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I returned to the Caribbean coast on February 6, 2010, the anniversary of my first night in Costa Rica twenty years ago in 1990. Then, as now, it was the eve of a national election which falls on the first Sunday of February every four years. It was also the celebration of Bob Marley’s birthday, who, if he was alive, would be 65 and no doubt still making music of love and peace in complex patterns that appear simple. Just like true love and world peace – beautifully basic concepts, complicated to achieve and sustain in reality. Bob, known as Tuff Gong for being a street dog who could fight, didn’t necessarily live up to these gracious ideals himself though he sure made great songs about them.
I’ve bought a new laptop which came to Costa Rica in a rather convulated fashion, thanks to my nerd in the Hammer, Brandon Lukasik, and fellow Canadian in Monteverde, Margaret Adelman. I finally got all my files into it, thanks in large part to my hero-of-the-week, José, who fixed things I couldn’t understand and made it all work smoothly. I left my trusty old Toshiba in Monteverde for students to use at the Friends School. The new Dell has an extended battery in it, since we are off the grid here at Roberto’s. The next thing is getting a solar panel and charging system and I’ll be set. As Bob’s voice caresses us, singing abouting ending war and respecting each other, and I’m tap tap tapping away in my bloglife, Roberto is digging the possibilities of this new technology that’s come to his wireless jungle paradise, though he remains totally uninterested in trying to understand it.
I’m in awe of being here in the steamy dripping jungle and working comfortably on a computer. I have all the systems on low energy, and I figure it is better in this humid climate to use it and let the heat dry it out than worry about how much battery is left. Whereas before I would handwrite while I was here, now I can write as fast as I think, quickly skating over the letters on the keyboard. And I can listen to music at the same time. My battery is supposed to last about seven hours – if I’m just typing. With playing music, I will keep track of what the battery can do before having to take it to town to be charged – and how long will that take anyway? There has been a bit of rain, which is good because it has been quite dry here – well, everywhere in Costa Rica pretty much – and Roberto’s moat, the Quebrada Suarez, needs a washout and refill. It’s enough of a drizzle to keep us from going to town to see the Superbowl – really just the halftime show gets my interest – nicer to stay home, listen to the forest, keep a fire going, go to bed.
All night long, the sky dripped. Drops in every language fell, joining together in a percussive experiment. It wasn’t rain by Caribbean standards, just a gentle wet lullabye being hummed throughout the night. Now, morning, and the sky has stopped its crying, but the trees are soggy enough that their melancholy song of teardrops will continue for hours.
The howler monkeys have taken over. There is a family in a tree directly above us, and the moaning, whining and roaring is impressive. It was almost exactly a year ago that we were staying in a cabin in Cahuita town and the howlers put on a concert for days that was unlike anything I’d ever heard before (written about in “The Kukulas of Cahuita” blogpost). The sounds coming from them today is reminiscent of that – makes me wonder what is going on with them at this time of the year? Are they in heat or do they already have young babies who they are either teaching or protecting? Songs of the jungle, along with the morning’s first cup of coffee, how delicious.
The last couple weeks in Monteverde were spent sitting in front of this same laptop, working hard to get the new blog for Bosqueterno S.A. up and running (http://bosqueternosa.wordpress.com) and putting together a power point presentation to share that same history with the community. It’s a part of Monteverde history, the creation of the first watershed reserve, that few seem to remember, if they ever knew it. I went out one day with Wolf, thinking to plant the seed that I’d be returning in March and available to give this talk to the guides, Reserve employees, Friends School, and members of the community at the Monteverde Institute. By the end of the day, I had four dates lined up – people were excited about learning more about the beginning of conservation in Monteverde.
In March, Roberto and I will return to the green mountain to spend a couple more weeks with our little feline friend, Miel, who is now in the tender loving care of Sarah and Priscilla, the teaching assistants for the CIEE course. They moved into the apartment a little over a week ago. It was great to meet them fresh and energetic – Sarah from Minnesota but a former CIEE student in Monteverde, and Priscilla, a Tica who majored in biology from San José. Their students are arriving this week, and their lives will change for the next four months.
