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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.

Bernardo Quesada

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

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

Edin Solis and Ruben Blades

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

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

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

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

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

Ruben Blades and Ivan Rodriguez

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

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

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I’m riding the Greyhound north savouring the last of Vermont’s colourful October forests. Although we are riding over dry pavement here, I am very aware that elsewhere many people I know are suffering from torrential rains and the subsequent damages they cause. Reports from Monteverde have been full of soggy complaints following about two weeks of downpours, grey skies and lack of sun. That means that landslides are probable and so traveling becomes quite unpredictable, making my hour-behind-schedule-otherwise-smooth bus ride from Maine to Montreal seem quite insignificant.

More seriously, my friends living on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala – an enchanting place I’ve written about frequently over the last few years – have been watching the water levels rise at a rate that they couldn’t imagine and were hoping they wouldn’t see quite yet. The pictures being posted on Facebook are truly alarming. I believe that many living close to the shoreline on the lake have been forced into evacuating their homes, perhaps permanently, for even if the water hasn’t entered the building, it has destroyed septic beds and compromised their water system – and is still rising. They say the lake has a fifty year cycle of rising and the elders know that the lake still has a ways to go. My heart goes out to those who built their homes and businesses only to have their dreams gradually washed away like eroding sand castles.

In Monteverde, our friend Wolf has just spent close to two weeks again in the Puntarenas Hospital. I am happy to say that he is back home and apparently doing fine. He had a bladder infection that they couldn’t control with antibiotics administered at the house so he was put into the hospital to receive treatment intravenously. Experience has shown that bladder infections cause a greater distress in older people, confusion and weakness being common symptoms and I guess that is what was happening with Wolf. Fortunately it seems that Wolf has rebounded well. I am anxious to be back down there, to see with my own eyes how he is doing. Once I’m there, I’ll be blogging about all things Wolf, Monteverde and booklike much more regularly.

I’ll be headed back to Costa Rica on November 16, just in time to attend a concert honouring the late Fidel Gamboa, Costa Rica’s recently departed musical genius. Malpais, the band he fronted along with his brother Jaime and five other great musicians, have decided to disband. I expect that the strength and reorganization it would take to carry on without their main composer, singer and guiding spirit was just too great. I believe it will be an incredible night of Fidel’s powerful music performed by his musical brothers and sisters, his lyrical poetry sung by friends and the night augmented by the addition of Costa Rica’s Philharmonic Orchestra. I am so glad that I can make it back to Costa Rica in time for this last-in-a-lifetime show.

In the meantime, I’ve been paying attention to the Occupy Wall Street movement as it ignites our world. For those of us who have been paying attention to the corporate takeover of the world with trepidation for decades, the rising of the 99% in North America is a wonder to behold. It’s about time! I move around with the sound of Lorraine Segato’s “Rise up, Rise up” playing in my mind – a song performed at Jack Layton’s wedding years ago and again at his funeral in August (for those unfamiliar with this man, I wrote about him a couple of posts ago.) I know that Jack, if he had not died so prematurely of that nasty cancer, would have been joining Canadians in the street and helping to inspire the peoples’ movement.

The timing and strength of the protests has surely exploded with the examples set in other parts of the world – Egypt, Tunisia, Libya – where populations of largely oppressed people realized that they have taken enough abuse from the upper echelons of power. At a certain point, people figure they have nothing to lose but plenty to gain in rising up. North Americans don’t like to think that such revolutions, sometimes violent, could happen here, but I’ve always thought, or at least hoped, that even in the comfort zone of the passified North American consumer society, people would eventually realize the folly of our system. It’s based on the lies and greed that reward a few while keeping the masses distracted with shopping and sports addictions (how many corporate logos can you wear in one outfit or fit on one car?) and fed with the belief that one day they too will get to feed from the golden trough. It would seem that we have reached the tipping point here, where people have had enough of supporting a system that isn’t supporting them any longer. While the 1% licks the cream off their lips too many others never even get to lick out the bottom of the pot.

