Jul 282011
 

 

Driving deeper and deeper into the forested countryside, I wonder what awaits. It’s getting dark and I hope I can figure out all the turns as I navigate through the small towns and tiny villages of southern France. We made arrangements at a farm/B&B an hour north of the city of Bordeaux, beyond the normal tourist routes. The roads become narrower and the villages tinier the closer we get.

In the last light of day, across a green, flower-filled meadow, set amidst tall trees, we see the stone buildings of Ferme Auberge La Gabaye, www.lagabaye.com. Several cows interrupt their quiet munching to watch us pass. Christianne, the energy-filled proprietress, greets us warmly, showing us to the little guesthouse that will be our home for the next ten days.

 

 

Christianne, who speaks very little English, manages to communicate that breakfast will be ready the following morning whenever we happen to awaken. It’s been a long travel day and we fall into the downy coziness of the comfortable bed.

Breakfast is a continental affair with the typical coffee and baguettes. But Christianne’s homemade cherry, grapefruit and rose-petal jams make it special.

 

 

According to Nathalie, Christianne’s daughter who speaks excellent English and helps run the Auberge, the farm has been in the family for over two hundred years. She does her best to facilitate communication despite her obvious neck pain after being broadsided the day before by a driver from la-la land.

Nathalie has traced the family history here back to 1680 and explains that their village, La Petite Glaive, had more inhabitants prior to WWII but suffered much damage during the war. Now, the village is a collection of widely dispersed, old farmhouses and a few newer homes set in a landscape of lush fields, gardens and thick forests.

 

The first day is spent exploring around the ancient town of Guitres, as recounted in the previous article. Upon returning, Christianne is busily preparing dinner. Relaxing before dinner with a glass of the farm’s red wine beneath the many fruit and nut trees is close to heaven. The quiet is broken only by the calls of birds and the breeze through the trees. Not far away, a cuckoo calls, sounding exactly like the eponymous clocks.

The bell rings and dinner is served. First, an aperitif-delicious, sweet and fruity, followed by homemade pate’ de foie gras and fresh bread. The main course is succulent confit de canard, leg of duck seasoned and preserved in the local manner, surrounded by fresh, locally-grown vegetables. Confit is a speciality of southwestern France. It was developed centuries ago as a way of preserving meats and Christianne is a master. Served with generous amounts of the farm’s wine and topped off with a delicious pear tort or a luscious custard, it is heaven and a prelude of meals to come–authentic, down-home, French-country cuisine.

 

 

During the long, slow dusk following dinner, a walk up the deserted road provides an opportunity to see close up the few farmhouses and gardens of the village and experience the sense of timeless peace in the idyllic quiet of the Dordogne countryside.

 

 

Every meal is a gastronomic experience in regional cuisine, always beginning with a different, delicious, homemade aperitif. The main courses vary but duck is frequent. An omelet of farm-fresh eggs with local, wild mushrooms is a highlight.

 

 

One meal though, remains especially memorable. In the large fireplace in her kitchen, Christianne builds a small fire of dried, grape vines pruned from her vineyard. They quickly turn to coals over which she places a grate and proceeds to grill an ample duck breast. This is a local specialty. When done and sliced into medallions, the duck is succulent with a unique, smoky flavor.

 

 

 

 

After a few days, I discover Christianne’s root and wine cellars. Yes, there are many bottles of wine, but also shelf after shelf and room after room of canned fruits, vegetables, confits, pates, sauces and jams, not to mention the baskets and baskets of hazel and walnuts strewn around. It is a cornucopia of canning and a glimpse into regional farm life over the centuries.

 

 

 

 

La Gabaye is located only an hour from Saint-Emilion, one of France’s premier wine growing regions. Vineyards are everywhere. Old Chateaus dot the hilltops. The opportunities for sampling regional wines are endless as are the opportunities for exploring the other wonders of the Bordeaux region.