Karen Masters and her husband Alan have run the CIEE program(Council on International Educational Exchange) in Monteverde for years. It’s a tropical biology course but there is now a sustainable ecology option as well. Karen happens to also be my adviser in the Bosqueterno work (as she is president of their Board of Directors). Roberto and I bumped into Karen and Alan in San José at the little Caribbean restaurant (La Abuela on Avenida 1/Calle 5 or so) that we discovered back in December. It was sheer coincidence that we ran into the Masters there and great to have a moment before their student groups came and they were lost in their teaching responsibilities for months. Unfortunately, though I would still recommend the restaurant, Roberto’s meal was not good – uncooked fish, cold and tasteless rice and beans – and he knows his rice and beans! The rest of our meals were fine, and the bad food could have been due to the fact that the place was packed, a very busy lunchtime crowd, putting too much stress on the little kitchen.
I celebrated no less than four birthdays while in Monteverde – Tricia Wagner, drama and music teacher extraordinaire; Marlene Brenes, who works in the CIEE office downstairs from the apartment; as well as my pals Alan Calvo and Mark Fenton at Bromelias.
Tricia’s birthday was celebrated with the poetry group which my good friend Patricia Jimenéz is also part of. I’ve spent other evenings with these folks when no poetry is shared, just food, wine and conversation. Other times, they write poetry together and people share their poems. They call themselves the Gatos Pardos and have been getting together and supporting each other’s creative writing for years. As a gift to both Tricia and Walter, another member who had recently had a birthday, Patricia created books with a selection of each member’s poetry, cloaked in a cover of handmade paper of recycled and organic materials that she has been making with another group of women in her home. As Tricia says, Patricia Jimenéz is an inspiration and idol to us all – painter, poet, political analyst, polio survivor and protaganist of a myriad of creative ventures in the Monteverde area. And always a wonderful friend to spend an evening with, sipping wine and talking about life.
That night ended at the Mata ‘e Caña where Las Nómadas were playing – Andres, Diego and Cristian, guitar and percussion (along with saxophonist Richard Trostle), singing and drumming out the sweet beats of cuban salsa along with a little of this and that. There are some good bands these days in Monteverde – and you can catch at least a couple of them every week at the Mata, formerly la Taverna as it was known to thousands for more than twenty years. It’s now run by Shannon Smith who oversees the place like the charismatic, buxom red-headed madam of a saloon in the wild west – although the place looks more like New York City than Laredo. Due to her consistent booking of fine musical acts, I spent alot of nights dancing there in the last couple months in Monteverde.
The other sweet spot higher up the road on the mountain is Bromelias. Patricia Maynard has done some more remodeling (she has more ideas than money) and is gearing up for her Music Festival – three top quality groups each weekend for four weeks beginning mid-February. I went there for her son Machillo’s 21st birthday which we celebrated the same day as her employee and our friend, Alan Calvo’s. These last couple of weeks in Monteverde have been windless, starry-skied nights, warm and magical. Bromelias is enchanting when the fire is blazing outside under the sparkly night sky, and there is always some variation of music in the restaurant or in the amphitheater.
The National Theater of Costa Rica put on a play there this last week – called Canto de Ballenas (Whale Singing) – which was a rather melancholy four-character, one-act play whose message seemed to be “sometimes, it’s better just to forget”. It starred the lovely Alejandra Portilla and played out under a calm warm night in Bromelias Amphitheater. They were going to be having a big reggae, rice and beans celebration at Bromelias for Bob Marley’s birthday, but I left Monteverde to meet up with Roberto and return here to our jungle home.
At the last minute, we decided to go spend my 20th anniversary and Bob’s birthday in Puerto Viejo. Sadly, the live band wasn’t playing at Maritza’s bar, where we like to go dancing, but we still got some dancing in by bar-hopping throughout the night. Bob’s music was everywhere, sang live by Memo and his hot band Plan B at the corner bar, pounding at Johnny’s disco on the beach, rippling out of almost every doorway.
