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I am back in the wind, but it is a warm sleepy breeze here in Cahuita rather than the wild winds of Monteverde. The air and the water are both balmy. There’s no wireless connection in this town so I’ve become a little less connected with the bigger world this past week. That’s fine with me. My existence here is basic but rich, slow but always winding my way toward the horizon where the sky and sea meet.
Costa Rica’s beaches cover almost every imaginable variation. A week ago I was in Manuel Antonio on the central Pacific coast – one of the first beaches to be developed for tourism and definitely one of the busiest. Now I’m in Cahuita on the Caribbean and its charm for me lays in the fact that it hasn’t changed all that much since I first came in 1990. I tend to gravitate to less populated places with a high relax factor and so I fit in well here.
On the other hand, and coast, Manuel Antonio sits at the end of an action-packed seven kilometer road that starts in Quepos, once a fishing village now a busy town handling the commercial side of the tourism trade. The road crawls up and over the rocky cliffs to the beach of Manuel Antonio and its National Park and is filled with hotels and restaurants that can be seen gracing the pages of Architectural Digest or Conde Naste magazines. I’ve managed to stay at a couple of these places over the years just because someone I know knew someone who could get us a great deal, but otherwise I could never afford any of them. The best I can do, as I did with my friends on Valentine’s Day, is walk the road and stop in for a drink in different establishments just to get the feel of their atmosphere and design.
Manuel Antonio’s beaches are beautiful – the large white sand beach that fronts the little town, where people can swim but there is also enough wave action for surfers – and the smaller beaches that you must enter the National Park to access. Even though there are a lot of tourists around, you can walk the paths and arrive at the more secluded beaches – passing silent sloths, raucous white-faced monkeys and the rare little squirrel monkeys playing in the trees – the forest that you walk through is alive and diverse.
The majority of the tourists seem to like to gather with all the others on the main beach where umbrellas and lounge chairs can be rented. The last time I was in MA it wasn’t like this. But then I never was one to be here often and several years have passed and if there is one thing I know in Costa Rica, it is that change comes fast and furious. Everyone in the area steps up to try to make a living off the tourists – working in restaurants, hotels or tour and souvenir shops or selling their wares illegally on the sidewalks and beach stalls (the vendors all scatter when word spreads that the police are on the way to check their permits.)
Pretty young girls learn how to carry pots and plates on their heads at very early ages and walk the beach selling fruit and snacks until they are beautiful young women doing a good business. And the guys with the great personalities become the great bartenders.
Although tourists coming to Costa Rica are warned about being robbed – definitely a caution not to take lightly – this has actually only happened to me twice in the nineteen years of coming here. And both situations were identical – I left shoes outside at night and someone picked them up. The first time was at a different beach many years ago, outside of a tent I was sleeping in when the thief left my brand new $100 Birkenstocks but took my friend’s used but nice running shoes. This year I left my sarong and sandals outside of the condo I was staying in and next morning they were gone. Lesson learned (again) – fortunately I was quickly distracted from my loss by a pair of pygmy owls nesting in the tree next to our room – and was able to cheaply replace both the shoes and the sarong.
Soak-in-the-sea-days, great food, and nights spent dancing – thus went the days at Manuel Antonio. I spent this little beach vacation with my pals Jeff the crooner (if you throw him a line he’ll have to sing you a verse…)
and Randy One-Flop from Hamilton,
and Special KKKK-Kevin from New Brunswick. Wonderful men are they all and we had fun. Kevin stayed on in steamy Quepos while Jeff and Randy and I went up to the cool climate of Monteverde.
We spent a beautiful sunny day in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve walking with Wolf. When the sun shines in the cloud forest, you can’t help but feel blessed. Wolf was in good form, taking a new painkiller which makes his walking easier. He’s been suffering from worn out knees (including a new one) for years.
The day started a little drizzly but turned into a blue sky glimpsed behind the sparkle of the sun on the wet leaves of the forest canopy. We met up with a couple of guys from the United States and ended up selling a couple of books – I tell ya, I’m always working. After Wolf went home for lunch, Randy, Jeff and I continued wandering the trails through the Reserve, glimpsed a quetzal, went out to the red swinging bridge named in honor of Wolf, and onward to the ventana or window with spectacular views east over the Peñas Blancas valley and west over the Nicoya Peninsula.
We finally walked home along the Nuboso trail built with wooden “cookies” and block steps through the elfin forest and back to the entrance on the newly-made accessible part. A perfect day spent in the Cloud Forest Reserve.
