This last segment of BEAU’d OUT in Costa Rica, Nectandra, is dedicated to Alvaro Ugalde, one of the fathers of Costa Rica’s system of national parks and protected areas. He devoted 45 years of his life to conservation work in Costa Rica, including serving as the founding executive director of Nectandra Institute until his retirement, and president of Nectandra’s board of directors until passing away in February 2015, one day before his 69th birthday. His essence is felt throughout the cloud forest and beats within the hearts of the people in Nectandra.
LaFortuna was amazing. From the adolescent cow that I met in an open field and pet like a dog (I never knew they had so much personality), to the sloth I spent hours watching climb a tree, this place opened my heart chakra in a way that made me feel one with nature. I stayed with an artist named Mau that I booked through AirBnB. I always travel AirBnB because it brings a broader sense of community to my travel. Mau’s place caught my eye because of the name, House of Arte. The art and graffiti throughout the little casa was a mix of outspoken strides and sensitive interpretations created by my awesome host. There were abstract paintings of waterfalls, mushrooms, and of course, volcanoes.
The long journey of playing “lost-and-found,” and the inviting yoga mat strategically placed under the bookshelf beckoned me to center myself with a little impromptu yoga session. Of course, it could have also been the Arenal Volcano directly in front of Mau’s villa drawing me into a meditational moment. I can’t explain the profound energy and humbling gratefulness I felt standing in tadasana (mountain pose) while a smoking volcano became my drishti. I felt her presence. I wondered how old she was, how she was created, and why people settled under a smoking volcano. It seemed scary, but then again I live next to Folly Beach in hurricane territory, so I guess it’s relative.
I honestly don’t know how long I practiced but it was throughout the entire sunset and into the night. A full moon lit up the sky. You could see the shadow of the tremendous Arenal with little puffs of smoke dissipating in the moonlight. It was incredible. Every breath I took was full of abundance and gratefulness of life. Even though I felt bliss being present in those very moments, I couldn’t help but to slip into becoming excited to see the cloud forest the next day and meet the creators of Nectandra.
I left super early in the morning knowing that I had no idea where I was going, and that could lead me to exploring Nicaragua if I didn’t schedule enough time to pay attention. It would be great to put “Nectandra” into my GPS and ride carelessly; enjoying the winding scenery and beautiful wildlife… But if you’ve been reading this blog from the beginning (or if you’re familiar with travel in Costa Rica), you know that there’s no address to GPS or simple road signs to reference. Only ultra friendly locals letting you know you should have gone “this way” instead of “that way.” Which actually started to become strangely familiar and also brought a broader sense of community to my travel.
After my 6th stop to check the map, I realized that I might have (yet once again) gone too far. I pulled over to check the map and converse in my broken Spanglish to another awesome and most helpful couple that happened to have parked on the side of the road for some odd reason. It was almost like Costa Rica was so used to me getting lost, she decided to strategically place the nicest people (that could understand my dialect) in various places so that I can get around safely. That’s some “old school” GPS, AKA intuition and trust. And it actually started to feel good.
My new friends and I discovered that I was closer than I thought and Nectandra’s gates were only a few meters “that way.” It was very odd to me that all the local people that I spoke with were not aware of what Nectandra was or where it was. I was beginning to understand that this place was not one of mass introduction in search of tourism, but one of preservation. A sacred place.
Finally, as the bend began to straighten, I see two smiling faces standing in front of a wooden gate. They waved me down and I turned onto the path that led to Nectandra. Knowing the habits of their forest like the back of their hand, the cloud forest’s head facilitators, Arturo Jarquin Parera and Evelyne Lennette lead me to a small garage where I could park my bike. “It will rain in about 30 minutes, your stuff should stay dry here,” Evelyne said with a smile.
Evelyne has timeless eyes and a beautifully stoic presence. She exuded intelligence. Arturo is a fit man with the kindest eyes I’ve ever seen. His words were soft and seemed to come straight from his soul. Even though Evelyne is of Asian descent and Arturo a native Costa Rican, they both had a look and sense of peace about them that was very similar. It was like something in their DNA, but I couldn’t pick it out in any of their physical features. Both of them had radiant skin with no wrinkles and spoke with a presence made the world slow down. I felt immediately welcomed.
