Follow a local Santa Cruz surfer’s road trip to one of the world’s most unique music festivals held in Costa Rica, where a juxtaposition of progressive values with Latin American conservative culture raises questions about how we travel.
By Joel Hersch
With his newly-purchased cargo van—a nondescript, white, windowless Ford Econoline with a bed built from plywood in the back—Santa Cruz native Marshall “Marsh” Julien embarked on a road trip of mammoth proportions on Saturday, Dec. 5 of last year.
The destination: a small, jungle-entrenched town on the Pacific side of Costa Rica, where once a year in February, thousands of people from around the globe gather for “Envision Festival”—a unique, hybrid celebration of bass-heavy dance music, installation art, and permaculture.
The trip from Santa Cruz, California to Envision is 3,850 miles of road, a considerable portion of which is unpaved, littered with treacherous potholes, and frequented by drivers playing nonstop games of high-speed chicken. Though, along the way there are scores of vacant, glassy surf breaks and some of the cheapest shrimp taco stands in the western hemisphere, and those features made Marsh’s decision to drive to Costa Rica an inevitability.
Envision, which Marsh attended for the third time this year, is described as a “transformational” eco-festival. Its goal is to activate global conversations about sustainability, holistic and intentional lifestyles, and mindfulness. At its core is the ideology behind permaculture—designing closed-loop, process-based systems that utilize resources ethically. For examples, the festival site boasts mostly composting toilets and much of the infrastructure is built using the locally-plentiful resource of bamboo. There were four stages featuring mind-entrancing fire spinners, aerial silk artists and dozens of DJs such as Beats Antique, Lafa Taylor, and Random Rab performing a wide and colorful range of music—booming house, EDM, and hip-hop.
The event, which hosted almost 6,500 attendees this year on a section of private land called Rancho La Merced, was co-founded by Stephen Brooks, a self-trained ethnobotanist (one who studies the relationship between people and plants) and founder of the Punta Mona Center for Regenerative Design & Botanical Studies.
The idea behind Envision, Brooks tells me, is to help people transition into lives in which all decisions are made through conscious choice and intentional design—a crux of the permaculture value set.
“Envision is trying to help people transition into this way of thinking, to taste another way to live; a better way to treat people; another way to eat; another way to bring holiness and sacredness back to our lives,” he says. “It’s about solutions to poor designs—a better way to do things that incorporate ecological principles.”
The festival strives to serve as a kind of template in party form for a “utopian permaculture community, which inspires self-expression and conscious living.”
And Marsh, a longtime attendee of Burning Man and various other festivals, says he loves a good party. And if there is surf, well that’s another bonus.
“Envision is probably one of the only places you can surf amazing waves, watch the sun come up, and listen to awesome music bumping out of the jungle,” Marsh tells me in the nearby town of Uvita. “You dance all night, the sun starts popping out so you grab your surfboard and hit the waves. The break is a couple hundred yards from the stages. People pour out at sunrise onto the beach, clothes start flying off, and you jump into very, very warm water. There’s no other place I know that you can do that. It’s surreal.”
While Marsh’s pilgrimage required a total of two months of drive-time, down the coast of Baja, a car ferry from the peninsula to the Mexican mainland, and then another couple of thousand miles along the Pan-American Highway to Costa Rica, my own journey to Envision simply entailed an overnight flight with United Airlines. And while road tripping to an event like Envision, deep in Central America, is not a plausible option for most festival-goers, there is an aspect of that kind of long-haul migration that changes the experience in a profound way. It requires enough time and effort to remind you that, even though you’re at a “California-style festival,” as Marsh describes it, you are definitely not in Kansas anymore.
On the afternoon of Saturday, Feb. 27, during Envision, as we drove from Uvita to the festival, my friends and I noticed some police and a number of locals (approximately 60, I found out later) were leading a protest outside the festival gates requesting that Envision not return. The peaceful group was carrying banners and wore t-shirts saying “No Más Envision” or “Stop Envision.”
Some festival organizers were waiting for the protestors to offer fruit and water, and discuss their concerns, but they were not taken up on their offer,” according to an English newspaper called The Tico Times.
