CR stories #1: Marvin Rockwell, a pioneer, a businessman, naturalist, paramedic, rockstar-superman!

Monteverde hotel
In Monteverde, most hotels and hostels had paintings of wildlife on their walls, from butterflies, toucans, macaws.. trees.
Monteverde fern tree
A beautiful fern tree..  I think if Marvin Rockwell were a tree, he would be this one, sheltering, unique and awe inspiring..
Monteverde orchids-wm
One of the thousands of orchids (some of which are not even visible to the naked eye)
Monteverde-Coppery headed emerald
Coppery headed emerald on a feeder, close to the cloud forests reserve

For my trip to Costa Rica, I am relegating my trip experience to the photos I took…..As in any tropical country, the jungles made me feel alive and the birds and animals, much closer than I have usually seen, reminded me of Trinidad more than ever. We had great company for the tour (just like in Trinidad), Ricki and Bill made us feel more at home (about the US), outside of US than we ever do here. This time, I want the pictures to tell the story of the wildlife. I will use words for  the story of a man who changed  an untouched part of the world into something better than it was, while still retaining all its wonders and moreover, added to them. As a doctor, a businessman, a pioneer, a founder member of a settlement, a unique father, husband, tour guide; owning a simplicity that few leaders have ever had (and none that have made history) mixed with innate courage and an indomitable sense of humor, Marvin Rockwell drove through inaccessible parts of Nicaragua, built his own road (with friends who were moving with him) when there were none, swam with sharks (almost) to finally reach his country of choice: Costa Rica, in 1951.

Marvin Rockwell belongs to a religious group called the Quakers. Quakers are Christian, do not believe in war or holding weapons. That was the primary reason they left the U.S., they had be conscripted once for a war- World War II, where Marvin refusing to hold arms so was given medical training instead. But once again, they were about to be drafted for the Korean war and this time he simply decided to be a conscientious objector. He was imprisoned, with a sentence of a few years, released after 18 months. As soon as he got out, his family and about 11 others were ready to move to Costa Rica: some friends had found it to be an good option, the country also had no army at all. They started the treacherous journey to central america, on the Pan- American highway that existed more in name than in kind. Especially towards south of Nicaragua where it is supposed to go through to Costa Rica. It was on the way that they were swimming in a river that locals told them to be beware of sharks, that came in through a bay. They didn’t believe it, until they saw a few fins…

Finally reaching Costa Rica, they lived close to San Jose, while the whole group looked for a more permanent abode. They wanted to live in a higher altitude to protect against mosquito borne diseases and in their search were led to a place, partially cleared, with rich soil, up in the cloud forests of Costa Rica. This place was the beautiful Monteverde, a name they gave it themselves, later adopted by the municipality ( which, for a long while, didn’t have a name for a place with only 500 dwellers up in the mountains, of course). Here was another road they had to clear and widen for their jeep and belongings because the only road up to the area (it only had a shack to indicate signs of human presence, when they first saw it) was an oxcart trail. Even today, it takes a great driver and a car with good suspenders to get to Monteverde, a journey on pot holes in dirt roads. The beautiful home of the Quakers now has a significantly larger population of about 8000 people.

Once there, these enterprising people did many remarkable things, but I will only mention two (or three, as the third is related). They built their own hydroelectric plant, being a rainforest, water wasn’t scarce and one of them was a handy engineer.  State power lines wouldn’t get there for a few decades yet and all the while the settlement had electricity for farming and other needs. Then to make a sustainable community with a reliable source of income they chose to make cheese, from milk of their own cows. They named the cheese too: Monteverde. Interestingly, the first molds used for the cheese was Quaker oat containers, the first type of cheese was Gouda. It was a corporation with all Quakers holding shares and only residents of the area could hold shares. From what I recall of our conversation (and I apologize if it is not entirely accurate) Marvin Rockwell was director of production there for a while. He was also of course the medicine man, treating all kinds of ailments, broken bones, serious cuts and injuries and at one point there was an outbreak of hepatitis that he treated, making tireless journey after journey to San Jose to get the medicines for people in the area.

Given the state of the drive even today, it is not surprising that the settlers at one point thought that an airstrip would help. One was even made, where Marvin, now tried being a pilot. I have no doubt he would have succeeded in almost any other place. However, the airstrip ended in a cliff and wasn’t very long to start with. The winds beat at the small airplane he was trying to fly (I think he had a co pilot too), till even for Marvin it appeared to be quite dangerous. And I say that with a grin because I remember Marvin’s sheepish smile, despite an experience that must have been frightening. No one ever took off that airstrip again. However as luck would have it, the government was sending out map tracers right at that point of time and they quickly made note of an airstrip in Monteverde. That stayed in the map for decades, even today, apparently it is there as ‘abandoned’ airstrip. Abandoned indeed. I remember Marvin’s laugh when he talked about the map, made me think of the some lives that have such far reaching consequences in some places. He could possibly have looked for gold or martians and found them!

