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Branching Out: Outsiders wanting in

Locations: Columns, Opinion Published

Arriving in the dark, we parked in a cloud on mud tracks amid falling rain. Visiting family in a tiny Central American mountain town, population 250, our minds were blown — because we’re moving here. Driving through third-world towns and villages, along ridges and valleys cloaked in rainforest, I was keenly self-conscious of the tables turning: I was now the outsider, wanting in.

We woke to welcoming blue skies and cascading river. Melodious birdsong enlivened the morning air — I leapt from the covers, dashing to the open window. What new, fantastical creature would I see? Roosters crowing were a familiar, comforting call to breakfast. Dressing, I could see white through rows of coffee and bananas. Milk goats were staked at the edge of the jungle, keeping grass at bay. Oh, their gentle bleats, bells chiming … just … all of it. Slow. Simple. Pure.

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It felt like home, the magical realism of my Latino father’s paintings and colorfully carved dioramas come to life.

Researching guidebooks for our trip, the energy inherent to reservations, shuttles and herds of humans held no appeal. Ziplines, whitewater rafting and coffee tours somehow felt disrespectful of the small communities now subject to the modern plague of ecotourism. We realized family and farm projects were rich enough for our visit. In our free time, we would go for walks in the area, and look at land.

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Moving from the capitol, my family is in their second year of homesteading and building their individual homes. Year one, everyone lived in a single huge canvas tent — even through the rainy season. My godmother Carmel posted pictures of their milk cow (which came with the property) and cooking meals on a tripod over an open fire. I was enchanted, and knew I must visit. She told us stories of demolishing the original farmhouse and cockroaches pouring from the walls. Today, new ivory-plastered walls support bamboo, beams and tongue and groove ceilings.

That first morning, we ate breakfast at the lower house in an open-air kitchen, construction still in progress. We peeled spiky red lychee, sucking at the pearly insides. Eggs came from their hens; jam and juice from the plants around us.

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Inside, the foundation of the home was compacted gravel, over which they laid clay and coconut fiber floors. Expansion joints of fermented, cured bamboo slats composed a whimsical pattern of earthy greens and olive. Plastering the final hallway sections, we troweled on a mix of sandier clay and finely-chopped fermented straw, whose manure smell would dissipate with drying. Next, they’ll seal it with five layers of linseed oil. Ayal’s livelihood is natural home building, and he works all over the country.

Stefan and Cristina had us for breakfast as well. Their kitchen is almost complete — everything but the window glass. Knowing we’ll be building a home from the earth as well, we asked about their beautifully layered rammed earth walls. Explaining their process, we were impressed to discover that in building together, they’ve been conflict-free, which is quite something, living in a construction site. Stefan is gentle and thoughtful; Cristina, joyful and competent.

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We helped to mix and pour concrete for a raised bed alcove in the guest room, which will be surrounded on three sides by glass. Glazing features largely in their architecture; in the early evenings, their house glows like a warmly-lit greenhouse.

They’re fascinated with fermentation, which can stabilize and enrich raw products. Their yogurt and cheeses, sans the raunchy presence of a billy goat, are sweetly tangy; their sourdough breads, moist and chewy; and they sell kombucha at a tourist-oriented natural foods store. Each week cycles towards the Wednesday farmers market, the feria.

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The feria, 20 minutes away, is attended primarily by the expat community, largely into yoga and holistic living, so Stefan and Cristina get quite a chuckle. Their products embody most of what the expats eschew — dairy, gluten, sugar. In addition to bread, they bake cheesecakes, chocolate tortes, tiramisu. Tag teaming, they kill it at the market!

Preparing, eating and sharing meals were central to our visit — we’ll be homesteading too, after all. We mostly “shopped” the property — such abundance! Even so, the farmers market (especially compared to City Market) had so much exotic produce, it made eating an adventure and spurred a list of things we’re eager to grow.

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Sigh. It was hard to leave. So much to relax into, to savor. In addition to the river, the farm has seven springs and streams; we relished our cold plunges. Porch-bound afternoons of hot coffee or wine, reading or meditating together as the clouds wafted in, rains fell and thunder reverberated. A simple, gracious Eden.

Wherever we land a few years off, we’ve vowed to honor the slow, local rhythms we sought. In our simpler, saner future, the last thing we want to be are the outsiders bringing change.

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Tags: #Branching Out #Geneviéve Villamizar
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