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I’m sitting in my hotel room in Houston. Thanks to my dear friend Professor Caroline Crimm of Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, I have just spent four days being treated like a queen here. I also have to thank Dean Jamie Hebert of the Department of Biology who provided comfortable lodgings and generous treatment in return for my coming to talk about Walking with Wolf with the biology students. I did my talk to a very small crowd, but thanks to the warm Texas hospitality, I leave with fond memories.

I am at the beginning of several weeks of book gigs, visiting friends and road-tripping through the west. Tomorrow I will fly on to Los Angeles, California, and spend a few days with my friend Terry who has recently moved there…and then start making my way north up the west coast, back to Canada.

It is bluebonnet and azalea season here – everyone tells me that I have come to Texas at the best time of the year. The weather is warm but not stinking hot as they say it can get. The flowers are beautiful – Lady Bird Johnson’s program from years ago of letting the roadsides fill with wildflowers is still evident. There are purple fields of bluebonnets (of the lupine family no doubt); undulating hedges of pink, purple and white azaleas; gardens of candy-colored gerberas and snapdragons….well, I may miss the tulips and daffodils in Ontario, but am being treated to all this floral beauty, Texas-style.

Caroline picked me up, introduced me as the “famous author” everywhere, made sure I was always comfortable, and took me out to restaurants that satisfied whatever craving I had. I have to speak up about a wonderful server we had in the Woodlands, just north of Houston – her name is Britney and she works at the Saltgrass Steakhouse. I love Costa Rica but wouldn’t say that restaurant service is always professional. The first night here in Texas brought me back to great service and this gal was truly a gifted server – friendly, informative, personal and appreciative – and after Caroline’s introduction – “famous author” – she was standing even tippier on her toes.

Besides my book thing, I followed Caroline around and saw how busy this award-winning professor, author, community-member, historian and human being is! She lectured, she moderated a Academic Challenge for area high school students, she participated in an interesting event called Poster Day – where faculty created posters about their research and displayed them in a conference room and then were present to discuss their areas of expertise with others. Caroline’s is about her most recent work in Monteverde, where she is doing research to write a history of pre-Quaker life on the green mountain, so I was her visiting poster-child, and we both talked about that community that we love so.

Caroline was the driver behind the reconstruction of a log building that is now a visitor center in the town square of Huntsville. She teaches courses that bring her students into the community to do service and to celebrate history. Her courses are hands-on, with students expected to dig in and get dirty – it was her and her students who rebuilt the log cabin. She has a room full of period costumes to use in local festivals, and a wall full of plaques in her office that express the appreciation of local communities for her enthusiastic involvement. Meeting Caroline has been one of the greatest pleasures of my last year. And now I’ve experienced her five star hospitality in the lone star state.

I arrived in Texas with a craving for red meat. A vegetarian for years, I no longer am, much of that due to the realities of traveling and living with people, and also sometimes my body craves it. As my time to go to Texas arrived, the cravings arrived. Caroline made sure I had some of that good Texas meat – and one of the highlights was the barbeque, a southern staple. In Huntsville, the big one is McKenzie’s, where the ribs were divine. We also picked up some ribs at what the locals affectionately call “The Church of the Holy Rib”, a funky family-run affair connected to the New Zion Church next door. I have to say the ribs may have been holy but not as divine, but the atmosphere was tops and the folks real nice.

The other thing that Huntsville is known for is its fine hospitality for prisoners. There are several prisons in the area. I think one of the oldest is the Huntsville State Prison, established in 1848 and still serving convicts all these years later, just up the road from Sam Houston University where Criminal Justice is their speciality. Locally known as “The Walls”, it was just next door to my hotel and hard to miss, though taking a miss on the inside tour is probably best. In my few days in Huntsville, I saw a lot of evidence of the prison system – the university had recruiting seminars going on in lobbies of buildings, anti-death penalty groups had events planned (because they still give a hang – is that a dang – in Texas) and I saw more species of police cars than you could imagine. But even the guard in the watchtower of “The Walls” smiled and waved as I took his picture – oh, those friendly Texans.

I’m not a shopper, but nevertheless went to a bunch of flea markets, antique stores and second-hand clothing shops, looking for used cowboy boots for my friend Lori back in Canada and myself. If you must go shopping while traveling, I think that visiting these kinds of stores is much more interesting than malls or chain stores whose merchandise is about the same everywhere you go. At least the used places give you a taste of what is, or was, local – they are like visiting small museums. So I’ve seen a lot of Texas charm, young and old.

