapia is by simply messaging Cris there). One thing’s for sure – there is much more to come from this rising leader.

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! You can also find me churning out small, square poems on any topic under the sun (here on the site, on Instagram or Twitter). 

 

Day 48: All the world needs now is pinto

It’s a scientific fact: you can’t have a really bad day if you start it with gallo pinto.

I’ve had some bad days during which I’ve eaten a casado or a chifrijo or even delicious fresh fruit. But there’s something about magic about Costa Rica’s national breakfast dish. I ate it pretty much ever morning when I was an intern at La Nación and the lucky recipient of doña Hannia’s formidable cooking skills at my homestay, and that was just maybe the best summer of my life. Now, I eat it just rarely enough that it always feels special: I’m out of town, or it’s one of those mornings when my husband declares, “I’m going to make pinto.”

You need leftover rice. Many people over the years have explained to me that it is a Cardinal Sin to make fresh rice and then put it straight into pinto, because it’s not firm enough and won’t be able to absorb the flavors without getting mushy. You also need black beans, onion, sweet peppers, salt, pepper, cumin and, unless you hate it, culantro.

And Salsa Lizano. It really isn’t true that ticos “put it on everything,” but you definitely need it for pinto, both in the dish and then on hand in case it needs a little more on the plate. (Anyone have a favorite recipe? I looked but honestly got overwhelmed. There are a lot of techniques out there.)

You can fry gallo pinto in lots of fat, cover it in natilla and surround it with bacon or other heavy foods, but pinto itself is perfectly light and nutritious, so it does belong on a Wellness Wednesday. As we enter the season of a slightly slower pace and more festive feel, I’m going to aim to eat pinto just a bit more often. It’s almost the time of year when we get to ease up on our mornings just a touch, sip that coffee a little longer, and look forward to a day that has already been blessed by the best breakfast on the planet.

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! You can also find me churning out small, square poems on any topic under the sun (here on the site, on Instagram or Twitter). 

Day 23: The toad water of your dreams

If I had to choose one food to take to a desert island, it’d be an avocado. If I had to choose one to replace half of my medicine cabinet, it’d probably be ginger. Hot, cold, candied, pickled, grated or trying unsuccessfully to blend in at the edges of a jam or sauce – I’ve seen time and time again how ginger can cut through a woolly throat, clear everything out and just generally do you all kinds of good.

That’s why I’m obsessed with agua de sapo, a drink I love at any time of the year but that comes to my mind particularly in October, for two reasons. One is that this is one of the most beautiful times of year in Costa Rica’s Caribbean, the region that has created much of Costa Rica’s most delicious food, including this drink. And another is that the heavy rains in other parts of the country mean that you find yourself reaching for the ginger. A potent mix of ginger, lemon and tapa dulce, or unrefined whole cane sugar, a good agua de sapo should widen your eyes a little bit with that first spicy sip.

I’ve never made it at home, and no, I was not sufficiently organized to try it out before writing this post – you’ve probably realized this by now, but I generally need to write myself into doing things, which is why this project exists – but I will do it and report back. I found a few different recipes online including the news that most people cook it to dissolve the sugar, while others just whack it all in a blender, but the one that made the most sense to me is the one below. It makes a massive amount, but I have a feeling that frozen cubes of agua de sapo would be delightful to have on hand – to cool down a Moscow mule or a ginger beer or ginger ale, or added to a smoothie or juice where you would use ginger.

Have you made agua de sapo? Does thinking about Costa Rican Caribbean food make you drool? Let me know.

Here’s the recipe from Cocina Costarricense:

1 gallon of water
1 tapa de dulce (apparently this can be found as “panela” in other countries – and I would think you should be able to substitute brown sugar. I’m not sure how much loose sugar you’d want to add, but I assume less is more, as you can always add more sugar to the warm mixture at the end.
250 g fresh ginger
1 cup freshly squeezed lime juice

Peel, chop and crush the ginger; chop the tapa de dulce into chunks. Add both to 1 liter of water and boil until the sugar is completely dissolved. Cool and strain, then add the lime juice and serve iced.

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! You can also find me churning out small, square poems on any topic under the sun (here on the site, on Instagram or Twitter).