An amazing opportunity came my way last month. It started with a simple email, “Hello, Kay, my name is Don Duchene” and segued into a week-long Costa Rican adventure with a vanload of fellow Canadians, a friendly film crew from Nova Scotia.
isla chira shore
That first email arrived without fanfare on a Friday, providing little more than a simple introduction to Don’s documentary project and a request to meet when he and his entourage would eventually land in Monteverde sometime the following week. I mentioned it to a couple of people, Lucky Guindon for one. “In case anything comes of this Lucky, maybe you and Wolf would be available to talk to them?” I asked her. “I’m not sure what their interests are, but the documentary is called Ocean Voices, and you have both interesting voices as well as a great view toward the Pacific.” She agreed to meet them, but then reminded me that Tuesday morning is coffee at Mary Rockwell’s so it couldn’t be that day. Hollywood has no special status in Monteverde.

Tuesday morning, I was still in bed, savoring my morning coffee, slowly turning the final pages of the book I was reading, when the phone rang. It was Wolf and Lucky’s son Ricky, a guide at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, calling to say that there was a group of Canadians staying there, having arrived just the evening before, and they were hoping to meet me. Could I come to the Reserve this morning, the sooner the better?

I was reluctant to put down my book, but I’m well versed as an extra on movie sets, understanding that for a director “soon” means “now” or they are likely to lose interest and move on – I know Hollywood, move fast then wait. Expecting things might get interesting, I jumped out of bed, took a quick shower, and hiked the three kilometers up to the Reserve, thinking as I walked about who and what may lie ahead, perhaps a morning of wandering through the cloud forest which is always a treat.

As it turned out, meeting Don, Art, Bud, Everett, and Kirsten would be one of life’s door prizes that you win when you didn’t even know there was a door. Within minutes of greeting Don, I recognized a shared spirit complete with sense of humor, a kind man with a mission that I could relate to. He found me through the Tropical Science Center who had generously allowed the crew to stay in the lodging at the Reserve while filming. Someone there had passed Don my book, Walking with Wolf, and suggested that he look me up while in Monteverde. I owe that person a hug (and a drink) for making the connection.
at reserve
We sat surrounded by the sparkling not-so-cloudy forest, on the back porch of the restaurant at the Reserve, the crew preparing the equipment as Don and I got comfortable talking. We kept moving our bench across the deck, out of the glare of the strong morning sun that constantly shifted and threatened the lighting in the shot. Don began explaining his project to me by saying that he had been in Monteverde before.

 
“I made a documentary, “Rainforest-A Report from Costa Rica,” on the economics of rainforests back in the 1980s,” he explained. “I fell in love with Monteverde then and have returned many times to Costa Rica. This is my chance to fit this community that constantly fascinates me into yet another story. Ocean Voices is to be a collection of points of view of the various stakeholders concerned about the future of the oceans…which is all of us of course, but as a director of an hour long documentary I have to narrow it down.”

“I want to make a film that isn’t just for the choir and the converted, those who are already paying attention in some way, but rather open a conversation that can bring more people into the discussion. Help people understand the role they must play in protecting the future of our vast mysterious, unexplored oceans. I think that Monteverde is a good example of a community who goes about its business with mindfulness and a respectful purpose. I like the approach the Quakers and biologists here take to caring for the land. We will show this type of stewardship of the land, an engaged community, and draw the link between land practices, peace, and the health and future of the oceans.”

Obviously there was much to talk about, so while Bud’s camera rolled and Art’s furry microphone hovered like a gentle sloth in the air above us, Don and I carried on a meandering conversation that moved from Canada’s coastal beauty to Costa Rica’s biodiversity, to consumerism, capitalism, democracy, peace, to making connections.
ra-river crossing
When we stopped for lunch, before we headed out to find other possible filming locations in Monteverde, Don asked me if I would like to go with them to Rara Avis, a thirty-year old nature preserve on the Atlantic side of Costa Rica, a mysterious place that I have often heard of and always been interested in visiting but never made it to. The legend of getting to this place – apparently slogging up a “road” by tractor & wagon or horse for several hours – is almost bigger than the legend of the Monteverde road (a tale that is soon to be updated with the anticipated paving of the Monteverde road set to begin in 2014).

Turns out they were heading first to Isla Chira, another well-known but little visited spot in Costa Rica, here on the Pacific side, an island that we can see from Monteverde floating down there in the Gulf of Nicoya. I’ve heard of this place too, stories of a strong women’s community and a fishing cooperative, and it was another place I wanted to visit, but enough out of the way that I never made the trip…until now.

Another member of the crew was Isabel, a Swiss who has been living many years in Costa Rica. She was the logistics person, researcher, chauffeur and translator on this, her first excursion with a film production. It was an eye-opening experience for her. She was set to leave the group once we got to San José for other obligations. As the time approached, I spoke up, saying I would be happy to drive, knowing the country well, I can translate and carry equipment. Don was happy to have someone who was comfortable driving and familiar with the roads to take over so he wouldn’t have to.
at wolf's
While still in Monteverde, we spent a magical morning with Wolf and Lucky. Ricky and I were both quite impressed with Wolf’s clarity and focus – Wolf was never known for his direct thinking or clear speaking, and in the last couple of elderly years he has definitely lost some ground. But this day, he told some stories and answered Don’s questions rather sweetly, almost succinctly. I found out later that most of the crew hadn’t understood much of what he said. When I told Ricky, we both laughed, thinking that to our ears it had been such a good day! Don spent a lot of time with Lucky, asking about pictures in the photo album and listening to her eloquent tales, told with humility and humour, of the early pioneering days. The Canadians, myself included, felt blessed for this time together.
at wschool MV francisco Before leaving Monteverde, we also filmed at the new Foresta art gallery in Cerro Plano. Featuring beautiful original creations from artists in the Monteverde area, it was worth some footage. Then we went to see local painter and luthier Paul Smith, who I recently started a writing project with. Paul entertained the east-coasters with his great irreverence and charm, sharing his passion for creating art and his frustration that there isn’t more teaching of art and music happening here in Monteverde. That led us to talk with Francisco Burgos, the director at the Monteverde Friends School, who told Don about his desire to increase the arts programs, hopefully with the participation of local mentors and teachers, to make both the enjoyment of and the learning of specific arts more accessible to local children and adults.

costa de pajaros

 

The following morning, despite our 5 a.m. departure, I was very excited about our trip to Isla Chira. We made it to Costa de Pájaros well ahead of the launcha, so we waited with the fishermen, watching boats coming and going. A few of the Fuerza Pública were there, local police on their way over to the island, along with men cleaning fish, others repairing shrimp nets, birds swooping in to raid the shallow waters as the tide went out, and dogs lounging like they all had hangovers. I have always loved boat communities, where the rhythm of the water – be it ocean tides, lake waves or river currents – is what everyone moves to. What with my propensity for cool water, raw fish and seaweed, I’m sure I was a seal in a former life.

isla chira
We were received warmly by the women and men of Isla Chira, along with members of Mar Viva, an organization dedicated to the sustainable resource management along the Pacific coastline of Costa Rica, who explained the project. In 2000, the Women’s Association of Isla Chira was established to create alternative sources of income for the women of Chira, who traditionally made their living from fishing but recognized that their catches were diminishing and so was the economic viability of living off this resource. They now dedicate themselves to maintaining and making sustainable use of the island’s natural resources, protecting the mangroves and raising an “artisanal fishery” of small mollucks called pianguas. Their example influenced the men who also have a sustainable fishery program. For me, arriving on the island was a lovely step back into a simpler Costa Rica, watching the community working together to overcome economic and environmental challenges without the rush, pressure and competition of tourism yet taken hold. Filming continued over a shared lunch, through a tour of the mangrove nursery and into the small boat that took the crew to the building on the sea where the women cleaned the pianguas.

 

is chirita boat

Like the seal I am, I took the opportunity to slip into the sea and therefore missed the boat. The tide was out, and I swam in still, shallow, salty, sun-kissed water, staying far from the areas where crocodiles may lurk. Now that I have been there, and understand the route, I know that I will return again to the warm embrace and interesting community of Isla Chira.

We only spent the morning on the island before heading back to the mainland. We made it by dusk to San José, and with much fuss and further ado, we found lovely rooms at Kaps Place, a small guest house across the road from the Hotel Aranjuez where Don’s crew had stayed a few days before but since the hotel was overbooked, they didn’t honor Don’s reservations, apparently a common hazard with this popular hotel. In a moment of panic, with a tired crew and no beds available at the inn, Kaps Place provided a lovely alternative and will remain on my list of “places to recommend” in San José. I was added as a driver to the rental contract, we said goodbye to Isabel, dined on pizza and wine, and headed to our beds. We were prepared to get an early start, have breakfast with Amos Bien, the founder of Rara Avis who would accompany us, planning on leaving the city before the morning rush hour heading up Highway 32 towards Limon. Even following a good night’s sleep, heeding all the warnings and with our own great anticipation, we still weren’t prepared for the long road into Rara Avis.
ra tractor

 

It starts off quaint enough – after wrapping our backpacks and equipment in big plastic bags, piling into the utilitarian wagon, the tractor pulls out of the damp yard in Horquetas de Sarapiquí and winds through the puddled streets heading out of town, a quick stop at the pulperia for some junkfood…

 

 

ra-bridge

 

 

Rumbling across bridges with big PRECAUTION-PELIGRO-DANGER signs, so we get off the trailer and walk while Eduardo steers the tractor to safety on the other side…..

 

ra-countryside

 

We slowly rise in altitude through agricultural lands, past the familiar pretty wooden houses scattered across Costa Rica’s rural landscape, glimpsing small herds of cattle, as the gravel-patched roads of town slowly change to a ruddy mud, the gravel itself becoming pebbles, then larger stones, then ginormous boulders.

 

 

ra-road
The cameras were always rolling, so what could be done on a good day in less than four hours took us about twice that. We constantly stopped for another shot, Bud and Everett running ahead with their cameras to film the tractor approaching, but we also had to disembark from the wagon when the tractor couldn’t move any further, held in place by yet one more cliff-like boulder and a deep soup of mud. Eventually, with a lot of rubber action, rocking and rolling, Eduardo was always victorious – in my mind, he was the hero of this journey, for without him we would have been on foot, slogging up and back those fifteen kilometers in our rubber boots in the pouring rain. He reminded me of a cowboy constantly trying to tame a bull that was all piss and vinegar, and although there was some kind of romance to the whole affair, we were definitely no longer in Hollywood.
ra-roadwalking
Three-quarters of the way, we took a brief refuge at the Estacion Biologica Selva Tica, two thousand acres of private rainforest preserve administered by my Monteverde friends Susana Salas and Bob Carleson. The caretaker, Juan, spends his days in the peace of this lonely outpost waiting on the occasional arrival of biologists and students, infrequent visits by tapir and jaguar, the balconies wrapped in silky webs housing significant numbers and sizes of wood spiders. After that short break and three kilometers more on the wagon, banging against the sides of a mud tunnel, sloshing through the water collected in the wheel grooves as the inevitable rain falls – about 300 inches of rainfall a year keeps things very wet. We were mostly in heavy drizzle, though we had a downpour or two before we were done, and we made it to Rara Avis just as the shadows gathered into complete darkness.
ravis
Amos started this project thirty years ago. Built as a working example of an eco-lodge, a place to bring students, biologists, bird watchers and interested tourists to experience remote rainforest and study its wonders, the place itself is very welcoming, especially considering the effort made to get there. There is a two-story lodge with tidy rooms each with its own bathroom, hot shower, and private balcony with hammock patiently waiting.

 

ravis-don
A large open-air dining room and kitchen is one of the common spaces, along with a classroom and some smaller buildings, but the real gathering spot is the surrounding forest, laced with trails, dissected by a river and a series of extravagant waterfalls, with the promise of endless green wet adventure. There is an in-house nature guide whose job it is to introduce people to the plants, birds, insects and biodiversity of this lush world.
ravis-waterfall
It is advised that when you go there you should stay at least a couple of nights – a week or more would be even better considering the effort that the journey requires – but as the film crew was on a tight schedule, we only stayed for one night. In the morning before leaving we filmed Amos discussing ecotourism, the continuing need for education about and immersion in the world’s wild spaces, the struggle to maintain this place as the road washes away and the termites feed on the wooden buildings. Rara Avis is a dream, but between today’s economics and Amos’ passing years, it is in need of a new force, a young vigor to raise the funds that will maintain it, bring in the ever more discerning tourist, and oversee its future.
ra-roadtractor

It was already getting late when we reluctantly left for a slightly shorter tractor-wagon pull out to civilization, following the tractor’s headlamps down the tunnel of light through the green ferns, the mud walls, and the insistent rain. We were all the way back to the gravelly roads near Horquetas before we finally saw a few stars peeking out from nocturnal clouds. By midnight, the pavement had led us back to San José, where we fell into hot showers and clean beds, still feeling the rattle and roll of the wagon as it wound its way from heaven back to the lowlands.

