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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.
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.
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.
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.
According to those analyzing the Mayan calendar, we are in for some pretty crazy events in the next couple of years. One should consider carefully where they want to be, especially on December 21, 2012, just in case any of these prognostications come true. An obvious place would be here in the land of the Mayans themselves – Guatemala – ground zero for safe passage into the future. As I realized on my last trip here in 2008, it would be a beautiful place to end your days if that so be the case. I’d happily wrap myself in colorful cotton cloth, feast on beans and corn tortillas, listen to the stories coming out of the rumbling volcanoes, and enjoy these brown people who will continue to call each other “amigo” even as the lights fade out.
I expect that strong Mayan spirit will be rising steadily to meet the challenges inherent in global chaos, aided by their experience over millennia of surviving environmental and social hardships. So I have returned to Guatemala to check out the preparations for 2012 before the big crowds come.
I left Wolf back in the hospital Blanco Cervantes in San José in good form, relatively speaking. He’s having physical therapy and feeling strong enough that he told me to go and have a good time, he wasn’t going anywhere. I heard from Stefany, his nurse, that the day after I left his blood sugar and pressure were all over the place, but that is part of the struggle, trying to regulate Wolf’s aged and problematic system – or maybe he just missed me. Latest word is that he should truly be going home soon!
In early January, as my ninety-day visa run out of Costa Rica was approaching, I knew I had to consider where to go for at least three days to be legal again. As it turned out, all the planets aligned themselves for this trip: I’ve been staying with Lorena and Edín, he the guitarist of Éditus, and they told me that in February they were playing a concert opening an arts festival in Antigua. I then contacted my friends Rick and Treeza in San Pedro on stunning Lake Atitlan who had been talking about coming down to see me in Cahuita. They’ve just built a house and have had too much company to consider taking the trip right now so they said why don’t I come and visit them? And the final sign came when I checked airplane prices and there was a great sale on. The winds practically blew me to Guatemala.
We all flew on the same day. Lorena and I, along with violinist Ricardo’s wife Moy and percussionist Tapado’s girlfriend Monica, came together on the same flight. The band – with their two stage hands and techies Chino and Eric – arrived shortly after. It was the beginning of two days of living la vida dulce as a groupie in magical Antigua.
Of course Éditus had lodging in a very nice hotel befitting rockstars courtesy of the festival organizers. I, the lowly gypsy, stayed about a five minute walk away at the Villa Esthela, a charming little pension that cost me $10 for a private room (I splurged as there were shared rooms for $6). The best part of the place was the rooftop. When I went to Antigua before, I had spent a couple nights in a place with a rooftop (Hotel San Vicente – nice but too expensive for me now) and one night in a place without and realized that having access to the sky is a desirable feature.
If I can’t afford to stay in one of the many spectacular hotels in the city, at least I can sit on the rooftop of my humble abode and feel rich in the sunshine or privileged under the stars, surrounded by volcanoes and ancient churches. Villa Esthela was super comfortable, everything worked (though the only three-prong outlet for my laptop I found was up on that rooftop, a convenient inconvenience), the bed was comfortable, there’s a kitchen, and Daniella, the Dutch woman who runs the place, was very accommodating and friendly. Highly recommended.
Although I slept there and visited the rooftop day and night, I also spent a lot of time with the others at their hotel and out and about across Antigua. One of the best places was Casa Santo Domingo, an ancient village within the ancient city: stoned walls in various stages of decay and refurbish (sounds like old rockstars, no?), a candle shop, a museum, a hotel, a restaurant and a spectacular open theatre where there was a wedding rehearsal going on – it turns out that Éditus played there a couple of years ago.
We ate dinner outside under the rising moon at Angie Angie, the restaurant of “the local loca Argentinian beauty” with live music, funky art, succulent parrilla and a super-suave Crème Brulee. Lorena, Monica and I cruised the streets throughout Antigua where every corner directs you to another magical sight. We checked out the textiles at Nimpot, the huge store of traditional huipiles and masks already advertising for Maya Y2K12 (only 830 shopping days until…)
The main attraction in Antigua was the concert at La Ermita de la Santa Crúz, a convent built in the 1600s and destroyed various times by earthquakes. I’ve spoken many times in this blog about Éditus. They started out as a classical acoustic duo – Ricardo Ramírez on violin and Edín Solís on guitar. They added Carlos Vargas – lovingly and respectfully known as Tapado – on percussion, and their music moved into jazz fusion/new age colored by classical influences and upswept with Latino rhythms.
