Long ago (1988) I moved to Berkeley and started sending a monthly "newsletter" to my Boston friends. When I returned to Boston (1993), I continued the tradition for about five more years (or until I had kids). Looking back, I realize that I was actually blogging. Each newsletter contained anywhere from a few to several blog posts. Having been silent for the past decade or so, I've decided to resume these activities. Don't expect anything profound -- I tend to focus on what I find entertaining or amusing and perhaps sometimes informative. We shall see!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

A Billion Rocks

I spent nine days this summer on a service trip to Costa Rica. It was a marvelous experience with a group of awesome students, teachers, and parents. And I moved a lot of rock -- up hills, over flats, down ravines, up more hills, into buckets, out of buckets, over walls, etc. A billion might be a hyperbole, but this was definitely a rock-oriented trip, or a rock party, as we grew to call it.

The journey began weeks before our first flight -- raising money and gathering "stuff" to support the projects we intended to accomplish. Our time would be split between a PANI (Patronato Nacional de la Infancia) transitional home and the Bribri Melleruk school in the Talamanca. For the PANI homes, we collected gently used toys, books, and clothing. Thanks to: Sujata Bhatia, Lisa Lowy, Junko Nagano, Sandy Yelen, and the two teenagers in my own house, who donated all this stuff.

The money we raised went to purchase materials -- tons of rock, sand, and gravel, paint, duffels, additional items for PANI -- and to pay folks we hired there (e.g., an electrician). Thanks to my team of supporters: Mark O'Friel, Geoffrey Knauth, Cathy Lanteri, Christine Price, Rebecca Ruck, Kristen Rupert, Carol Sandstrom, Miki Seltzer, Stan Seltzer, Leslie Shelman, and Susan Welby.

There were 32 of us heading to Costa Rica: 5 teachers, 3 parents, and 24 students, ranging from rising 8th graders to a rising senior. The vast majority of the students graduated from The Meadowbrook School of Weston in either 2013 or 2014. Our leader, Matt Molyneux, is a truly gifted teacher, who innovates at the school and teaches whatever needs teaching, from technology to outdoor survival skills. The whole program is the result of a grant from The Meadowbrook Leadership Institute, and this was the third summer we made a summer service trip. It was my first time on the trip.

Most of us met the day before departure to pack 32 enormous duffel bags that we would check. Students, teachers, parents, and even those who had planned on going, but couldn't, showed up to sort and pack.

Then we stuffed duffel bags into SUVs, minivans, and our pickup truck, heading home only to reconvene at 5:00 AM the next morning at Logan airport.

Amazingly we all made it to Logan with the 32 duffel bags and enough time to check them and get ourselves on our flight to Miami. The transit in Miami was a bit tight, but we and the bags all made it to San Jose, Costa Rica, where we were greated by our longterm guides, Monica Leal Rodriguez and Adrian Salas Campos of Costa Rican Adventures.

One of the first things that struck me was the genuine affection and warmth between Monica and Adrian and our students. Of the 32 of us, only two students, two parents, and two or three of the teachers were first timers -- and it didn't take long for us newbies to "get" the connection with Adrian and Monica. Not only were they our guides, but they worked and played side by side with us throughout the week. They looked out for us; made sure we were happy and cared for; made sure that we were able to undertake our projects. We could not have done this without them.

Next we met Andre, our bus driver, who would soon find himself an integral member of the Meadowbrook family. While he had been the driver during this past February's 8th grade trip, a wonderful surprise awaited us the next day.

As one leaves the San Jose airport, you have to pay attention to realize that you're not in San Jose, California amidst the Walmarts, MacDonalds, Burger Kings, and nearly every other fast food franchise that line our own highways.

Between San Jose and Limon, our first destination, are the Costa Rican mountains, so we were spending the first night at a mountain lodge about 2 hours out side of Limon. We made a brief stop in Cartago to see the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles and then to stock up on important supplies: Chikky's and Yipy's -- the standard cookie treat for all Meadowbrook Costa Rica trips. I'm pretty sure some of the folks subsist on nothing more than Yipy's and Chikky's. Finally after a very long travel day, we arrived at Guayabo Lodge in Turialba, down a 300m bumpy, narrow, steep dirt road that Andre navigated masterfully.

