El Salto (The Jump)

We stepped into a small motorboat, barely looking down to check our footing. Our eyes were glued to the view on the lake’s opposite shore: the mighty volcano Arenal. Its sharp cone drove steeply into the sky. What had been a tragedy for the two villages at the base of Arenal in the 1968 explosion that ended its dormancy became riches for the survivors as the cone continued to rumble and ooze. Conveniently left out of promotional literature and not updated on tourist websites is the fact that brilliant orange lava ceased to pour down the sides of the volcano two and a half years ago. But we loved it just the same.

We’d arrived a day early. We impulsively sprang from Santa Elena after a stubbornly rainy morning scuttled our hiking plans. After a bummer of a trip through San Jose, which had lingered like fog during our time in the cloud forest, we’d felt like nothing more than going home, getting out. But our last days in Costa Rica held one more wonder, a gift of perfect days that would make me wistful and sorry to leave: La Fortuna.

Our lodging was an open-air loft overlooking the town square: a bright, peach-colored Catholic church with a flowery park adjacent. That night, strains of violin and trumpet wafted into our bedroom. From the balcony, we could hear the student orchestra play the theme from Carmen, as the predominantly local audience wandered in and out of the open doors, moving about to find acoustic sweet spots and acquaintances to murmur to– a very different concert etiquette than in the United States, but no less appreciative and with a larger attendance.

We were the only guests in the six-room hospedaje, but it did not feel vacant. Our host, Peter, lived there with his good dog, Rocky, and each time we turned around, a different nice young Costa Rican woman was sitting at the table or working on a laptop on the counter. We finally figured out the cast of characters: Maria, Peter’s girlfriend, who dressed in 1980s fashion, middy tops and short shorts, with her hair in loose curls and her face open and amiable. Heidy, the receptionist, when she had finished answering the few emails that the guesthouse received each day, brought out art supplies and stretched canvas and painted images from Greco-Roman and Egyptian myths, right there by the little kitchen. And Kathi was a friend who teased Peter to stock the refrigerator with chocolates and fruit juice before her visits, during which they shared culinary wisdom; she is a sushi chef at a local restaurant. We enjoyed everyone’s company, though it was a little less exciting than imagining we had accidentally booked four nights at a house of ill repute.

Unsurprisingly, we had not made exact plans for our stay. Our host recommended a popular tour: it was ten hours long and consisted of hiking, a waterfall, a hanging bridge, lunch, a swim in a volcanic lagoon, a volcano museum and mirador (viewpoint), and a soak in the hot springs. It was exactly what we wanted to do… except not with a tour. So we borrowed the tour’s itinerary, but spread it over three days, hiking faster but more extensively, and completing the rest in more leisurely fashion, at a third of the cost. We swam in the cold, sunny waterfall, our breath swept away by the blast of air churning from its wake. We took public buses and waved down empty turismo vans. We cooked our breakfasts and dinners in the loft on the little two-burner stove, oatmeal, then beans and vegetables with tortillas. We had time to nap, lay in the hamaca and phone home, or play tunes on J.’s travel guitar. And far down a minor trail near the observatory, J. smoked a fine cigar from a certain country very slowly and with much relish, while watching an extended family of spider monkeys swing westward through the trees overhead.

One afternoon, Peter asked if we wanted to join Rocky and him at the local swimming hole. It is called El Salto: the jump. A fraying, thin-looking knotted rope hangs from a tree over a thick, black rock that juts over the largest pool in the Rio Fortuna. Peter and J. swung out and let go, dropping eight feet into the churning drink, but despite both encouragements and chicken gestures, this was not my method of entry. The best feature of the swimming hole was that it is a gratis version of the Endless Pool you may remember from such fine catalogues as SkyMall or Hammacher Schlemmer. The ground level drops just above the hole, causing the river to channel into two small waterfalls, which cause a strong, fast downstream current. No matter how hard I paddled (which is, admittedly, not very; I was always put at the shallow end during swim classes), I could not gain ground. Who needs a gym membership when you’ve got this, plus multiple volcanoes to climb? Meanwhile, kids cast fishing line, or threw sticks for Rocky to fetch. A little girl in jean shorts and a purple vest slapped her round stomach contentedly between swims. Boys showed off for curvy young girls with curves of their own: flips and dives that arched frighteningly close to sharp rocks and the pounding falls. Teenagers kissed in the shadows. This felt like the real La Fortuna, realer than the strip of tourism booths lining the main drag, realer than a pre-packaged adventure tour, realer than a hotel where you see no one who isn’t paid to be there.