With their great friend, Rubén Blades, they received Grammy’s for Best Latin Pop Recording, Best World Music Recording and Best Contemporary Latin Recording. They are spectacular whether playing as an acoustic duo, a modern jazz trio, a classical quartet, or as the quintet EDITUS360 – an electronic world music version of their former selves. I’ve known them as friends since the 90s when they played often in Monteverde, and I cooked and cared for them during the music festival there.
They have been friends with the musicians of Alux Nahual for years and shared the stage before. Alux is a Guatemalan rock band legend, founded by singer Alvaro Alguilar and his brother Plubio in 1979, that has undergone various transformations. The band members switch up the lead vocals and their instruments throughout the concert – from guitars to cello to flute to keyboards to drums,.
On this night, Éditus opened the concert with a mix of pieces from various Latin American composers, their music perfectly blending with the heavy religious overtones of the site and the ethereal modern light and smoke show.
The audience received the music enthusiastically – Éditus’ violin and guitar solos seared the clear night air and Tapado’s always fluid river of percussive rhythms poured over us. Although I was only slightly familiar with a couple of the songs of Alux Nahual, the audience knew every word and sang along to what were obviously anthems in this country – lyrics that speak of justice, peace and equality.
Tapado filled the musical bridge between the bands as Alux Nahual took the stage. The Costa Ricans accompanied the Guatemaltecos on several pieces, the audience loving it all.
Their drummer Lenin Fernandez was a very friendly and amusing host over the weekend, as was Gloria Cáceres, a Guatemalan singer who accompanied Éditus on Esta tarde vi llover by Mexican songwriter Armando Manzanero.
There was some backstage drama when the organizers explained that Éditus shouldn’t sell CDs because there were representatives of an agency present who could confiscate their products since they didn’t have proper permission nor receipts. They still opened a backstage table to sign autographs and it took more than an hour for the line of fans to pass through, requesting photos with the rockstars. We had about eight heavily armed policemen around us and fortunately nothing happened to excite them.
Gloria then invited us to a late night gathering at the house of one of the older wealthier families of Guatemala – the Zacapa Rum family. We wound down dark, almost empty cobble streets well after midnight to arrive at a walled-off building that took up most of a central block.
When the heavy wooden door was pulled open, it revealed a preserved mansion behind the walls. There were courtyards with fountains and rooms full of heavy wooden antiques gilded with gold, brocade upholstery intact, crystal shining on the shelves.
We were night time wanderers in this marvelous place, amazed at what ancient luxury was hidden beyond the walls. Though everyone was tired, the atmosphere, the wine and a spectacular chickenpaté kept us awake and amused.
While we were playing in the day, and as Éditus played through the night, the roadies Eric and Chino worked setting up the stage and managing the lights and sound. Chino – Andres, Tapado’s brother – has been the stage technician for Éditus for years – as well as for many other bands and events in Costa Rica. He has a look that fits well amongst hippies and artists (and tends to attract crazy people in the streets), but it would appear he could also be a lord-of-the-rings-type if the opportunity presented itself.
It was a beautiful time we had in Antigua. Lorena and Edín have been very welcoming and generous with me at their home in Chepe over the last month while I’ve been on Wolf-duty. They were very kind to invite me along and I thank them. I’m a willing and enthusiastic groupie and love the Éditus maestros, their music, their lovely women, and their comical roadies. Gracias a todos ustedes por un viaje magico en Antigua.
I left the others behind on their last day in Guatemala and headed to Lake Atitlan. That’s the next blog…I’ll pass on to you what I find out regarding the end of the world, right from the mouth of the Mayans. Recently, I was told by someone who is studying literature about 2012 that the land I have in Cahuita, on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica and tucked into the foothills of the Talamanca Mountains, will also be a great place to spend that momentous time watching the pendulum swing between the past and the future. Talamanca is considered one of the best places on earth to survive massive physical and social upheavals. It’s out of the path of some of the treacherous fault lines, not too close to active volcanoes, sparsely populated but loaded with native fruits to live off of, and with a spiritual native intelligence that will guide those of us who manage to survive into the next epoch – if one should want to linger around after all that mass destruction.
