There's a tree found in the cloud forests of Costa Rica that grows in an unusual direction — from the top down. As with so much of the plant life that feeds off one another in these dense forests, this tree's seeds become lodged in the dirt high atop the canopy, and as it grows, its roots extend down deep onto the forest floor.
"Many people think they are vines but they are roots," said Rodrigo Solano, my family's tour guide through the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve last month. Solano grew up scampering through the <i>senderos</i> (trails) of these forests, home to more than 400 birds, 120 amphibians and 3,000 plants. As a boy, he and his friends would cut the tendrils and swing from them.
"But they were amazing," he said slapping one root, now thick as a trunk. "They always grew back."
Eventually, as more roots grow and bury themselves deep in the earth, the plant envelopes the host tree like a gloved hand wrapping around a twig, until ultimately the host tree dies. Thus it gets its name, the "Strangler Fig."
As we stood amid the cascading greenery of this forest — which supports some 20 percent of the world's plant diversity — I saw myself in his story. Many of us probably do.
After college, I spent two and a half months exploring Europe with friends. Before my flight touched down at SFO, I was already planning my return. I had dreams of being a a travel writer, maybe studying at the Sorbonne or touring South America. But as so often happens, the demands, problems and obligations of life conspire to alter our plans until ultimately those responsibilities sort of take over, like the roots of a Strangler Fig.
That sort of explains how my family and I ended up in Costa Rica this summer, out of concern that the roots were winning and — given that my oldest was about to start high school — a conviction that we needed to try something different as a family.
We also recognized that not just our family is changing but the planet is as well. According to Solano, birds that used to be seen at lower elevations are showing up more frequently in the cloud forests, while other animals that once made their homes in Monteverde are harder to spot. Worse, the clouds themselves are disappearing. Whether a result of climate change or deforestation in lowland areas, scientists say that the fog on which the cloud forests of Costa Rica survive are moving up or disappearing.
The result is that many people are coming to Costa Rica to get a better understanding of our planet and, perhaps, to see these places before it is too late. This country has become the mecca of that growing industry known as eco-tourism.
We also were there because we were taking part in another growing trend in travel: volunteer family vacations.
Why? Call up the usual suspects: A desire to give back, to challenge ourselves, to have our kids not just get outside of their Sonoma County bubble but to make a dent of a difference in the lives of someone somewhere else. This isn't rocket science.
The truth is one can vacation in Costa Rica and never break a sweat in learning Spanish or altering an American habit. Many destinations take American dollars and most hotel and restaurant workers and zip line operators not only speak English but will gladly offer you guides and menus and maps in English. Even some signs posted along the Pan-American Highway not only are in English — usually calling attention to uniquely American destinations such as a Denny's or Holiday Inn — but they indicate the distance in miles, not kilometers.