That night I finally met up with Leila Trickey – the daughter of my friend Jean who I have written about in earlier blogs (K-Stock and Not So Scary After All). We’ve been playing email tag but finally ended up in the same physical place – Santa Elena. I’ve known Leila since she was about a year old and it has been great spending time with her down here. She is at the start of a long solo trip through Central America but being a new traveler was glad to touch base with “a local”.
Leila is afraid of heights (and I have to say I enjoyed traveling down the mountain in the bus with her more than anyone I’ve journeyed with before – she could barely look out the window at the steep hillsides we were descending without squealing and jumping back in her seat but fought her fear and kept on taking pictures.) Nor did her fear stop her from going out and doing the canopy tour – specifically at Selvatur, your one-stop eco-experience-shopping-mall on the far side of Santa Elena (with one of the best bug collections in the world.) Randy and Jeff headed out in the morning to do the ziplines as well, Randy also prepared to face his fear of height. They all loved it though (that facing-your-fear-and-surviving thing is empowering) and would have gone again if they had the time.
We took a taxi a few kilometers further (you can always work a good deal with the taxi drivers around here) just to see the view over Arenal volcano and lake from El Mirador de San Gerardo. This is one of the most stunning scenes in Costa Rica I think. Yet few people make it out this way to see it or even know about it (or are too busy with all the other Monteverde activities or the weather isn’t conducive to seeing anything but clouds and fog). To have a perfectly clear sunny day to witness this beauty was another gift. Stephen Spielberg, eat your heart out.
We then took a wine and cheese picnic out to the bullpen (a magical pasture that I’ve written about before.) We stayed on until the shadows lengthened and then headed to one of the best sunset spots in Monteverde, the Fonda Vela Hotel. They have a great outdoor balcony that looks out to the horizon. There have been many concerts at the Fonda Vela over the years and when planned well, the musical intermission would be right when the sun was setting. The second half of the concert would be by candlelight in the high ceilinged dining room.
Now there is a pool table out on the balcony to play on while watching the sun go down. Just adds to an already great place. (Ms Costa Rica, Leila, in one of her brother Ethan’s designed shirts – check out www.miolacooperative.com)
We finished our tour of Monteverde tasting a bit of nightlife at Chancho’s Bar in Santa Elena – Randy and I happy to do the dancing, Leila and Jeff soaking up the local culture – the perfect day turned to perfect night by the outdoor fire outside Chancho’s funky little bar. Monteverde shone like a star for us over these days.
Leila wanted to see the Caribbean so I left my Pacific pals behind and brought her to Cahuita. And here I stay. Always working. Uh-huh. Until next time…
Here I am writing from my familiar perch in Monteverde, Costa Rica. The winds up here on the green mountain are furious as they will be at this time of the year – whipping away the dust that had settled over last year and shaking the trees as we try to imagine what this new year will bring us. Of course in another week or so, the big promise of change in the United States – Mr. Obama and the Democrats – will be blown in, inaugurated, feasted on, and then analyzed to death – and the poor man will have to take the wheel of this crazy ship that is tossing and turning in a very churned up sea.
I have to admit to getting out of touch with the bigger world while here in Costa Rica. I don’t see television or listen to radio very often. Newspapers come to me sporadically. I am happy to re-immerse myself in all things Tico so I generally don’t mind losing touch with the rest of the world. Bad news travels quickly and finds me – I can always find good news from home on the internet when I need the tranquility of old friends and a peaceful snow-covered northern winter scene. The wild winds here keep my head rattled although I know that I’ll eventually get used to them, about the time that they quit in early March or so. It has been two years since I was here in this season, the beginning of the dry period, having spent last winter getting Walking with Wolf to press in Canada, so I’m finding myself all the more affected by the dervish breezes, dancing shadows, clacking branches and fleeting clouds. The wind brings voices through the air that may be real or may just be forest music. It was only six months since I’ve been here but that was in the dead calm of the rainy season (except for the phenomena of the Pacific-influenced hurricane on the day of the book inauguration last May). Thankfully I tend to adjust to changes relatively unscathed so I’ve learned to just let these winds do what they will with me.
