Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Machismo!......Tales of a Female Turtle Guide in Costa Rica!

The Latin culture has always been known for its “machismo”, and Costa Rica is certainly no exception. Though admittedly society is slowly changing this male chauvinistic attitude, upon my arrival to Costa Rica, machismo and I had many head-on collisions. Here are some tales of my adventures as one of the first Female Sea Turtle Guides in Costa Rica…

Perhaps it would help if I set the background a bit. My husband and I fortuitously landed on the Caribbean shores of Costa Rica in the early 90’s. Fresh off the turnip truck, we were “newbies” in the worse sense of the word, speaking little Spanish and lacking any understanding of the cultural differences. We lived on a small island across the river from a sleepy little 200 person fishing village known as Barra de Parismina. Located on the Caribbean coast halfway between the Port City of Limon, and the next village to the North called Tortuguero, access to most of this coastline is by boat only via natural rivers and artificial canals (read the fine print people… roads!).

My Mission:
Looking to start a new life adventure, I had been told the fastest way to learn Spanish was to get a job. I immersed myself in Spanish books and applied to become a certified Nature and Turtle Guide. Trained to promote and protect the natural resources of Costa Rica, with focus on the endangered sea turtles that arrive on this Caribbean coastline, the guides would serve as “ambassadors” of not only the turtles, but the entire concept of Costa Rica as an emerging Eco-Tourism destination.

My progress was swift on the language, but sadly……sorely lacking in cultural understanding. Oblivious to the whole “machismo” concept, I would buzz around alone in our small motorboat, not realizing that it was “scandalous” behavior for a woman to be driving a boat and driving it alone no less! The village men would confront my husband in the local Cantina, asking him “How can you let your wife drive a boat? You need to stop her! Women don’t drive boats around here!” At which point my hen-picked husband would respond, “YOU’LL have to tell her, cause I’m not gunna tell her!”, neither of us truly understanding what the big deal was.

Cultural Differences Continue:
The cultural differences escalated as confrontations with local poachers who had previously hunted our large 60 acre jungle “farm” freely now found themselves in the cross hairs of an irate gringa determined to protect God’s creatures. Word quickly spread that the “crazy gringa” across the river had a gun and was rather passionate about protecting the animals on her property. This unique phenomenon caused an almost collective gasp from the female population and a form of sympathy from the male population toward my husband who obviously couldn’t control the fruitcake “gringa” he was married to. On a happy note, in a short time the illegal hunting was reduced considerably in the immediate area.

Turtle Season Arrives:
With my Spanish studies going at full speed and my coveted Nature Guide Certification almost in hand, I was excited as turtle season arrived. Taking my guide certification test in record time, I didn’t realize that I would then have to sit there waiting 40 long uncomfortable minutes, while the rest of the MEN finished the test. Does it seem naïve now to realize that I was the only woman in the group? I honestly didn’t take much notice at the time, but looking back I can recognize how strange this must have seemed to them. Mid-February arrived, and with it, the enormous Leatherback Turtles. Weighing up to 1500 pounds, with flipper spans of up to 7 feet, the Leatherbacks were more commonly found to the North on the Tortuguero beaches and only arrived sporadically thru May to our beaches. As Green Turtle season arrived in July, nightly guided tours to see these majestic creatures lay their eggs began, lasting thru the end of October. Guides would be responsible to carry small groups of no more than 10 tourists by boat through the dark canals to isolated beach locations where lengthy walks began to find and witness this incredible egg laying process.

Passion turns to Danger:
It never occurred to me that walking the isolated beaches late at night with a red-dimmed flashlight and 10 hapless tourists stumbling over driftwood was dangerous. I really didn’t put any thought into the several large cat species that regularly hunted the turtles, or the handful of ruthless turtle poachers (both egg and meat) that also awaited the yearly arrival of turtle season. I was from Los Angeles after all, and frankly Costa Rica with its passive culture hardly seemed threatening to me. That was until the dreaded “machismo” reared its ugly head again. My clueless husband was once again confronted at the local Cantina with, “How can you let your wife walk the beaches alone at night? You need to stop her! She’s taking our jobs away!” At which time my dear husband again responded, “YOU tell her, I’m not gunna tell her!” The frustration and sympathy for the guy with the “crazy gringa” wife grew larger amongst the locals. Unfortunately, this male sympathy quickly dissipated when I made my largest faux pas to date.

