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Here I am writing from my familiar perch in Monteverde, Costa Rica. The winds up here on the green mountain are furious as they will be at this time of the year – whipping away the dust that had settled over last year and shaking the trees as we try to imagine what this new year will bring us. Of course in another week or so, the big promise of change in the United States – Mr. Obama and the Democrats – will be blown in, inaugurated, feasted on, and then analyzed to death – and the poor man will have to take the wheel of this crazy ship that is tossing and turning in a very churned up sea.
I have to admit to getting out of touch with the bigger world while here in Costa Rica. I don’t see television or listen to radio very often. Newspapers come to me sporadically. I am happy to re-immerse myself in all things Tico so I generally don’t mind losing touch with the rest of the world. Bad news travels quickly and finds me – I can always find good news from home on the internet when I need the tranquility of old friends and a peaceful snow-covered northern winter scene. The wild winds here keep my head rattled although I know that I’ll eventually get used to them, about the time that they quit in early March or so. It has been two years since I was here in this season, the beginning of the dry period, having spent last winter getting Walking with Wolf to press in Canada, so I’m finding myself all the more affected by the dervish breezes, dancing shadows, clacking branches and fleeting clouds. The wind brings voices through the air that may be real or may just be forest music. It was only six months since I’ve been here but that was in the dead calm of the rainy season (except for the phenomena of the Pacific-influenced hurricane on the day of the book inauguration last May). Thankfully I tend to adjust to changes relatively unscathed so I’ve learned to just let these winds do what they will with me.
I came up the mountain on December 31st and had my first bus accident experience. If you know this road, twisting and turning its narrow self up the rough slopes to the clouds at the top, you’d think that accidents were common. But when the French tourists in a rental car came flying around the gravelly corner and couldn’t pull over in time and the big CRUNCH came, I was actually quite shocked, not just by the impact but by the fact that after eighteen years the obvious had finally occurred. Fortunately nobody was hurt, just the car, and of course the big ol’ Monteverde bus barely registered a scratch on its aged and hardened metal skin. We sat in the middle of the road for about three hours till the insurance guy and transit policeman came, took pictures and measurements, all the while cracking jokes with the very relaxed bus chauffeur. They eventually let us clear the way so the cars that had come along and couldn’t pass could finally get on their way to their New Year’s Eve celebrations. The only highlight was a fruit truck getting caught in the traffic line, which meant we were able to buy some juicy watermelon to sustain us as we waited out the procedure in the hot sun on the side of the dusty road.
I got to Monteverde in time to help my friend Patricia who was preparing for the big Beatles tribute concert at her Monteverde Amphitheatre at Bromelias. I sold tickets at the door, a handy thing, giving me the chance to say hi and pass out New Year’s kisses to a lot of local friends. Over one hundred and fifty people were there, packing the place, and the music was joyful as it should be on such an evening. Robert Dean (on the far right in the pic), a Brit who now lives locally and is known for his book on Costa Rican birds, put together about twenty singers and musicians (backed by the Chanchos de Monte, his local band, as well as a string section and flutes) and they covered a wide variety of Beatles songs in an acoustic set followed by a rocking electric one. Robert’s musical reputation in Monteverde is built on the fact that he toured with Sinead O’Connor as her guitarist and his projects are always impressive. In the case of the Beatles, how can you go wrong? The audience sang along and danced – the spirit was great and it made me very happy to be back in this engaging community.
It all took place outside, under the canopy of the magical amphitheatre, accompanied by a smiling slip of a moon, those seasonal gusty winds and lluvisna – the light misty rain that is as normal in Monteverde at this time of the year as the howler monkey’s roar. It can spit moisture here when there doesn’t appear to be a cloud in the sky and rainbows often seem to come out of nothing more than promises.
The rest of the night was all about dancing at Moon Shiva – with our pal Fish behind the tunes we couldn’t stop till the roosters were thinking about crowing. I’d say that 2009 arrived in perfect style. I happily met up with Wolf first thing on the first morning of 2009…we have plans for a renewal of marketing books, which are selling well. We are awaiting the publication of a couple of reviews, an article and an interview in some Quaker journals this month (Friends Journal and Quaker Life out of Philadelphia; Quaker Monthly out of London) Wolf is well, happy, only a little grumpy about his aches and pains, but always warm and enthusiastic. It always touches my heart, this friendship I have with this wonderful man.
