I wake up with the first alarm I set and listen to the symphony of tropical birds at the Corcovado Foundation Bio Hostel. The breeze carries in the sweet smells of fresh-squeezed orange juice and rushing freshwater from the river. The sun has only just begun to dry the morning dew on the plants outside the window sill. I get dressed, carefully avoiding yesterday’s pile of muddy clothes in the corner, then lean over the bottom bunk, convincing my roomie Alaina to get up before the guys have eaten all of the best fruit. She’s not a morning person, but even she will get up for mornings like these.
Slowly the group trickles in, their plates piled high with gallo pinto, eggs, and fresh pineapple, and gathers at tables in the covered courtyard; we catch up and chat, asking how everyone slept, who’s sore from the day before, who woke up with more mosquito bites than they went to bed with, and what everyone’s hoping to do that day. Eventually, our Tour Director Erick stands up and gives us an overview of the day ahead. We separate into our groups from the day before, when I was asked to lead one of them, and are given a few project options; our group decides to find out what a banana circle is, and how to build one.
Erick helps us find our way to the family farm about a thirty minute walk from the hostel, then heads back to supervise another group. The paved road turns into a dirt one, which turns into a small path through some banana trees and opens up to a clearing with fields, pastures, a few small buildings, and a house. Two dogs come running up to us, covered in dirt but impossible not to give scratches and cuddles to. Our project host comes up to us, and we are all surprised by her American accent. We learn about her life, and how she decided to build a sustainable and self-sufficient life for herself in Costa Rica, leaving behind a corporate lifestyle in the U.S. for one surrounded by the serenity of thriving biodiversity. We are then shown to our project area, and given our instructions. Turns out, banana circles are not easy to make!
Our host leads us to a shady area behind an open storage building. Our mission is to carve out a circular hole in the ground we are standing on. The ground is composed of hard-packed clay and thick roots from surrounding trees and it’s on a steep hillside. The hole needs to be six feet in diameter and about four feet deep on all sides—a difficult task on such a sloped landscape. I grab the pickaxe, knowing I’m one of the strongest, and quite possibly the only one who’s used one before. Everyone else grabs gloves and shovels and we get to work getting our hands dirty. Banana circles are constructed for organic composting. The hole is dug then filled with compostable organic materials, like dead leaves and fallen branches. Banana trees are planted in a circle around the hole, providing shade to create a dark and moist environment for the compost to process in. The trees are fed by the ground that is now dense with nutrients, and they also feed the compost pile on top by shedding their dead leaves into the circle. Banana trees grow faster and produce more fruit this way, no GMOs necessary.
After working for a few hours, we are all soaked in sweat, and most of us have shed a layer of clothing. The host brings us out to a covered patio for a break and offers us empanadas and homemade coconut ice cream. We sit on the edge of the property in this small cabana, looking out over a view of the jungle, petting the dogs, and asking more questions about banana circles. The cabana’s relative lack of walls allowed a cool breeze to penetrate the heat of the day and dry our damp clothes before we got back out to finish the work we’d started.
Our wonderful host helped us finish the construction of our beautiful banana circle (a.k.a. big muddy hole in the ground) by planting young banana trees—heavy but still small enough to carry—all around the borders, and filling the hole with organic debris from the surrounding area.
Having been trusted to find our way back to the Bio Hostel, we trekked back covered in mud from working and dog slobber from saying goodbye. Half of us went off to the showers, with the only goal being to get a good nap in before dinner; the rest followed me to the small river behind the courtyard, where we barely stopped to take our phones out of our pockets before jumping in fully clothed. The water was shallow enough to stand, but with a powerful current, shaded by the overhang of trees, vines, and leafy shrubbery. Small fish could be seen darting away from our lazy entry as we clumsily flopped into the cold water. The clear water turned murky as we sat on the rocky river floor and collectively washed any clothing we still had on. Slowly, as we were joined by our friends from the other project groups, we all got out and headed to the showers.
After getting cleaned up for dinner, I walked through the covered dining area out to the back garden, shaded by a dense and diverse canopy of trees in the dimming light. I lay in a hammock, chatting with Erick and our bus driver Carlos about their childhoods growing up on the other side of the country, surrounded by coastal banana plantations. As the smells of dinner being cooked grew stronger, I called my family to check in and tell them about my day. I sent my mom a photo of me with the dogs from earlier—she calls these photos “proof of life” as they ease her anxiety about me being gone so long.
I sit down at a large table with a large plate of food: chicken with herbs, more fresh fruit and veggies, and fried yucca that I had helped pull from the ground the day before. In a place like this, it’s pretty safe to assume that everything on your plate grew from the ground around you. As we finish our food, I slide any leftover meat onto my friend Tom’s plate—he eats more protein than most professional athletes—and a firework goes off in the distance, reminding us all that it’s almost Christmas. It doesn’t feel that way, having grown up in the north where December means snow. The Costa Rican Christmas season is warm and the celebrations start early and finish late; fireworks randomly being let off throughout the month is a part of these celebrations.
A stray dog, spooked by the booming noise, comes running in shaking. I can’t help but pick him up and hold him, caressing his soft ears until he calms down. As I put him down, I ponder this unusual holiday season: we’ve been traveling together for about three months, over a third of which has now been with this specific cohort in Costa Rica. I think about how proud I am to be a part of a group dynamic this special. Tom and I have grown into leadership roles, but everyone takes initiative—and everyone works so hard, while telling jokes and savoring every sweaty moment. We challenge ourselves and each other to work faster, support each other better, and go the extra mile every time. At our last service location, we had asked them to give us extra work on our day off because we felt we could do more and we wanted to.
We can’t see the horizon due to the dense jungle around us, but we can tell the last light has faded out by the time we meander over to the small “bar” and ask Brayner, one of the full-time local volunteers at the foundation, for Imperials, the national beer of Costa Rica. Brayner says he has a surprise for us—it’s a karaoke machine! If we hadn’t felt the whimsy of childhood while digging in the mud, we surely were feeling it now.
It’s such a clear sky overhead, with virtually no light pollution. Alaina, having grown up in rural Missouri, may be used to this kind of starry night, but it was a more rare occasion for me. Colby, Erick, Alaina, and I all went out front to lie down in the grass across the road and stare up at the constellations framed by the treetops in our peripheries; I pointed out Orion, Ursula Major and Minor, and a few satellites. We talked about leaving for the first time—not for long, because no one wanted to believe it, but just long enough for it to set in that this movie we were living in was not going to last forever. We all promised to see each other again, as we would promise several times more before boarding our flights home less than two weeks later. Then we passed out in our bunks with a satisfied exhaustion.