Day Twenty One– Costa Rica

There is a scene in the movie, the Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy is about to leave Oz and is saying goodbye to everyone. When she gets to the scarecrow, the one who she started on the journey with, the goodbye gets very hard. That’s how I felt today when I said goodbye to Teo. He took me on my first walk around Monte Azul and was usually the first person I saw in the morning. We spent good times together.

He was my last goodbye to say and leaving Maritza and then Melissa the night before had already weakened me.

Knowing the van would pull up soon, Teo pushed towards me a present wrapped in silver paper with a bow on top. Inside was an illustrated coffee mug that says, “Costa Rica”, which he gave me because my mug at home is really huge and he knows I will drink too much coffee. I tried hard to not get weepy.

Soon after, my ride came and I headed out of the front gate of Monte Azul, relieved that I had made it through my goodbyes while still holding on to my composure if only by a thread. We were on the road for about a minute when I saw Maritza hanging out her laundry. I was happy to see her but not sure how much more I could take. Just a hug, no talking and we were off again – down the hill, past the great wooden signs, past the kid that I know only as “tough boy”, whose enormous portrait hung next to my work table in the studio, and over the familiar rocky road towards San Isidro – for five minutes, and then he turned back! That’s when Alexander the driver realized that he forgot something at Monte Azul. Oh, man, Teo again! I next expected Melissa to pop out from somewhere.

But she didn’t. We did finally make it away and I did cry. Because it was wonderful…

Day Twenty– Costa Rica

A goose chased me today. I was videoing a cow who was mooing at me and panning towards the four geese to try to get them in the same shot when one broke from the crowd and aggressively headed straight towards me. I jumped out of the way and almost dropped the big wheel of cheese that I just walked an hour to buy. My last long morning walk was up the hill to get cheese from Wilbur. Soon after I saw my first snake of the trip, even though it was pretty small and dead, I still found it a little scary.

Tomorrow I am going to head to another hotel that is closer to the airport. My flight leaves early Sunday and with the way the roads are, you have to have a lot of extra time. Something could stop traffic for a few hours and that’s just that, so my ride is going to be here right after breakfast.

I have had an incredible experience. Saying goodbye is not easy. Luckily it will be spread out over a few days because of people’s schedules. I expected Costa Rica to be full of physical beauty and to provide me with a lot of studio time but what has taken me by surprise is the warmth I felt from the people that I have spent these three weeks with. I have become very attached to them.

Day Nineteen– Costa Rica

Tonight, Melissa’s telenovela, whose title translates to “Forbidden Passion”, is ending. I learned from several people that unlike soap operas in the states the ones here begin and end in about four months. It seems like a great model that our shows should follow but it would never happen when we are willing to follow it for decades. Other great titles I heard translate to “The Boss Lady”, “Wild Cat”, “Hook of the Heart” and my favorite –  “Woman of Wood”.

I wanted to make sure Melissa got out of the studio and home in time to watch by 6 o’clock. I started my final studio clean up while she took inventory and photographs of the work I made during my residency. We counted 14 prints – a substantial amount of work for me in a few weeks time.

My prints are based on hand painted signs nailed up on the nearby roads. They are mostly wood but I love the one painted on a plastic trash bag for Karaoke Night at the Palm Salon (Every Sunday Until 12 Midnight). The signs tell me about the people in my immediate surroundings.  I find them both beautiful and interesting.

Day Eighteen– Costa Rica

The studio is up a hill. Lot’s going on in this place – monkeys, birds, cheese making, soap making, art, people and dogs. Once I go up the hill, I stay for the day and work till dinner. Today, maybe because I had been sick, I got hungry in the middle of the day. Monte Azul is not really the kind of place where you grab a handful of pretzels or an apple. Eating anything usually involves a cloth napkin.

I asked Melissa if I could just get some crackers to hold me over till dinner. (Like the simple little package I had with soup yesterday.) “Sure”, she said and we both went back to work. After what seemed to be a long time and lot of printing, I was getting hungry because there was a delicious smell coming from the kitchen and I still hadn’t had my crackers.