The last day we went into Houston to the Live Oak Friends Meeting. As I said while introducing myself to the Quaker group, when I travel I’m not much interested in tourist attractions and souvenir shops. Instead I want to be immersed in the natural beauty of a place and meet the community. And I think visiting Friends meetings, where you always find wisdom, compassion, interesting conversation, and the existence of hope, is a much more valuable experience than any suggestion a tourism guide would give you.

I met some great people, sold a few books, and had a chance to sit in their beautiful meeting house, reflecting on my time in Texas, thinking about those I’ve left behind in Costa Rica, and those I’m headed to see on the west coast. I’ve a great appreciation for the warmth of the Texans, the beauty of the Texan springtime, and the generosity and friendship of Ms Caroline Crimm. Only sorry I didn’t get to go two-steppin’ – pero hay siempre la proxima. Girlfriend, may we meet again soon.

I’m finally getting around to writing about the great excitement of last weekend. The adrenalin raised on my trip to San José soon dropped off and left me with a cold but fortunately my oil of oregano, honey, cayenne and lemon cure, along with some tender loving care from Roberto, has me on the up and up – thankfully just in time for Christmas week. This afternoon is Christmas program at the Quaker meeting house followed by the drinking of the wassail and munching of everyone’s homemade cookies. Fortunately, I think I feel good enough to go, get a sugar-rush, and be social.

San José started like a sweet thing and over three days built to a sugar-rush crescendo. I went down on the Saturday to meet up with my friend Caroline Crimm, the history prof from Sam Houston State University in Texas who has been collecting data to write a history of society in the pre-Quaker Monteverde area. For months, she’s been searching through national archives, church records and talking with old-timers. Now she’s a wealth of information on the main players and scandals in the region from the 1800s onward and passionately engaged in their stories.

She is also a great friend, proven when she donated her last Saturday in Costa Rica to an afternoon of shopping with me for an appropriate handbag to take to the formal reception at the house of the Canadian Ambassador. I managed to collect the dress, shoes, and shawl from girlfriends in Monteverde, but still needed a handbag elegant enough for the evening but also big enough to smuggle a copy of Walking with Wolf into the party. I don’t know what’s considered appropriate protocol when meeting the Governor General, but I wanted to have a copy available to give her, just in case, so needed a bag for the stash.

So Caroline and I wandered Avenida Central, surrounded by thousands of enthusiastic Tico Navidad shoppers and street vendors – a lot of tinselly things, flashing Santa hats and stuff. Unless I wanted to pay $100 for a nice leather bag, I didn’t see anything else that would work. It was a case of Goldilocks and the 2 out of 3 bears – purses too small, too big, nothing just right. Neither of us being big shoppers, the exercise just about killed us.

To recuperate, we went for a fantastic dinner at Café Mundo, where you can sit outside on the large veranda under the tropical trees.  Each course was excellent – stuffed mushrooms, Caesar salad, French Onion Soup (which I’m a connoisseur of yet I don’t think I’ve ever had in Costa Rica before), and a caramel pie for dessert. All divine and not terribly expensive…I’ve gotten used to the fact that meals here tend to be equivalent to Canadian prices, but I don’t think the two of us could have eaten this well, along with a half liter of wine, for $35 in Canada.

San José was celebrating its own Festival de Luces that night, and the crowds were lining Paseo Colon and Avenida 2 starting early in the afternoon. The Casa Ridgway and Friends Center for Peace, where we were staying, is only a couple of blocks from the Plaza de la Democracia where the parade was to finish up – I never did see the show as it was close to 10:30 at night when the first of the bands and floats finally arrived there. I had gone back to the pension, having witnessed the festivities in Santa Elena just a week ago (last blog post). By what people later told me, Santa Elena’s festival was just about as big as the capital city’s.

One of the things that I knew I was going to do in San José on Sunday was go to a free outdoor all-day concert by numerous Tico musicians in support of the Marcha Mondial de la Paz y No Violencia – http://www.theworldmarch.org – a group of around thirty people (with others in other parts of the world) who gathered in New Zealand back in September and started walking, bussing, and flying across the continents, holding events to raise our global conscience towards an international culture of peace and personal non-violence.

As it would turn out, the group, arriving on Saturday night from the Nicaraguan border, was staying at the Casa Ridgway. I awoke early on Sunday morning to hear Luis, the only employee working that morning, starting to put breakfast together for this large group. Caroline was already in the kitchen helping and so I quickly joined in – coffee, fruit, scrambled eggs, refried beans and fresh bread from the local bakery. A simple breakfast is what they always serve here, but even simple is a lot of work when the crowd numbers close to thirty.

