Inspiration in Rancho Mastatal

26105980855_3df8a7f455_oGrowing up in a suburban community in Southern California, I had always believed that destroying nature was a consequence of our standard of living.

It was our third day in Costa Rica, by then we had already seen a tremendous amount of biodiversity on the car ride up to Mastatal, learned about different plants that grew well in Costa Rica in Siempre Verde, and even helped out on the farm. Those experiences all inspired me to one day return to Costa Rica to experience the beauty of Costa Rica, but our visit to Rancho Mastatal inspired me to come back to Mastatal not just for tourism but to actually pick up a new way of life.

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Homestay Family


One of the most rewarding experiences on this trip was staying with my home stay family. They were one of the most humble, caring and patient human beings I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. My initial feelings of nervousness completely fled after meeting Betty, Williams, and their three-year-old son Issa. Through this stay, I was given an everyday cultural experience that many who have visited Costa Rica cannot claim.

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Beyond the Language Barrier



“And they don’t speak any English”, our tour guides said to us as we were being assigned to homestay families. I was frightened to say the least.

This was going to be the first time during the trip that I would be separated from the rest of the team, and I spoke almost no Spanish. Luckily, I was partnered up with Lupe, one of the student coordinators, who could speak Spanish. But I was still worried about being unable to connect with my homestay family. I didn’t want to bother Lupe by asking him to translate for me every time I wanted to communicate. On the other hand, I didn’t want to just remain silent and lose the opportunity to connect with the locals and immerse myself in Costa Rican culture. Continue reading “Beyond the Language Barrier”

Shifting Perspectives: A story about two girls and their detour to Costa Rica

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The back of my throat was on fire as I tried to catch my breath and hold back my tears. My trembling hands held the quickly, scribbled note reading “it’s going to be ok”. The plane had left us and the panic was bubbling up to the surface, I looked at Claire and we both stared at each other in shock. My feelings of guilt, uncertainty, and fear were mirrored in her eyes. Here we were alone in the Mexico City Airport – just two foreigners with mediocre Spanish speaking skills, low funds, and limited knowledge in international travel. Needless to say, things weren’t looking too good for us. Despite the odds, we survived to tell the tale. So if you ever find yourself in this situation, here are some guidelines for survival.

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A Vegan Milks a Cow



IMG_4970 I told myself that this was a cool opportunity that I should at least try, because when else would I have the chance to milk a cow in the heart of Costa Rica?

I love cows. And from the moment that our group arrived in Costa Rica I was overwhelmed with countless adorable cow sightings. The people sitting around me were probably quite annoyed because I had to point out every single cow that I saw. So you can imagine that when the option to milk a cow was offered, I jumped on the opportunity.

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Happy Jack

Generalizations: we all make them from time to time, thinking we know a person’s story before they even open their mouth to tell us.  Perhaps one of the most prevalent generalizations out there is the one that the young generation puts on the older generation.  There always seems to be this idea that because of their age, the older adults are somehow stuck in old-fashioned or outdated ideals.  Jack Ewing of Hacienda Baru puts an end to this flawed set of assumptions by defying all expectations that the young have of the older generation.

Stopping to pose at a very old tree
Stopping to pose at a very old tree

Something about Jack reminded me instantly of my grandfather.  I do not know if it was the slight twang he had in his voice, or something about his overall demeanor that instantly made me think that he was a country-raised, “red-blooded” American, just like my grandpa had been.  Of course, I formed these opinions before I actually started listening to him, rather than just hearing.  Jack Ewing, property manager of Hacienda Baru, had come to Costa Rica on a temporary cattle-rearing contract back when the land was being used for cow-grazing.  He uprooted his growing family in the hopes of getting a change of scenery and an adventure before really settling down in the USA and starting a life.  For the first couple months, Jack felt no real attachment to his surroundings.

