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I wish I’d been paying attention to the somewhat obvious fact that “Carnival” is about flesh – as in carnivorous and meaty. I would have gone to one sooner. And I guess it makes sense to celebrate flesh while in the mouth of the bull, that is Bocas del Toro, Panama. I am sure a lot of vegetarians were dancing all night at Carnaval as well, but for the energy demanded, I’m thinking that a diet with some animal protein probably goes well with, and energizes the body appropriately for, a big party that translates as “A celebration of the flesh.” Certainly heat, skin & healthy spirits contribute to a great fiesta of the flesh.

We went to the islands on the weekend of February 12, knowing it was going to be Carnaval there. You either stay far away from the craziness, or embrace the moment. So after our five days of relax in Bastimento (see last post), we moved to the large town of Bocas on Isla Colon where the celebration was taking place. When we got to the area, we were told that Tabou Combo, a band originally from Haiti that has been playing great soca music for forty years, was headlining the festivities.

Roberto has been listening to them for as many years. He knows their music well, and sings and dances to it with his large Caribbean soul. The fact that they, along with The Beachers, a soca band from Bocas that he also loves, would be playing while we were there, was a huge treat for him. We went and got our tickets days before the concert, and after visiting several hotels in Bocas, were able to book an inexpensive hotel room for the Monday night of Carnaval, though the town was already booked up.

Something I discovered on our first trip into Bocas, and continued to enjoy each day we were in the town, were some great Bloody Mary’s at a small seafront restaurant called Sabor Caribeno or Caribbean Flavor, to the west of the main boat dock. The woman there makes the drink with a lot of Panamanian pepper in it and slushes it up with ice. It doesn’t taste like any Bloody Mary I’ve had before, and I’ve had a few, but was excellent in its own right. Super spicy and frosty at the same time – mmmmmmmm – on their patio floating over the waters of the Caribbean, watching the boats coming and going, it was splendor on the sea. We also ate an excellent meal there – a whole fish with coconut sauce that was divine as well as a warm seafood salad. All highly recommended.

Carnaval itself took place over several days but we caught the last two days and nights. The evenings began with the drummers gathering on the street, calling in the people to join them and wind and grind our way together down to the big outdoor stage. Monday’s main event was the big concert with The Beachers and Tabou Combo. There were some other local entertainers as well. We started dancing at about 8 p.m. and kept dancing until we collapsed in our beds at 4:30 a.m.

Like Roberto, I love soca music, but I wasn’t familiar with these bands although I know some of their songs. He, on the other hand, was thrilled to see not only the bands, but special guests who joined them. One of these was Gene Chambers, the Frankie Vallee of Panama. He now lives in Costa Rica but returned to his homeland to sing with The Beachers who he used to play with. This man is 62 years old but looked, moved and sounded like a 40-year-old. I’m not necessarily a fan of high-voiced men singing, but I loved watching him, and was amazed at the falsetto voice that came out of him. I kept looking for the woman singing on the stage, constantly being reminded that it was this handsome man.

We were in the middle of a crowd that kept growing in size and enthusiasm as the night went on. There was a group of wild women beside us who knew all the songs, danced with gusto, kept drinking like sailors, and were truly entertaining to watch. We made our way up through the crowd closer to the stage as the night went on…although there was a lot of boozing going on, and people were obviously getting drunk, we didn’t see any aggression in two nights of fiesta, the only exception being a gringo with a bloody face outside a bar as we walked back to our hotel just before dawn.

The other special guest who joined both The Beachers and then Tabou Combo, was Alfredito Payne, another Panamanian vocalist who has been singing soca for years. He used to sing with Tabou and was back to join them. Tabou Combo is a mix of generations of musicians  – some who have been doing this since the beginning including a couple of the original singers, other younger talented musicians joining to carry on making their music. They are originally from Haiti but are now based in Miami. They started their show asking for a moment of silence to honor their Haitian countryfolk who are suffering from the massive earthquake there, but after that moment of solemn respect, they got down to the business of making us jump. And they perform – they excite the crowd and dance on the stage and welcome the crazy women who jump up on stage to join them and shout out and wave flags and laugh and keep on singing and drumming and moving along with the crowd.

And the crowd keeps up with them. The spirit kept rising and it wasn’t the free flowing and cheap Smirnoff deals that was responsible– it was the energy and joy coming off the stage that kept us all fired up. I guess we must have danced for about seven hours, but it flew by. Needless to say, we collapsed into bed but the truth be known, we probably could have danced for several more hours if the band had kept going.

To recuperate the next day, we took a boat ride two minutes over to the little Isla Careneros. This was apparently where Columbus had a shipyard for his boats – they would be hauled up and put on their side to be repaired. It had some pleasant little beaches where we soaked up some restorative solar energy and these beautiful trees – I’m not sure if they are a type of mangrove tree (couldn’t find any information about them) but  it was an eerie yet magical part of the little island.

On all of the Bocas islands, the colors, the details, and the woodwork was gorgeous. Not because of money, but because of effort, skill, and years of loving care. Amidst the older buildings, constructed when wood was super available and cheap, are newer structures that I’m sure cost much more to construct and bring in influences that come with the foreigners now living there. In general, there was a pride of place throughout Bocas, simple homes with attention to detail and love of joyful color.

Life by the sea has its own magic. Bocas has a great mix of the old and new, natural and manmade beauty, indigenous and foreign.

Tuesday night, the actual day of Carnaval, began with the attack of the diablos. The story behind this remained a mystery to us, but was a tradition that people love. Young men and boys were dressed up in black and red quite ornate costumes as devils, monsters and mythical creatures, and took to the street with whips and sticks. The crowd gathered around them and brave, crazy or inebriated other young men, as well as kids, went running into the melee to grab the sticks off the diablos.

Some of these characters were truly frightening and though at first we thought that the whips only sounded harsh, we soon saw the scars and blood on the legs of the boys who had been fighting with the diablos, trying to take the sticks away from them. We think that the diablos stood for the slave masters and the boys who went after them represented slaves trying to escape and take away their power, standing up for their rights, bravely fighting for their own justice. That was our interpretation, but I don’t know that that is what was happening.

I do know that lovely Roberto seemed to have a strong resemblance to the diablos – between his long dreads and the color of his clothing that evening, he fit right in. I have to say that although I’ve known him for over sixteen years, having spent lots of time around him in his hometown of Cahuita – where everyone knows him – as well as in Puerto Viejo, San Jose and Monteverde, I’ve never seen people react to him like they did in Bocas. People were constantly yelling “Cool, rasta, respect man” and others would come up asking for a photo with him. It was like being with a celebrity and it was impossible to be anonymous while by his side! Everywhere we went in that week on the islands, people were super friendly and very animated in their approach.

Men, women and children must have spent a lot of hours having their hair done for this big week of festivities. We saw so many extreme braids, joined by flashy ornaments, multi-colored dyes and boys had a bleached hair thing going on and shaved designs on their heads. It all just added to the spectacle.

When the daylight faded, the diablos went away and then the local drumming bands and their dancers started getting ready for the big finale, the parade of drums, shakers, whistles and bodies leading the dancing crowds down the street for the final night of fiesta. The next generation of kids were already showing their genetic ability to shake and move their batty.

As I wrote about in the last blog, we had watched the community of Bastimento preparing for this during the previous week. Now we joined with them and the other four bands from other communities, jumping and chanting and swaying and rumbaing our way down the main avenue. The Bastimento drummers and dancers were definitely the best – and they had a song that people sang along with – part of which said that they were proud Panamanians and loved their soca, but “Rockeros – NO!” went their song. Then the Beachers came on the stage again for another couple hours of great soca music. The party carried on, but once the live bands stopped, we went home, our legs tired, our feet hurting, exhausted but with big smiles on our faces.

Bocas del Toro welcomed us with drums, smiles,bright colors, tradition, laughter, warmth and rhythm – si dios quiere, we will be back there next year. We’ll go back and see Francis and Louie in Bastimento, eat the delicious food at Roots Restaurant, drink Bloody Mary’s at Sabor Caribeno in Bocas, and join in with the music, that, no doubt, will still be shaking the place. Then we’ll collapse in the hammocks and watch the boats go by.

K & Cocky

It is now September and, totally off my usual migratory schedule, I’m back in the north. Home in the Hammer, enjoying brilliant blue skies – even Hamilton Bay, the maligned body of water that shares its shores with steel companies and suburbia, has an aqua shine to it these days. I couldn’t ask for a better homecoming. My buddy with a bosom, Cocky, was at the airport to meet me, after her own month of travels. A treat to come home to, but now she’s gone too. I may get a chance to go for a sail on that same water if this weather holds for the Labour Day weekend which it is supposed to.