Surely the movement has been fueled by the frustration of people trying to get ahead with hard work, if they can find it, but without the rewards promised. We pay for insurance that doesn’t guarantee security, for schools that don’t properly educate, for health care that isn’t available when you really need it. The two industries that seem to thrive in this harsh climate, that people are forced to seek work within, is the military and prisons, neither of which offer any hope for the future or health benefits for our society. Even here in soft-shelled Canada our very conservative government has decided to buy into this draconian way of creating jobs and controlling the poor.  As French/Basque musician activist Manu Chao says, a country that spends more money teaching their citizens to kill than they do on education is a country based on fear, not hope for the future.

Besides following the leads of other dissatisfied societies around the world, perhaps the 99% movement in the US is taking advantage of having a president in power who may be somewhat sympathetic, at least enough not to have the protesters immediately tear-gassed and jailed, though there are signs that mayors in some cities are going in that direction. Although there is plenty to be disillusioned about with Obama’s presidency, it was always obvious that he was up against a corrupt and well-entrenched system that retains power and wealth for the select few in a historic perfect storm of global collapse. I believe that he can still do the right thing as this movement gains strength, and I will continue to believe that deep in Obama’s gut, there is a spark waiting to burn a hole from where his real strength and humanity will fly. I like to imagine that he and Michele watch the news at night and embrace each other, happy with the knowledge that the citizens of the United States, as elsewhere, are passing the goblet overflowing with empowerment and justice. When it makes its way to them, the Obamas will be ready to replenish it. At least that is what I like to think.

Being Canadian, I obviously didn’t have a chance to vote for Obama, but I joined with the millions who celebrated his election and believed in his message of hope and change. A simple fact of global life at this point in time is that though the citizens within the confines of the US may be able to live in ignorance of the governance of other countries, the rest of us are as deeply affected by the politics of the USA as we are the global governance by multinational corporations.  How to explain what has been going on for the last three years? A system so entrenched in corporate power and elite privilege that even a man of deep principles and experienced in community welfare can’t remain immune nor stand up to the force of its greed. I remember Obama’s 100-days in power interview when he answered the questions “What has surprised you the most?” What has troubled you the most?” by expressing his not-so-naive understanding of just how difficult it is to work within the system, that change in Washington (and on Wall Street) comes very slowly, that even in the middle of a big crisis the discussion is lost to a lot of partisan bickering. Even as President of the USA, he can’t make the bankers do what he would want them to do or turn on a switch and have congress fall in line. Well, that is why he needs the help of the population to stand up and insist that the corporate rulers, the bankers, and the outrageously wealthy pay their share. It is time to get the power back into the hands of the people.

I also believe that it is the responsibility of people everywhere to stand up to the massive brainwashing that has created a global epidemic of consumption. The belief that owning a bigger home, a newer car, a better wardrobe, every new appliance and electronic device available, that all these things are going to bring happiness and peace to your soul – well it is time to step back and stop the madness. How can one possibly defend the needs of those who own several mansions, a fleet of luxury vehicles, whose bracelet probably costs more than your monthly salary unless you are thinking that it your own goal? This kind of ostentatious outlandish decadence is setting the example of so-called fulfillment. It has tricked everyone else into supporting those who feed this dream to us even as it is making people physically, emotionally and mentally ill. If one can’t afford the luxury items, they shop with the same abandon in the dollar stores. Junk, stuff, tomorrow’s landfill. It is insanity and, to me, it is a big part of the problem, this desire for more and more of everything. The drug lords are the corporations, the pusher is the television, the addicts are everybody…and the loser is the earth.

Instead of spending so much money on the war on drugs and the criminalization of marijuana, the government should be cracking down on the real crack – stuff!!!!!

