Caffeine and Cockroaches
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Jan. 30 2003 4:46 PM

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Today's slide show: Images from San Jose. Today's audio: Michael Kaye responds to Natalie's dispatches. Today's 360 degree view: Finca Rosa Blanca.

John Canning breathes deep to savor the symphony of scents
John Canning breathes deep to savor the symphony of scents

SAN JOSE—As our stay in Costa Rica lurched gaily toward its finale, we ended up spending our last day the way we normal, busy busy, snapping-turtle types usually begin one: with a big fat mug of coffee, French-pressed, lots of leche, waitress, um waitress, yes, I'd like a refill, hey, where are you going with that I'm not done yet! In sum, we went on the Café Britt coffee tour, and though at first I felt irritated by this item on our schedule, and I worried that people would think I'd taken up advertorial writing, in the end I'm glad I saw at least a few steps in the coffee-making business and learned a smattering about the role of coffee in the history of Costa Rica. Café Britt is an upscale coffee company that grows, processes, markets, and exports coffee to the "gourmet" segment of the U.S. coffee market, which these days means just about every American with a driver's license who doesn't happen to live in New Buffalo, Mich.

We were taken on the tour by Steve Aronson, founder and owner of Café Britt, who told me he named the business after the actress Britt Ekland, because he wanted to, um, meet her; but while the company is now 17 years old, the one-time Bond girl has yet to come knocking on his door. No matter: Steve is a friendly, bearded ex-pat former peacenik—gee, there aren't many of them around Costa Rica, are there?—who's been happily married for 30 years and still refers to his wife as his girlfriend.

Back on the ranch, ripe red cherries ready for picking
Back on the ranch, ripe red cherries ready for picking

Steve told me that the coffee industry in Costa Rica mirrors that of eco-tourism: It's full of grand intentions to help save the Earth, and it happens to be market-driven at the same time. We went out to a 40-acre organic coffee farm owned by Jim Stewart, founder of Seattle's Best Coffee and a big customer of Café Britt merchandise. The mini-plantation is a kind of laboratory and model for responsible coffee growing. No pesticides, no herbicides, no chemical fertilizers. Nothing is done to the coffee plants that need not be done, and so weeds grow in plots where the coffee has already been plucked, and leaves spotted with fungus are watched but not hysterically hacked away. I must admit I had no idea what coffee plants in bloom looked like. They're beautiful, and the plump cherries on them are shockingly delicious. I ate four and would have chewed my way through an entire bush if nobody had been watching. Inside the sweet fruit are the coffee beans, pale and moist as grubs but as hard as, yes, coffee beans. These I didn't eat, but ever so delicately spat out. Steve told me that Costa Rica pioneered a way of processing coffee that dramatically cut down on water use. They were inspired by the fact that coffee plantations are not out in the country, as they are in many other coffee-growing nations, but in everybody's back yard. When coffee was generating a surfeit of effluvia and mucking up the rivers, you could see it, smell it, and sometimes get sick from it. Today, everybody uses the Costa Rican processing method, and so water waste and water pollution from coffee crafting is one-thirtieth what it was in the 1980s.

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Coffee used to be the No. 1 industry in Costa Rica, but now it's down to fourth or fifth place and probably still falling. But where it's falling the hardest is where we eco-scolds would like to see it falling: in the sprawling, sun-baked, high-yield, super-fertilized coffee plantations that in the old days produced that lovely dark granular substance you'd find in cans and percolate in perky metal plug-in pots. Now, Costa Rican farmers are all turning to pricier shade-grown coffee, and organically grown coffee, and coffee grown as their wise padres used to grow it. Coffee grown with care makes better coffee, and it also happens to be easier on the environment; birds love the trees and bushes of a shade-grown coffee plant. Costa Ricans are proud of their newfound conservation ethic and their national park system, and they want their coffee conscience to follow suit. But in truth, said Aronson, the growth in friendly coffee-farming practices is market-driven. "That's where the money is," he said. Just like eco-tourism. Saving the Earth, $18 a head.

Let me put aside my grouchy cynicism, warm and fuzzy though it makes me feel. Contrary to the ending of my previous dispatch, I'm not a tarantula, and I'm not advocating permanent bed rest. I like to travel. Traveling is a profound human desire. The greatest epics are about guided tours and cruise ships: Dante's Inferno, Homer's Odyssey, Virgil's Aeneid, Gilligan's Island. True, everything we do, including traveling, uses energy and resources and tosses a few more plumes of precious fossil fuels into the atmosphere. But far worse than what we waste on our vacations is what we waste at home, which you don't need me to hector you about, do you, Señorita Humvee?

Instead, I will conclude with a few suggestions, should you be planning a trip to Costa Rica, and you should—I say that in all sincerity. If you're struggling with Spanish, this is a superb place to improve your skills, for the people here, the Ticos, speak clearly and liltingly. If you want to see life, magical, full-throated pura vida life falling all over itself for what seems like your eyes only, yes, this is the place. If you want to see a lot of aging American hippies, this is also the place.

Now, the standard guidelines will advise you to bring insect repellant and sunblock, and of course you must, but don't neglect to pack the following:

  • Hydrocortisone to reduce bug bite swelling and itching. Regardless of your best prophylactic measures, if you do anything worthwhile, you will get bitten.

  • Lightweight, fake fabric clothing. Most of it is made of nylon these days, and though it can be ridiculously expensive, it's worth the investment. I would wash out a pair of my nylon hiking shorts and hang them up in the rain, and still they'd be dry by evening.

  • The best binoculars you can afford. Do not scrimp here. Every serious birder has a great pair of knockers, and on this trip I learned why. The better the lenses, the higher the magnification, the more you'll see.

  • Forget the makeup, forget the hairdryer, forget your personal vanity, but don't forget the hairspray. No, not for your coiffure—for the cockroaches

Let me explain. One night, in the tent camp in Corcovado, I was about to blow out the candle on my bedside table when I came eye to eye with a giant, glistening cockroach, its antennae waggling. Those of you who know me, or have read my little essays about cockroaches, can guess the precise nature of my mental state; so let me say, with a meek stab at ego preservation, at least I didn't scream. Instead, I jumped out of bed, reached for my hiking boot, and, thwack! Unfortunately, the table was constructed of wood slats, and the roach simply ducked between two planks. Then it re-emerged, and played a taunting, Hannibal Lecter sort of game, skittering in, under, and around the slats from one side of the table to the next and back again. What was I to do? I grabbed my flashlight and headed outside in search of John's tent. John, bless him, had told me he'd kill any cockroaches I found in my room, just as my little brother used to do back when we were kids in the Bronx. But I couldn't locate John's tent, my flashlight was growing dim, and I had to face facts: On this mission, I was alone.

A final luncheon toast to the team and Costa Rica
A final luncheon toast to the team and Costa Rica

Returning to my chamber of horrors by the sea, I decided I needed something to force the cockroach floorward, where I could whack and flatten it properly. Then I remembered: I had my Bumble & Bumble hairspray in a convenient travel size with an environmentally correct non-aerosol pump. Pulling out my makeshift mace, I spritzed the roach. It panicked and ran under the tabletop. I got on my knees and spritzed from below. It dodged between slats. I spritzed and I spritzed and I spritzed again, and each time the roach got slower and groggier and ever less cocky. I kept spritzing, wildly, aimlessly, until the cockroach was covered with more hair spray than a Texas bridal shower. Finally, it staggered off and disappeared, I don't know where. The Terror of Corcovado may not have died happy, but at least it was impeccably groomed.

Natalie Angier is a science writer for the New York Times and the author of Woman: An Intimate Geography.

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