I came up the mountain on December 31st and had my first bus accident experience. If you know this road, twisting and turning its narrow self up the rough slopes to the clouds at the top, you’d think that accidents were common. But when the French tourists in a rental car came flying around the gravelly corner and couldn’t pull over in time and the big CRUNCH came, I was actually quite shocked, not just by the impact but by the fact that after eighteen years the obvious had finally occurred. Fortunately nobody was hurt, just the car, and of course the big ol’ Monteverde bus barely registered a scratch on its aged and hardened metal skin. We sat in the middle of the road for about three hours till the insurance guy and transit policeman came, took pictures and measurements, all the while cracking jokes with the very relaxed bus chauffeur. They eventually let us clear the way so the cars that had come along and couldn’t pass could finally get on their way to their New Year’s Eve celebrations. The only highlight was a fruit truck getting caught in the traffic line, which meant we were able to buy some juicy watermelon to sustain us as we waited out the procedure in the hot sun on the side of the dusty road.
I got to Monteverde in time to help my friend Patricia who was preparing for the big Beatles tribute concert at her Monteverde Amphitheatre at Bromelias. I sold tickets at the door, a handy thing, giving me the chance to say hi and pass out New Year’s kisses to a lot of local friends. Over one hundred and fifty people were there, packing the place, and the music was joyful as it should be on such an evening. Robert Dean (on the far right in the pic), a Brit who now lives locally and is known for his book on Costa Rican birds, put together about twenty singers and musicians (backed by the Chanchos de Monte, his local band, as well as a string section and flutes) and they covered a wide variety of Beatles songs in an acoustic set followed by a rocking electric one. Robert’s musical reputation in Monteverde is built on the fact that he toured with Sinead O’Connor as her guitarist and his projects are always impressive. In the case of the Beatles, how can you go wrong? The audience sang along and danced – the spirit was great and it made me very happy to be back in this engaging community.
It all took place outside, under the canopy of the magical amphitheatre, accompanied by a smiling slip of a moon, those seasonal gusty winds and lluvisna – the light misty rain that is as normal in Monteverde at this time of the year as the howler monkey’s roar. It can spit moisture here when there doesn’t appear to be a cloud in the sky and rainbows often seem to come out of nothing more than promises.
The rest of the night was all about dancing at Moon Shiva – with our pal Fish behind the tunes we couldn’t stop till the roosters were thinking about crowing. I’d say that 2009 arrived in perfect style. I happily met up with Wolf first thing on the first morning of 2009…we have plans for a renewal of marketing books, which are selling well. We are awaiting the publication of a couple of reviews, an article and an interview in some Quaker journals this month (Friends Journal and Quaker Life out of Philadelphia; Quaker Monthly out of London) Wolf is well, happy, only a little grumpy about his aches and pains, but always warm and enthusiastic. It always touches my heart, this friendship I have with this wonderful man.
Veronica and her son Stuart, folks from New Jersey who I had met briefly on my last trip here, offered for me to live with them in the house they are renting. It is the Cresson house, one I am very familiar with from my first years in Monteverde when I’d come to the Sunday evening pot lucks held by Osborn and Rebecca Cresson. They were a lovely Quaker couple who have been gone from Monteverde for many years and passed away since. Their son Ozzito, has a small casita next door which I had just moved in to back in September 1990 when I quickly decided to return to Canada – partly because a friend offered me a great contract working on northern forestry issues with local First Nations, partly because I knew something was terribly wrong with my health. Three months later I would be diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease and begin the chemotherapy and radiation treatments that took me out of the forest project and delayed my return to Monteverde, but ultimately saved my life.
Stuart, Kyle & Mark (one of my editors) at the first community potluck of 2009
So coming back to this house is a return to an interrupted dream that I was living at the time – my first year in Monteverde, collecting Wolf’s stories, learning Spanish, falling in love with all things Latino. There are three other residents at the Cresson house now who go by the names of Chiqui, Cutie Pie, and Betsy – three little dogs rescued by Veronica at different times. Chiqui came from the US with her when she decided to move here a few months ago and put Stuart in the Friends School. Cutie Pie really is the sweetest little thing, taken off the streets of Monteverde – and Betsy, found in a box in the middle of the road, is named for her slight resemblance to a Holstein cow, though on very short legs. I am their nanny while Veronica and Stuart head back to the US for a few weeks.
Betsy the lucky dog
It was a serious decision for me to take on the responsibility, as I am a wanderer and generally don’t stay put in Monteverde long before I head off visiting friends in other parts of this beautiful country. But the offer was generous, Veronica and Stuart very friendly and kind, and I love dogs, so I decided quickly that having a commitment to keep me in Monteverde for a few weeks wasn’t a bad thing. It will give me a chance to visit with local friends, work with Wolf on our continuing book-selling efforts, help take care of the belongings of our friends Inge and Andy who are in a struggle with cancer over in Austria, and get started with my next writing project.