The scent of the floral and rich forest was as thick as the clouds that hung over us. With the dense humidity around us, it seemed like it should be more oppressive, but I actually felt very light. The lush fertility of the flora and fauna, the sounds of the watersheds mixed with musical tweets and birdcalls became symphonic. I was truly in a place of genuine magic. I understood this place to be spiritual. I stepped into an array of rare orchids while brilliant blue-violet butterflies bigger than my head danced in the bio-symphony.
Evelyne and Arturo both spoke mindfully, never stepping on each other’s words. They delicately fed me information of current science as well as the historical journey of how Nectandra came to be.
“You know how you know you’re in a cloud forest?” asked Evelyne as she pointed to this odd but familiar looking tree that resembled a skinny palm tree with a fern-like top. She pointed out that this species only grows in a cloud forest and the tall and skinny “trunk” is actually a root that grows straight up in the air. Arturo began to point out the tiniest, mystifying little orchids, noting that some were orchids within orchids. They looked like little, happy fairies waving to you from out of a flower. I could feel the presence of ultimate creation. My heart beat with the cloud forest’s symphony. I tasted its rich vitality in the humid air.
There are 700 species of orchids in the USA. There are over 2000 in Nectandra’s 111 hectors of cloud forest. However, they are becoming extinct one by one. Orchids are one of the most delicate flowers in the world. They require perfect pollination matches to reproduce. Out of millions of dust like seeds carried by the wind, only 2 may survive. This is why the cloud forest has such an abundant array of orchids. Its atmosphere retains a constant stability. This makes it the perfect place to study biology.
The differences between a cloud forest and a rain forest are variations and timing of climate and seasons. Only in a cloud forest do you have 80% of the year under clouds, 12 hours of light, 12 hours of dark, and the same temperature year round. The growth is so abundantly stable, that if you cut down a large tree in a cloud forest (please don’t), she will have no rings to show age. This is because there are no seasons. It would seem that even science shows this place to be magical and timeless. And maybe the forest would be forever magical and timeless if the rest of the earth was too.
Evelyne explained how climate change is causing larger predator birds, such as toucans, to move to higher ground and into the cloud forests to acclimate. In this higher ground species of tiny pollinators make their home. Unfortunately, these tiny pollinators become food for the larger predator birds. It is in this coordination where orchids and many other flora and fauna cease to procreate through lack of pollination, ultimately losing their spot in the genus pool.
As we walked up the winding path of beautiful flowers and vocal wildlife, they both explained how important our cloud forests are and why. At the top of the hill there was an observatory that looked out through the trees in the forest. When we entered the observatory, the spread of food they had prepared was wonderfully enticing. Hot flowers and yucca root creations with vegetables local to the immediate region were colorful and smelled delicious. We passed each intricately prepared dish around as they explained the purpose of Nectandra. The conversations were bittersweet. The conclusion was simple. Science is REAL.
Yes, our world is changing at such a rapid rate that biologists cannot keep up with the extinctions and new generations of plant life. Even biologists themselves are vanishing due to the lack of interest in that field of study. But there’s one highly regenerative orchid that thrives. Some humans possess this flower deep in our souls. We call her, hope.
It is this “hope” that lead Evelyne and Arturo to dedicate their lives to nurturing and protecting Nectandra. It is the same “hope” that can thrive within us encouraging us to preserve life. But the old ways of preserving are just not working. We need new ways to proliferate sustainability.
In Costa Rica, the government owns all natural water sources in Costa Rica, no matter who owns the land. That means what goes in and out of it is regulated and must be government approved. Now this may sound terrible to us North Americans, but just imagine a country where the government didn’t want to drill for oil in the oceans and run pipelines through the Indigenous People’s sacred land and water source. Imagine for a moment that water is sacred and valued. That water is the essence of life, and everything that washes into it could start a chain of reactions that could contaminate this essence.
Many years ago Evelyne and Arturo realized one of the most important assets of Nectandra are watersheds and their preservation. What’s a watershed? It’s the native irrigation of rainwater that trails from the tallest leaves of the highest trees, down to the smaller trees and into the streams. Without this natural irrigation, our water system becomes transformed, which leads to contamination, regulation with chemicals, and corruption.