Cultures Clash:
Riding my horses along the beach one morning, I found several turtles on their backs awaiting slaughter. Without thinking, I used a large plank to overturn them and help direct the turtles back to sea, all the while feeling pretty happy with myself. A short time later a major village scandal erupted as it was soon discovered that the turtles had been freed by that “crazy gringa”! (The horse tracks gave me away, I was the only one with horses on our island.) No one had ever dared to interrupt the yearly slaughter of turtles by a handful of organized poachers who profited from the sales of turtle meat and eggs. Once again, my poor husband took the brunt of the punishment, as the the villagers would never directly confront “the crazy woman”. Thank goodness for the passive Tico culture, as machetes and sticks were wielded, but in the end a round of beers quickly settled the angry mob. (It’s a sure fire solution to almost anything in Costa Rica!)

Beer Summit Solution:
It was soon accepted that the “crazy gringa” across the river was not going to give up her fight to protect the turtles and other wildlife and if it meant regular free rounds of beers at the Cantina, then maybe that wasn’t such a bad deal after all. Soon, an unspoken turtle moratorium was established along our beach… more overturned turtles appeared and beer poured freely at the Cantina. Thankfully with time wiser heads realized that the promotion of these beautiful creatures would bring in more tourists, benefiting the entire village and not just a handful of illegal poachers. Attitudes slowly began to change towards the turtles, and now, almost 20 years later the area has many turtle protection projects in place attracting volunteers and tourists in record numbers. The fight to save the Sea Turtles around the World remains constant and with the continued distress on their habitat, the future of this wonderful creature regrettably remains uncertain. PLEASE HELP SAVE OUR SEA TURTLES!!

How you can help:
The following are all recognized organizations with many programs to help conserve the World’s endangered Sea Turtles. If you would like to help, please click thru to these excellent sites to see how you can be a part of saving these beautiful creatures!

Author: Kimberly Barron, originally from Malibu, California has lived in Parismina and Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica for 20 years. Starting as a certified tour guide, she spent 15 years managing fishing lodges on the Caribbean Coast and later 4* & 5* Hotels on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. Currently semi-retired, Kimberly still works as the Marketing Director for Byblos Resort & Casino and Hotel Makanda by the Sea.


Thursday, February 14, 2013

Mangosteen, the Super Fruit in Costa Rica! It's not just a Mango, it's even better!!

This incredible super fruit is commonly referred to as the “Queen of Fruits” and is one of Costa Rica’s most prized super fruits (when you can find it), it's the Mangosteen!

Traditionally, Mangosteen fruits have been used for thousands of years in folk and traditional medicine to help support healthy inflammatory processes and digestive health converting this rare fruit to the new darling of the super fruit world.

For those not familiar with it, Mangosteen fruits have a deep purple rind and soft white flesh seed pods inside. The fruit tastes deliciously sweet like a cross between a mild peach and a sweet strawberry and it is easily one of the most delicious super fruits in the World. Add the fact that Mangosteen is packed with nutrients that provide plenty of healthy benefits and you have the best of all fruit worlds!

What makes Mangosteen so potent as a super fruit? It’s loaded with xanthones—powerful antioxidants that help fight free radicals. In fact, of the 200 xanthone compounds known, the Mangosteen contains over 40, and these xanthones are found in the dark purple outer rind (pericarp). That's more xanthones than any other fruit in the world!

