La Palma: A Passionate Community and a New Year we will never forget.

Concrete Church and school building with grass betweenLa Palma is a small settlement about 40 minutes north of Puerto Jimenez. Another public bus got us there – we are like old hands now!  We were met at the bus stop outside the Panaderia and taken to the church where we were welcomed by “El Pastor” and a host of other members of the community. Our accommodation was so much better than we had expected – well, we hadn’t really known what to expect as communication on the phone had been so difficult! In fact, we had been all ready to camp for a week and cook on our trangias. In the end we had the use of a kitchen with pots, pans, plates etc and the girls slept in the school room albeit on a concrete floor, but it was relatively cool.  Howie and I, on the other hand, had to sleep in our tents! The hard baked grass was just as hard as the concrete and we had no shade so the heat was almost unbearable!

Inside the Sunday School building, bedrolls on the floor with mosquito nets hung from ropesNobody in the community really spoke any English so it was great for me to practise my Spanish but that also meant that it took away some of the ownership from the girls. However, they tried hard and certainly improved their Spanish as the week went on. We were a little surprised at first when we had a meeting with “El Pastor” (he remained “El Pastor” as we never found out his real name – everyone in the community calls him “Pastor” even his family!) and the ladies who were the organisers of the community. They asked us what we wanted to do! We said that we were here to do whatever they wanted. They were very keen to take us places, meet the rest of the community, join in with community events and share their culture. It didn’t seem to leave a lot of room for working! We stressed that we felt our first priority was to complete the work they wanted us to do but we were also very happy to join in with community events.

two girls preparing food in a kitchen.It was ridiculously hot in La Palma – it doesn’t have the protection of the jungle around it like Puerto Jimenez and it is dead flat so the sun burns down and there is little in the way of shade.  At 4pm in the afternoon it was starting to cool down but it was still over 30C.  The pattern of the days was set – rise early, start work at 7am, work until midday and then rest until 4pm before doing another couple of hours. Except that New Year’s Day was a public holiday so it was suggested we didn’t work at all, and Sunday was a day of rest so definitely no work!  In the event we did work New Year’s Day because we were awake and had nothing else to do! It was definitely too hot to stay in the tents and the girls were hungry so they emerged at 6am despite being up late the night before.  Work started at 7am the sun was too hot to work in by 9am so we left the walls that were in full sun and went back to them later!

girls painting a buildingNew Year’s Eve – our first day of work.  Our aim was to paint the Sunday School Classroom outside and inside. It was a concrete building with metal bars on the upper half and metal sliding doors.  We had anti-corrosive paint for the metal parts, sealant for the walls and then coloured paint to go over the top.  The plan was to do two coats of sealant and anti-corrosive paint and then two coats of colour. It was a big building so it was no mean feat.  We also had four picnic tables to assemble and paint.  However, there were 13 of us.  The girls had decided to have two people each day on kitchen duty who would focus on planning and cooking meals and then clearing up afterwards.  They also needed to go shopping for extra supplies.  So eleven people working for 7 hours a day = 77 man (or girl) hours per day times by 4 and that is a lot of time.  It didn’t take long for the first coat to be done – about three hours!  Dio girls are fast and efficient workers!  And they did a good job too.  Fortunately, the paint was water based so it was relatively easy to paint with and easy to clean the brushes too after each session.

girls lying underneath tables painting the underside of themGirls cleaning paintbrushes at a stone outside sink that drains directly onto the grass.We had been invited to the New Year’s Eve festivities in the church.  It was to be a sharing of gifts and “El Pastor” asked us if we would like to share something with the community.  Of course we would!  Kick off at 7pm – seemed a little early but we were cleaned up and ready by the appointed time.  All day there had been music blaring out of the boom boxes in the church and a host of teenagers had been in and out of the church practising something!  We hoped that our chapel songs, waiata and the national anthem, would be okay!

The Pastor reading from the bi bile in church and girl to the right reading the same chapter  in EnglishNew Year’s Eve in La Palma is an evening we will not forget in a long time!  I don’t think I have seen such passion to such an extent before.  “El Pastor” is a showman, but he is clearly well-loved and respected in the community.  The congregation responded enthusiastically to his cries of “Who welcomes The Lord into their hearts?”, “Say yes if you welcome the Lord!”.  He spoke directly to individuals, making everyone feel special.  It reminded me of the American evangelists we used to see on the TV back in the 80s.  After that warm up, there were prayers and a bible reading.  He had asked if one of our girls would like to read and Charlotte was keen.  She did really well reading from her very small pocket bible in English as he read the equivalent in Spanish especially since he had chosen a reading that had some quite complicated names of biblical places!

