A Trek Through Costa Rica: Part I: The Flight

LEG ONE: FROM PORTLAND, OR TO SAN JOSE, COSTA RICA

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Perry Farrell is on our plane from Portland to L.A.

In fact, we walk right alongside him and his two children and his very petite Asian wife all the way through the PDX International gate, and also the boarding tunnel (through which he carries his young, excitable child upon his shoulders while his wife carries a stroller) and into the plane, after which he and his brood settle into the first-class cabin and we are shuffled back to coach.

And then after we depart the plane in Los Angeles to await our connecting flight to Guatemala City, we can’t escape him. There he is in baggage claim next to us, horsing around and embracing his wife and chasing his kids and laughing the way one almost never does after an uneventful and surely routine flight. At which point my little brother Keifer (pretending he is taking a picture of my girlfriend) catches him on film, blurry in the background of his shot.

936full-perry-farrellMr. Farrell (image courtesy of listal.com

This is very cool of course. He is a celebrity. And personally vindicating to poor Keifer, as right off the bat, this event almost justifies the added trouble of the extra forty or so pounds of lenses, tripods and film that he has lugged along on this ostensibly stripped-down, month-long trek of Costa Rica. But it doesn’t stop the rest of his travelling companions (myself, my girlfriend Stacky, and my brother Chris) from  cruelly ribbing him about it.
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Sometime during the following, interminable overnight flight from L.A. to Guatemala City and then to San Jose, a movie flickers into life on the monitors hanging above our seats. This movie is titled “Down with Love”, starring Ewan McGregor and Renee Zellweger.

Now, I cannot sleep on planes. Never have been able to. Maybe it’s just me, but something about having no control of whether I live or die – entrusting my life to a strange, exhausted pilot who is somehow maintaining 75 tons of airliner at an altitude of 35,000 feet above dark and jagged mountains – prevents me from drifting off into careless, baby-like slumber.

So, because it is the only activity to engage me in this dark tube of hurtling steel filled with lucky sleeping bastards, and because we have entered that peculiar suspension of time that occurs on long overnight flights and I need something with a definite running time to reassure me that this flight is progressing somehow,  I watch Messr. McGregor’s “Down with Love”.
The Best of Ewan McGregor - http://www.bestofewan.com/No. Down with THIS MOVIE. (image courtesy of fanpop.com)

After the credits roll, I mentally recite a short list of activities available to me that would have been preferable to sitting through “Down With Love”.  An abbreviated list follows:

1. Suffocating on the collected noxious emissions of the gastrically distressed fellow in front of me.
2. Punching a hole in the fuselage and being sucked out to free-fall gently into the Pacific.
3. You get the idea.

And I still cannot sleep.
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Compared to the chaotic behemoth of L.A.X., the Guatemala City airport terminal, hunching low and blocky in the dim wilderness of 3 a.m Central America,  looks like a poorly lit gas station that we’ve pulled up to on an overnight bus trip.

We’ve landed in Guatemala City in the dead of night to pick up a few passengers and to let a sick and feverish man off the plane. The man slumped to the floor around halfway through the flight and the crew have been propping him up ever since. Through the dark filter of my sleepless delirium, the ordeal of the two flight attendants assigned to escort the poor man off the plane seems grim. They strain epically to drag the bulky fellow out of the side exit and finally manage to stumble down the stairs to the tarmac below.

With that bit of unpleasantness done, the crew passes around immigration and customs forms for everyone to sign as if nothing has happened. Then we sit in the dark on the tarmac for what feels like hours before taking off again. All I can do is stare out the window at the gas station lights.

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Sleep has not come by the time dawn sees us flying over the Nicoya Peninsula. We immediately begin our descent. We have finally crossed the massive Lake Nicaragua (which is more like a sea) and passed rather dramatically into Costa Rica.

Now, intensely green forested mountains rise to the left of us, rolling down to deep shadowed valleys and impenetrable tree cover, while to the right, the Pacific glistens vast and green blue with white misty shores. It is breathtaking.view-costa-ricaI’m immediately cheered. Soon, I will sleep a long and needed sleep (I cast my red eyes upon my brothers and my girlfriend slumbering just next to and behind me – lucky bastards!) and then, my rest taken, it will be off to romp around this giant playground.