 

barnacles

My last two weeks in Costa Rica were spent down in sweet calypsolandia, Cahuita. Although it rained lots in July on the Caribbean coast just as it had been up in Monteverde, I ended up being followed by beautiful weather from the green mountain to the seashore. There were some casual showers of course, and maybe one night of insistent rain, but the month of September in Cahuita means dry weather. Hard to fathom how, when it is hurricane season just to north, but I stopped trying to figure out weather a long time ago.

moat and land

We got a lot of hot sunny days that sent us to the beach, but we mostly stayed at home. It was glorious to be back basking under those big trees, bathing in the cool water, being serenaded by the howlers and bailando with Roberto.   I was amazed at how much the papaya seedlings we had planted in July had grown in the four or so weeks I was away.  But then the growth of vegetation in Costa Rica always unnerves me a bit – you just don’t want to sit in one place too long if there is a vigorous-looking vine nearby.

limon malecon

 One afternoon we went up to the Port of Limon, a place I really only have known as a bus-changing town.  We walked around the ‘malecon’, the boardwalk that follows the seaside. Limon is one of the oldest cities in the Americas, having been visited by Christopher Columbus in 1502, so if it seems a little worn that should be understandable.

limon penguins

Development in Costa Rica by the Spaniards took place from the Pacific side, and so the Atlantic coast was left to fend for itself against all that crazy rainforest vegetation. In the mid-1800s the government decided to build a railroad and connect Limon (particularly its port) to the rest of the country. They brought in Chinese and Jamaican workers to build the tracks and thus the Caribbean coast is very much an extension of Afro-Caribbean culture with lots of chop suey houses around. 

park

There is no denying racist elements that existed (and unfortunately still do.) When the railroad was finished and the banana plantations became a major employer, the black population provided the workforce.  They weren’t encouraged to travel throughout the country, couldn’t afford it anyway, and the fact that they were foreigners themselves made it able to control their movements through their documents.  Eventually they went to work in other parts of Costa Rica as laborers were needed and Afro-Caribbean families settled elsewhere in the country. But the heart of the calypso-blooded community will always be Limon. 

wouldabeenice theatre limon

The city developed once the railroad took off, but government money was never pouring their way.  In the last year or two, there has been a move by the Costa Rican government to bring economic development to the area although people are waiting to see the proof.  There was an attempt at revitalizing the waterfront of Limon several years ago, but earthquakes and storms destroyed much of the expanded boardwalk as well as what must have been a great little outdoor concert theatre in its short life. As Limon grows into a bigger cruise ship port (it is already a large commercial harbor and a popular cruise ship stop)  hopefully some of the wealth that visits its shores will be spread in the area. Although Limon is known for its poverty,  its richness of spirit and culture is as much a part of life there. The biggest threat to that, after poverty,  is the drug trade which feeds on the poverty and changes the spirit.

rasta in limon

The city has a funky flair to it and lots of local color, from the bright hues of the buildings to the cacao skin of the residents. When you take the highway east of San José, over the mountains of Braulio Carillo National Park, and through the miles of flat banana and pineapple fields, over the wide rivers coming out of the mountains and arrive in Limon province, you know you are in a different culture than in the rest of Costa Rica. The food changes – instead of arroz y frijoles, you are now eating rice and beans cooked in coconut milk; the music changes – from salsa and merengue to calypso, soca and reggae; and the language is English-based Limonense-Creole rather than Spanish. It seems that most people are fluently tri-lingual – speaking Tico Spanish and British English as well as their own Caribbean-tongue.  It is a disappearing language as are many of the indigenous languages that are being used by less and less natives of Costa Rica. My experience being there with Roberto is that every plant, bird and insect has a different name in Limon than elsewhere in the country. The words are English-based, but the names are distinct to this region. I can get very lost trying to follow the lilt and tilt of the language used in Cahuita.  

puerto viejo

We had some beautiful days and were out on the ocean as often as we could force ourselves to go for the walk through the forest to the beach.  There was another hot night spent in Puerto Viejo, which has a number of bars that cater to different crowds – we go to Maritza’s, which has a live band on Saturday nights and always plays a great variety of music for dancing from soca to salsa.

beach to point

In the middle of all this it was my birthday and Roberto promised to go out in the sea and get me lobster for dinner.  So we spent two fine mornings on the beach under a big sun, the sea a calm shiny turquoise stone.  Roberto used to be a diver (snorkeler) and caught and sold octopus, fish and lobster, but quit a number of years ago as he saw the population of these sea creatures diminish. The banana plantations in the area have caused lots of pollution – from their chemical effluent to the silt run-off to the plastic bluebags that they put over the banana bunches – all this stuff ends up in the ocean and, along with a bad earthquake or two, things have never been the same.

lobster

 

But it didn’t take him long to get four nice-sized lobster for dinner and we were thankful for the bounty. We were blessed with the warmth of the sun and the beauty of the sea and took advantage to walk through Cahuita National Park’s shady trails, sharing our time with the monkeys. 

 

 

cahuita bridges

 

Cahuita’s beaches are stunning and the National Park is one of the most beautiful in the country. Between the white sand beach, the reef off the point, the hours of hiking, the constant presence of birds, insects and animals, and the fact that you can enter for a small donation from the town access point, it makes for one of the nicest parks to visit in Costa Rica. They have built bridges over some of the swampier areas (where before there were submerged wooden walkways), using the same recycled-plastic material that the Monteverde Reserve has been using on its trails and signage for a few years now. It was interesting that we could smell the plastic off-gassing in the very hot sun – something that I’ve never noticed up in the cooler cloud forest.

bananas

 

 

We also continued taking care of Roberto’s little farm. We seeded corn and within three days it was two inches out of the ground – when I head back there in November I should be eating elotes, the young corncobs.

 

 

R cutting tree

 

 

 

Roberto climbed up his castaña tree, the glamorous cousin of the breadfruit, to chop off the top limbs before it gets too tall and he won’t be able to harvest the fruit.

 

 

R in big leaves

 

 

This tree is also growing on the bank of his stream and, knowing that it will fall one day, he has been concerned that if it is too tall it will fall on his casita.  So I took pictures as he shimmied up the trunk and took his machete to the big elegant leaves and chopped off the top.

 

 

R in cut tree

 

 

Afterward he said he was getting too old to do this stuff – between the possibility of falling, wasps, snakes, and other risks he felt lucky to get the job done in one piece – but my guess is he’ll keep climbing and chopping as long as he needs to, for as long as he is truly able.  His age is just making him realize how vulnerable he is and that when it hurts, it hurts harder.

 

braulio carillo

 

 

We went back through the mountains to San José for my last two days in the country. There was a full day of music awaiting us and we took advantage.

 

noche inolvidable

Wandering around the city, we caught the Lubin Barahona orchestra outside of the National Museum.  It was big band music and boleros being sung by old timers.

 

 

dancers

 

The crowd was mostly older couples who were happy to be dancing on the street while the music played on and the rain held off.   Like in most cities, there is live music playing for free to be found most weekends.

university choir and master key

 

 

 

 

 

 

We then caught a gospel concert in the Melico Salazar Theatre at night – a contest between three local gospel choirs (won by the University choir) with Master Key (a five man acapella group from Costa Rica now working in the US)

manuel obregon, master key, tapado

with Manuel Obregon, a musician I’ve known for years in Monteverde (and seen him play here in Toronto twice). He’s one of the most experimental composers in the country – here he was playing gospel with our friend Tapado, the country’s top percussionist, at his side. Manuel never fails to amaze me with where his music takes him and he takes alot of other musicians along for his musical rides. The Let It Shine concert was presented by a gospel choir group and held to celebrate Black Culture Day, August 31. It was a great way to extend my time in the cultural richness of the Afro-Caribbean community.

he and me

 

The inevitableness of leaving woke me up early on the last day of August and when it is time to go, it is time. It makes saying goodbye easier when you know you are going to return within a couple of months (si dios quiere.) Heading to my happy home in the Hammer also makes things easier. I can still feel the Caribbean sun on my skin and if I listen hard enough, the gentle arrival of the waves lapping the beach and gently rocking my soul.

waterstump

 

The mellowness of life in the jungle and on the sea exists in stark contrast to the busyness of my life back here in the city as I prepare for a trip to the northeastern US, continue overseeing the Spanish translation of Walking with Wolf, work on the historical record of Bosqueeterno S.A., and catch up with my northern friends.

Stay calm, Kay, stay calm – but keep that ball rolling, there is lots to do.

flower

Here in Monteverde it’s the rainy season, but who said the weather is normal anywhere in the world anymore? The green mountain is no exception – after weeks of December/January type weather (tumultous wind, blowing rain, chilly), we are now in “puro verano”, that is summertime. The sun is shining and hot, the wind is casual, the moisture level at a monthly low. Thank goodness.

sunshine

This gorgeous climate has provided some beautiful final days for me. I’ve been squeezing in as many activities as possible before I go – first back to Cahuita for a couple weeks with Roberto and the pleasures of the Caribbean, then home to Canada just in time for our autumnal beauty.

caroline

 

A couple of weeks ago, a new person walked into my life, one of those cases of the right person arriving at the right time. Caroline Castillo Crimm, a Professor of History at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, came to Monteverde to work on a book that will document the comings and goings in this area – much of which has been recorded in some form or another (read Walking with Wolf) but her book will look at the details of this history, in particular who the original Tico families were, something that is only documented in the government archives in San José.

 Caroline introduced herself to Wolf and me at an event at the Monteverde Institute and charmed us immediately by saying how she had read our book and thought it was “brilliant.” I, of course, immediately thought she was too! Her smile and enthusiasm is contagious. Since then, she has been mentoring me in how to get the book out – convincing me not to put my efforts into finding a distributor or agent, middlemen who will take their percentage while putting the book on store shelves amongst the millions of others. Caroline has written three books herself and knows that the onus will still be on me to publicize the book. So if I don’t mind doing it, she recommends that I spend more time writing to universities, environmental groups, Quaker meetings, etc. and offer my services as a speaker with an interesting presentation and a great book. The catch is I need to charge an honorarium and travel expenses since, as she says, I’m now a professional writer. I’m working on that part. 