Estaban, one of the cooks, was in the kitchen, where he often is, making either cheese or bread, which is what I figured he would be doing. Soon I was presented with a bowl of fresh crackers, he was making me crackers! Still hot, delicious and homemade crackers.

 

Day Seventeen– Costa Rica

Someone knocked on my casita door in the morning around the time I am usually at breakfast. I tried to call “later” in Spanish, but could not get out of be, I was sick. Throughout day Melissa would stop by and check on me. At one point she brought tea and honey, which I could not drink so by the next time she came by, it was covered with ants. (I discovered last week that you can’t keep any food out, when I took leftovers of the treat Teo brought me back to my casita and the same thing happened.)

Finally in the evening, before she left, Melissa insisted that I have some soup and soda crackers. It was very good and after I ate some, I promptly put the remaining into my little refrigerator and fell asleep.

I awoke, happy for a new day only to find that it was 8PM and still the same day. With a giant thunderstorm raging, I lay in bed thinking about what I want to accomplish in the studio before I leave and some of what I learned so far. While making soap Randy taught me that the large manufacturers, in the process of production take out the glycerin which is what makes skin smooth and soft, only put it into skin creams, making us more likely to buy two products instead of one. I plan to bring the Randy’s liquid soap recipe home and hope to make some and share it with my artist and dishwashing friends.

Day Sixteen – Costa Rica

Tonight my stomach is telling me the party has gone on too long and it is fighting back. I think tomorrow I have to say no to breakfast. but hopefully not dinner.

Day Fifteen – Costa Rica

Teo and I took a hike on the trails this morning and we were just getting back when the remaining half of my shoe fell off. They have been slowly breaking down over the last few weeks. Melissa said she found another part in her car. Now the right shoe is more like like a ballet slipper.

I grabbed my sandals and headed up for a soap-making lesson with Randy. I selected Goats Milk Coffee, which smells incredible and for me celebrated my old but rekindled relationship with coffee and my new one with goats. We made it in his and Carlos’s kitchen, which is also the studio and their house. Once I was done making soap all I had to do was spin around through the living room and I was back to work in the huge studio. This also means I have two studio dogs, Delilah and Poco.

Rolando the woodworker is going to make it so that in addition to making prints, I can make a sculpture before I leave. I did a drawing on newsprint of a shape for him to cut out and I will be able to work with it when I get it back in a few days, in wood.

 

Day Fourteen – Costa Rica

The dance that Maritza took me to was in a big cement gym that was decorated with strobe lights.  The mostly young crowd did not dance except when Reggae came on and they formed a kind of Mosh Pit clump up in front of the DJ. There were a few couples that danced Salsa, Bachata and Merengue that were really fun the watch, especially one really big guy in extremely tight clothes. I was surprise how much it felt like a high school dance where everyone stands around the edges, looking into the center. Maritza said it was boring and unlike the ones that she usually goes to with live music but I still thought it was really nice for her to bring me along to check it out. I noticed that except for one guy, I was the only person with glasses in a crowd of maybe 150 – 200 people.

The few people that I talked to during the evening were men who wanted to practice their English. It made me realize how my Spanish must sound. One guy said to me, “ I am just a man who is speaking English”,  another said, “Hello, I am drinking a beer with you”.

 

Day Thirteen – Costa Rica

Today I saw a man riding on his motorcycle with a big German Sheppard running along and keeping pace at his side. I saw a family of three riding on another. Heading down the mountain from Monte Azul is a full on visual experience. Every morning when I go out, I notice a different building, flower, hand painted sign, animal or other. (I saw an armadillo!) People are very friendly and always say hi. Today Randy told me that my hello, “hola”, is not really used around here and is more of a hello in Mexico. Too bad, it was one Spanish word that I said with true confidence.

I usually take a walk right before or right after breakfast. I am now completely addicted to the coffee. Carlos and Randy walk by with their four dogs, Dalilah, Scooter, Poco and Cookie everyday around the time I am s saying “no, gracious” to my forth cup. Estephan and David make delicious food in the kitchen. Meals are highlights in my days that are completely packed with other highlights.