Flower display in the church, banana leaves and flower and other red flowersThen he picked up his electric guitar and the singing commenced.  The happiest, clappiest songs you have ever heard.  Everyone danced, clapped and sang along with gusto.  The whole church was alive to “Halleluias”, you just couldn’t help but get pulled along with the joy and celebration.  It has been widely suggested that singing and especially singing in a group leads to the release of serotonin and dopamine which are associated with pleasure and satisfaction.   The joy that we witnessed in that little church in La Palma was surely evidence of that.  The singing and the praying and the dancing went on.  One after another members of the congregation came up to pray or to read.  The ladies of the community sang, the men sang, the young people sang.  They also performed some interpretive dance – enacting the temptations the devil puts in the way of us to keep us from God but how God’s love is strong enough to withstand and keep us strong.  All very powerful stuff!  One of the things the girls reflected on later was that nobody seemed embarrassed about their faith as they might be in New Zealand.  All were happy to express their beliefs and celebrate with each other.  Then  it was our turn.  We had prepared 8 songs, we had no accompaniment, just 12 females singing so for a few minutes the noise level came right down.   We felt very nervous but once we started singing we were fine.  We started with the National Anthem for which everyone stood then we sang a few of the girls’ favourite songs from chapel at school.  There was some recognition when we started Amazing Grace and on the more upbeat songs they clapped along with us.  It was but a small offering in the five hours we were in the church that evening but it was well-received and we felt that we had done our bit.

White single storey church with grass in front and a large tree to the leftDespite the passion we did start to flag – we had been up since 5am and there were more than a few of us fighting to keep our eyes open!  At 11pm, El Pastor started counting down – prayer by prayer!  He started on a prayer of thanks that went on for 25 minutes and included pretty much everything he could possibly think of to give thanks for including practically all parts of his body!  Members of the community were invited again to come up and pray.  Finally in the last five minutes family groups came together and held hands, we stood together as a family that we had become over the last 3 weeks and more thanks were given for families and the events of 2014 and a blessing for 2015.  At midnight fireworks rang out all around and everyone embraced.  We were warmly included in the hugs and best wishes.

group photo in the church at 12.05am 2015

Coast to Coast: Puerto Jimenez to Carate

trekking map of a section of the Osa Peninsulatrekking map of the southern part of the Osa Peninsula Costa RicaOur trek was to take us from Puerto Jimenez on one side of the Peninsula del Osa  to Carate on the other.  42km in 4 days.  Doesn’t sound too bad, eh? Add in temperatures at around 30C and humidity of 90% and “Costa Rican flat” (aka up and down – just look at the contour lines!) through jungle and rivers and you start to get an idea.  Oh! And we were carrying tents, stoves, safety gear and food for 5 days for 13 people.  This was meant to be a challenge and a challenge it was.  For me, it wasn’t so much the walking with a pack.  I have done that plenty of times and for much further.  It was the heat and the humidity that I found hard.  Constantly sweating, constantly having to replace fluid and trying to keep cool.  The many river crossings were, in fact, a blessing as it gave us a chance to cool our feet down and splash our faces with water.  Although we had wet feet for 5 days which wasn’t so great.

But I wouldn’t swap the experience for anything.  The wildlife we saw, the shared challenges, the sense of fulfilment and just being in such amazing surroundings – the sights, the smells, the sounds.

trekkers crossing a shallow river.  Low lying vegetation around the river with the edeg of the jungle in the back ground.  Sunny day with blue skyDay one was our entrance walk, mainly on 4WD track from Puerto Jimenez and crossing the Rio Nuevo several times, we walked 13.5km into a lodge situated at the confluence of two rivers at the edge of the jungle.  Someone, I think, had had the bright idea a few years ago, probably a few years too early for the tourist boom, to build a “jungle paradise” with a central cabin with a wood stove and space to hang out, and a range of cabins that sleep between 2 and 6 people on wooden bunks.  It never really took off but the cabins remain, a little dilapidated but still functional and a warden still manages the site and keeps the place maintained.  For us it was a haven.  The river provided us with a great swimming spot to cool off and we didn’t have to get out our tents or trangias.  Having a fire to cook on was a luxury.

