Only a short walk behind the last guest lodges, a penetrating smell hovers into the air that lets you wrinkle your nose. Moscow grins, he doesn’t seem to notice, or at least, he doesn’t care. The nearer we come, the more intense it smells – a smell that is vaguely familiar: We are reminded of visits in the local sewage plant years and years ago, as schoolkids learning about human waste and the hydrologic cycle. In the warmth of the sun, there are flies humming their little songs, in such great numbers you’d rather choose not to go any nearer. Moscow shows an encouraging grin: Come on, folks, we are nearly there.
Moscow Vidal is 28 years old. He looks much older than that actually, with his unkempt beard and long hair that give him a venturesome look. His face lies in the shadow of his white hat but his eyes, twinkling against the hot sun, are vivid while he takes us nearer to our point of interest. When Moscow stops, we are at the edge of a small plant: A sewage plant, judging by the smell of rotten organic waste with a slight note of excrements. We are lead to a group of small basins, let into the ground and separated from each other by concrete walls. What is in there looks everything but yummy. Moscow does not seem to notice the smell or the flies, he just goes on to explain that “this is our most important facility”, jumps on one of the walls and walks on it until he is in the middle of the three basins. Our noses do not care about how important this thing might be – they want to get away as soon as possible.
Moscow, a Costa Rican with a master’s degree in agricultural engineering, knows this reaction, he gets it every time he shows guests around down here. A broad grin spreads across his face, he is mocking us for our behavior: We do not say anything but our faces must give us away. Moscow’s dark brown eyes sport a peculiar kind of happiness in a surrounding that evokes nausea in almost everybody else.
Moscow’s workplace is a hotel in Costa Rica, the Buenavista Lodge, situated at the entrance to the National Park of Rincón de la Vieja in the province of Guanacaste. The hotel is located on top of a mountain, the only building in a very peaceful and silent surrounding. There is not much to hear, except noises of tropical birds such as Toucans as well as different kinds of monkeys who are at home in the huge forests spreading from the backside of the facility. On the front side, a forest aisle offers an endless view over sugar cane plantations, vultures circling above. It smells of flowers and of food, of home-made soap and fresh fruit. Moscow’s workplace could be paradise – but then again, down at the plant, another smell fills the air, the humming of flies drowns all the peaceful noises of the forest, and you have to fight your urge to wrinkle your nose at the whole scenery.
Fortunately, the smell does not reach the hotel guests, less they want to get the experience: The hotel’s own sewage plant which Moscow is running is away far enough from their rooms. Still, whenever the tourists hear of the plant, they come down to see it, and Moscow patiently explains it to them. Some are familiar with sewing systems, some have never heard about how they work. Moscow will explain it all. He is proud about how the plant attracts attention – besides the hotel’s own soap fabrication it is the lodge’s pride and joy. “We want to return to nature what we take from it”, he exclaims, and this certainly is part of the idea.
The basins, the eco manager tells us, are filled with liquid manure – sewage charged with kitchen waste and human waste – that of the hotel guests – ugh! A wrong step and Moscow would take a bath in the brownish, evil-smelling slurry. We draw back a little further. He goes on patiently and explains the process: Water and waste are collected and filtered in three steps in the pools where hard particles are taken from the muddy rest – which then goes into a long plastic tube for the sedimentation process. “Come on have a look inside”, he persuades us to come into the small shelter in which the sedimentation process is in full progress. It is hot in here, the air is quite heavy, and the smell does not get better at all. After a short glance, we are happy for the fresh air of outdoors, following the nearly cleaned water that is dropping from the end of the sedimentation hose on its way to the last step of purification: A system of canals, some of which are enriched with plants extracting the remaining bacteria.
Moscow is right: The Buenavista Lodge can be proud of its system, for the plant makes the hotel independent from a public sewage system. All water is cleaned up on the hill and used for watering the hotel gardens – a nice secondary effect being that the methane gas produced during the sedimentation process is enough to provide the hotel with gas for cooking and heating. It is Moscow’s self-conception – and also that of many Costa Rican hotels – to be as self-sufficient as possible.