The next day, Maria asked if we had yet gone to El Chuyin, the local rio termal (geothermal river). We had not. Ah, she said in Spanish, let me ask Peter if we could go together tonight. It is most beautiful at night. And so it was that at 5:30, we rode beneath a sunset that scattered the colors of tropical fruits among clouds, toward the volcano from which the hot river flows. Unmarked, just down the road from the most expensive hot springs resort in town, the same water flows free and open. We descended in the dark on uneven stone steps to an overpass under which rushed the Rio Tabacon. The only lighting was six candles balanced in crevices, and the occasional headlights of a vehicle passing on the road above. The entire river steamed, smelling slightly of sulphur, an attractive scent in places like these. It thundered off a concrete ledge back into its natural riverbed, upon the sandy bottom of which it is an abdominal workout just to remain standing. I stood under the ledge and let it envelop me. Then I lay flat upon the ledge and let it wash over, nearly covering my body, while I stared at the four stars peeking through the foliage above, the waters mirroring the starlight back toward the heavens. I had been reading Paramhansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, about the dissolution of the ego-driven soul, uniting one’s energy with that of the divine power. I felt that way: as if tight pieces of me were stripped off, disappearing downriver into darkness, leaving only impersonal, liquid motion. Then we chatted and laughed and played water games like children: Maria held her hands above the surface, to feel the soft foam rush over her fingers. Peter ducked under the ledge and shone a light through the water, then submerged himself and popped his feet out from under. J. squirted water with his hands. And I got a large quantity of sand in my swimsuit (unity with the river, right?). We finally left, just after a tour group showed up with several vanfulls of additional bathers, but it was hard to go. The night was magic. It was a Costa Rican farewell blessing.

Our last morning was spent walking sweatily to a mediocre but amusing butterfly garden. Then the bus carried us away to spend a final night near the airport, with a few minutes of layover in Ciudad Quesada to peruse chicharrones and empanadas and red delicious apples, and to pay 65 cents for admittance to the bathrooms and a length of folded toilet paper (which you do not flush, but put in the trash cans). Then it was exit fee, check-in, baggage, flight, immigrations, customs, and presto: we were back in the United States. Another salto. It happened so fast. We are back in the USA, land of gleaming floors, cable television in English, 4G, and autumn. I don’t know how I feel about it. The warm, humid air of Costa Rica is still trapped in the pockets of my luggage. I may not be ready to unpack…

Scenes from a cloud

1. Cool at last! After over a month of sweltering heat, we took the bumpy bus ride north, away from the Caribbean Coast, and up to el bosque nuboso: the cloud forest of Monteverde. Now I am hiking alone in the national preserve, feeling strong and alive. A white-faced coati rolls a log over and over. A hummingbird buzzes electrically and hovers in front of my face like a tiny, iridescent UFO. The clouds dip down and then retract. My skin sings to be immersed in such fresh air.

2. Back at the humble hostel, J. and I eat mint ice cream made by the Quakers who moved here in 1951. They were dairy folk, but milk couldn’t make it down the laborious, windy road before spoiling, so they turned to making cheese and other treats. I open the refrigerator door to pull out vegetables to chop for dinner, and the white kitten who perches on top of the fridge bats my fuzzy hair. I am in love with her. The fellow at the desk says I am free to take her with me; the hostel already has its cat, Concha. This one, Paraquita, is just a stray, a neurotic, feisty kitten. (He won’t tell me what Paraquita means; obviously something a bit naughty, not just parakeet. I can’t find the word in my dictionaries… crowd-sourced translations, anyone?) Costa Rican dogs aren’t so bad either. They are often jointly owned (or abandoned) by many, fed by many, and uncollared (because of the dangers of getting the collar caught on some bizarre forest plant). They strut in and out of the buildings and businesses freely, like fine gentlemen, since there are few doors and nobody minds. They greet each other, scout out the prospects, and trot out again, with dignity.

3. It is raining. Hard. Four seconds ago it was not raining. The rain does not dismay me. We are vacationing, but we are also just living. This means it is time to play cribbage, or fall asleep, or talk softly and laugh with each other. I wonder how people are perpetual tourists, or retirees with nothing but leisure time. Not contributing to society, unless I am unable to, would bother me. For these ten days, it is all right. But I am glad we will soon be more than consumers again, in some way, important or negligible, it does not matter.

4. Today, everyone is watching a futbol (soccer) game between two Costa Rican teams. I think it’s like when UGA plays Georgia Tech. We’re walking past the neighborhood cementario (which I think they might mean to spell cemeterio, except the graves are all made of cement covered in white bathroom tiles and ceramic crosses). Suddenly, we hear screams, car horns, cheers, obscenities, and even a vuvuzela blast from the houses and faroff valleys. The normally quiet and gentle people of this country, following the game on radios and TVs in homes, hotels, businesses, and grocery stores, bellow: GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAL!!! I love it.