So how do we help preserve, grow, and proliferate this natural order when farmers and builders keep chipping away at Nectandra’s edges? It would seem that “our way” would be to create a non-profit and solicit donations to try to make laws to protect the land. But this doesn’t teach people how to live in symbioses with Mother Nature. You can’t learn horticultural techniques and permaculture from donating your money. Evelyn devised a plan with the Nectandra community that focused on a solutions and the Nectandra Institute was formed. The philosophy is so simple, yet so brilliant.
Identify the defining question: How do we help surrounding neighbors to generate work and live life in perfect rhythm with the cloud forest?
The answer: Influence the neighbors of the cloud forest with extreme positive growth and fund it.
The diagram: Create an eco-interest loan and invite them in.
WHAT?!? That sounds WAY to simple and what the hell is an eco-interest loan? Well, hold on because this is the coolest part of the ride. In most preservation schemes it goes from the top and then down:
- The government (top) regulates terribly or does not regulate at all causing the people to step in.
- The middle to upper class creates the non-profits, interest groups and/or petitions and spends time and money fighting to make it right (usually donation based and most solution are “band aid fixes” to ongoing disastrous issues until the next elected official fixes it more or screws it up indefinitely).
- People give money and feel they are helping to “end” this trouble while more corruption comes into play. More money is spent, more time is spent, and the whole time the problem retains or grows deeper.
Obviously this common way rarely works for many reasons. Evelyne’s philosophy was to grow from the ground up (makes perfect sense for a biologist to think that way). Invite people to buy the edges of the cloud forest. But instead of them going through high interest loans and low paying principals, privately loan them the money, charging interest that can be paid off by learning permaculture and applying it to the surrounding farm lands. For the last 12 years people have been paying their debt in the Nectandra Institute through building community based projects, fun eco-friendly community activities and contests, and classes that are 100% focused on applying and learning conservation and permaculture. And guess what… it’s freaking working!
These eco-interest loans are comprised of eco needs that are chipped away at with the forthcoming knowledge and applications learned in this program. Not only have the scientists seen new parts thriving again, the communities’ attitudes have changed to be ultra cohesive. Elders have discovered communal responsibilities they can teach and transfer to youth, activities have become conservation-themed and through art and entertainment the deliberate act of conservation thrives without effort. No money is given to transfer up to the government in efforts to ask them anything. It’s the people (the bottom), living symbiotically with nature, just doing their thing. Please check out Nectandra.org and see what this is all about. We could all learn a thing or 10 about what’s going on with our world and our species.
I rode back to San Jose with a heavy heart. Not one time did I even think to ask any LGBT questions in Nectandra. I was so absorbed in this place and its beauty that I forgot to be gay. This was probably for the best.
Sheets of cold rain pelted me as I bonded with all the dirt bikers weaving in and out of traffic to San Jose. When I finally got safe and dry, I sat in my condo 25 floors up deliberating. My throat was swollen from huffing everyone’s (even my own) leaking exhaust, and the sounds of traffic became a different symphony in my ears. I missed the birds and butterflies. I missed the sounds of the watersheds. I didn’t care for the sound that replaced it… destruction of Mother Nature. San Jose came and went. I tried to find the gay bars to report on, but even the cab driver urged me not to go into the parts of town that the “gay map” had said to go. Since “dónde esta el bar de lesbianas?” was probably not a good thing to ask in the San Jose ghetto at 10pm, I took his advice and brought my big gay quest to a close. However, I did get to meet Barbara and Jim, the nice Costa Rican implants that guided me to Nectandra! It was a good trip. Even though I didn’t indulge in the big LGBT scene the internet made San Jose look like it had, I did end this adventure with a good does of awesome family. Thank you Jim and Barb!
Deepak Chopra deduces that the one thing we all desire is true bliss. We are all given the tools to do so, but just like Costa Rica, there are not always clear road signs and a GPS to tell us how to get there. Sometimes you may feel lost. But “lost” isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You have to trust your internal direction while constantly encouraging your positivity and instinctive courage to propel you forward. The difference in “pursuit of happiness” and “pura vida” is one apparent thing. The present. Sometimes realizing in one initial breath that you are life, and YOU are the difference, is gratifying enough to generate positive flow. However, allowing yourself also to realize that you are safe and YOU are your biggest fan, will bring that inner smile to your outward face, and THAT is Pura Vida. Live well my BEAUtiful fellow “OUT crowd.” Love is apparent throughout this world and we are the ones chosen that will spread its greatness. It’s just… evolution.
With Love and Light,