 

Day Twelve – Costa Rica

Tonight Maritza invited me to go out dancing on Saturday night with the two cooks of Monte Azul, herself and her teenage daughter. I think it should be fun and hope I can hang in with my dancing skills. (A bunch of years ago after studying dance for most of my early life I traveled with my African dance teacher to Senegal. Our dance classes were on a cement slab in the private compound where we stayed. There was a high fence near the slab that divided where we, the Americans stayed and where the locals lived. The people from the village would lean over the fence and watch us – laughing like it was a comedy show.)

This morning before I went to work in the studio, Melissa took me to the big weekly outdoor market called the Feria in San Isidro. It’s mostly fruits and vegetables with one section they call the Hippie Corner with hemp, organics, crafts and the like for sale. I bought three kinds of fruit that Melissa recommended. One wild shaped one looks like a purple sea urchin. We parked in front of the Jerusalem Soda Cafe and went to a store whose name translated as “Minus Five”, probably the closet thing to Target. I got a few bags of candy to bring home. My favorite things in the store were bath towels with images of Jesus, which I did not buy but did admire.

Work in the studio is moving along nicely. For me it is very unusual to finish a piece of work in a few days but I am doing that here.  The rack is slowly filling up with prints.

Day Eleven – Costa Rica

I don’t think I’ll eat cheese again without recounting the time and work involved in making it. Carlos signed me up for a workshop to make cheese which started with me milking a cow named Luna. Wilbur, my teacher and cheese maker gave me a mug to fill up with milk right from the utter and then gave me a second mug with smashed sugar cane to fill up with more milk to drink. Both delicious.

He took me around the farm to tell me the story of his business and how he started making cheese more that ten years ago. Melissa was there to translate, which was great because he had a lot to say. Wilbur wants to learn English. (On a trip to the bathroom, I saw lists of words and their translations taped to the wall in front of the toilet).

The farm is sustainable. One of my favorite things that he showed me was a channel that runs down from the area where the cows eat, for them to poop into. (They tend to do both at the same time.) With the help of water, it flows into a covered area a bit further down where it gives off methane gas that goes into a pipe to fuel their house. The whole farm operates kind of like that.

Making the cheese took a few hours and involved milk, a huge pot, lots of stirring and waiting. It is made in a part of the house where Wilbur and his wife Katya live in with their children. After it took on the constancy scrambled eggs we made the mixture cheese shaped with special molds and moved it into a storage room where it will sit for 4 months to age.

Wilbur pulled an older chunk down from a shelf and served it to Melissa and I with jelly made by Katya. Delicious.

Later in the day I had dinner with Cinthya and Randy. We were joined by a snail that spent the entire meal trying to cross the length of the restaurant floor.

Day Ten – Costa Rica

I was up late tonight drinking Toad Water. It’s a delicious local ginger drink made with or without Cacique the local alcohol. I had it with. Melissa invited me to dinner with herself and artist Cinthya Soto. Cynthia is from Costa Rica but just got back from participating in the Venice Biennale. She is from a town called Alajuela right outside San Jose, which is the capital. She said that her home town is known for giving everyone a nickname, for good or bad. An example she gave was the name Semi Colon – for someone who walks with a limp. Melissa and Cynthia also talked about another town outside of the San Jose that was full of people who dress in Prada, have boob jobs and such. Hard to imagine in this green, dirt road paradise.

The two talked in English, I think for my benefit but heated parts of the conversation broke into Spanish. I tried to use it as an opportunity to pluck out familiar words – but it was fast and furious, so no comprende.

I invited Cynthia to join me for yoga in the morning. Molly the yoga teacher comes to meet me at 6:30 on some mornings. Believe it or not we originally had it planned for 7 but that felt too late – AND on the first day we met she walked for two hours to get here because her car was in the shop.