A week spent with five strangers traveling by van, boat, tractor-wagon, and rubber boot could have gone so horribly wrong, but it didn’t because of the professional attitude of the crew Don, Art and Bud – all experienced with working in the field under deplorable conditions and in unfamiliar cultures – and the tough, keen young cameraman and production assistant, Everett & Kirsten. I fit in well with these Canadians of like mind who appreciated my knowledge of Costa Rica, my steady hand at the wheel, and my willingness to help them in whatever way I could.
sj-solis victory
As a bonus to the door-prize, our return to San José coincided with the second vote for the new president of Costa Rica. The general election in February had not resulted in the necessary 40% for a single candidate, so the top two were contested again on April 6th. We followed Amos and his emotion-filled daughter, Samantha, to their busy polling station at a school in Sabanilla, the camera allowed to follow them right in to the voting booth. It was expected, baring a big surprise, that Luis Guillermo Solís would win, the candidate from the “yellow” side, the colour that represents the left-leaning parties in Costa Rica. It was a very festive, social scene that surrounded us as we talked to many people on camera about their feelings, their hopes, and their concerns for the new president. I felt that wonderful flush of joy that comes when you are with people who are asking for and seeing change – and still believing in it. After twelve years of the verdiblancos, a different party is taking over. Without going too far into it, one of the things that I find encouraging about Solís is that several years ago he quit the Partido Liberación Nacional, the party who held power for the last twelve years and was now defeated, in rebellion against the corruption that has been endemic to the government of Costa Rica over the last decades of growth and corporatization. That night we joined with the celebrating thousands, shouting, dancing and waving flags representing both their new president and a new direction for their country. For many Costa Ricans, that means returning to a former simpler, more honest time.
rainbow
So may this new president stand up to a system whose tangled roots run deep and renew the Ticos’ faith in their democracy. May the nature preserves of Costa Rica, and around the planet, continue to protect the life mass that is vital to our future. May people of all cultures continue to successfully find ways to balance food needs, economic needs, spiritual and communal needs. And may Don Duchene make a powerful film that helps spread light in our world and allows the Ocean Voices to speak.

trees

There is a powerful breeze blowing in Monteverde these days. It is creating a stir in the treetops, a whirl on the dance floors and a buzz in the back forty at the Monteverde Friends School. This community never seems to be short of projects that need the commitment and sweat of volunteers and the enthusiastic participation of supporters near and far. If you have the good fortune to be on this verdant mountain in the first months of 2013, you know that you are needed – somewhere to help someone with something – and that you are going to have a very satisfying time doing it. And if you can only dream of being here, well, there is probably something for you to help with from afar too!

wolf lucky

Trying to keep this short, so I too can get back to one of the many other things going on, I will start with a quick update on our good friend, Wolf Guindon. Following that very difficult period two years ago, Wolf has made a phenomenal recovery. He has obviously aged – now 82, he isn’t doing the marathon hikes through the Peñas Blancas valley as he did for the last sixty years, but he is back to being able to walk from his farm, through the mystical bullpen, and up to the Reserve – slow and steady, usually with Lucky at his side, but he can do it. He gets out with his machete and works on his own trail around his farm and he keeps a small campsite open and ready for any visitors who may want to spend a night under the stars or share in a family cookout.

 

purple cover

 

Both Wolf and I are waiting with bated breath, following communication from the Editorial Universidad de Costa Rica stating that they are ready to proceed with the publication of the translation of our book, Caminando con Wolf. In December, the EUCR contacted Olivier Chassot, Director at the Tropical Science Center, saying that they are going to re-edit the translated text to their standard and so we believe that the process has begun. I have every extremity crossed that the Spanish edition with be ready before I return to Canada in early May, as I want to be here for a very big fiesta! I will keep you posted…

arts

 

In another personal project, I’ve been spending time “doing research” into the creative side of Monteverde. I am slowly working towards a second book looking at Monteverde as the Muse of so many artists, dancers, musicians, and writers. People come to this community often unaware of their own special talents and in short order they are on stages receiving applause from a very appreciate and encouraging audience. You don’t have to be a star and run a fast mile, you just have to take the first tentative creative step, and you will be supported here.  I certainly didn’t plan on writing a book when I arrived in Monteverde twenty-three years ago, and now I’m headed towards my second tome after the positive reception that Walking with Wolf received – my own entanglement with the lovely Muse.

paul

 

So I’ve been dabbling in all manners of Musiness (dancing, singing, writing…) and spending time with the man I feel is the obvious protagonist of this book about the arts in Monteverde, Paul Smith – violinist, painter, and luthier. Recently he added creating mosaics to his CV, playing with broken ceramics and grout and producing some beautiful large mosaics that are being hung at his family’s hotel, the Fonda Vela. He welcomes any and every one to come and play with him. I’ve helped him with the grouting which is the most satisfying part of the process – when you wipe the dirt away, the glory of the design is revealed. Playing with Paul is coming to life through colours, shapes, words, and musical inspiration.

ojo de buey

 

Monteverde has always been rich in music and as the population grows here, the number of musicians and audience members grow accordingly. There are some spectacular places to hear music and feel its magic – one in particular being Bromelias Amphitheatre. Patricia Maynard started the new millennium with a beautiful building surrounded by a garden full of bromelias; in January of 2005, she opened a unique concert hall. The wooden stage is set inside a concrete bromeliad flower and the tiers of Romanesque seating, designed for both sitting and dancing, are protected by a roof that resembles a modified parafoil kite. The acoustics are perfect and, especially when the weather cooperates, as in not too windy, cold or rainy, we are treated to bewitching nights of music under the stars. Patri has been away for a couple of years and just started holding concerts again, starting with the very cool Ojo De Buey, a Costa Rican reggae band for which her son, Mark, is the stage manager. If you come to Monteverde, check out Bromelias.

80s robert

Over the last several years, Robert Dean, a gifted artist and guitarist who came here from Britain many years ago, has been gathering local musicians and singers to perform popular music together. The first years were all about the Beatles – New Year’s Eve would bring many people together (originally at Bromelias) – musicians performing, singers singing and the audience joining along in all those songs that we tend to know so well. Then Robert started moving through the decades and this year was a tribute to the 80s. The talent in this town continues to amaze and this concert was no exception. Although people are apt to say “there was no good music in the 80s” (something I highly disagree with – there has always been, and will always be, good music written and performed), Robert, and his collaborator Alan Masters, arranged about twenty-five great songs that featured some of the best singers and players on the green mountain (by no means all of them though).

80s stu

There was a very enthusiastic crowd, a full band, a visiting accordion-player (my good friend Stu Pike from Kingston, Ontario), and Robert even let me be a doo-wop girl which I do with as much abandon as possible so he will let me return to the stage another time. Shows like this, along with the coffee houses, open mics and local stages at restaurants and bars, constantly reaffirm just how musical is the Muse of Monteverde.

 

 

muse

2013 is the year of the newest rendition of the famous Monteverde Music Festival. This year a new group of volunteers has taken over the organizing and it will be held in a new location. The musical groups who are coming are guaranteed to please, many of them having participated in past years with some new additions. Editus360 and Son de Tiquizia are composed of members who have won Latin Grammys and are well-loved here in Monteverde; Rumbo Jam, the Big Band, and the Percussion Orchestra will bring big sound and energy while the Latina Ensamble of strings and then Edin Solis and David Coto’s classical guitar duo will represent the softer classical side of life. So if you are coming to Monteverde between February 23 and April 6, and find yourself here on a Saturday night, check out the concerts starting at 6 pm, $6 for visitors – and no doubt there will be more live music later in the night at either Bromelias, or Bar Amigos, or the new bar, Farallones. Bring your dancing shoes….

meg

Amongst the sunshine and splendor of Monteverde, a little rain must fall – sometimes a lot of rain – and the community has suffered some serious losses in the last few months. If you are reading this and knew these people, but did not know of their deaths, I apologize if you are finding out in a less than gentle way. Meg Wallace – artist, Creative Learning Center board director, singer, entrepreneur, mother, and husband of Richard Laval – passed away in October after a year-long struggle with cancer. She approached her illness bravely, choosing to not undergo conventional treatments, but the cancer proved too strenuous.  Her loss has left a huge hole in the community.

 

 

doris

 

Following years of living as well as her multiple sclerosis would allow her, including the last two years spent in a very social and happy neighborhood near Alajuela, Doris Rockwell returned to her beloved green mountain and died in November with her family nearby. She was well known for her positive and sunny approach to life and, like Meg, is missed as a long term, much loved member of the Monteverde community.

 

adri

The most shocking and least understandable loss was of the beautiful 17-year-old Adriana Salazar Ugalde. Well known for her lovely voice, huge smile and her many talents on stage as an actress and dancer, Adri packed a ton of positive living into her short life. She was a great friend and mentor to her fellow students at the Monteverde Friends School. She died on January 23rd from complications of Wilson’s Disease, a genetic disorder, very quickly and almost without warning. In December she was singing in the Christmas choir, in January she was helping haul and work the timbers for the new schoolhouse building project and on Saturday, just four days before her death, she was at the English country dance at the Friends School, laughing and swinging about with her friends. And then she was gone. We are all, especially her parents, brothers, and many close friends, still reeling from such a dynamic life being taken so quickly from a sleeping giant of a disease within a seemingly strong body.  Some things are so hard to explain.

strangerWe lost another giant at almost the same time. The huge strangler fig that has guarded the entrance to the Monteverde Friends School since it was built fifty-seven years ago, and we can only guess how long it stood before that, had to be taken down. Almost every child and many adults who have visited Monteverde have climbed up the center of that tree at some point. In this the windy season, its shallow root ball could be seen rocking on the surface of the ground, and people have been aware for some time that it would have to come down. In a show of community cooperation, a crew went out one Friday and cut down its branches, sawed up its largely unusable wood (it is too soft for lumber and isn’t even good firewood I’m told) and brought it gently to the ground where its large body remains. Fortunately it is seldom that you walk by now that you don’t see a gaggle of happy children climbing over, around and through the woven wooden limbs that laced their way around the trunk of the original tree. It reminds me of kids crawling on top of a big golden Lab laying calm and still with the patience and wisdom of an elder.

timbersWhich brings me to the biggest project of all, the one that is putting callouses on the hands of the locals – and many visitors – the timber frame construction of the new Friends meeting house. Under the direction of another giant, David Hooke, and supported by both experienced and newly trained volunteers, this mammoth project is truly a work of love and a testament to community cooperation. At the same time that a new kinder is being constructed at one side of the school, an ever evolving, very dedicated crew is preparing the timbers for the new meeting house that will sit where the old kinder has been. More and more people are joining David (and Shannon, Sam and Sara), learning how to measure, cut and chisel, taking part in whatever way big or small – some bringing lunches, others working where the trees are being cut nearby, yet others baking pies for the big pie social that was held last night.

pies

At the beginning of the evening, Lucky Guindon reminded us that the first pie social held in April 1951 by this same group of Quakers, in anticipation of their move up the mountain to their new land that would become the community of Monteverde, was held to raise funds for their new meeting house.

David wrote this report on the Timber Frame Meeting House Facebook page this morning:

“Fantastic Pie Social and Art Auction last night. More details to follow, but the short is that we have $3700 in hand, and another $700 expected, from 48 pies, 10 artworks, and various other sales. There were some hilarious moments, and some remarkable prices, including $110 for a certain pecan pie… so this means (by my count) less than $2500 to go to finally commit to raising and roofing the frame, less than $19,000 to completely enclose, and about $29000 to completely finish. We have now cut 537 of 1292 “joints,” including just under 250 in the past week.”

Rather than try to explain this myself, I am giving you the link to a short video that was made very recently by Bill Adler and videographer Jody Jenkins, giving David Hooke himself the opportunity to explain the history of the project, the design process and the depth of the commitment by the community. Please copy and past to go to the video at:  http://vimeo.com/58865363  and see for yourself how the new Monteverde Friends meeting house is coming along. The hope is that the frame will be raised on the March 22, 2013 weekend – can you make it down here by then?

If you can’t be here, you can participate in this great community work bee in many fun ways… one is to donate! Please be sure to specify that your donation is for the meeting house and go to: https://www.networkforgood.org/donation/MakeDonation.aspx?ORGID2=223722119

And if you haven’t come up with some way to get involved in Monteverde, whether you are here or far away, then you just haven’t been paying attention!

New Orleans has sat at the top of my top ten list of places to visit for a very long time. When my soul sister, dance partner and restless girlfriend, Miss Cocky, phoned me one day last year and said “guess what I did?” I couldn’t have imagined that she had signed us up for three nights in a hotel in the Big Easy – one of those ghastly timeshare deals.  Although neither of us will ever be the timeshare type – we don’t like corporate tourism, big hotels or condominiums that resemble each other no matter where you are, windows that don’t open, big dollars for rooms that you only want to sleep in – it seemed like a good deal at the time and, most importantly, it was going to get us to New Orleans! Well done, Cocky!

I can’t say I really knew much about the place except for stories of spicy food, festive people, soulful music and dancing in the street – all enough of an attraction for me! A few years back, while at the 50th anniversary of the Little Rock 9 in Arkansas with our good friend Jean Trickey, we had the great pleasure of meeting her friend Ruby Bridges. Ruby was the little black girl who was the first to integrate an all-white public school in New Orleans in 1960 and has gone on to be an inspirational speaker against racism and promoting tolerance. We have stayed in touch and she has always extended a welcome to look her up if we were to make it to her Louisiana homeland.

Of course I knew of the stories of Hurricane Katrina (my stormy namesake donchyaknow) and the devastation of broken levees, rising waters, and flooded lives that in many cases have not yet been rebuilt. It seems like yesterday that our TV screens filled with images of cars full of desperate people crawling bumper-to-bumper over the bridges leading out of town trying to escape the watery mayhem. Days later the scenes got more horrific – people stranded on the top of their houses, waiting for boats to rescue them or refusing to leave their homes out of fear, anger, stubbornness or sheer determination. Yet that was seven years ago so it was about time that we got down there to see what was happening on the ground, to hear some of the real stories, to experience the magic that remains, and to support the local economy.

