By Joey Fening
SAN LUIS, Costa Rica — Our taxi driver’s expression turns awfully un-Costa Rican as he finds out the van has popped a flat tire. He received the news as our van was descending the steep, unforgiving rock road when a following truck gave us a few friendly honks and pulled up along the driver’s side. After a brief exchange in Spanish informing us of our dilemma, the other driver pulled his truck ahead and continued his descent down the Tilaran mountain range. It was a neighborly notion, however small, and it wouldn’t be the day’s last.
Our taxi now assumes a slower pace, the driver throwing intermittent glances at the back left tire. A local from the area, his skin, eyes, and brown hair are all sandy, and as he negotiates the mountain roads with three remaining tires partially deflated in their own right, he keeps his eyes squinted and lips pursed. Sharp-featured and in his mid-twenties, he avoids a maze of potholes, and he downshifts the manual transmission to slow the van over the unavoidable ones. All the while, he’s no doubt racking his brain to find a new tire.
Our van is labeled “turismo” on the back, but we’ll take offense if you call us the t-word. We’ve all run through the excuses in our heads: We’re a group of students studying the country’s environmental policy and economic development, and the beautiful sights and warm weather (in January) pose no distraction to our strictly academic two-week stay in the country. The nice tans cannot be prevented.
Monteverde rests on Costa Rica’s slice of the continental ridge, a thickly forested mountain range that hosts some of the country’s most important natural preservation areas. We’ve been staying at a lodge next to the Monteverde Institute, an environmental organization nested in the higher summits of the mountains and host of our study abroad program. Bethany, a worker at the institute, is our guide for two weeks. She’s an American, but has lived in Monteverde for nine years and seems to know every bend in the roads, every call from the rainforest, and every solution to the problems we’ve thrown at her. There was a lot to adjust to in Costa Rica (toilet paper goes in the trash, not the toilet), but for Bethany, the people weren’t one of them; she grew up in Georgia, and she likens Monteverde’s community to America’s southern hospitality. It’s why she came here.
She lives with her husband and two kids in San Luis, the stretch of mountain our van is currently limping through, and we’re picking her up along the way to our first destination of the day. We’re off to meet a man named Lelo; he’s building a combination restaraunt-bar-lodge-farm on his property, and a self-sustaining one at that.
Our driver is from San Ramon, a province over on the mountain range, and while San Luis is only a short but trying drive away, he isn’t sure where he can find a replacement tire. If he doesn’t soon, he’ll have to stop. About a mile ahead, Lelo is already waiting.
The driver spots a woman walking down the road, and before he brings the laboring van to a complete stop, she has already stepped up to his rolled-down window. It turns out she’s Bethany’s mother-in-law, and after another brief conversation in Spanish, she motions down the road.
The driver lurches the van back into motion, and after a couple more bends in the road, he sees a roadside figure, to his immense relief: Bethany. It doesn’t take long for her to find a solution.
“There are about 400 people in San Luis, and they all help each other,” Bethany says at the mouth of a farm’s dirt driveway.
The San Luis neighbors might be friendly, but their farm dogs aren’t, and we keep a comfortable distance at the property’s roadside edge. About 40 yards down the driveway, a canine duet barks from the ranchhouse where our gimped taxi is parked. Our driver and the farm’s owner are both crouched beside the van, inspecting the faulty tire.
Perhaps to help kill time, someone asks Bethany why there was a metal girder around a sharp turn in the road earlier. There’s no shortage of dangerous angles in these mountainous roads, but that barrier was the only safety measure to speak of.
“A car fell off of there a few years ago,” Bethany says. During a drive, a local family and their homestay student stopped to snap a few photos of a particularly impressive view. This in itself is no misjudgment: The slopes of the scenic green mountainside and the rolling mists that obscure its higher reaches demand such tribute. It was when the car tried to pull away that something went wrong. Nobody knows exactly what; the driver died in the crash. The community raised funds to install a girder after the tragedy.
Over by the ranchhouse, the farm owner wheels the flat tire, now removed, away from the van.
Bethany says the community’s reaction was typical after a local tragedy. If someone’s house burns down, the town will host a dance, with proceeds going to the victim’s family. In San Luis, the communal sensitivity for a neighbor’s welfare can act as a de facto insurance policy.
The farm owner rolls a replacement tire, covered in a thin layer of dried mud but functional, over to the van’s rear.