A million shades of green
A million shades of green

He was there to do a job, not to cohabitate with nature, and he did just that.  It wasn’t until he extended his contract in Costa Rica that he finally started to look around.  Without having realized it, Jack had been ignoring the slowly diminishing rainforest around him since his arrival in Costa Rica.  He had been too distracted with hunting and cultivating the land to form any attachment to it.

Once Jack began taking note of his environment, there was no possibility of turning back to any other life.  From that point forward, Jack poured himself tirelessly into making Hacienda Baru live up to its potential.  He began by reforesting the area with the seeds of trees that had become endangered.  In this way, he not only reforested large portions of Hacienda Baru’s landscape but also helped to reduce the risk of extinction for the formerly at-risk tree species.  Jack also helped in stopping hunting on the grounds of Hacienda Baru.  This change, in particular, struck me as a true measure of how far Jack’s thinking had come over the years.  From a man who hunted on Hacienda Baru, to a man that was willing to prosecute those who did, Jack Ewing’s mind had become forever changed.

Nothing but smiles at Hacienda Baru
Nothing but smiles at Hacienda Baru


When one of the participants asked Jack why he had chosen to switch to an environmentally-friendly lifestyle, he simply responded that after his mindset started switching, he would have felt false living any other way.  Going back to his cattle-rearing life of before would have made Jack incapable of looking his coworkers in the eye out of shame.  So in a way, it seems like the stereotypes about older adults are right in this case.  Jack Ewing is firmly stuck in his ways and will never change.  It just so happens that “the ways” he is stuck in are singlehandedly helping to create a healthier planet for the younger generation to live.  My generation might complain about how the older generation never changes, but at the end of the day, the world would prosper if more people like Jack were “stuck” in environmentalism.

When It Rains, It Pours

Written by Marissa Pham

I think it is safe to say we all faced some pretty heavy extremes during our trip when it came to weather. Being SoCal natives, we don’t know ANYTHING about rain or humidity when we’re encompassed in sunshine all day, every day. So feeling the rain for the first time on our hike back from the river during our second day in Mastatal is an experience I will never fully be able to capture again. As we trekked up the giant, red-soiled hill in the 85°+F temperature, these huge raindrops began to drop one by one, and by huge, I mean massive. These raindrops had to have been at least half an inch in diameter! The raindrops continued to come down slowly and gracefully. Once we had reached the top of the hill and come back down to the main road, there was a small section of concrete paved on the side of the dirt road where we could see the rain meet the pavement. The strange thing was the pavement looked completely dry as rain continued to splash on it. After watching closely, we realized that as the water hit the ground, the air around us was so hot, it was causing the water to almost instantly evaporate after contact! We could literally watch a raindrop hit the concrete, and watch the dark, wet mark slowly disappear within about five seconds. It was incredible to watch it happen so naturally. In an area where this is normal, we were all incredibly baffled when we realized this isn’t something we would ever see back at home.


2 puppies look out over the mist
2 puppies look out over the mist

Moments after we made it back to the farm, we realized how lucky we actually were. Just minutes after we had arrived, the rain started coming down in sheets. The power of the rain was unbelievable. The drops were coming down so forcefully, it sounded like hail as it hit any hard surface. But it wasn’t hail, obviously; they were huge raindrop pellets. Listening to the rain hit the earth was thunderous, and looking out, you couldn’t even see rain falling because there was so much and it was coming down so fast. But stepping out from shelter, we could feel the difference in nature from a different part of the world. Seeing, feeling, and listening to that rain was proof to me and proof to many of us that our environment is capable of more things that we can imagine.

Rain clouds looming over the mountains
Rain clouds looming over the mountains

As the rain came to a halt, the world around us seemed to be at some kind of ease and serenity. After hearing what sounded like constant thunder for about twenty minutes, everything seemed so peaceful, it was almost surreal. Looking out toward the hills from the kitchen, there was a strange fog rolling over that looked ready to devour anything it its path. It was scary at first, until we discovered that it was actually mist emerging from the evaporation of the rain from the heat. We were literally watching the effect of water evaporating before our eyes.

