Friday, July 07, 2006


volcano wearing a cap and shawl

I wore two shirts and my windcheater up over the mountains this morning. Chunks of mountain side were swathed in netting. Something called helecho grew under the netting - a new word.
I stopped at a breakfast place with a great view. I drunk my first mug of coffee before the Christians arrived. They described themselves as families and were traveling in three busses (Toyota Coasters). They belonged to a church in Detroit and had been on a mission trip here in Costa Rica and now were enjoying well earned R&R. most were teenagers. I asked an adult woman if she knew what helecho was. She did. They were traveling with an interpreter. Ferns!
I told her of discovering the names of the English martyrs familiar from my childhood written on the chapel wall in the Jesuit temple in Oaxaca. He daughter (real daughter or family daughter?) had joined us and a young man studying literature in Brazil. The daughter asked what I wrote. I replied that I wrote about people acting under pressure. I suggested that church education prepared us to resist pressure (I was doing well). I mentioned a simile I care for: that we are born on the platform of a child's slide; that we put our foot on the slide, how far we slip is a matter of luck (good, so far); that there was no fundamental difference between Eichman and the person who merely makes anti-Semitic remarks. Here I think I made a mistake. I am so unfamiliar with the religious sects of the United States. I forget that they hold curious, and to us Europeans, unpleasant views on those Jewish people.
The lady excused herself soon after. She had matters to attend to. We were at a table on the terrace. She was indoors in the restaurant when I left fifteen minutes later. To my left, a proper volcano wore a cap and shawl.


I rode up over mountains to San Jose thru coffee plantations and passed suburban mansions with trim lawns and big gates. The gates of the wealthy are less guarded than in other Central American countries.
I am nervous of riding in capital cities and sought a hotel on the outskirts. I had been warned by expats in Nicaragua that San Jose was unsafe. Ticos told me, Nonsense, and advised that the city center was cheaper and offered more choice.
The city was easy to navigate. I asked only three people for directions to the backpackers' hotel on Avenida 6. A tiny room with a fan and a window to a corridor set me back $22. This is an English speaking haven - even the few French were attempting English. I sat in the restaurant with a young English woman, arrived that evening from the UK. She is a conservationist and will work six weeks on the Caribbean coast as a volunteer before flying to Peru to join a tour of the Inca trail and so on down thru the salt lakes of Bolivia, Chili and the Argentine to where?
Where would any sensible English woman head?
Tierra del Fuego!
We checked our e-mails, headed to our respective beds.
A birthday party was underway at the small swimming pool in the patio. Most were Brits. Latins, we would have heard music, a few good voices. With these Brits, noise production appeared to be a high priority.
I rose at dawn and found girls curled in armchairs and on benches. I write that they were girls because they seemed to me too young to be described as women and lasses is too old fashioned a word even for this Old Fogie.
The noise had gone out of them, the party spirit of the group. Isolated one from another, they appeared very young and pale and vulnerable and waiflike. A boy and a girl were in the pool fishing for pieces of a smashed glass. The boy had found a mug broken in two. A wet packet of cigarettes lay on a table. Two of the cigarettes had fallen on the wet tiles.
I was on my way to the front desk and overheard the girl say, "It was probably my fucking fault."
The word seemed particularly ugly at that hour, almost desperate, and I wished that comforting her was possible.
They left the pool while I surrendered my key and retrieved my deposit. I passed the pool on my way to the rear courtyard where I had parked the Honda. The two kids had left the two cigarettes on the tiles. I stooped and picked them up. They melted in my palm while I sought a bin.


The Nicaraguan with whom I talked on the ferry had worked for twelve years based in the US. Telecommunications is his field and he traveled widely for his employers, Africa, Latin America, Europe. Marriage and two small children persuaded him to give up the traveling. Back home in Nicaragua he has his own business in telecommunications. He is a pro and doing well. He is nervous of the coming elections. Political memory has a ten year life span. The electorate have forgotten the misery they suffered under the Sadanistas. They will forget or forgive the thievery and corruption of Ortega. They will fall for the dream and suffer a new period of chaos and economic ruin.
And he talks bitterly of Europeans falling for the romantic image of the Sadanistas, of deliberately ignoring the truth.
In reporting his beliefs, I will earn the ire of many broadly to the left of the political divide. My reports of those critical of the US have already gained the ire of those on the right. All in all, I am doing well...


more boys on bikes
writer is the little guy in the middle

San Francisco Coyote was a pleasure. I leave with regret. We had heavy rain in the night. The dirt road across the Nicoya peninsular is slippery. I wear work gloves bought at the hardware store in Jacaril and I pay great attention to the road. The final few Ks along the coast to the ferry are cratered hard-top. I stop at a cafe on the hill down to the ferry terminal. I rest my but on a comfortable chair and am at peace with breakfast and a third cup of good coffee. All hell breaks loose. Hells Angels! Or a wild bunch of late-thirties reliving their adolescence. They come armed with trail bikes. They work the throttles, BRRRRM BRRRRM ...
They are connected thru college or work or accident. Most are from the States, though one is a Brit, one from Peru and a Nicaraguan with whom I talk on the ninety minute crossing by ferry.