So I may be staying home in Cahuita that month after all, prepared to head out by foot to higher ground if and when the tsunami horn sounds. But that’s a question to ponder another day…here on the shores of magical Lake Atitlan, I’m reading the seeds and studying the currents, looking for more signs….
Guaria Morada, the official flower (orchid) of Costa Rica
I’m back up in my perch at the Caburé Café, one of Monteverde’s finest dining spots. It also happens to have wireless that Bob and Susana allow us to use for free, no purchase required, though over the last couple of visits to Monteverde I’ve enjoyed a fair amount of their wonderful food, hot drinks and delicate homemade chocolate truffles. It’s a win/win situation, the great view over the trees to Guanacaste a big bonus.
I only have five days left in Costa Rica before heading home to the famous Hammer of Canada. Ai yi yi! How does it happen so fast? I just returned from a beautiful week on the Caribbean coast, staying at Roberto’s jungle home in paradise. Fortunately the weather of Monteverde finally changed to summer while I was gone. Now the sun is hot, the sky is blue with only the occasional fluffy cloud, the winds have just about gone completely.
I’m taking care of Veronica’s three dogs (refer to former posts from January) and I have to say that they have all matured a little in these last couple months. I take no credit except for being the nanny who told the parent that they were outa control. Veronica took charge and now we are all happy! Even Betsy the crazy has stopped jumping on me. The Dog Whisperer would be proud. Veronica and her son Stuart headed down to the hot Guanacaste coastline for some beach fun while I was still around to dog/house sit. My sincere appreciation goes to her and her generosity in allowing me to stay at the house these last months – and for the pleasure of getting to know her, Stuart and the puppies.
Wolf and I presented Walking with Wolf at the Friends Peace Center in San José about a week ago to a small but very appreciative crowd. I hadn’t done a talk for a few months so it felt good to get warmed up, which I need to be as I head home and start doing presentations within the first week – to the McMaster University Biodiversity Guild in Hamilton. Then I’m off to the northeastern US and have a number and variety of events lined up in Maine, Philadelphia and New York City. I also will be making the few corrections needed in the book and printing another batch as, miracle of miracles, we are just about sold out!
Wolf, Lucky and I also had the great pleasure of being toured around the INBio – the National Institute of Biodiversity – insect collection by Jim Lewis. Jim has a long history in Monteverde as a nature guide as well as an owner of the Monteverde Lodge and Costa Rica Expeditions. In his retirement, he went to volunteer working at INBio’s scientific headquarters in Heredia. We went there and saw the largest collection in Latin America of various families of insects. Besides the beautiful butterflies and the shiny metallic true bugs, we were aghast at the variety and size of some of the more dangerous ones – particularly the torsalos (botflies) that I wrote about squeezing out of my friend’s butt recently – the biologists were most helpful with information to pass on to Roberto about what to do next time one of these nasties bites him – and the wall full of species of mosquitoes.
I mean, we all know there are many, and they are pests, but this wall of containers, each one representing a different species found in Costa Rica, sent chills down us.
The Spanish translation is well on its way. Wolf’s son, Carlos Guindon, up in New Hampshire, is at least half way through the translating. The Tropical Science Center, administrators of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, is financing that part and will see that it is published. We are searching for funds elsewhere to help the process and some of those will come from the Canadian Embassy here in San José. I’ve been in steady contact with José Pablo Rodriguez, the Economic/Political Officer there, who has been more than helpful. My lunch a month ago with him and Stuart Hughes, the Political Adviser, was extremely enjoyable. I’ve had nothing but great support from them in trying to find a way to use money from an initiative fund to help with the Spanish translation. José confirmed yesterday that the money is coming to pay for the art, index and computer work – and today the contract arrived – and I am very appreciative and loving my country a little more than usual.
I also have had some great musical moments in the last couple of weeks. While still in Monteverde a couple of weeks ago, I saw violinist Ricardo Ramirez and guitarist Edin Solis of Editus playing with Costa Rican singer Arnoldo Castillo. I have known Editus for years and seen them play with a variety of other musicians but had never heard or seen Arnoldo. It was a lovely night of romantic songs from Costa Rica and Latin America which touched me deeply, being enamored myself these days. Ricardo and Edin played several instrumental pieces as well to a very appreciative local crowd who has supported them since they began playing classical music nineteen years ago. My young house friend Stuart has just taken up playing the violin and was gob-smacked watching Ricardo, as I knew he would be.