As this was my first time in Costa Rica and I was interested only in soaking everything up, I was somewhat taken aback by the rapidity with which the students (and many of the teachers) took to their electronic devices the moment we got to the Wifi-enabled lodge. I now understand and support the Meadowbrook policy of taking these electronic devices away from the students during the school trip. There was way more "parallel play" going on than true interaction whenever we returned into Wifi-land.

After the first of many rice and bean dinners, we all hung out for awhile and then retired to prepare for our first work day.

Monday morning we packed up and drove down the mountain into Limon and to the PANI transitional home. Children end up in transitional homes either when they have been abandoned or when they are removed from their homes for their safety. I won't be sharing pictures here of the kids, because these children have families and we are asked to protect their privacy. Suffice it to say that children range in age from birth to 18, when they age out of the PANI system. One of the newest arrivals to the Limon home was a 12-year-old girl and her 22 day old baby. The young lady is a sweet, artistically talented girl with eyes way beyond her twelve years.

Our Meadowbrook 8th graders have been visiting the PANI home for several years and as we pull up, many of the children recognize their American friends and they rush to greet them. Our group splits into several different teams -- one group heads into the baby/toddler house to spend more of their time holding and playing with babies who get little one on one attention. A second group starts sorting clothes and toys that we'll give to the children and/or leave in the learning center. A third group embarks on a photo project -- they brought a photo printer as well as some polaroids and took pictures of the kids, printed them out and then helped them construct personalized binders. Pictures are very popular. Another group begins clearing out the back rooms of the learning center that we intend to renovate to create a computer lab and small storage room. The rooms are currently full of lumber, piles of termite residue, an old toilet and lots of other stuff. The painters take over one wall of the center and construct a mural. And the last group starts digging to create a nature trail around the facility.

Unfortunately, within 30 minutes, the digging team managed to break a water line. Fortunately, we had a plumber in our midst (the father of our fearless leader), but this ended up torpedoing our nature trail plans. The digging team (mostly rising 9th grade boys) then focused their attention on an area at the top of the complex -- the teenagers wanted an outdoor space to hang out -- and we were determined to build a patio area. This was the first of many rock-moving projects.

When Andre, our bus driver, saw what we were doing in the back room, he let on that he worked construction in another of his lives and asked if he could help. From that moment on, Andre became part of our team -- working with us at every site we visited and doing anything that needed to be done. It was fascinating watching Andre, who spoke no English, and Jim, who spoke no Spanish, work together on master minding the renovation of the rooms -- with a shared goal and mutual respect, one can accomplish amazing things without a shared language. I think of Andre as one of our greatest gifts from this trip.

Personally, I started with the emptying of the back rooms and the removal of shelf liners covered in termite residue (a much nicer term than termite dung). Then I did some ladder holding for painters and finally, began my journey of a billion rocks by bringing wheelbarrows-full of stones, large and small, up the hill.

We worked until after 6 and then headed to Puerto Viejo, which would be our home base for most of the week.

By the time, the hungry, dirty, exhausted crew got to the restaurant in Puerto Viejo, I'm pretty sure we'd have been excited to be served dogfood, but instead we got more rice and beans (with either veggies, chicken, or fish) -- the restaurant was clever to give us their outside room so we didn't scare the other customers away.