Painting a school in the rain!
Painting a school in the rain!

Needless to say, it meant the humidity level cranked up over one hundred percent. It was okay, though, because although we were drowning in the moisture in the air, we had witnessed a part of nature that many people would never get to experience. We discovered something new this day, and we all felt something beyond words.

There’s a First Time for Everything!

Written by Kelly Florimon

Kathryn and Toni's first time composting human waste!
Kathryn and Toni’s first time composting human waste!

During a long walk (in the wrong direction), I had some interesting conversations with my fellow teammates. One included a realization of all the “firsts” we’d had on the trip so far and of all the ones that were still in store for us. I am still amazed at how, in such a short time span, it felt like I had experienced infinitely more than I had in the past few months living my routine lifestyle back at home. The following list is my attempt to compile and account for all of the exciting “firsts” I experienced on this trip (in no particular order):

1.) Having my passport stamped for traveling to a foreign country.

2.) Getting lost in a foreign country!

3.) Holding a wild snake, cicada, and crab (not simultaneously).

4.) Eating cocoa fruit, guayaba (not guava), water apple, cashew fruit, palm fruit, and an egg fresh off the farm.

5.) Going ziplining (and then going ziplining backwards)!

6.) Seeing a wild capuchin monkey, sloth, toucan, poisonous frog, army ant colony, scorpion, crocodile, bat, lightening bug, turkey, and iguana.

7.) Weaving a basket!

8.) Harvesting cashews.

9.) Using a composting toilet.

10.) Staying with a host family.

11.) Learning about and seeing an aquaponics system.

12.) Having a frog jump on my back (and not freaking out about it)!

13.) Painting the outside of a building.

14.) Allowing a huge cockroach to crawl on my arm!

15.) Catching a wild lizard (to let it back out, into the rain forest).

16.) Not having access to a phone, computer, or iPod for over a week.

17.) Not being in contact with my family for more than a week.

18.) Spending a night in the jungle.

19.) Learning how to properly milk a cow (and then actually getting to milk it)!

20.) Sleeping to the sounds of jumping fish (Tilapia).

21.) Purposely walking in the rain without a jacket (and not feeling cold).

22.) Waking up at five in the morning just to see the sunrise.

23.) Dancing at the request of strangers (the children at the primary school we painted).

24.) Dreading the idea of returning home.

Jeff's first time behind bars!
Jeff’s first time behind bars!

It was pretty hard to not to add an exclamation point at the end of every event on my list because they were all pretty exciting for me. Each one brought me a new kind of happiness that was somehow different from the last. After talking with more teammates, I discovered that our lists vary drastically in length, specificity, and what one might consider usual. Despite these differences, however, we’ve all had the challenge of facing new, and sometimes frightening, situations. We each learned to embrace the ambiguity of life during (and hopefully after) this trip, and accepted these challenges with hearts full of optimism and determination.

Cesar's first time using a power drill!
Cesar’s first time using a power drill!

Upon returning to the United States, many of us found it difficult to share our experiences with friends and family in a way that captured all of the beauty, adventure, intellectual stimulation, comradeship and inspiration that was present. Although, my words and photographs could never compare to actually living these experiences, I’ve found my list of “firsts” so be a great source of conversation starters. Each “first” provides a little insight into my own perspective on how valuable the trip was. I hope that we all come as close as possible in explaining our complete appreciation of these experiences with others so that, they too, can be inspired to take action in their own communities and learn more about the world around them.

Marissa's first time smelling this seed!
Marissa’s first time smelling this seed!

One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned from this experience is that it’s ultimately up to me whether I make the most of every moment or not. Life is too beautiful to become so busy and wrapped up in the superficial world that you forget what’s truly important— happiness. Sometimes all it takes is a little time in nature or a meaningful, face-to-face conversation with another human being to remind someone how lucky he or she is to be alive. I could waste my spare time playing mindless computer games or searching the web on my phone, or I could use it wisely and go outdoors to help my mom with her garden, learn a new recipe, or spend some quality time playing with Rocky (my dog)—the choice is really up to me.