Cocky and I decided that we would make it a roadtrip, a cross-country sojourn that would include visiting friends and experiencing out-of-the-way places throughout the south. We met up in Connecticut, me arriving with a friend driving from Ontario to Boston, Cocky coming from her home in Maine, staying our first night with her partner Peter and his cousin Mary Faith and Patrick – all friends from beautiful Lake Temagami. So we started heading south with a definite northern send off, a friendly gathering of nishnabai and neighbours in a pretty little enclave of New England.

We set out on a Sunday heading down I 95 – through all those huge cities – New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington DC. Except for one close call and about twenty-five minutes of slowdown in Maryland (and, as it would turn out, a speeding ticket as determined by an eye in the sky and mailed to the house later), we flew past all those millions of people in their cars without problem – rather fortuitous I would say. If there is something that I have returned from this particular roadtrip with, after a couple of thousand miles on the US interstates, is the feeling that you are constantly just one small jerk of the wheel (or jerk of a driver) away from a crunch, rattle and roll – or worse – and it is divine providence, however you want to define that, or sheer luck, that allows you to survive barreling down a highway in a tin can surrounded by other tin cans moving way too fast!

Our next night was spent with friends, also from Temagami, who live in Richmond, Virginia – our gateway to the south where the accents got thicker, the weather got warmer and the pace got a little slower (not the cars however). Erin, Jay and their kids were well into the start of the new school year so we didn’t have much time with them, just long enough to eat a delicious dinner and take a brisk evening walk through the tree shadowed streets, but with their southern hospitality Erin and Jay set us up to stay at the family home on Gaston Lake in Northern Carolina the next night.

What a place! We spent close to twenty-four hours enjoying the comfort of the beautiful house, the hot sunshine on the docks and the incredibly warm water. Looking up and down the long shoreline full of homes and boathouses, we recognized that this lake must be a-buzzing with water toys and people through the summer months and weekends, but arriving on a week day at the end of September, we had the place to ourselves! Nary a soul! Well there was the whirring of the kingfishers in flight and the banging of hammers as local carpenters built more docks (a sound which, I must admit, I find rather…arousing) but mostly it was Cocky and I, reveling in the continuation of summer, swimming, drinking wine and resting up for our nights to come in New Orleans.

From there we headed across the Smokey Mountains into Townsend Tennessee to see my old friends Kathy and Stan and the Tennessee sweethearts William and Missy. How I love all these warm, sweet folk! Once again it was a quick evening of wine, food and chatter before heading out in the morning, but well worth the detour just to soak up some of that smoky friendliness with a bluegrass kinda twang to it!

Although I am not a follower of the GPS (I have my own internal KPS system and love to read maps and find my way in and outa places – getting lost is adventure, not failure), Cocky wanted to bring one along and get used to using it, so there were really three women inside our car. I generally tried to get along with the woman who was always telling us where to go. I often say that I have never known a man who likes a woman telling him what to do but then will put that GPS box in his car and take instructions from the bitch all day long – I just don’t get it! I learned how to program her, to get a variety of information out of her and to read between her instructions, but I also knew how to turn her off.

So I was driving on a back highway of Tennessee, headed toward Alabama, with the GPS turned off and Cocky busy on her cellphone, when I pulled into the parking lot of a gas station to check the map and see where we should turn. I didn’t notice the curb beside us, and in a Tennessee two-step I was up over the curb, the axle resting on the concrete, the rear tire spinning in the air. I got out, feeling like the fool I was, and we investigated the situation.

The back of Cocky’s car has three bumper stickers – I Love Obama; Turn off Fox News, it’s bad news for America; and a Canadian flag.  As we looked in dismay at the car, we were approached by a blonde bullet of a woman named Tess. She had noticed the bumper stickers and told us she was Canadian, from Alberta, a truck driver who had been living in Tennessee for twenty years. She then told us that we should watch ourselves “in these parts” with that Obama sticker, there were a lot of rednecks around, though, don’t worry, she was going to vote for him. She recommended that we don’t let anyone try to push or pull the car, but call AAA and get a truck with a winch to lift us up and off the curb or we’d rip the bottom off the car. She was so helpful, giving our location to the AAA operator, and keeping an eye on the people who arrived. They would generally come with a smile on their face, assess the situation, see the bumper stickers, roll their eyes and leave us alone. We waited an awful long time for the truck to come and had a few offers of help – an old guy across the street with his motorized wheelchair offered to pull us, another came with a yard mower with I don’t know what intentions in mind. But then a great big tattooed hulk of a guy got out of his truck and the old guy said “this is exactly who you need” – and that nice ol’ hulk picked the car up and moved it off the curb and we were back on our merry way, no harm done. There are friendly people everywhere whatever their politics.

We got to Meridien Mississippi and pulled into a Jameson Inn, which became our favorite $50 a night roadside chain in the south. It had a swimming pool and it was still in the 80s (high 20s celcius) that evening and so we swam like a couple of fish returned to the water. We were soon visited by the only other variety of people at the inn – workmen, staying there while working on a huge new coal plant being built nearby. They were from all over the south, polite men, who knew better than to talk about politics, religion, guns, abortion…you know, all those taboo subjects. But that’s exactly how we spent the evening, those good ol’ boys never having met a couple of northern bush babes with big mouths and strong opinions like Miss Cocky and I. Cocky never failed to ask everyone we met how they felt about Obama (“I don’t want to be rude but…”) and we mostly got positive responses – I hope our own informal cross country survey will prove accurate on election day in November.

We had our first southern barbecue at the Rib Shack in Meridien, where the ribs were tender, the sides – beans, peas, collard greens – were excellent, and the men were super friendly. I think you get back what you give out and Cocky and I always try to keep it friendly and appreciative and, truly, that is all we ran into everywhere we went.

Finally we pulled into New Orleans. After what they said had been eight straight days of sunshine – unheard of in hurricane season – we arrived with the rain and spent the next three days ducking in and out of the downpours but I don’t think we ever got very wet and we were always very warm. We came into a big city totally surrounded by water, crossed by bridges, with neighbourhoods that often seemed lower than sea level. We went to our hotel, the Wyndham Riverfront – upscale for us, a result of the timeshare sales package – down the road from the huge Harrah’s Casino, across from the touristy Riverwalk Mall, but also walking distance to the French Quarter, Mardi Gras World and a thousand great meals, street scenes and musical moments.

Cocky and I are all about dancing, so each night we made a plan that was based on music. The first night was at the famous Rock n Bowl, a bowling alley, zydeco-flavored dance floor, huge, friendly and real serious about its dancin’. It’s been around forever, had to change locations, was affected by the flood, but is back to doing a good business.  Horace Trahan and Ossun Express was the band, and they played three straight hours of zydeco and its variations. The dance floor was always full of hard core dancers. We met a lovely man, Richard Moten, a musician who had just finished a gig and decided to stop in on his way home. I got to dance with this nice man all night (and am now keeping an eye for him on the HBO show Treme which he has been in a few episodes of as a standup bass player) while Cocky tried out a series of partners who came and asked her to dance and tried to get her to follow their distinct moves. Sometimes, fellows, you just got to let the woman dance, especially when she has great rhythm and a strong sense of style. One of them tried so hard to control her movements that he hurt her ring finger and I don’t know if she has been able to put the ring back on yet!

We spent the next morning escaping the rain in the overwhelming Mardi Gras World. Since we probably won’t ever be there for the Mardi Gras krewes, we felt that we should check out the scene and according to our very helpful friendly local bartender, Kurt, it would be worth it. We were among the floats and costumes and larger than life sculptures, made of styrofoam and paper mache and painted like rainbows. Obviously a huge amount of work, effort, money and materials. that alone spirit and spirits, goes into the fifty-plus parades that happen in the season of Mardi Gras. It was a fantastical place to be, part museum, part factory, part art gallery. We couldn’t help but wonder at the waste and the toxicity of all this stuff, including the plastic baubles and beads distributed in the “throws” but, trying not to be party poopers, we just put on our festive faces and enjoyed the layers and layers of historical parade-making.

That night we headed out to see our new friend Richard who was playing his contrabass in a jazz club at the Royal Sonesta Hotel on Bourban Street. We didn’t really have plans to go to this infamous street now taken over by partiers more interested in drinking than dancing, but we had hoped to see Richard play. Unfortunately his gig had turned into a private wedding party and we couldn’t get in, but we could buy a drink and hang outside and listen to their smooth brand of classic jazz. The drinks, two glasses of chardonnay, served in plastic glasses no less (since everyone wanders about the streets with their drinks) were to be $35! Yikes! Cocky managed to get them half price in her outrage. Yeah girlfriend!

We hailed one of the bike-taxis that move people about the crowded streets and got one with a female driver. Turned out that Bella, our driver, wasn’t only Canadian, but she was a Hammer girl – from my very hometown! That was a great little meeting of the sisterhood right there! What a strong peddler of a sweetheart Bella was! She toured us under the full moon, thru the puddled streets, out of the French Quarter and over to the Biwater, past what can only be described as “revelers”, everyone in a constant state of yearlong pre or post Mardi Gras!

We spent the rest of the night on the much more musically inclined Frenchmen Street….as people said, what Bourban Street was before it went so touristy. Over the next three hours we danced to live bands playing reggae, blues, R & B, funk, New Orleans brass, and ended up in the infamous Apple Barrel Bar listening to a guitar player who was maybe someone well-known but was now a gristly ol’ guy who could really play that geetar. What a great night, in and out of venues, no covers, relatively inexpensive drinks, friendly people and not too many of them. These are the spots you want to find when you are in a new city. Satisfaction of spirit.

The next morning we had to hold up our end of the bargain and go to a presentation where they would try to sell us a timeshare. Wyndham is apparently the biggest timeshare corporation in the world, according to them and their charts. Leading up to our trip, I talked to a number of people who have taken advantage of these offers, willing to get a nice room in a big hotel in exchange for listening to the pitch. We both knew that we wouldn’t be buying anything, this is not our style of travel nor do we have that kind of money, but it would be a learning experience. Everyone said that you just had to be clear at some point that you weren’t interested and they might get cranky with you. I assume the company makes enough sales to make these offers of “free” rooms (which are not at all free – in our case, with room fee, very pricy parking, tips and taxes it worked out to about $80/night in downtown NOLA – I think a good price, not counting our precious time spent at the presentation).

We were shuttled to a different hotel where there was a room full of waiting couples and “friendly” sales people descending on them. For about two hours, the woman in charge of our pitch showed us picture after picture of big hotels in cities, modern condos on beaches, chalets in snowy mountains, paying little attention to our comments that they weren’t our preferred style of accommodation.  The pitch goes without any talk of what this would cost. After asking what our “fantasy” four vacations for the next two years would be, she went on to tell us how much they were saving us, somehow forgetting that this was just “fantasy”, talking to us like we were stupid not to save ourselves money when we showed that we weren’t interested. She had started with the line “whatever you decide here today, to buy or not, we will part as friends”, but of course we weren’t friends and she sure didn’t act like one when we left without signing. They send in a cleaner-upper to make a last ditch effort on a smaller deal but you just have to say a very firm no and stick with it. We were all hungry with low blood sugar by this point, and I don’t know if they make more sales that way or if offering a little food would be wise. Anyway, once they got the “NO THANKS” out of both of us, they released us, gave us a $75 dollar gift card (that we used against the extra charges on the room) and took us back to our hotel, never to bother us again….up until Cocky went with the gift card and some cash to pay the outstanding charges on the room and found out that they had already put them all on her credit card. I think a rather shifty way of doing business, as you should have a chance to look at your final bill, agree with it, and choose how to pay on check-out. They tell us some people take advantage of this system many times to get “cheap” deals on rooms. I guess if you like staying in $200 a night hotel rooms, it is a great deal. I’d just as soon find places through the internet or by talking with friends, and stay in more personable, reasonably priced places with character, giving my money to smaller local businesses.

Once that little piece of business was thru, with time passing much too quickly, Ruby Bridges and her husband Malcolm picked us up and took us on a tour of New Orleans. It was a rainy day, and even though the city was quite dry by their standards, we at least could feel the sense of what excessive moisture can do in this town. We visited several neighbourhoods, our enthusiastic guides wanting us to see the range of damages and reconstruction that has occurred.

We mostly visited the 9th Ward, one of the areas hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina with her rising waters, storm surges and heavy winds. Divided by the big industrial canal and the levees that were to protect the city, there is much talk about why these levees failed in the storm. The system was not yet finished, but while it managed to protect the French Quarter and the downtown of the city, which is where the money is made through the number one industry of tourism, it has failed more than once to protect the poorer parts of the city.

The Bi-water neighbourhood had less damage than other parts of the 9th Ward and is showing signs of gentrification as young families buy up relatively inexpensive historical houses and bring the place back to life. It is a colorful mix of styles with businesses of all kinds. The multi-hued houses felt very Caribbean to me, the community very alive and according to Malcolm, a lot of spirit was returning to this part of the city.

Also in the Upper 9th Ward was the Musician Village, a beautiful example of people and organizations coming together to honor and take care of the artists that have provided so much joy and cultural richness to the city. Part of a Habitat for Humanity reconstruction project, conceived by Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis, there have been something like 75 homes built to house musicians and their families who lost what little they had in Katrina. It also has the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, a concert hall and teaching venue to support up and coming musicians, keeping alive the tradition of music that has been the lifeblood of New Orleans.