old battered sign that reads "Welcome to the perfect tropical adventure"The high note of the day was seeing squirrel monkeys in the trees.  These were our 4th species of monkey this trip. They are very cute and surprisingly happy to sit as we took photos.  We also met our first (of many)  leaf cutter ants which are everywhere!  These amazing ants carry more than their body weight in leaf to their colonies where it moulds and then is broken down as food. The acid that the deposit as they walk kills all other vegetation and leaves empty brown pathways that, according to Randal, can get so big that trekkers follow them thinking they are trails!

squirrel monkeys playing high up in the treesleaf cutter ants carrying cut leaves into their ant hillChristmas Day saw Secret Santa visit and we excitedly opened the presents we had been given and watched as the presents we had bought were opened.  It was a time of reflection and I know there had been a few tears shed in the privacy of dorm rooms as the girls thought about what their families were doing.  But it was also a time of excitement of what was to come.  We had an easy day ahead of us; a 10km circular walk without our huge packs to explore the immediate environs of the lodge. Randal is a biologist and today was a real treat as we had time to stop and appreciate the world around us.  He told us all about the different trees, animals and insects as we climbed to a high point where we could see across the jungle canopy.  In one direction was the gulf and in the other the peak we would climb the next day to get across to the Pacific Ocean.  (see next blog for details of the wildlife)

the author swimming against the current in a short rapid in a small river

Day 3 was our big day; only a short 10km walk but the steepest climb and as we headed deeper into the jungle the terrain was more unforgiving.  The “hill” was advertised as being “hard”.  It was only just over 400m high but one group had allegedly taken 12 hours to complete the 10km with 3 hours spent climbing the hill!  Randall was confident that we were better than that and could do it in around 8 hours but we still had an early start at 6am – just in case!  Challenge on!  There was lots of “Costa Rican flat” which meant “up, up, down, up, down, down, up…….” We ended up doing the big hill in half an hour!  Result!

very tall tree in the jungleLunch was at a small waterfall and getting there after the hill seemed like forever as we made our way over the seemingly never-ending, undulating “Costa Rican flat”.  I think we had been so hyped up for the hill and after making it to the top with relative ease we thought it was all over and were a little low on moral and energy!  Never mind, only 2 hours after lunch and we were at the goldminers’ camp in the Quebrada Piedras Blancas. All in we had made it in seven and a half hours.  Not bad at all!

Goldminers' wooden lodge in the background with our tents and a washing line in the foregroundDay 4 was supposed to be an easy one.  A 7.30am start and we would be at the beach by lunchtime.  It was not to be. We had a medical crisis to start off with:  Randal had fallen into a low blood sugar unconsciousness in the early morning.  We had thought he was just asleep and then that he was fooling around pretending to be asleep and that when the girls were all ready to go and that he would just jump up.  Leidy, the assistant guide had seen him up and about at 5am so thought the same thing.  At 7.30am he was still snoring, we got all the girls to shout from below the balcony to wake him but there was no response.  We then called his name and shook him but there was still no response.

Nor did he respond to pain.

Something was wrong.

Leidy suddenly realised what it was and went to get some sugar sweets from his bag.  I had been going through the possibilities of why a seemingly very fit and healthy man would be unresponsive and was just coming to the conclusion that diabetes might be the problem.   Leidy reaching for sweets confirmed that.  However, she said that he wasn’t diabetic he was just susceptible to low blood sugar.  Same thing, I thought, but he didn’t have insulin.  To cut a long story short, we started trying to get sugar into his system and after about half an hour he started to respond, we could open his mouth and his swallow reflex returned.  It took another hour before we could have any sort of intelligible conversation with him and it was clear that he was not going to be able to lead us out of the jungle. Interestingly, the first words he said were in English and so I had to translate for Leidy!  He said afterwards that as soon as he came round he felt that he had full brain functionality, recognised that Leidy and I were treating him and knew exactly what he wanted to say but just couldn’t make his mouth work!