Following the concert I ended up at La Taverna in Santa Elena dancing till closing to the Chanchos del Monte, our local rock ‘n rollers, punk etc. band. Robert Dean (who I’ve written about, former guitarist for Sinead O’Connor) who is known for publishing a bird guide here in Costa Rica, and plays along with a Alan Masters, a university professor, Federico, a professional nature guide, Walter, a taxi driver and Arturo, son of the wonderful Eladio Cruz who we talk a lot about in the book – these guys moonlight as the crazy Pigs of the Mountain and put on a great show of music to jump too. Allthough I could feel a cold coming on – my belief being that dancing will either cure me or kill me – I was able to go and sweat a lot of it out, though it did continue on to the bad cough that I still have.
I then went to San José for the book presentation and stayed with Edin (of Editus) and his wife Lorena, who always offer me their home and great company when in the city. Lorena is always full of great business ideas and tossed some good ideas at me for fundraising – her motto, think big, act bigger. My friend Leila showed up at the presentation and it ended in time for us to jump in a taxi and head off to see the Tico Jazz Band with my old friend Luis Bonilla, the hottest trombonist in New York City.
Luis played at the Monteverde Music Festival in 1999 when I was taking care of the house where the musicians stayed. We spent three days and nights having fun – him and his wife Luz and the other Costa Rican musicians he had put together for the three nights of concerts – Luis Monge, pianist, Kin Rivera, drummer, and Danilo Castro, bassist. They were the hottest jazz quartet possible and each night they just got tighter and wilder though they had only been playing together for a couple of days. Luis’ energy is through the roof and his playing is impeccable. We also did some wicked dancing following the concerts – these were three of the best nights of positive energy that I had in two years of working the seven week long music festival of Monteverde.
So to see Luis again after ten years and see that the energy hasn’t diminished, his enthusiasm for the music and improvising with other musicians is still hot and his joy still radiates made me laugh endlessly through the concert. The Tico Jazz Band is made up from young to old musicians and they shone as well. I’m going to go and see Luis when I take Walking with Wolf to New York City at the end of April where he plays regularly at the Vanguard Jazz Club. Danilo,from that hot jazz quartet who I have bumped into in the past few years, was also there, as well as Marco Navarro, another great bassist in the country who I haven’t seen in several years as he’s been in South America playing. He’s back in Costa Rica and playing bass with the Tico Jazz Band. It was a hot night of great jazz and a warm night of meeting up with old friends.
All that city fun was followed by several days in the jungle. The creek (sometimes river) that flows like a moat around Roberto’s rancho was just the perfect temperature for a Canadian.
The howler and white faced monkeys came regularly and kept us company. I had brought some cuttings, roots and seeds from my friend Zulay’s in San Carlos and we planted what will hopefully be a nice garden. Roberto had doubled the size of the rancho in the couple weeks I was away by adding a roof over the woodfire and kitchen table. The jungle was welcoming and it was hard to leave.
We returned to the sloth center and delivered some books to Judy Aroyos, the owner, who was very enthusiastic about the book, having her own long history of conservation in Costa Rica. She thought they would sell well as they have a lot of cruise ships come to them from the Port of Limon. I will take any excuse I can to return to this beautiful sloth rehabilitation center (see Kukulas of Cahuita post) and visit with this very friendly woman as well as see the peaceful little furry creatures who are recuperating there. She showed me the babies in the incubators hidden away in their private quarters, each one with its personal story. And we saw Casper, the baby sloth that Roberto’s daughter Gabriella had found and taken to the center back in October. The friendly ghost is doing just fine.
So now I’m working against the clock to get everything done before I leave next Wednesday. It will be harder than usual to leave. I always enjoy being with Wolf, taking care of book business as we have been doing for so many years now, and now Roberto has given me more reason to stay in this country. But my life takes me home to Canada, on the road to spread the news of the book in the United States in April, and book responsibilities will keep me there until sometime next fall. I may have to return before to deal with the translation – I won’t mind at all.
But my little mind is already thinking of the next book I want to write and the idea of writing it from the Caribbean coast, while listening to the frogs and chatting with the monkeys from a hammock swaying beside that meandering brook- these images will keep my dreams sweet and my focus on the future.
It is as inevitable as the wind and rain in Monteverde, that one day my time will be up and I have to leave. I don’t worry about going and I quickly transfer my thinking to arriving instead – back to Canada, friends there, familiar haunts, a different kind of music and the beautiful northern landscape. As long as I have the privilege and ability to return when I want to Costa Rica, then I can leave with a simple “nos vemos” – “we’ll see each other”, rather than “adios”, which feels much more final.
