Regreso al Cafe Britt

Trip Start Aug 08, 2008
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Trip End Oct 12, 2008


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Flag of Costa Rica  , Province of San Jose,
Saturday, October 11, 2008

Our tour ended yesterday with a tortuous (and torturous!) drive back to the Hotel LeBergerac in San Jose. This time, I only just barely held it together, gastrointestinally speaking, on the winding mountain roads. I was tempted to ask our driver to stop so I could take a picture of myself wrapped around a "Curvas Peligrosas" sign, but between the DEET stains on my jungle pants, my connect-the-dots mosquito bites, and the inevitable result of not wanting to shave any body part covered in mosquito bites (that would be all of them, now) I've never in my life felt less able to pull off a silly-sexy pose.
 
We hit brutal traffic when it started pouring, and arrived several hours later than expected. On the way, we passed crowds of people waiting for late buses, looking significantly less cheerful than the awaiting passengers I'd admired on the way in from the airport six weeks ago. I picked out something on the traffic report about streets being closed due to flooding, so perhaps this was a bit out of the ordinary.
 
My parents had expressed some interest in taking a coffee tour. I knew Cafe Britt was nearby and worth visiting, and I didn't mind seeing it again, so I suggested we go there today. We had to take a cab; they pick people up at their hotels in San Jose, but as we made our plans at the last minute, their shuttle was all booked up. We chose the deluxe tour, which included lunch, a lesson on making coffee drinks, and a field trip to their husking and drying facility in addition to a whimsical costumed performance that's part of the standard package, but which had been pared down for CCS's private mini-tour. (For the record: in my September 3 entry, "Me Gusta Cafe," I erroneously identified Cafe Britt as a coffee plantation and processing center; it is in fact only a processing and packing plant. They buy all their coffee from small farmers, all of whom adhere to at least shade-grown (semi-organic) and many to fully organic standards. The coffee plants on site are for demonstration purposes only. I regret the error.) If you can afford a few extra hours and an extra twenty bucks per person, I recommend the deluxe tour; lunch was fantastic, and I learned a lot more this time around.
 
Some new fun facts: caffeine breaks down at high temperatures, like those in the oven that roasts coffee beans. So, while a darker roast (which, by the way, just means more time in the oven, not higher temperatures) produces a stronger flavor, it yields a weaker stimulant. Espresso may not be the way to go, then, if you have to pull an all-nighter, unless you can drink it straight, and the only limiting factor is the volume of liquid you can consume before your bladder explodes.
 
Also, the ideal altitude for growing coffee is between 1200 and 1500 meters above sea level; apparently, cold builds character even if you're a coffee bean. ("Cold" by tropical standards, of course; we're talking something like 65 degrees Farenheit. Brrrr!)
 
Whole bean coffee does keep longer than ground coffee, especially once the bag has been opened, due to the lower surface area to volume ratio. The tour operators, however, still recommend buying ground coffee unless you have a professional-quality grinder because having an even grind is critical. I've been grinding beans in my dinky little Magic Bullet food processor and it tastes fine to me, but perhaps my coffee palate is not yet sophisticated enough to tell the difference.
 
I sampled all the coffees again and found I still preferred the house dark roast, by a wide margin. They were all a little watery by U.S. standards (but typical for Costa Rican coffee) and this actually seemed to make the differences in flavor more pronounced. Fortunately, it doesn't take much caffeine to turn me into a jittery ball of rodent nerves, so I should be all right drinking the weaker stuff.
 
On the recommendation of a previous CCS Puriscal volunteer who also kept a blog, we paid a quick visit to Galeria Namu, a tiny storefront stocked floor to ceiling with indigenous artwork. The owner is an Irish expatriate and former literature teacher who came here not speaking a word of Spanish or knowing anything about Native American crafts, but like so many first-world refugees, found her calling and has been here ever since. There were intricately woven baskets, some of which had taken years to make; animal figurines and jewelry carved out of vegetable ivory, a type of palm nut; drums, stamps, paintings, purses, and the usual array of knick-knacks. The masks in particular dazzled me; if I had two hundred dollars and three square feet of wall space to spare, I would have bought one. (If I had two thousand dollars and an empty room to spare, I would have bought them all and opened my own gallery. But if I've learned one thing from this trip, it's that I'd rather be too poor to take pretty things home with me, than have a beautiful home I never see because I'm always working.) My mom bought a woodcut and two watercolor paintings, and I settled on two batik cards.
 
My parents are of the opinion that the laid-back tree-hugging pura vida lifestyle here will sooner or later (but probably sooner) succumb to the temptations of industrialization and free-market capitalism. I hope they're wrong, but even I haven't been here long enough, or read enough on the subject, to make a meaningful prediction one way or another.
 
Okay, hands up if you thought that would stop me. Ha, ha!
 
It's curious that Costa Rica is transitioning so quickly from an agrarian economy to a service economy, without having gone through an industrial manufacturing phase. The marketability of ecotourism seems to depend almost as much on the surrounding nations' failures to preserve their scenery and wildlife as it does on Costa Rica's success in doing so. Whether, when, and how to proceed with such proposals as paving certain roads heavily traveled by tourists, opening or keeping open to the public fragile wetland areas, and allowing potentially damaging (and likely exclusive) resorts to be built on beachfront property is a topic of great controversy in local politics. There may be limits on how many nature lovers' dreams the land can fulfill before the ecosystem collapses under the strain.
 
My father and I had a long conversation at dinner (actually, it outlasted the meal) about how the current economic crisis at home is, according to him, the predictable outcome of a long tradition of expecting standards of living to improve for each generation, without an actual increase in real national wealth. I agree that the U.S. has been living on borrowed time since the term "manifest destiny" was coined, though I do think that relatively recent poor economic decisions (the deregulation of the lending industry and the financing of schools with local property taxes in particular) are more responsible for the sub-prime mortgage crisis than the human desire to achieve progress despite finite natural resources.
 
From what I've read, it seems clear to me that six billion people is already too many; some estimates put the maximum infinitely sustainable human population as low as one million, and to maintain our current (American) lifestyle, that may not be too far off the mark. I wonder if we can rein ourselves in, stop multiplying fruitfully like it's God's will, stop draining irreplaceable energy reserves to make ourselves more comfortable, stop denying the imminent crisis, before it's too late.
 
I'm not terribly optimistic.   
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