(N.B. We are at this moment back in the USA… but there are several Costa Rican posts still forthcoming. What a marvel it is to have a real keyboard upon which to type!)

Thirty-five in Panama

Our volunteering stint is done. Bittersweet to leave the finca, after a good month of getting to know a few people, a few hundred chickens, and quite a few plants, animals and insects (I keep updating my flora & fauna post, if you are curious). But, after a lovely goodbye dinner at the local Israeli restaurant, it is over. And then, the next morning, after finding and killing one last scorpion (inside the mosquito netting!)… Mike dropped us off with all our luggage at the border town of Sixaola, Costa Rica.

We walked across the rickety river bridge teeming with uniformed schoolchildren, banana plantation workers, and people carrying electronics and oscillating fans into Costa Rica from the other side, where such things are cheaper. Juveniles hung out halfway across, laughing and scoffing and draping their bodies precariously over the edge. We waited in the Panamanian immigrations and customs lines in the scorching sun, to get the precious passport stamps and aduana stickers. I think I foiled an agent trying to get extra money; I smiled and innocently insisted that yes, I needed my twenty back. (He said he had change, but then said he didn’t, and meanwhile the bill had disappeared into his desk.) Cartoonishly pleasant naiveté works well sometimes.

Then we entered Panamá, where we were welcomed by a throng of aggressive shuttle drivers. They are giant, loud guys who seem to be having a bad day. They are personally offended if you don’t want their ride, and they want to know why, and to persuade you otherwise. Three of them were fighting over us at one point, even as we stridently insisted we were waiting for the big yellow public bus. We finally caved when one wildly gesticulating fellow showed us his van full of other dazed gringos. OK, so if he drives us into the jungle to labor on a cocaine farm, at least we’ll have company.

This is why some people travel in private, air conditioned vehicles –  or fly – from fancy hotel to fancy hotel. Our life choices preclude that, and I don’t really want such isolation and mollycoddling anyway. It’s all a cultural experience, right?

After being accosted in the port town of Almirante by six muchachos who, in hopes of a tip, “helped” carry our luggage the ten feet from the van to the boat whether we wanted it or not (a clear indication that there are not enough good jobs around)… things got better. No matter that the water taxi to Isla Colon, the main island of Bocas del Toro, sputtered out for a few minutes, overheated, in the middle of the bay. It was breezy and beautiful. Sea spray and speed. We dropped our bags at a grungy hostel, then walked the tranquil island perimeter. There are no roads on Isla Careneno, just a sandy path that weaves through residents’ yards. Their homes, churches, and pulperías are on stilts over the water, with rainwater cachement barrels under the tin roofs. You hear everything that goes on. The people seemed happy and intimately connected, though they did not have much material wealth. Young children ran along the paths squealing; the village collectively minds them. Then, as the sun set and the other islands across the sea let up for the night, we had a slow, delicious dinner at the Cosmic Crab.

Upon returning, we discovered that our tiny, windowless, concrete hostel room had heated to over 90 degrees. We lay in bed with the fan (more noise than action) trained on us, no covers, no clothes, motionless… drenched in sweat. We made it through the night by wheedling the bartender into letting us swap rooms. He explained that the water below absorbs the sun’s heat and emits it through the night. “By seven am, it’ll be cool,” he said.

But by seven am, over fluffy pancakes (included in the price of the hostel, but DIY), we’d resolved to enjoy modern luxuries that day. We had a convenient excuse to do so: it was my birthday. So we left the hostel with great pleasure, and found a kind man named Muhammed who rented us a lovely condo. Complete with AC, thick walls through which you cannot hear your neighbors, and a general seal between the house and the outdoors preventing lizard poop, bugs, and scorpions from coexisting with us. I know, I love the blurring of boundaries, nature and culture… but once a month it’s nice to have some hard lines!

So we lived it up in that condo. No Hunter S. Thompson shenanigans… our pleasures were more along the lines of: “Hey J., there’s a hot water faucet in the bathroom sink!!” After showering, we dropped onto the sofa cushions and relished the unbelievable sensation of not sweating. Our skins weren’t immediately oily. We hung out all our clothing to breathe and dehumidify. We put liters of water in the fridge. We played with the remote.

Then we found the gourmet grocery. We ate veggie sandwiches and potato salad. We took a water taxi to Isla Bastimento. We hiked over the crest to the other side, Wizard Beach, a high tide, surf crashing beauty that we had all to ourselves. We hiked back to the top and stopped at an organic chocolate farm for chilled vegan truffles and icy passionfruit juice. We taxied home as thunder rumbled on the horizon.

