Central America, Costa Rica, Travel

Pura Vida, Costa Rica!

Falling to sleep, and waking up to the sounds of the rainforest; birds, frogs, insects, all cooing to each other, while rain pattered down on the roof on my treehouse, is the most soothing feeling I have ever experienced. I would slowly rise, have a hot shower, (the shower having an arm of the tree running through it), while I looked out over the open rainforest canopy below, and then dance myself dry on the open balcony because there was literally no one else around. I spent hours every day, especially when the rains came down in the afternoons, just swinging gently in a hammock and watching the forest around me; the river rushing by, the birds in the trees, the bright blue  butterflies, and a peculiar kind of Costa Rican squirrel.

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For as long as I have wanted to travel, I have wanted to go to Costa Rica. And for almost as long as I have wanted to go to Costa Rica I have wanted to go to Finca Bellavista: a treehouse community in the middle of the Costa Rican rainforest. So when I planned to travel for several months in Latin America, my entire trip branched out from there, and I made sure that the rainforest was where I would wake up on my 26th birthday.

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It did not disappoint: as cheesy as it sounds, here I really felt like I went back to nature, and I felt an incredible sense of wellbeing from being far from the stress of modern life, traffic, noise, and other people. I spent my birthday ziplining in the forest canopy. I hiked to a waterfall with a volunteer and we swam and then sat under the force of it coming down. We ate mammon chinos, a fruit that grew from the trees all around us, and in the evening they even brought me a birthday cake. (The surprise was somewhat spoiled when a gecko, munching his own dinner on the ceiling, dropped a grasshopper, which hit my fork and decapitated him- the head landing in the middle of my piece. I guess some things will only happen on travel birthdays).

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Trying to stay with nature, from here I went to Manuel Antonio National Park. Leaving at the crack of dawn, a group of friends and I arrived before the hordes of tourists came, and were rewarded with totally empty, perfect tropical beaches. We swam in paradise and then hiked the sweaty trails in search of what we came for: monkeys! We heard them before we saw them: howler monkeys, as much as am in awe of them, slightly scare me with their haunting groans and big teeth. We were also extremely lucky to see a snoozing sloth, seemingly smiling in his sleep while he dreamed.

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When we got back down to the beaches three hours later they were rammed- but the people had also drawn out the capuchin monkeys (blanco carro) which were everywhere- and completely tame! In search of snacks to steal from tourists, the distraction gave a good chance to get some close up photos- but if you are going to swim at this time, leave a bag with a friend or tie it to a tree because the monkeys have been known to run off with them.

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In the moonlight on a dark, deserted beach, a mother turtle has just lain her eggs in a pit she has dug herself into. While we peer, trying to not be too intrusive, she uses her flippers to kick sand back into the hole, covering her babies to protect them from prey while they develop. She is vast: this species is a green turtle, and this one must have been four foot long. When she has finished, she heaves herself out of the hole and makes her slow progress back across the sand to the water. Watching as she tips herself into the waves, and was going- going- gone- was strangely moving. Animals never cease to amaze me, and the fact that turtles navigate whole oceans while somehow always being able to return to the same beach to lay blows my mind. This was Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica’s prime turtle laying spot, with visits from four different species throughout the year.

If you have ever taken a night-time boat trip in the pitch dark through a river infested with crocodiles, you will know how much my sense of peace was disturbed on our glide back to the mainland after this magical experience. What I didn’t know was the crocodiles were not what I needed to worry about: my wallet was stolen from my room that night while I slept.

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I comforted myself from this slight wound to my confidence as a traveller in the thermal springs of the Arenal Volcano. I splashed out a bit on visiting the incredible Baldi Hot Springs which was exactly what I needed for my mind and body. They have 25 pools of varying degrees of HOT, a giant Jacuzzi, a natural cave sauna, an up-market buffet lunch or dinner included in your day pass (as a traveller on a daily  budget I’d decidedly blown,  I ate until I could only waddle back and crash into the nearest pool to recover). They even had three giant sliders into the biggest of the pools, for those of us who liked this kind of thing but also weren’t quite grown up enough for it. Needless to say I queued up multiple times amongst the children.