It would be our luck to hear Ellis Marsalis, the father of Branford and Wynton, a renowned jazz pianist in his own right, play later that night. But that afternoon we were humbled by what we saw everywhere in the 9th Ward – simple houses, some damaged beyond repair but still not torn down, others beautifully reconstructed and others built to replace those that were destroyed, for the most part eloquent, small and efficient homes, all that any of us should ever need.

We crossed the bridge into the Lower 9th Ward and this is where the signs of real loss lingered everywhere. From the remainder of cement footings, emptied of the homes that they had supported, to the boarded up buildings that must be filled with molds and fungus now, to the houses in mid-repair, there was the evidence of the catastrophe that was Katrina all around us.

Fats Domino was born in the Lower 9th and when Katrina was charging in, he refused to leave. He and his family barely survived, in fact there were rumours of his death, but he was alive, rescued and relocated while they rebuilt his home. He is a proud and true New Orleanian, besides a musical hero.

After the flood waters resided, one of the celebrities who came to town and has accomplished a lot for the people of the 9th Ward is Brad Pitt. He raised funds and oversaw the construction of many new homes in the Lower 9th, energy efficient, designed by architectural students and administered by his Make It Right Foundation. The new houses in the area have numerous features – cars parked under the houses which are raised on cement posts, screening that would keep flying debris from breaking windows, solar panels, architectural details that keep some old Orleans flavor in the construction.

In all that we saw, one of the most encouraging signs for me was that the homes were very reasonably sized – not huge mammoth houses that are being built in the suburbs across Southern Ontario, single family dwellings taking up enough room for a big clan. One of the continuing battles in the 9th Ward was the presence of tour buses, a reality that has many of the locals running out of patience. It has been very hard for them to return to any normalcy, and having large buses of camera-gawkers driving down the tiny streets all day is frustrating them. As we toured in Malcolm’s car, we tried to be respectful of this, leaving people on their porches to their privacy. Since we were there, they have passed a law that the big buses aren’t allowed on the residential streets of the Lower 9th and the tour companies and the city are working on alternative ways of allowing people the opportunity to witness what is happening there.

In the middle of our tour of the recent past in New Orleans, we also went past the public school, William Frantz Elementary School, where Ruby made history back in 1960. It was also damaged and is under reconstruction, as many of the surrounding houses are. Ruby and Malcolm also lost their own home in the hurricane. A lot of sadness and disruption has happened in New Orleans.

I remember, back in Little Rock in 2007, Ruby telling us some of her experiences as a little girl in the middle of the insanity, brought on by the racist laws of the times and the place. It was a very hard decision for her parents to expose their young child to an angry society, but more than just feeling it was her right to receive a better education, her mother also saw it as important to “take this step forward…for all African-American children”. Ruby says that since this was, after all, New Orleans, and she was only six years old, she thought that all the crowds and noise on the street as she arrived at the school was just another Mardi Gras parade! Unlike in Little Rock three years earlier, where the white community came out in angry protests every day against the integration of Central High, in New Orleans the parents withdrew all their white children, refusing to allow them to be in the same classroom as a black child. In the beautiful innocence of youth, Ruby had never really seen or known any white people, so her teacher, a Caucasian from the north, Barbara Henry, who taught her alone in a classroom that whole first year and treated her with love and kindness, effectively showed her that there are decent white people, demonstrated through the goodness of her open heart.  Unfortunately Ruby would be exposed to the nastier side often enough.

It may be difficult for some of us to think of a time when our schools and workplaces weren’t the mix of skin tones, linguistic accents and cultural backgrounds that we live in today in many parts of North America, but unfortunately it isn’t impossible to believe just how cruel, small minded and fear-driven people can be…there are still constant examples in the news of racism, homophobia, sexism and bullying. Blaming the poor and oppressed for the discomforts of the more fortunate, going to war rather than seeking peaceful solutions, fighting for individual gains instead of negotiating for a more just collective society. We remain indebted to every little black girl, brave gay boy, every teenager who resists the temptation to go join the war machine….every freedom fighter and promoter of tolerance that plants those seeds in a garden of love rather than a climate of fear and hate.

Ruby’s image is perhaps most famous as the subject of a Norman Rockwell painting “The Problem We All Live With”, depicting little Ruby in her white dress and shoes, walking between the legs of the US marshals escorting her to school. The painting is now hanging in the White House. When Ruby and Malcolm visited the White House last year to see the painting, President Obama thanked her for being an important part of his journey to the Oval Office. Imagine what a moment it was for them all.

We finished our tour of New Orleans with a visit to Parkway Bakery, where the Obama family had also been taken, to enjoy what are said to be the best po’boys in the city. An unassuming place in a working class neighbourhood, also brought back to life after the hurricane, the sandwiches were excellent, as was the time spent in this humble eatery with these gracious hosts, Ruby Bridges and Malcolm Hall. The afternoon with them was fascinating, we had great laughs but we also felt the sorrows of the millions who have struggled in New Orleans and throughout the South. As in other places of great hardship, I often feel that beauty rises like steam over rivers formed by tears and flood waters.

That night we went to Tipitina’s to enjoy a benefit put on by the Fess Foundation with George Porter Jr’s band backing performances by Ellis Marsalis and Dr. John and others. It was a great show of hot blues and jazz and R&B music raising money for renovations to the house of Tipitina’s patron music saint Professor Longhair. There were the famous local pianists, as the Professor was, and the Tipitina Interns, young musicians who are the next generation to come out of New Orleans. What a great night it was, an exciting and appropriate way to end our time in this great city.

We headed back up the interstates to Maine. Through the power of the internet, I was able to find us live music in out of the way venues, and hotel rooms nearby. The first stop was in Montgomery, Alabama, a night of torrential rain but it was dry and hot at the Capital Oyster Bar. The gumbo was great and the oysters sweet. Johnny Neel, an old blind southern rocker who played with and wrote songs recorded by the Allman Brothers, Dickie Betts and Wet Willie, played a growling keyboard to a small local crowd.

Cocky and I got in some good dancing with the locals, especially our new friends Jimmy and Beth. Jimmy is a very interesting guy (safecracker? Mr. Budweiser Man?) who had an accident that left him mostly paralyzed in a wheelchair, but he could control that chair and smoked up the dancefloor and we had an awful lot of fun dancing with him. The Capital is a super friendly place with a history of bringing great music to Montgomery, so if you are ever passing through, check it out, there just might be some hot licks waiting for you.

The next day, road car-ma got us and we had to hunker down for a couple nights on the outskirts of Lagrange, Georgia with cooling system problems. What could have been a disastrous and expensive experience (overheating in the pouring rain on the interstate? crooked mechanics? bad restaurants? bad coffee!) turned into a lovely couple of days of rest at the Jameson Inn, swimming in the pool though the weather was kinda chilly, even by our standards, eating great sushi and Korean from just across the road.

We had super friendly and professional service from Jimmy and Josh at Mike Patton Honda – I must speak out for them, as people are often so leery of finding honest people when stuck in a strange land, and these guys were not only honest but very helpful and very nice. Along with the folks at the hotel, they made our unscheduled stop in Lagrange a pleasure!

Then we were back on the road, spending the next night in the mountains near Asheville, North Carolina with Cocky’s step brother and his family. It was the night of the first presidential debate and it was unfortunate that they were very much on the other side – “right of the tea party” as Jamie himself said. Needless to say, we didn’t watch the debate together – instead we had a wonderful dinner on the patio and sipped wine in the hot tub under the stars. This was perhaps the only place where we were on the opposite side of the political mirror and considering how that first debate went for our guy Obama, just as well we didn’t watch it.

Another internet search brought us into Allentown, Pennsylvania for our last big hurrah before getting home. There was an open mic jam in a groovy little place on the outskirts of town called Grumpy’s BBQ Roadhouse – and fitting as it was, the food was New Orleans style spicy jambalaya and gumbo and ribs, the music was a mix of older blues musicians playing with teenage musical interns, and the dance floor was once again friendly and hot!

Cocky and I blazed a trail on dance floors across sixteen states and fueled up on Starbucks and sushi in most of them. We fell in love with New Orleans and already have plans to visit again, next time the New Orleans Jazz Festival which happens in the springtime, when, Ruby tells us, the weather is perfect and sunny. I don’t know if we would do the whole roadtrip again – it was a long drive – but it would be hard not to return to the Capital Oyster Bar in Montgomery, stop in for a swim at Gaston Lake in North Carolina, visit all those old and new friends we spent time with this trip. Whichever way we get there, we’ll be sure to laissez les bons temps rouler, in big, easy and beautiful New Orleans.

last cigarette!

My friend Lore needed to quit smoking cigarettes. She knew about a clinic in Colombia run by one Dr. Enrique Ramírez who has helped some of her friends quit and Lore was convinced that he could help her too. So I went for five days to Medellín in May, accompanying Lore, providing support and distraction from this difficult challenge.

I can’t tell you what he did. It has to do with pulse adjustment, lowering your anxiety level, and some other magic. Well, it’s not magic, it is a combination of bio-physics and something called Sensible Pulse Gymnastics (and of course effort on the part of the smoker – this is never done without some struggle) but it all seemed quite mysterious. Even Lore couldn’t explain what happened when she went behind closed doors. You can read about the treatment yourself at the website http://www.sensoterapia.com.co.

What I do know is that with a minimum of fuss, by barely touching her fingers, within three short hour-long visits (that, according to Lore, were mostly spent relaxing on the examination table) Lore quit smoking. After the first hour, when she returned to the waiting room of the clinic (a very unassuming house in a residential area near the big football stadium of Medellín) the doctor held one of her cigarettes near her nose and she was immediately repulsed, an adversity that would continue for several days as we wandered the city. And fortunately, since these treatments only took a couple hours out of each day, we had lots of time to look around Medellín.

I’ve never been to Colombia before but had heard, rightfully, that Colombians are real friendly folk. True true, we met a lot of outgoing, helpful people. Apparently Medellín was once known as one of the most dangerous cities on the planet (Murder Capital of the World!) when the drug cartels were a booming business, specifically in the heyday of Pablo Escobar, a notorious criminal who became a billionaire by controlling most of the cocaine economy of the world in the 1980s. He turned the city into a blood bath when he paid his hitmen to kill policemen and when he eliminated his competition in an all-out war against other drug families. Quite the character was Escobar. As is often the case, he was also known for his public service, a Zorro-type, building housing projects, hospitals and football fields which endeared him to the poverty stricken residents of Medellín and kept him somewhat beloved at the same time he was feared and reviled. He was finally gunned down in 1993 by Colombian police in a spectacular manner that was captured on canvas by another of Medellín’s favorite sons, artist Fernando Botero.

Since Escobar’s demise, the government has done a lot to lower the crime rate in Medellín and many people spoke with pride about this. More than once, we heard citizens condemning some suspicious character on the street or on the metro (“ladron, ladron!”). I got the sense from talking to people that they feel their city is much calmer than it was not that long ago, but it is still a hot-headed place. And in the center of this colourful, brick lined urbanicity of about three and a half million, is a beautiful courtyard filled with the great artist Botero’s voluptuous sculptures, and it is one of the most artistically peaceful, if busy, plazas on the planet.

Botero’s art is well-known. His large imperfect people painted on large perfect canvases capture the heart of Colombian family life, the cruel yet archaically noble world of bullfighting, political events (such as the demise of Escobar) and even the passion of Christ, an examination of the final days of Jesus Christ that Botero prepared for his 80th birthday, on exhibit in the Museum of Antioquia while we were there. As a round-around-the-edges woman myself, I have always loved Botero’s gracious approach to over-sized people. Botero at one time called his characters “fat people” but now insists that they aren’t “fat” but instead that he rounds them up as it is more interesting to paint and sculpt substantial figures than skeletons. They are more sensuous and offer the artist a larger character and greater expression to work with. I know that you don’t have to be large and round to love Botero’s art, but I think that he can put a self-satisfied smile on a chubby face and certainly add a little confidence to a voluptuous body in a sensual moment of disrobing. We lingered among his paintings which are highlighted by his amazing sensitivity to light and colour, and amidst his robust bronze sculptures that capture not only men, women and children in repose but also sympathetic animals and hands and guitars, inanimate objects to which the artist applies motion. We returned a second and then third time to the plaza. We were gluttonous admirers, unable to get our fill of Botero.

The best meal we had in the city was at a tiny café called La Meza del Barrio. It sits up on the mountainside overlooking the city, next door to the Biblioteca Espagna, a rather dramatic outcropping of three concrete and glazed stone buildings that house a public library and serve a somewhat impoverished neighbourhood. La Meza was a bustling little restaurant with regional foods but one dish blew us away – Cazuela de Frijoles – a multi-layered bean soup with a bean base, tomatillo broth and, mmmm, wait for it – chicharones mixed in. Somehow those little fried pork rinds remained crunchy yet soft and delectable while blending flavors with the beans and other vegetables. We ate in some finer restaurants while in Colombia, but both Lore and I remembered that simple Antioqueño stew, cheap and wholesome, as pure campesino delight for the taste buds.

Going up in the metro cable car was part of the adventure to find that little bowl of pleasure. Medellín has the only metro system – urban rail – in Colombia and one of the best public transit systems in Latin America. Because of its projects on sustainable transport, the city received, along with San Francisco, the 2012 Sustainable Transport Award, given by the New York-based Institute for Transport & Development Policy. It was a fast and cheap way to get around this big city and the price of admission (a bit over a buck) included the cable car that takes you up to that stunning library, and higher yet to what is reputed to be a fabulous place to walk, Arvi Park (on my list for “next time”).