We spent an enjoyable couple of hours getting the food out and cleaning up, being visited in the kitchen by different members of the world community from Italy, New Zealand, India, Canada, Argentina, United States, Germany, Belgium, Spain. It was a smorgasbord of accents with some amount of Spanish or English for communication, the common factor being they were all people who believed passionately in working, and walking, towards peace and that non-violence begins in our homes and hearts.

And a great cast of characters: Kai Eberhardt, from Germany, who was thrilled to meet a woman who had the same name as him – and like me was always dancing even when he was sitting;

Jair Guadarrama, a Mexican-blooded resident of Toronto and the world,  who was part of a group escorting the peace marchers through Central and South America – an artist, he traded me one of my books for several of his political art cards;

Sinthya Penn, a conservative business woman from California (with a Canadian connection – she owns a beneficial insect business in Guelph, Ontario) who became committed to the group following an experience when the march began a couple months ago – she recognized herself in the apathetic busy faces in the crowd who wouldn’t take a moment to take the literature they were so sincerely handing out. She realized she needed to step up and represent some of those who are too busy working and just too distracted to give peace a chance.  And Charles Lasater, her partner, also from California, who, it turns out, has a personal connection with me. 

I started telling Sinthya about Walking with Wolf – that it was a book about a man who has lived his life by his values of non-violence and pacifism and for the greater good of his community. And walking for what he believed in, as they were doing. I gave a book to the group as I thought it would be appropriate reading for them as they continue for another month of bus and plane travel with events throughout South America on their way to Puntas de Vacas in Argentina. She then bought two more copies which was great for me.

Her partner, Charles, came along and we got talking – he mentioned that he was from northern Michigan. I told him I only knew Traverse City – it turned out that is where he’s from. He asked who I knew there – “go on, just throw out the name, one never knows” – and when I said my close friend Cocky Ingwersen, he burst out, “John Ingwersen’s daughter! That man was one of my closest friends years ago.” It turned out that they were part of a group of intellectual types – poets, including writer Jim Harrison, in the area back in the 60s before everyone dispersed. Charles, then known as Dick, had lost touch with the Ingwersens. I’ve now put him in touch with Cocky, and another small world connection was made.

As we continued chatting, I mentioned that I was preparing for this big night and how Caroline and I had been stymied in our search for the perfect handbag. Sinthya said, “maybe I have something that will work,” and took me to her room where she pulled out a bag of just the right colour for the dress and size to fit my book. She presented it to me and I was thrilled – not only because I wouldn’t have to spend any more time shopping for a bag, but to have a souvenir from this crowd of dedicated activists, to carry this bag that had already traveled from New Zealand to Asia to Europe and Africa and into the Americas following the coo of the peace doves – I will treasure it always with fond memories of these wonderful people.

I went to the concert that was being held in their honor but only saw the reggae band, Kingo Lovers, and Manuel Monestel’s band, Cantoamerica, before heading off to meet Roberto who was arriving from Cahuita on the afternoon bus. The music was to play on for hours and the crowd was attentive and the peace crew was dancing and obviously happy to be in a country where the army had been abolished sixty years ago.

Manuel pointed out the many other places where violence is still very much a part of this society – in the home, in the workplace, against the environment, on the street, and in the laws – specifically referring to new laws being adapted in Costa Rica that mess with the musicians’ abilities, already difficult, to live off their creations and their intellectual property. (There was a planned march on the president’s house by Costa Rican musicians and their supporters a couple of days later which, unfortunately, we weren’t able to attend – more information at www.derechosdelosmusicos.com)

Roberto arrived and life sweetened up another notch. He brought a bag of Caribbean treats – coconuts for rice and beans, senna leaves to cure a rash that’s been bothering me, and other bush plants for tea, his homemade organic banana vinegar – and himself, the best of Cahuita – for me. He will be experiencing a Monteverde Christmas this year – not as cold as a Canadian Christmas, but certainly chillier than he is used to. Although Monteverde has been very dry and hot and sunny since I arrived a few weeks ago, the weather has changed a bit and though we certainly won’t be having a white Christmas, we sure may have a wet, cold blowy one.

The last day in San José was all about preparing for the big night at the reception for Michaelle Jean, the Governor General of Canada. I had called my friend Lorena Rodriguez, a very talented interior decorator/Tica, who, of course, took me under her wing to make sure I was going to be properly adorned for the event. I met up with her and her friend, Richarda (with a new Chihuahua puppy, Maxi-million, the perfect salon lap dog)…they took me to Mall San Pedro and a salon where Israel did my hair in an upsweep with a bunch of curls at the back, using at least half a can of hairspray (note to self: next time ask them to hold the spray, or at least minimize its use)….then for the manicure….then home to Lorena’s where she did the cosmetic make-over and made sure I had it all put together. Thanks to all these women who helped me over the week – Melody, Tanya, Marlene, Caroline, Richarda and Lorena – I pulled off an elegant enough look to get me in the door at the Ambassador’s pad.

