A storm rapidly approaches on the eleventh day of January. According to local folklore, the brewing clouds foretell a rainy eleventh month this year. . . gotta build as much as possible before the dry season’s over.
Erica sits cross-legged, balanced on the railing as she looks off to the mountains. We watch her husband, Matt, talk to a group of locals below. They surround him as he meticulously flips through a book, explaining with pictures and diagrams what the community is and what it will become.
One scratches his chin. “Treehouses? Well, how do you get concrete up into the trees?” The teak and bamboo homes in the rain forest canopy are triumphs of design, as is the Skytrail network spans the property without plowing through the jungle.
Questions abound. How did this all happen? How did two Americans manage to leave their lives behind in order to develop a community in the jungle powered with solar and hydroelectricity? They make ice with the sun, grow their food, and travel around 350 acres on a carbon-neutral zip line superhighway.
“You really have to understand the kind of people we are.” Erica’s hands talk in wide circles. “I’m the dreamer and Matt’s the doer.”
She wraps her arms around her knees and gazes back out to the mountain horizon. “It wasn’t easy. A year ago, I was thinking we made the worst mistake of our lives. We quit our jobs and put all our chips on the table and had nothing to show for it.
“I couldn’t speak Spanish and was working and camping with all men.” She glances back at me and sighs. “The way the culture is here, they couldn’t understand why a woman wasn’t cooking and cleaning! They couldn’t comprehend that I was networking and getting the word out about the project.”
“We didn’t want to seem like asshole gringos when we first came,” Matt’s voice booms as he returns to the sky lounge. “We didn’t come to cut down trees and build McMansions with a view.”
“This is our home.” His hand chops the air with each articulated thought. “Sometimes we go down and play soccer with the local kids,” he continues. “The whole town comes to watch the gringos get destroyed by their children!”
His erupting laughter is interrupted as scarlet rumped tanagers tear through the air, ricocheting off toward a tree. Matt grabs a book detailing the 900 species of birds found in Costa Rica.
“I used to think bird watching was boring, a hobby for old people. But here I am with this book every evening,” confesses the avid surfer and snowboarder.
Although they came down to build a sustainable paradise for themselves and the rest of the Bellavista community, the couple has also made extensive efforts to develop a sustainable relationship with the local towns surrounding the Finca, fighting hard against the entrenched stereotype of opportunism that stigmatizes the gringo community.
Shocked at how under-funded the local school was, the couple donated enough supplies to keep the kids learning for the entire school year. Matt has even volunteered in the classroom, teaching English lessons and “getting up on his sustainability soapbox,” inspiring students to live in harmony with their environment rather than exploiting it for short-term gain.
Despite how far they’ve come with the project, they still cringe at the word developer. “I don’t want anybody to call us that,” snaps Matt. “We’re just two kids with an idea that took root. We’re not rape-and-pillage real estate companies; we have to sleep at night.”
“When people meet us,” Erica interrupts, “they’re not expecting two young punks, so it’s hard for people to take us seriously.” She playfully rocks back and forth on her ledge. “We’re not overly serious ourselves. . .we had the right people at the right time and have just been brutally honest and completely transparent with our clients.”
I have to ask: “Has all this been hard on your relationship?”
They give each other a knowing grin. Matt carefully proceeds. “Well, we actually met… in an ecosystem management class, and here we are, managing our ecosystem together. But, as with all human beings, when you spend 24 hours a day together, when you play, work, and love together, it gets stressful.”
Erica nods. “There’s just no time for us. It’s all about the project, and there’s always someone in your face and in your place. We don’t want this to be a Matt and Erica show forever, but right now it is.
When we don’t have so many people dependent on us, we can finally get down to the coast and surf together, which is actually the reason we came to Costa Rica in the first place!”
“But at this point,” Matt continues, “after overcoming so many difficulties, we have no doubt that Bellavista will succeed.” As he trails off, he makes sincere eye contact with me, and for that moment I’m convinced.