So I’ve created an internet announcement that I will send by the thousands when I return to Canada in September. I love to travel and have no problem speaking in public and am, of course, very proud of the book. I’m honored to go out and tell Wolf’s story as well as some of the fascinating history of Monteverde. Caroline has given me a new objective, renewed confidence and a direction that I’m excited about.

oxcart

In return, I’ve shared my knowledge of things here with her – over dinner we discussed the Monteverde Music Festival of the 1990s that I was a part of. Last Saturday I took her on a walking tour of Monteverde, showing her where the original families live and telling her some of the background chisma that one can only gather from years of living here and knowing a large variety of people.  We had a beautiful day for this walk, starting out near the cheese factory (where the milks cans were being delivered, some still by oxcart) and walking up towards the Reserve, the “northern” part of the community. I think of the top part of the mountain as “north” since it is inevitably colder than going down to the “southern” part, Santa Elena, where you can find sun and sweat more readily – even though the compass would tell you the absolute opposite.  Maybe it’s a Canadian thing.

plastic house

We stopped for coffee at the gorgeous new home of local biologist, Mills Tandy, another Texan, who is the owner of one of my favorite little abodes, “the plastic house”.  Built with corrugated plastic siding back in the late 1980s, it isn’t any bigger than the modern bathroom in his new home, but for one person, or a very loving couple, it is perfect.  I lived there for a few weeks many years ago and thoroughly enjoyed its remote location in the forest and its very simple layout. Small is beautiful stuff. Mills has recently cleaned it up – because of its deep woods location, it can become a moss-covered relic quickly – and is ready to rent it out again and the place never looked better.

caroline marco

Continuing on to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, we bumped into Marcos, a resident of San Luis, the farming community just below Monteverde, who is an employee of the Reserve and was out doing some road repairs. He is one of the original founders of La Finca Bella project down in the valley of San Luis. Since the 1990s, local families took matters into their own hands and, with some assistance from the Monteverde Conservation League, have worked at creating a sustainable agricultural center for the community, growing coffee and other crops and helping each other survive economically. It has been a struggle but somehow this project, along with other initiatives in San Luis (such as a satellite campus of the University of Georgia), have kept this simple healthy community alive.

san luis

It may be inevitable that tourism is going to replace agriculture eventually – the pressure to move into a tourism-based economy is too strong and the difficulties of a farm-based economy too real – but the families of San Luis continue to face the future with a communal concern and intelligence. They have the volcanic growth of the communities above them – Santa Elena, Cerro Plano and Monteverde – as a good example of what happens if you don’t plan and control the development that comes with the influx of new people and the demands of tourism.

wolf and lucas

Wolf & Lucas Ramirez, former Reserve employee at U of Georgia campus, San Luis

Many of the employees at the Reserve have come from San Luis. I remember being astounded in 1990 at the fact that most of these young men (and a woman or two) walked up from the valley. I’m not sure how many kilometers that is, but I can tell you it is a long, very steep climb. They worked all day at the Reserve and then walked back down at night.

geordy caro luis

Caroline with Yory Mendez and Luis Obando – who I remember walking up from San Luis since 1990

I decided back then that there is a genetic fortitude to the people of San Luis and my enjoyment of this, along with their humble manner and warm smiles, has made it a great pleasure to know many of the families – with names such as Leiton, Vargas, Brenes, Cruz, Ramirez, and Obando. 

hammock

 

Caroline and I visited with friends at the Reserve before continuing our tour by passing through the beautiful bullpen, which worked its magic on her as it does on all, for a quick visit with Wolf and Lucky. Lucky was in the middle of a terrible virus, so we didn’t linger. Wolf was relaxing in the hammock that he hung recently out on their wrap-around veranda overlooking the goats in the field and the Gulf of Nicoya in the distance.

 

ciee

 

We then went back down to the Friends’ school to catch the end of the CIEE (Council on International Educational Exchange) group’s final presentations at the end of their two month’s program here. Their professor, Karen Masters, also happens to be my “boss lady” in the Bosqueeterno S.A. work I’ve taken on, and her husband, Alan, who co-runs the course with her, is also the excitable and talented keyboardist/singer in the group Chanchos de Monte, our local British rock band that I’ve written about before (and went to dance to that night).

mary r

 

We hungrily ate lunch with them and then walked out to the Rockwell corner of Monteverde, past the controversial pig farm that supplies the cheese plant with their pork products, and to see the stunning vistas from that corner of the community. We had a quick visit with Mary Rockwell, another of the original Quakers who arrived in 1951 with her husband Eston. In a matter of minutes, Mary had us intrigued by her many stories. Caroline truly saw for herself the beauty that is Monteverde.

blogh

 

We ended our tour back at the meeting house to discuss the flower decorations for the wedding that we were all attending the next day. Caroline and I, along with Wolf’s son Alberto and his wife Angelina, offered to take care of that – very pleasant work but someone had to do it.   I am truly appreciate of the help that Caroline has given me – as I said, she arrived just as I needed a new inspiration for getting Walking with Wolf out in the world. She is someone who will only add to the beauty which is Monteverde.  It is all around us, every day. I’ll keep with this theme in the next episode of …………

 

fog branches

The green mountain is truly verdant right now.  The rains started in May and now everything is vibrant, alive with water coursing through its veins. Since being back in Monteverde for a little more than a week, Roberto and I have managed to stay mostly dry in the house, though sometimes you just have to go out in the world while the rain is pouring down. Even with ponchos, umbrellas and boots, when the rain is serious you are going to get seriously wet. Many of the downpours are accompanied by rolling waves of thunder which make their way down the mountainside like a freight train rumbling through town. I remember my first year here, in 1990, when I was living in a house higher up the mountain. You could feel the thunder coming down the mountain like an avalanche. In those days we heard the roar from Volcano Arenal’s many daily eruptions, something that we don’t hear much over here any more. The rolling thunder, the grumbling volcano and the heavy rain pelting down on the zinc roof were all new sounds to me – together they filled every sound space in my head until all I could do was join in and shout along.  

lower house

I had a close call with my laptop in an electrical storm the other day.  I was at the local grocery store with Wolf and Lucky when, in a flash, the light bulbs in the metal ceiling popped loudly, then came a crash of thunder that made us all jump, followed shortly after by another crack of lightning that took out the electronic cash register and the rest of the lights and left us all shaking. Just like that, no warning, a few loud jolts and bolts during what had just been a heavy downpour that didn’t hint at any electrical activity. All I could think about was my laptop at home, still plugged in though not connected to the phone line. Lucky and I went on to the Friday afternoon Scrabble game where everyone was sharing their list of the damages that those two minutes of thunder and lightning had caused. Although I knew that Roberto was at home, I didn’t imagine that he would think to unplug my laptop (not having electricity nor computers himself, it wouldn’t be on his mind) and besides, it happened so quickly that I doubt I could have done anything if at home myself. So I played Scrabble with this low grade worry in my mind, concerned that my cyber-life may have just been cancelled for awhile. 

Fortunately, when I finally made it home, the only damage done was to the handheld telephone – notorious for their sensitivity to electrical hits – but my laptop was fine. Huge sigh of relief. The house has another non-electrical phone which keeps us connected but there will be no more sitting outside in the hammock and chatting until Veronica brings back another portable phone.

wolf lucky

Wolf came up the mountain the same day that we did, over a week ago. He was a little worn from the two weeks in a hospital bed, the several tests they did on him, and the lack of an appetite for institutional food. So he lost a little weight and was a bit on the weak side. The tests hadn’t really proven anything except for the probability that his medications were conflicting with each other and he wasn’t taking in enough water (except in the form of coffee.)  Lucky has noticed that his short term memory was a little slow, although has improved, and I know from talking to him that his long term memory is just fine. I joke that if Wolf ever does have a stroke, the side effect for him will be sudden clear speech, unlike most folks whose speech becomes garbled under the circumstances. 

After bugging him for a couple of years to let me drive his jeep when we head out to do book business in town, and always receiving the same response – “I don’t believe in women drivers” – Wolf finally relented and passed me the keys. This is the one thing that his family is trying to get a grip on as his driving is getting precarious, especially in the busy hub of Santa Elena.  Unfortunately few of the other Guindons have their licenses and so Wolf continues to feel responsible for picking up groceries and animal feed in town (and the need to go also satisfies his restless soul.) I’m a very experienced and comfortable driver yet I still felt the pressure of his critical eye, but I think I passed the test. The next time I ran into him, leaving the dairy plant parking lot, he just passed me the keys willingly and had me do the driving. Lucky thinks he likes the idea of having a “chauffeur.” Whatever his thinking, it is good that he is getting used to the idea of letting others drive.

leaves

So except for some tiredness, and as yet not being back up to walking much, and perhaps his spirit being a little deflated by the trials and tribulations of old age, Wolf is doing fine.  Everywhere he goes people are so glad to see him (“Wolf’s more well-known than poverty,” Roberto will say) and he can’t help but ham it up which makes him appear even stronger than he is. Certainly the warmth and concern of people toward him is surely helping to restore his spirit.

bullpen

This last week in Monteverde saw a lot of people leaving the mountain. The Friends School closed for the season. It’s on the same schedule as North American schools in contrast to Costa Rican public schools whose big break is December to February, based on the tradition of releasing the kids to help with the coffee harvest. There was a special Wednesday Friends meeting held in the beautiful Bullpen, my own spiritual center in Monteverde (which I’ve written about several times.)

lucky, wolf and sylvio guindon

lucky, wolf and sylvio guindon

I got to the gathering a little early, but not earlier than the Guindon clan who live adjacent to the Bullpen. It was a misty kind of day with some warmth from the sun shining through the clouds from time to time. We each found a place, sitting on our ponchos on some spot on the damp ground, backs leaning against the tree trunks, more people arriving from various points out of the surrounding woods. It was like watching a gathering of the gnomes in a magical medieval forest.

raincoat gang

The director of the Friends School for the last two years, Annika, and her partner Heather and their two boys were leaving the next day, a new director arriving soon. I met these women last year at the time that we presented Walking with Wolf to the community. The next time I saw Heather, at a potluck at her house, she told me that as she read the book, she was amused to see that I knew of Temagami, Ontario, the beautiful lake and community that I worked and played at for years.  She told me that they were avid paddlers and had taken canoe trips along several northern rivers – with names like Missinaibi and Bloodvein that only people who live in the north or have taken a trip on would know. She also mentioned that on two different trips she had run into a man from Temagami, a writer and artist – who turned out to be my old co-activist and bush friend Hap Wilson. Such a small world it always proves to be. And to have bumped into this same man on two separate trips in two totally different areas of the north is mind-boggling.

 I haven’t been in touch with Hap in several years but had to contact him after that to let him know that his northern ears should be burning. I will be seeing him this September when we all gather on beautiful Lake Wakimika near Temagami for the twentieth anniversary of the Red Squirrel Road blockade that was a mighty political event in our lives (and which I write about in the book.) 