Mangosteen production can be challenging though and these trees need optimal growing conditions to survive. Warm, humid weather, combined with plenty of rainfall to thrive seem to make many parts of Costa Rica the perfect setting to grow this fabulous fruit, but definitely limits it's ability to become cultivated worldwide. Gardeners will need patience as well should they want to add this tree to their home garden, as the fruits grow slowly on tall evergreen trees that can reach up to 80 feet. The fruit is delicate and must be picked as close as possible to the time of ripeness to get the maximum amount of xanthones, so this can require a constant vigilance on the growers part. This means the fruit is generally only be picked around twice a year, and with the height of some of the trees, it can be quite the challenge to harvest!

Facts about Mangosteen Fruit
The Mangosteen, which carries a botanical name of Garcinia mangostana is a tropical plant indigenous to Southeast Asian countries and the Malay Archipelago. Many believed that the unique and exquisite flavor of Mangosteen fruit had delighted the Queen of England so much that she called it the "Queen of Fruits", thus the origin of that nickname, though historical references to the actual truth of this story are limited and difficult to substantiate.

The Mangosteen tree can be hard to recognize, as it typically grows between 20 and 80 feet tall, featuring dark-brown, flaking bark. The leaves of the Mangosteen are elliptic, thick and leathery, deep-green, fairly glossy on top and yellowish-green beneath. The flowers of the Mangosteen are 1.5 to 2 inches wide. The pericarp of ripe Mangosteen is dark reddish purple in color and is the most obvious identifying characteristic of this mostly non-descript tree. The aromatic inner flesh is a creamy texture and quite sweet and it definitely easy to recognize once tasted.

Some Health Benefits of Mangosteens
Since the pericarp of Mangosteen consists of numerous compounds, it is the part most regarded as containing beneficial antioxidant qualities. In clinical studies, Mangosteen has xanthones (see info above), which have anti-cancer effects. Some other health benefits include its antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and antifungal properties. Additionally, this great fruit is very low in calories, has no cholesterol or saturated fats, and is bursting with fiber (13% of RDA in each 100 g) which is recommended in any daily diet for improved health. Mangosteens also contain high concentrates of vitamin C; supplying around 12% of RDA in each 100 g. Fruits full of vitamin C aid the body to build resistance to combat flu-like infectious agents and eliminate free radicals. Fresh Mangosteens also serve as an excellent source of B-complex vitamins like thiamin (vitamin B1), niacin (vitamin B3) and folates (vitamin B9). These vitamins function to help your body system to metabolize fats, proteins and carbohydrates. Lastly, these super fruits also have a high count of minerals such as potassium, magnesium and manganese. Potassium is an essential component that helps manage heartbeat and blood pressure; thereby helping in the fight to combate coronary heart disease and strokes. Not a bad record for a small fruit!

How to Choose a Mangosteen
When selecting this prized fruit, pick ones that appear to be in good shape on the exterior with little or no bruising. Bruised fruits will cause a more bitter taste on the inner seeds. Press the pericarp or shell of the Mangosteen and if you find the skin soft, the fruit is not fresh and you should choose another specimen. A firm outter shell of this fruit is the best sign of freshness.

Little Tip: There is a simple trick to find out how many seeds are on the inside of this fruit. Turn the Mangosteen upside down. Count the number of the petals on the flower-like spot at the center of the fruit. The amount there is equal to the amount of pieces inside the fruit.

How should one Store Mangosteens?
Once you have located, bought (or picked) your Mangosteens, to get the most out of them, store these fruits at normal room temperature and consume within a couple of days, as they do not keep well for long. These fruits do not freeze either, so again it is advised to eat them while still fresh for the best super fruit experience!

Would you care to learn a little of the Science?
The Latin name of the Mangosteen is Garcinia mangostana L. The genus Garcinia is named in honor of Laurent Garcin, a French 18th century explorer and plant collector. Besides the Mangosteen, there are numerous other species within the genus, many of which produce edible fruit, but none as impressive as the Mangosteen. Some of these fruit species produce valuable gums, waxes and dyes, but it is truly the Mangosteen that provides the health benefits we are all looking for as a super fruit. (Keep in mind......although the word "mango" is contained in the word "mangosteen" there is actually no relationship botanically with these fruits!)