Copyright 2011 Dennis Jones/Dreamcatcher Imaging

www.dreamcatcherimaging.com

 

Mar 112010
 

Organic Farming and a Celebration of Costa Rican Democracy


The view toward the ocean from San Luis.

That afternoon, we travel to another tiny pueblo, San Luis, high in the mountains for a small feria. On the way, we detour to see the fortress built by an American who was murdered there only a couple of weeks prior.

The Fortress

The government removed over $3 million in jewels from the incredibly ugly fortress he and his wife lived in. He surrounded himself with an 8,000 acre preserve. Several guard shacks and twelve guards protected the approach. In addition to the jewels, the government removed three semi-trailer loads of furnishings and art work, not a small feat on these bad, narrow, dirt and rock roads.


A small waterfall along the road to San Luis.

It is a beautiful, long, slow drive on a bad road to San Luis. The town is perched spectacularly on a mountainside which drops steeply away several thousand feet into a valley surrounded by mountains leading to the ocean. What a view!

Leif, Deiner and Amy discussing organic farming.

We meet some of the warm-hearted locals and buy lunch. They’re having a benefit to raise money for the community. We also meet, Leif Palmer, a Peace Corps volunteer from Portland, Oregon. He is living in the village trying to bring in phone and internet service. He also is working on obtaining government grants to add computers and a computer room to the school. One young local, Deiner Fallas, takes us to visit his greenhouses where, with the encouragement of Amy and Leif, he is learning to grow organic vegetables for his family and the market. His enthusiasm is contagious. He clearly expresses joy and pride in his accomplishments.

Deiner Fallas and his organic greenhouses.

The next day Amy joins us to experience the Costa Rican national election in San Isidro. A friend recommended visiting a city to see Costa Rican democracy in action. It is so different from our elections. There is much hoopla. Everyone from young to old participates. The streets are filled with honking, flag-waving cars and trucks full of supporters. People must to travel to their home town to vote. Trucks and buses ply the countryside throughout the day, ferrying voters to their polling places.

Bringing in voters.

Everyone participates.

Supporters of Otton Solis.

Registering supporters for Otton Solis.

Each party has their colors and flag.

Supporters of Laura Chinchilla.

Voting takes place at various schools. You must find your name outside the room you need to vote in.

Only one person or family is allowed in the room at a time.

Lovely Laura supporters holding the three ballots, one for President, another for National Deputy and one for Regidor or local representative.

It’s one big party. Almost the entire population joins in. Ticos are very proud of their democracy and express it much differently than we do. Costa Rica elected their first female president, Laura Chinchilla, by a 20% margin.


Laura supporters celebrating democracy Costa Rican style.

After taking Amy home, we pick up our luggage at Capt. Jan’s. It starts raining hard, most unusual for this time of year. Not having felt a need to immediately replace the broken window, there is still no passenger window. Yolanda holds a piece of plastic over the space, trying to keep the rain out. It rains most of the way to Dominical on the coast where we have a reservation at Hacienda Barú, a much recommended Eco-Lodge and National Wildlife Refuge. After the mountains, we are looking forward to the coastal jungle and beach.

Copyright 2010 Dennis Jones/Dreamcatcher Imaging

www.dreamcatcherimaging.com

Mar 082010
 

A Lot of Good and a Little Bad


The view from the cabin at Los Chorros. The ocean lies obscurred in the distance.


After a wonderful afternoon exploring Amy’s finca and eating deliciously fresh fruit, we head down to a Tico house she had found for us to rent. We agree to meet at her finca the next morning at 9:00 AM.

The house is in San Salvador, a tiny pueblo a couple of kilometers from her farm. It is pretty basic but fine, especially for only $20 a night. As evening quietly falls and fire flies light the trees, we sit outside, enjoying a meal of greens, fruit and heart of palm Amy provided us. Around 7:30 I lay down in bed to read and suddenly, my legs are crawling with big, black ants. Turning up the mattress reveals a nest, larvae and all.