So Heather and I bonded over these tales of the glorious north country and now she and her family are headed back to Minnesota and the rocks and lakes and non-tropical forests which have their own special beauty. The meeting and potluck lunch in the Bullpen was their send-off party. The mists swirling in through the trees cloaked them once more with the magic that is Monteverde. As always with potlucks, the combination of contributed foods was divine.  Friends and neighbors visited and eventually we all packed up and people headed out to their next activity. The first drops of rain fell just as people started on their way.

helena guindon

helena guindon

In the next pasture over, just a hundred meters through the forest, was a new colt born just three days before. As I went to say goodbye to Helena Guindon, who was also leaving for the US the next day, she said that they were going to see the new colt so why didn’t I join them. I said I’d catch up in a minute. There was a little soft rain falling at this point and I put up my umbrella and started down the path through the forest to the Campbell’s pasture. I bumped into Sue and John Trostle, on their way out to their car. In the few minutes it took us to walk through the forest that light swirling mist turned to a heavy fog. By the time we emerged out in the pasture, we were shrouded in thick cloud, so that we almost lost sight of each other. The Trostles went one way and I the other, still hoping to bump into Helena and also to see the colt.  I could hear voices in the distance but could barely see ten feet in front of me. 

I knew which direction to head in, although the fog caused some confusion, and that if I just kept going downhill I would eventually run into the fence running along the road. It was mystical, wandering through the pasture grasses, trees appearing out of the darkness, the voices not that far away but impossible to reach. I guess I could have shouted to them, but being left alone in the mist was too enticing.

horse under tree

I was just getting to feeling disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to see the young colt, when out of the thick white wall of fog came the pinto mother and colt, galloping as if to lose someone behind. They almost ran right into me but turned and stopped not far from me, the colt taking the opportunity to feed. We shared a lovely silent moment of peace in the pasture together, I took a couple of pictures and then left them.

wandering in mist

 

Shortly after I bumped into the Trostles again, still making their slow way along the fence line, trying to find the opening that would let them out to where their car was parked. At about that same moment, the rain started down in sheets and after we found the way to their car, I was happy to take a ride with them.

 

 

roberto

 

Roberto and I passed a relaxing week here in this great house that Veronica is renting, here on the edge of the forest, very private, quiet except for the bonking of the bellbirds and the occasional barking of the dogs. We are with our little doggy friends, Wilkens, Betsy and Cutie Pie (now called Salchichona for her plump little sausage body.)

 

k & betsy

The dogs are a part of all food preparations here, they are relentless, but I have to say that they have all improved since I spent a month with them back in January – particularly Betsy the little spotted cow who no longer jumps up and scratches my legs and probably listens better than the other two.

 

coco grating

We brought some coconuts and a coconut grater up from Cahuita for a friend here and Roberto has been grating coconuts and making rice and beans and fish in coconut milk. He is an enthusiastic cook and happy to feed me, which makes me happy, but I fear that if I eat too much of this rich, delicious Caribbean food, they’ll be calling me Salchichona soon enough. 

view from house

Tomorrow we leave for San Carlos and my friend Zulay’s, before returning in a few days to Cahuita. But I’ll be back up here in Monteverde in not too long, having work to do here, and houses to take care of.  A nice balance – the hot colorful Caribbean coast and the green misty Pacific side of the Continental Divide here in Monteverde. A lovely life.

guardia1

Guaria Morada, the official flower (orchid) of Costa Rica

I’m back up in my perch at the Caburé Café, one of Monteverde’s finest dining spots.  It also happens to have wireless that Bob and Susana allow us to use for free, no purchase required, though over the last couple of visits to Monteverde I’ve enjoyed a fair amount of their wonderful food, hot drinks and delicate homemade chocolate truffles.  It’s a win/win situation, the great view over the trees to Guanacaste a big bonus.

 

roberto

I only have five days left in Costa Rica before heading home to the famous Hammer of Canada.  Ai yi yi! How does it happen so fast? I just returned from a beautiful week on the Caribbean coast, staying at Roberto’s jungle home in paradise. Fortunately the weather of Monteverde finally changed to summer while I was gone.  Now the sun is hot, the sky is blue with only the occasional fluffy cloud, the winds have just about gone completely.

dogs

I’m taking care of Veronica’s three dogs (refer to former posts from January) and I have to say that they have all matured a little in these last couple months. I take no credit except for being the nanny who told the parent that they were outa control.  Veronica took charge and now we are all happy! Even Betsy the crazy has stopped jumping on me. The Dog Whisperer would be proud. Veronica and her son Stuart headed down to the hot Guanacaste coastline for some beach fun while I was still around to dog/house sit. My sincere appreciation goes to her and her generosity in allowing me to stay at the house these last months – and for the pleasure of getting to know her, Stuart and the puppies.

 

Wolf and I presented Walking with Wolf at the Friends Peace Center in San José about a week ago to a small but very appreciative crowd.  I hadn’t done a talk for a few months so it felt good to get warmed up, which I need to be as I head home and start doing presentations within the first week – to the McMaster University Biodiversity Guild in Hamilton. Then I’m off to the northeastern US and have a number and variety of events lined up in Maine, Philadelphia and New York City. I also will be making the few corrections needed in the book and printing another batch as, miracle of miracles, we are just about sold out!

 

with-jim

 

Wolf, Lucky and I also had the great pleasure of being toured around the INBio – the National Institute of Biodiversity – insect collection by Jim Lewis. Jim has a long history in Monteverde as a nature guide as well as an owner of the Monteverde Lodge and Costa Rica Expeditions. In his retirement, he went to volunteer working at INBio’s scientific headquarters in Heredia. We went there and saw the largest collection in Latin America of various families of insects. Besides the beautiful butterflies and the shiny metallic true bugs, we were aghast at the variety and size of some of the more dangerous ones – particularly the torsalos (botflies) that I wrote about squeezing out of my friend’s butt recently – the biologists were most helpful with information to pass on to Roberto about what to do next time one of these nasties bites him – and the wall full of species of mosquitoes.

mosquitoes

 

 

I mean, we all know there are many, and they are pests, but this wall of containers, each one representing a different species found in Costa Rica, sent chills down us.

 

 

The Spanish translation is well on its way. Wolf’s son, Carlos Guindon, up in New Hampshire, is at least half way through the translating. The Tropical Science Center, administrators of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, is financing that part and will see that it is published. We are searching for funds elsewhere to help the process and some of those will come from the Canadian Embassy here in San José. I’ve been in steady contact with José Pablo Rodriguez, the Economic/Political Officer there, who has been more than helpful. My lunch a month ago with him and Stuart Hughes, the Political Adviser, was extremely enjoyable. I’ve had nothing but great support from them in trying to find a way to use money from an initiative fund to help with the Spanish translation. José confirmed yesterday that the money is coming to pay for the art, index and computer work – and today the contract arrived – and I am very appreciative and loving my country a little more than usual.

editus

 

 

I also have had some great musical moments in the last couple of weeks. While still in Monteverde a couple of weeks ago, I saw violinist Ricardo Ramirez and guitarist Edin Solis of Editus playing with Costa Rican singer Arnoldo Castillo. I have known Editus for years and seen them play with a variety of other musicians but had never heard or seen Arnoldo. It was a lovely night of romantic songs from Costa Rica and Latin America which touched me deeply, being enamored myself these days. Ricardo and Edin played several instrumental pieces as well to a very appreciative local crowd who has supported them since they began playing classical music nineteen years ago. My young house friend Stuart has just taken up playing the violin and was gob-smacked watching Ricardo, as I knew he would be.

 

robert-alan

 

Following the concert I ended up at La Taverna in Santa Elena dancing till closing to the Chanchos del Monte, our local rock ‘n rollers, punk etc. band.  Robert Dean (who I’ve written about, former guitarist for Sinead O’Connor) who is known for publishing a bird guide here in Costa Rica, and plays along with a Alan Masters, a university professor, Federico, a professional nature guide, Walter, a taxi driver and Arturo, son of the wonderful Eladio Cruz who we talk a lot about in the book – these guys moonlight as the crazy Pigs of the Mountain and put on a great show of music to jump too.  Allthough I could feel a cold coming on – my belief being that dancing will either cure me or kill me – I was able to go and sweat a lot of it out, though it did continue on to the bad cough that I still have.

 

tjb1

 

I then went to San José for the book presentation and stayed with Edin (of Editus) and his wife Lorena, who always offer me their home and great company when in the city. Lorena is always full of great business ideas and tossed some good ideas at me for fundraising – her motto, think big, act bigger. My friend Leila showed up at the presentation and it ended in time for us to jump in a taxi and head off to see the Tico Jazz Band with my old friend Luis Bonilla, the hottest trombonist in New York City.

 

luis

 

 

Luis played at the Monteverde Music Festival in 1999 when I was taking care of the house where the musicians stayed. We spent three days and nights having fun – him and his wife Luz and the other Costa Rican musicians he had put together for the three nights of concerts – Luis Monge, pianist, Kin Rivera, drummer, and Danilo Castro, bassist. They were the hottest jazz quartet possible and each night they just got tighter and wilder though they had only been playing together for a couple of days. Luis’ energy is through the roof and his playing is impeccable.  We also did some wicked dancing following the concerts – these were three of the best nights of positive energy that I had in two years of working the seven week long music festival of Monteverde.

 

marco1

So to see Luis again after ten years and see that the energy hasn’t diminished, his enthusiasm for the music and improvising with other musicians is still hot and his joy still radiates made me laugh endlessly through the concert. The Tico Jazz Band is made up from young to old musicians and they shone as well. I’m going to go and see Luis when I take Walking with Wolf to New York City at the end of April where he plays regularly at the Vanguard Jazz Club. Danilo,from that hot jazz quartet who I have bumped into in the past few years, was also there, as well as Marco Navarro, another great bassist in the country who I haven’t seen in several years as he’s been in South America playing. He’s back in Costa Rica and playing bass with the Tico Jazz Band. It was a hot night of great jazz and a warm night of meeting up with old friends.

 

the-moat

 

All that city fun was followed by several days in the jungle. The creek (sometimes river) that flows like a moat around Roberto’s rancho was just the perfect temperature for a Canadian.

 

 

howler

The howler and white faced monkeys came regularly and kept us company. I had brought some cuttings, roots and seeds from my friend Zulay’s in San Carlos and we planted what will hopefully be a nice garden. Roberto had doubled the size of the rancho in the couple weeks I was away by adding a roof over the woodfire and kitchen table. The jungle was welcoming and it was hard to leave.