Our new place to stay in Puerto is La Dolce Vita. In November, we stayed in a room with shared bath for $15 near the communal kitchen; this time for 15,000 colones (about $25) we had a private bath in a very comfortable room – the place is secure, super clean, colorful and close to downtown, but still very quiet.
Now Roberto’s jungle home is the place to be, surrounded by the sweet sounds of the jungle. Listening to the radio this morning, Roberto reported to me that the New Orleans Saints won the Superbowl. I’m glad that something good happened for that city…where just five years ago the homeless and traumatized survivors of Kratina were being housed in the stadium that the now victorious football team calls home.
He also told me that Laura Chinchilla became the first female president of Costa Rica last night continuing the reign of Oscar Arias’ Liberación Nacional party. As I wrote at the beginning, there is a lot of apathy, disillusionment and disgust in this country for their politicians these days. Twenty years ago, when I first came here, they were so proud of their democracy that they would walk proudly in the streets showing off the purple thumbs that proved that they had indeed participated in the vote. Now, just six electons later, many people can’t be bothered to vote. They don’t believe the propaganda and election promises. It is a sad tendency in many democracies these days – certainly in Canada, where disgust is at an all time high with the minority Conservative government who just took a long extended parlimentary vacation, and the U.S., where the aftermath of Obama’s election isn’t meeting the high expectations of hope and change.
Costa Rica has bathed for years in a special light, but the truth is often far from its pacifistic, green reputation. May the new government bring some honesty and truth and intelligent foresight back, before the possibility of eternal environmental health and a comfortable and secure standard of living is lost to a much darker reality. It is something that in such a machista country, that a woman has been voted in as president, but it certainly doesn’t ensure that her policies will change from those of the old boys’ club (aka Margaret Thatcher).
Long after his own life passed, Bob Marley’s songs continue to ring throughout the world, with a chorus of love and peace amid verses of unity and respect. He grew up in poverty with a mother who bestowed on him her own talent for singing – he joined with Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer to create a music that transcends languages and borders and deeply touches almost everyone who hears it. His songs can change the world – they are some of the sweetest ever written. That special light shone down on this soul too and he rose to meet it, at least in music and message. Thank you Bob, rest in that same peace that you sang so beautifully about.
PS – I’ve written, listened to music, or gone on to my computer for some thing or other for about five and a half hours – and it tells me there is still 25% of the battery left! Cool! Off to town, Roberto will do some fishing, me some swimming and then go charge up the battery and go online to post this. Ah, the sweet life….
PPS – Posting this in Bastimento, Bocas del Toro, Panama – may never return…love this place.
It is now September and, totally off my usual migratory schedule, I’m back in the north. Home in the Hammer, enjoying brilliant blue skies – even Hamilton Bay, the maligned body of water that shares its shores with steel companies and suburbia, has an aqua shine to it these days. I couldn’t ask for a better homecoming. My buddy with a bosom, Cocky, was at the airport to meet me, after her own month of travels. A treat to come home to, but now she’s gone too. I may get a chance to go for a sail on that same water if this weather holds for the Labour Day weekend which it is supposed to.
My last two weeks in Costa Rica were spent down in sweet calypsolandia, Cahuita. Although it rained lots in July on the Caribbean coast just as it had been up in Monteverde, I ended up being followed by beautiful weather from the green mountain to the seashore. There were some casual showers of course, and maybe one night of insistent rain, but the month of September in Cahuita means dry weather. Hard to fathom how, when it is hurricane season just to north, but I stopped trying to figure out weather a long time ago.
We got a lot of hot sunny days that sent us to the beach, but we mostly stayed at home. It was glorious to be back basking under those big trees, bathing in the cool water, being serenaded by the howlers and bailando with Roberto. I was amazed at how much the papaya seedlings we had planted in July had grown in the four or so weeks I was away. But then the growth of vegetation in Costa Rica always unnerves me a bit – you just don’t want to sit in one place too long if there is a vigorous-looking vine nearby.