 

Like a proud stylist, that sweeter-than-sugar Lorena drove me into the exclusive neighbourhood in Escazu where the Ambassador lives and then I was on my own. First couple I met, while entering the house in a slow line waiting to sign the guest book, knew Robert Dean, an artist and musician here in Monteverde, and also knew of my book. Good start I thought, I must be in the right place. I spent the first part of the evening sipping wine and chatting with the Costa Rican Minister of Health, Doña María Luisa Ávila Agüero and her husband and another interesting woman (whose name and position escapes me) originally from Puerto Viejo. We were all Caribbe-lovers in the circle. The Governor General had spent the previous day in the Atlantic province of Limon, a fact I know was acknowledged with great interest by Roberto and others on the usually neglected Caribbean coast. People danced with her in the streets and no doubt the GG’s own Haitian roots helped create a bond with the Afro-Limonenses.

The formal part of the program was the presentation of awards of recognition by the Governor General and the Ambassador to Canadians who have contributed years of work in building relations with Canada here in Costa Rica. Michaelle Jean was charming, humble, sexy (if one can say that about one’s GG), intelligent and radiated kindness. Her husband, Jean-Daniel Lafond, a film maker, was funny and very direct in his comments about the important role of culture in international relations – he spoke in French and his Tico interpreter relayed his message with even greater enthusiasm. Ambassador Neil Reeder is a big jolly man and was very welcoming. I was able to talk to him for a few minutes and thank him for the financial support the Embassy bestowed on the translation of Walking with Wolf.

I finally talked to my pal José Pablo Rodriguez. I truly thank him for getting me invited to such a high brow affair (li’l ol’ me.) I asked him if it was okay to give a book to the Governor General. He called over a couple of her staff and, as it turned out, they knew about the book since José had already been talking it up to them – why, you have to love that man…nice to have friends in high places. One of the GG’s people took the copy of my book to give to her later, and then insisted that I go and have a few words with the woman herself. When I finally got in front of her, it was easy to talk (not that I usually have a problem, and of course, those constantly filled glasses of wine didn’t hurt.) I told her about Monteverde and Wolf and his contribution to conservation here. She listened intently and asked questions (was particularly amused by the fact that he was the first chain saw dealer in the country turned tree hugger) and was warm and interested. I asked her about her time in Limon, saying that my Afro-Caribbean boyfriend was very happy that she had gone there. A visit of someone of her position to the eastern port would be significant for the too often forgotten Atlantic coast. I was only sorry that Roberto wasn’t there with me to speak for himself (I later told him he wouldn’t have been able to help himself from flirting with her as she is quite beautiful and charismatic.)

The whole evening was sparkly and magical, a roomful of shiny people, the lights of San José glowing through the wall of windows, the home beautifully decorated for Christmas, stunning Indigenous art from Canada on the walls making me feel at home – very friendly waiters offering trays of hors d’oeuvres (especially liked the stuffed mushrooms) and constantly trying to refill my wine glass – I looked good and walked proud but got out of there one glass of wine away from a stumble. I thoroughly enjoyed the moment and the people and the place. I also have to say that I was truly drawn to the presence of Michaelle Jean with her gentle kind wisdom and her obvious strength. I’d be honored if she takes the opportunity to read our book.

Now Christmas is upon us. As the Monteverde wind blows and mists swirrel outside the window, I’m thinking of all the people I met last weekend – those traveling around the globe spreading the message of peace and non-violence – the GG and her husband creating positive cultural and humanitarian ties between Canada and other countries – the musicians singing their own words and playing rhythms of hope – as well as the thousands who have been in Copenhagen at the Climate Change talks this month and working hard to convince politicians and industry lobbyists to cut the greed and be intelligent about how we treat the earth. I send a huge thanks for the care and energy you are each putting into making this a better world.

I’m also thinking of my many wonderful friends and those who are family spread far and wide who I won’t see this year – you are all in my heart and we will meet again in 2010. Our Christmas tree this year is the big Ficus outside the window which is presently adorned with shiny mot mots, emerald toucanet, euphonias, clorophonias, robins, squirrels, red berries and a dove – all getting along and sharing the fruit nicely. Whatever your personal celebration in the following days or weeks, may you, and each one of us, be surrounded by the sweet songs of love, joy, kindness and, ultimately, peace.

July 2020
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