The benches outside the store are a fine place for chat. My companion last night was an economics student in his final semester. In music, he is a fan of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He and his sister are students at the country's premier State university. Away from home, they rent an apartment at $200 a month. Their parents are comfortable financially. Poorer kids share a room or a cupboard. Even this sacrifice is well beyond most budgets.
He finds responsibility for his younger sister difficult on occasion. He and his friends take little interest in politics. National politics are too corrupt. Two ex-Presidents are in jail. He is angered by the sale of Costa Rica's coasts to foreigners. As for foriegn afairs, Costa Rica is little more than a US colony. The US does what it likes in Central America. Look what they did in Panama. And what they are doing in Iraq. Except for scale, Iraq and Panama are the same.


The Dutchman drove me over to see his property. The land stretches up a hillside. They have reserved the top half for wildlife. The lower slope is divided into one hectar lots. They have sold most of these that they wish to sell. The rate around here is $8 a square meter and you can have a good three-bed two-bath house built for $50,000.
The houses are set well back amongst trees on the Dutchman's land; you can't see them from the road. The Dutchman has lived here for the past fifteen years and tends the houses and oversees new construction. We drove down to his neighborhood restaurant a hundred meters up the road from Coyote beach. The beach is four Ks long and is divided by the river. You can wade across the mouth of the river at low tide. There are no buildings on the beach.
We ate at the restaurant and drank a few beers. Six to be exact. And we each ate a fried snapper caught that day. The bill came to $11.


fun juxtaposition

Village life is fun (for me). I watch the comings and goings from a bench outside the store. The under-forties are on wheels, two or four, and mostly motorized. The elders are on horseback. A reasonable horse costs $80. Add saddle and bridle and you are mobile for $150. Fuel grows on the roadside.
Most have heard of my accident. I field a stream of enquiries as to how I am and is it true that I intend riding to Argentina. A trio from a Turtle protection group drop by to chat. One is from Mexico. They collect eggs and take them to a hatchery. They launch the baby turtles into the sea. Shrimp boats work a mile offshore. Shrimping is the preserve of the Taiwanese. The shrimp nets sweep up the baby turtles along with the shrimp and about everything else.
Turtle protectors need volunteers. The beach is beautiful.

A public telephone is attached to a post. The female half of a pair of blond young foreign lovers talks at length. The male half hovers. She retreats to the shade of the tree overstanding the post - seeking a privacy of which he is nervous. A plump young woman in tight short shorts and a stretched pink top that almost covers the bits she wants covered is a pinball addict. She rides up every half hour or so on a push bike to play the left hand machine of the two in the bar area of the store. The Dutchman arrives on his quad bike. The store owner's wife invites us to lunch in their kitchen. Delicious vegetables of which I can swear to baby okra and green beans.


I talk with the two brothers of the holidaying family over breakfast. The elder brother complains of foreigners owning all the best land in Costa Rica. Neither brother cares much for foreigners. They corrupt Costa Rican society. They breed prostitution and spread their drug culture. The elder brother is a fan of the Somoza years.
"There was no crime," he tells me (not mentioning that the Somozas and their cronies stole the entire country and murdered anyone who argued). "The roads were properly maintained," he states. "Under Somoza, we had thousands of road workers. There was work for everyone." He is also a fan of Castro. "There's no crime in Cuba."
Unless depriving a people of their freedom is a crime...
Clearly his father was of the privileged in the years of the dictatorship.
I am here to report, not to argue. I nod politely.


