Evelio’s Garden is a beautiful and inspiring book about a naturalist who moved from the USA to Costa Rica. She shares her experiences about her connection with the environment and her friendship with a gardener that helps them both deal with profound personal changes in their lives.
Sherri Rosen: How long have you lived in Costa Rica?
Sandra Shaw Homer: Almost 30 years.
Sherri: What motivated you to move there so many years ago?
Sandra: Professional burnout, the wish to live in a warmer climate and kinder culture and have the chance to do the things we really wanted to do.
Sherri: What did you find that was different from life in the United States?
Sandra: I had been here for a month and realized I hadn’t heard a single rude remark. There’s an essential courtesy in the culture here, along with a strong egalitarian sense. Help first, ask questions later. The relationship is more important than how much money people make. When we first arrived, it felt like moving into a 40-year time warp, although the country is catching up fast.
Sherri: I understand that you teach Spanish to other foreigners. How and when did you become fluent?
Sandra: I arrived here with only 20 hours of Spanish classes under my belt, but we were living in an area where almost no one spoke English, so we had to learn fast. I worked with some high school teachers, but none of them knew how to teach it as a second language. Finally, I went to school, after which I was fluent enough that people started asking me to teach them. When you’re teaching, you really have to know your stuff, so I got better and better.
Sherri: In the book, you describe your ex-husband’s gruesome suicide. How did that affect you?
Sandra: My ex-husband was an alcoholic, which just got worse when the rewards of his profession disappeared and left him feeling empty and useless. By the time he committed suicide, we’d been divorced for six years, so thankfully I didn’t feel responsible in any way, just incredibly sad at the choices he’d made that led him to such an end.
Sherri: What kind of environmental work have you done in Costa Rica?
Sandra: It seems I got roped into it – first into a start-up NGO with the goal of protecting the lake area from developers who ignored the law. Costa Rica has great environmental legislation, but few resources to enforce it, so we worked hard to get the relevant institutions to start paying attention. One of our members was a lawyer who sat on the municipal council, and he nominated me to preside over what was then the non-existent environmental commission, which was a great opportunity to get people from the environmental, health, agriculture and water ministries involved. And finally, I was asked to help start up and serve on the board of the La Reserva Forest Foundation, whose goal was to plant trees everywhere they could. They’ve planted over 10,000 so far.
Sherri: You have family in the States; how often do you visit? Have you ever wanted to come back here to live?
Sandra: In the early years here, when my parents were still living in Florida, we visited more often. Now they’re gone, and my only sister lives north of Seattle, which is a long hike from here. I’m not comfortable on planes, so I’ve only been four or five times. Fortunately, she made the commitment to visit me here almost every year. I wish we could be closer, but not enough to move back. We met in Paris a few years ago, which was pure delight.
Sherri: Why did you decide to become a naturalized citizen?
Sandra: After 10 years here, I was beginning to feel this is where I belonged. I had useful work, I was in a new relationship, the natural world around me was spiritually sustaining, and, quite frankly, the US seemed like a foreign country. I didn’t like where it was going culturally and politically. I had become more attuned to the everyday values here.
Sherri: How did you come to know Evelio?
Sandra: My husband needed to teach someone how to finish drywall. He was doing a lot of construction work and badly needed an assistant. It didn’t matter that Evelio, who was working as a guard at a windsurf center, had no experience whatever. Roger trained him, he was good at it, and over time he picked up a lot of other construction skills. Naturally, he made up one of the crew that built our new house, and he has remained a friend.
Sherri: In other books, you’ve written about traveling on cargo ships. Where did you get that idea?
Sandra: I don’t know where I got the romantic notion of boarding a ship to nowhere and writing a book, but I’d had a lot of exposure to small boats and sailing growing up, and knew I loved the ocean. At a time when I badly felt the need for a getaway, I began investigating online. The first time felt like jumping off a cliff – I had no idea what I was in for. I’ve been on four other ships since, each experience entirely different, but all wonderful. Of course, I had to write about it!
In the enchanting world of the of Costa Rican highlands, the author begins a memoir, tracing the seasons and closely observing the natural riches around her. But Evelio, who helped build their house, interrupts with an idea to plant an organic garden on their property. Over the course of a challenging year full of unpredictable weather, wild animals and toxic chemicals, their friendship grows as Evelio teaches her about the rural sustainability of Costa Rica in decades past. Pulling her into the daily ups and downs of his project, he creates an often funny, always frustrating, and ultimately rewarding counterpoint to her own work, such that the two intertwine on the page…and lead her to confront a difficult past and open up to profound personal change.
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