—TO BE CONTINUED–

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06.05.2011 – Stumptown Coffee Making Inroads in New York

Stumptown Coffee Making Inroads in New York

by Benjamin J Spencer

The Stumptown Brew Bar in Red Hook.       Photo: Stumptowncoffee.com

Red Hook, Brooklyn –  In a sparsely-populated industrial corner of Red Hook, Brooklyn, within sight of sprawling docks and looming ocean-bound freighters, sits a small, unassuming brownstone building. From its looks, it probably used to be an auto shop. Now, from inside wafts not the stench of axle grease, but the thick, dark tang of roasting coffee.

Some might deem the Brooklyn working waterfront an unlikely place for a coffee roaster. But actually it makes perfect sense, since these Stumptown beans, green and oily when delivered, hail from around the world – from small family and co-op coffee estates where owners and workers are paid a premium for their product that is unmatched in the industry.

Steve Goodwine is a barista behind the counter at the Brew Bar, which takes up a small storefront adjacent to the roasting garage here in Red Hook.

“There are two guys in our company who spend about nine months out of the year travelling to different coffee farms around the world,” he says.

At these small farms, batches of coffee are rigorously tested for quality. The conditions of the farm (organic methods, plenty of shade) and workers (well-taken care of) are checked, and new business relationships are forged with small growers. Stumptown set up this year-old Brew Bar specifically to educate the public on the uniqueness of that model in the coffee importing world – and of course, sell some more coffee.

The beans are also roasted with a care and consistency rare in the world of coffee, and at an exceedingly small scale compared to the mega-conglomerates that feed Manhattan’s endless train of Dunkin’ Donuts.  It seems improbable that from this modest and laid-back feeling roasting facility, every wholesale and café- bound order of Stumptown Coffee in New York City is delivered.

“The roasters are just really efficient,” says Brian Philippi, another barista here. “They work really hard.”

So do the brewers, if today’s demonstration is any indication. As he talks, Philippi, bewhiskered and lanky, stands behind a wooden counter currently decked out like some kind of mad doctor’s lab. The Brew Bar coffee is all ground and brewed to order right in front of sometimes bemused customers, but you won’t see any familiar drip machines here.

Overhead racks of fat glass beakers, plastic plunger tubes and presses of all sizes, and other technical paraphernalia attest to Stumptown’s painstakingly scientific approach to creating the perfect cup. Visitors can test four different labor-intensive methods of brewing up to 16 varieties of single-source, direct-trade gourmet beans.

One simple method involves slowly pouring near-boiling water over a pile of dark, coarse-ground joe, while another, called the Aeropress, resembles a large syringe with a stopper that squeezes hot water through wetted grounds with a column of pressurized air.

As the afternoon wears on, bicyclers enjoying the mild weather chain up and file inside in chattering groups. A sense of community takes hold in the little bar. One man tells the three brewers behind the counter that despite his best efforts at home, he can’t quite get his own Aeropress to make a cup as perfect as theirs.

“The difference between here and home is that here, everything’s precise,” he says. “Maybe because there aren’t three kids shooting soccer balls at me.”

Although anyone can order Portland-based Stumptown’s whole bean, direct-trade coffee  via the Internet, New York and Seattle are the only other localities where the company has a physical presence –  and New York’s inclusion was based more on serendipity than any business plan, according to Matt Lounsbury, Stumptown’s director of operations in its Portland headquarters.

Lounsbury explains that the success of Seattle-based boutique luxury Ace Hotels inspired the chain to start another hotel in Portland in 2007, and they asked Stumptown to run a coffee bar in their lobby. The hotel, and the bar, was a great success, and when Ace set up on 29th Street near Madison Square in mid-town Manhattan two years ago, they asked Stumptown to work the old magic again.

“At first we were like, what? New York City?” says Lounsbury. “We’re just this little coffee company from Portland. For a while we couldn’t quite put our minds around it.”

When they did decide to take the plunge, immediate problems arose. The biggest problem: finding space for their roaster.  Normally, Lounsbury says, if Stumptown can’t build a roaster in a location, they won’t even consider moving any operations there, and for space and financial reasons, Manhattan was simply out of the question. “It’s a freshness thing,” he says.

So they scoured Brooklyn instead, and found the perfect location in Red Hook.