Those of us who are the protesters, the 99%, whether we are living in a tent in one of the occupied city parks, or disseminating information through the social media, or speaking up in support of the Occupy Earth movement at every chance we get, know that it is time. We don’t need a “leader” or a single headline for the media to grip on to that will simplify their job. It is impossible to narrow the issues into one stream when it is already an ocean out there, full of inequality, insane policies and despair. The “free market” system, capitalism as it is called, has stopped working for the majority of not just the humans, but all creatures who share this fragile earth. A few may be getting rich – even very very disgustingly rich– but most are experiencing life as one crisis after another with nowhere to hide. Climate change, environmental degradation, health decay, economic collapse, fiscal mismanagement, the inequities that pit workers against workers and the middle-class against the poor… the absurdity of it all is well beyond a single slogan or one spokesperson. It is time. Gather your loved ones, put on your dancing shoes, be peaceful, open your mouth, feed your mind and RISE UP!

My friend Laurie Hollis-Walker recruited me as cook for an August weekend gathering she organizes called ECO Camp. My friendship with Laurie goes back to the Red Squirrel Road
blockade in Temagami, Ontario in 1989, an experience that brought her to her present academic world of eco-psychology. After doing her research for her Bachelor and Master’s degrees studying the activists involved in the Temagami action, Laurie went on to design and teach the first university course in Canada in eco-psychology at Brock University in St. Catherines.

An important feature of the course for her students was a weekend spent together in the forest not far from the campus, a time for renewal of spirit in a natural setting. These class retreats evolved into a larger gathering bringing together students, academics and concerned citizens of various ages and experience. An activist and therapist from Guelph, Sally Ludwig, who is one of Laurie’s mentors, joined with her vision and together they brought ECO Camp to life.

Laurie is also a colleague of Joanna Macy, a scholar and writer in Berkeley, California, who is the brain and soul behind “The Work that Reconnects.” Her work serves to support the community of activists – academic, grassroots, political – who become overwhelmed by despair in this troubled world. Ms Macy has worked worldwide helping people overcome despondency to carry on their work against the raging Machine. Many of the rituals that make up ECO Camp are based on her work. Much of the discussion is about the burn-out inherent in environmental and social activism – considering that for so many taking on issues in this complex, troubled world it is a life-long commitment.  As someone who has been paying attention to the issues since I was young, I can understand the frustration, anger and fear that arises in one’s soul as the news seems to get grimmer, the answers more complex, and the solutions further from our collective grasp.

Laurie arranged for me to stay at a small cottage on Lake Erie – the “great lake” that connects Detroit and Niagara Falls – for the week prior to the camp where I could prepare some of the food. This would then allow me to participate in parts of the program on the weekend itself. I was present at one of the first camps a few years ago. This year was the fifth year and up until now, Laurie had not only organized and facilitated the gathering, but also been the head cook. As someone who believes in only biting off as much as one can chew, I couldn’t imagine that this was an ideal situation for anyone to take on that much responsibility, so I was happy to take the job – partly for the money but as much to support Laurie, allowing her to put her energy in the workshops which I could also take part in when not stirring soup.

I enjoyed the humble home belonging to Laurie’s student Emma and her family, but I’ve never been a fan of Lake Erie. I was introduced to crystal clear lakes in the north as a child, so I have had the privilege of growing up with a high ideal of what a healthy body of water is. In my lifetime, I’ve probably been to Lake Erie at least a dozen times and only ever felt comfortable swimming in her questionable waters when we sailed far out from her shores that too often made me think of bathtub ring.

Still, I spent a relaxed week watching the seagulls frolic on the rocks under the sun, the lights of ships passing under the moon as it grew plumper each night with bright meteors exploding around her in the heavens. Each morning, I spent some time cooking, listening to CBC radio, and thought about the possibility of swimming, an idea I rejected each afternoon when I saw no change to the scum that sullied the lake edge.

