Sustainable Survival – Life in Punta Mona

Punta Mona is a remote, eighty-five acre, family-owned, sustainable living and education center in Talamanca, Costa Rica. They aim to better the world by finding alternative ways of land use that do not cause environmental damage.

Hayley Andrews recalls her time at Punta Mona, from dancing under the moon to the pure bliss of her toes in the sand. She tells us about her life-changing experience.

A good friend of mine from college had a list of volunteer opportunities in Latin America from her previous experience. I found Punta Mona on this list, and went to their website to do more research. It seemed like a match made in heaven, so I applied and was accepted shortly thereafter, thankfully.

I love to cook, and I wanted to learn more about vegetarian cuisine around the globe. I applied for a volunteer position based in the kitchen. We made three ‘jungle gourmet’ meals every day, for usually about thirty or forty people who were also involved with Punta Mona. The village offers a few different courses, but I signed up to be there during a Permaculture Design Course, as I am also interested in sustainable agriculture methods.

Though the majority of our time was spent in the kitchen, Punta Mona has very strong community-based values, so everyone pitched in wherever needed at any given time. I wanted to work with plants on the farm as well, so I spoke with the community directors and was assigned to a fun project in which I planted mini living landscapes in bamboo shoots and hung them around communal areas throughout the farm.

We worked hard on the farm and in the kitchen. Of course, there is always something to do, but the ‘managing staff’, for lack of a better term, unquestionably understood and supported the need for personal time to relax and reconnect with oneself—especially during the whole ‘adjustment to life in the jungle’ period. During my experience, Punta Mona was an extremely open and comforting atmosphere. No hierarchy was present, and every person was approachable and friendly. My staff colleagues very quickly became like a family to me.

I was tremendously fortunate to grow up in Washington State and Colorado with two green-thumbed parents who cultivated a big garden right in our backyard, where I could go pick fresh veggies and berries at any given time. When I moved to Washington, DC to study international relations, I realized how insanely expensive that same high-quality food was on a college budget in a big city. At the same time, I was learning about food deserts far and near, from developing nations to right in the nation’s capital, where tremendous income inequality affects access to universally necessary nutrition.

My capstone for my bachelor’s degree was on the political ecology of food and agriculture, so my whole trip through Central and South America revolved around learning more about the way people eat and grow food. I wanted to see first-hand more sustainable alternatives to the USA’s industrial agriculture and livestock systems. I wanted to taste fresh produce, like bananas, the way that it is supposed to taste… That is, without having its genes altered to withstand the harmful chemicals its mother plant is treated with, and without having been picked before the natural nutrients make it from soil to the produce—instead ripening in a cardboard box during international shipping, or showing up in grocery stores still green, with zero flavor, poor texture, much less nutritional value, and identical mediocrity to its brother bananas.

As an environmentally-conscious center, we had limited solar-powered internet. This, of course, was a great luxury out in the jungle, but it also made communication with my family and friends a bit more difficult. Even so, for being in a place with native animals and plants so incredibly foreign to my own home, I feel that the adjustment time was rather short. I think that, thanks in large part to its owners/directors, Steven and Sarah, Punta Mona attracts a similarly-minded yet unique blend of individuals who truly care, not only about the earth but also about other people. Such an altruistic atmosphere and community-focused mindset proved extremely different from what I had become used to in the USA, a strongly individualistic society. But I quickly saw the benefits of such a life:

  • my stress levels went way down (even though I was working hard most days),
  • everyone generally had a positive demeanor and helpful attitude,
  • and appreciation and togetherness were emphasized for their importance.

In fact, we all joined hands in circle each night before dinner, sharing thoughts about the day, sentiments, lessons, or even to reach out for assistance—whether with a work task or a personal struggle. There was no sense of judgment or exclusion, no materialism and no competitive profit-seeking.

We had different assignments and meal shifts each day. If I was on a breakfast shift, I would usually be awake at 5:30, before the roosters started to crow (though the howler monkeys were sometimes causing a ruckus by then). All others would often do morning yoga together at 6:00, and breakfast was at 7:00. After cleaning up, most would go to class or work on the farm, depending on the day, and those who were on the breakfast preparation could rest. Lunch was at noon, dinner at 6:00, and the rest of the day was really up in the air depending on duties and how nice the weather was. We often went swimming or washed our clothes in the river when it was nicest.

One of the best experiences I had there was a celebration we had for the full moon. We threw a jungle party and everyone dressed up in leaves of all shapes and sizes that they found throughout the jungle. Many of us painted our faces and bodies with berries that created a burnt reddish color. We roasted and ground cacao in preparation for the party so that everyone could make what a couple of us unofficially dubbed ‘moon balls’ by mixing the cacao with any combination of spices and flavors (fresh nutmeg, cinnamon, sugar, salt, coconut…and cayenne made for a spicy surprise in the middle of some). We drank rum and had a ‘passion show’, a talent show of sorts, which proved to be wonderful given the many creative and artistically gifted individuals there.

We gathered in a circle on the beach under what felt like the clearest night sky I’ve ever seen, to celebrate all the countless blessings we were thankful for, and then ate the cacao moon balls together. Under the wise instruction of staff member Katie, we then ran back to the kitchen and lodge to grab all the pots, pans, utensils, didgeridoos, guitars, and anything else we could use as an instrument in what became a giant drum circle on the beach. Dancing on that sandy beach under the brilliant full moon and crystal clear night sky as the gentle, warm waves of the Caribbean Sea tickled my toes and wind flirted with the leaves and the sarong I was wearing…this was the closest I’ve ever felt to magical. It was bliss.

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