Yolanda is freaked out and insists we find another place. We had checked out Capt. Jan’s B&B, Villa del Diamonte, that afternoon, so we head back up in the dark. The TV is on, her two doberman are barking, but I can’t rouse anyone.

The gutless wonder parked well off the road with the cabin beyond

Heading out to the highway, we rent a cabin at Los Chorros, a restaurant with incredible views. I’m told to park the car well down a road off the highway. “Es seguro.”, “It’s safe.” assures the manager. In the night, someone brakes a window stealing a jacket. There was almost nothing in the car but some dirty underwear, shoes and the jacket.

We never could get all the broken glass out.

Lesson learned: leave nothing, not even trash, in the car.

My phone doesn’t work. Tricolor, the rental agency, can’t be called until the restaurant opens at 10 am, an hour after we are supposed to be at Amy’s. They said if anything happens, don’t move the car until you call them. It turn’s out this applies only to accidents. I could’ve moved it and gone to Amy’s. That would’ve been so much easier and caused much less stress all around.

On the way back to Amy’s, Capt. Jan is home and gladly takes us in. Of all nights, last night had been darts night. She was at a neighbor’s. Jan has led a very interesting life commanding luxury yachts for rich folks. She provides a contrast to Amy’s mindset and the gentle, loving, helpful mindset of Amy’s ex-pat friends toward Ticos. We learn a few things about the arrogant attitude some Gringos can have.

Amy, of course, was very concerned when we didn’t arrive around 9:00. She left messages on my phone, called her mom in San Diego and emailed me. She called the Tico’s who rented us the house and found out we had left. I had no way to contact her so there was relief all around when we finally show up.

Amy's rancho

Once again, we spend most of the day together. I interview her, we hike around her land, and I take more photographs for the article I’m writing on Amy and sustainable living in Costa Rica for the Organization of American States, www.oas.org/americas/.

A water ram pump Amy uses to move water from a spring up to her fruit trees. It is powered solely by water.

The next morning, we’re up early. I had volunteered to do portraits of the students in La Florida, another tiny pueblo, and to photograph their new library. Students and teachers from Landmark University have been visiting La Florida for the past five years. They were brought in by Drennan Flahive, a 10 year resident of La Florida. Each year they worked in the community and brought $2,000 to go toward building the library. Drennan designed the library and donated the labor of his company, Jungle Brothers Construction. http://sustainablesolutionscr.com

Amy as well, solicited donations from family and friends,raising almost $10,000. One friend donated $6500! Probably a total of $27-28,000 was required to build a truly lovely library for the community. It provides a connection to the world through books and the internet for a community that has historically been isolated.

The biblioteca in La Florida

Another gringo organization, Creer, http://www.truenaturecommunity.org/creer-site/index.php, has also benefited the community, bringing in America students who spent part of their vacation repainting the school adjacent to the library.

The recently painted school in La Florida

Clearly, ex-pats are benefiting Costa Rica. Many, like Amy and Drennan, come looking for alternatives to the materialistic culture they were born into. They actively seek ways to involve themselves in their chosen communities and are creating sustainable lifestyles as well as influencing the people in their communities toward the same.

Copyright 2010 Dennis Jones/Dreamcatcher Imaging

www.dreamcatcherimaging.com

Mar 032010
 


Two Beautiful Birds of the Costa Rican Forest

Male Resplendent Quetzal.


Amy Shrift on her finca with her home in the background.

The most beautiful bird in the world. That is our destination before visiting the farm of my friend Amy, who left Manhattan to live alone in the jungles of Costa Rica.

After two wonderful nights in the Orosi Valley, we head south via the Pan-American Highway across the Cerro de Muerto, the summit of death. It is so-named not from the narrow road and its death defying drivers, but because at over 10,000 feet, unprepared people die from hypothermia.