 

caspar-11

 

We returned to the sloth center and delivered some books to Judy Aroyos, the owner, who was very enthusiastic about the book, having her own long history of conservation in Costa Rica. She thought they would sell well as they have a lot of cruise ships come to them from the Port of Limon. I will take any excuse I can to return to this beautiful sloth rehabilitation center (see Kukulas of Cahuita post) and visit with this very friendly woman as well as see the peaceful little furry creatures who are recuperating there. She showed me the babies in the incubators hidden away in their private quarters, each one with its personal story. And we saw Casper, the baby sloth that Roberto’s daughter Gabriella had found and taken to the center back in October. The friendly ghost is doing just fine.

 

trees

So now I’m working against the clock to get everything done before I leave next Wednesday. It will be harder than usual to leave. I always enjoy being with Wolf, taking care of book business as we have been doing for so many years now, and now Roberto has given me more reason to stay in this country. But my life takes me home to Canada, on the road to spread the news of the book in the United States in April, and book responsibilities will keep me there until sometime next fall. I may have to return before to deal with the translation – I won’t mind at all.

 

hammock

 

But my little mind is already thinking of the next book I want to write and the idea of writing it from the Caribbean coast, while listening to the frogs and chatting with the monkeys from a hammock swaying beside that meandering brook- these images will keep my dreams sweet and my focus on the future.

 

 

girls-surf-too

I spent the last week on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, living a very slothful existence. It isn’t hard to do that – the place is sleepy and the pace is slow. The week was rainy – it drizzled, it poured, it spit – and then the sun would shine and all would be forgiven. My friend Leila had her first taste of the towns of Cahuita and then Puerto Viejo – and, like me, finds herself a Cahuita girl.  I wrote about this last year – how people are drawn to one of these communities more than the other – and once again lethargic Cahuita has won out over quaking Puerto with one of my friends. We spent one night – Leila and our friend Largo, and Roberto and I – listening to live music and dancing in Puerto – but were happy to leave the next day and head back to Cahuita were life is as slow as a sloth’s jig.

 

 

orchid-sky2

Sometimes life doesn’t work out as we think it will. I have told the story here of my friend Roberto Levey, a man I have loved for years and was reconnected with last June after a few years passed when I didn’t go to Cahuita. I have written of how he was united with his eighteen-year-old daughter from Australia in October and though plans were started for him to go there following the loss of his jungle home in the floods of early November, he decided that he didn’t want to go that far away from his home. Instead he has been rebuilding his little shack in the jungle (after a second flood took some more of his possessions, he finally gave up the spot that he was on and moved to higher ground where the flood waters didn’t reach.)

 

robertos-home

And though there was a connection made between him and his daughter and her mother that almost took him far away, when he decided not to go it opened the door to our relationship that has simmered for many years. Now it is a pot started with friendship and filled with chemistry that has boiled over with love and respect. So Roberto and I have started something, and only time will tell if it can endure the tests brought by long distance and cultural differences.

 

roberto-in-river

 

In our favor, we are both bush people as well as dancers, thinkers, talkers and naturally positive people who have cared for each other for years and know each other’s history. We both believe in the Dalai Lama’s philosophy of kindness. Roberto lives his life proudly with few possessions and refuses to fret about what he has lost – something I admire since I think that consumerism and desire for material comfort is one of the greatest demands placed on our earth. To be able to live so simply is a challenge but Roberto proves it can be done with grace and humor. He loves deeply and lives passionately and he has lost plenty in his life. As have most. And he endures. 

 

dread-k

The fact that we are both bush people cannot be undervalued – I don’t think Roberto ever thought he would know a woman who could live in his humble little shack on his wild piece of tropical rainforest. But when I spent my first night there last week, I told him it was just like camping – something I have done all my life, not excluding my years of living in a funky log cabin in northeastern Ontario without running water or electricity. Here, however, there are monkeys in the trees and the possibility that a poisonous snake may have moved in under your bed.

 

torsalo-butt

The mosquitoes weren’t as bad as they would be much of the camping season in the north but there’s a whole other buncha bugs here that cause nasty problems. The leaf cutter ants march on their employment lines everywhere, taking down the best of the vegetation. Then there is the botfly, the torsalo, whose eggs are deposited by a mosquito and grow into fat larva and eventually into another fly unless you squeeze the buggers out.

 

 

torsalo1

This is what I squeezed out of one of the bites. There was also a white maggot elsewhere… after a visit with some biologists in the know, I found out two importants things: if you put iodine on a suspicious bite right from the offset, you may prevent the growth of the eggs inside you. If you have a torsalo larva growing, put some oil on it – it will suffocate the beast and make it impossible for it to brace its little arms and hold on while you are trying to squeeze it out – instead you have greased its way.  Zepol also works (sore muscle ointment) as an irritant for the the little intruders.

 

 

 

There are the sand flies (or maybe mosquitos) that cause papalomoyo (leishmaniasis) whose bite won’t heal and continues to grow into a huge scar of eaten flesh on your body. I’ve now experienced papalomoyo myself and have also had the intense pleasure(?) of extracting both the larva and the grown botfly out of Roberto’s backside. It is hard to explain the sensation of seeing the little hairs on the head of the creature appearing and then the fat maggot coming out. It is hard to squeeze the flesh of the person you love while they try not to scream in pain, but quite satisfying when the little bug pops out as if exploded from a cannon. Roberto has some great stories about these bugs but I don’t think I need to share them here as I can feel you squirming already. My work here is done.

 

the-stream

 

The stream of water that flows through Roberto’s finca is fresh and clean and teaming with his little fish friends, his piranhitas, who clean his pots in a frenzy and nibble on your body when you sit in the aqua pools. He has seen a jaguarundi skulking about the banana plants and wild pigs rooting about as well as domestic ones that have come wandering down from a neighbor’s property. The bird, insect and amphibian songs fill the atmosphere throughout the day and all night long, coming at you from the tops of the trees to the forest floor, reaching a crescendo at dawn and dusk, songs I’ve never heard before. And the monkeys come to keep an eye on his progress as Roberto rebuilds his little hut.

 

cahuita-ruins2

One overcast gloomy day, we went for a walk north of town to where a friend of Roberto’s lived until he passed away recently. It was a sad day for Roberto who will miss his friend Jerry Lee. We passed the grown over ruins of Cahuita, houses that either had served their time and were abandoned, or which were never completed beyond someone’s dreams. The lush vegetation crawls everywhere and strangles everything it can.

 

black-beach

We returned by the Black Beach, named for its black volcanic sand (that alone its great Reggae Bar), which was full with the flotsam and jetsam vomited from the sea after the weeks and months of rain. The beach was almost non-existent, replaced by mostly soggy organic refuse and the ubiquitous plastic bottles that wash up from everywhere. I couldn’t help but think of Roberto’s father, Bato, who lived much of his life in wild constructions on the beach made by materials the sea had deposited at his feet (see East Coast Pleasures post). It was a melancholy day already and the waves of debris that we walked through kept us quieter than usual.

 

palm-viper

The wet weather of the last few months seems to be affecting the wildlife. On the trail through Cahuita National Park, a lovely path just a few feet inland from the beach where you can walk in the shade, I saw two eyelash palm vipers one morning. I have only ever seen these in pictures yet by the end of the week I had seen four. Whether they were the same two seen twice or not, I don’t know, but they were sitting so close to the path, wrapped around small bushes, that a tourist, intent on watching a bird up high in the trees, was warned by the passing park ranger to move out of striking distance as they are quite venomous. The poor birdwatcher hadn’t realized how close he was to this bright yellow serpent. They are usually a little further back in the forest, not so noticeable, but the wet swampy land must have driven them to the drier ground of the pathway.

 

path-thru-jungle

For three days and nights, sodden by intermittent showers, the howler monkeys roared.  Well, they didn’t just roar, they moaned and groaned and lamented and pleaded and cried and chanted and carried on in a way that even Roberto, who has lived here most of his life, had to admit was very strange. I have certainly never heard them go on like this. We started getting a little paranoid when they seemed to react to our every move though we were inside the cabin we had rented (at Villa Delmar, a quiet grouping of cabins with kitchens on the edge of town, very sweet place.) We started looking out the window to the branches where the monkeys were perched, to see if they were watching us with binoculars they had stolen from some distracted tourist. I will never forget this chorus of primates and how they provided a mournful soundtrack to our own restlessness throughout these wet dreamy days.

 

 

buttercup

A highlight of the week was heading up to the Sloth Sanctuary just north of Cahuita. Also known as Aviarios del Caribe, a bird sanctuary created in 1972 by a couple from Cahuita, it has become better known for its rehabilitation services for injured and orphaned sloths since receiving its first infant in 1992. This sloth is still there, Buttercup is her name, and I think she may have been Spielberg’s inspiration for E-T.

 

 

 

 

feeding-baby

Roberto and his daughter had taken a baby sloth there that they had found in October and he knew that I would be fascinated by the place. So we went up and met the babies left behind when their mothers have been killed, the amputees whose limbs were lost to electrical wires or road accidents, and the long-term residents whose luck brought them from whatever danger they had encountered to the tender loving care of the Arroyo family.

 

baby-sloth

Besides nursing the injured back to health and reintroducing the strong back into the wild, the center is very much a place of knowledge and information about sloths (also known as kukulas in Cahuita or peresozos in Spanish, from the word that means lazy.) There is much misinformation and falsehood spread about these gentle animals and the center makes it their duty to correct that as they study and amass understanding about the Bradypus and the Choloepus families (three and two toed sloths). It is well worth a stop at the Sloth Sanctuary, even if you never thought about these beautiful, humble soft little creatures before. There is perhaps a lot to be learned by their vegetarian, pacifistic and slow-moving ways. The world could no doubt benefit from their example of simple non-aggressive living. I think the Dalai Lama would be proud of the sloths as well as the people at the sloth center who have taken on their rehabilitation and protection.