Tuesday was another long PANI day, only this time, our main focus was finishing up the patio. The patio was on a pretty steep hill so we had to reinforce one side. The original plan was to simply reinforce with stone, but then I remembered that we had a few cinder blocks that we'd found in the back room -- turns out we had precisely enough to line the hill edge of the patio. So, we used a combination of cinder blocks, large stones, and concrete to build the edge. I'd never mixed concrete before, so this was a learning experience as well. Once we had the concrete going, we hauled about a gazillion wheelbarrow loads of gravel to fill in the patio. Turns out that was the easy part! Once the patio was near complete, we had to transport the concrete furniture up the hill. The small pieces were probably about a hundred pounds and the large ones were probably 200-300 pounds each. There was no way this was going to happen with the wheel barrows, so we found someone who would let us use a truck. Even loading the truck required monumental team effort. We left the furniture assembly to professionals, as a girl had already ended up with a broken leg from some of their less well installed concrete furniture, and we really didn't want that happening. We'll come back to the patio on day 5.

Once again we worked late and headed back into Puerto Viejo for a late dinner. As we hit the road it started pouring and by the time they had delivered about half the meals, the restaurant lost power. But have no fear - they were cooking over gas and there were a few backup lights, so they continued to bring food out and get us all fed. One of the teachers, who earned his spot on the trip by saying, "That's me!" in response to, "I need someone who can build a nuclear reactor out of a pile of scrap material", constructed an adhoc lamp using his iPhone and a bag. Very nice mood lighting.

Day three was a bit more low key. We got a latish start of around 9:30 and headed to a nearby hotel where we met up with all the kids from both the Limon PANI and the Guapiles PANI (where the teenage boys are). We spent the morning tossing them about in the pool and hanging out with them. A couple of the recent Meadowbrook graduates prepared some team building games for the teenagers, because they'd found in February that while it was easy to play with the little kids, it was awkward to interact with the teenagers, so they wanted to have some activities to bring people together. This was the same crew of girls who did the photo project at PANI.

It seemed to work reasonably well. As our wonderful leader described, it was a bit of a middle school mixer, but most people seemed to have a good time. After several hours of pool time and lunch, we all boarded busses and headed to the Jaguar Rescue Center. We broke up into four different groups based on the ages of the kids in the group; each of us had a buddy, and we toured the center. The older kids all wanted to take pictures so practically all of us gave our cameras to the kids and they took pictures.

Although this was a much lighter day, it was surprisingly exhausting and everyone was thrilled to have a somewhat earlier dinner that evening, leaving time to wander through Puerto Viejo.

Thursday we were off to the Talamanca, home to the Bribri (indigenous people of Costa Rica) and location of the Melleruk school. In February, our 8th graders had hauled 23 tons of rock to build a retaining wall. Unfortunately, it turns out that the mesh baskets full of rocks weren't exactly the right solution, so we were back to build a real retaining wall of large rocks and concrete. Yeay -- I only learned to mix concrete a few days before and already I was going to get to use my newly acquired skill. And of course, this would involve, you guessed it, hauling a lot more rock! In addition, a group of our 8th grade boys had proposed a project to build a playground for the children of the school, so a large playset was delivered and they dug holes (also filled with concrete) and assembled it.

It was an amazing day. As the story goes, the different indigenous peoples of Costa Rica named each other, and Bribri translates roughly into "tough guys." This seems totally appropriate -- most of the men were small in stature but incredibly strong and with aweinspiring endurance. The electrician we hired to come along and work with us is quite an accomplished soccer player and he said his team was one of the top teams in the country, but they always dreaded playing the Bribri team, because they would just run circles around them all game.

To complicate things a bit, the Bribri have their own language, so even our Spanish-speakers were not able to translate, but once the job got underway, it was pretty clear what needed to be done: we hauled a mixture of sand and gravel to form five large (huge) piles into which we mixed cement and then water to make the concrete. The Bribri did most of the wheelbarrow driving, while we picked larger rocks out of the mixture, but then we all formed work circles as we mixed the materials together -- you work around the circle, piling up everything into a big hill, then tearing it down to form a large crater and then building it up again. Once we had big mixed piles, we then formed a large bucket brigade to fill large barrels of water to mix into the cement. (Your truly got to experience fire ants first hand during one of those bucket brigade exercises.)