“There’s nothing to negotiate; they are trying to buy us,” one protestor was quoted saying. “Values have no price. We should have protested since the second edition. This is an uncontrolled event. I think the authorities are not giving permits responsibly; the only thing they care about is the economic factor. I saw a woman changing her underwear publicly in front of the Banco de Costa Rica [in Uvita], so brazenly. Another woman came here and showed her boobs.”
“This is trash for Costa Rica. We are not used to seeing people naked or doing drugs in front of us,” another protestor—named Yendry De Ortíz—stated in the newspaper. “Our children are growing up. It doesn’t affect the adults because we have seen strange things, but we think about children.”
I found the protestor’s concerns interesting not because I worry that Envision is exposing baby Costa Ricans to immoral behavior, but rather, for the notion that it is worth acknowledging the significance of being in a foreign land, especially when such a large group of people from other parts of the world descend upon one area, all geared up to let their freak flags fly.
One evening during the event, I had a conversation with performing artist Random Rab, who has performed at every Envision Festival. Rab, who’s real name is Rab Clinton, is known for meditational, down tempo soundscapes paired with his own melodic signing. In some ways, lyrically and sonically, Rab is a bit like an electronica folk singer on the festival circuit. He performed his quintessential sunrise set at Envision that drew close to a thousand people and culminated in a massive group hug.
He tells me that he found the protest to be an interesting element that is worth noting.
“It was about nudity, alcohol, and drug usage, and I thought that was pretty fascinating,” Rab says. “It was really a morality perceptive.”
Rab got his musical career rolling as a DJ performing at Burning Man during the early years and has since traveled to play at festivals all over the world. In 2012, Rab did a show called The Great Convergence held at the base of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. This was in the wake of the Egyptian Revolution the previous year in which millions of protestors revolted against then-president Hosni Mubarak. The event was organized by the California production agency The Do LaB, known for its stages at Coachella and Lightening in a Bottle.
During Rab’s set, the Egyptian police intervened because they deemed his music “too spiritual,” Rab tells me. It was almost funny at the time, because the authorities stated that the music must get louder and more intense—at the risk of becoming a pseudo-religious gathering—or that the whole thing would be shut down.
“There was a very interesting juxtaposition of cultures and a lot of issues came up—a lot of political stuff,” Rab says. “It was an awesome experience, but looking back, it was kind of crazy. I’m surprised nothing really bad didn’t happen, because it kind of seemed like it was always about to.”
“Something interesting can happen sometimes in these settings,” Rab continues. “Once you get a hundred-plus Americans in one place, we start to act like we’re still in America. We kind of forget our cultural boundaries and we’re so used to being completely free and outspoken. I think we kind of forget where we are and how something we’re really used to might impact a more conservative part of the world. So it was very interesting for me to see these issues about morality with local Costa Ricans come up.”
For his own sake, Rab says he has no overt spiritual agenda with his music.
“For me, beautiful music is the sound of truth, and if the ultimate expression of truth comes across as being spiritual, then perhaps truth itself is somehow a spiritual experience,” Rab says. “I think that’s what really works for me. I don’t have any kind of dogma that I’m trying to pass along. I just try to come to the music with a reverence and respect. I’m really aiming to unveil beauty through the music, and if that happens to, by default, have a spiritual tinge to it, well, then that’s the truth of the music.”
Not to say that Costa Rica is like Egypt, or that Envision Festival is like The Great Convergence, but the same questions about social awareness come up.
Josh Wendel, a co-founder of Envision Festival and event producer, is originally from New York but has lived in Costa Rica for 11 years. He first came down to attend Stephen Brooks’ permaculture school at Punta Mona Center for Regenerative Design & Botanical Studies many years ago, where he became inspired to ultimately create his own sustainable farm and retreat center near Uvita. In conjunction with Envision Festival, the organization has helped to fund and create school programs, develop a community center, build gardens, and implement new, fresh water infrastructure systems. Wendel has personally worked closely with the surrounding communities of Uvita and says that he does bring a stake in cultural sensitivity to the table, but that essentially Envision is a product of a social, progressive revolution that has been occurring for decades.
