I sleep in a treehouse, framed with bamboo and protected by walls made of clay. I wake to the fervent howls of the growler monkeys at 6 am. Bathing in the early morning sunshine, I brush my teeth over a clay sink. In the last few weeks, I have been living and working at a chocolate cafe on the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica. The cafe is owned by Gianni, an Italian man who landed here twenty years ago. He came chasing waves, and then never left the beachside. He built the treehouse, kitchen, and bathrooms on this land all by himself. He taught me how to build with clay so I can help him finish the walls of one of the bamboo structures.
Gianni purchases his cacao from the gardens of the Ngöbe community near the Panama border. They send him three large sacks of beans every month. In the mornings, he sits at the table sorting through the beans. The good beans he leaves to dry in the sun. In a kitchen made of clay walls, Gianni pours sugar into small vats of ground cacao while listening to Chomsky lectures through a speaker. Gianni makes bars of 67%, 76%, 82%, and pure dark chocolate. One day, I asked him why these specific percentages. He replied that chocolate-making is a delicate relationship between cacao and human; in these ratios, we can taste the best of the bean. Over the last decade, he has perfected his craft in his small clay kitchen. As I mold the clay wall, he brings me a teaspoon of freshly made dark chocolate. I sway my body to dance with the flavors coating my mouth. It all happens on this little plot by the ocean, from bean to bar.
Throughout the day, tourists wander through the vine entrance after their hike in the Cabuya National Park. Gianni welcomes them with a cup of cacao. “Very traditional,” he warns, as they sip the bitter drink. Some enjoy the drink, but most are too accustomed to the sweetened hot chocolate we buy in packets at the store. At the end of our day, Gianni makes dinner for himself and the other volunteers with produce bought from the local man that drives his truck down the street every Monday morning. Late into the night, we sit at the table savoring mango drizzled in ganache, wave away flies, and converse with the crickets.
I am at the chocolate cafe at a very special moment. A small group from the Ngöbe community travels north to Gianni’s Cafe to host a cacao ceremony and share their crafts with the community. We spend the day of their arrival clearing the weeds behind the house to assemble a ceremonial space under the great Cenizaro tree. When they arrive, we introduce each other with smiles and gestures. They speak Guayamí but Doña Carmen and Don Antonio speak a little Spanish. Gianni helps them settle into the house for the evening.
The next day, Doña Carmen and the other women wake up early to unpack their bundles of craft objects. The members of the Ngöbe community make bags called kra (chácara in Spanish) out of the pita plant. They are small pouches woven with tan, brown, and yellow string. The women show us how to peel away at the plant to create the fiber. The long stem rests diagonally against a wall. Sitting on the ground with the stem between their legs, they drag a sharp wire down the length of the plant. Thin strips fall into the maker’s lap. I watch the intensive process as the plant becomes thinner and juice drips into the ground. Using the dried pita thread, they masterfully crochet through their fingertips. Doña Carmen hands me a thread. I try but get tangled. She smiles and shows me again. I tangle again, but she remains very patient.
The Ngöbe women are dressed in vibrantly colored fabrics with decorated geometric shapes. The traditional dress is called naguas. It is full-length with short sleeves. The seams are lined with triangular patterns. These patterns are called dientes. These represent the mountains and rivers that they call home in their comarca. They share tell us that the land is their protector and their source of life. They usually harvest maize, millet, bananas, plantains, beans, rice, sweet manioc, taro, sweet potatoes, squashes, sugarcane, coffee as well as tree fruits. The Ngöbe people have a self-sufficient economy based on sharing. Later, I learn that their homeland has one of the largest deposits of copper in the world and the communities are facing many challenges due to mining development and severe problems for the defense of their land’s natural resources.
At midday, Doña Lila sparks a fire by striking a rock against a stick. She boils water in a pot she brought from home. We watch her peel plantains and gather pods of purple beans from her satchel. She pours her ingredients into the boiling water. The water is dyed purple from the beans. I watch as the plantains become pink as they simmer. In another pot, she prepares the rice with chopped culantro.
