Orienting Oneself to Mastatal

If you’re anything like me, then you will find Rancho Mastatal to be a place of incredible beauty, endless inspiration, and powerful community. Even if we have very little in common, you will certainly find it to be unique. Among ecovillages and permaculture communities, over the years Rancho Mastatal has developed a reputation for its intricate systems, well organized educational programs, and gorgeous natural buildings that sprinkle the 200 acre ranch.


Mastatal is a small rural community in central Costa Rica near the Pacific Coast, roughly a four hour drive from the capital, San Jose. In Mastatal things come in singles: there is one dirt road lined by the local bar, one restaurant, a school, community center, convenience store, and a soccer pitch. Although the community center technically provides wifi, it usually doesn’t work, which can add to a sense of isolation that can feel simultaneously liberating and stifling. Despite its size, the ranch sits in the heart of the community. From the main house, you are a stones throw away from the bar, and you can often hear music echoing across the valley as the locals unwind in the evening over one of the two Costa Rican brews.

To orient oneself in Mastatal, especially coming from an urban hub like Los Angeles, requires a letting go of one’s typical expectations. Many of the core staff describe this experience as “losing oneself in a humble task,” or to be more accurate, a series of humble tasks. Fortunately, on the ranch this is easy. Days here are filled from dawn until well past dusk, leaving precious little time to contemplate how or why someone has arrived in this space. Although often simple, each task requires focus and care in order to do well and avoid personal injury.


As an apprentice, our mornings begin at 6:00 am with “life skills.” These individual pre-breakfast chores make up the basic activities that are necessary to keep the farm running. These include managing the firewood, bio-digester (more on that later), and chickens; harvesting salad greens, caring for the main house/kitchen, nursery, zone 1 gardens, and orchards. To ensure that we gain experience in each system on the farm, the apprenticeship program is designed for us to rotate among the life skills on a monthly basis.


These tasks need to be completed by 8:00 am when we have a group breakfast, which depending on the number of visitors at the farm can range from 12 to 50 people. Cooking and cleaning shifts are also traded on a rotating schedule. After breakfast, all the apprentices chip in on a “work party” to help complete the larger projects around the ranch. This can include trail building in the orchards, weeding and prepping new beds in the gardens, harvesting jackfruit or bananas, processing food for the kitchen, or even helping to build a new structure on the property.


At 1 pm everyone breaks for lunch. Nearly every meal served on the ranch includes rice, beans, and a fresh garden salad prepared each morning. To add a little variety to the meals, each dish also includes something a little special. Whether it’s emplatanados con queso, freshly hand pressed tortillas or homemade dosas, each meal comes with a treat to avoid the monotony that is risked when eating arroz con frijoles three times each day. On the side, fresh salsa and a kefir dressing made from local cows milk and fresh herbs make each dish a true delight. To drink, there is fresh coffee from local shade grown beans, water kefir soda filled with pro-biotics to improve digestion, and a house-made rehydration drink (think homemade Gatorade) that is packed with electrolytes to prevent dehydration during long days working under the sun. In the evenings, there is even country wine or “hooch” as it is called here, that is fermented using yeast, water, local unprocessed sugar, and whatever fruit happens to be in season (jackfruit and passion fruit are two of the local favorites).


Afternoons at el Rancho are more varied. Three days a week this time is reserved for Personal and Practice Time. On the ranch, one quickly realizes that these are extremely valuable chunks of time and can be used for many things, although jerking off in the apprentice house while a tour goes by (as the orientation packet mentions) is not one of them. It is however, a great time for writing, taking a nap, swimming at the local waterfall, calling family, or sharpening one’s tools, just to name a few examples. During the rest of the week, the afternoons are reserved for additional work parties, community check-ins, or cooking depending on the day.


Dinner is served every day (except Sunday) at 6:30 and begins with “circle time,” one of the oldest traditions on the ranch. This time is nothing more, and nothing less than an opportunity each day for the entire ranch community to come together, hold hands, and offer thanks (if one is so inclined) for anything/everything they are currently feeling grateful for. It is a brief yet powerful ritual that allows everyone to slow down, take a deep breath, and appreciate the wonderful space and community everyone here is privileged enough to enjoy. Afterwards, dinner is served! The only rule is, be kind and respect those behind. This usually means there is more than enough for everyone, although specialty items (like guacamole) can mysteriously disappear rather quickly. The last person through the line rings the bell, meaning seconds are up for anyone still craving more.

After dinner and clean up, if you’re not ready for bed at 7:30, which is often the case, there are always a plethora of interesting people to chat with over a beer or glass of hooch, and any number of board games to be played until late into the evening (and by late I mean 9:30, because by then you will DEFINITELY be ready for bed). After lying down and becoming one with your mattress, dawn will come suddenly and this routine will repeat itself seemingly on end. At the time of writing, I have now been here for two weeks and I can already tell that one day soon I will look up, only to realize it’s already December, time to pack my bags and head back to the “real” world. One lesson this experience has already taught me, however, is that for the individuals who make up this community, Mastatal is the real world, not just a temporary excursion. For those who choose to step outside the typical expectations of industrialized society and reconnect with the roots of human civilization, this is an obtainable lifestyle. Whether you want this world or the chaos of our modern cities to be more real, is up to you to decide.