The cable car swayed over the zinc and tiled rooftops, many decorated with gigantic photographs and posters. You looked down into laundry drying on balconies, children playing, sky high gardens and the hidden recesses of simple lives. The city receded into a clay-coloured desert as the monolithic library rose up like boulders on a cliff edge in front of us. There was also a strange red bamboo bridge set in the same vignette but it was apparently unsafe and therefore had been closed. The journey up and down the mountainside was a fantastic way to view this expansive city.

One morning while Lore was at the doctor’s, I went to the brand new Museo del Agua, devoted to the story of water – its origins, its uses, its abuses and its precarious future.  Everywhere we went in Medellín we were surrounded by groups of young school children, escorted by energetic teachers,  which was encouraging to see them learning through the use of their city’s resources. This museum was very interactive, filled with modern technology that used videos and touch screens to inform about our most precious life force and resource, water.

They gave me my own English guide, the sweet Daniel, who, understanding I was on a time constraint, whisked me through the normally three hour tour in about half the time, practicing his English as he went. I wouldn’t call myself a museum fanatic, but I really enjoyed this place as it was not only entertaining but obviously trying to encourage the wise use of water. There were displays of the flora and fauna of the various geographical regions of the country, from the Andean highlands to the Caribbean coast, from the jungles of the Amazon to the savannahs of the Llanos,  and the role that water plays in each of those ecosystems. I am definitely intrigued with the idea of returning to Colombia, with more time to visit its many fascinating corners, to eat its regional cuisines, to dance to its many rhythms, and to know its friendly folk.

The last room of the museum was a mixed media art installation that provided the feeling of walking through a cave of stalactites, created out of metal watering cans and pails, with screens inlaid in the floor playing fishy videos. It was a refreshing finale to the story of water. At the exit, after all that talk of roaring rivers, images of pounding waves and rising flood waters, and the sound of drips accompanying us everywhere, was the bathroom… the museum’s designers recognized that a toilet would be very necessary for full and triggered bladders at the end of this watery journey.

We stayed in a perfect little place called 61 Prado Inn, situated in the Zona Patrimonial, or historic section of the city. It was a quiet neighbourhood and only a two block walk to the metro station. Nothing to look at from outside, the inside of this small boutique-like pension has been redone with designer elements that gave it a very sophisticated atmosphere. I think we paid about $50 a night for a room the size of a small classroom. The staff was friendly and helpful, there was a kitchen we could use or buy breakfast from, there was cable and wireless, and it was simply a great deal.

I always find that having access to a rooftop elevates cheap lodging into first class enjoyment. This was no exception. We could see the whole city from the rooftop patio including the miles and miles of clay tile roofs and the stunning view of the Iglesia Jesus Nazareno.

I took a walk around the area. Unfortunately the church wasn’t open when I was there, but it was beautiful to behold the stone structure both day and night. I continued wandering through El Prado, where the styles of construction and details blended art deco with colonial, stone with metal, stucco with wood. The predominant material of construction though was brick, seen in churches, hospitals, museums, modern high rise buildings, and almost every residential dwelling throughout the city. As a girl raised in a red brick house in a red brick city in Ontario, it felt like home to me.

El Hueco

Since I was there to support Lore, I ended up doing more shopping in those few days than I would usually do in a year. We discovered that there wasn’t much that was any cheaper than you could find in Costa Rica or Canada which was disappointing for Lore who went with the belief that Columbia – a textile and fashion center in South America – would be great quality for cheap prices. They have been building ultramodern and grandiose malls, as big as any I have seen, which seemed to be mostly empty of shoppers – after all, except for professionals, foreigners, or those rolling in laundered drug money, where do the local people get the money to shop in these luxurious places? On the other hand, the masses were gathered in the downtown streets, buying shoes and jeans (made in Colombia) and fabrics from the small vendors, including in a palace of a building known as “el Hueco”, a place repurposed into a huge market of mostly cheap plastic shoes and poorly made T-shirts.

Colombian women are supposedly the most beautiful in the world (don’t they actually exist everywhere – beautiful women?) and their salons are reknowned. So our last morning, we went to a little salon recommended by our hotel and it was fun, cheap, relaxing and left us looking good for our return to Costa Rica!

Medellín is called the City of Eternal Spring. If you look up the temperature online, often the information comes from a weather station at the airport which is not only 45 minutes outside of the city, but at a much higher elevation and therefore significantly colder. Once on the road leaving the airport, the highway brings you to the precipice of a ring of mountains and you start plunging down into the city, where there is a whole different climate from that at the airport. So don’t be fooled. It was much warmer, day and night, in the city. We were there at the beginning of the rainy season, so we definitely used my umbrella that I insisted on bringing. It was a very short visit in a very big city, but it gave me a taste for Colombia, for cazuela de frijoles, and for planning a return. And I’m very happy to report that two months later, Lore is smoke-free!  So maybe Dr. Cigarro knows what he’s doing!

Seems I’ve been too busy to write, but since 2012 is the year that ends the sacred Mayan calendar and has us all wondering about our future, I think procrastination may be an appropriate response to the season. Faced with this projectile that is hurling us toward the total destruction of the earth, well perhaps delaying our demise by a few centuries isn’t such a bad idea. Besides, things seem so overwhelming these days, surely it is understandable to want to participate in avoidance for awhile. So in solidarity with the future of our planet and life as we know it, I’ve been practising procrastination, but have returned to the blogosphere just long enough to let you know I’m still alive.

Looking over my pictures I’m remembering the wonderful moments of the past few months that I hope to have the chance to repeat one day, but I’m also reminded of the much harsher realities that I’ve witnessed in my travels.

Lake Atitlan in Guatemala is a cauldron of an endorheic lake (one that does not flow to the sea and has no natural outlet) – ringed by volcanoes and Mayan communities – whose waters have been steadily on the rise for the last few years. Around the lake, people are losing their homes to the ever-expanding shoreline, including my good friends Rick and Treeza in San Pedro. Many buildings are already under water, while elsewhere people are still sitting on their balconies watching the waters rise around them. After the last rainy season ended, the water receded enough that many were granted a year’s reprieve, but when the rains start again in the following months and continue through to the end of 2012, chances are good that the thirsty lake will swallow up many more homes.

Considering this is Mayan territory, this is 2012, and there is such a disastrous finality for so many good people living quiet peaceful lives on the shores of this magical lake, the divine providence of it is alarming. All one can do is hope for a dryish rainy season.

 

All things being equal, I had a fabulous time in San Pedro in February, visiting wonderful friends, eating incredible food (highly recommended are D’Noz fish menus on Friday; Ventana Blues’ green goddess cocktails; and Smoking Nestor’s BBQs on Sundays at La Piscina – if it is still there after the next rainy season), as well as hanging in this beautiful little apartment which is rentable for just $5 a night – if it is still there.

A few nights before I left, a heavy gust of wind blew a small brush pile fire up into a pasture and the flames took off, taking out electrical poles and transformers and leaving San Pedro and San Juan without electricity for several days. There was an unusual hush across the town – the loud speakers of the many evangelical churches were silenced – broken only by the hummm of generators from time to time. No doubt a great amount of meat went wasted (or stomachs were poisoned) as freezers thawed and businesses suffered without power, but it was wonderfully quiet while hiking on the hillsides above the town or sitting on the shores of the lake, listening to the ominous lapping of the waves.

It seems to happen everywhere that when politicians are elected – be it a president of a country or a town’s mayor – the first thing they want to do is fix roads. I think it is an elixir designed to keep the population subdued…if the highways are getting worked on, gravel roads paved or bridges built then surely progress must be happening. Maybe you won’t notice – or at least won’t rise up – when your health, education and welfare systems are crumbling. Guatemala elected a new president just a month before I was there and the road construction was everywhere – watching the men pulling their simple floats across the miles of concrete flowing down the Panamerican highway seemed somehow metaphoric if futile to me.

Back in Monteverde, the arts continued to shine – and this will be the theme of the next book I’ve actually started working on. With the main protagonist being Paul Smith – luthier, musician, painter, bohemian – the possibilities of what to reflect on in a narrative discussing Monteverde as the artist’s muse are endless. We have started the work here, but I will be spending much of my summer in eastern Ontario staying with old friends and continue to work with Paul whose Canadian home is nearby. We are curious as to where this muse will take us.

The latest art form to rise like a full moon over Monteverde is dance. The Quaker community has been holding square (also Contra and English) dancing on Saturday evenings here for probably as many years as they have been playing Scrabble on Friday afternoons (60+?) while salsa and merengue have kept the locals twirling on dance floors for just about as long. Now a more modern artistic approach to dance has sashayed its way up the mountain. Last year it arrived in the form of Marie Chantal Nadeau’s FuzionArteDanza, a show that the lovely Marie singlehandedly choreographed while guiding a crop of new dancers through to amazing performances. This year it’s been the University of Costa Rica dance company who came and held workshops over several weeks for anyone interested, a project that culminated in an evening of modern dance put on by all the participants. The performances were thrilling and once again the community on the green mountain showed its vast array of talent which always seems inspired by  the enthusiastic mentorship of other artists, the non-judgmental support of the community, and the natural beauty of our surroundings.

Margaret and Jennette

I’ve benefited from the friendship of many truly remarkable people here, including a group of women of diverse ages who, like me migrate each year from our homeland, Canada, and make Monteverde our winter home. We are all friends as well as artists, teachers, volunteers or mentors, and I am so happy to see them whenever our paths cross. Monteverde grows with the influx of many sub-groups, and Canadian women seem to be creating a culture of our own here.

Speaking of great women, two of the most important women in my life came to Costa Rica this year and we had ourselves a lot of fun. Having my friend Cocky, and later my sister Maggie, visit meant the world to me. Cocky and I spent a lot of time hiking and, as is our desire, even more time dancing.

I know a highlight of Cocky’s time in Monteverde was having a gloriously deep massage by the amazing Janet Jenkins. Janet and her husband Michael arrived in Monteverde back in the 90s as the hosts and foodsmiths of the Hira Rosa Restaurant. They moved on to massage and yoga and opened Rio Shanti a few years ago. In the cosmic nature of 2012, they are about to make a change and take a break from their business and the community and return with their daughter Elan to the US for a while. Even though Rio Shanti is to continue under the loving care of a new family, the Jenkins will be truly missed here. Janet has these strong healing hands and this huge heart – I’m so glad that Cocky (and I) had the opportunity to experience the positive power of her talents while she is still here. I wish them wave upon wave of peace, love and joy on their new path and trust that it will lead them back up the green mountain soon.

Cocky also had a chance to go walking with Wolf in the Reserve. Wolf has been in good form for the most part, our book has been selling very well, and it is only the lack of progress on the publication of the translation that frustrates me these days. We continue to wait for word from the Editorial de la Universidad de Costa Rica on whether they will publish it. We are running out of time if there is any hope to get Caminando con Wolf finished in time for the 40th anniversary of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve in October. It would be a huge climax to celebrate at the end of 2012 but is only going to happen if we are blessed with a miracle at this point.

When my sister Maggie came, we also had a great day out walking with Wolf and Lucky in the Monteverde Reserve. We are now constantly joined by little Winky, Blinky or Twinky – the now two month old orphaned sloth that Benito was mothering until he went off to Africa for two weeks and left Lucky in charge. So Blinky goes wherever Lucky goes and it is quite noticeable that, like the rest of us, he/she is happiest when in the forest.

Maggie and I also spent time with our friend Zulay in San Carlos and down in Cahuita with Roberto. The Caribbean Sea was once again too rough for fishing but was warm and wonderful for swimming and floating.

Roberto has a new shack that he built on stilts that will hopefully survive the river when it rises in the inevitable heavy rains when they come. The waters seem to be threatening everywhere and one has to wonder what the rainy season of 2012 will bring to many places.

Whereas Cocky and I focused on dancing, Maggie and I indulged in as many games of Scrabble as we could. We played in many lovely places, including the wonderful third balcony of the Hotel National Park at the entrance to Cahuita National Park. This is my favorite little hotel in Cahuita these days – $45 gets you a private room and bath with great balconies and views – and the most important thing I can think of at the beach, a refrigerator!

Unfortunately, the government of Costa Rica is attempting to make good on its promise to tear down buildings that are part of the Maritime Zone Law, a law passed in 1977 stating that nobody can build within 50 meters of the high tide. It is frightening to see how many family-owned businesses and homes could be taken down –before the end of 2012 – if the government fulfills its promise along both the Pacific and Caribbean coastlines. Most of the towns of Cahuita and Puerto Viejo were built within that zone, long before the existence of the law, by the early Afro-Caribeños without the assistance of the government while establishing their communities. They built by the water to avoid the inhospitable swamps immediately inland. It breaks my heart to see the kind of destruction that could happen, the huge loss of tourism revenue, and the disappearance of family homes and lands. All these coastal towns will change dramatically and there will be great waste in the de-construction of the coastline. The people of these communities are rising up to fight for their future. In the meantime, if you get to Cahuita, I would recommend the National Park Hotel – enjoy those amazing balconies while you can.

When not rambling, I’ve been house-sitting here in Monteverde in a beautiful little hobbit house, but I am about to leave – off to Colombia for a week then back for a few weeks of nomadic life in Costa Rica before heading north to Canada for the summer. I plan on returning to Monteverde before the end of 2012, whatever that will mean for us all. Cocky and I have a trip to New Orleans planned for September – another community whose existence was turned upside down by rising waters – and I’m hoping to be in Monteverde in early October for the events surrounding the 40th anniversary of the Monteverde Reserve – right in the middle of the heaviest part of the rainy season! I don’t anticipate floods here, but these days, one never knows what might happen.

