Monday, December 30, 2013

Education worth the embarrassment

Once I put aside my embarrassment for being from the US, we learned quite a bit today. Our timing in Costa Rica is good for some things and not others. It is high tourist season. We are surrounded by people from the US, everyone immediately talks to us in English and we are often near people that I wish would disappear. For example, this morning we were with a guide and a small group walking through the cloud forest, across hanging bridges, looking for signs of wildlife. A large family without a guide was walking along singing Christmas carols. Really??? Once I get past that and the kids that tried to call the monkeys as if they were monkey monkey, or other bad imitations of the actual howler monkey sound, it was a pretty good day. 

Some of what I learned includes that my mom has managed to maintain a cloud forest in her house in Missouri. Many of the plants are the same but without the other wildlife and instead of growing up from the ground, in the cloud forest they grow off of the existing trees. Their roots take years to grow down into the soil. In the cloud forest the trees are tall and take up most of the light so the lower plants fight for 3% of the sunlight that filters through. Trees typically last only 100-200 years because they can't set deep roots in the volcanic rock below. Also because trees don't experience all the seasons as they do in the states, they don't develop the inner rings that define the age of a tree. There were many ficus trees as the monkeys like to eat the figs that they produce and then they repopulate the forest with their excrement which usually lands on leaves in the canopy rather than hitting the ground. Monkeys along with the birds, frogs and snakes all live in the upper levels of the canopy where they get their water from some of the plants that form pools of water where their leaves meet the stems. The only lower plants are those with a large leaf base as they need it to grab as much sun as possible.

While Costa Rica is home to many types of butterflies, very few live in the cloud forest. This is because butterflies are cold blooded animals and are unable to regulate their body temperature. With so little sun in the cloud forest it is not a viable environment for them. We did see an Owl Butterfly which is the largest butterfly. Our only really good pictures are on a camera as it was too far away and too camouflage to catch with my idevice, as was the family of howler monkeys. Both were really awesome to see though.
Other sightings included a millipede which has pairs of legs as opposed to the centipede that has individual legs, black guan bird, a humming bird nest, orchids, and hot lips, also known as Angelina Jolie.
We returned to our hotel which is in a beautiful setting. We had a couple hours to rest before our Don Juan coffee and chocolate tour. We did, by the way, meet Don Juan, father of 9 and grandfather of 23. Literary buffs can take that wherever you'd like, although here they didn't seem familiar with the reference.

We learned about the 8 layers to be removed to get to the actual coffee bean, that the fruit has to be red to pick which only happens in November, December, and January, and one must be careful
to leave the stem on the plant so another bean can grow there the following year. Our timing was good since we were able to see some ripe beans and go through the layer removing process. We learned that the best beans are grown in volcanic soil due to the climate, temperature and rain. That's why Kona and Costa Rica are so well known for their coffee. It takes about 80 beans to make one cup of coffee. The highest concentration of caffeine is in the lightest roast but it has the least taste where as a dark roast loses about 10% of its caffeine but has more flavor. Espresso is over roasted and can be from any bean that is roasted to a point of bitterness such that you don't really know if it was ever a good bean or not. In the process of preparing the bean it must be dried so that it loses most of its moisture, down to about 12%. This is done in Costa Rica through sun drying over 6-7 days. Speeding up the process by using other methods causes the bean to lose its flavor, similar to a fine aged wine vs. a not so aged wine. Generally Costa Rican coffee is not roasted before export so that it will be fresher by roasting closer to the date of sale. For my decaffeinated friends who are curious... the caffeine is boiled out when the bean is still green before it goes to drying and roasting.

In addition to coffee we learned about processing the cocoa bean into chocolate. Apparently white chocolate isn't actually chocolate at all but the butter/paste that is squeezed out of the cocoa to which sugar and milk are added, unless that butter is made into lotion or face scrub. We were able to taste various parts of the process. We also learned how the monkeys are very important for the growth of the cocoa plants as they eat the sweet part around the seed and then cast off the cocoa seed which will form a new plant.

The final part of our tour was processing the juice out of sugar cane. That was probably the tastiest part after our guide squeezed a fresh cut sour tangerine into the liquid sugar.

Tomorrow ziplines, ATV, and relocation to the beach, our final destination before heading back to winter.

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