After seven years of sampling, I figured I had tasted the fruit of just about every tree in this tropical Garden of Eden. That is, until last December, when I took a trip to Paradise – the Paradise Tropical Garden in Río Claro, just north of Golfito on the southern Pacific coast, where amateur botanist Robert Beatham introduced me to some luscious new fruits.
“Mr. Robert,” as the locals call him, is an institution around Golfito. Even after half a century living here, there’s no mistaking his native New England accent. He looks the part of the weathered Yankee farmer, too, with a faded and (literally) dog-chewed sun hat shading his northern pink skin.
Beatham arrived in Golfito in 1959 from the U.S. state of Maine, joining the United Fruit Company right out of university as a marine engineer. For years, he and his wife Carmen, whom he met and married in Golfito in 1964, rented out cabins in town.
Sadly, Carmen Beatham died a couple of years ago, and she now rests in the garden, under a blanket of flowers. Beatham’s passion now is botany.
During his quirky “Tropical Fruit See, Smell, Taste and Touch Experience” tours, Beatham regales visitors with a smorgasbord of information about medicinal teas, tinctures, concoctions and decoctions made with roots, leaves and flowers. Even if plants are not your cup of tea, Beatham is such an enthusiastic font of local lore that a morning spent touring his garden and oil-palm plantation is as mind-expanding as it is belly-filling.
Visitors are greeted with a huge tasting table set up in the garden under a rancho roof. On one side of the table are laid out fruits of the season, each labeled with its scientific and common names; on the other side is an apothecary’s stock of medicinal plants and flowers. Beatham’s daughter-in-law María Elena stands ready at the gas stove, stirring stews and soups, frying up típico breakfasts to order and puréeing fruits of the season into refreshing frescos naturales.
Rollinia jimenezii, a member of the annona family, was the hit of my tasting tour. It’s a spiky, yellow fruit about the size of a Hawaiian papaya. You eat the creamy pulp inside with a spoon, working around the big black seeds. It tastes just like a custard pudding. Another first fruiting for me was a citrusy fresco made with the waxy, smooth, orange-scented araza, part of the guanabana family.
Beatham tailors his tours to whatever his visitors are interested in.
“No two people get the same tour,” he proudly claims.
But each tour includes a walk in the garden, along paths lined with terrestrial orchids, fuchsia, cordyline, sunny crotons, some spectacular ornamental gingers and towering African oil palms.
To supplement his pension, Beatham planted oil palms and rambutans on his 50-hectare farm.His workers now harvest about 16 to 20 tons of palm fruits a month.
If you’ve ever wondered, as you drive past the miles of oil palms planted in the Southern Zone, how the fruits are harvested, you’ll find out here. Wielding an expandable aluminum pole that stretches six to 11 meters, a skilled worker uses the pole’s scythe-like blade to cut away the palm fronds above and below the clumps of palm berries, each of which weighs in at about 21 kilos. Then he surgically excises the berry clump and it crashes to the ground.
While you’re watching the berry felling, Beatham fills you in on the life cycle of the oil palm, dispensing some interesting oil-palm facts. Did you know that the edible oil comes from the husk of the berry, while the kernel is used for cosmetics and soaps? That the price of palm oil worldwide is set in Rotterdam, thanks to Holland’s former colonial connections in the East Indies? Beatham can tell you anything you want to know about palm oil.
He is also a keen advocate for using red palm oil for cooking. He proffers printouts of scientific articles touting the oil’s antioxidant, cholesterol-lowering, blood-pressure-lowering, blood-clot-reducing properties.
I can’t attest to the scientific claims but, after tasting a bowl of red palm-oil soup made to Robert’s own recipe, chock full of root vegetables and strained palm fruits, I can say it’s delicious. Though there’s no trace of meat in it, it tastes rich and meaty.
While the soup settles, Beatham shows me around the medicinal plants on the tasting table. The amount of information and anecdotes he has stored up is overwhelming.
There’s a tea or tincture to alleviate or cure everything from gout to arthritis to high blood pressure to nervousness. If you want to try any of the remedies, he has printed handouts available from his vast computer database. The remedy that intrigued me – I really am going to try it some day – is eating a slice of pineapple and a slice of fresh white cheese each morning for nine days to cure cracked skin on your feet.