Of course this year also takes me back to Canada with a whole new purpose in life – bringing Walking with Wolf to the masses, doing publicity, marketing and distributing of my precious little tome. So there is an excitement at the back of my brain that I try not to get too caught up in, but will soon – within twenty-four hours now, I’ll be full on ready to conquer the north. I have until September 6 to prepare for the first big official book launch in Hamilton, and then the following weekend I’m returning to my old community in the northeast to do hopefully three presentations over a few days. This is the part of the world close to Temagami, Ontario, which I talk about in the book. I have many old friends there who have been very supportive and I am really looking forward to the book parties there. And in the second week of October, I think I will be doing a presentation at Olney Friends School in Barnesville, Ohio, which we also talk about, Wolf’s alma mater, for their Homecoming weekend. This hasn’t been decided yet, but the idea seems to have interested the director and so I will soon be in touch with him about the possibility.
Having received such wide spread acceptance and praise in Monteverde from the people who are closest to the story will truly help me go out in the big northern world and hold my head up, proud of our book. I know that I was most nervous of the reaction of the biologists – sticklers for detail that they are, strong-willed, educated and quite sure of their own versions of the world – but several of them have spoken up for the quality of the book and have enjoyed reading it and shared a minimum of criticism (maybe I shouldn’t have called the tropical cloud and rain forest “jungle” but to the outsider, that is truly what it is, by dictionary definition as well.)
One of the surprises of the reaction to the book is how many people have said to me that it has revived in them the spirit of the community. Wolf’s stories about the founding of Monteverde, and my modern day descriptions have given them a renewed sense of what a special community they are part of. I had always hoped to properly present Wolf’s life and accomplishments but it had never occurred to me that our book might be a positive factor in the community. How proud can one be for playing a role such as that?
I have also heard from friends in Canada who don’t know Wolf, Monteverde or Costa Rica, and have said they love the story and the writing. So that bodes well for the future of the book simply as a piece of literature. I think it’s deepest purpose is the telling of Wolf’s interesting and dedicated life with all its flaws and colorful tales, and that is what I feel the most able to go out and talk about. His is an inspirational story of humor, hard work and humility and I take great pride in being able to tell this story.
In the week that I was offline, I returned to Monteverde, saw friends, packed and repacked, sat down with Wolf and signed a whole box of books to take back to deserving friends in Canada, did some dancing, had some great conversations and enjoyed my final days of tropical life. I spent a day down in San Luis waiting for the arrival of fifteen teams of oxen who were coming from the low lands for a festival, but unfortunately had to leave by the time only one team had arrived (those beasts move very slowly). I managed to get bit on my finger by something – I thought an ant, but now think maybe a spider – that now, four days later, is still swollen up in a bunch of itchy bumps. What a year for bites! I think it may be caused by the rainy season, as I found the bug population rampant. I ran off to Cahuita on the Caribbean for twenty-four hours and was blessed with sunshine and a starry night, whereas there had been pouring rain for the days before I got there. Here too I was bitten while swimming in the sea, something that rarely happens at all, especially in the Caribbean. But I was floating and some seaweed wrapped itself around me and four sharp stings (jelly-fish? Some say sea fleas?) sent me out of the water, waiting to see if I’d have some weird reaction like that poor Australian nature guy. You just never know these days. My papalomoyo seems to be under control, though I’ll continue with my sulpha treatments in Canada – and I still have a series of bitemarks on my thighs that we think are from mites of some sort. Hmmmm, August in Hamilton, the bug situation should be pretty tame in comparison.
I spent the last couple nights with Edin Solis (the photo is me with one of his Grammies) and his wife Lorena Rodríguez, he of Editus, she an interior, exterior and just about all round everything designer. Edin was finishing the work on the soundtrack to a BBC documentary production called “The Winds of Papagayo” – about the changes of the environment in Guanacaste, the northwest province of Costa Rica. How interesting was that – not just listening to the musical themes that Edin had composed (great surf beat dude) and admiring how the music followed the images and the story of the documentary, but the information within the work itself. It promises to be a very interesting piece of journalism (with a beautiful soundtrack) about what is happening with development on the fragile Pacific coastline. I had never realized that the winds collect and transport great fertility that has risen from the huge Lake Nicaragua to the north, as well as from the potent gases of the various volcanoes that run in a chain straight through Central America. The strong winds we know in parts of Costa Rica do have an important purpose besides blowing us around and keeping us cool. The doc also focuses on the over-expansion of development on the coastline, the extreme change of community life in less than thirty years, the changes in the winds themselves, and the struggle of the turtle population to survive the many forces that are working against them.