Veronica and her son Stuart, folks from New Jersey who I had met briefly on my last trip here, offered for me to live with them in the house they are renting. It is the Cresson house, one I am very familiar with from my first years in Monteverde when I’d come to the Sunday evening pot lucks held by Osborn and Rebecca Cresson. They were a lovely Quaker couple who have been gone from Monteverde for many years and passed away since. Their son Ozzito, has a small casita next door which I had just moved in to back in September 1990 when I quickly decided to return to Canada – partly because a friend offered me a great contract working on northern forestry issues with local First Nations, partly because I knew something was terribly wrong with my health. Three months later I would be diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease and begin the chemotherapy and radiation treatments that took me out of the forest project and delayed my return to Monteverde, but ultimately saved my life.
Stuart, Kyle & Mark (one of my editors) at the first community potluck of 2009
So coming back to this house is a return to an interrupted dream that I was living at the time – my first year in Monteverde, collecting Wolf’s stories, learning Spanish, falling in love with all things Latino. There are three other residents at the Cresson house now who go by the names of Chiqui, Cutie Pie, and Betsy – three little dogs rescued by Veronica at different times. Chiqui came from the US with her when she decided to move here a few months ago and put Stuart in the Friends School. Cutie Pie really is the sweetest little thing, taken off the streets of Monteverde – and Betsy, found in a box in the middle of the road, is named for her slight resemblance to a Holstein cow, though on very short legs. I am their nanny while Veronica and Stuart head back to the US for a few weeks.
Betsy the lucky dog
It was a serious decision for me to take on the responsibility, as I am a wanderer and generally don’t stay put in Monteverde long before I head off visiting friends in other parts of this beautiful country. But the offer was generous, Veronica and Stuart very friendly and kind, and I love dogs, so I decided quickly that having a commitment to keep me in Monteverde for a few weeks wasn’t a bad thing. It will give me a chance to visit with local friends, work with Wolf on our continuing book-selling efforts, help take care of the belongings of our friends Inge and Andy who are in a struggle with cancer over in Austria, and get started with my next writing project.
In the week before my duties began, I did take advantage to go down to the city with Wolf and get the boxes of books I had shipped out of customs. With our friendly customs man, Eliecer Alfaro, all went well and painlessly (after awhile, the kaching doesn’t hurt so much). We also took more books to the two big book stores in San José that carry them – Seventh Street Books and Lehmans – and I made contact with the company that buys for the airport stores. I had been in touch back in June but then didn’t hear back and had thought that they weren’t interested. I decided to call them to see why that might be. As it turned out, the woman hadn’t received my last email (no doubt lost to the spam gods) giving them the information they needed to place the order, and since I hadn’t followed up, they hadn’t either. I am still learning the fine art of marketing – always follow up on contacts! So we begin the process again and with any luck (and tenacity on my part) I will see Walking with Wolf in the busy gift stores of the Juan Santa Maria airport when I leave the country at the end of March.
While in downtown San José, I took some pictures of more fine examples of Christmas tinsel art – if you will remember from my Guatemalan posts, I am always fascinated with what people do here with a little aluminum foil.
We made a plan to do a book presentation at the Quaker Peace Center in San José on March 12 (who are also hosting a conference in early March on the eradication of depleted uranium weapons – check it out at amigosparalapaz.org). I have also just been talking with our good friend Mercedes at the Monteverde Reserve who thinks we may be able to do a presentation in February to a group of visiting Japanese tourists. Our friend Takako, who accompanied us on the hike to Arenal that makes up the last chapter of the book, is bringing this group and will be available to translate – that could be a very fun evening – hope they bring the sashimi!
I then took advantage of the few days I had before my dog duties began to head to the Caribbean to see my friend Roberto before he leaves for Australia. If you have been reading this blog, you will know the story (East Coast Pleasures; The Power of the Blog). He was working when I bumped into him but decided to follow me a few miles down the coast to Manzanillo for a couple of days to escape the craziness that can be Cahuita. He is still in the middle of the extensive paperwork necessary for a visa to Australia and I’m not sure how it will all turn out. He is older now and the work it takes to travel is much more complicated than the last time he went somewhere (before September 11th happened and security issues created a tiresome worldwide bureaucracy). I gave him another copy of the book, since his was washed away in the flood that took away his home a couple months ago and he had been enjoying reading it. He is slowly rebuilding and, in true Caribbean style, not too worried about anything much.
I hadn’t been to Manzanillo in years and expected changes, but except for several new cabinas and an expanded restaurant at Maxi’s, the business at the heart of the community, Manzanillo was pretty slow and peaceful like I remembered it. Maxi’s has a roaring business in the day and evening – they make great food served generously on big platters – rice and beans with fish or chicken in coconut-rich sauces, refreshing ceviche, rich flan.