Alyssa's first time painting a building!
Alyssa’s first time painting a building!

I was initially dreading the idea of returning to my home in California, where I was afraid I’d quickly get sucked back into my busy, mundane lifestyle. After some thought, though,  I realized that each and every one of us has the power to make our lives here in the States just as happy and peaceful as our short, but wonderful lives in Costa Rica. If we truly take the time to stop and appreciate the little treasures in life, we can find a paradise closer than we ever imagined—right here, at home. In an effort to do exactly that, I’ve taken up the challenge of extending my list of firsts with every opportunity I get. I can’t wait to explore my surroundings (that I’ve neglected far too often) and discover what new “firsts” await! Whether it’s as daring as trying to learn how to surf, as challenging as trying to learn a new language, or as simple as starting a friendly conversation with a stranger, adventure awaits!

Olivia's first time eating raw cocoa fruit!
Olivia’s first time eating raw cocoa fruit!


Name That Fruit!

Written by Jeff Chiang

The textures, aromas, and flavors of Costa Rican cuisine left an indelible mark on my expedition to Central America. Despite how simple or complicated the dishes were, every plate of food was perfectly crafted to deliver a satiating meal. The portion that I loved most was the fruit present in every course. The variety of exotic and tropical fruits in Costa Rica was vast, providing my palate with an assortment of sensations. The extensive list of fruit we had the pleasure of tasting included, but was not limited to, water apples, cashew apples, guaba, papaya, pineapple, cacao, watermelon, avocado, and plantains. Every fruit was unique in its flavor; some were particularly sweet, while others were reminiscent of aged cheese. During my food-tasting venture, I came across two fruits that I thought to be unforgettable.

A blend of fresh, tasty fruit.
A blend of fresh, tasty fruit.

I was previously aware of how cashews were harvested, but I was always curious about the fruit that was attached to each nut. The cashew apple looked extremely similar to a jujube fruit, so I assumed the cashew apple had a crisp bite, as well as a mildly sweet taste. However, when I bit into my first cashew apple I was stunned to discover just how different it was. The fruit has a fleshy texture and the taste reminded me of cheese. The idea of a fruit tasting like a dairy product was slightly unsettling but astounding at the same time. The aroma that the fruit emitted was overpowering and had a slightly foul odor. By no means is the cashew fruit repulsive, I just happen to prefer fruits that aren’t savory.  As unique as the cashew apple is, it is a fruit that I probably wouldn’t seek to try again. Nonetheless, it is a flavor and texture that is worth trying at least once.

The Guaba fruits look like boomerangs from the outside!
These Guaba fruit look like boomerangs!

The guaba fruit is encapsulated in bean-like pods that looked vaguely similar to misshapen boomerangs. While the fruit looked alien in appearance, the taste was amazing. The edible part of the fruit is found on the seeds within the bean-like pod. The texture of the fruit can best be described as airy and light when it first hits the tongue, but becomes a creamy consistency as you break down the fruit. I cannot find the words to describe the taste of this magnificent fruit. It is mildly sweet while providing textural contrasts that progress from airy to creamy to chewy.

Pineapple fresh off the farm!
Pineapple fresh off the farm!

Every piece or slice of fruit I had in Costa Rica tasted far better than its counterpart back in Irvine. The pineapples, watermelons, papayas, bananas, plantains, and avocados were all vastly superior to the fruits that we find in our supermarkets. The natural taste, color, smell, and texture of fruits can only be fully reached when they are left to ripen uninterrupted. I am extremely fortunate to have tasted and experienced the wonders of how delicious, fresh and natural fruit can taste when the proper amount of time and dedication is put into growing it.