I think of Costa Rica in general as about as fragile as a population of olive ridley sea turtles. Even though I know so many dynamic, charismatic, kind, intelligent and hardworking people in this little country, over all I feel they are all under threat. Out of control development, foreign influence, fear, and an economy that isn’t servicing the people at the lower end of the scale are all signs of a difficult future. The country has great “green” policies but doesn’t seem to have the backbone to enforce the laws. Most people I talk to have little faith in the government, having had three of their last presidents found guilty of some form of kickbacks. The president of the day, Oscar Arias, a Nobel Peace Prize winner for his work in the 80s on bringing peace to the Central American region, had the constitution changed, by the vote of 4 judges, so that he could be re-elected (up until the last election, Costa Rica had a rule, similar to the USA, that presidents could only serve one term). He also supported CAFTA, the free-trade agreement with the USA, which many people are extremely leery of. This all adds up to a disgruntled society in an over-stressed country with a frustrated view of the future.
I love these people and this country.
The very talented Sofia Zumbado, award-winning saxophonist and her beautiful mom Myrna Castro
My friend 100-year old Otilia Gonzales and her daughters Gladys and Margarita
Luis Angel Obando, Head of Protection, Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve
HEY! How’d this guy make it in here?
Everyone I know in Costa Rica is involved in some interesting project, not only to make a living, but to bring some new awareness to their life. I wish them all well. Tenga fe mis amigos, nos vemos pronto.
Rain is pounding down on the zinc roof of Wolf and Lucky’s house, making conversation difficult, but finally giving me a chance to write from Monteverde. Aah yes, the cloud forest in the rainy season – not for the faint of heart but paradise for those with webbed feet. Actually it has been so dry here that water was being rationed in the community up until the rains started in earnest about a week ago. Looks like I got here right on time. The humidity has cranked up the clamminess, the landscape is a collage of intense greens, and the dirt roads are slowly becoming water-filled ditches supporting small gravel islands.
I was so busy with getting the book ready and preparing to leave my home and garden for a couple of months, that I wasn’t thinking so much about where I was going, other than to Wolf’s house to present him with his book. But in very short order, upon my arrival in Costa Rica, my heart has filled with the warmth of the Guindon family, the anticipation in the community for Walking with Wolf, and the enchantment of the place. The last time I was here in this particular season, the beginning of the rainy season, was 1990, my first year here. I had forgotten how the view from up on the mountain in May, looking over the Nicoya peninsula to the Pacific, is this magical world of clouds, mountains, water, and sky – these elements merge and mingle and seem to get turned upside down, in a way that even Stephen Spielberg couldn’t capture with an arsenal of special effects. When I woke up on Thursday morning, just as day was breaking, and looked out the windows to the west, my breath was taken away by the layers of color and shadow suspended on the shifting horizon. I grabbed my camera and went out to try to capture it (a picture here isn’t worth the thousand words it would take to describe the scene) – I startled two masked tityras, beautiful white birds with pink and black facial markings, who were feeding in a guayaba tree and didn’t notice me right away. They fluttered about grabbing the small fruit, only five feet from me, until they realized that I was there and flew off.
Welcome back to Monteverde…
The flight down was fast (those individual TV screens on the planes are great – two movies of your choice and you’re here); the books arrived safe and sound (did I mention how expensive they were as extra baggage? – Kaching); customs didn’t look once at me that alone twice; and as soon as I got through to the wall of windows at the exit, there were Lucky and Wolf, smiling and waving. As promised, the Reserve’s four-wheel drive, army-fatigue-green, Toyota crew cab truck-limo, complete with Beto the chauffeur, had come to pick me and the books up. We waited until we were in a restaurant to unveil the books – and, as hoped, Wolf and Lucky were very excited and pleased. We had our first moment of celebrity – the waitress saw the cover and looked at Wolf and asked if that was him – and then saw my photo on the back – and was thrilled to be serving two such important people! HA! Not like we got a free meal or anything, but it was fun for all of us nonetheless.