Bethany offers another example: One man from San Luis had aggressive stomach cancer and wouldn’t be able to make it through Costa Rica’s long cancer waiting list. The town raised enough money for an expedited operation. She says the man doesn’t have part of his stomach anymore, but the surgery helped keep him alive.
The farm owner visits the rest of the van’s tires, his air compressor pumping them out of their pudgy shape.
He works amid a chorus of barks. When the work is finished, he walks along as the driver steers the van out of the driveway. As we head to our meeting with Lelo, Bethany and our driver converse in Spanish. With four tires fit for duty at his command, the driver’s squint eases into something more jovial, and he develops a smile throughout the conversation, revealing a set of braces on his upper teeth. He offers polite “Haha”‘s during Bethany’s more emphatic sentences.
When we finally pull into the rock driveway we were supposed to reach an hour ago, Lelo is stepping out of his small cow shelter in shin-high boots. He’s tall and hard-featured, and his business philosophy provides an appropriate microcosm of the Monteverden outlook. He built a soccer field on the edge of his property for his visitors to have some fun, and it has doubled as a wedding venue twice. Birds keep picking his orange trees clean, but he won’t kill the perpetrators: birds are more important than his oranges. His restaurant doubles as a bar, but he’ll never serve hard alcohol. He wants his lodge to be family-friendly, not a place for tourists to get drunk.
When our group returns to the van, the driver is sitting in the front seat, reading. As we climb in, he closes his book and turns to put it in his backpack. It’s a Spanish translation of a Dave Ramsey self-help book on how to transform your financial assets.
The people in San Luis might welcome such expert advice. Ever since Monteverde’s cheese factory was sold last year to a Mexican multinational corporation called Sigma, residents have been living in uncertainty. The factory has been the economic staple for the region since it was founded in the 1950s, and though the great Dave Ramsey may have advised against consolidating resources to one industry, locals dedicated their lands to dairy farming in order to meet the factory’s need for milk. Farmers enjoyed the consistent income, and the factory operated as a cooperative, with each member carrying one vote. Sigma operates as a corporation; the factory’s milk suppliers no longer have any say in the business’s decisions.
Now, the people of San Luis fear that their economic livelihoods are at the mercy of businessmen living elsewhere. One of the corporation’s first mandates required milk to be delivered in newer storage tanks that cost up to $4,000. Many farmers still deliver their product by horseback and don’t have the money to invest in such tanks, so now, landowners across Monteverde are trying to rework their longstanding dairy farm models. It’s a different problem than the occasional house fire that the locals are used to.
Still, San Luis has its own ways of resisting such change, and some of its residents are willing to preserve their way of life in the face of impossible odds: Our next stop is a coffee farm whose owner is keeping his process entirely organic even as a fungus destroys 80% of his crops.
We have to retrace our path to get to the coffee farm, and when we drive past the residence that provided a replacement tire, the driver slows and gives it a look. He takes one hand off the steering wheel and slides it over the car’s horn, readying to honk a hellothanksagaingoodbye, but not even the ornery farm dogs can be seen pacing in the driveway. He shifts the manual stick into second gear instead. Maybe next time.
After we pull into the coffee farm, the driver decides he’s read enough financial advice for the day (could Dave Ramsey even find Costa Rica on a map, anyway?) and joins us for the tour, sticking to the back of the group. The coffee farmer speaks beneath a thick mustache, and as we follow him through his plot of land, he motions to a pocket of orange trees: Help yourselves.
As I watch the taxi driver accept the offer, I wonder if the rest of the country operates with such goodwill. Tomorrow, one of Bethany’s coworkers, a resident of nearby Santa Elena named Maricella, will tell me that all of Costa Rica is like this, especially Monteverde; that the people here on the mountain carry a sense of solidarity; that if a farmer doesn’t sell his whole harvest, he’ll give the rest away; and that even the thieves and drug addicts are nice.
When the coffee tour is over, I climb into the van’s passenger seat and set down my haul from the family’s kitchen-turned-store: five brown bags of coffee, dark and medium roast, in a blue plastic bag. The driver, pulling himself behind the wheel, looks at it, then me. His expression says, “Damn, that’s a lot of coffee,” but he knows as much English as I do Spanish: very little.
“Para mis amigos,” I finally manage.
He nods knowingly, smiling.
“Ah. Sì, sì.”