(J. loves the taxis here, both land and water. Few island people own a car, so the land cabs pick folks up along the way, piecemeal, like little buses, and the passengers chat as the driver noodles in and out of neighborhoods. Nobody asks about fares. The schoolgirl just pokes two coins into the taxista’s palm on her way out.)

The evening consisted of Indian curries, a balcony view of the full moon as the Jews of the island lit their Rosh Hashanah tent made of woven palm fronds, a slice of tres leches cake along the lively, night-bright streets of Bocas Town… and a full night’s sleep in a cool, dry room. It was a wonderful birthday.

Although I am having a bit of an existential crisis about being 35. Not the usual suspects: little wrinkles, the biological clock, being closer to death, or to forty. It’s just that 35 seems approximately the halfway point of life; we are not promised anything, maybe more, maybe fewer years. And here I am, still with all these character defects and bad habits. Like old friends who grew up to be no good. Familiar and entrenched. Overdramatic teenage relics that I don’t wear well. I could use more age-appropriate attributes. But I could also use some sleep, and three days in the same place. (Which is on the docket. We are now in a humble hostel in the high, beautiful mountain country of central Costa Rica for a change of scenery and, we hope, lots of hiking.) Travel is a struggle sometimes, even vacationing. The highlights do not come without challenges. Hot and tired, endlessly in motion, translating all day, in my case, or not understanding all day, in J.’s. Why? Why do all this? Ask me after a nap and a good plate of rice and beans… and I’ll tell you then, that again, it’s getting better.

Sorpresas / Surprises

Not surprisingly, life in el extranjero is full of surprises. Like: despite the hundreds of brilliantly plumed pájaros here, the national bird is… the clay colored robin.

And some things that one would never imagine would differ from place to place… do. Corn on the cob, for instance, doesn’t translate well. It is as tough and tasteless as field corn. (Maybe it is intended only for tortilla making?) Also, supermarket pickles. The verduras encurtido en vinagre were thrown into the compost due to overtones of corn syrup and burnt plastic.

On the other hand: before Dr. Oz ever touted it, before trendy athletes swore by it, even before it was a pet…  centroamericanos were suspending chilla (or as we know it: chia) in icy sugar water and drinking the delicious floating seeds on hot afternoons.

Speaking of which, today Gerbacio surprised me by giving the lie to the truism that Costa Ricans will not tell you the straight truth if they think it might be unpleasant to hear. He was talking a break from chapeando (weed whacking) under our sun shade. “Do you want a glass of cold water?” I asked in Spanish. “Do you have a refresco?” he replied. “No, but I could make limeade.” This sounded good to him, so I squeezed the juice of a ripe key lime, melted shavings of cane sugar in hot water, and mixed it with lots of ice in a mug. He took a swig and grimaced as politely as possible. “Whoo, this is sour! I think you put in enough lime for three mugs full. And it needs about twice the sugar. Otherwise it’ll rot my teeth!” (Another surprise: Gerbacio and most of his countryfolk have excellent white teeth, and swear it is from gnawing on raw sugarcane.) So I did as he suggested, handed him the improved limeade, and thanked him for letting me know.

Then later, I was sweeping the kitchen and poked the broom at an errant leaf. The leaf blew under a crate. A series of pursuing broom swipes were met by strange evasions, as if a fluke breeze cooled the floorboards. Then the leaf slowly bent in half, on its own, possessed. OK, so some insects look like leaves or twigs. But this thing was a leaf. And then it was a bug. It flexed to reveal a soft yellow abdomen. Unfortunately, its convincing disguise had proven fatal, and it is now, like certain distasteful pickles, compost.

But the most serious surprise: it is dry. In the rainforest. The stream makes no sound; there is no more water on the farm. Only the contents of a few barrels. I am not sure what the plan is if we don’t get an aguacero soon. It makes me think about how most of us depend on someone else to supply our water, and whether that dependence or trust is wise. For now, the well refills slowly, and we enjoy our cold beverages that much more conscientiously.

Jungle routine

Even the wild becomes routine.

Between chicken duties (doodies?), I am painting as many signs as possible, which is satisfying. Yvonne laughed to hear me say that this is the best art studio I’ve ever had, given that it’s an old woodshed that was full of junk, spiders, and one small boa. But now it’s just got two or three cute iguanas who monitor the perimeter, open air, a jungle view, a spigot. Privacy. Equipment to cut and sand boards. And it’s just a three minute walk from home.

