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Escaping a disaster zone

The town is called San Cristobal Norte – or Sacrin for short – and remember that name because I might never make it out. It’s mid-afternoon, but I am sitting in the dark and the rain outside has culminated into a monotone shriek. So much for the borrower visit I was supposed to do today.
My compañeros at this Field Partner – Grupo Finca – didn't know Tropical Storm Nate would hit Costa Rica. Nobody did. Still, it swept into Sacrin in the middle of the night, where I was sleeping in the home of some of its employees.

A brief moment of respite from the storm

Here are the members of this household:

  • El Presidente Ananias
  • Doña Cecilia: wife of El Presidente Ananis
  • Alejandro, Estela, and Marcelo: children of the aforementioned 

(Most of the above have but a vague idea of who I am and refer to me as “the girl,” but in the event that I cannot leave this place – a strong possibility – they may have to accept me into the family.)
Above all else is a sense of self-sufficiency among this family and all those affiliated with Grupo Finca. Let me explain:
Grupo Finca is actually comprised of a network of 50-or-so mostly-independent Empresas de Crédito (ECs), which act as small financial institutions in communities all over Costa Rica. Each EC has its own rules, its own rates and its own leadership, and the majority of the ECs work with Kiva loans. Strikingly, each EC exists as a publicly traded entity: community members – including borrowers – have the option of buying shares of the EC, thus gaining the opportunity to make a profit off of successful projects in which the EC chooses to invest. The idea is to harness the individualistic nature of rural Costa Ricans into a system that allows people to reinvest in their own communities. Self-sufficiency with a future.

Sacrin after the storm

But, what is self-sufficiency when the worst storm in years triggers a chain of mudslides, blocking all 2 exits Sacrin has to offer? When you have no internet, no lights, no indoor plumbing and the only way to wash your hands is by sticking them out the window?
Estela and her husband set off in search of potable water. First things first.
Doña Cecilia wipes down the kitchen table. She’s the type of grandmother who doesn’t cut her hair, and her long strands appear more wizened by the makeshift candlelight. She’s been on her feet all day – soaking beans, clearing the counters, checking on her family – and only pauses to comment on her husband’s stories: “Don’t believe him. He’s all lies.”
“You don’t believe me? That’s fine.”
El Presidente Ananias, as per the title, is the president of EC Sacrin. He was one of the founders and one of its most prominent voices, and he’s passionate that the spirit of investment continues in his community even after his influence lets up. He started a program that allows children to buy shares of the company, and therefore to have the opportunity to make money off of their business instincts. One day, these kids will run the EC with a strong background in investment.
The rain finally pauses just as the sun sets. We grab some flashlights and set down Sacrin’s main road. It seems everyone has this idea – groups of people flanked by stray dogs and pinpricks of light, all in pursuit to investigate the damage. We arrive at the bus stop. It’s covered in upside-down earth. We turn around.

The bus stop

The light flickers on and we rush to the TV to see what the capital is saying about us. They say we’re trapped. We agree. The electricity dies once again.
The next morning is sunny, and perfectly still, and Marcelo and I decide to escape. He needs to go to work in the nearby city of Cartago, and I need to get back to San José. We are accompanied by Alejandro and El Presidente Ananias, who are surveying the damage.
The first obstacle is the bus stop. It’s a relatively simple climb, a wobbly mound of dirt. We grip the top of the bus canopy for balance and look out at the mountains. Lots of mudslides have skidded down all across the range, and brown streaks accent the thick green as far as we can see. “See that right there?” El Presidente Ananias points to one brown tear across the valley. “Those were some of my coffee crops.” We press on.
We come upon another avalanched mess in the middle of the road; this one so high and clumsy that we can’t climb over it.
“Follow me,” El Presidente Ananias says, whipping out a machete and raising it Revolutionary War-style over his head. He hacks a path in the jungle next to the road, and grabbing loose branches and rocks, we pull ourselves 20 meters through recently-doused tropical rainforest. Here’s the positive: even if I had showered in the past 3 days, this jaunt would have rendered it useless anyway.

Machete-ing through the rainforest

We stumble out of the jungle onto the road. Alejandro and El Presidente Ananias leave us; I guess the machete part is over and now Marcelo and I have been initiated into rainforest adulthood. We’re ready to move on by ourselves.
As we step over cracked highways and walk past sinkholes, Marcelo tells me about his ventures: in addition to his business-accounting double major, he works at a bank, and also co-runs a coffee shop in San José – using coffee beans grown by his family. Given that a cup of coffee is much more valuable than the prime material of the beans, his business allows his family to earn a higher revenue than they would just by selling the beans.
“I love this place,” Marcelo tells me about Sacrin. “And I want to bring a piece of it to the people in the city.” He also tells me about the impact microfinance leaves on such communities, whose residents face many obstacles in securing loans from traditional banks. 

Half the road just washed away

This will take weeks to fix

We know we’ve crossed the last wreck when we encounter a truck from the Red Cross handing out essentials to a long line of townspeople. Cars transport goods and people from the city to the affected disaster zone. Upon seeing us hunched down by backpacks by the side of the road, a nice man pulls over to drive us further into town. We try to pay him; he refuses.
The common mythos of Costa Rica is this: When the Spaniards came, the indigenous people refused to be enslaved. Their bravery meant that the Spaniards – and their descendants – had to take responsibility for the land, and a tradition of self-sufficient communities was born. Today, Costa Rica is a place of rich coffee, delicious chocolate, and a sense of urgency to protect the nature that gives it life.
Night falls, and I finally make it back to San José. Today, I realize, has been the first day in 3 months that it hasn’t rained at all.

About the author

Becca Levine

A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Becca graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 2015, where she majored in Writing. After college, she joined Teach for America and taught high school Spanish in a rural Louisiana town. She spent a summer working on organic farms in Spain, and another summer studying urban development in Medellin, Colombia. In high school, she served as a Page for the U.S. House of Representatives. She is particularly interested in harnessing the power of storytelling to connect people and drive progress.