village home

I am settled into a cabin behind one of the two general stores. I have a bathroom and a fan in the village of San Francisco Coyote. The restaurant belongs to the store keeper. I eat dinner after a near three hour ride back from Jacaril town on an old US school bus. I order steak. I am faced with two thick chunks of meat each the size of my shoe soles: salad, fries, fried bananas, two beers. $4 does not seem excessive!
A Dutchman with a development on a hillside beyond the boutique hotel has ridden my bags over on his four-wheel bike. Bush tellegraph alerted him to my accident and he dropped by the general store this morning to check who I was and that I was OK.
A double brother family of Costa Rican businessmen occupy the remaining three cabins for the night: two couples, four kids from seven to sixteen, and one wife's parents. They were double booked into a rental holiday home for the first night of the school vacation.
A terrace out front of the store shades a bar and four teak tables and benches. I sit after dinner with the store owner and a twenty-somthing graduate. The store owner talks philosophy. What is the route to happiness? Do I believe in a God, an afterlife? Would I prefer coffee or another beer?
"Black coffee would be just fine," I say.
I also say that I would prefer a night in his cabins than a week preparing for death in the boutique hotel.


shivery footbridge

The hotel and the doctor have absorbed my cash. I don't carry credit cards. Lose or have them stolen and God knows what will happen before you reach a tellephone. Debit cards are safe. I require a bank and an ATM machine.
The hotel is on a vast ranch owned by an American billionaire. He has owned the ranch for thirty years. He flies in from his home in Hawai on his private jet each month for a few days. The hotel is a recent hobby (its losses tax deductible).
The river is high after the storm. The farm manager drives me by pick-up to the river ford. I cross the foot bridge and walk two Ks to the village of San Francisco. I find a mechanic to overhaul the bike. He directs me to a parts shop where I find replacement mirrors - genuine Honda parts in a community served by two general stores and a kiosk selling cheap jeans and T-shirts.
The nearest bank is thirty-three Ks in the town of Jicaral. The bus journey takes over two hours.


boutique hotel pool

The curtains are open to the terrace. I wake at dawn. My watch broke in the crash. No matter, this is too beautiful a time and place for bed. I am alone as I tippy-toe out to the pool terrace and see the river clear for the first time, waters brown in spate. Two curls of chocolate sand mark the corners of its mouth. Palm trees hide the beach. I sit alone by the pool and watch surf break, three white lines. A howler monkey hollers back in the trees. Bird chatter seems noisy. The tide shifts a flock of pelican off the sand. Clumsy on the ground, they are wonderfully graceful as they glide up-river into the trees. I watch a pale yellow buitterfly. Workers arrive to mend storm-damage, collect broken branches. They work in silence. The Philippina manageress presents me with a steaming mug of black coffee. I have been up an hour. It is 6 a.m.


Conrad country by daylight

Thunder smashes me out of sleep. Disorientated, I lie shivering with cold. Lightning shows a picture window, terrace, trees bent under a silver downpour. The cold is air conditioning. I stagger to the windows and out to the room's private terrace. I arrived after nightfall and am unprepared for my surroundings. Lightning displays black waters of a river below the terrace. An animal shrieks. Thunder shakes the terrace. Trees quake beneath a squall. Lightning and I see, thru the rain, surf break. This is Conrad country...


I don't eat dinner. The banker and his wife talk with me once their children are in bed. They have worked in London which they loved (or are polite), and in Miami which they hated for the domination of the new rich Cubans whom they found ostentatious and revoltingly vulgar. The banker visits Cuba regularly on business - barable, he says, for three or four days. He can pretend he is a tourist and ignore the reality that the Cubans suffer: poverty, lack of freedom.
The rash of condominiums on the peninsular is another hate. Prices will double once the coast road is tarred (paid for by the Costa Rican tax payer). Already Costa Ricans, even of their financial bracket, are priced out of the market in their own land. They have been forced to reasess their view of themselves. Costa Ricans had considered themselves different from other Latin Americans, more advanced, more cultured, more organised, more on a par with the United States with whom they were natural allies. Only a few years ago they would have identified with the US team in the World Cup, yet now the banker's friends celebrated when the US was eliminated.
The Iraq war had changed their perceptions (I quote the banker). Access to satelite TV had forced their eyes open. They watched bombs and shells fall. They saw pictures of American soldiers abusing Arabs. This was what the US had done in Panama, killed hundreds in the desire to grab one man. Arabs, Latin Americans weren't important.
This Blog may be offensive and hurtful to my daughter and to my American friends. Should I act as censor or write what I am told?


altar orchids in a boutique hotel

I have eleven stitches in my hand. I have lost blood. I need a comfortable bed. And I MUST grab the opportunity to talk with a Costa Rican in the upper echelons of the country's professional classes. The bikers have brought my bike to the village. A pick-up driver gives me a lift back to the boutique hotel. The banker family are the only guests. Quiet is an understatement: non-denominational chapel in an up market funeral parlor.
The manageress is Philippina. I recognize the unhuh she uses, so soft (even when she argues the price). I negotiate the room rate down from $120 to $80. Breakfast is included. So is an acre of stone-floor, a king size bed and a bathroom for commited sybarites.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006