Some distinct traits of the Mangosteen play a major role in limiting the extent to which these fruits have been planted around the globe, and that is why you do not find them at every farmer's market, supermarket, or in large plantations around the world. First and foremost, the seeds of the Mangosteen are considered "recalcitrant." This means that they are very short-lived and must be kept moist or they die quite easily destroying the tree. Mangosteen seeds with much care, can be kept alive in moist peat moss for weeks, enabling them to be shipped to distant locations, though the timing has to be correct, or they can begin to sprout to early losing chance for viability.

Mangosteen trees are dioecious, meaning that there are male trees and female trees, though there are very few male trees that have been identified anywhere in the world so if they exist, they are definitely quite rare. This means the major burden to perpetuate the species is on the female tree. No males means no pollen, so even though the female flower contains rudimentary sterile anthers where pollen would normally be found, without pollen, there is no way to fertilize to create seeds with the true genetic traits. Instead, the female Mangosteen trees are forced to perpetuate the species by apomixis which results in effectively an asexually produced seed. This means it actually produces a clone of the mother tree each time a seed successfully propogates.

How does one best eat a Mangosteen?
The Mangosteen has a soft white edible center that is similar in construction to the sections of an orange, with possibly one hard seed in each of the larger segments. The smaller segments are seedless and seem to melt in your mouth, releasing a delicious juice that is a perfect balance of acids and sugars. The rind, or pericarp, is about 4 to 6 mm thick (1/4" or more) and when freshly harvested is pleasantly soft. The fruit at that time can be opened by squeezing until the rind splits, exposing the edible segments inside, but the outter casing of the fruit is not eaten.

Several days after harvesting this fruit fresh from the tree, the skin begins to harden as it loses water and dries. At that point, the use of a knife is quite helpful to open the fruit. A shallow cut around the circumference of the fruit while trying to avoid cutting into the soft interior allows the fruit to then be twisted and opened along the cut. The seeds can then be gently scooped out and eaten. They can be very slippery, so be ready!
The slices with an extra brown internal seed which is somewhat soft, should not be eaten as they are generally bitter in taste. The Mangosteen is generally left at room temperature for several days as the rind will protect the interior from too much moisture loss, however I have personally found it better to place the Mangosteen in a refrigerator in a partially closed plastic bag to slow down the moisture loss. When a Mangosteen is very fresh, the seeds are almost pure white inside. As the rind hardens the seeds start to turn slightly brown inside and this helps provide an idea of how long the fruit has been picked. Some fruits will stay at room temperature for a week without any significant loss of quality. However, I have always found that the sooner you eat them the better, so why wait.....go for it!!

Should I start eating this Super Fruit Now?
Work done to date shows that some chemicals in the rind of the Mangosteen may show some benefits against breast cancer, leukemia, pathogenic bacteria, colon cancer and so on... in test tube-maintained cancer cell lines and in rats. There have been no substantiated humen tests, so unless you are a rat, this may not be the cure all you are seeking at this point. There are very promising hints of possible benefits down the road though, unfortunately that road has not been traveled far enough quite yet.

Some additional Ancient Medicinal Uses?
The sliced and dried fruits and rind are ground into a powder and administered to overcome dysentery, diarrhea, gonorrhea and cystitis. When made into an ointment, it is applied on eczema and other skin disorders as an astringent lotion. Another popular Chinese medicinal prep is to steep a portion of the rind in water overnight and the infusion given as a remedy for chronic diarrhea in adults and children. None of these treatments have been scientifically proven, so please use them at your own risk!

So make a point of searching out this super fruit on your next trip to the local farmers market and treat yourself to a new healthy surprise! If you can get enough, consider making some of your own recipes or maybe this yummy jam listed below! Now that is Pura Vida living!!

Mangosteen Recipes by

Kimberly Barron, originally from Malibu, California has lived in Parismina and Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica for 20 years. Starting as a certified tour guide, she spent 15 years managing fishing lodges on the Caribbean Coast and later 4* & 5* Hotels on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. Currently semi-retired, Kimberly still works as the Marketing Director for Byblos Resort & Casino and Hotel Makanda by the Sea.