The bathrooms have an interesting feature on the toilet. To flush there are two buttons on the top, one with a full circle and one with a half circle. I learned during the beginning of my trip that they are for the various toilet visits, a half tank for a number one and a full tank for a number two.

Day Nine – Costa Rica

Every morning I point myself in a direction on the road and walk. I go out early before the rain, which except for one day, has come like clockwork. Between breakfast and dinner is studio time, except certain days, like this coming Wednesday when Carlos is sending me to learn  how to make cheese, beginning with milking the cow.

There has been much to see in a little over a weeks worth of walks….

     

Day Eight – Costa Rica

How do you say “how do you say” in Spanish? After being here for a week, I realize it’s a good opportunity for me to learn more words. I am limited to hello, goodbye, shoes, yes, no, house, big, and a few others.  I’m giving it a go, so at breakfast I got started and told Maritza, no, I didn’t want any sugar with my coffee.

As it turns out, I spent the rest of the day in the studio, so I didn’t get much Spanish practice but I did get a lot of work done.

I am focusing on prints that are based on a selection of hand painted signs from the area around Monte Azul. The one that I started today is from a bar called the Palm Salon that, according to the sign has karaoke on Sundays at 4 and sells raffle tickets. I am becoming more comfortable with the press and making monoprints. I found a radio station that I like called Groove Lounge. It’s nice to work to in the studio while it pours rain outside.

Carlos and Randy took me out to a tamale restaurant to sample the food of the area. It was prime time for me to practice new words but everything was moving so fast that all I got out a weak “gracious”.  We sat on carved and polished tree stumps and Carlos ordered so much food that the entire table was covered with plates.  Except for the green salad, I was all new to me and delicious.

Tomorrow I will try again to work on my Spanish words. Mas Español mañana.

Day Seven – Costa Rica

Henry tends to the goats. When he was a boy he could milk his family’s goats faster than their machine. There are twenty-eight here at Monte Azul and he can milk all of them in a half hour.

Today, with Henry’s help I milked Roxie and two other goats. He ties one of their legs up so they can’t kick us in the head. It doesn’t seem like they even notice because they eat the whole time. Squeezing utters is very hard work. I could feel with my hands, the milk coming down through the skin. I liked the sound of the milk squirting into the pail.

This afternoon was the big Just Dance competition. I am sorry to say that I did not win for the U.S. I should have known I was in trouble when Teo said he had every version of the game and played daily when he was able. He even had one version called the Michael Jackson Experience. Carlos joined us for a few hours of seriously sweaty play. The best for me was Thriller; we did all of the Zombie moves from the original video.

As if things aren’t already luxurious enough, I had my laundry done. There is a big orange bag in the closet in which to leave any wash that needs to be done. Tonight I came back from dinner to find it in a clean smelling stack in my casita. Even my underwear was folded.

Day Six – Costa Rica

Outside of the entrance gate, there is a skinny, wood plank bridge that suspends over the river. The idea of walking over it was scary until I found out that motorcycles ride across and that it is the way to get to another neighborhood. I pass it on my way to see the goats and today I ventured across (not on a motorcycle). With the water rushing underneath, it’s a rustic thrill. I was rewarded for my bravery by having my shirt eaten by one of the baby goats.

Tomorrow I will milk a goat. Sandy, one of the owners at Monte Azul uses the goat’s milk to make cheese. One type has coffee in it, which they grow too. Sandy also makes homemade soap and together with Carlos, designed this whole place.

If I walk out of the front gate and go in the opposite direction, there is another bridge that is newer and wider. I learned that around the time Monte Azul was being built, it replaced an old bridge that was made of four huge trees trunks. Randy and Carlos kept the old trees to build new furniture. Everything gets completely used here, if not reused.

I’m excited by something I did  in the studio today. I thought it might be a good idea to leave while I was feeling good so I celebrated by going into San Isidro in pouring rain with Melissa to have the oil in her car changed. On way we had to drop something off at someone’s house. Street names and addresses are not used. This person lived “up the hill”, which took a while to find.  We made one more stop for cardboard and then headed back so I could eat and rest up for another day.