Meanwhile, Johnathan and J. have been working together on the volunteer cabina, though neither speaks the other’s language. They communicate in hand gestures and grunts. To accompany these, they make up meaningless syllables that sound to them like the opposite language. J. has learned a few Spanish words: Buenos días, buenas tardes, gracias, carpintero, hola, café negro, vivo, y muerto. An odd smattering. He has built a new outhouse for the composting toilet, and is working on stairs that aren’t rickety and crooked. Johnathan has erected a beautiful canopied awning in front, providing much needed shade and rain cover.

On our weekends, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, we usually ride into town with Mike or Yvonne, then get our tourism on. J. is happy going from café to café, relaxing and sipping local coffee and trying every flavor of fruit refresco and the occasional milkshake. We also might rent bicycles, kayaks, or snorkel gear. I sometimes have trouble relaxing on weekends, since days off are a precious, limited commodity and must be maximized, every second! Then I drag J someplace hot, or make a less than ideal choice of restaurant, and suffer regret. One night I wound up, PMSing in a stuffy hostel room, cranky and sunworn, totting up the amazing speed with which we had burned through 50,000 colones, and felt like nothing more than crying into what turned out to be a moldy pillow. Cry me a river, vacationing gringa! If only I surrendered more easily. Our neighbor writes self help books about being intuitive and letting things flow as guided by one’s higher power. I don’t know how well most people walk that talk, but I could stand to do better.

Just as we get used to this, used to the cycles of heat and cooling, work and rest, used to sinking gladly into our plastic chairs every evening at six, clean after quick showers with a sunset view, waiting for the breadfruit fries to brown… we realize that we have less than a week of volunteering left. Just as I begin to imagine that we have always been here and always will be (which happens everywhere), it is time to hit the road. Take a deep breath, erase our domestic presence from the cozy cabina, shake up the routine again. Change takes a toll, but we’ll be ready. Tropical farm life is good, but without a car it’s difficult to get out and do anything between chicken shifts (approximately 7 am, 11:30, and 4:30 pm). Instead, we read, pick crazy flowers, play guitar, hang out the laundry, think, and cook. All pleasurable habits, but I’m still aware that beautiful Arrecife beach is three miles away, aqua and inviting and just out of reach. So… Arenal Volcano, Monteverde Cloud Forest, and who knows where else… we will soon be on our way!

P. S. Update on the household creature situation: the morning after I posted “Freakout,” I awakened to find a scorpion in the sink, scuttling around a dinner plate and fork. I pulled the girl card and got J to kill it (with the machete!). When I scooped up its body with a soon-to-be-washed fork, it sounded like a dangly metal necklace. J. found another in his shower towel. When he tried to kill it, he only severed its tail, which clung to the wall and stung itself repeatedly until it died. The body ran away, weaponless but presumably pissed. We would think it still roams the bedroom, except that afternoon we received a benevolent visit from the cleaner ants. They periodically take over one’s house and comb it like a landmine team of several hundred, consuming dead insect parts, gecko eggs, and who knows what else. While they do, it’s best to stay out of their way and let them perform their service in peace. So we think they took care of the scorpion. We’ve not seen him again.

Small gifts

…are constant and accumulate like welcome raindrops.

For one, we are officially acculturated: we have a machete by the door. It is for harvesting and opening a way through the woods, but I use it to crack open pieces of sugar cane to chew. I don’t know how to wield it, but it sure looks authentic leaning against the wall.

Two: the old cabina is now square and stable. It used to both tilt downhill and sag in the middle, supported by posts of dubious durability. So one hot afternoon, Johnathan jacked it up with hand tools. We stood in the yard and watched; we obviously couldn’t be inside at this point, and to watch someone else work skillfully while you do nothing is very satisfying. Replacing a rotting beam with a massive hardwood trunk from the forest, Johnathan tugged the green tarp out of his way and let it fall to the ground. I didn’t have time to stop him; now the good wren and her babies were homeless. But another gift: instantly, she was about her business. She flitted around the house two or three times. When we peeked into the fold where the nest had been, it was empty but for one dead chick, who must have hatched too late from the last egg. Mama Wren had carried her brood in her beak, one by one, to a safer spot, which she had chosen in a split second. We see less of them now, but that is probably better. So, three.

And four, five, six, why even count: electric fans, hummingbirds, shy blue crabs, morning rain.

Recreating the images on promotional literature by walking barefoot at sunset on the beach.

Glimpsing a basilisk lizard sprinting across the road on its hind legs, which spin like frantic pinwheels, like a cartoon. (It is also called the Jesus Christ lizard, because it can run the same way across rivers.)

The tile mosaics that festoon any surface in need of bright color. They are declarations of the worthiness of humble spaces. Assertions that one doesn’t need to be professional to make objects beautiful. Visual exclamations of positivity, reuse, and attention to small things.