One afternoon we went up to the Port of Limon, a place I really only have known as a bus-changing town. We walked around the ‘malecon’, the boardwalk that follows the seaside. Limon is one of the oldest cities in the Americas, having been visited by Christopher Columbus in 1502, so if it seems a little worn that should be understandable.
Development in Costa Rica by the Spaniards took place from the Pacific side, and so the Atlantic coast was left to fend for itself against all that crazy rainforest vegetation. In the mid-1800s the government decided to build a railroad and connect Limon (particularly its port) to the rest of the country. They brought in Chinese and Jamaican workers to build the tracks and thus the Caribbean coast is very much an extension of Afro-Caribbean culture with lots of chop suey houses around.
There is no denying racist elements that existed (and unfortunately still do.) When the railroad was finished and the banana plantations became a major employer, the black population provided the workforce. They weren’t encouraged to travel throughout the country, couldn’t afford it anyway, and the fact that they were foreigners themselves made it able to control their movements through their documents. Eventually they went to work in other parts of Costa Rica as laborers were needed and Afro-Caribbean families settled elsewhere in the country. But the heart of the calypso-blooded community will always be Limon.
The city developed once the railroad took off, but government money was never pouring their way. In the last year or two, there has been a move by the Costa Rican government to bring economic development to the area although people are waiting to see the proof. There was an attempt at revitalizing the waterfront of Limon several years ago, but earthquakes and storms destroyed much of the expanded boardwalk as well as what must have been a great little outdoor concert theatre in its short life. As Limon grows into a bigger cruise ship port (it is already a large commercial harbor and a popular cruise ship stop) hopefully some of the wealth that visits its shores will be spread in the area. Although Limon is known for its poverty, its richness of spirit and culture is as much a part of life there. The biggest threat to that, after poverty, is the drug trade which feeds on the poverty and changes the spirit.
The city has a funky flair to it and lots of local color, from the bright hues of the buildings to the cacao skin of the residents. When you take the highway east of San José, over the mountains of Braulio Carillo National Park, and through the miles of flat banana and pineapple fields, over the wide rivers coming out of the mountains and arrive in Limon province, you know you are in a different culture than in the rest of Costa Rica. The food changes – instead of arroz y frijoles, you are now eating rice and beans cooked in coconut milk; the music changes – from salsa and merengue to calypso, soca and reggae; and the language is English-based Limonense-Creole rather than Spanish. It seems that most people are fluently tri-lingual – speaking Tico Spanish and British English as well as their own Caribbean-tongue. It is a disappearing language as are many of the indigenous languages that are being used by less and less natives of Costa Rica. My experience being there with Roberto is that every plant, bird and insect has a different name in Limon than elsewhere in the country. The words are English-based, but the names are distinct to this region. I can get very lost trying to follow the lilt and tilt of the language used in Cahuita.
We had some beautiful days and were out on the ocean as often as we could force ourselves to go for the walk through the forest to the beach. There was another hot night spent in Puerto Viejo, which has a number of bars that cater to different crowds - we go to Maritza’s, which has a live band on Saturday nights and always plays a great variety of music for dancing from soca to salsa.
In the middle of all this it was my birthday and Roberto promised to go out in the sea and get me lobster for dinner. So we spent two fine mornings on the beach under a big sun, the sea a calm shiny turquoise stone. Roberto used to be a diver (snorkeler) and caught and sold octopus, fish and lobster, but quit a number of years ago as he saw the population of these sea creatures diminish. The banana plantations in the area have caused lots of pollution – from their chemical effluent to the silt run-off to the plastic bluebags that they put over the banana bunches – all this stuff ends up in the ocean and, along with a bad earthquake or two, things have never been the same.