“The way I perceive it is that, in the U.S., festivals that people go to—they come from maybe 40 or 50 years of development, from the ‘60s hippie festivals, then the Grateful Dead movement, and it’s all evolved into something that’s become much more intentional and incorporates a lot of the principles that they were just toying with back then. But it was something that allowed our culture in the U.S. to understand it all over time. Where as here, we’re the first ones doing anything in Costa Rica that’s so radically different. And, naturally, there are going to be groups of people that don’t understand it. And of those people, there’s going to be a percentage that believes it’s totally negative because it’s not something they’ve seen before. This is something that has to be understood, so that’s why I’m very involved with the community. I don’t get upset about it, and we focus our energy on integrating more and more with the local culture.”
Wendel says that the majority of Costa Ricans are in favor of Envision and that the ideas they are striving to spread via the festival are about practicality and healthier, less environmentally-impactful ways of doing things.
“We’d rather focus on the positive and demonstrate the principles that Envision is built on—beach clean-ups and volunteering with the local community center, so that it doesn’t seem like just a bunch of gringos doing something to look good. Envision is built by people who really do implement those permaculture concepts into their lives. They’re not just theoretical ideas. We’re actually asking more of the community and getting them to become involved in what we’re doing. We [The Envision organization] are all actively pursuing and living the lifestyle that we’re preaching, and its important that it be done with intention and sustainability in mind.”
Stephen Brooks thinks of Envision Festival as a key means of disseminating ideas about permaculture and educating the world’s inhabitants on ways to do things through intentional design. He thinks of the people who attend the festival and take the concepts back to where they came from as “Envisionary Scouts” and that the world will change quickly with this method of education. He states that, while many people think of permaculture exclusively as an agricultural philosophy, it’s actually much broader than that.
“It’s really a design flaw philosophy, and it can be applicable in everything we do,” he tells me. “It’s applicable to the way we design our houses, the way we design our gardens, our lives, our jobs, our relationships, our decision making, and it incorporates intention. How can I do what i’m about to do and use less energy; not only my own physical or mental energy, but also financial resources or how we use what the planet has to offer.”
While sitting down at a festival campsite, amongst a sea of colorful tents and hammocks, I had a conversation with a Costa Rican college student about Envision’s influence on the country. His name was Alonso Bonichy—a musician and engineering student at the University of Costa Rica. It was his fourth Envision Festival.
“I believe this is a very good thing,” he tells me. “As a Costa Rican, it’s very valuable because not everyone here is so open to create, or to co-create. It’s very different from what happens in this county, and it’s an incentive for art creation. It’s an artistic movement and it’s very beautiful.”
Bonichy says that Costa Rica was lacking a hub for this kind of progressive conversation to take place and that the local people he knows who have attended Envision have all experienced a personal change in themselves, mostly by becoming more open to new ideas.
“I think we were all more… ‘In the box,’ as they say. There’s a conservative culture here, especially with older generations, but younger generations are much more openminded. We have much more access to what’s really happening in the world, and there are many things in the world now that should be changed—environmental problems that are affecting us very seriously. If we don’t solve them, we’re going to cause ourselves to go extinct.”
“The permaculture values, these are all very important ideas to be spreading,” he says. “It’s teaching us new ways to cooperate and even do business—like doing more with less. There is this idea that you can change whatever you want, but you have to empower yourself, and awake your inner self, and be the real you. You must think outside the constructs of society, and what the media tells us.”
As for the protestors, Bonichy says it is more so a big misunderstanding than a clash.
“A lot of churchgoers here are very conservative,” he says. “It’s not their fault. It’s a different background, a different social context, and many don’t have the access to the same information younger people do. Morals are a tough thing to negotiate with people.”
Meanwhile, Marshall “Marsh” Julien is continuing south in his van, making way for Panama and scouting out for waves. Money is running out, which he anticipated and doesn’t worry much about. And even though Envision is over, he continues to let his freak flag fly.
“Envision wasn’t even the real reason I wanted to do this trip,” he tells me over chips and salsa at a house in Uvita. Howler monkeys are roaring somewhere not too far away and a wild Toucan is perched overhead, eyeing us suspiciously. “I mean, don’t get me wrong about the festival, that shit was sick! But, really, I’m here just to be here.”
To learn about how to attend Envision Festival 2017, visit the web site here.