After consultation with Javier, the trekking company owner, Roy, one of the goldminers who was also an experienced trekker and knew the way out well, was to lead us out and Javier would send in some more trekking guides to meet us, assist us on a steep downhill section and then help Randall out.  In the meantime, Lisbet, Roy’s wife stayed and continued to feed Randall carbohydrate and sugar until he stabilised.

early morning mist rising in the trees.  A bareback horse walking in front of the trees across the meadowIt was 9.30am before we set off.  The girls had been extremely patient and understanding as we had kept them informed with what was going on.  Howie had also contacted the World Challenge Ops room.  The first part of the trek was along the river, criss-crossing as we went.

basic shelter of upright tree pole and black plastic tarpaulin set beside the river in the jungleThe goldminers’ basic shelters of wooden poles and a tarpaulin were dotted along the river where they had cleared the bank of vegetation and flattened out the ground.  The river beds too had been modified to encourage the flow of water and the washing down of the gold deposits after the rainy season.  Goldmining was a booming trade of Costa Rica (the name means “Rich Coast”) but nowadays the gold is pretty much all gone and there are only a few Oreros (Goldminers) grinding out a living.  They are there, according to Randall and Javier, because their families have always been there and they don’t really know anything else.  Mining in the Corcovado National Park is illegal but these guys roam the rivers just outside the Park and if they do venture just inside they are more or less ignored.  Their eco-footprint is small compared to ours; they may alter the river bed and leave some waste behind by burying or burning plastic, tin cans and bottles but they live a very simple life – no electricity, wood fires, travel by horse, kill the meat they need and use edible plants from the forest to supplement the monthly trips to “civilisation” for basic supplies.

There was some suggestion that the oreros were to be feared or at least people of whom we should be wary.  People who live their lives away from the civilised norms of society, in the past criminals and people on the wrong side of the law would make their way to remote areas to seek their fortunes.  Often the men stay in the jungle for weeks on end whilst the women live in the villages so the camps do not have the calming influence of females.  However, Randal and Javier have a good relationship with the oreros at the camp/village where we stayed and certainly Roy and Lisbet who we met were very friendly and the half dozen other men we saw panning for gold in the shallow rivers waved hello and smiled in response to our greetings.

Roy cleared away the overhanging branches so we could walk under the fallen trees that balanced precariously across the river and cut back the undergrowth to reveal the path beneath.  We had crossed into the Corcovado National Park and this was rainforest as you imagine it to be.  Lush, green, thickly overgrown. The path had clearly not been walked for a while; it was very overgrown, fallen trees and vines and deep mud made the going slow and awkward.  Roy cut footholds in the fallen tree trunks slippery with moss with his machete as we headed upwards.  It seems that Lava Tours are the only group that do this trek and it is one specially designed for World Challenge Groups so it really was a path less travelled. Leidy took up Randal’s calls of “watch out for snakes” as we went.  Snakes were the one thing that Randal feared in the jungle and since he was an experienced jungle man we could only respect his fear and advice to watch where we put our feet and be careful about what we grabbed hold of!

trekkers climbing over fallen trees in the jungleOnce we left the river we climbed quite steeply until we reached the highest point of our trek at 510m.  We paused for a few minutes to catch our breath and peer through the thick trees at the view.  More trees!  We could just make out that we were on a summit, we could see other ridge lines and there was a sense that we were high up but the vegetation was so dense and the steam rising from the ground as the rain fell steadily made visibility poor.   There was a stillness in the air and when the rain started and the mist rose it was all quite ethereal with the vines draped over the trees and the calls of the birds seemed to echo through the stillness.  Even the happy chatter of the girls had fallen silent. Anticipating our trek back in NZ I had worried about being wet the whole time in a rain forest and how I would cope with that.   It had rained in the evenings and during the night but this was the first rain that we had come across whilst walking.  It was actually quite refreshing although I am sure that we might not have thought so if it had rained the whole time!

On a more open stretch walking along a ridge we heard a commotion high above us in the trees and a huge branch came falling onto the path right in front of us.  Looking up at the noise we could see cappuccino monkeys having a rare old time.  “Angry monkeys”, said Roy, “keep walking fast”. Apparently when the monkeys are angry they are very violent and will break off branches and throw them down as well as throwing pooh and sticks and fruit!  Maybe it was the rain and the wind that was disturbing them or maybe it was us but they certainly seemed agitated bouncing on the branches and screeching and running and swinging between the trees.