The moon was full by the time we moved the boxes of food to the camp. I spent four days feeding people healthy, mostly vegetarian food. I have cooked for groups for most of my adult life in some form or other and recognize that it is important, now more than ever, to pay attention to people’s dietary requirements. Vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, lactose-intolerant, allergies…along with trying to eat local, organic and generally healthy, it is a challenge to get it right for everyone. But I was a vegetarian for years and never found it hard to make great food without meat and fish. Nowadays there are so many products available to replace milk, eggs and cheese that doing vegan isn’t difficult as long as you have the right attitude and pay attention.

Part of the program called for participants to, well, participate…as in help out with the necessities including in the kitchen. So I had some great helpers – Marissa, Ingrid, Drew, Helen, Russ, Jenn, Jess – who peeled, sliced, washed, tossed and took my direction with good humor. Jess arrived with donated organic produce from gardens and cooperatives in the Guelph area, bags bursting with collard greens, kale and kohlrabi. Marissa was the cheery and functional morning person who got up with me extra early to make breakfast.

In the kitchen, when pots are bubbling and hunger is looming, it can be easy to shout out quick directions minus those essential terms “please (do this) and thank
you (for doing that).”  The gentle, soft-spoken, very helpful Ingrid, as well as the others, took my brusqueness in stride and accepted my thank-you’s when I managed to stop for a second and make sure the workers understood that I appreciated all they were doing.

The one vegan in the crowd, sweet Dan, was appreciative for the dishes we made that met his requirement. He told me how he is often maligned for his diet and political beliefs and was happy that I embraced him. Although I am no longer a vegetarian, and never was a vegan, I have great respect for those who follow their principles, guided by any number of good reasons, and eat what is the least offensive and most ecologically-intelligent diet. Making vegan dishes is always interesting, they can be just as tasty and are usually healthier than carnivorous fare, so it wasn’t just Dan that enjoyed the mac & cheese made with a nutritional yeast cheesy-type sauce and rice noodles or the raw nibbles made with dates and nuts. Dan became a vegetarian at 10 years of age while living in beef-fed Calgary, against the best wishes of his parents, and then moved on to being a vegan a few years later. I say, Bravo Dan! May the rest of the planet learn to live as gently and thoughtfully as you rather than shifting to super-sizing Mc-slaughterhouse fare. Be proud and live with a free conscience dear Dan, and don’t let them get you down.

Art installation by Steve Mazza and Steve Hudak

The first day of ECO-Camp was devoted to the participants sharing their despair over the state of the earth, the loss of our brethren creatures, and our precarious future. Through a series of workshops and rituals, each person could express in a supportive environment their sadness, anger and overwhelming sense of loss as it pertains to our beautiful home, Mother Earth. There was a powerful presentation by Peter Timmerman, Professor of Environmental Studies at York University, titled “Mourning and Melancholia: 7 Wounds We Live With,” following the progression of environmental decline, the movements that have arisen to deal with each issue, and our collective emotional response. Starting in the 1940s and the advent of nukes, through the chemical poisoning of the land and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, acid rain killing our waters, to the extinction of species, the depleted ozone and global warming. Each one of these atrocities has caused a reaction, ecological, political, social and spiritual, that collectively we keep trying to deal with while the greedy – what I call “the Machine”, or musician/activist Manu Chao calls “the Mafia”– continue to drag us along a destructive and ultimately fatal path. The most recent, the last of the seven wounds, is the changing of life itself  through cloning and genetic-modification, and Peter pointed out that the environmental movement has barely started this latest fight to keep life on our planet somewhat true to its natural form.

Peter’s discussion was joined by a beautiful, if shocking and disturbing, slide show put together by Laurie. She mounted both positive and negative images that illustrated the seven wounds and the precious body called earth that is being continuously scarred. The music that accompanied the pictures sent shivers through my body, a soundtrack of tribal rhythms, earth sounds and voices that both pummeled my heart and caressed my soul. The pieces were “My heart is moved by all I cannot save”, based on a poem by Adrienne Rich with music composed and sung by Carol McDade; “Initiation” written and composed by guitarist Tommy Emmanuel; and “Tombeau” by David R Walker – who is also Laurie’s very talented husband known in the guitar world as Dr. Dave. Magical music.