Day Five – Costa Rica

In a nearby town, David my new Zumba teacher remodeled his house into a studio. The wall that faces the street is all glass. The homes are low and close to the narrow street so the young girls who walked past were very close to us as they mocked our Zumba moves. When the bus passed the Merengue music from our class and the bus engine were at equal levels of loudness. With two of my few Spanish words being up and down, I felt like I could hang. Carlos, the owner of Monte Azul is a regular. He takes class three times a week with a large group of ladies from the neighborhood. On our car ride home I told Carlos about a Wii game that I like called Just Dance. It turns out that Teo is really into it too. Now the plan is for him to bring it from his home to Monte Azul for us to play. I am a champion in my house and he is in his. United States vs Costa Rica. Bring it on.

I spent the day in the studio.  The afternoon brought the monkeys out and they were having some kind of drama in the trees right outside the window. It was a wonderful for me to have them to look at while I was working. Just having a studio with a window is a huge treat.

Day Four – Costa Rica

Printmaking, as it turns out, is really messy. The studio here at Monte Azul has a beautiful press that I am learning to use. Today was my first longish day working on prints. It seemed like half of my time was spent cleaning. No complaints – but I now understand why some printers I know have permanently dirty fingernails. Melissa, besides instructing me, (and taking me to El Doctor), helps clean up. It’s pretty awesome.

I wanted my first print to be based on a wooden sign at the Elementary School/Recycling Center. It says the day, time and requirements for drop off. There is a lot of text on it, so instead I am starting with smaller test pieces and a sign with less words.  This one says, in Spanish, “This property for sale”.

Mono printing, which is what I am learning, reminds me of cooking something that is all prep work. And in this case, if I were baking, I’d only make one cookie.  I am creating all of the text by cutting the letters out of leaves. This may sound like a lot but keeping in mind that I am used to cutting wood, scissors on a leaf instead is actually not so bad.

Melissa is off tomorrow because it’s Mothers Day. In Costa Rica it is the biggest national holiday and is always on August 15th. Banks, stores and schools, which because it’s not summer, are in session now, are closed. Fathers Day, I am told is not as big a deal and just like ours, on the third Sunday in June.  Tomorrow, in honor of the day, I will clean my big mess up by myself.

Day Three –  Monte Azul

Today Melissa brought me to the Clinica de Urgencia in the closest town, San Isidro. The reason for my urgencia was that last night before bed, the head of a Q-tip got stuck in my ear. After I used it the stick came out alone. I tried what was recommended online, which was to put lightly soapy water into my ear and tilt my head sideways for three minutes until it dropped out. After repeating it few times, totaling about nine minutes the Q-tip tip still seemed firmly in place.

When I told Melissa in the morning, I was embarrassed for two reasons – one because I had a q-tip stuck in my ear and two because I couldn’t tell if I was yelling or not. Very shortly after we were bumping down the hill into town. Melissa, acting as my translator told my story first to the receptionists, then to el doctor. I can’t imagine how I would have explained the whole thing my limited Spanish. Earlier in the day, on my walk I said “Como esta?” to an elderly man who was walking towards me on the road. He pointed to his stomach and said something I could not understand. We looked at each other for a bit, confused, and then both just continued walking.

El doctor did a version of what I tried the night before except he use some type of ear water pistol, which floated the cotton out of my ear until he could see it.He grabbbed it with a tweezers and asked if I wanted to keep it. Before telling him he could throw it out I entertained the idea of having it on a shelf at home in Philadelphia next to other mementos of my trip, like my shoe with half of a heel.

After I paid $90, we decided to look around for some art materials while we were in town. I got to see a bit of San Isidro. with gated houses, corner markets and one weird rolling Crocs ™ display. We stopped at the studios of a woodworker and an upholsterer, a second hand store and the recycling center which was in the elementary school. I think my best find was a pot lid that had been smashed flat. I grabbed it, along with some wood and fabric scraps to bring back to Monte Azul for a day in the studio.