At the rate we are going, Noah’s Ark is going to be one busy ship in the following months, gathering us all in, two by two. Hopefully the waters will recede and leave our homes standing and we will survive. May love be our flotation device of 2012.

The gusty wind is pushing the clouds across the pastures and out to the Pacific horizon. Here in Monteverde there are often two layers of clouds, the upper level of slower clouds moving over the sky like elders shuffling across the lawn enjoying the journey to their favorite bench. The spirited lower layer of clouds speed past the unhurried ones as youth do in their great haste to get where they are going. Here on the green mountain, under that shifting quilt of clouds, we celebrate the young and the not so young. There is no doubt that Monteverde is getting older but, as in the natural world, it is constantly renewing itself!

Nan, Martha & Cynthia..photo by Mary StuckeyThe first celebration of 2012 was for the petite but always feisty Martha Moss, who turned 90 in early January. Martha arrived here in 1973 and decided to try inn-keeping when Irma Rockwell, who at that time ran the only pension in the community, was anxious to head back to Iowa. After a short visit and a quick decision to uproot her life in New York, Martha drove down in an orange Volkswagen Safari named “Tiger Lily,” her 15-year-old daughter Nan along for the adventure. By 1978, the small Green Mountain Inn was not big enough for the tourism that was increasing annually and other pensions were built, including the larger Hotel de Montaña. So Martha got out of the hospitality business, officially at least. She went on to a rich life of working in prisons teaching alternatives to violence, doing peace work, and writing and illustrating children’s books that feature her animal friends– a passion that still keeps her mind alive! For the occasion of her 90th birthday, she was visited by her daughter Nan and her step-daughter Cynthia (who lives in Nairobi, Kenya and runs the Amboseli Trust – an elephant sanctuary) and the gathering was full of stories, laughter, cake and love.

The next big gathering happened as a joint celebration for the 90th birthday of John Trostle and the 80th birthday of Lucky Guindon. Lucky is of course the ever-suffering, ever-loving wife of our dear friend Wolf. It is hard to imagine that she is 80 years old as she has that blond hair and those farm girl genes that keep her looking very youthful. While the family spent much of the last year caring for Wolf through his many health issues (see former posts from 2011), it is also true that Lucky had a number of health concerns herself. No doubt the stress of Wolf’s hospital stays and his near-death experiences helped contribute to Lucky’s heart and blood pressure problems but once she finally conceded to taking medication regularly, the crisis past.

Lucky isn’t as mobile as she was – she is now uncomfortable walking from the farm down to the meeting house and to Friday scrabble games – but she is always very busy, tending the chickens, hosting the many friends and family who come through the open door of their home, and going to as many of the community events as she has energy for. She also tries to save space for herself, finding time to make her beautiful ink drawings of the local trees, but it often happens that she forsakes her own time for that of Wolf, the family and the community. I often stay here on the farm with Wolf, Lucky and Benito and am witness to the love and kindness she shares on a daily basis with all those around her. I would also suggest that the health scares of the last couple of years have perhaps brought Wolf and Lucky closer, appreciating that their time on earth is passing rapidly and they have been blessed with each other and their beautiful family and need to enjoy every precious moment together.

John and Sue Trostle are other fine examples of living life in healthy, loving and productive ways. John has reached 90 years of age with a vitality, sharpness and curiosity that hasn’t seemed to waver. Sue and John made their initial contact with Monteverde in 1951, first visited in 1962 and moved here in 1974 to continue their life work as peace activists. They have been active in many aspects of the community, but particularly in the founding and development of the Monteverde Institute. They are also great supporters of music and other cultural and educational activities here. I will always remember that Sue, at a gathering in 1990, told me that she had seen Bob Marley live – I think she was the first person I knew who could say that! I certainly equate John and Sue with all things artistic in the area and expect to see their warm smiling faces at any community event I manage to get to.

On March 4th, a large group gathered at the meeting house and one of Monteverde’s traditional “coffee houses” was held in Lucky and John’s honour. Monteverde is a wonderful breeding ground for artists of all kinds. Participation in all the arts – music, writing, theatre, textile and visual arts – is encouraged and applauded. There is a wealth of talented mentors willing to pass on their knowledge and there are many occasions throughout the year to share songs, poems, painted creations and plays. I think the coffee houses – where near-professional talent shares the stage with the nervous first-time performers – is one of the best examples of the magic that is Monteverde as a community.

 

People who arrive on this seductive mountain and have their first exposure to its vibrancy often believe that they have met with some kind of communal-nirvana, but the truth is (and I think most people who live here would agree with me) that it is still just a small community with all the gossip, frustration and conflicts of any group of human beings – aka imperfect. There are organizations within the community that work to encourage conflict resolution, open-mindedness, constructive dialogue, non-violence and collective movement towards a healthy way of life. In the end, Monteverde is composed of people who are essentially flawed creatures, especially in their social structures, and there are plenty of occasions for disagreement and pettiness. Many people who live here understand that and actually bristle at the comments about what a perfect place it is. Myself, I kind of like that people enjoy the idea of a “perfect” community, even if it is but an illusion. It gives us hope that such places can exist on this troubled earth.

I’ve had the great fortune to spend much of the last twenty-two years here, and much of that time in the presence of Wolf Guindon. He is definitely a flawed character who has made valuable contributions. His imperfection is one of the things I love about him and is what I think made him such a wonderful subject for our book (besides being the protagonist of so many great ventures – the community, the dairy plant, the Reserve, the Conservation League). However, no matter what his missteps I have no doubt that he is guided by love, understands the power of respect, and tries to practice kindness in his dealings with people….and always has a wonderful sense of humour.

 

I am now considering another local man as the subject of my next book. Paul Smith – artist, musician and luthier (and like myself, a Canadian with many years living in Monteverde) – approached me about writing text for a book about his art. I was immediately intrigued with the idea for a number of reasons. One is that I like Paul. He has many of the same qualities as Wolf Guindon that I love – he is a very unique character who does things his own way, he is funny and irreverent and intelligent, and, I believe, under-appreciated in the world. He is definitely a flawed character as well but with a big heart and an open mind. He is also a very active member of the arts community here in Monteverde, a huge part of this place that we barely touched on in Walking with Wolf. Writing about Paul (and his very talented sisters Margaret and Lorna) would allow me to tell the tales of music, theatre and art on the green mountain and in Costa Rica, including the infamous Monteverde Music Festival that Margaret and Paul started and I worked with for years. Paul said to me, “all you have to do is come up with the vision, Kay”….but I know that ‘all’ I have to do is all the work!! I already have the title – “Playing with Paul“! Since he is already in his late seventies, I will have to work a lot faster than I did on the Wolf book. Hmmmm…

 

As for the new in Monteverde, I’ll share a couple of pictures of Benito’s latest orphan, a two-week old sloth that came to him after it dropped out of a tree and was left for dead. Beni has a lifetime of bringing creatures young and old back to life and although he tends to grumble through the process, it is amazing to watch his patience and commitment to them. These days Beni can be seen wandering around with a pouch that houses the little guy (Maximus, Mini, Lovely?) although he doesn’t really like taking him out in public as people can be quite insensitive in their desire to see the baby.

 

 

Here in the house, Lucky and Beni take turns feeding him a small bottle of milk and colorful hibiscus flowers (I happily take my turn when I can). The sloth makes a little creaky sound when he/she is unhappy (gender is difficult to determine) and this is often because he/she has been put back alone in the basket with a heating pad. Baby sloths live wrapped around their mothers in the trees so it is obvious that they don’t enjoy being left on their own. At the same time, Beni doesn’t encourage petting it or treating it in human ways as we would our own children. I have watched him over the years tend to many animals and so I take heed of his experience. It is lovely having this little creature in the house, almost as sweet as the presence of a new born baby.

There are always new ideas, projects and individuals emerging out of the mists of Monteverde. It seems to me that this mountainous place, still very much a rural and forest landscape, has the cultural life of a dynamic small city. One of the extremely talented men here, Mauricio Valverde, and two of his friends have opened a new bar named Tr3s Monos, to provide a place for local musicians,artists and friends to gather in a lounge-like atmosphere. Mao is also part of Ars Monteverde, a new organization that is working to support all the arts in this broad community. The Camara de Tourism (Tourism Council) is looking at bringing back the Monteverde Music Festival. Last week the poetry group, Gatos Pardos, along with Ars Monteverde and others put on the first Peña Cultural, a day-long event that included theatre, music, poetry and dance, along with many traditional games and activities for the children, that was such a grand success they are making plans for many more – there is so much talent here, the program lasted two hours longer than expected.

 

Aah, Monteverde. What a colourful and crazy creation, complete with beautiful flaws, you are!

I am always intrigued by what might be behind the unfriendly metal gates that line many of the streets of San José. I remember being in Havana Cuba, and how many of the old, often crumbling but almost always anciently elegant buildings had open doorways that you could just walk through. There would be fanciful courtyards and tropical gardens and sometimes an elderly person sitting there, totally unperturbed that you had walked into their home.

 

 

The locked gates of San José don’t present that friendly face at all. Instead it seems like a city under siege, and with crime as prevalent as it is, and fear the predominating state of mind, it sometimes feels just like that. People have built great cauldrons of metal around their homes to the point that you can barely see anything beyond. What is always interesting to me is how beautiful many of the homes are behind those portons – the carefully tended gardens, the heavily-carved antiques, the ceramic tiles, along with the normally generous and warm Ticos that reside within their prison walls.

 

Richarda y Lorena

 

 

I’m presently staying in one of those incredible “behind-the-gate” homes with my friend Richarda. I came to help her do some purging and packing, but so far we just seem to be playing. That’s okay, it’s her call. Without saying too much and invading her privacy, may I just say that she is a captivating colorful character, originally from Germany, who has lived an amazing life in a variety of places around the world, socialized with famous actors, artists and writers, cooks like a cordon bleu chef and has stories that would raise your hair. I met her probably a year ago, but I’m just getting to know her and thoroughly enjoying the process.

 

 

 

 

She lives here with her two dogs – a gentle spaniel-type named Souki and a not so mellow Chihuahua named Maximilian – as well as four cats who stay separated from the dogs. I share my room with Adonis, a lovely black cat, possibly, says Richarda, the reincarnation of her deceased mother, who is happy for the company and purrs incessantly.

 

 

There is a lovely garden in the back with a lion-spitting fountain and fresh herbs and cherry tomatoes for the kitchen and tropical plants galore. The house is full of treasures from around the world, mirrors and crystals and Buddhas, shiny baubles, colored lights, exotic furniture and soft fancy fabrics. It feels more like New York then Costa Rica and the food that Richarda and her Peruvian cook Alina serve is finer than any restaurant I can afford. I feel like I’ve fallen into an alternate universe, one featuring a generous hostess with no end to her savory sagas and repasts.

I’ve come here from another universe, the delightfully green Monteverde, where it was a very busy month. I did some upholstering, resurrecting some antique hostess chairs, repairing some oddly reupholstered furniture and making both a giant thermos-cozy to keep coffee hot and a booster seat for friend Katy’s EZ cart. This is a new creature on the mountain, an electrically-charged battery-operated glorified golf cart that runs completely silently – a dream after the loud whines and puttering of the tuk tuks and motorcycles – and holds at least four if not more people plus their packages. I wonder if this new eco-friendly vehicle will take off in popularity like the tuk tuks did.

 

Our book continues to sell well and Wolf and I had a few occasions to speak to groups of visiting students at the Monteverde Reserve. We have it down to a fine art, to come in as they finish their lunch, and in less than fifteen minutes we tell them some of the history of Wolf, the community and the founding of the Reserve. We have sold several books this way, happy to sign them, answer questions and have personal contact with visitors. People are truly touched to meet Wolf (and Lucky when she is with us) and it is an all-round pleasant experience for everyone, augmenting the visit to the Reserve for them, giving Wolf some continuing exposure to those enjoying his lifelong work, and giving us a chance to sell more copies of Walking with Wolf.

Other days I spent working with Pax Amighetti, my personal hero of the moment, on the design of Caminando con Wolf.  We decided that the change we would make to the book jacket would be simply changing the color of the title (and obviously the language). We redid the maps and also put the new Spanish endorsements on the back of the book . I gathered blurbs of support from musician and historian Manuel Monestel; founder of the Costa Rican National Parks Alvaro Ugalde; Pedro León from the Center for Advanced Studies, and well-known author and biologist, Dan Janzen – an impressive bunch of scholars. Let me know what you think of the purple design (we are still tweeking things and this may not be the final cover, but comments are welcome).

Yesterday I went to a meeting here in San José with Javier Espeleta, the director of the Tropical Science Center and the new (at last!) director of the Editorial Universidad de Costa Rica, Alberto Murillo. Javier and I were curious to see if the new director would have the same enthusiasm as the past director, Julian Monge, had about publishing the Spanish edition of our book. We had a long, very positive meeting with Don Alberto. He explained that on the 16th of February the board of EUCR would meet and decide on their projects so we have until then to put together a package to convince them not only to publish Caminando con Wolf but to do it before October which is when the Monteverde Reserve will celebrate their 40th anniversary and host a conference for representatives of private nature reserves in Latin America. We think that would be the perfect time to release the book in Spanish!

 

 

Yes, 2012 is the 40th anniversary of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve (the Reserve as we call it) and there are going to be many events throughout the year as part of the celebration. The first one was a talk last week by Carlos Hernandez, the director at the Reserve. One of the highlights was the video he shared taken from the motion cameras that are strategically placed in the Reserve to record animal movement. One of the first images in the video was of three! puma walking down the trail together. What marvelous beauty was this feline family! There were several other images of puma as well as peccaries, coatis, agoutis and a margay or two. These were recorded on a camera not 600 meters from the entrance to the Reserve.