The second day featured solo walks in the surrounding forest for each of the participants – I stayed in the kitchen – and concluded with a wonderful gathering called the Council of All Beings. Time was allowed for each of us to get creative and make masks so that we could come to the council representing one of earth’s beings: we joined as trees, water, a cardinal, spider, skunk, deer, moth, and even a human being who took it upon himself to listen to the creatures as we expressed our concerns for our mutual home. It was a gathering to discuss our struggles under the assault of greed, exploitation and stupidity.

I was a two-toed sloth. My main message was that everyone – including activists, artists, teachers, and musicians – everyone needs to slow down. As I move between my jungle home on the Caribbean in Costa Rica, to busy Monteverde in the mountains and return to the northern industrial world of Canada, I find that almost everyone I know is spinning, faster and faster, trying to produce, to create, to learn, to earn, to develop – struggling over the sharing of our precious resources, making ourselves sick with stress. Perhaps if we took a lesson from the gentle peaceful sloth and slowed down, we might all live better.

Fortunately, I am generally not a person overwhelmed by despair, depression or anxiety though that isn’t to say I never feel these things. Perhaps that comes from the positive example and teachings of my mother, perhaps it is my personality, perhaps it is the fact that I have lived most of my adult life surrounded by nature which replenishes my spirit daily – most likely it is all these things together that allow me to pay attention to what is going on around me but not be overwhelmed (usually).

The best thing to do when I’m bothered by something is to take action and to surround myself with others who are taking action which has led me to many protests and peaceful gatherings. By my own design, I live as close to the earth as possible. I live well with very little and my happiness comes from things that don’t cost much – my friends, music, dancing, walks in the woods, swimming in the sea, listening to the birds. Although I am as outraged as anyone at the many injustices, rich mens’ wars, poor womens’ suffering and the corporate takeover of the world, I generally don’t hold on to rage and I work against feeling despondent. As much as I feel sick when thinking of those who are barely surviving, I also feel concern for how much stress and fear people live with, something I witness both here in North  America but also in Costa Rica.

Having said that, I do find myself in a lingering moment of sadness that’s been triggered by the death of two great men. All Canadians will know that we have just lost Jack Layton, a man known for his activism, his eternal optimism, his humor, and his recent rise in the government to a position where we believe that he could affect positive social change that he has been committed to all his life. A year ago he announced he had prostate cancer, was beating it, and then a month ago, looking frail and sounding worse, he told us he was fighting a new cancer. Just weeks later, he was dead. It has been a huge loss for those of us who felt that we finally had a strong visionary in a political position of power who would speak on behalf of the poor, the disenfranchised and the environment as well as inspire youth to be involved in the process. In a final letter to Canadians he wrote words that will be a lasting part of his legacy:

“My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”

On Sunday I was watching the video of his memorial in Toronto, an amazing collection of eulogies and music that made my spirit soar but also brought tears. I was just beginning to recover and was ready to carry on when I read the shocking news (on Facebook) that one of the most prolific, talented and revered musicians in Costa Rica, Fidel Gamboa, had died suddenly of a heart attack just a few weeks after his fiftieth birthday.

Along with that whole tiny nation, I was devastated for the loss of a man who has composed some of the most beautiful music I have ever heard. I fell under the spell of his music when it was performed by a group called Probus back in about 1994. It took my breath away with its seductive slow melody for a voice rising above discordant strings. It reminded me of music from a group from Quebec called Conventum, who had seduced me similarly back in the late 70s. I was amazed to find such similar music being played in two very distinct, distant, small societies.