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I spent the last week in Costa Rica on a tour of hippie beach towns in beautiful Guanacaste. Montezuma may be my spiritual haven (if I believed in spirits); it has a beautiful, easy-going, accepting and hippie vibe, a beautiful beach, good music, and I stayed at the incredible Luna Llena hostel, which was an oasis and my favourite in this whole trip. I also stopped by Santa Teresa and Tamarindo, which again had the most stunning, scorching-hot beaches, were full of surfers and cool skinny girls covered in tattoos, and had a general air composition of around 80% weed.

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The things I loved about Costa Rica were first and foremost some of the most spectacular nature on the planet. It is an incredibly diverse country; they have 6% of the world’s biodiversity, even though it takes up only 0.03% of the world’s surface. They are also generally more progressive than their neighbours; they have no army, and last year 100% of their energy came from renewable sources. They are a veggie/vegan haven. Everything is chill, or pura vida, as the locals say to just about anything. The only thing I did not enjoy was the cost to get in to see the nature; come to Costa Rica to get back to your roots, but only if you have a pocket full of dollars to bleed away with at least $50 per activity. I had the most incredible experiences, but I landed in Nicaragua with no wallet and a lot less in the bank than I intended, too. Just as well I still loved it.

food, South America, Travel

A week in the Wisdom Forest: my experience living with a Hare Krishna community in the Amazon Jungle

In one week I learned about Hare Krishna, experienced a spiritual ‘sweat lodge ceremony’, learned to use a machete, harvest tropical fruit, make chocolate from raw cocoa, press sugar cane juice, climbed up waterfalls, trekked through the jungle, made a traditional Amazonian meal, took part in mantras and ceremonies, tried to meditate (unsuccessfully), and attempted yoga (even less successfully).

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The Wisdom Forest is located in the Amazon Jungle- to reach it you take a bus to the town of Tena, and then a smaller bus, on which you ask to get dropped off at el mono– the monkey. I got hopped off at the statue of Hanuman and followed a little path that winds through a garden of incredible plants for produce- pineapples, papayas, bananas, coconuts, limes, and cocoa, flush with fruit. Bandu, the resident giant dog, and the friendliest Alsatian I’ve ever met, came bounding up to say hello. The front porch of the house is open, with fresh bananas strung up, people swinging from hammocks between the beams, reading books and chatting, guitars and drums lying around, and a little bike workshop.
The community here are Hare Krishnas. I knew next to nothing about Hara Krishna culture before coming here, but was interested to know more about their way of life, experience living in the rainforest, and volunteering on the eco-farm that produces organic vegetables and fruits, which they both live from and sell from a little tent on the side of the road.

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I am always interested to learn about religions, and ways of life other than the one I am used to, but I will admit I was a bit apprehensive about how I would cope with the level of spiritualism in this vedic community. I’ve always thought of myself as a bit of a hippie- but more of a cynical hippie. I care about the environment and conservation because to me the world is beautiful, and it’s logical to look after the planet you call home. I’ve been a vegetarian for 17 years (and mostly vegan for the last) I think it just makes no sense to add to the world’s suffering, and I like animals too much to want to kill them. I object to war and always advocate love and peace because it just makes sense. Non- violence is always better than violence. I don’t like capitalism because it’s a system of fucking people over with unfathomable suffering and death tolls as the consequence. But none of this is linked to any sense of spirituality or connection to something bigger. I think that when we die, we break down and become mud, and that is it. My beliefs are firmly rooted in a combination of logic, proven science, and the general principle of not being a dick. I try to always respect other people’s beliefs, but I have to admit to perhaps sometimes being a bit of a smug twat to two of my best friends, Bethan and Jodi, who really go in for some of this spiritual stuff (reiki, magic stones, fortune telling, prayer bowls that are connected to the sound of the universe etc.) because I have to admit, to me it always seems like a lot of guff. (Sorry to them for that).
But- I told myself to keep an open mind, and even if I thought I would never be the type to go in for this, to learn as much as possible from these people. After all, I was walking into their world voluntarily.

