Top Ten Tips for the New Apprentices

Top Ten Tips for the New Apprentices

by Dorothy Farrell

This post is part of a series of reflections we are asking past apprentices to contribute to our blog. If you would like to share where you stand now and how your time at the Ranch effected your place in the world please write to

"Everyone is looking at my feet," I say to my dad.

"No they're not," he scoffs back. Sure enough, he glances sideways at a group of teenage girls eying my dirty toes clad in Chacos. 

We are not in the jungle any more. It's December in New York City, I am traveling on the subway with a large backpack, and five layers of sweatshirts, never having worn more than one at a time in the tropics. Fresh off the airplane, here I am with my exposed feet and disheveled appearance-- "Is she homeless?" the girls snicker. 

I come home and sit under my first hot shower in a year and scrub the dirt from my feet. Goodbye Rancho Mastatal, I'll be seeing you one day. In the meantime, I have a new life to create. Sometimes reverse culture shock can be more cunning than culture shock. 

In case you are one of the seven new apprentices and worried about the ensuing change, this article serves as advice come January 2017. Are you ready? To be ready, you must clear your mind. You'll never be ready. Those who don't know speak of it. Those who do know don't speak of it. To stay afloat in the presence that is Rancho Mastatal means just this. This will all make sense soon. Now for ten more pieces of advice in preparation for your apprenticeship. 

My fellow apprentice crew enthusiastically chimed in for this article to not bring any white clothing. It is very likely to get stained by any number of hands on tasks. Even if you're not performing physical labor, even if you're just eating lunch, there's a good chance that anything white you wear will be found by a stain. The turmeric in the pickle is a renown dye, as is the achiote in the rice. Whole food diets, with their richly colorful displays, are your wardrobes' worst enemy. Even if your white blouse is hanging on a line miles from the orchards, the wood shop, the kitchen-- virtually every danger zone-- black mold will STILL find it, stain it, and make you regret bringing it. Tip #1: Don't bring white clothes.

Tip #2: If you are prone to stains but want to maintain your public decency, patterned clothing compensates (credit tip to Rachel Jackson). 

Stains and patterns aside, there is another debate on the type of clothing appropriate for the tropics. Expect the climate to be humid and hot. Cotton is not your friend. It takes a long time to dry and harbors all sorts of odorous microorganisms. Tip #3: Bring clothing made from synthetic materials that are comfortable to wear.

There are times, however, when you'll want to look sharp. Welcome to the campo of Costa Rica. Ticos take public appearances seriously, so pack accordingly. I recommend bringing something that is clean and modest, not something too out there. This is a small village, after all, and it's more valuable to blend in. A brief study of Costa Rican fashion will reveal that it's not too different from most mainstream, Western cultures. Tip #4: Keep an outfit clean reserved for community celebrations and appearances.

On that note, Tip #5: In Costa Rican culture, if you do not smell good, you smell bad. A good soap and light perfume are recommended for community occasions. The jungle offers delectable scents that can be sourced from plant materials on the Ranch. Tip #6: If you want to dabble in the ancient and romantic art of perfume making, bring a little bit of Everclear, coconut oil, and a spritzer bottle. Creative inspiration soon to follow, but I've had great success with vetiver root, galangal, orange peel, and lemongrass.

This brings us to the toiletry topic. Some people bring a lot of toiletries. In my experience, I learned the unnecessary reality of many of the things that can be purchased from the drug store. With a clean diet, acne can fade, and pesty bugs can be deterred. The humidity keeps your skin moist, and most lotions just sweat off. You may even want to try to go "no poo" (that is, shampoo) method this year. 

Tip #7: Abandon shampoo and conditioners. I had personally been avoiding chemical hair soaps for one year before the Ranch, but for other people, this may be a great time to go "no poo". It's usually within the first two months that hair builds up an excess of grease, then soon after, this balances out. Shampoo strips your hair of its natural oils, and conditioner replaces it with a synthetic luster. If you want to keep your hair clean with minimal input, try the baking soda and vinegar method. Use one tablespoon of vinegar for one cup of water. Shake in a bottle with a dispenser cap, pour overhead, and massage deeply into your hair. Rinse with water. Vinegar can also be applied to help balance the pH. Any type of vinegar will work just fine, and the smell dissipates quickly. After the initial grease sweat, your locks will evolve into tropical lusciousness. 

