Have you heard of the Blue Zones?
I’m reading this blue zones recipe book. These are regions of the world where people live much longer and healthier lives than average.
From 2006 to 2008, I lived very close to a “blue zone”, in a small mountainous town in Guanacaste, Costa Rica, as a Peace Corps Volunteer. While not technically in the radius of Guanacaste that is claimed to be a blue zone, the town I lived in is almost identical to what they describe. A close-knit community, a non-sedentary life lived outdoors, an abundance of nature and wildlife, whole natural organic foods (for the most part), and many healthy, robust, elderly people. At the time, I’d never heard of the term blue zone!
While much of the longevity associated with blue zones can be attributed to diet, a lot can also be attributed to other factors, such as family, community, nature, optimism, and faith. I will also mention a minimal amount of technology as a positive contributing factor. The people I lived with in Costa Rica live in what many of us in the U.S would call “poverty”. But it was not poverty how we think of it. While definitely not perfect, there was a lot of wealth – spiritual, health, community, generosity.
The paradox is that when that kind of wealth is converted into a monetized, measurable commodity, it begins to disappear. I’m thinking of things like:
paid daycare | free support from friends, family and community
community events organized by an HOA to which dues are paid | community events created organically by community members
buying food imported from faraway places | community-grown local food
a 30-year mortgage | a humble house built with the help of friends and family, with no mortgage (for example, I could be mistaken, but I am fairly certain that no one in my town owed a mortgage)
online orders delivered to your doorstep, with no human interaction | walking down the (unpaved) street to a locally owned shop, running into neighbors along the way, and sharing with community members
This is all not to say that where I lived was a heaven on Earth! One of my neighbors was a single mother with 3 kids, and they lived in a one-room shack with a dirt floor. I knew a few other kids in my small town who also had absent fathers, and mothers who worked all day to support them. One of them also had 3 kids, and I grew close with one of her boys. Another single mother had 2 kids, and the father was killed in a machete fight at a bar.
This is also not to say that you have to live in a Blue Zone to live a long, healthy life! I remember going to eat at a restaurant in Fort Wayne, Indiana (where I grew up), when I was a kid, and a man there was celebrating his 100th birthday. I thought “wow, how cool to live to be 100!”. Three of my four grandparents lived to their mid 80’s. I remember seeing my great-grandmother as a kid, who lived to her mid 90’s. Most of us know someone, or several people, who has lived to a very old age.
Lastly, I thought I’d share some photos from my time in La Cruz de Abangares, and the stories behind each photo.
This is my good friend Don German and I, loading up vegetable crates at his farm, which they would sell to the local grocery store (which later got bought out by a subsidiary of Wal-Mart that has become omnipresent in Costa Rica…unfortunately in my opinion). Don German was around his mid 70’s at this time. Every morning (except for Sunday) he’d wake up, eat breakfast, and walk the steep dirt road declines and inclines over to their organic farm to work. During my time there, I worked closely with one of Don German’s sons, Melvin Brenes, to develop their agro-adventure-tourism company La Finca Modelo. If you ever go to the Monteverde region of Costa Rica, check them out! Among other activities, you can rappel down waterfalls, which is super fun.
One morning, I opened the front door of the house I was living in (I lived in 3 different houses over 2.5 years in La Cruz), and was met face to face with a cow. Cows are large animals that could probably do some real harm to humans, but they’re kind of scaredy-cats too. I went “boo” and it ran away. But, that cow belonged to somebody and somehow had escaped. So the picture above is of us trying to catch the cow and move it back to its rightful pasture. Just another day in the campo (countryside) of Costa Rica!
The work I did in Costa Rica wasn’t measured in 40 hours a week, nor was the work of anybody else I knew in La Cruz. I did do work though – I led the creation and initial training of a locally-owned bank, worked closely with La Finca Modelo (mentioned above), worked with helping to market and receive grant funds to support a women-owned food retail business, and taught English to kids and adults, among several other projects. As a matter of fact, here is a photo of the first Board of Directors of the bank, at a founding ceremony:
But, I still had a lot of spare time. The neighborhood youth and I spent a lot of time together, played lots of soccer, and I even taught them to play baseball. I made our baseball bat by cutting it off of a tree (it worked well!). The gloves and balls were donations a visiting group of American students.
This is exactly what it looks like. Watching some TV while eating sugarcane that we are cutting with machetes. This was at the 2nd of 3 houses that I lived in. I miss them. This guy is also named German. He worked at a pig farm and was missing half of one of his fingers, from a knife accident at the farm one time. His wife, Flora, cooked a lot of great meals for me, and was always super cheerful. If I ever wasn’t feeling well, she would go and gather some specific type of leaves to make me an herbal tea.
These are photos of German and Flora’s house, where I lived for several months. We would spent lots of time sitting on that front porch, where I learned to sew bracelets. The second photo is of their kitchen…note the bottle on the left-hand side on top of the stove. That is some yummy Salsa Lizano, a staple in Costa Rican cuisine, and a key ingredient in their gallo pinto (rice and beans) recipe. The third photo is German working at a rodeo, a typical cultural event in the province of Guanacaste. The last photo is of a maldito (damn) scorpion that was hiding underneath my bed and stung me one night. It wasn’t poisonous, but it was pretty painful, and I woke everybody up with my llanto (scream).
This is Don German and Pinocho (that is the Spanish way of saying Pinocchio, which was this guy’s nickname, RIP) playing one of their legendary games of pool. They were both real-deal pool players. I used to play pool with Pinocho almost every day. He’d win over half the time. He was also a little loose with the rules, I would say…in his favor. The pool table was located in the back of the local pulpería (general store). Man that was fun times…some evenings a bunch of us would gather there and play pool for hours. Gerardo, who owned the pulpería at the time, eventually shut down the makeshift pool hall because there was too much drinking and rowdiness.
Lastly, look at those views! All of the exercise from walking up and down steep hills is rewarded with beautiful scenery.