Getting FED Takes a Village

As I write this post I am both very aware of the journey I am preparing to begin as well as the experiences that have led me to this point. Tomorrow evening I am getting on a plane and flying to Costa Rica, where I will be moving to a remote farm deep in the rainforest to study sustainable agriculture and place-based agroforestry for the next year. Even if you don’t know what agroforestry means (I didn’t either until very recently), you can probably imagine that this will entail a drastically different lifestyle than the one I have enjoyed for the last four years while working on my PhD at the University of California-Irvine in the heart of Southern California. How did I get here? What drove me to make the radical decision to leave all of the modern comforts of home to spend an entire year living in the jungle and learning about sustainable living?

The answer to this question requires a story, and like all good stories, this one is filled with personal challenges, perseverance, and triumph, with healthy doses of failure and humbling experiences along the way. This is a story about a young man who was raised in the woods, isolated and separated from his peers, inspired by nature yet hungry for human connection. As he grew he found ways to connect with others, and in so doing realized that while humans have become increasingly interconnected to one another, we have become dangerously disconnected from the Earth. Harnessing the fierce passion of youth, our character was desperate to figure out how to solve this problem. He studied psychology, message framing and social norms to better understand human behavior and how to influence it and decided to pursue a graduate degree to become an expert in social persuasion.

Our character was fortunate as well, and before heading back to school he pulled all his savings together and decided that if he really wanted to understand people, he needed to see and meet more of them. With his bags packed and only the winds to guide him, he and a partner eloped to spend a year exploring the world, from the forests of the Amazon to the southern reaches of the world he wandered, looking for something he couldn’t quite describe and unsure of the right questions to ask. After nearly a year away he finally returned to begin school. Although he thought that such an adventure would settle his doubts and help him focus in on his topic of study for graduate school, instead he felt more unsure than ever about how best to dedicate his time and energy to improve human-environment relations.


These doubts were quickly forgotten, however, as the pace of graduate school, courses, teaching, and research became all consuming. And for nearly a year, the young man was absorbed in his work, and his doubts were left to smolder in the dark. At the end of his first year, he received an opportunity to conduct fieldwork in Southern Africa with his advisor. Thrilled at the opportunity to work internationally, he gladly accepted the position, and spent 12 weeks conducting research on the impact of abandonment on the development of orphaned youth. After weeks of interviews and data collection, he was emotionally overwhelmed by the state of deprivation for so many youth living in the small kingdom of Swaziland. All he could keep asking himself was, “what’s next?” They had collected valuable data that could be analyzed to better understand how chronic poverty was negatively impacting youth, but many of the outcomes did not require complex statistical analyses to understand, they were clearly evident in the children themselves. Nervous, shy, and hungry, these learners were unimaginably kind, yet desperate for love and affection. For the main character in our story, the research being conducted was just not enough. Something more had to be done, these communities needed to be FED.


For the next two years, this young man dedicated himself to developing a program to help support the youth he met in Swaziland gain proper nutrition and access to healthy foods, learn critical skills to grow their own food sustainably and become entrepreneurs, and grow into successful, healthy adults and future leaders of their nation. The only problem, it wasn’t working. He failed to raise enough money to launch the program. As hard as he tried the lesson plans developed in California were not contextually appropriate for Swaziland’s conditions. No one believed that a lone white man in California could really make a difference in the living conditions for hundreds of youth on the opposite side of the world. And you know what? They were right.

Getting FED takes a village. It’s not something we can accomplish on our own. It’s something that can only be achieved when we work together. And when the character from our story finally realized this, when he stopped trying to do everything on his own, everything about his work changed. During this time our character met some amazing individuals and organizations working to create powerful change for vulnerable communities around the world and since then he has had the opportunity to find ways to contribute towards each in meaningful ways. He was able to return to Swaziland and help found a garden education program there that will provide crucial support for the children there for years to come and begin supporting similar programs in California, Mexico, and Uganda.


This brings us back to the beginning of our story because this is actually my own story. But this story isn’t about me so much as it is about the amazing individuals and communities I have had the incredible opportunity to work with and support. The more we work together the more I know how much work there is still to be done, and how much we will need everyone’s support in providing a healthy and sustainable world for ourselves and our children to inherit. In order to advance the education programs we provide, I need to improve my expertise in designing and maintaining sustainable systems so that we can make sure our programs take advantage of the most advanced training and techniques available. That is why I will be leaving home tomorrow for the next year to live off the grid on a farm in the tropical rainforests of Costa Rica. Because getting FED takes a village, and I can’t forget the global community that has given me so much.


Thanks for being part of that village! To learn more and/or support our project, follow the link below and share this story!


Pura Vida,

Senor Connor