Fidel grew up playing music in a musical family, graduated with a history of arts degree from the University of Habana in Cuba, and was a prolific composer as well as part of Adrián Goizueta’s experimental jazz group in Costa Rica for decades. Fidel was notoriously shy and it took his brother, Jaime, also a musician and poet, and his friends Manuel Obregón and Iván Rodríguez (presently the Minister and Vice-Minister of Culture in Costa Rica and phenomenal musicians in their own right) to convince him to join together with them to form the band Malpaís. This Costa Rican “supergroup” began gracing stages about ten years ago. To their surprise, Malpaís was not only received warmly by all ages and regions of Costa Rica but became troubadours, historians, and basically musical deities. They played the music written by the Gamboa brothers – often Jaime’s lyrics to Fidel’s music – and it spoke for the country’s past, present and future. Their music gives a melody to the landscape and resonates with the humility and heart of its people. Their music is pure poetry.

Fidel will be as missed in Costa Rica as Jack will be in Canada, but his huge catalogue of music, recorded by almost every significant musical group in the country as well as by performers elsewhere in the Latin world and gracing the soundtracks of many films and documentaries, will live on and continue to touch all who hear and feel it. I share these few words that finish Fidel’s beautiful song Como un pájaro (Like a bird) and hope you will find your way (http://www.grupomalpais.com/) to much more of his and Malpaís’ beautiful music.

Y cantando, Y cantando así sin voz y sin aliento, Y cantando así sin voz y
sin aliento, como aquel primer amor entre tu pecho…

“Como un árbol, como un árbol sacudido por el viento,  Y cantando…como un pájaro en lalluvia, vuelo lejos…”

“And singing, singing so voiceless and breathless, singing so voiceless and breathless, as when that first love enters your chest…

“Like a tree, like a tree shaken by the wind… and singing…like a bird in the rain, flying away….”

I thank both Jack and Fidel (and another man of vision, our dear Wolf Guindon – who, by the way is doing very well I am told) and the many others in the world like them who inspire us with their words and actions. They are who keep me from feeling despair and remind me to continue with hope and optimism.

For the past two years, a crew of Chinese workmen has been building a big new shiny spaceship for soccer fans in a western neighbourhood of San José, Costa Rica. The $100 million dollar engagement ring between these two countries is known as “the jewel of La Sabana” which is the name of this area in the city that includes a huge park with green space, playgrounds, lakes and art galleries. Since March 27 the inauguration festivities have gathered sports, music and happy-to-fiesta fans for more than a week of special events.

This “gift” of the Chinese government apparently came about thanks to Costa Rica’s twice ex-president, Oscar Arias, who started the process of signing a free trade agreement with the largest world nation, and second largest world economy, back in 2007. There are many people in Costa Rican still wondering what this little country will have to pay for this “gift”, as we all know that you don’t get something for nothing in this world…well, there are exceptions, like long prison sentences for possessing almost no pot and fatal diseases through no actual fault of your own, but we don’t need to go there right now.

The stadium, like all newly-designed big structures, has a grand presence both from street level and viewed from any high building or elevation around the city, day or night. It looks like a big crown or, as I said earlier, a spaceship. It is very open to the sky, and thus the elements. In Canada, most major sports stadiums are now built with retractable roofs that allow for relative comfort against the elements in extended sports seasons (have these seasons gotten longer, running into each other to fill up the whole year, or is this just my imagination?) Since there are several months here in Costa Rica when the rain will pour down, it would have been a more generous gift if the Chinese had added one of those sliding roofs, but beggars can’t be choosers and fans and players alike will just continue what they’ve always done – come to the game and get soaked until the possibility of a mass drowning finally gets the game called off and sends the wet puppies scampering home.

This stadium was also built to host major international music events, the first one being Columbian superstar Shakira, scheduled to rock the place next Sunday, closing out nearly two weeks of festivities. Once again, pouring rain would really put a literal damper on these concerts, and with the changing weather patterns present here, as all over the world, I can only imagine that it is hard to predict when one can safely plan a concert here, hoping for more than 35,000 fans to fork over the maybe $100 or more to see their idols only to get a free bout of pneumonia in the process.

