Take me to a far away island that is only accessible by a 40-minute boat ride and where the main mode of transportation is bicycle. Take me to an island filled with local artisan goods, fisheries, and mangroves. Take me back to Isla Chira where I sweat just laying in my bunk bed under mosquito netting and jellyfish stings are as common as the sunburn.
I have been working on a way to describe my stay on Isla Chira (locally known as “Chizla”), Costa Rica’s largest island and a reflection of tico life a few decades ago, and it can be summed up in a few words: a sweltering cornucopia of amicable islanders. Life was slower without Internet access, and bugs reigned supreme. During this middle-leg of the field trip, our group stayed cool at the Albergue de Damas de Chira. We were housed in several cabins and fed at a central outdoor dining patio by a group of three sweet and selfless women. We were fortunate enough to hear firsthand from one of these women, Doña Dora, about the history of the Albergue and its relationship with the island.
The Albergue was established by six founding women due in large part to a United Nations Development Program grant in an effort to employ local women and fill the void for a community center. As the project developed and the cabins and common spaces were built, six women became three. These three then faced a lot of opposition from many islanders as machismo ran deep. The idea that these women were leaving domestic work for a more independent economic income was not easily accepted. and the proposition that they host extranjeros (foreigners) compounded the skepticism.
Yet today they are a shining example of perseverance and community engagement. Neighborhood gatherings, hosting student groups like ourselves, and church functions are among the many benefits that came out of this project. Thanks to their kind hospitality, we were able to experience the wonder that is Isla Chira. Outside of our “campus,” our group interviewed and held discussions with a local fishers’ association and a women’s clamming association, both dedicated to sustainable harvesting techniques in historically endangered fishing population areas.
It is hard to forget “bird day” and “mangrove day” too. By bus and boat we made it to crux of biological diversity on the island—the salty coastal forests. We toured for hours identifying shorebirds and were greeted by some tanning crocodiles. On mangrove day, we learned about the economic and humanitarian value that these coastal buffer zones have in the event of tropical storms and for water filtration. One species of mangrove trees, as observed can absorb the salt out of the salt water around the mangroves and excrete it on its leaves. Others have these roots that arc above ground to absorb water as the tides come in and are covered with gas-exchanging lenticels. But watch out for these little pores, they will cut your hands and feet right open, as learned from experience.
Although only about 3,000 people live on this island, it is dense with cultural and biological diversity and a quiet atmosphere that takes its visitors back to a time before the ubiquity of modern conveniences. The only thing I regret about my time on Isla Chira is that I had to leave.