I'm squeezing into a long table with people of every age and nationality. We share little in common besides the place and time, the healthy glow on our faces and the heaping plates of food before us. Beautiful tuna nori rolls, curries of shark and coconut and pineapple, red cabbage and carrot salad, spicy Thai coconut lemon grass soup and spring rolls wrapped in chaya greens and tied with lemon grass.
I'm at an organic farm in the coastal Pacific mountains of Costa Rica, about to enjoy the most memorable potluck meal I've ever had, made primarily from ingredients straight from the backyard of a place called Finca Ipe.
"Finca" is Spanish for farm, and "Ipe" is the Indian name for the tree whose bark yields the medicinal Pao d'Arco. Founded seven years ago, Ipe was born of the vision of a group of individuals from around the world who shared a dream of life in harmony with the community and the land, removed from the pressures and pollution of industrialized society. Like many small organic farms, Ipe opens its doors to volunteers.
After a few weeks backpacking through Costa Rica and Nicaragua, a friend and I were happy to find a beautiful place we could afford to stay for an amount comparable to the cost of a hostel. When we visited, there were a few year-round residents, several paid Costa Rican workers and a group of volunteers that fluctuated from five to 15. The farm charges volunteers $10 and four hours of labor a day or $15 to stay without working.
The building I stayed in was beautiful, with a long wooden deck lined with hammocks, an open-air kitchen, and beautiful shower and bathroom mosaics by former volunteers. We slept in bunk beds with mosquito nets, and we always slept well.
It was easy to fall into the rhythm of life on the farm, punctuated by the simple acts of working, eating and sleeping. Funny how we forget, in the city, that it's natural to get up and fall asleep to the rise and fall of the sun. The wake-up call came at 5 a.m., but I was usually already awake from the cock-a-doodle-dooing of the farm's overzealous roosters, who sometimes went from 3 a.m. to 3 p.m.
After quick breakfast of granola, bananas, fresh goat's milk and strong, black Costa Rican coffee, I was pulling on my work boots to meet the crew for morning assignments.
Anyone who showed up expecting to stroll aimlessly with a basket, picking vegetables or scattering seeds, was quickly initiated with a job like shoveling guinea pig shit into a wheelbarrow and pushing it to a compost bin on the other side of the farm. There were sweaty jobs, like turning topsoil or collecting mulch, and tedious ones, like planting various grasses to prevent the hillside from erosion. By the time we finished we were always covered in dirt and sweat ... and we were huuuuungry.
Luckily, one worker's job was always to clean the volunteer house and make lunch for the whole crew, using whatever could be found on the communal food shelves in the kitchen — lots of potatoes, yucca, chayote, carrots, beets, salad greens, chaya, mangoes, star fruit and bananas, along with the Central American staple of gallo pinto, or black beans and rice.
After lunch, we were free to pass the day as we liked, reading, napping, hiking, doing yoga or just sitting around chatting about international topics such as the latest in Cockney rhyming slang from the visiting Londoner. In the late afternoon, I never missed a stroll through the farm, when the soothing, jasmine-like scent of the many ylang ylang trees — used in the farm's essential oil production — was full force.
I don't know how to say this without it sounding kind of cheesy: I felt like I reconnected with the earth and myself at the farm. I learned a little about things like tiered farming and planting and harvesting by lunar cycles; I met lots of good people; and I came home, not exhausted, but renewed. There's something incredibly empowering about digging out your own yucca root to fry, or picking your own Echinacea and ginger for tea.
If you're looking for an affordable way to travel and have any interest in sustainable agriculture of community-based living, I wholeheartedly recommend looking into volunteering on an organic farm. You'll find many in Central and South America, as well as all over the globe. Check out the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms' Web site — www.wwoof.org — for the most comprehensive listing of farm links worldwide. ©