This gift, described by J.: “I made an iced mocha this morning and realized everything I put in it was local: Milk, Sugar, Chocolate, Coffee, Ice. I actually know the farmers that produced the milk and chocolate. That’s pretty neat, I think.” It was not only neat in terms of sustainability, it was the most frothy and delicious drink ever. Thanks, mi amor!

And finally, the friendly Nicaraguan family whose soda (diner) we love. The little boy watched “Cars” dubbed into Spanish from the lunch counter while his mother cooked on the other side. His father returned home from errands and we spoke of his homeland and its thick, grainy drinks, tiste, pinolillo, points of national pride. After our meal was served, the parents sat at the other table (yes, there were just two tables) and bowed their heads for a minute before eating their own lunches. It felt familial and intimate. If it happens again I think I might ask if we could push our tables together. They wished us well, and we promised to come back someday for a slice of tres leches queque and a glass of tiste. We did not say so, but we will also come back for their gift of kindness.

Freakout

Nature wants everything here. It encroaches, dissolves, stains. It eats and shits and dies. It is no respecter of efforts toward tidiness and preservation. I know I wrote about liking the lines being blurred between wilderness and civilization, but it is like being under siege sometimes. Just in case anyone is under the impression that this is tropical paradise (though it is)… this post’s for you. Gentle reader, I advise against reading this while eating.

Yesterday, I found Yvonne and India laughing and chatting in the threshold of the big house, puzzle pieces spread out between them, each holding a rag and a cup of hot water. It was not over-the-top house cleaning; it was the logical response to opening the puzzle box and having roaches fly out. New game: erase fecal dots from each piece! To their credit, they really were having a good time.

Yvonne says she has given up on the concept of clean. That probably helps.

There is gecko poo everywhere. You find it by the stove, on the table, or, while lying in bed, you may even see the gecko himself in the rafters above, slowly emitting it, until it drops onto the cover of your book, “Wildlife of Costa Rica.” Touche. Still, they eat the moths that eat my merino wool shirts, so they are friends.

Everything goes in the fridge: raisins, sugar, water bottles. Otherwise, tight twist ties and double bags, or your beans go moldy, or get bugs, or nothing, but you imagine the worst and psych yourself out.

In the yard, I nearly stepped on what J. believes was a small fer-de-lance, a venomous snake, but it was astute and slid into its hole just in time.

I did step on a gecko friend on the kitchen floor, amazed I hadn’t done so earlier, since there are probably three dozen in the house. The tail bolted up and writhed away down a hole, but the body just lay there, bending in agony. Once I’d gotten the bile to recede down my throat, I used the broom to push the body back into the shadows where I wouldn’t squash it again. That’s a silver lining: ants come and take care of anything dead, or any dropped crumb, so cleanup’s a cinch.

There may be a giant grasshopper licking your “clean” dinner plates. There may be three bees diving at your sweaty face while you try to chop cold fruit. There may be maggots wiggling in that fruit, if it’s a guava (upon which, despite their abundance, I have given up entirely for that reason). There may be a kamikaze beetle veering into the light bulb, buzzing and clanking its exoskeleton. There may be biting ants in your sheets each night. Your pillow and mattress will turn black with mold. Par for the course. No biggie.

It was one smooth, white oval the size of a baby tooth that finally got me to shriek. I found it on a shelf under my folded “clean” shirts. It looked like a plastic game piece, or a mint. “What is this?” I called to J. “What is what?” he asked from the other room. I carried it over in my palm. “It’s a gecko egg, ” he said. “There’re more in the wall.” “Ehh,” I replied, rolling it, and then it fell. It made a tiny, disgusting splat on the floorboard, a Pollock amoeba of white embryonic jelly.

And then I freaked out. At last.

Nature wins again!

Anthropology

After writing so much about wildlife, atmosphere, and fascinating experiences culinary, historic, and geological, perhaps it is time to write about just folks. Who lives on this chicken farm, and in this funky little town on the Caribbean coast?

Let’s start with the four guard dogs, as they have enough personality to qualify in my book: brave Lassie, overbearing Max, skinny White Dog, and the outcast, Osa, who in her loneliness plays with stones as if she is daft. They bark at us every morning, but know us and stop. They have their own soap opera of intercanine relations; currently Lassie is wearing a veterinary Elizabethan cone from her machete wound, and limping due to an attack from Osa, who saw her moment to be top dog for once.