We reach 8,500 feet and the turnoff to El Mirador del Quetzales. For $80 there’s a small, basic cabin with meals and a Quetzal tour. Relaxing on the porch presents a stunning panorama dropping away to lush Costa Rican forests and mountains.

The view from the Mirador del Quetzals

Cabins at the Mirador del Quetzals


An afternoon hike in their private reserve of ancient, bromeliad and moss encrusted oaks reveals no Quetzals. The manager assures me Quetzals for the morning guided hike, “Guarantizado!”.

We dine with a Dutch family and a Brit, all very congenial, with stimulating conversation.

Afterward, we prepare for a cold night. I doubt there’s insulation in the walls and only two blankets. We’re grateful for having brought our thermals and the thin, down sleeping bag we’re taking Amy.

5:30 comes too early. Coffee, thankfully, at 6:00 and then the guided tour into another private reserve directly behind the cabins. Within ten minutes I spot my first, male Resplendent Quetzal.

Male Resplendent Quetzal high up in an oak tree.


It is a magnificent 14” tall bird, glittering green, with a crimson breast, white tail feathers and two 25” long turquoise streamers that float with the breeze. His fuzzy, green, helmet-like crest gives it a somewhat bewildered look.

For years I’ve wanted to see one and here are four males and two females, even three on the same branch. A satisfying morning.

Our next stop is south of the mountains, the city of San Isidro del General, to meet Amy at the market and take her and her week’s worth of supplies to her farm. Five years ago, Amy Schrift exchanged her life as a jazz trumpeter in the concrete jungle of Manhattan for life in the jungles of Costa Rica.

Yolanda and Amy on her finca.


She has transformed a former coffee finca (farm) into a veritable Garden of Eden. Amy appears an unlikely pioneer. Slight of frame with thick, black hair framing lovely, dark eyes that betray her intensity of purpose. She speaks passionately of growing her own food, working with local farmers developing markets for organic produce, translating for sustainable farming classes and teaching English to young Ticos.

Wandering through her stream, her bathtub.


On the forty-five minute drive to her finca, up the mountains and then down the dirt road into the Valle del Diamante, we catch up on the happenings over the four years since we first visited. Arriving at her finca, we are overwhelmed by the changes.

Four years ago, where a newly built palapa was surrounded by bare earth, a stone path  now meanders between lush, flowering bushes and fruit trees. We are surrounded by so much natural beauty it’s breathtaking. Amy’s hard work has been richly rewarded.

Amy at the door to her bodega (store room). Bare dirt four years ago.

Talking on her rancho (palapa).

Talking on her rancho (palapa).

We spend the afternoon learning more about her sustainable philosophy. Amy is dedicated to eventually eating only what she grows herself. She sleeps without walls, usually under the stars. Up well before sunrise for two hours of yoga and meditation, then it’s to work, nurturing the abundantly, fertile land she is so fortunate to have bought and become it’s temporary caretaker.

What a place to meditate!

Morning yoga.

Over these past four years, she has planted pineapples, guavas, papayas, mangos, avocados, jackfruit, oranges, durian, bananas, berries, and an amazing fruit, guanabana, with the taste and delicate texture of custard. Through a government program, Amy has planted over 3,000 hardwood trees to help with the reforestation of her former cafetal (coffee farm).

A jackfruit tree she planted a couple of years ago.

The rancho with banana trees below.


As we hike down to the river flowing through her land, she plucks edible leaves and flowers from trees and bushes, urging us to taste; peppery, sweet, lemony, sour, salty, each a surprisingly different flavor. Toucans fly overhead. Bird song surrounds us and the lion-like growls of Howler Monkeys reach us from the primary forest surrounding her finca.

If only humans could learn that the Garden of Eden is not some fairy tale place, but a possible living reality right here and now.

Copyright 2010 Dennis Jones/Dreamcatcher Imaging

www.dreamcatcherimaging.com