At night the place was very quiet in comparison to Puerto Viejo and Cahuita, both hot night towns. Nonetheless we got in some great soca dancing – and the days were spent on that beautiful Caribbean Sea, soaking up the sun, floating in the embryonic turquoise waters, talking life with my Rasta friend.
On the day that I left San José, headed for the coast, I left Wolf in the city with his plan to head to the bus station to catch the Monteverde bus at 2:30 in the afternoon. I was a couple days at the beach before I heard the catastrophic news that there had been a major earthquake (6.2) just outside of San José and Alajuela at 1:20 that day. Bit by bit the news filtered to Manzanillo, the newspapers showing the tremendous landslides that took the lives of no less than thirty people. When I realized the timing and proximity, I called Wolf’s house and Lucky assured me that he was fine, but had certainly seen the buildings move around him while waiting for the bus. As of today, five days later, they say that eighty-two people are still missing and dozens are injured. The pictures show the extent of the damage, particularly a powerful series in one paper showing the exact same scene of the Catarata de la Paz (Peace Waterfalls) at Poas a few days before and a day after; a small restaurant, the Soda de la Campesinita, standing humbly but proud a week ago, now all gone except for a couple of poles that were the doorway.
It is tremendous, the force of the earth, the fragility of life, the heart-wrenching immediacy of disaster in people’s lives. In a moment, change comes. And in so many other ways, change takes forever. Or is it that bad change happens quickly and good change demands time and effort? The wind blows it all past our door, leaving us shaken in its wake, sometimes in celebration, other times left to pick up the plastic garbage impaled on the bushes, wondering where in the world all this stuff comes from, and what are we meant to do with it anyway?
I am writing this as the mist swirls – the day started out sunny, but it’s feeling like rain could move in. That’s okay with me because I’m headed to the beach. The Caribbean this time – Cahuita, Puerto Viejo and Punta Uva – check up on friends, get some sun, do some swimming, do a little reggae dancing and eat fish cooked in coconut – they way they prepare it on the Atlantic coast.
But I’ve had a great few days here in Monteverde. I’ve been sleeping around – no, don’t get excited, one way or another – I mean that I’ve been staying in a series of houses – since I came back from the city, I spent a night with Wolf and Lucky, then a night with Canadian Margaret Adelman in her beautiful house (where I’m going to take up residence when I return next week), a night with Patricia Jiminez in Santa Elena, and a couple nights in the apartment at Patricia Maynard’s Bromelias. I’ve finally consolidated all my various bags and stuff to Margaret’s house while I’m gone. I’ve had some great evenings with friends, chitchat, music and dancing – and a wonderful day down in San Luis, the community that sits directly below Wolf Guindon’s farm.
On Wednesday evening, at Margaret’s house, Wolf’s son Benito came over to play the recorder. Well, I can read music and learned the recorder back in about Grade 7, and haven’t played in probably twenty years, but said I’d give it a try. The photo shows the fear in the my face – although it wasn’t that bad – and the other photo shows the bit of biology that was taking place at our feet – a spider had a scorpion spun in her web and we watched this little drama as we played, trying to remember to keep our feet away from the base of the music stand so we didn’t get either in the way of the spider or too close to the angry but doomed scorpion. Benito and Margaret told me that they started with a group of about fourteen recorders a few years ago but it has dwindled down to the two of them. And when they play, they just keep moving quickly through the music for duets, not repeating or trying to work out anything to sound a bit better (Margaret is a very accomplished pianist as well as artist and writer; Benito is accomplished in everything he does). However, my thing was to play a piece at least a couple times to try to make it sound like something – so we actually played one or two pieces not badly. I’d say it was great, considering how long since I played or even read music and was actually quite the physical workout.
On Thursday evening, I visited with my friend Patricia Jiminez in the big city of Santa Elena. She is another phenomenal artist as well as a poet. Her friend Sandra came over for dinner – it was supposed to be poetry night but other members of their group didn’t show so we just talked about things women talk about – men, writing, men, love, men, politics, women. It was a great evening which must have left several men’s ears burning somewhere in the world.
The next day, I took a book over to the lovely Miss Martha Moss – 88 years and glorious. I came upon her laying down with her three kittens. She has been the human mother to many cats and kittens over the years and has a theory that the cats she has shared her house with are related to wild cats that have become domesticated. She is putting together an article to send to the National Geographic or the NY TImes (I don’t remember which one) who has featured stories on these cats from around the world - hoping that the magazine will take interest and maybe send somebody to come and check out her cats’ DNA. Nothing would surprise me. Martha has written books for children as well as others – at 88 she is going strong, but needs to take rests, so you must drop in when it isn’t her nap time. I had heard that she wanted a copy of Walking with Wolf, so I took one to her and signed it with – “For Martha – you have been inspirational, informative, entertaining and a great pleasure to know – I hope this book is some of that for you”. It is so true about Martha – any of us that have had the great privilege of knowing her are indeed fortunate.