 

 

During Don Carlos’ talk, I was inspired to present a plan to get Wolf back into the cloud forest for a night. Wolf spent fifty years wandering in that forest and happily camping by the side of the trail, many times without a tent, perhaps with a plastic cover, sometimes in a hammock, often alone. He knows the joy of being in the forest at night. If you have read the book, you may remember his words in the Acknowledgements where he talks specifically about the nocturnal beauty:

 

 

… “the fact that there is always something new to observe and enjoy…that when you run out of sunlight, which happens at least once a day, a whole new world of sound and life emerges…the sharp silhouettes and varied patterns of its shadows…even the plant life with its own routines, some blooms coming alive at night while others are closing. Add to all of this the moon with its constantly changing phases bringing its own rhythm that drives the pulse of the forest at night.”

 

 

I got thinking that he probably wonders if his days of camping are over. I imagined that we could arrange, as part of the anniversary of the Reserve, to take a commemorative walk and camping trip with him. I presented the idea to Don Carlos, who was enthusiastic, and then to Wolf and Lucky. I think Wolf is a little nervous about taking care of his new nocturnal necessities in the forest but he is, of course, willing and I think was somewhat tickled that I had come up with this idea (tickled might not be quite the word he would use). We came up with a plan, Carlos is figuring out a date, we will invite many people to join us in the hike, but only a small number will be able to spend the night in a makeshift camp at the end of the old horse trail, now known as La Camina, where the trail plunges down to Peñas Blancas or climbs up to La Ventana.

Wolf has been doing so great that I didn’t fear that he could handle this adventure though our thinking involves the possibility of a vehicle coming down this bush road if necessary. However, just a couple of days ago he had an incident that I hope won’t affect his general strength and mobility. I phoned Lucky with the results of the meeting with EUCR and she told me that while he was out chopping his trail, Wolf had taken a fall. He likes to get out with his machete most days on the trail that runs from the house to the bullpen. He has recovered the use of his hand that was damaged by being tied in the hospital bed, the hand he needs to write his name, raise his fork and swing his machete with.

I guess he was chopping away at a vine that was tangled around some branches and the machete got caught up in the vegetation at the same time a branch came down and knocked him off his feet. He rolled backwards a little ways down the slope but he’s lucky he didn’t chop his arm off. I’m not sure how long he was there, but when I asked Lucky how he had got back to the house, she told me the part of the story that reminds me of the old fable “The boy who cried wolf”.

Lucky was inside, playing Scrabble with Kenna (another Canadian migratory in Monteverde), and she did hear Wolf’s voice from afar, but as she said “he is always shouting. It is hard to pay attention to him all the time.” Fair enough! Eventually she realized that he was still carrying on and it had been awhile, so she went out to see what he wanted and found him up on the hillside laying on the ground.  They got him back to the house and the next day took him to the clinic after Lucky became concerned that he may have bruised or broken a rib.

 

 

 

 

Fortunately he is okay, though I imagine his body is a little sore and he is no doubt embarrassed. I know how Wolf, like most of us, hates being unable to take care of himself as he did all his life. The idea that a bit of vegetation could get the better of him and leave him stranded on the ground must truly irk him (I wouldn’t want to be that vine next time Wolf gets out there). Thank goodness it was not too serious of a fall. We need Wolf to be strong and able to go camping!

I’ve been writing this blog since 2008, about the time I published my book Walking with Wolf. Originally this was meant as a marketing tool, but in reality it has served as a writing exercise, a line of communication , a way to relieve my frustrations, and a promotional site for musicians, restaurants and actions that I want to support (that alone a personal diary so I can remember what in the world I’ve been doing!)

Mary Rockwell with Wolf and Lucky

As I go on, and the blogging world gets bigger, I often feel self-indulgent, shallow and silly, but I always approach my blog posts sincerely. I love when I have a real purpose to write – as in the months last year when I was reporting to the great extended family and friends of Wolf and Lucky Guindon through the months of their medical crises. It is so nice to not feel that necessity so deeply – Wolf is doing very well, as good as a man of 81 needs to be, and is so much better than he was during the last couple of years, that to itemize his health issues at this point is over-dramatizing. And Lucky is, well, Lucky!

When I’m travelling and experiencing new places – and feel strongly that I want to share my photos of the beauty I encounter and my discovery of hotels, restaurants, organizations and especially artists and musicians – then it is easy to write and spread the words that come easily.

Being someone who pays attention to the cultural and natural world around me – politically, socially, comically – well, there has been no lack of fodder for my fire. However, I’m finding that there is such a repetition of bad news, incredibly stupid events, and useless government assurances that I am rebelling against spreading the bad news. I’ve always believed in repeating positive news but it is getting harder to find. Perhaps I’ve been an activist too long to believe too deeply that the scraps that are thrown our way will actually ever make us a nutritious meal.

I still stand by the idea that we need to celebrate the small victories because we never know when the next one will be – and any excuse for a collective joyful party is fine with me. The Occupy movement is the best thing that has happened since sliced whole grain bread and I was inspired for a while, but now I’m trying to not get bogged down in the nasty establishment’s corrupt and violent reaction to a very real uprising by the common people – that is, most of us. Well, I don’t feel the need to analyze it, nor explain it, nor condemn it. The actions of the elite, the corrupt, the governments and the multinationals should be understood by all as the disgusting power plays that they are, for the greed that they represent and for the sad future that they herald. And the people who are voting for the right wing politicians who are puppets for the manipulating corporations are probably not reading my blog anyway.

I do what I can – live simply by acts such as giving up my car years ago; live as one with nature despite the mosquito bites and the lack of electricity; practice kindness as my religion even when it hurts; contribute time or money or energy to projects and friends in need. Even though like most people I generally feel that I should do more, I’m not riddled by guilt for how I live….I worked that through many years ago and came to understand that we can’t be held responsible for where we come from or what we are born into – it was my luck to be born in comfortable North America to loving parents – but I can do my best to understand my privilege and that which others don’t have and try to help, in whatever big or small way, to bring the world to some kind of balance. And I don’t think guilt is a great motivator, it is a destroyer of spirit.

My experiences living and working with French-speaking communities in Quebec, the Ojibway and Cree in the north, the Spanish-speaking Costa Ricans and the Afro-Caribbean world in Cahuita – as well as growing up in a majority white English-speaking world divided between the rich, the middle-class and the working-poor – has taught me that life as I knew it when I grew up is only one small version of a complexity that we all share on a very finite globe. Our earth seems huge and phenomenally diverse one day yet small and totally co-dependent the next.

As people we share more similarities than differences, but our cultural and linguistic uniqueness, our adaptation to our distinct natural environments and our social and personal histories affect how our few years on this planet will play out. Some of us have many more options than others on how to influence our own journey but within that privilege we are as varied in our thinking about what is sustaining us as there are covers of “Yesterday”.

During the Christmas season just past, I experienced the festivities in a variety of ways according to three very different communities here in Costa Rica, demonstrating how different are our traditions and our celebrations. In the early part of December I was up here in Monteverde where I have spent the last two Decembers. The Quakers have a long history of traditional activities and community gatherings – the gift exchange, the day of “wassail” and local talent, the community BBQ and the Christmas Eve roaming carolers.  I was only here for some of the preparations including a Sunday afternoon of Christmas carol singing at the Guindon house. I had to leave before the schedule really revved up and was sorry to miss the week of Christmas when the community comes together with their homemade gifts and cookies and laughter. For me, Christmas has always been about family and friends and joyful gatherings.

A week before Christmas I was in San José with my friends Lorena and Edín. Rather than the traditional tamale making, for many years Lorena has been making beautifully decorated shortbread cookies that she gives as gifts to family, friends and colleagues. For her, Christmas is about sharing.

I was able to help her for three days, working in a big modern kitchen in a friend’s beautiful house in the Escazu hills, rolling dough, cutting shapes, baking and decorating through the nights with the twinkly lights of the Central Valley sprawling below us. Every night, somewhere in the city, there were fireworks! I’ve made many Christmas cookies in my day but never ones as colorful and joyful as these nor in an environment as luxurious as this one!

Just before leaving the city, Lorena and I returned to Barrio Escalante in time to enjoy the Christmas program put on by the Editus Academy of Music which Edín, as the guitarist of Editus, is a director of. We sat outside where they had erected a stage and listened to a number of their students, along with the musicians of Editus, playing various instruments and singing seasonal and classical music. It was lovely, even when an intoxicated man insisted on shouting complaints from the street…no party seems complete without a drunk!

The last two weeks of December, I spent in Cahuita with Roberto and Miel the cat. Roberto was raised a Jehovah Witness, as are many of the people in that community. He hasn’t attended this church since he was young, but he is influenced as an adult by his upbringing and celebrating Christmas is not something he does. There were very few traditional signs of Christmas around. In the town there were some nice decorations and many tourists making merry but in the forest the most festive thing we had were the fancy cookies I had brought from our bakefest.

There is much poverty in the area, and though I’m sure there were many celebrations in people’s homes, I have never passed a Christmas season with so little tinsel tradition even though I’ve enjoyed a number of green Christmases.  The Caribbean Sea was very out of sorts during this time, too rough to swim in, too stirred up to snorkel and fish in, too high to even find much sand to lay on – I think only the surfers were happy as there were more waves than usual. Our forest was gorgeous, the wet foliage twinkling in the occasional bursts of sunlight and an abundance of sloths moving about – the local version of a slow partridge in a pear tree.

One of the traditions that Roberto remembers from his childhood is his grandmother making banana cakes. We cook with wood and created an oven using the thick dry husks of the coconuts that burn slowly and with a good heat. I baked several banana cakes over the week, using up our many ripe bananas, and Roberto felt that bittersweet melancholy that comes with the foods of our childhood and the accompanying aromas. We did plenty of dancing, including on New Year’s Eve when the town, young and old, local and foreign, rich and poor, black and white, came out and partied. Even the sloths were in town that night, dangerous though it may be. I then left Cahuita to return to Monteverde, leaving Roberto with the hope of a dryer, sunnier January to start building his little casita.

On my way, I had a final experience of a typical Tico Christmas when I stopped and visited friends who were making one more batch of tamales, something that is very traditional amongst the Costa Ricans at this time of the year – well, at any time of festivities. I was told that many people on the Caribbean make tamales at Christmas, but it wasn’t part of Roberto’s traditions and I can’t say I saw any nor was invited to eat any. I was very happy to have an afternoon in Palmares with Vilma and Keyla, rolling the corn masa in the carefully prepared leaves and ending the day with a good feed of tamales…it felt like a satisfying finale to a very strange, quiet, yet still pleasant, Christmas season.

I returned to a cold, wet and extremely windy Monteverde which gave my Canadian blood a little rush of winter chill. But now the weather has changed towards summer, the sun has been brilliant, the sky blue and the wind, well, it continues to blow but not so harshly. We have just passed through the first full moon of 2012 – what some North American natives call “The Wolf Moon” as it is common to hear packs of wolves howling through the bright snowy nights. For me it has indeed been a Wolf moon, spent distributing books with Wolf, doing a couple of impromptu speaks to visiting student groups, and trying to have patience and resolve to get the translation, Caminando con Wolf, ready for print. It has to happen soon because I’m getting stopped regularly by people on the street asking, “Cuando va a salir el libro en español?” The year is 2012 – let’s hope that is the answer!

I have returned to life on the green mountain…and life here has somewhat returned to normal. Of course, what exactly is normal in this constantly shifting thing called life!? Normal so quickly becomes abnormal – and vice versa – that we all – humans along with all the rest of the earth’s creatures – must continually adapt if we are to survive.

The best story of survival in Monteverde that I can share is that of our friend Wolf Guindon. He is immensely better than he was when I left last June. Stefany, his lovely nurse, has left; he then had another young woman helping with his physical therapy, but she too has gone. Lucky has taken over guiding Wolf through his daily exercises. The results of all this attention is obvious – Wolf is walking steadier, even without his stick much of the time. He takes care of his own bathing needs. He gets in and out of the car on his own. He goes for short hikes on trails in the Reserve and elsewhere. He even has been working on a trail in the forest beside the house, where his son-in-law Rodrigo installed a bench so that Wolf and Lucky can go and sit to watch the sunset together.

Wolf is back to having some purpose in life – he gets out daily and works a little more on that trail. One of the best improvements is the use of his right hand that had serious damage from being tied to the bed posts during his time in the hospital. In June, about three months after his release, he was still barely using it. Now he can clearly sign his own name, handle his eating utensils, and hold and swing his machete with a fair amount of force.

photo by Gretchen Ann Scholtz

And due to the addition of a new pair of dentures, Wolf’s speech is much more understandable. By the time he went through all his trials and tribulations last year, his skeleton had changed enough that his teeth weren’t fitting properly. He is talking clearly and his smile is wide, warm and brand new!

He is also getting woollier. There was a time, exactly a year ago, when he was weak, his body frail and his head almost bald. I remember walking into his hospital room and thinking that he looked like Gandhi.  One year later, his sideburns are bushy, his eyebrows are furry and he has the look of a robust, if elderly, bushman. The twinkle has returned to his eye and his humor remains contagious and genuine.