I was thrown in the deep end, as when I arrived the group were getting ready to take part in a ‘sweat lodge ceremony’. First, you get in your cossie and take a jump into the freezing cold natural plunge pool, or shower in an amazing natural outdoor shower that has water running down the forest through a bamboo beam, sheltered by leaves. Then you enter the lodge- a small, thatched hut with a tiny entrance which you crawl through to get in. It’s incredibly dark. Everyone sits on banana leaves in a circle around a pit. Bhaga explains that the hut represents the womb of mother earth, and that we are going to be reborn. We are going to meditate on Mother Earth, and he talks for a while about the importance of protecting the planet and looking after the animals. So far so good. Then they start to bring in the abuelas. Grandmothers. Not old women, but the name they have for the hot stones that they place in the pit to heat the hut and create the sauna affect. The abuelas are each meant to represent a virtue we should meditate on, while they chant a song to welcome them as they are brought in- giving thanks for empathy, patience etc. There are three rounds of meditating, drumming, and chanting mantras to Hare Krishna, Madre Tierre etc., between which more abuelas are brought in, and palm fronds are used to waft the hot stones until it becomes incredibly hot, and everyone is soaked in sweat. With the heat and the beats of the drums, it’s kind of hypnotising. After, everyone comes out of the womb reborn, and plunges in the pool again to return to reality.

There are many variations on this ceremony in different cultures and practices. For some, this is a profoundly spiritual experience. I wouldn’t say I found it that, but it was certainly very relaxing, and the messages were positive. I slept well that night.

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Mornings here start at 5.30am in the temple, located in treehouse overlooking the jungle, where Bhaga, who began the community, leads the morning meditation. The Hare Krishna movement is a kind of branch of Hinduism that practices Bhakti Yoga  (it turns out yoga is a whole set of practices and not just the exercise). Although Varsana, one of the lead volunteers, insisted it’s not a religion in the dogmatic sense, but more a way of life, the ceremony was very like the many I witnessed in Hindu temples while travelling in India. Rhythmic music was played on an instrument I’ve never seen before, with drumming, and chanting mantras, in front of a cabinet full of pictures of Krishna and the gurus (all men). There are many mantras, but the most common is quite repetitive and meant to focus your mind for the meditation:
hare kṛṣṇa hare kṛṣṇa
kṛṣṇa kṛṣṇa hare hare
hare rāma hare rāma
rāma rāma hare hare
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After the meditation, there is a ‘philosophy’ class with Bhaga. This is the part I struggled with the most. I wouldn’t so much call it a ‘philosophy class’, as an hour of listening to Bhaga’s beliefs and opinions. Now, I spoke at great length with the other Hare Krishnas there- latinos from Venezuela, Guatamala, and Mexico- and they talked with great sincerity about how the Hare Krishna way of life had helped them to live in a more positive way, in accordance with nature, to learn to reject material wants and to live to serve others, overcome depression and negative feelings in the past, and feel more whole. I have immense respect for them, because they really did live a simple and peaceful life, and did everything they did with kindness, and importantly, would talk about why they believed certain things without judgement of others. Although I didn’t believe in Krishna, and found the rituals a bit bizarre, I largely agreed with their principles, and they said as long as others followed a way of life that incorporates kindness, and in accordance with protection of the earth, we should find our own way to becoming who we felt happy with.

Bhaga’s lessons were not like this. It felt like the hour of judgement. He would lecture endlessly about the dangers of meat, alcohol, drugs, and sex. Even though I agree with not eating animals, the way he aggressively accosted the meat-eaters in the group was unhelpful in engaging them in a cause I do believe in.

We did a test to find out what our ‘ayurvedic body type’ is. This is based in an old spiritual system that promotes the idea people are made either of earth, fire, or air. The definitions seem extremely random, and I can’t help rejecting any system that reduces anything as complicated as people to three types. I was told I was ‘Kapha/Pitta’- a mix of earth and fire. But realistically, elements of all three body and personality types related to me, and all of them contained elements which were completely contradictory to how I am. On the basis of this system, illnesses are treated by diet- if you are kapha you should eat less oil etc., to balance your elements. He promised this is a ‘scientific’ method, and I had to work hard to maintain politeness, and point out that adding the word ‘science’ to an idea doesn’t make it scientific.