The night of the grand opening, CR President Laura Chinchilla, ex-President Oscar Arias, and Chen Changzhi, the vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of China, all put their patriotic political spin on things. Then lithe Chinese dancers performed, a few fireworks burst in the sky, and the first fútbol match was played between La Selección, Costa Rican’s national team, and the Chinese national team. It ended in a tie because of a goal scored in the last couple minutes by the Chinese, who may have given Ticos the stadium, but ultimately took away their glory…hopefully not a sign of things to come.

I spent that night in a beautiful home in the Escazu hills with my friends Edín and Lorena, our colourful hosts Raymond and Jerry, and a joyful mix of Ticos and ex-pats. We ate glorious food and drank nice wine while we watched the ceremony and game on the television screen, and the light show and fireworks off the sweeping balcony with the million dollar view over the city. I’m neither a big sports fan nor a supporter of the excessive amounts of money spent in the sports and entertainment sectors, but I’m always keen for a celebration! And when in Rome….

I am, however, a very huge fan of music of all kinds and especially the music and musicians I know here in Costa Rica. There were several music events at the stadium, covering all different tastes. Apparently the National Symphony put on a beautiful program one night to a huge crowd – who said classical and opera wouldn’t bring in the masses? There was a night when all the top dance bands in the land played to the biggest dance floor ever assembled – salsa, meringue, cumbia, the works – and people of all ages swirled and twirled together. And thanks to Edín, we had passes to get into the stadium on the day when 27 music groups of Costa Rica performed in a flawlessly executed show on the big stage. There are four large screens to amplify the images for the crowd, with two of the screens serving as front drops on the stage. One rises to reveal the next band which is already to play as they have been setting up behind the other big screen. The ten hours of show went off without a hitch – very professional, great sound, excellent music – definitely a world class festival of contemporary Costa Rican music. Lorena, her friend Vicki, and I only stayed for Edín’s band EDITUS 360 and a couple of other performances, and we wandered around, taking pictures and looking at the mammoth structure.

EDITUS, who I’ve written about so many times before (most recently when I went to Guatemala with them), presented their show they call Latinamerica 360. It is the main three musicians of EDITUS along with a bass player and keyboardist as well as a cello and second violinist. They play electronic world music that you have to move to, with a backdrop of mesmerizing images. It was amazing to see the hundreds or thousands of people in the stadium, mostly youth with Megadeath t-shirts, mohawk haircuts, and attitude yet obviously fans of these superstars of Costa Rican music. It is a very long way from the days when Edín and Ricardo were a classical violin/guitar duo playing in the salons of Monteverde – which they still do. It is great to see them continue to be enthusiastic about music as they constantly switch up their playlist and musical colaborators.

As is the case with all mega-events, there was corporate advertising everywhere – mostly Coca Cola, Taco Bell and BCR (Bank of Costa Rica) – and corporate litter everywhere as well. Taco Bell (or BeatBell as they call their rock concert alter ego), BCR and Kolbi (taking over Central America’s cell phone service with a cute green frog as their logo), had to do that thing where they give everyone a free plastic blow-up tube to play with and ultimately toss away – all quadrillion of them end up on the floor, or the street, after. All those poor lost little green frogs.  As long as marketers believe that plastic throw-away garbage with their logo on it somehow increases sales, this scourge will continue. It drives me crazy – this rampant disposable advertising in exchange for corporations supporting cultural activities.

There were several controversies around the festivities that arose throughout the week. One involved the arrival of Argentina’s soccer team who came to play a friendly match against the Costa Ricans. One of the top teams in the world, it is also the birth-team of the hottest player in the world, Lionel Messi. Just the possibility of seeing this great player playing on the new concha had thousands of people lining up to buy pricey tickets to this game. My boyfriend Roberto said weeks ago that Messi would never play in this game, as he is a very expensive and important player for Barcelona and has some big games coming up for his cash-parent team in the next weeks. His owners wouldn’t allow that he take the possibility of getting injured in a silly little game in silly little Costa Rica. Roberto was right.