Though the recently opened Brew Bar and the Ace Hotel lobby are so far the only company retail locations in the city, Stumptown does an increasingly brisk wholesale business to area restaurants. In the two years since Stumptown’s introduction to New York City, the business has grown to include wholesaling to dozens of cafes and restaurants in the five boroughs. Several locations in the East 20’s near Baruch College serve at least a Stumptown house brew, including Star Café and the the Mexican chain Dos Caminos on 27th Street and East Third Avenue. In fact, it has become rather a badge of honor to serve Stumptown.

Craig Cochran, the owner of Terri, a successful new vegetarian, vegan and organic sandwich café on West 23rd St. and 6th Avenue, says in an email that since he and his business partner had named their café after their moms (both named Terri), “we only wanted the highest quality products to be associated with us.”

Cochran says that as he relied on his “coffee connoisseur” friends for advice, Stumptown came up again and again.  He had crafted Terri’s menu carefully to appeal to vegetarians and non-vegetarians, with sandwiches that come off like healthy comfort food while being something he could feel proud to serve. So he knew they had to get the coffee right – and preferably socially responsible.

“When I found out that Stumptown also has the highest standards associated with every aspect of their coffee production,” says Cochran, “I knew that this was the right brand to serve at Terri.”

Lounsbury says Stumptown simply got to New York at the right time. Even if their research shows that the term “direct trade” hasn’t quite penetrated into the coffee lingo around here yet, nevertheless, in the past few years, more direct-trade coffee has made it into independent cafes city-wide.

Competitors include North Carolina’s CounterCulture Coffee (served at midtown’s Café Lucid, among other venues) and Chicago-based Intelligentsia Coffee, – along with Stumptown, one of the pioneers of the direct-trade model – with vendors like 9th Street Coffee in Manhattan’s East Village and their own small coffee bar in the Chelsea Market.

“We are definitely responding to a lot of energy around local food in New York, especially in the last year,” said Lounsbury. “We’re starting to see a lot more traction. All across the country there’s a lot of interest in specialty coffees and brewing methods. It bodes well for us as roasters, but also it bodes well for coffee lovers and for independent farmers.”

Not to mention the coffee-lovers on this sleepy stretch of Van Brunt Street in Red Hook. The customers, who might pay up to four dollars for their mug of fresh-ground, exactingly-brewed Stumptown Coffee (depending on the brewing method), don’t seem to mind the extra cost at all.

As one bearded and square-spectacled gent explains to me,  “You pay for precision.”

05.24.2004 – From Portland Onward: A Walt Whitman-esque Journey

FROM PORTLAND ONWARD: A WHITMAN-ESQUE JOURNEY

PART 1:  MUSIC AT THE CRYSTAL BALLROOM – HAWTHORNE BOULEVARD – THE NIGHT SKY

To-night I attended a magnificent ball presided over by the most wonderfully talented musicians.
     Some remembrances of the evening: young bright couples stomping and knocking together in the most joyous manner, a vast resonant hall dimly illuminated by electric lamps (the murky yellow glow heightening the mystic, if I may say medieval, effect of the cavernous enclosure), sublimely talented musicians on the amplified guitar and percussion (outlandishly clad in heavy silks, stainless steel spikes and leather), and an overall agitated and vehement atmosphere difficult to qualify.
     The tooth’d and splinter’d edge of the guitar, the red, transported features of the bouncing multitudes – male and female leaping and pressing together with no thought of shame – the pulsing, vibrating thunder of scores of heavy boots and thick soles impacting the polished wooden surfaces of the ballroom floor, the musky odor of well-earn’d perspiration, all in their essence compositing a marvelous cacophony which singularly excited and pummeled my senses for some happy hours.
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     Returning home, riding down Hawthorne Blvd. in an open carriage with two dear old acquaintances , I was compelled on numerous occasions to exit the aft compartment spontaneously, with the aim of more readily observing the alluring carnival of multi-colored yuletide lights strung festively over the brick’d and plaster’d facades of that famed avenue.
     The miniature unearthly-hued bulbs, fuzzy and moonlight-softened, out-shimmering even the stars, resembling nothing less than phosphorescent precipitant frozen whilst dripping from invisible wires (stretched as they were full down the length of the block – throwing colors on the concrete sidewalks, gaudy, pink, warm), the radiance of the glowing rectangular signs sharply delineated from the ink’d black of August night, carved out starkly in the contrast of light and shadow,  the massive silent bulk of the edifices, soothed my rous’d and exhausted wits and conferr’d a solemn mythic presence on the evening.
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     Later that night…

As I write I am reclining on my open porch observing the night sky.