The dirt road twists between steep hills. Each village is in mid-football match. A great quantity of beer is drunk. I stop for water and am bought a coke by the barman. A mike-assisted chant comes from round the corner. The Spanish is too fast and too acented for my understanding. A few numbers are recogniseable. Psalms? Verses from the Bible? And threats that this is the audience's last chance, Absolutely the last chance! And more numbers. I presume an evangelist preacher in competition with the evident sinfulness of a football match - with a bar serving alcohol.
I ride round the corner into a cattle auction.
The sun is setting. I have reached that point of fatigue where taking decisions becomes near impossible. I spot a boutique hotel (so advertised) on what could be a side road.
I take the other road. It leads down hill. A left turn is signed to a beach. I hear a bike behind me. I break and turn to ask the driver´s advice. One moment of inatention. The Honda slips. I lie beneath the Honda. The leather gaiter saves my leg from frying. One mirror is smashed.
The two men on the following bike lift the Honda free. Only then do I realise that a shard of mirror has sliced my right hand.
A second bike rider insists I return for First Aid to the boutique hotel.
The wound is washed. Blood spurts. A Costa Rican family are the only guests. The husband, an investment banker, drives me to the village of San Francisco. I wait in a restaurant. Doctor and wife arrive. The wife wears a mini miniskirt. Owners, staff and clientelle of the restaurant watch while I am injected, scrubbed and sewn. The blood is amplier and more realistic than the blood in the Al Pacino movie on TV. The audience is mine.
I dislike watching the doctor at work.
Wherer else to look?
The doctor may dislike me looking at his wife's thighs.
Such are the dilemas of the walking wounded.


I see no hovels as I speed down the Panamerican Highway in Coata Rica. I note less refuse on the verge than in other Central American countries. The land is more cared for, big trees left standing to protect the soil. And, yes, there is a feel more of organisation than of chaos. I turn south at Liberia. The road passes the airport. Miles of US type hoardings in English advertise car hire and real estate. What is unreal estate?
A hardtop road takes me to Samana - a resort village on a safe beach according to my four-year-old guidebook. The resort has developed. Sunday, it is crowded with coaches. More signs for real estate, for condominiums. The signs are in English. I take the coastal road. It is dirt but good dirt. This is hill country, green and beautiful. White Brahmin cows graze paddocks. White walls and white entrance gates wall off the coast. Apparently condos in Costa Rica are vast gated communities as opposed to apartment blocks.


At the frontier I met a young Argetinian driving a white Dodge semi-sports car home. Leaving Nicaragua was a slow rather than difficult. Costa Rica was good natured, though definitely slow. I carry photocopies of everything from the size of my belly button to the circumference of my ears. The Argentinan was more innocent. He didn´t know the registration number of the Dodge engine - nor where to find it. I entered customs behind him. He caught me up on the highway some three quarters of an hour later. Perhaps we will meet again, possibly in Panama both trying to work out how to get our vehicles to Colombia at a sensible price.


I sat in San Juan at an open-air waterfront bar last night with a retired dealer in truck parts. The bar was the least pretentious on the bay. The owner, a woman in her sixties, had owned half the hill that forms the right hook of the bay. She and her family sold the hill rediculously cheap some years back. They didn´t know. Now big houses dot the hill. Meanwhile the American, bored at doing nothing and angry that developers had taken advantage of a nice woman and her family, invested in a couple of fishing launches that her sons run. Fishing hasn´t been good the past weeks. The American is considering opening a furniture store in partnership with the woman. They are not a relationship. The woman is merely someone the American likes and admires - and, as I wrote, he is bored doing nothing and enjoys being part of a community. He drank vodka breezers, I drank a beer and we ate prawns in a chili sauce. The breeze blew off the sea. The moon did its thing, as did the stars. Nothing special happened, a pleasent evening...


San Juan I found an air conditioned room mid-block back from the beach for $7. The building was wood with a tin roof and old. My room faced onto the first floor terrace. The bathroom worked. The sheets were clean. I have been away from such places a while and had forgotten the coconut rats. The San Juan rats are in training for the relay races at the rat olympics. Training commences shortly before 5 a.m. First the athlete rats sprint up and down the ceiling. Soon the rat coaches get in on the act with their shrieks and chittering.