Brad, Dale, Eric, Debbie, Julian, Kay, Wolf, Lucky, Tomas, Olivia Guindon

Something that brought huge smiles to his and Lucky’s faces were recent visits by their son Tonio and his family from Connecticut – who left eldest daughter, Oriana, here for a prolonged stay with her Monteverde family; a week with son Tomás and his family from California; and a very quick visit by Wolf’s nephew Dale and his family from Ohio, their first time in Costa Rica. They were here for their eldest son’s wedding down on the beach, and despite the fact that their son, Jeff, broke his foot playing beach soccer a couple of days before, it sounds like they had a wonderful wedding. Unfortunately, Jeff and his new bride couldn’t come up the mountain with the rest of the family as he needed to rest his foot and I’m sorry not to have met him. As I’ve often said, I’ve never met a Guindon I didn’t like – wonderful folks all.

So, this year I returned to Costa Rica without a plan.  I usually have a good idea of what I’m going to do in my months here and some sense of how I’m going to do it.  Last year became an amazing roller coaster ride undulating between Wolf’s health crises, working to finalize the paperwork for my bit of jungle near Cahuita, and the push to complete the publication of the Spanish edition of Walking with Wolf.  Wolf survived, the property paperwork appeared on my last day in the country, and the translation got edited, but nothing went quite like I expected. This year, I decided that instead of arriving with expectations, I would come with a buncha seeds in mind, cast them out, and see what germinates.  Now, a month later, I’m starting to water the plants that took root, and I hope that I’ll have a fruitful garden to show for it over the next six months.

The most important project, and the one that will take the most of my time, will be overseeing the layout/design and computer work of Caminado con Wolf. If I get nothing else done in the following months, I am committed to publishing, one way or another, the translation of our book. The English version continues to be very popular, selling well by word-of-mouth here in Monteverde and online, as well as on the shelves of the Café Britt souvenir shops in the San José airport.

MV Reserve Christmas float - all recycled

Last March and April I spent working with Lester Gomez, the young editor hired by the Tropical Science Center to edit Carlos Guindon’s translation. The TSC has been very generous in its financial support in this project. Carlos Hernandez, the director of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve, and Javier Espeleta, the director of the TSC, as well as other staff and board members, have been very enthusiastic and helpful in getting this done. Don Javier then went to the Editoriales de la Universidad de Costa Rica, whose director, Julian Monge, agreed our book should be published in Spanish as a valuable addition to Costa Rica’s historical and nature-centered literature.

Just as the TSC was passing the edited manuscript on to the EUCR for the next stage of production, Julian Monge left his position. Six months have passed and they have not hired a new director/head editor, and until they do, we don’t know what the future of our relationship with the EUCR will be. We are hopeful that the new director will have  the same positive position toward the project, but we can’t assume anything. We expect that there is bound to be a substantial backlog of projects waiting to be published when they have been missing a director for so long.

More than three years have passed since I self-published the English version in Canada. We have watched a warm and critically-positive reception to our book – it has been used as the inspiration for a high school course in New Hampshire, it’s been bought by local biology professors for their visiting university classes and I’ve received many letters of thanks from visitors to the Monteverde community who say that it has provided a valuable background that enriched their time here.  We know there are many Spanish-reading Costa Ricans waiting to read the book. The coming year 2012 is the 40th anniversary of the Monteverde Reserve and the 50th anniversary of the Tropical Science Center. They have numerous activities and special events planned and it would be wonderful to have Caminando con Wolf available for the participants of these celebrations throughout the year.

Since I have already gone through the process of “self-publishing”, I don’t fear stepping back into it. We are so close to finished I can taste the hors-d’oeuvres at the book launch! So I have decided to start walking down another path with Wolf, and get this thing done. It will mean some fundraising on my part for the costs of printing, but I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. If the EUCR’s new director remains interested, we will be thrilled. If not, we will be ready to go to print ourselves.

Throughout Wolf’s months of medical crises last year, he told people that he had no plans to die until the Spanish book came out. I think it was one of the mantras that kept him alive, along with his love for Lucky, his joy in the time he got to spend with his family and friends, and his phenomenal strength of spirit that is nurtured by his relationship with the natural world around him. The rest of us had somewhat of a dilemma on our hands when we didn’t know if getting the book finished quickly would send Wolf sooner to heaven, but happy, or if we should be slowing the process to keep him with us here on earth as long as possible, perpetually waiting for the book to appear.

In the end, of course all of our fates were out of our hands and things happened as they would. Wolf doesn’t look to me like he is going anywhere soon, but he regularly expresses his faith in my ability to get this translation done. Our talented friend here in Monteverde, Pax Amighetti, is ready, willing and able to do the computer/design/layout work for the book. I have arranged my dance card between time in Monteverde working with Pax, time in San José helping out a friend in need of some organization in her home, and time in Cahuita helping Roberto build a small casita. I have my eye on the prize, my heart in the right place, and my body and mind will go wherever it needs to be to get this job done.

A recycled bottle Christmas tree

As we move into the very busy holiday season, I am leaving Monteverde to spend Christmas in Cahuita. Pax and I have already made some important decisions about the design of the book’s cover. We will break for the yuletide and return with strength and determination in January. I have great faith that Caminando con Wolf will see the light of day in this exciting upcoming year of 2012!

I proceed inspired by the words of one of my heroes, civil rights leader and freedom fighter John Lewis, who says, “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?” I find it interesting that his own autobiography is titled “Walking with the Wind”…coincidence, I think not. Happy festivities everybody! I’ll keep y’all posted.

photo by Gretchen Ann Scholtz

Last Friday night, in a massive show of respect and appreciation, more than thirty thousand Costa Ricans gathered to remember the musical legacy of the late Fidel Gamboa. Fidel died suddenly of a heart attack in August at the frightfully young age of 50. His brother Jaime and the group of talented musicians who, together with Fidel, formed the group Malpaís were overcome by his loss and recently announced that they would disband. As Jaime explained, they have been on a wonderful road together for these last twelve years, but there is no doubt that Fidel was their musical leader and visionary and the others were following him down that road. Without him, the way isn’t so clear and the going too difficult. Malpaís decided to hold one last gathering for fans and friends at the Estadio Nacional, a venue big enough to hold as many as could come. Drawn together by Fidel’s music that evokes the richness of the history, landscape and culture of Costa Rica, it was an intimate family affair of mourning Ticos – and at least one Canadian cousin, a huge admirer of Fidel Gamboa’s music since I first heard it about seventeen years ago.

In the early 90s, violinists Iván Rodríguez (who is now the Costa Rican Vice-Minister of Culture) and Gerardo Ramírez, percussionist Tapado, along with a cellist and a vocalist, came to play at the Monteverde Music Festival as the Probus String Ensamble. They played an eerily breathtaking music composed by Fidel Gamboa. It was emotionally captivating and, just like life, at times discordant, for the most part intricately instrumental except for the moments of ecstasy when the female voice soared out of the comfort of the strings to send shivers along your spine right to your soul.  It was reminiscent of a group I loved from northern Quebec in the 70s called Conventum but nothing like I had heard since. I was broken-hearted when the musicians stopped performing as Probus because I thought I would never hear anything so beautiful again.

I soon realized that almost every Costa Rican group I listened to during the years of the Monteverde Music Festival was playing at least one of Fidel’s compositions and it was usually the piece that touched me the most, unique melodies with sweet names like Barco y Alma (Boat and Soul) and Viento y Madera (Wind and Wood).  According to Costa Rican musical lore, the phenomenally talented Fidel was very shy and it took his brother Jaime, their friend Iván, and other musical accomplices – pianist and now Minister of Culture, Manuel Obregon (in this pic), and percussionist Carlos “Tapado” Vargas (also including drummer, Gilberto Jarquín, and Iván’s daughter, singer Daniela Rodríguez) – a long time to convince Fidel to join them on stage to sing his many compositions as only he could do. It seems he prefered to compose behind-the-scenes for orchestras and soundtracks (Se quemo el ciel, Of Love and Other Demons etc.)  In 1999, the ‘supergroup’ Malpaís washed across the country like a rainstorm after a drought and Ticos raised their faces to the sky and drank in Fidel’s stories celebrating the simplicity of their collective past and rejoicing in the unique bounty of the Costa Rican landscape.

Though rain threatened earlier on Friday evening, not one drop fell on the sea of the Fidel faithful. Instead we were intermittently dampened by our own tears, brought on by the finale of Malpaís, the tragedy of Fidel’s passing and by the powerful sentiment of his music. It was clear to the members of Malpaís, to the Philharmonic Orchestra who accompanied them, to the musical friends who performed his songs as well as to those of us who were pressed together as one in front of the stage, that Fidel’s spirit was there, magically represented by a single bright star that shone directly above us in an otherwise cloudy sky. The emotion of the evening was overwhelming, as seen in the glistening eyes of people in the crowd and heard in the broken voices of those on stage.

Bernardo Quesada

Costa Ricans Marta Fonseca, Arnoldo Castillo, Bernardo Quesada, Humberto Vargas and others provided the voices, constantly accompanied by a chorus from the audience who knew the lyrics and sang along with the same reverence with which they would recite prayers at a funeral. An audible gasp, followed by cheers and more tears erupted from the audience when a video of Fidel singing Más el norte de recuerdo joined the others on stage.

Fidel’s uncle, Max Goldenberg, sang a number of the more traditional Guanacasteco numbers like La Coyolera. Argentinean Adrián Goizueta powerfully performed Presagio, tempting the gods to bring on the rain – “una gota de agua, una gota de agua” – an anthem of brewing storms, hope and renewal. In a grand show of solidarity and respect, Panamanian Rubén Blades took the stage and sang Paisaje, a song that Rubén recorded with Editus’ on their CD Decado Uno.

Edin Solis and Ruben Blades

Edín Solis, the guitarist of Editus, was on stage all night with his beautiful guitar-playing, helping to fill the void of Fidel’s musical absence. At times overcome by emotion, Marvin Araya conducted the Philharmonic Orchestra. All of the musicians on stage shared the depth of their loss in the pain etched across their faces, in the few words they were able to speak, in the passion of their playing.

Brilliant music both touches and teaches us. Fidel and his brother Jaime, who co-wrote many of the songs, remembered the lessons of their abuelos, understood the experiences unique to this tiny nation squeezed between two oceans and two powerful continents, and captured the glory of the natural biodiversity that flies, crawls, grows, climbs and swims across the many eco-systems here. Their music arises out of the arid plains of the northwestern lands of the Chorotega and Pamperos, where the distinctive umbrella-like Guanacaste tree provides shelter from the searing sun and pounding rains, drops their curly ear-shaped seed pods obviously designed as percussive instruments for humble musicians, and spreading their roots in an attempt to hold back the shifting sands of time.

Perhaps in the eastern province of Limon, where the Afro-Caribbean culture, landscape, and history are quite different, there isn’t an appreciation for the Gamboa musical story, much like in Canada where there is a cultural division between French-speaking Quebec and the rest of the English-speaking country. I expect that many Limonense have not even heard the music of Malpaís. For one thing, the Caribbean has its own wealth of calypso, soca and reggae music, but for another the local radio stations don’t generally support national music. Here in Cahuita, we listen daily to the radio stations that we can receive (including Radio Dos and Radio Columbia) and it is very rare to hear any of the great music that is being composed and performed by Costa Ricans around the country although, in fairness, there is a new crop of radio stations – Radio U, Radio Malpaís, and Radio Monteverde – dedicated to sharing national music. It often takes a commitment on the part of a country’s government to support its national artists before the wealth and excellence of their work will be truly appreciated and distributed.

It is ironic that Malpaís never played at the Estadio Nacional until this final concert. Last March, in the week of inaugural celebrations for the new soccer stadium, they refused to play as part of the concert that featured national Costa Rican music. They wrote a public letter explaining that they didn’t agree with the organizer’s proposition to pay the national performers less than they would usually get for a performance while at the same time paying a huge amount of money for the international star, Shakira – a plan that eventually backfired when the amount of spectators that they had hoped for the Columbian superstar didn’t materialize.

Apparently Malpaís was considering playing at the stadium in 2012 but, alas, this is not to be. Instead, as a way to say farewell to Fidel, they brought together one of the biggest audiences ever assembled in Costa Rica – charging an affordable admission – and proved that a national band playing original music could accomplish such a feat. I doubt that there is anyone who was there on Friday night who went away disappointed.  Instead I expect that most went away feeling great pride in the musical heritance that exists in their humble country and joy in having been part of this family-like gathering even with the sadness that surrounded the night.

Ruben Blades and Ivan Rodriguez

Fidel’s music is referred to as “Nueva Cancion”. It is quite amazing that Malpaís, a group of mostly older classically-trained musicians, playing rhythms that mix jazz and folkloric, classical with traditional, Latin and indigenous, campesino with urban, could touch so many so profoundly – particularly such a very young audience. The lyrics are steeped in a respect for the past, for family and community – a much more innocent and peaceful time in this exploding country- as well as hope for the future, with a consciousness of environmental responsibility and appreciation for the wonders of the natural world. Despite the immense changes that have come with development in this country, these remain the values that Ticos recognize as the roots of their family tree.

Long before Guanacaste became a tourist destination, there existed the natural rhythm of the winds and the rains and country folk raised on corn tortillas cooked on an open fire – Fidel reminds people of that beauty and simplicity. He understood that you must look back to know where you come from and only then will you know where you should be going. Rubén Blades remarked that death comes only when one is forgotten and with Fidel Gamboa, this will never happen. He has left behind a nation of loyal followers who will continue, in times of spiritual or patriotic drought, to absorb nourishment from his extraordinary, truly Costa Rican music.

September 2016
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