As for the four human residents, one is a child. Some people like all children just because children are young. I don’t. But I like her. She sings a lot and likes dolphins and pipas. She is not spoiled. The other three are grownups: the couple who own the farm, and another volunteer. We enjoy the company and all that we learn from our hosts about sustainability and living in a foreign country. We also have weekly potlucks with Mike and Yvonne. Last time there was pejibaye hummus, roast chicken (of course), and butternut squash. We brought the (north) American classic, s’mores, and everyone toasted marshmallows over the fire. Their neighbor Cedric, from France, had never had this delicacy before. He thought the melty white puffs looked “like goat nuts,” and I don’t know whether he thought they tasted much better, but he tried it all in good humor.

But even with just five adults in residence, the question arises: is community living possible with a minimal amount of drama? Because I haven’t seen it yet, with the exception of certain tight, religious communities that are wonderful and peaceful but always have some unfortunate, face-palm dealbreaker, like women’s rights or gay rights. Or even just being Christian, which is great for them, but I’m not, so it would not work.

I mention this because drama is here too, not only among dogs. Two of the grownups have a mismatch in chemistry, and are badly at odds in every interaction. J and I are trying to stay a million miles away from it, despite living just ten feet from one party. We have lots more experience than we want in this sort of thing. But still we yearn for community. Is it possible?

All the folks on the farm speak primarily English, but I get Spanish practice when interacting with the two day employees. I talk with Gerbacio, a friendly teenager devoid of teen attitude, who weed-whacks the grounds with impressive speed. He’s hoping to get into la universidad in San José, despite having no money. And there’s Johnathan, a young farmer with mad skills in concrete, construction, chickens, just about anything, especially making repairs despite the frequent absence of supplies.

In town, we have been introduced to dozens of our host family’s friends and acquaintances, most of whom are fellow expats. We have met people from South Africa, Israel, France, Spain, the US, Holland, Italy, Germany, and Canada. It is a vibrant, affectionate group. Most are small business owners and either retirees or parents of a young child or two. (The ways to get residency here are as follows: put $100,000 in a Costa Rican bank; start a business; or give birth to a Costa Rican citizen. QED.) They congregate at the Caribeans coffee shop on Saturdays to socialize, pick up CSA shares and buy free range chickens.

Ex-pats are effusive about the tranquility and beauty of the tropics. And about the freedoms of their new country. The ones most spoken of are minor freedoms, however: being able to build a fire on the beach, or drink wine in a car. I can’t get too bent out of shape about restrictive beach regulations in the States… I save my ire for governments that refuse to prosecute rapists, for instance.

There is also some complaining about infrastructure from those who grew up in Europe or the States. Sometimes they critique Tico governance: corruption, inefficiency, and the difficulty of getting straight answers. (It is a culture where people so dislike disappointing others that they would rather make up an answer than admit to not having one, so I hear.) This is true, but again: the government isn’t invading or bombing anyone, and indeed, has no sabers to rattle. There has been no military here for sixty years. I think that’s worth a lot.

The town in general is lively and diverse. There are indigenous people, Afro-Caribbeans, Costa Ricans of Spanish descent, and most people fall into multiple categories. Plus many travelers; el turismo is the main industry. Our neighbor from Arizona says there’s no separation or prejudice among the people here. That has to be an exaggeration, but it seems much better than a lot of places. The African Americans were the first non-indigenous settlers to the Caribbean coast; they came as low-paid workers from Jamaica when the big fruit companies came, Dole and Chiquita. They have great pride, and must, because the citizens from the west have a history of legislating without their input.

Wages are very low by our standards, but still coveted enough that Nicaraguans cross illegally to work the fruit plantations. There is free education (including college) and public health care. The poorest Costa Ricans are not as poor as those in many other countries. I wonder about income inequality… it can’t possibly touch that of the USA, with its CEOs and bankers, can it?

Around town, people are friendly. There are many offers of taxis and weed and souvenirs. There are hippies, vagabonds, rastas, and just plain citizens. There are more restaurants and lodgings than anything else. There are more good restaurants than in all of Missoula. Tonight, we are spending the night here, as it is our “weekend.” We will walk along the beach, swim in the pool, and I will get a drink of Nicaraguan rum, Flor de Cana, which is extremely good and also sentimental for me. Maybe we will find some live calypso music. Tomorrow we will go snorkeling. It is like a vacation from our vacation. Then we will go back to the farm, our little community, and see what new wrinkle will have emerged.

Dreams / Sueños

I think I saw a jaguarundi this morning. It is best to awaken just as the stars fade, to maximize exposure to pleasant temperatures… and to wildlife. It is a second childhood in that everything outdoors is new. The toddler exclaims over a dandelion, a house cat, a stone. The Costa Rican equivalents of these commonplace encounters cause the same awe and joy in a gringa fresh off the plane.