We didn’t make it up the mountain to Monteverde, normally about a three to four hour trip from the airport, until 9 that night. They were putting in a culvert on the highway and there was only one lane open and they were letting the traffic going to the city pass much more frequently than those of us heading to the country. We spent close to three hours inching forward in fits and starts, Lucky playing old tunes on the harmonica, Beto and I getting out to tempt fate with the oncoming traffic, Wolf picking up the book from time to time, checking to see if it was real. By the time we got up the mountain, there was nothing left but sleep. But we were very, very happy.
On Thursday morning we took the book up to Carlos Hernandez, the director at the Reserve. He insists that the Tropical Science Center (who owns and administers the Reserve) is serious about wanting to finance a Spanish translation. I told him that although I think this is wonderful, I don’t want to give up the rights to the book and also want to control the translating process (new little control freak that I’ve become – makes me wonder just what kind of parent I might have been after all…). I believe he is on Wolf’s and my side in this – he took copies to give to the members of the board of the TSC. I suggested that he have someone who is fluent in English read the book first and make sure they are still interested. He suggested that I check out how much the translation itself might cost and who we might employ to do it. We will proceed from there. But my immediate feeling was a good one, that he understands how personal the project is for Wolf and I, and that he will represent us well to the board.
We made our rounds showing off the book (one last baby comparison – the book’s cover really is soft like a baby’s bum, I swear). Our friends Mercedes Diaz and Luis Angel Obando, who show up in the last chapter of Walking with Wolf, were thrilled to finally get their copy – immediately plans were started for the fiesta, la presentacion del libro, and we started selling books. Lucky began reading and her reaction has been wonderful (although she did find an error deep in the book – a factual one, not just a difference of memory from her husband – I think I will leave it ambiguous and see how many people catch this error….hopefully not too many more will be found).
Leaving Wolf and Lucky with the book safely in hand, I jumped on a bus on Friday morning and returned to the big city of San José to meet up with my friend Patricia Maynard. She was taking a group of Latin American literature students from the University of Georgia around town to a variety of cultural events. I sat in on talks by our musician friends Edin Solis of Editus and Jaime Gamboa of Malpais on the historical context and present day reality of Costa Rican music. They both tried to convince the American students, who listed reggaeton as one of their favorite genres of music, that songwriting which includes poetry and composition that is more than three chords is of more value than easy, commercial music – I’m not sure if they convinced the students, but Edin and Jaime spoke with such passion that I would hope they at least made them think. We had a great meal at the Café Arco Iris and watched Alejandro Toceti – now a kind of Cultural Attache with the government, but who we’ve known as a beautiful dancer, whose every muscle speaks even when he stands still – tell stories with his body. We finished our day with a night of hot dancing at Jazz Café in San Pedro – Manuel Monestel and his ever-changing Afro-Caribbean band, Cantoamerica, kept us jumping to salsa, calypso and reggae. Since my years involved in the music festival in Monteverde, all these musicians have remained great friends and a night of hearing them play only whets my appetite for more.
The next day we had the great privilege of a visit with Daniel Villegas, one of the top authors and playwrights in Costa Rica. He studied years ago in Europe as well as Los Angeles and New York City at The Artists Studio. Not only was his conversation colorful and informative, but for me, the new young author that I be, it was very touching. When he spoke about how he found inspiration, how stories can be told, and the most important thing being to write honestly and about what is real in your life – well, I like to think that I have tried to do that with Walking with Wolf. I humbly gave him a copy of our book. He accepted it graciously, though who knows if he will ever read it. But it was the first instance where I presented myself as an author with a book I am proud of and wasn’t embarrassed to share it with such a distinguished writer.
I came back up the mountain in time for the Quaker meeting on Sunday. After the hour of silence, when it came time for introductions by visitors and announcements, I confirmed the rumors to those present, that I had indeed returned with the book in hand (I had left last May stating I wouldn’t return until the book was truly a book). I invited everyone to the celebration to be held later this week at Bromelias Café, on Thursday, May 29th at 5 p.m. I then presented Jean Stuckey, the head of the Monteverde library committee, with a signed copy of Walking with Wolf. The dedication reads:
“For the Monteverde Friends Library, my favorite library in the world. It is with the greatest pleasure that we give you our book to be placed on your musty shelves. With love, Kay and the Wolf”.
I’m on my way there now to help catalogue it and place it on the shelf!