Toward the South,that impervious half-human warrior Orion with his starry belt and scabbard (mammoth Betelgeuse announcing
his unsurpass’d power boldly from the sword haft), stares down over a span of centuries, the model of implacability and stern manly authority, challenging all the heavens with all the fierce dispassionate pagan cruelty and freedom he can conjure, a centaur, true kin of Pan and all the wild things – overshadow’d only by Luna in all her magnificence and sheen, singular, inimitable.

PART 2: A JAUNT EASTWARD – THE PORT OF PORTLAND; OUT ON THE COLUMBIA; GRASSLAND; THE NATURE OF A HARDY PEOPLE

Left North-West Portland shortly before 9 o’clock in the morning, middle of August, in a comfortable sleeper.

Crossing the mighty river vein, route of busy trade and bastion of prosperity for the entire region – the Willamette as the natives name it, glistening in the clear, placid morning sunlight, great brown surface eddying and swirling, an enormous coiled snake shuddering and boiling with ancient wisdom and strength.

A good view of the industrial district from the Steel Bridge – waves of midsummer heat warping the great red cargo bins – and the rusted hulking cranes, so still, so silent, so sunken and establish’d in the dense sooty earth, it scarcely seems they were ever employ’d as working machinery, but rather uprooted from the crust of the earth and twisted into shape by some massive hand.

     And the bridge, that magnificent rust-red structure crafted by bold and enterprising American in anticipation of the booming rail commerce – I perceive the fix’d bolts, the slanted girders, the mammoth steel cables –  and envision the brute strength, the technical knowledge and the dazzling artistry expended to raise this marvelous – and singularly American – structure!
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     A hazed half-clouded morning surrenders by afternoon to a brilliant lucidity of sunlight and scraped sky.
     The mighty silver-blooded artery of the Columbia – that life bringer to myriad Indian tribes, the patient, ever-teeming deliverer of salmons, sturgeons, and eels that nourish the world – flows broadly to my left, its girth so formidable that the forests and hills on the far side are near engulf’d in mists, hardly to be seen.
     As I travel the length of the river, the towering dam structures rise monolith-like – simple, smooth and rectangular at their peaks, but ever churning deep within their massive depths. The secret turbines pumping, the compartments beneath the waters, the huge lifts and traps, the power of the river, transforming the raw rushing flood into crackling super-charged electric current – the bare humming current, the very force of life master’d and transported through pure democratic ingenuity – the source of hearth-heat and precious luminescence to many millions of citizens.
     To my right the stark sheer crags of the river gorge rise a thousand and more feet, festoon’d with clinging firs and cedars, ever moisten’d with roaring cascades of pure snow-melt (springing from nameless icy dells and trackless fords of the distant Cascades, their peaks barely to be seen through the vaporous haze, thrusting snow-capp’d into the heavens), terminating in spectacular pools and grottoes, pounding, spraying against the smooth flat slabs of the tributary beds.
     It is true that in Europe, feudal castles lay in ruins all about the bruis’d and bloodied countryside.  Nonetheless it must be allow’d that there remains a charmingly refined and sculpted beauty – but I ask, what is the manufactur’d  art of all Europe in comparison to this breadth, the wonder of these raw natural forms marching endlessly in chaotic glory under the scrubb’d rose-tinted and wispy-clouded heavens?
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We are past the mountains now and descending rapidly to the level floor of Eastern grassland.

      The earth is parch’d, crack’d and dusty, streaked white and pale bronze – the hot earth sighs with long thirst, the winds bluster strong, bending brittle grasses in rippling waves as far as perception goes – yet out of this apparent wasteland, sturdy men, strong self-reliant individuals, in epic fulfillment of their natures, unfetter’d by the outmoded strictures of feudal dynasty, have wrenched an unprecedented treasure of wheat and edible grasses that sprout strong and full out of the revived soil.
     They have wrested control of the rivers and streams, bent them to match lofty visions, manufactur’d tunnels and ruts, marshland, and all with the aim of feeding the world.
     The sheer creativity of the citizen of a democratic race, the overwhelming resources and spaces available to his purposes (incalculably larger than the cramp’d and overcrowded European continent), naturally foster a wide mind and a sturdy character the likes of which can rarely be matched in recorded history.
     Perhaps only within the soil of the civic-minded Hellenic civilizations there gestated a germ of what would eventually burst into full flower in the age of American prominence.