Suddenly there was a cry of “Randal’s here!”. And sure enough, there he was as right as rain!  He came through the group to greet Leidy who was delighted to see him.  He gave us both a big hug and said thank you for saving his life.  There were an emotional few minutes, the girls too were delighted to see him and spirits rose considerably.  We had just been joined from the other end by another of the trekking guides and soon after Javier arrived with another.  So we had ample assistance as we made our way down the quite treacherous downhill section that was a slippery web of roots, thick mud and steep steps.

waterfallLunch was at another waterfall but this one was amazing.  Only short but a fearful force dropping into a pool about waist deep.  Perfect for pounding sore shoulders.  We were all happy by this stage to just stand under the water fully clothed to cool ourselves down knowing that a) it wasn’t far now to the end and b) it was so hot that clothes dried quickly and wet clothes helped to keep us cool.

trekkers walking down a river.  It is shallow and has a rocky bed much of which is exposed.  The river is bounded by trees and low cliffs on the right and trees on the leftThe last section was beautiful.  We came out of the jungle and into the steep sided gorge of the Rio Carate with tumbling waters and mini rapids.  None more than knee deep so we picked our way down the river, hopping over the stone strewn river bed or wading through the water.  All too soon we arrived at Carate and the Pacific Ocean.  Final group photos and (tearful) goodbyes.  It had been an emotional day, we were all tired and there had been some low moments when it had been hard to keep spirits up as we plodded through mud and slipped on roots and clambered over huge tree trunks, trudged uphill and negotiated the downs. However, there was a huge sense of achievement and huge relief at making it all together with Randal with us at the end.

Our guides on the beach at Carate.

Puerto Jimenez

Girls standing in front of accommodation in Puerto Jimenez Puerto Jimenez is an interesting little place.  We arrived around 4pm and were immediately pounced upon by locals trying to lure us to their accommodation, treks, tours, lodges. We managed to send one packing when we realised that his accommodation was way out of town but took up the offer of another who had hung back initially.  If we hadn’t been so travel weary we might have had greater presence of mind to ignore his offers too and head into town to explore further.  However, there were thirteen of us with large packs and we were hot and tired and the only place to sit and wait while a team went off to scope the place out was the side of the road.  Javier, the in-country agent had suggested that there were some hostels just round the corner from the bus station and that seemed to be where the old guy was taking us so we succumbed.  A hostel was found that would accommodate all 13 of us together for a price that fitted our budget.  The Hospedaje Fanny Lu was basic.  That’s it.  Basic but clean. And there was wifi.

Street in Puerto Jimenez, shops selling gifts and soyuvenirs and a dvd rental placeOur very first impressions were that PJ is a launching pad for adventurers in search of wildlife and a taste of the jungle; there seemed to be little there but guest houses and Jungle tour offices. But as we walked out to eat we saw that there was more and as we explored this morning the bustling little town grew on me.  It reminds me a bit of small settlements along Golden Bay or up in the Coromandel where the young and hip made their home 30 years ago looking for an escape from city living and never left. Squeezed in amongst the everyday shops that provide the necessities for living and the offices advertising the best, the most adventurous, the chance to see the most wildlife jungle tours are shops selling arts and crafts,  jewellery and hair braiding, all locally made and run by aforesaid ageing hippies.

Costa Rican number plateThere are also heaps of places to eat all sorts of food.  Of course, the staple is Gallo Pinto and always the cheapest and most filling option.  But the restaurants that line the waterfront offer fresh fish which I for one could not resist, as well as nachos, quesadillas, spaghetti and real Italian pizzas. The port of Puerto Jimenez used to be a busy one before the road took the place of the ship as a means of getting produce across the gulf.  Boats still head over to Golfito where the nearest hospital is but it is more of a leisure marina now with yachts berthed in the harbour.  Families bathe in the shallow, warm water, flying fish are flashes of silver as they skim the surface and small seabirds dive and swoop to catch the flying fish as they jump.  On the day after our trek we cooled off in the water before eating in one of the seaside restaurants, treating ourselves as a reward for our efforts.

Sunset at the beach with palm trees on the left hand side of the imagePJ is also the stomping ground of the goldminers who pan for gold in the rivers in the Osa Peninsula.  Not in the Corcovado National Park as that is forbidden but very close to the edge of it!  They come into town every month to sell their gleanings and swap it for a different sort of gold!  The numerous bars are a testament to their presence.

Pizza restaurant in Puerto Jimenez