 

Day Two, Monte Azul

My shoe disintegrated today. One minute I had a normal shoe, the next, half of my heel was missing. I can’t figure out what happened.

In the afternoon I met Melissa who will help me in the studio and she gave me a quick lesson in monoprint. I think tomorrow is the day she will take me around to look for some recycled materials which I think will give me the  kind of inspiration that I don’t expect from a plain white piece of printmaking paper. Maybe I should consider using my shoe.

The meals are outrageous. Teo made my coffee in a traditional Costa Rican way, pouring water through the grounds in little cloth bag that hangs from a stand over the cup. The restaurant has wood roof but its walls are open to the surrounding rain forest. Food highlights from the day – pineapple, papaya and ginger smoothie, fried homemade goat milk feta and tofu curry with fresh picked lemon grass. Umm.

Day One, Monte Azul

At first light I realize that the sound I heard throughout the night, which I thought, might be a refrigerator, was a river flowing directly behind my casita. Later in the day, Teo took me on a hike along its edge and in the rain we climbed up to the big waterfall which flows into it. I had lots of energy because earlier, with my delicious breakfast I had my first cups of coffee in five years. Something that I forgot about coffee was that it makes me extremely chatty. Poor Carlos – he joined me for breakfast. In a flurry of chatter, we figured out that we both studied African dance when we were younger and our conversation ended with me asking to go to his Zumba class on Thursday night.

On my short walk to get to breakfast I had heard something in the trees. Poking out from behind some leaves was white-faced monkey looking at me – maybe twenty feet away. He darted up a tall tree, followed by about twelve others who one by one leaped threw the air from one soft palmy branch to another, making the trees sway in the sky until the whole group leaped out of sight.

After the seeing the river, Teo took me up the hill to the beautiful studio where I will work. Although I have been here less than a day, it felt like a long awaited destination. In another day or two I will begin to spend time there.

By myself, I headed up a long road to visit the goats. The roads are bumpy. Even walking on them can be a challenge. On route there, I was greeted by chickens, horses and something small and black that darted across the road. There was no one at the farm so I crawled under the barbed wire fence to the pens. It seemed like all thirty of the goats poked their heads through the fence to say hello. They ate long blades of grass from my hand until I had to head back to beat the afternoon downpour.

Maritza told me that the days here start and end early. The sun sets about 5:30 and I have to follow a string of blue lights to go for dinner. It seems like dinner butts right up against bedtime. The night is very, very dark.

Arriving

I got to Monte Azul in Costa Rica late at night after a day of traveling. The ride from the airport to San Jose is four hours – passing mountains, towns, dogs and people walking in the two lane highway, and fog patches with rainy downpours. It is rainy season. As you get close to Monte Azul the roads are full of huge holes and bumps making for a very dramatic entrance to an unexpectedly beautiful, modern and lush destination. My driver, Eric, was really great, talking to me the whole ride. Our silences were filled with him singing along to a CD of classic American hits from the 60′s, 70′s and 80′s that his friend made him.

I was greeted by Maritza who brought me to my casita, which made me gasp. It was so beautiful. A minute later, saying goodby to Eric, I was greeted in the in the dark by Carlos and Randy, the proprietors of Monte Azul who told me to come to the restaurant and have a drink and sample some cheese that Randy makes. We talked for a while – Carlos used to run a gallery in San Francisco, in addition to cheese, Randy also makes the soap. They both designed Monte Azul as an artist residency which its supported by the hotel and restaurant that is here. Randy said that the monkeys were acting crazy earlier in the day, possibly because they left some bananas out on their kitchen table that they could see through the window.

Before they left, Carlos told me he has some surprises for tomorrow. The word is out that I am not very good at relaxing, which he believes is part of what makes creativity flow, so he is going to try and help me. I only know one thing. I will be milking a goat…

I went to bed very soon after, but not before sitting outside for a delicious dinner, made, like all the meals, from food grown right near or on Monte Azul. The meal was surprising accompanied by Challah Bread (traditional Jewish bread).