Messi came, I’m not sure why, since he never got off the bench. What did happen is that Costa Rican fans, hungry for even a few minutes of his renowned footwork, having paid the price of admission with that possibility in mind, booed every time Messi’s face was caught on camera and flashed on the big screen in the stadium. Perhaps not very polite behavior on behalf of the Ticos, but neither was the way they were sold the idea that if they paid the price, they would see the great one play. There was rumors that he had a mild injury, but I’ve also read that wasn’t true. Once again, the Costa Rican team only managed to tie Argentina 2-2, but that was a win for the Ticos, considering the strength of the Albicelestes.

One of the biggest events of the week was when Costa Rican female boxer, Hanna Gabriel, did her thing and held on to her world middleweight championship fighting against US opponent Melisenda Paris in front of a huge crowd at the stadium. I’m not a fan of fighting, wrestling or boxing, but I do find this woman beautiful and very gracious, and I have no doubt there is a huge pride on the part of her family, community and country. And that one woman did what all those male fútbol players couldn’t manage – to win!

The organizers of the inaugural events and the publicity surrounding them made a few errors, intentionally or not, by promising big names when they shouldn’t have, with the obvious intention of selling tickets. Another small scandal erupted weeks ago when the day of national music was being planned and the organizers used Malpais (one of the country’s most popular groups that includes Minister of Culture Manuel Obregon as their keyboardist) as a selling point for tickets before they had reached an agreement with the group itself to play.

Malpais refused to play when it was revealed that the organizers wouldn’t pay them what they normally get for a concert. They were asked to take less money as some kind of patriotic donation, while massive amounts of money went to bringing in Shakira, the international superstar. Musicians and artists here, as everywhere, struggle to survive financially but also struggle to receive the proper respect and remuneration for the talent and art that they bring to the big social table – without their music, words and images we would live much less enjoyable lives. Malpais made a public statement about their refusal to play. Other bands chose to play – many craving the exposure, others, such as EDITUS, simply feeling it was important to be part of this national event yet supportive of the statement Malpais was making.

Manuel Monestel, who recently received two national awards for his music and work, and his group Cantoamerica also didn’t play and, knowing Manuel and his politics, I can imagine he not only agreed with Malpais but also didn’t want to support the extravagance of the stadium. So many other aspects of society in Costa Rica are suffering by cutbacks to social programs, poverty and poor infrastructure in a quickly developing nation. I have no doubt that he questions, as do the activists who were demonstrating politely outside the stadium, the price to be paid by Costa Rica for this “gift” from China. He and those activitists, as their sign states, love their country as much anyone who was inside praising the new stadium.  Considering China’s poor human rights, health and environmental record, it is scary to think what the free trade agreement will lead to for little Costa Rica with its faded green party dress and schizophrenic spirit mixing ecology with development.

Sports and entertainment are very important elements of society – a place to learn teamwork, be creative, to relieve stress, to enjoy yourself, etc. People work hard and at the end of the day deserve to be entertained. I agree with that, yet I also agree with those that see the attention on sports and other forms of mass entertainment and scandal used as a distraction from the real issues. And the money involved always astounds me to create these megastructures. I would propose that people living with good health care, education, safe infrastructure and roads, and less crime, at the end of the day would come home happier and would still enjoy a game or a movie. It all seems hopelessly out of whack to me.    

At the inauguration, Oscar Arias spoke of the relationship of Costa Rica and China as “a young bonsai tree creating a bridge over the Pacific Ocean”. I love these delicate dwarfed living sculptures as much as the next person, but considering they are created by cutting roots, trimming healthy branches and keeping the poor little things stunted in a rather unnatural environment for years, I’m not sure that it is such a healthy image for the future of Costa Rica.

The symbol over the entrance to the National Stadium…don’t know what it means, but it looks like it says that Costa Rica and China are intrinsically linked for life….or maybe it says what’s yours is now ours…

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!

 

 

 

 

      

November 2017
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