 

butter-and-friend2

I will be returning there in a couple of weeks to take some copies of Walking with Wolf to their gift shop. I look forward to spending a little more time amid their gentle ways and graceful movements. I’ll then walk back into the vibrant green forest to Roberto’s little humble shack and count my blessings. And suspend myself, in true sloth style, in a hammock, slung between trees, and contemplate my next very slow but deliberately pacifistic move which, I think, involves writing another book.

ms-vickie2

 

over-nicoya 

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.

bus-accident 

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.  

 

beatles-strings

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.

 

beatles

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. 

 

k-and-wolf

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.

 

the-marks

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

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.

mactinsel 

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.

tinsel-head

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

wolf-and-mercy

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!

 

roberto-on-sea

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.

 

manzanillo

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.

 

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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.

 

foliage

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.

 

beach-dread

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?

 garbageday

It has been a very busy couple of weeks since I last wrote a post. If people are going to keep reading, I feel a responsibility to keep writing. And, as the title of this post hints at, I’ve witnessed first hand the power of putting information out on the internet. But I’ll get to that in a bit.

The next two weeks promise to be crazy as I leave on December 15 and won’t be back till the end of March.  I’m headed to Lake Atitlan in Guatemala to spend Christmas with my friends Treesa and Rick at their winter home in the community of San Pedro.  I’ve wanted to go to this enchanting country as long as I can remember,  specifically to this lake since my sister went there in the mid 70s. I saw the pictures and heard the stories and am already  captivated by its beauty. So in my quest to go to the places I’ve been putting off over the years of working on Walking with Wolf, and despite the economic downturn – my view is I better spend money while I have it because I could be working at Tim Hortons splashing coffee down people by next year – I am making a stop in Guatemala on my way to Costa Rica. 

bromelia-fire

I will be in Monteverde for New Year’s Eve when the locals put on a big Beatles show which I’ve heard about but have yet to experience. That is just the beginning of the evening and I know that the night will be filled with more music, dancing and mayhem.  One of the best New Year’s I spent was the year of the millenium when we started the night under a starry sky around the firepit at Bromelias, my friend Patricia’s home and business in Monteverde. If the weather cooperates, I like to think that’s where I’ll be on December 31st.

 

four-beatles

I spent a night last weekend listening to a variety of local musicians here in Hamilton, organized by the stupendous Christopher Clause, performing the Beatles White Album. They raise money for a shelter for the homeless in the basement of the church where the concert is held. Many of their covers of the songs from this great album were truly inspired. The energy that Saint Clause must put out to organize all of these evenings (he’s pulled together many musicians to do other Beatles albums in the past) is remarkable along with his own enthusiastic singing and skill on the guitar. The Beatles night in Monteverde will have a lot to live up to – the bar has been set high.

Here in Canada we are in the middle of a very wild ride in our parliament.  You’d think that we had enough excitement this fall with the American election of Barack Obama…the huge collective sigh of relief that went around the world the day after his victory was palpable.  Here in Canada we had our own federal election about a month before where nothing really changed. We had a minority government with the Conservative party in control and they were returned to office with only slightly altered numbers. Following the election, the buzzword was “cooperation” – as in there was a new air of a cooperative spirit in Ottawa and the four parties with elected members would work together and get on with running the country. This of course means dealing with the economic crisis that has basically smothered us with its dire predictions, pocketbook panic, and totally inconceivable amounts of cash buckets that are bailing out the barely floating ship of commerce (protected by the ever-bouyant corporate powers-that-be).

Well, how things change…

As the Conservatives launched their economic package last week, they seemed to leave out their version of a bailing bucket except for the part where they removed the funding to the other political parties. This sent the other three parties to the backrooms to make a deal to bring down the government and organize themselves to step in as a coalition government.  Our constitution and parliamentary system allows for this – when the Prime Minister loses the support of the majority of the House, he can be defeated. The politics involved in all of this seems very schmarmy, the strategy is polarizing, the result is extreme.  We are now sitting listening to the pundits and party purveyors – trying to figure out the constitutional aspects of what is going on, the hidden agendas – but the speed in which we fell into this only serves to point out how fragile this new government was and how truly uncooperative the air was in Ottawa between the Conservatives and the others. Basically the opposition has had enough of dealing with the very right-wing agenda of the minority Conservatives who proceeded like they had a majority.

I’d be thrilled to see Stephen Harper and the Conservatives go – I’m obviously not a C/conservative, never have been, never will be (one of the few times I would let myself utter “never”) – and I rarely agree with any of their policies concerning taxes, social programs, the environment or war.  I was saddened when they got in again, although the way our election system works there was as much support for the other parties collectively as there was for them – which only goes to support the argument for proportional representation where the numbers of elected members in parliament would truly reflect the voting numbers.  I heard Michael Moore say the other day on a radio show that after all these years of telling Americans to try and think more like Canadians, it is funny that when they finally took the step in a new direction with Obama, we Canadians supported (or half of us did) the more conservative agenda here.  

I have no problem with the idea of a coalition government.  Canada is this huge country with so many different cultures, climates, histories and social requirements, that it only makes sense to me that our government needs to reflect all of those diversities and give them all a voice. There is this huge cry over the fact that the party that represents the majority of Quebecois, the Bloq, known for its sovereignty plan for Quebec, is now in the position of being part of the sitting government (if the coalition goes through). Which I don’t think is true – they are not actually part of this coalition, they just support it.  I think the only way we can continue in this country is by having representatives of all sectors of our huge country represented.  And the Bloq is voted in and represents much of Quebec.  Perhaps the scariest and saddest part of this is the polarization that will likely rear its ugly head again (having only been a big napping ostrich) between the west and east of Canada, the French and English, and the left and right.  Spirit of cooperation indeed!

canadian_bacon1

 

 

 

The amount of anger on the airwaves is reflecting how unhappy and unhomogenous we truly can be in our big land of bacon and beavers. At a time of the year already fraught with darkness, coldness and pre-holiday stress, I don’t know if this political adventure is a good distraction or a bad omen.

 

 

brent

 

Speaking of across-Canada-cooperation, a few days ago I took part in a CBC radio show.  This is our national public radio and the GO show airs across the country on Saturday mornings.  The GO crew, with host Brent Brambury, taped the live show here in Hamilton at the famous-on-my-blog Pearl Company. I got free tickets and went with my friend David.

 

brent-k-2

The theme of the show was “If Hamilton were a country song…” and the musical guests were Garnet Rogers, Kim and Frank Koren (who I have written about before), Thomas Wilson (not the original Hammerhead, but an import from Winnipeg who must tire of having to share his name with the larger-than-life native son Tom Wilson), and Tiny Bill Cody. The challenge was for the songwriters to write a country song about the Hammer.  The songs were truly brilliant, incorporating local legends and features of the city, and hilarious. We put out a lot of energy in laughter in that room for so early on a Saturday morning.  I was asked prior to the show to be the audience plant who they would call on to be part of their trivia challenge and of course I said yes.  So here I am at the mic, answering the silly questions that Brent threw at me though I had to correct him on my name (he called me Faye, I said, “That would be K! Brent”.)

The question that stumbled me was about Michael Moore’s film – Canadian Bacon – which was filmed here in Hamilton but I remember many of the scenes were in Niagara Falls – unless one of Hamilton’s 100+ waterfalls subbed for the big one.  And Brent talked on the phone with Michael Moore (this is where I heard him say that thing about Canadians/Americans – somehow this blog just keeps tying it all together, no?) who has a love for the Hammer too!

tiny-bill

 

A couple of days after that, Barbara Milne (who I thank for a couple of these photos) and Gary Santucci, who own the Pearl Company, won a Hamilton Arts Lifetime Achievement Award – which they totally deserve for years of supporting the arts community, as the boundless energy behind the Pearl Company as well as the Art Bus – and Tiny BIll Cody (aka Tor Lukassik Foss), a brilliant songwriter, musician and visual artist, also won a Hamilton Arts Award.  (This is a wonky pic of Tiny Tor waiting to sing his song about our notorious Sheila Copps)

Now I want to tell another tale, one that began on this blog back in July.  In the post “East Coast Pleasures”, I wrote about my friend, Roberto Levey, who lives in the steamy tropical forest near Cahuita on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica – okay, if you want to go and read that now, I’ll wait for you…..or you can pick up the story here…

 jungle1

About mid-August, when I was back in Canada, I received a comment on this blog from a woman in Perth, Australia.  She wrote how she and her daughter, Gabriella, had read with interest the story about Roberto (and his father Bato) as Gaby was Roberto’s daughter.  Debra and Roberto had been together for awhile eighteen years ago and she had returned home to Australia to find that she was pregnant.  Debra decided to stay in Australia, always imagining that she would return to Costa Rica one day.  Roberto had stayed in touch for many years, offering to do his share of parenting if Gaby was to return to Cahuita.  But father and daughter never met and as the years went by, Debra eventually lost contact with Roberto.

As Gabriella is now at an age when her interest in knowing her father and visiting her Tico roots on the Caribbean is intense, Debra had plans to take her, along with her younger sister Angelique, to Cahuita.  However, despite her attempts to contact him, Debra was unable to get any news about Roberto. Perhaps he wasn’t picking up his mail – I know he had gone through a rough period following a collapsed relationship a few years back. I had seen him in that period, but then had seen him again in July and he was more like the man I have known for fourteen years.

Debra had tried to get information about Roberto’s whereabouts from the police, the school, a variety of hotels in Cahuita – but either she was contacting new people who didn’t know Roberto (who has lived there almost all his life) or those who did know him were keeping their information close.  People aren’t quick to give out information to foreigners in Cahuita – it can get you in more trouble than it is worth. So even as Debra went ahead and booked their tickets and proceeded with the plan to make this big trip via the United States to Costa Rica with her two daughters, she truly had no idea what they would find – thinking that it was even possible that Roberto was dead since he hadn’t returned any of her letters in a long while.