But it didn’t take him long to get four nice-sized lobster for dinner and we were thankful for the bounty. We were blessed with the warmth of the sun and the beauty of the sea and took advantage to walk through Cahuita National Park’s shady trails, sharing our time with the monkeys.
Cahuita’s beaches are stunning and the National Park is one of the most beautiful in the country. Between the white sand beach, the reef off the point, the hours of hiking, the constant presence of birds, insects and animals, and the fact that you can enter for a small donation from the town access point, it makes for one of the nicest parks to visit in Costa Rica. They have built bridges over some of the swampier areas (where before there were submerged wooden walkways), using the same recycled-plastic material that the Monteverde Reserve has been using on its trails and signage for a few years now. It was interesting that we could smell the plastic off-gassing in the very hot sun – something that I’ve never noticed up in the cooler cloud forest.
We also continued taking care of Roberto’s little farm. We seeded corn and within three days it was two inches out of the ground – when I head back there in November I should be eating elotes, the young corncobs.
Roberto climbed up his castaña tree, the glamorous cousin of the breadfruit, to chop off the top limbs before it gets too tall and he won’t be able to harvest the fruit.
This tree is also growing on the bank of his stream and, knowing that it will fall one day, he has been concerned that if it is too tall it will fall on his casita. So I took pictures as he shimmied up the trunk and took his machete to the big elegant leaves and chopped off the top.
Afterward he said he was getting too old to do this stuff – between the possibility of falling, wasps, snakes, and other risks he felt lucky to get the job done in one piece - but my guess is he’ll keep climbing and chopping as long as he needs to, for as long as he is truly able. His age is just making him realize how vulnerable he is and that when it hurts, it hurts harder.
We went back through the mountains to San José for my last two days in the country. There was a full day of music awaiting us and we took advantage.
Wandering around the city, we caught the Lubin Barahona orchestra outside of the National Museum. It was big band music and boleros being sung by old timers.
The crowd was mostly older couples who were happy to be dancing on the street while the music played on and the rain held off. Like in most cities, there is live music playing for free to be found most weekends.
We then caught a gospel concert in the Melico Salazar Theatre at night – a contest between three local gospel choirs (won by the University choir) with Master Key (a five man acapella group from Costa Rica now working in the US)
with Manuel Obregon, a musician I’ve known for years in Monteverde (and seen him play here in Toronto twice). He’s one of the most experimental composers in the country – here he was playing gospel with our friend Tapado, the country’s top percussionist, at his side. Manuel never fails to amaze me with where his music takes him and he takes alot of other musicians along for his musical rides. The Let It Shine concert was presented by a gospel choir group and held to celebrate Black Culture Day, August 31. It was a great way to extend my time in the cultural richness of the Afro-Caribbean community.
The inevitableness of leaving woke me up early on the last day of August and when it is time to go, it is time. It makes saying goodbye easier when you know you are going to return within a couple of months (si dios quiere.) Heading to my happy home in the Hammer also makes things easier. I can still feel the Caribbean sun on my skin and if I listen hard enough, the gentle arrival of the waves lapping the beach and gently rocking my soul.
The mellowness of life in the jungle and on the sea exists in stark contrast to the busyness of my life back here in the city as I prepare for a trip to the northeastern US, continue overseeing the Spanish translation of Walking with Wolf, work on the historical record of Bosqueeterno S.A., and catch up with my northern friends.
Stay calm, Kay, stay calm – but keep that ball rolling, there is lots to do.