I walk the same jungle road daily, sometimes drowsily, and always something is there, if I will pay attention. I nearly missed the black, long-tailed creature, looking instead at my feet as I descended a hill of unstable gravel. Only at a scraping sound ahead did I look up. It was gracefully sliding down the branchless trunk of a tree full of oropendola nests, and leapt into invisibility within the foliage below. It could have been a coatimundi, which is like a raccoon, but it seemed more elegant and sleek. I don’t know. I recreated it in memory with a dozen varying details. It is surely too wise to let me see it again, a dream to which I cannot return.

Unlike the common brown wren. For a week, I puzzled over the chirping dart that sped away whenever the screen door of the cabina opened. It seemed to come from the door itself. But finally, while hanging laundry, I saw it return. It slipped between the folds of a bunched-up green tarp wadded in a crossbeam just to the side of the door. I hadn’t known the purpose of the tarp, but now I do. It accidentally contains a twig nest, a mama wren, a tiny speckled egg that likely will not open, and several wriggling gray chicks. Sometimes a bird abandons a nest that has been discovered, but the wren flitted back in as if we weren’t sitting on the steps and talking two feet from her chicks. For her nonchalance and nearness, I love her as much as the rainbowed toucans, the exotic monkeys, the maybe-jaguarundi.

The last dreams are because, so close to the equator, there are always twelve hours of light and twelve of darkness. Though it’s never completely black (fireflies, moon, stars, heat lightning), we usually head indoors by six. Add to the dark hours those during which it is too hot to move. (We who once hiked 20-25 miles daily now rest in the shade, staring, after each three minute walk from the cabina to the chicken supply barn.) This totals plenty of time to read, write, and contemplate our uncertain future. J. is reading the Humanure Handbook cover to cover, rekindling our desire to live off the grid. I alternate between a novel and various wildlife guides, trying to identify butterflies whose markings confound and resemble others. In the afternoons on sunny days, we lay in bed, the mosquito net pushed aside, or sit in the kitchen hoping for a breeze and sucking on sugar canes cut from the plant. Inert, yet we are moving toward our future without firm plans, due to recklessness or enlightenment, who knows which, as if the air is heavy with invisible tapa de dulce, as if we move at the pace of dreams that exist apart from time.

Voluntarios

I suppose it is high time I explain what we are doing here on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, aside from stargazing and birdwatching and eating bizarre fruits. We are here for a month at Nuestra Finca as guests of Mike and Yvonne and their little daughter India. They live in a very nicely appointed shipping container with a large porch, and we stay in the original cabin further into the farm. We are part time volunteers, receiving lodging and cooking gas in exchange for 20 hours of work per week. Three times a day, five days a week, we care for up to 700 free range chickens: letting the big ones out to pasture or herding them back in, feeding and watering, scrubbing poo and feathers out of the troughs, adding fresh woodchips to the coops.

I must say that working with chickens doesn’t exactly build compassion for them. They are interesting to observe, but stupid and stubborn. This is forgivable in chicks, who are also adorable, but less so in adults who require much goading because they can’t figure out where to go. They have an amusing way of plumping themselves down during herding: they drop heavily into a roost of convincing permanence. Picking them up out of the squat with both hands, it is bizarre how much their bodies feel like… chicken breasts. Warm and panting and chicken-skinned, even through feathers. Observing the chickens makes me imagine a couple aliens looking down upon earth and shaking their… whatever they shake… in pity and slight annoyance. Still, I try to be kind.

Neither does the chickens’ lack of intelligence make me want to eat them. It may be strange to hear of a vegetarian volunteering on a chicken farm. I am complicit, just not with a fork. These are pretty lucky death row inmates: fresh water, organic grass to peck, good air, no antibiotics or force feeding, not overcrowded. I hear their flesh is extra tasty and tender, presumably due to the decreased stress and natural living. (In which case, I reckon I’d taste pretty good myself.) We all consume, we all end life to sustain our own, but I have no interest in these ladies; I don’t want to eat creatures, intelligent or otherwise.
Aside from hen duties, we also have projects suited to our skills: J’s carpentry and my sign painting, both of which can be put to good use here. The chicken business provides the family income, but the passion is a fledgling permaculture community growers collective. Vegetable beds are going in, volunteers need updated housing, eco-tours may be added one day, and a greenhouse is on the horizon. (You may wonder why anyone would need a greenhouse in the tropics: not for heat, but for protecting delicate lettuces from torrential rains.)

We want to be extremely helpful. I love the idea of being a break for someone, to create even a month of breathing room despite a constantly demanding business, to lend time for family, for projects that would otherwise remain back burner, even for doing nothing at all. We have received so much, and continue to… we want to give back.