Then in August, a couple months before the proposed trip, she googled Roberto Levey’s name one more time – and this time it kicked to my blog.  She wrote me that she and her daughter had cried reading my descriptions of both Roberto and his father – Gaby’s grandfather – and filled with relief knowing that Roberto was truly still alive. Debra and I began a correspondence then that continues today. I put her in touch with a friend in Cahuita, Inger, who actually uses her email once in awhile and was able to help Debra  contact Roberto and tell him that he was about to meet his daughter after eighteen years.  roberto-gaby

In October, father and daughter met. Debra, Gabriella and Angel spent two wonderful weeks in Cahuita.  Father and daughter got to know and love each other and all of Roberto’s family welcomed them as well.  And, of course, Debra and Roberto’s own love was re-ignited, not a surprise at all to me. Roberto is easy to fall in love with, it was bound to happen.  At the end of the two weeks, Debra, bit by both the coastal mosquitos and the bug of love, returned to Australia, a long long way from Costa Rica.  I’m sure Roberto was also suffering in Cahuita with his heart stirred up again. Debra wrote me that she couldn’t decide what to do about the situation. Should she return to Costa Rica – where she really didn’t have any interest in living except for being with Roberto – or did she help him to go to Australia and be part of his daughter’s life there? Everything sounds good in the short term, but would he really be happy, this beach and bushman living in the suburbs of Western Australia? He had lived elsewhere before and always returned to his home, where his roots run much deeper than the shallow root systems of the tropical trees. Debra was letting herself take some time to figure out what to do, weighing her options, seeing if her feelings are strong enough for such a big commitment, looking for a sign.

roberto-letter

 

 

Debra and I continue exchanging letters. She appreciates that I understand her feelings and the great dilemma she finds herself in. I have been in love at a distance and know how it feels to leave it behind. Because I know Roberto, I share her feeling that he is a good man but I also have watched international relationships fail quite regularly. I find myself in this very personal conversation with a woman I have never met, though have grown fond of, about a man that we both love. (They have permitted me to share this story with y’all by the way.)

 

 

robertos-shack

Then, about two weeks ago, the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica was hit hard by torrential rains from a near cyclonic condition that moved in and just sat over the area, causing serious flooding with extreme damage to thousands of people’s homes.  Roberto, who lives just outside of town in a little shack nestled in the elbow of a stream, was at home when a huge head of water came down the creekbed without warning.  His home was taken away in an instant and he had a struggle just to get himself across the now raging river. He was lucky to not be washed away himself, hit by floating debris, or drowned. He lost everything he had, taken by watery force down the creekbed and out to the sea.

The last thing I heard from Debra was that they were trying to get him a visa to go to Australia.  Roberto has had his little world rocked several times these last few months. I’m sure at this point he’s just grateful to be alive. The opportunity to spend time with his daughter and Debra came just when his waters were seriously shifting. I don’t know how long the visa process will take but I selfishly hope that he will still be in Costa Rica in January so I can visit him before he goes down under. Roberto would survive just fine somewhere around Cahuita – people begin again after these disastrous storms and carry on – but if Debra was looking for a sign that they should try to be together, this was it.

I was astounded when I read that first letter Debra sent me, amazed at what a small world cyberspace encompasses. I wonder if I hadn’t gone to see Roberto in July and written about him on this blog, how differently things may have happened. I’m happy that I was able to bring joy and relief to Debra and Gaby, this teenager who was wondering if her father was even alive so she could one day meet him. Through the miracle of google-dust, my blog helped the women in the suburbs of Western Australia connect with the rasta who lives his very simple life in the Caribbean jungle. Love endures despite distance, time and really bad weather.  It makes me feel like … Kupid!

 My home and the natives’ land, Temagami

 I am once again writing from the lowlands. I’ve come to the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica.  Before I talk about sand and surf however, I want to acknowledge the fact that I missed Canada Day on July 1st.  I’m not a flag-waving patriotic type, but I am happy and thankful to be Canadian and remember that no matter where I am, just not necessarily on THE DAY. There have been things that have reminded me however – the odd Canadian flag here in Puerto Viejo, the picture of Tom Wilson on the hamilton365.com website that I follow (Larry Strung’s daily photographic diary of Hamilton (my hometown) people in 2008 – I am featured on February 26) If I were to choose a Canadian singer-songwriter who speaks for me of where I live, it would be Tom. He’s all attitude, talent, irreverent, and a great entertainer/singer/guitar player/composer. So Larry’s choice of him as the Canada Day portrait on his website struck a huge chord with me, one that sounded a lot like the beginning of “Oh Canada”…but I digress (and also stopped writing this…)

 

 

More than a week has gone by, and a warm wonderful week it was. I arrived back in Monteverde last night on the bus – amused by the reaction of a couple from New York sitting beside me to the never-ending road. We went up in darkness but you could still see the steep precipices that dropped off to the sides in the shadows. The woman looked horrified – when we got to Santa Elena, I told her to be sure to leave on the 6:30 a.m. bus when they were ready to go, as that is the most beautiful ride back down the mountain. The sun will be coming over the mountain and glimmering on the waters of the Gulf of Nicoya and lighting up the flatlands of Guanacaste – the clouds will be at play all around you, drifting up from the valleys, hovering in the mountains, and tumbling across the lower landscape.  And she will truly see what she couldn’t in the darkness – the narrow winding road that we just crawled up, alive with milk trucks, tourist buses and other early morning machinery – the whole effect tends to wake you up very quickly. I have noticed this year that there is even more traffic on the roadway and on each bus trip there have been numerous occasions that the bus had to back up to make room so that it could clear the sides of a passing transport truck, or pull off as far to the edge (whatever you do, don’t look!) so that some other large vehicle could pass. I’ve been on the bus much more this year than any other but this is a new phenomena, a sign of the great increase in business and vehicular traffic in Monteverde.

 

Fortunately the weather up here has been beautiful they tell me. The rains have come as they should, a little downpour each afternoon, but otherwise it is sunny and hot.  Bodes well for the beach babe recently returned – it is hard to leave the beach when you like sun and water and lazy days, and returning to cold, wet, windy and busy Monteverde can be a harsh shock. So I appreciate that I can walk out this morning in summer clothes and perhaps not have to think about my rubber boots, umbrella and raincoat till later in the day.

 

My week on the Caribbean was made up of reunions with three friends, two of whom I hadn’t seen in years, hours spent floating in the warm sea and wandering through the shady jungle, a great book (End of the Spear by Steve Saint), and a lot of fish and fresh fruit. The bus ride from San José to Limón and then down the coastal highway to Puerto Viejo was very smooth. You get used to the fact that in Costa Rica the state of the road changes quickly. They get fixed and freshly paved but it doesn’t take long before the pavement is washed out and huge potholes appear, forcing vehicles to wind their way slowly around the obstacles. This route had obviously been recently done as we practically flew on a very smooth flight.

 

You leave the city and go up over the mountain range of Braulio Carrillo National Park where it is always cool and often wet and windy but with spectacular views over the protected forests. The road winds down near Guapiles and from there heads straight and flat across the lowlands, passing over wide rivers and past the endless banana plantations along with the acres of trucking containers that transport the bananas for Dole, Del Monte and Chiquita to places throughout the world. The foliage and landscape change to something mossier and drippier in a different shade of green than the western side of the country. The light is different as well. Coming over the mountains to the Atlantic side of the Costa Rica is like coming into another country without a border crossing.  Even the color of people’s skin turns a darker brown – this is the Afro-Caribbean province and there is also a noticeable population of indigenous – Talamancas and Mestizos especially.

 

When I got to Puerto Viejo, I went to the home of my old friend Susana Schik, who appears on one of the last pages of Walking with Wolf, but who hasn’t appeared in my life in probably eight or ten years. She used to live in Monteverde, teaching natural history courses, but now does that down in Puerto. She is married to a lovely man, René, and has a very sprightly four-year-old daughter named Hannah. Once Hannah got over her initial shyness with me, our time was spent trading wild cat screams and responses – and this girl can roar! Susana and René care-take some vacation houses along the Black Sands beach on the north side of Puerto and they offered that I could use an apartment that was empty in one of these houses.

Beautiful! I spent three nights with a great balcony, cable TV, phone and very hot shower – more than I’ve had in most places I’ve stayed. The only head-shaking part was the amount of locks and barriers involved – every window not only had heavy wooden shutters but iron grates and locks. The doors had deadbolts, the iron grates were double locked. And even then, there were signs that someone had been trying to hack their way past the deadbolt in the few days since Susana had last visited there. She told me not to leave the house less than thoroughly locked up even if I only leave for a few minutes to go to her place or to the store – someone will surely break in. The signs of people trying to get at whatever they can, to share illegally in the obvious wealth that exists for some in Costa Rica, are omnipresent.

 

I took the local bus through the now-almost-city of Puerto Viejo, full of surfers, rastas, university students on vacation, and locals working in the bustling service industry, to quieter Punta Uva, a few kilometers down the coast. My friend Sarah Dowell, prolific and extraordinary artist, lives there. We have been friends since I came to Monteverde in 1990. She lived in a great funky house with its artistically displayed shell collection (Sarah commented that they collected these shells a few years ago but now have a hard time finding many of these shells – they want to donate this as an exhibit somewhere in the town) up on the mountain. I would go and visit while she painted. This is how she makes her living and so she is quite disciplined about the time she spends painting each day. She works from photographs – of nature, animals, flowers, and various human models she’s collected images of. I was a model for her many years ago and get a thrill each time I recognize some part of my anatomy, if not all of me, in a painting. Her paintings are for sale at the Hummingbird Gallery here in Monteverde, where I once worked, and I often stop and visit with the owners and look at the fresh crop of Sarah’s water colors. They range from very green jungle scenes with nudes running through the foliage, to underwater sea life, to vibrant exotic flowers. Simply beautiful. Sarah gave me a painting that my likeness is in, standing in a pool at the base of a waterfall along with a nude man (the model was Bill Kucha, another artist). I have shown the painting to a couple of people and they knew that it was me and also know that I would happily be standing nude in a pool of water at the base of any waterfall.  So thank you Sarah, for that gift.