Well, it took a lot of doing, but I got my jungle under control. Lost count of the compost bags and bundles of vegetation that went out to the compost truck on garbage day. Thank goodness the men on the truck were easily convinced to take well over my weekly limit. I’m sure they took pity on me as I stood there asking them to take the excess, covered in dirt, scratches all down my legs from the rosebushes that I got too close to, and sweat pouring outa my skin. “Sure lady, don’t worry about it – we’ll take it all”. Thanks kind men. (Refer to former post, Steve and the Hammer, for the before pics)
Now I can see my beach, my flowers, as well as a bit of lawn back there – I only have grass for enough room for a couple of tents and chairs around my fireplace. I live in the city but my backyard is a campground, a beach, a shady garden and a patio terrace on the Mediterranean. I can sit in any spot in my backyard, depending on whether I want sun or shade, to face the city skyline or be shielded from the north wind, to see the full moon passing or to roast weinies in the fire, or to have a peaceful candlelit dinner on the terrace. The only trouble in my backyard now is the skunk that has definitely taken up residence under my shed. I thought he/she was there when I left in May but had no time to deal with it – well, now I just hope there isn’t a whole family. And I have to come up with some kind of peaceful way to send him/her packing.
Since I have been home, and once my swollen gland in my neck calmed down, I have been multi-tasking but mostly dealing with setting up the future of Walking with Wolf. I’ve been sending books out to journals and media for reviews, taking books to bookstores, setting up book events, emailing anyone and everywhere about the book. I am very excited that sooner or later a real review will appear – beyond the great response from people who have been reading the book, it is important to get some professional support. My fingers are crossed that any review will be mostly positive.
Now well on my way to being a marketer, public relations manager and distributer, I am on another new learning curve. I went and had lunch with my friend Ace Piva, a drummer who is building a new career as a road manager for bands, traveling throughout North America. He has years of experience doing his own publicity and management, getting attention for his bands. He gave me some great advice, expanding every one of my ideas with his own brilliance, enthusiasm and experience. We were down on the waterfront where he lives which is only minutes from my home – it was also Mardi Gras parade day, when the Afro-Caribbean community comes out to play.
It took me back to Cahuita and Limon in Costa Rica. But on this day, as the calypso and reggae rhythms filled the air, the grey clouds turned black and got darker and darker, even as the colorful feathers soca-ed their way down the street into the Bayfront Park, and then the lightning started zigzagging through the sky. I danced with the crowd for awhile but as the ominous sky grew scarier, I jumped on my bike and made it home just as the first drop of rain fell. Within ten minutes, it was a deluge that lasted for hours. This wiped out the rest of Mardi Gras, as well as the day at the Festival of Friends, and no doubt many other outdoor activities on that busy summer Saturday.
For three years I’ve been working as an background performer in local film and TV shoots. I get called at the last minute by my agent Patti at Stonewall Talent, gather the appropriate wardrobe, and go to wherever I’m instructed usually very early in the morning. I get paid well and fed, sometimes really well, and hang out all day with interesting, often wacky, people and watch the making of movies (I show up in Lars and the Real Girl and was also in the latest version of the Incredible Hulk). It gives me a little extra money and although the days can be very long and sometimes boring, I enjoy the work. My mother didn’t allow my sister and me to be bored when we were kids (“I’ll find you something to do”) and her insistence at evicting that word from our vocabulary has stayed with me all my life. If nothing else is going on, I watch people. I look at the trees or the sky. I sleep. I daydream. That’s as close to bored as I get, and none of those things are boring, just relaxing. Otherwise, I tend to be very busy. Or on downtime. It’s all in the attitude. That is how I survive those long days on set, though I find that there is an illness amongst alot of extras that causes them to moan and complain about everything all day long.
In the end, I had a very short day of only six hours (usually we go closer to twelve or fifteen hours) that started at the very reasonable hour of noon in a TV show called Hardwired. We ended up being passer-bys, shooting in Gage Park, the same place I saw my hero Steve Earle play the other night. It was truly a walk in the park. Today I am mailing out books, packing up my laptop, and heading out to Westport, Ontario, to visit my friends and participate in the Westport Music Festival on the weekend. I’m multi-tasking, of course, taking advantage of a friend with the expertise to do some work on my multi-media presentation for the book launches coming up in September. I imagine I will disappear from bloglandia for awhile again, but wanted to check in before I go. All appendages crossed for a sunny, dry day for outdoor music in Westport on Saturday, for a lack of growth in my yard while I’m away, and, as always, for world peace – even with my neighbour, the skunk.