When lunch is ready, we sit down at the long cafe table. Doña fills carved calabashes with soup and rice. We pass it down the table and wait until everybody has a nourishing plate in front of them. As this happens, I recall a chapter I read in Braiding Sweetgrass. Robin Wall Kimmerer speaks of the pies she made out of wild strawberries for her father’s birthday; the strawberries are a gift to her father from the land and Kimmerer’s gift to her father is time and affection. At this table with a gracious meal made by Doña Lila, together we share a warm gift from the earth.
A Cacao Ceremony
Don Antonio prepares the entrance of the cafe for the cacao ceremony. At sunset, I step through the smoke of the burning termite nest. The smoke helps to cast away the bad spirits. In the circle around the cacao bean, a man stands across from a woman — a Sol stands across from a Luna to create balance in the universe. In our palms, we each hold a carved coconut. Don Antonio fills it with the cacao drink. As he speaks in Guayamí, we bring the carved coconut filled with cacao up to the gods first. And then to our lips. I drink the cacao and feel dizzy. Within me, the bad spirits create a commotion. And then, suddenly, I feel still.
Under the Cenizaro tree, we sit together illuminated by a campfire. As Doña Carmen speaks, Gianni translates from Spanish to English and Italian for those of us who do not speak so fluently. Another person translates into German for her friend. The pleasant feeling passes through me that I too may carry this conversation into Russian and French, perhaps for a later time. Around the fire, we talk about faith and fear, and love. In my thoughts, I contemplate what I believe in. One woman shares her story of psychological abuse and her cat and her late mother and her divorce. “At the heart of every purpose,” Doña Carmen says, “is to be loved.” She explains that faith without action is a kind of death. The Ngöbe Luna says the least we can do for Madre Terra is to share what we know. She says “Mother Earth is sad and knows this because she feels Madre Terra’s suffering.” “We must not be afraid to love and give,” Luna says. I look up and know the moon will be there for the ones I love. I do believe that.
Back with my Ngöbe friends
The next day, we bring our Ngöbe friends to the coastline in Gianni’s rusted jeep. Doña Carmen and Doña Lila walk along the shore lifting their dresses off the sand. In the distance, I see them dip their feet in the water and laugh. Gianni and the others dive off the black rocks and disappear under the water. I stand shakily looking down at the turquoise waves thrashing against the rocks. I’ve never been too good at diving; I fear the waves; I fear the sea urchins in the rock crevice near my foot. A large wave builds up in front of me. As I grapple for the higher rocks, she crashes against me. I fall forward breaking the needles of an urchin. He leaves his needles in my foot. I try to pick at them, but they do not come out. I rest on the beach watching the water in its energetic dance.
Back at the cafe, Doña Carmen fills a tub with warm water. She adds a few droplets of herbal medicine into the water and gestures to me to soak my foot. When my skin is tender, she sits beside me on the ground and places my foot on her lap. With her fingers, she helps the urchin’s needles leave my reddened sole.
Later, in the night, I am with Doña Carmen and the other members of the Ngöbe community sitting around a campfire under the Cenizaro. Don Antonio carves a post from bamboo and places a large cacao pod at its base. “Listen to dreams,” he says, “dreams can reveal the truth to you.” How can I listen? They leave me too soon, I whisper, perhaps only to myself. In his dream, he climbed a tree to reach the medicinal leaves as his father does. He fell from the tree. When he woke up, he stopped practicing medicine. This would not be his path, so the Ngöbe Sol turned to teaching. “This has brought us together under the big tree,” he says.
I write these words while laying on my bed in the bamboo house, held by clay. Against the full moon, the snow moon, the Cenizaro tree is a graceful silhouette. Her branches embrace us. She protects us. The air smells of cocoa beans. The crickets and Spanish and audible breaths mingle in the atmosphere. Candles have melted to be closer to the Earth now. I think I’ll sleep soon. I wonder what I’ll dream of tonight.
Written by: Anna Scola
Anna is a writer of essays and a maker of artist books. Her first book, a memoir about her grandfather working as a journalist during the Soviet Union, is titled Deduka: A Tale of One Mind and Two Times (2019). Her recent work explores food culture and culinary spaces to share stories of self-hood and community. Anna is half-Russian, half-American, and was raised in Singapore. For a while, she lived as a vagabond. For the moment, Anna lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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