While the farm is normally silent come dusk, family members told me that for weeks you could hear Juan Carlos and his wife crying each night. Juan Carlos lost his will to work and sold off most of the cattle he had spent years gathering. Weeds took over the corral. He told me he dreamed of José galloping toward him on his horse while a flood chased him from behind, but he couldn’t save him.
Juan Carlos has been excited about the dragon fruit project. All he’d known before was how to be a cattle farmer and never thought about doing anything else. Now, when I prune a plant to spur growth or buy a brush for hand pollination, he asks me why I’m doing what I’m doing.
“You learn something new every day,” is his favorite response after I answer his questions.
Last year, when we started clearing the farm for planting, Juan Carlos let me live in José’s old room. Newspaper and magazine cutouts of horses decorated the walls and the only light came from a small plug-in night light. Electricity didn’t come to the farm until the mid-2000s, and José didn’t like light at night.
I’d wake up at sunrise to take advantage of the few cool hours before the sun beat down a flood of light and heat for the rest of the day. It didn’t take long to learn that sunblock and a baseball cap wouldn’t cut it; any exposed skin sizzled and burned. You need long sleeves, pants, gloves and a big brimmed hat, known locally as a chonete.
We spent weeks clearing land. We dug hundreds of holes and lugged wooden posts to each one and stamped them in. Dragon fruit grows on a climbing cactus. It sprouts roots as it creeps its way up the post and then branches out in a spiky green mane. The flowers bloom a few times a year. It’s a spectacular large white flower that lasts a single night before it shrivels up and starts growing into a fruit.
I used up my savings to get the crop started. By mid-December, I had 1,000 baby cactuses reaching for the sky. We got our first flower in June and picked our first fruit on July 8. It was tiny and barely enough to make a cup of juice, but it was a bright little magenta ball of hope.
When a drought tore through the region in 2015, thousands of heads of cattle in Guanacaste died and the industry dropped nearly 60 percent. Things in the Central American Dry Corridor are expected to only get worse. And although this is going to devastate farming and ranching, few people here are able to think about building a rainwater harvesting system for an ever-worsening ecological catastrophe when they need to fix the car to buy medicine for the cattle today.