San Juan rodeo<

A ride along the lake thru rich green ranch land studded with big trees is a fine way to clear your head. I turned off 30 Ks short of the Costa Rica frontier to San Juan. The approach to the beach town is thru country spread with giant green mole hills tufted with small trees. Hills ringed a small wood stadium. People were streaming in off the road. A cop told me they were holding a rodeo. I paid for a shade seat on the upper terrace. A brass and drum band was blasting a Latin American version of circus YahYah music. Hawkers were shouting their wares: icecream, sodas, cashew, banana chips, chittlings, barbecue meat. A brass band clarion heralded the launch from a chute of a bull calf with rider. The calf bucked a few times, became bored. I was back where I wanted to be, back in Central America.


I watched the England/Portugal football match at a corner bar with a big screen TV. The bar is a familar of all such countries. It is the hangout of US citizens resident in Nicaragua to drink cheap and get laid. I sit at the bar. A girl with silver nails and vaguely bleached hair sits at a table beside a North American in his fifties. She looks fifteen. The man comes to the bar. The girl is his trophy and he shows the girl's ID to the man sitting beside me. The ID says she is nineteen. The ID maybe the girl's and it maybe authentic. He sits back down beside her. She leans a little away from him as he strokes her arm. Later he returns to the bar for a fresh beer. Midday and his eyes are already marginally out of focus. The girl looks round. Anyone can read her thoughts: "I'll be in bed with that drunk soon, YUK!"
This is one couple. There were others much the same together with the standard solitary drunks who had missed out at AA. The North Americans were yelling for England. The few Latinos identified with Portugal. Most of them were unsureas to where Portugal is.


Did I mention the Austrailian tax lawyer, mid forties? Free biking is his passion, riding down mountains and over share drops. Jed would understand. Maybe it's a cure for boredom. If so, it is a little extreme.


You have met the toothless American with two cigarettes and a reincarnated mother. Meet another of Granada's happy hunters. This one I took to dinner. Serial killers are hot with the media. This was a serial non-killer. She had tired to kill herself on three occasions and had tried twice to kill her lover.
One failure in self-killing, OK. Next try, you go up a few extra floors before jumping out the window. As to killing her lover: they were sharing a bed. How diffcult can that be? Didn´t she store a baseball bat in the umbrella stand? I would have understood were she a vegetarion and shocked by blood. However, she ate half a barbecue chicken while relating that she had been saved by meditation, alternative medcine and studying the works of Carlos Castenedes. Carlos Catenedes is the Brown Rice Sixties, marajuhana, LSD and the hush hush secrets of Motorcycle Maintenence. I was the one with the motorcycle...
As to meditation, she was messing up on the dose. She was fine thru the chicken. We had to walk a few blocks in search of carrot cake and the dosage ran low. She transformed from Church mouse to F this and F that to the accompiment of a shrill giggle. Ouch...


I have been mulling over a scale against which to grade people. H10/Positive is supreme in politically correct prejudice, ignorance and idiocy. An H10/Negative is awarded for maximum awareness of reality. You have to be aware to care. M
y Texan host rated high on the H/negative scale. His property taxes back in Texas had been quadrupled, taxes for schooling Latino illegal immigrants' kids. My host's objection was to the woeful education rather than the taxes. Educate the kids successfully and they would be a credit to their communities and the USA. Educating them badly was both imoral and a sure route to future social problems.
My host had owned a business in Texas and had bought his siblings' share of the family ranch. Aged fifty he discovered hot air ballooning. He learnt to pilot balloons, gained a licence, sold up his business and spent 10 years living and flying in the heart of Kenya's Massai reserve. Recently he paddled a canoe down the San Juan river from Lake Nicaragua to the Caribbean. As for politics, he has a deep contempt for the entire Bush family. He has known them all, all his life. He is my age.


Stir fry in a dream house, Spanish colonial two patios deep. The owners, a male Texan married to a Brit, built a second floor above the centre section that seperates the two patios. The raised floor is invisible from the street, not does it overlook their neigbours. It is supported on earthquake proof pillars to protect the original ground-floor rooms of adobe. The one side is open. The view is perfect across ancient pantiled roofs to the massive cloud-wrapped volcano that domiates Granada. A vast unglazed window faces the opposit way and collects the breeze in proof that a well-designed space has need neither for a/c nor fans. A pool fills the rear patio, the front patio is jungle garden. The floors are baked clay. Furniture is sparse and simple. Conversation was warm while the beer was cold.