You may be concerned about sunscreen. Despite my pale complexion, the sun was never an issue for me. This is because most of the time outside is spent in the shade. Cheers to the benefits of an agroforestry canopy! If you're working in the sun, you'll probably be sweating any sun protection off. Tip #8: Favor sun hats and long, light sleeves for sun protection. Despite covering your skin, you'll actually stay a lot cooler, too.

Bugs can be another nuisance. Mosquito populations are typically non-problematic until the rains hit in April. That's when populations skyrocket. Maybe you don't mind the cloud of deet, or natural sprays that are also available, but the reapplication of sprays can be resource and time intensive. Tip #9: Either you suck it up and evolve some better antibodies, or just cover up with long pants and sleeves, and CERTAINLY bring a bug net for your bed. I've laid on my bed in October, the wettest month of the season, and counted literally dozens of mosquitoes trying to pass the unbreakable seal. Fortunately none of the sensationalized diseases that mosquitoes carry made an epidemic in Mastatal, so don't stress about vaccinations or antibiotics.

If mosquitoes aren't the type to sweeten your inner naturalist's cup of tea, think about the things that do. Maybe it's plants, maybe it's birds. Whatever it is, make a point to recognize those things at home before you leave, because when you come to the jungle, it's all going to change. Tip #10: Recognize the fauna and flora in your new home to develop a sense of place. A sense of awareness and appreciation for your home's native creatures will make rooting a lot easier. The dormilonas, which bow down when you tap or pee on them, and the carpet like moss that grows in the tree nursery, or the sprawling herb with small white flowers with purple stripes inside that attract the black bees with yellow bottoms-- those were some of my favorite Ranch weeds. You'll see patterns, and you'll appreciate the subtle natural life, too. 

Bonus Tip #11: Appreciate the foods that are locally sourced. Rice and beans are the vehicles of countless cultural traditions and can be transformed in one million ways, but they're delicious served simply too. The Ranch agroforestry system offers biriba, jackfruit, coconuts, bananas, cuadrados, and plantains all year round. Be prepared for the grandeur of seasonality. Lemondrop mangosteens will be one of your first tree harvests in January. Then the acerola, aka Barbados cherries, will ripen. These ferment into an excellent, complexly flavored wine. The Victoriana and arasa will ripen shortly after: Sour, yet delicious, when sweetened for jams. Mango season starts in April and lasts for the month. Pickle as many green mangoes as you can stand, they make the best kimchi, especially when finely shredded.  The pejibayes start turning color at the beginning of the rainy season, too, followed by the mamonchinos. The mamonchino tree with the best flavor lies at the bottom of the Banana Bowl, but you have to climb it, then sit in the branches with a huge pole with a basket on the end.  This is farm fitness, but the collection process is worth it. Nature really did perfect the art of candy. Come December, the oranges will begin ripening, and you can race Scott in a juice pressing contest. You will experience the cycle of a year as it truly happens, as an ecosystem partitioned it; for each part to be appreciated.

Maybe you're the type to meditate, maybe not. When I left the Ranch, and the data came back to my cellphone, and the advertisements jumped off the walls of the streets, and the drama of the world flooded in like a leaky pipe, that's when I knew what it meant to be able to meditate. I once thought about running away to a monastery, but I found Rancho Mastatal instead. There's no preacher, there's no text, there's just you and your purpose for coming. You come, you work hard, you play hard, and you learn. It might not feel like you're meditating, but, if you allow the experience to envelop you, if you allow yourself to tread lightly on this planet, you too can be a great apprentice. You may not become an expert wood crafter or beekeeper, or even learn how to count, but there you have it: ten pieces of advice from a gal who now walks barefoot in the city.

News and Notes from Around the Permaculture Community

Laura has been busy the last few weeks filming an online fermentation workshop series. She is partnering with Ranch friend Spenser Gabin in the creation of this course.  You can see more of Spenser's work at his website here.  

We were fortunate enough to host Erle and Suset from Wa Samaki Ecosystems on Trinidad during our Natural Building Practicum. It is always inspiring to meet fellow permaculture teachers, doers, and designers, and now we have the itch to visit their site which has been operating for nearly 20 years!

Our Central American Scholarship Program fundraiser is underway! We've already had over 20 applicants for the few spots in our annual PDC. If the fundraiser is successful though, we hope to have a record number of Ticos in our course. Please give if you are able and share the word!


The Ranch Crew