Wolf and I spent Saturday down in San Luis with our friend Luis Angel and Rosario the chauffeur from the Reserve. We wanted to go and visit Dona Alicia, the widow of Miguel Leiton, who we talk about frequently in the book and there is a picture of him with Wolf that I took about a year before he died. I can remember the day I took that picture, outside the beautiful new house they were then building and that Dona Alicia is now living in. Wolf and Don Miguel, both in their seventies and slowed down due to illness from the speed that they lived their earlier lives at, talked like a couple of teenagers about their adventures in the forest – and kept urging each other to get back out on the trails – VAMANOS! It was the last time I saw Miguel who died a year later from cancer - and a wonderful memory for both Wolf and I. Having the picture in the book has received great reaction from people in this community.
Dona Alicia and Luis’ sister Cristina served us rice pudding and rich San Luis-grown coffee and we talked about Miguel and the beauty of his passing – that he had his many children and grandchildren around, there was much love for him, not just from his family but from people all over the area. He was a well-liked and well-respected man. Unfortunately, on Friday, the night before we headed down to San Luis, there was a murder in Santa Elena – one of the first anyone can remember. A nineteen-year old boy (the son of friends of mine) stabbed and killed a girl who he was jealous of. It seems to be not really a crime of passion, but more of obsession and jealousy and I can only think that he just lost it. A very very sad occurrence here in this small community – and I know his parents, who I haven’t gone to see since this, must be beyond devastated, as would be the family of the poor girl. Down in San Luis, we talked about the different ways we die, and what luck and privilege it is to die peacefully with those we love and who love us around. Otherwise, there is often too much sadness.
These pink bananas aren’t for eating – when they are mature, they open into this beautiful ball of white seeds and flesh that the birds love…the flesh tastes like very unsweet and less flavorful bananas.
We went down to the Reserve’s Biological Station in San Luis and visited with Edgar and Betelina who stay there. Luis, Edgar and I walked down to the river where Edgar showed me a sunbittern’s nest they were monitoring. We had the great fortune of having a beautiful sunbittern fly across the road in front of us just before we got to the station – with its intricate wing design spread out in full, we had a perfect view as it glided past us. What luck! We stayed for lunch while it poured rain outside and then we headed back up the mountain to get Wolf back home as they had visitors coming from the US, arriving that afternoon, and Wolf was going to be in trouble if he didn’t get back to help Lucky with preparations. It was a perfect day in San Luis. I’ve never lived down there but am very tempted to take up the different offers I’ve had to stay and work for awhile. This tiny little farming community is growing – the University of Georgia now has a small satellite campus there – but so far it feels much like it always has – rural, humble, friendly, surrounded by stunning scenery.
Wolf with Betelina and Edgar at their home in San Luis
Friday and Saturday night I helped my friend Patricia Maynard prepare food for a group of twenty-five students. Her place, Bromelias, which has been a series of things over the years from a beautiful art gallery to a store to restaurants as well as a concert venueand finally her home - I’ve had the use of an apartment in the tree tops there for many years – is still beautiful although she has less going on after moving her store to Santa Elena and changing its name to Ritmos, where she sells a great selection of music and books. We prepared vegetarian lasagna, vegetables in vinegrette, garlic bread and arroz con leche - even though I blew a fuse in a major way putting the microwave and toaster oven on at the same time (this is what we were cooking all the food in) and we lost all power in the kitchen and had to move the microwave to another room - we still managed to get the food out to the crowd. Then Eduardo and Chela, a couple of Argentinians who have lived here for about eight years, came with some friends form Uruguay, and drummed and fire-danced and got this group from Long Island University in New York up on their feet. We danced and sang and clapped around the fire – it was a beautiful night, no wind, no rain, just abunch of stars in the sky and happy people on the ground.
Luis invited me to participate in the bird count that they will be conducting down in San Luis on Monday and Tuesday – he was so kind to arrange to take Wolf and I down, and I’m sorely tempted to go play in the forest of San Luis again – but I’ve got the beach on my mind, and my time here is going by fast, and there are many things yet to do…so the birds will have to wait, but the sun can come out tomorrow as I head out to the Caribbean.