Beatham cautions that these folk remedies are not scientifically tested and that people should check with their doctor before taking any new medication or herbal remedy. But while you are listening to him in his garden, it’s easy to believe everything he says. He is loaded with conviction.
There’s nothing slick or fancy about Beatham’s tours, which he has been giving since 2001. This is a rough-and-ready working farm, sanitation is basic, and it is very hot and sticky here. Wear loose, comfortable clothing, and come equipped with a sun hat, mosquito repellent, a curious mind and an empty stomach. I guarantee you’ll leave with a head full of information, a tongue tingling from exotic flavors and, perhaps, potentially smoother feet.
From Golfito, drive about 20 kilometers north to Río Claro on the main highway, then turn right about 1 km farther on, at the end of the Río Lagarto Bridge; the farm is 200 meters along the dirt road. The garden is open 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, but the tasting table is set up only if visitors call at least the day before (789-8746). The tour is free, but contributions to the garden are encouraged. You can e-mail Robert Beatham at [email protected] or visit his Web site: http://paradise-garden.tripod.com.
Gone Bananas: A Taste of History
Is there anywhere steamier than the Southern Zone town of Golfito, especially when you first step off the plane that has flown you from the relative freshness of the Central Valley? For the first half-hour, I am as limp as a damp dish towel. But, along with the humidity, Golfito exudes a peculiar charm for me.
A lot of visitors only see how down-at-the-heels the town looks, and leave as quickly as possible. I’m always intrigued, though, by the ghost-town feeling here: the faded, grand houses, crumbling in the shade of magnificent, exotic trees in the American Zone; the rotting shipyards down by the dock; and the abandoned hotels along the curve of the natural harbor. Every time I fly over the preserved bones of this carefully laid-out company town, I wonder what it was like during the heyday of the long-departed United Fruit Company.
I finally met a man who could tell me. Robert Beatham is a born storyteller. Grizzled and garrulous, he is straight out of central casting, the wise old man with an encyclopedic memory for names and events. As a longtime employee of the United Fruit Company, starting in 1959 as a marine engineer, he was an eyewitness to Golfito’s boom time and reversal of fortune. When the company divested itself of its ships in 1970, Beatham switched to the mechanical department, eventually becoming superintendent of the workshops until the company’s abrupt departure in 1985.
Beatham talks about the glory days, when United Fruit was known as “The Octopus,” because it had so many tentacles in so many business pots; at one time, he says, it had interests in Numar, Sunkist, Baskin-Robbins and A&W. Golfito and the area around it were humming. When Beatham headed the company’s mechanical department in the 1970s, the company had three huge workshops – in Palmar and Coto 47, as well as Golfito – repairing all the machinery needed to plant and harvest bananas.
So who was responsible for the wholesale gutting of this bustling, prosperous community? Popular wisdom, depending on your political bias, blames Communist agitators or greedy capitalist owners. Beatham says both sides were at fault for the company’s decision to cut and run. Union activists were putting pressure on the company with a strike, he says. But the company was also losing money. There was a worldwide glut of bananas in 1985. The new CEO of the company was young and inexperienced and didn’t know the banana business, he adds. But Beatham points a finger at another culprit: the indecisive Costa Rican government of the day.
Despite the strike and the depressed market, there was a chance, he says, the company would have stayed. It all hinged, he says, on a request for tax relief to tide the company over the bad year.
“The government killed the company because the bureaucrats wouldn’t make a decision,” Beatham says. He still believes that dillydallying rang the death knell for Golfito.
Whatever and whoever was to blame, Golfito has never recovered economically, despite public and private efforts. Beatham watches sadly as the company’s huge work sheds and docks rust away. More heartbreaking, he says, is the loss of so many mechanical labor skills in the area. As a marine engineer, he dreams of a day when local young people could be trained to become mechanics and perhaps revive Golfito as a service port, for both commercial ships and pleasure craft.
And who knows? Perhaps if the proposed Golfito marina ever becomes a reality, the town may one day be humming again – but without the bananas.