Sarah’s home and gallery in Punta Uva

 

Spending several hours in Sarah and her partner Mel’s open-air home (a beach version of her Monteverde home) and studio, with her paintings, great coffee, and birds singing and howlers chuckling around the large open windows, talking about anything and everything we could in our attempt to catch up, was time spent in pure enjoyment. At some point, Sarah’s grand-daughter, Ashanti, joined us. She is another enchanting four-year-old. We walked down the path to the beach and played in the water. It is always fun to be with a child just learning to swim and who is confident enough to take chances – the only way to learn. Sarah lost her own son, Singer, in a car accident a couple of years ago. She is finally recovering and there is no doubt that having Shanti close by, and the child’s mom Connie (who gave me a fantastically relaxing massage on the beach), helps.  To have a bit of her son alive in this funny, smart, energetic little girl is another gift.  

 

Sarah and Shanti on the beautiful beach at Punta Uva

                                                                                                                                                                                              We saw a sloth. This is my favorite animal here and this was the first of many I saw this week. I’ve had many great sloth experiences.  The first one I saw my first year here was on this coast, a dead one, washed up after a few days of terrible rains that had no doubt knocked down the tree that the sloth was in and washed the poor animal out to sea. My Tico friend, Macho, and I came upon it, this peaceful looking creature seemingly asleep on the beach, curled up like a baby, all covered in a fine coating of green – these animals live their lives in the trees, and are basically mammalized containers of chlorophyll. This poor little guy was very dead – I wanted to take pictures, they would have been beautiful, but Macho was appalled that I would take pictures of the dead, even an animal, and so we moved on (as I recall, it also involved returning to the cabin to get my camera – which was more of a problem than his reluctance). 

 

Another time I protected a sloth as it slowly ran through downtown Cahuita very late at night.  While the fiesta rages on in the bars, the sloths often make their way through town, holing up in the trees of the park, then making a “run” for it to get to the next bunch of trees. Well, if you have ever seen a sloth move, you want to pick them up and help them along. It is a silent movie slowed down to almost pause. But I can always imagine the inside of their little leaf-filled brains screaming, “run, man, run – I’m outa here”, even as their long arms and legs slowly move them along the ground. That particular night, I fended off the drunken boys who wanted to harass the poor creature, and walked with him till he got safely back into the shadows. Gary Larsen, the cartoonist, has a great drawing called “what sloths do when no-one is around” – which shows a very happy sloth boogie-ing on the ground to the music from a boombox – and I identify with that. We tend to have ideas of how others live by how they appear – and we never really know what happens when the doors are shut, the lights are off, and there is no one else around.    

 

These are turtle tracks, the mama come out of the sea to lay her eggs…could be tractor tracks come to dig up the beach…we spent awhile raking the tracks away so noone would find the nest and steal the eggs.

 

The amount of growth in Puerto Viejo is staggering – as in so many parts of the country. The issue of concern now is the proposal to build a large marina. The original concept was for 400 slots! That would bring an immense amount of traffic off the seas into this already bursting town. They have downsized it to one hundred berths and even that will make a disaster of the reef, the sea, and the community. I didn’t spend a lot of time investigating this – I just look at development as it has occurred in so many parts of this little country and see that the planning has been haphazard, the execution swift, and the result often devastating to many, while obviously profitable to others. Of course, there is that idea of not stopping progress, but there is also that big question “is this really what you call progress?” Hmmmmm…

 

I left Puerto and went half an hour up the road to my old stomping grounds of Cahuita.  There has always been a huge difference between these two neighbouring communities.  People tend to be either a Cahuita person or a Puerto person (like red and black beans I guess). Back in 1990 I spent a week in Cahuita and fell in love with it – and then traveled down to Puerto for one night before quickly returning to Cahuita. Whatever the differences were then, they are more obvious now – Puerto Viejo has grown immensely and stretches over a large area and it is busy with a surfer-dude subculture due to the legend of the Salsa Brava wavebreak (even though I think it was negatively affected by an earthquake years ago that shifted the coral reef) – Cahuita is smaller and more laid back with an older crowd moving slower. In Cahuita everything takes place in a very small area – the two main bars for beer or dancing are beside each other and the beautiful white sandy beach and National Park is two blocks away. You can stay in a pension, walk two minutes to any restaurant for Caribbean food, dance, shop, and walk along the shady path that follows the beach until you get to the quiet waters where you can float or swim lazily. I always spend a lot of hours on that beach in the shade of the trees when I’m not afloat in the warm water of the Caribbe.

 

I have known many characters in this town – some pretty unsavory, others classic Caribbean. I won’t get into what I have seen and witnessed over the years, for without explanation I know it all sounds rough. But being on the Atlantic is a very different culture than in other parts of Costa Rica – one that is very laid back up until there is a problem between people, then it can be very aggressive. As long as you don’t put yourself in the middle of anything, you have no worries. The drug trade has affected this coast perhaps more than other parts of the country (though all of Costa Rica has become a clearing house for Columbian cocaine and marijuana). It is not far across the sea from South America to this coastline and people work at making money in their nefarious ways. Unfortunately, you also see the affects on the people themselves of a poor economy mixed with cheap drugs and the opportunity to make a fast buck. I’ve seen the result on many friends on both coasts who have fallen to the constant fiesta. But these temptations are part of life all over Costa Rica, as well as in many other parts of the world. And you can either focus on that and reject the place, or appreciate the other aspects of the Caribbean culture, the warmth of the people, the spice of the food, the relax of life stewed in coconut juices.

 

In short order, I bumped into my old friend Roberto. We go way back, a history of love, friendship, and conversation. There is a famous song written by a Cahuitan calypsonian, Walter Ferguson, called “Cabin in the Water.”  My friend Manuel Monestel and his group Cantoamerica play and have recorded this song (Walter himself recorded it, finally, at the age of 83) – it tells the story of Bato, a man who built himself a simple cabin in the water off of the beach and was living there when Cahuita National Park was created. The administrator of the park came and told him, “Bato, you can’t live here, this is now a National Park.” He held his own for a long time but eventually moved up to another beach. Bato was a very interesting man. If you came across him in his hammock on the beach, you’d think he was just the marine equivalent of a street person – but he was actually a very intelligent, poetic philosopher. He knew what was going on in the world. I knew Bato through the 90s when I spent a lot of time here (he died about six years ago) and would go and sit and visit with him. Even as an old man, he never lost his ability to attract females, even young ones, and was quite the charmer. But my business with him was talking – listening to his tales and his ideas, told in his lilting Caribbean patois. I was always amazed how his home changed – one year I would arrive and his house would be a construction as big as a castle, built by driftwood, flotsam and jetsam that had washed up from huge storms. He would have walls, roof, tables, bed (although still sleep in his hammock) and decoration. The next time I came, the sea would have taketh away, and he was back to the simplicity of his hammock, maybe starting with another table assembly from fresh driftwood. He was a man who chose to live life with little money and less possession, but still lived. He wasn’t always a nice man, but he was an interesting one. And my friend Roberto is his son.

 

Roberto Levey grew up in Cahuita, was on his own by the time he was fourteen years old, and moved to San José where he became a shoemaker. He came back after twenty years to Cahuita and lived in a little casita a few minutes walk from town. When I met him in 1994, he was a fisherman and sold organic fruits from the trees on his land. A rasta with a life time growth of dreads on his head, he lived a very earthy life by the sea. I was charmed by his kindness and his positive energy and his humor, but truly impressed with his intelligence. He sang in local reggae and calypso bands and wrote poetry. His house had his own graffiti all over it. He was a friend to me and my old boyfriend, Macho, and we often camped in his yard and he fed us breadfruit and akee. Nothing was sweeter in Cahuita than lounging in his hammock and listening to him reciting poetry or talking politics or explaining the Caribbean culture which was very different from anything I knew. As I got to know his father, I could see the genetics, even though Roberto had never lived with him. He inherited his father’s way of viewing the world and living his life, with a minimum of money and a whole lot of interest in what made the world go around and a great sense of humor about even the ugliest of human behavoir. 

 

Women easily fall in love with him, as I did, and he has children on three continents. The phenomena of foreign women coming to exotic places and getting pregnant by, sometimes marrying, perhaps taking the local boys home is easy to criticize but more complicated in its effect on both the beach men and the foreign women. Roberto is not happy that he has five children who live far away from him – as they get older, they will no doubt reappear in his life, or at least some probably will. In the meantime, their father continues to live his life just as his father before him did, under the shade of tropical trees, to the rhythm of the calypsonians, holding on to the idea that love and peace are worthy goals. I saw Roberto a couple of years ago and he was in a very hurting state, his heart once again broken and so he was surviving by medicating himself – at the time I could only admonish him, tell him that he was worth so much more, plead with him to get it back together, and leave him with the hope that he would come through this horrible period. When I arrived this year, I knew that he was back to himself, smiling, thinking, warm and relaxed. He had bought a little piece of jungle a short walk out of Cahuita and was living, just like his father, off the land, making just enough money by selling produce when he needed to, and living in his own peace. 

 

I told him that I’d like to give him a copy of Walking with Wolf as long as he’d read it and he said he was very interested. So as I floated in the sea, I’d look up and see him reading and when I came out of the water, he’d talk about what he had been reading, asking questions and expressing his own take on some line I’d written or statement of Wolf’s. It was as pleasant of an intercourse about the book as I’ve had with anyone. If you saw Roberto, his heavy head of dreads tied up over his 55-year-old face with white beard, his clothes smelling of the wood stove he cooks on, and his poverty obvious, you’d probably assume he was just another pothead with too much party going on and little to live for. And once again, you’d have judged the man quite differently from his reality. I spent a morning sitting by the stream outside his jungle shack and the conversation never bored or stalled. I felt privileged to have been invited to  Roberto’s home in the jungle.

 

Sarah Dowell is anxious to return to Monteverde, in a large way because of the level of thinking and depth of conversation that exists throughout this community. She repeated a line from a Bill Bryson book that says “the cheery vacuity of beach life”, and she is dying from that particular virus. But in my week on the beautiful sands of the Caribbean, spent with Sarah, Susana and Roberto, I never lacked for intelligent conversation and intriguing analysis of life and society. Maybe I’m just lucky in the people I know, yet often they are not at all what they appear to be. Fortunately I’ve learned to look past the color or state of the paint on peoples’ houses and that ability has led to some of the richest experiences of my life.

December 2014
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