In another class, he advised we should not wear suncream because we shouldn’t put anything on our skin that would be poisonous to eat. He said people shouldn’t put it on their children. This was day four, and I actually felt myself losing my temper. The temperature here was up to 30 degrees in the heat of the day. I feel it’s extremely irresponsible in a capacity as a ‘teacher’ to advise people (especially the groups of blancitas that frequent the Wisdom Forest) not to protect themselves against the sun, and not to protect their children. After all, there is proof that getting sunburn repetitively can cause skin cancer and death. I told him as much. He whinged on about whether there was really proof, maybe he’d have to look at statistics, but his friend told him it was bad and never put sun cream on her children and so… bla bla. At this point I felt like saying, mate. Your name isn’t Bhaga. Your real name is Ben and you’re from Chichester. And yes, the link between sun damage and skin cancer has been proven by (genuine) scientific research. Saying ‘but my whacko mate said this’ isn’t going to hold up in academic peer review. Shut up.

For this reason I had to skip the last ‘lessons’, which is probably just as well because apparently he talked about how having any sex will definitely make you a prostitute, and then you will die. Sigh.

After the hour of talking crap, there was a yoga class, which was actually quite nice, especially looking out into the rainforest, but I realised how inflexible I am as I was barely able even to cross my legs, and had to creak my way through saluting the sun, trying ‘downward dog’ etc. without falling over.

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After breakfast, work. The work here was interesting- I learned to wield a machete and felt like a badass (though more likely just a mentally unstable person with a machete). But we harvested the food we then ate which felt very satisfying. Better yet, we used the cocoa to make chocolate- you suck the flesh off the beans (sounds gross I know, it’s sweet but nothing like chocolate) then dry them, and roast them, peel the shells off, grind them, and we then added panela before rolling them into balls. Panela is a syrup made from sugar cane juice which we cut down and crushed, and then boiled. The result was delicious, natural, and as local as you can get.

Meal times were great. The food here was genuinely incredible- all vegetarian and mostly vegan, we had one awesome giant Amazonian meal (below), which contained fruits and vegetables I’d never tried before- piton, fruitipan, chiclas etc. We also made bean stews, lasagne, stir frys, pizza, and even a birthday brownie cake on Kartik’s birthday. As with anything, there is a ritual that must come before eating in Hare Krishna culture. They consider cooking a meditation, and so before eating you make an offering to Krishna, consisting of a small amount of every dish, which is put in a cupboard, and you chant a mantra thanking mother earth for the food and offering it to Krishna, while a bell is rung and you clap. Then, before eating, there’s a cancion (song), thanking again, with guitars, and you chant the Hare Krishna mantra.

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Days off were fun- we spent a day adventuring in the waterfalls, hitching a ride on the back of a local pick up truck, then wading through rivers, hauling ourselves up waterfalls with ropes, and trekking through the jungle while the boys swung around on the real Tarzan style ropes hanging down around us. We visited a local community, and the family of a volunteer which had eleven children, on their small farm, and tried the local drink, chicha.

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The accommodation was basic to say the least- inevitably jungle bugs get everywhere, there were often cockroaches in my room, we found a small snake in the kitchen, and once when I got in the shower I was alarmed when a frog jumped out at my face. I had about 5000 bug bites when I left, though thankfully I didn’t catch sight of the resident tarantulas the whole time.

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On the whole, I had an amazing experience here. I do believe ‘Bhaga’, if I will go with his ‘spiritual’ name, is a bit of a bullshit merchant, and I dislike his negative approach of haranguing people. It makes Hare Krishna seem very negative as a culture, and I don’t believe it is. I never go in for dogma in religions, but I understand the principle of being thankful for what you have and the ceremonies do remind you to be mindful in a way that can never be achieved in the city and chaos of modern life. I could never be a Hare Krishna, and there is an element of the cultish about it, but I like the people very much, and I have to say that after a week here I did feel more peaceful, patient, and open hearted to others. Which can only be a good thing.

It was an amazing way to experience the rainforest, and if you are thinking about it, I would definitely recommend going in a volunteer capacity so you can get closer to the wildlife and really learn to live within it. I have never had so many new experiences in one week and can only thank the people who let us into their home, showed me a path to being a more gentle person, and gave me memories to last a lifetime.

Love and peace,

Helen

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