In the week before my duties began, I did take advantage to go down to the city with Wolf and get the boxes of books I had shipped out of customs. With our friendly customs man, Eliecer Alfaro, all went well and painlessly (after awhile, the kaching doesn’t hurt so much). We also took more books to the two big book stores in San José that carry them – Seventh Street Books and Lehmans – and I made contact with the company that buys for the airport stores. I had been in touch back in June but then didn’t hear back and had thought that they weren’t interested. I decided to call them to see why that might be. As it turned out, the woman hadn’t received my last email (no doubt lost to the spam gods) giving them the information they needed to place the order, and since I hadn’t followed up, they hadn’t either. I am still learning the fine art of marketing – always follow up on contacts! So we begin the process again and with any luck (and tenacity on my part) I will see Walking with Wolf in the busy gift stores of the Juan Santa Maria airport when I leave the country at the end of March.
While in downtown San José, I took some pictures of more fine examples of Christmas tinsel art – if you will remember from my Guatemalan posts, I am always fascinated with what people do here with a little aluminum foil.
We made a plan to do a book presentation at the Quaker Peace Center in San José on March 12 (who are also hosting a conference in early March on the eradication of depleted uranium weapons – check it out at amigosparalapaz.org). I have also just been talking with our good friend Mercedes at the Monteverde Reserve who thinks we may be able to do a presentation in February to a group of visiting Japanese tourists. Our friend Takako, who accompanied us on the hike to Arenal that makes up the last chapter of the book, is bringing this group and will be available to translate – that could be a very fun evening – hope they bring the sashimi!
I then took advantage of the few days I had before my dog duties began to head to the Caribbean to see my friend Roberto before he leaves for Australia. If you have been reading this blog, you will know the story (East Coast Pleasures; The Power of the Blog). He was working when I bumped into him but decided to follow me a few miles down the coast to Manzanillo for a couple of days to escape the craziness that can be Cahuita. He is still in the middle of the extensive paperwork necessary for a visa to Australia and I’m not sure how it will all turn out. He is older now and the work it takes to travel is much more complicated than the last time he went somewhere (before September 11th happened and security issues created a tiresome worldwide bureaucracy). I gave him another copy of the book, since his was washed away in the flood that took away his home a couple months ago and he had been enjoying reading it. He is slowly rebuilding and, in true Caribbean style, not too worried about anything much.
I hadn’t been to Manzanillo in years and expected changes, but except for several new cabinas and an expanded restaurant at Maxi’s, the business at the heart of the community, Manzanillo was pretty slow and peaceful like I remembered it. Maxi’s has a roaring business in the day and evening – they make great food served generously on big platters – rice and beans with fish or chicken in coconut-rich sauces, refreshing ceviche, rich flan.
At night the place was very quiet in comparison to Puerto Viejo and Cahuita, both hot night towns. Nonetheless we got in some great soca dancing – and the days were spent on that beautiful Caribbean Sea, soaking up the sun, floating in the embryonic turquoise waters, talking life with my Rasta friend.
On the day that I left San José, headed for the coast, I left Wolf in the city with his plan to head to the bus station to catch the Monteverde bus at 2:30 in the afternoon. I was a couple days at the beach before I heard the catastrophic news that there had been a major earthquake (6.2) just outside of San José and Alajuela at 1:20 that day. Bit by bit the news filtered to Manzanillo, the newspapers showing the tremendous landslides that took the lives of no less than thirty people. When I realized the timing and proximity, I called Wolf’s house and Lucky assured me that he was fine, but had certainly seen the buildings move around him while waiting for the bus. As of today, five days later, they say that eighty-two people are still missing and dozens are injured. The pictures show the extent of the damage, particularly a powerful series in one paper showing the exact same scene of the Catarata de la Paz (Peace Waterfalls) at Poas a few days before and a day after; a small restaurant, the Soda de la Campesinita, standing humbly but proud a week ago, now all gone except for a couple of poles that were the doorway.
It is tremendous, the force of the earth, the fragility of life, the heart-wrenching immediacy of disaster in people’s lives. In a moment, change comes. And in so many other ways, change takes forever. Or is it that bad change happens quickly and good change demands time and effort? The wind blows it all past our door, leaving us shaken in its wake, sometimes in celebration, other times left to pick up the plastic garbage impaled on the bushes, wondering where in the world all this stuff comes from, and what are we meant to do with it anyway?