Finally, once we had piles of concrete, it went back into wheelbarrows that got dumped into the approximately 30 foot long, by 3 foot wide, by 4 foot high wooden framing that had been assembled for the wall. Running down the hill with a wheelbarrow full of cement that you tried to push over the already wet cement in the frame was pretty darned hard work, but our Bribri colleagues relished in the challenge and the young men seemed to having a bit of fun egging each other on during the activity. We had a separate party collecting large rocks to toss into the wall -- we carried them by hand, in buckets, in wheelbarrows, etc. The young Bribri boys were also anxious to help and there were few things quite as cute as 6 and 7 year olds lugging large pails of rocks on their shoulders. It was truly wonderful to see our teenage girls working side by side with the Bribri men all day -- it was a real team effort.

That evening, we spent the night in the Ditsowo cultural center, which resembles a giant treehouse, complete with authentic Bribri cooking. The beds are surprisingly comfortable cotton mattresses surrounded by mosquito netting, and we were split up into 2 large areas (boys and girls) and 2 small areas (male teachers and female teachers). We'd been told to dress for the cold, but as our space was on the 3rd floor, it stayed relatively warm all evening.

The next morning, our group split -- half went back to the Melleruk school to finish the wall and half went back to Pani to build some desks, finish the deck/patio, paint another mural, and play with kids. I ended up going back to PANI, where we --- guess what --- got to bring yet more small rock up to the patio to fill in around the massive concrete furniture that had been assembled in our absence. Yeay! It's so much more fun to push gravel up hill than to do it on the level ground. After we dumped enough rock, we recruited a group of the teen age girls to paint the furniture. They seemed to have a blast and we ended up with colorful, hand-decorated furniture that the girls "owned." It was a lot of fun and I only ruined a pair of shorts and two shirts in the painting process! (I wish I could share the photos of the girls, but we have been asked to respect the privacy of the children and their families.)

Both groups reconvened for a last night in Puerto Viejo, before the beginning of the end -- our day off and reentry to normal life. Saturday, we left at the crack of dawn, stopped at the PANI center for a final farewell and then drove for a couple of hours to have breakfast at the base camp for our white water rafting expedition. We rafted the Pacuare River, which boasted several class III and IV rapids, breathtaking landscape, first growth forest, and beautiful wild life. Our boat didn't lose any rafters, but several of the other rafts did, but we gathered them all back by the end of the trip.

Afterwards we boarded the busses for another 3-4 hours drive to an off-the-grid family farm, the Seelye Family Farm, which ended with a 3km walk/hike up a long up and down driveway in the dark. This was not a popular way to end the day. Fortunately, we were greeted with warm hospitality and amazing food.

The Farm is located pretty much atop a mountain in a cloud forest and just below a rare Paramo forest. After the long day rafting and the surprise hike, everyone crashed fairly quickly and we awoke to a wonderland of mountain, cloud, and livestock where life is hobbit like -- if you're up at 6 you get warm cinnamon rolls (if you can eat gluten), before cow-milking, and then (second) breakfast afterwards.

A relatively large group set out for the 5 minute hike to the magical "Castle Tree" -- a thousand-year-old tree that you can climb into, up, and under!

A much smaller group of us continued on to the hydro generators.

I had been planning on stopping there while the rest of the crew went to the top of the mountain, but well, for some reason, I felt compelled to go on. We made it to the top just as the drizzle started, and the entire mountain was clouded in, so I have no beautiful vista shots, just picture of the crew.

The way down was much quicker, but we did get caught in some real rain, which made for muddy and cold going. A shower afterwards helped, but I did spent a huge fraction of the rest of the day curled up around the enormous stone stove in the living room. That night was story hour and the preparation, both mental and physical, for the return home. The next day dawned beautifully, and we even got a glimpse of a smoldering volcano.

We bid our surroundings farewell,

hiked down the long driveway and bussed about two hours back to San Jose.

From there it was back to Miami and back home.

I truly loved the trip and am hoping to go back next year. Thank you to any who have made it to the end of this very long piece. Thank you to those of you who donated items. Thank you to those of you who donated money. And thank you to Meadowbrook students, alumni, parents, and teachers who shared 9 special days with me.