On that note, I bring up the third point, that of the small area of land  (about 500 hectares, I think) the settlers wanted to protect, as it served as a watershed, a source of water for their hydropower and other needs. This protected area had such diversity of flora and fauna, it attracts all kinds of naturalists from all over the world. Scientists found hundreds of species of birds, frogs and the diversity of plant life. This diversity is unimaginable for people unfamiliar with how many orchids and epiphytes one single tree in a rainforest can harbor (the answer is greater than 200, that is 200 different species and innumerable specimens of each). I just want to mention here that we had the best possible naturalist guide for such a scenario. Jonathan Sequeira, he knows so very much about plants that one wonders how he can tell one green leaf apart from a very closely related green leaf among thousands of green leaves…He has his own stories, I will get to a couple of his in a bit. Getting back to Monteverde, more rainforest, thousands of hectares more, was added to protected area by a large contribution, initially started by children in rural Sweden(who wanted to save the rain forest after hearing about it in a talk) and later joined by more children and students from 44 other countries. The area is called Children’s Eternal Rainforest.

One wonders how many years Marvin lived in a year, as in between all this he found a child, who looked tiny and under-cared for and adopted him. Not being married, or knowing what to do with one. He was still confident that the child would be better off with him. It was later that he met his would-be wife, who came with a new Quaker family. They got married and had children. Marvin wanted his children to be fluent in English and obviously, nothing less would do, so he moved back to the US. Gave up his shares in the cheese factory and started selling chocolate. Hundreds of pounds of chocolate. He was a tall man, age has only added a slight bend, but one can imagine him selling chocolate and telling stories to managers of big stores and in fairs. Eventually, his children did become bilingual, they came back, the Quakers opened a bilingual school in Monteverde which is still running.

At 81, Marvin decided he better get to Africa before it was too late, after all starting a restaurant, then a hotel  and being the tour conductor for International Expeditions: he took tourists to see the beautiful Cloud Forests of Monteverde of course, and then to Galapagos (where he had never been before), had given him insider’s knowledge of nature travel. So off he went, on his own. Landed and looked for affordable options, found a driver he liked. Lived in a youth hostel ( he said, with a chuckle ‘I was only 81 then!’).  Went on safaris and slept in tents, he saw all he big mammals he wanted and probably some more.

I remember considering missing the meeting with Marvin Rockwell (it was pre-scheduled by International expeditions) as I was a tide tired and it was a nature tour, I didn’t know why we were meeting a person. I can assure you, it would have been a big mistake, as I would have missed this 93 yr old superman. Loping, lanky, full of good spirits and nearly able to fly. He is my superman for sure. Reminds me of Kipling’s :’ If you can make one heap of all your winnings/And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss/ And lose, and start again at your beginnings/And never breath a word about your loss/ If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew/To serve your turn long after they are gone/ And so hold on when there is nothing in you/ Except the Will which says to them “Hold ON!” …. Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it/  And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!’ 

Marvin Rockwell does own the Earth, in my mind, because he never tried to keep it for himself, never raced to get it before anyone else and never hesitated to give all he had gathered on this Earth for the people he cared for. He knew what a soul needs. My superman, knows how to be truly content and happy while doing things that bring success to some, power and more to others, but never the merry twinkle in the old eyes and the hearty laugh from the soul, I saw bursting from him. I don’t have a photo of his hands or the photos he had of his life’s journey (he tells his story in pictures). But I held them. His hands and his photos. And that warmth, such generosity of spirit, no Walmart, Forbes # 1-100 CEO ever had. None of them probably had a fifth of contentment Rockwell had in a year either.  After all, he never let anything own him, while, he belonged to all his friends and even to us, for the time we spent with him. He gives of himself and his kindness so easily. Its like he wants to flow through everything and make it better. He had the power to really change his life and with it brought change to a part of the world: at no hidden cost to those less powerful (by will or design).

Marvin and I
Marvin Rockwell and I, Monteverde Nov 2015

3 Comments on “CR stories #1: Marvin Rockwell, a pioneer, a businessman, naturalist, paramedic, rockstar-superman!

  1. Wow! Such an amazing man and story. It looks beautiful there too 🙂

    • He is an amazing man.. It is very beautiful there.. Thank you so much for reading this. I wish I could tell people about Rockwell as he is so inspiring..

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