Veronica's Garden

Rachel Creager Ireland on writing, living, the Flint Hills, and the Post Rock Limestone Caryatids

Tag: Costa Rica

50 years: forties

This’ll bring us up to the present. First decade, second decade, twenties, thirties.

41. Kiran was about seventeen or eighteen months old when my Mom died. “Baba” was grandma since Rowan started to talk, and we saw Kevin’s mom frequently, so my mom became Baba Leona. A few weeks before she passed, Kiran started calling her Bona.

There was a period when Caryn Robson came over for a couple hours every week to watch the girls so I could write. I didn’t get much writing done, but knowing she would be coming every week was a lifeline. Often we would spend much of the time chatting, or I would be just getting around to putting lunch on the table when she arrived. After Mom’s funeral, the next time Caryn came over, we ended up sitting on the floor of my bedroom, Caryn behind me, releasing trigger points in my shoulders. When I started crying, she wrapped her arms around me and held me. Kiran was nearby, solemnly watching.

The next day, or maybe the day after, she said to me, “Bona died.”

“Yes. Bona died.”

“I saw Bona.”

“We saw Bona at the funeral home.”

“Bona was hugging you.”

“When was she hugging me?”

“Miss Caryn was here.”

“I was sitting on the floor and Miss Caryn was hugging me.”

“Yes. Bona was hugging you.”

“Bona was hugging me when Miss Caryn was hugging me?”

“Yes.”

“You saw Bona?”

“Yes.”

I had many more questions, but we seemed to have reached the limit of her ability to verbalize. She stopped talking then, satisfied that I’d gotten the main point, that after mom died, Kiran saw her with me, holding me in my grief.

Kiran doesn’t remember it anymore.

42. I wasn’t sure I wanted to send the kids to school, and preschool seemed like basically an ad for school. Rowan was very attached to me anyway, but because she was born in early November, she was almost four by the time the school year started. Still, I hesitated. My mother-in-law was on the preschool board, so I felt a certain amount of pressure to send her. I resisted. If she went to preschool, it would be that much harder to say no to school later. She would think of homeschooling as a deprivation.

One day Rowan was driving me crazy. Whatever I said, she ignored. Whatever I wanted her to do, she did the opposite. It went on all day, and really it had been building for a week. Clearly I had no control over this child whatsoever. Finally I’d had enough, and the words just came out of my mouth: “That’s it! You’re going to preschool. We’ll see if someone else can do any better with you than I can.” Sending a child to preschool because she was beyond my control seemed like the weakest possible reason, but I really was at my wit’s end. I couldn’t think of any other way to deal with her.

Her behavior changed immediately. Rowan started preschool a couple weeks later. She loved every minute of it, and was even disappointed when she found out it was only two mornings per week. Later I looked back and realized that it was precisely what she’d needed: to assert her individuality, to take the next step in separating from me. The words that popped out of my mouth were exactly the right ones.

43. I don’t remember what we were thinking when we planned this trip, but Mark Ferguson was getting married in Chicago, and I wanted to see my sister in upstate New York, and Niagara Falls was between the two places. When I saw it as a child, I was impressed, but as an adult, it was profoundly moving. We took an elevator deep into the earth, then walked a long tunnel to a boardwalk so we could walk right up to the edge of the falls. A little stream broke over a rock and fell onto the platform. That tiny stream was immensely powerful. This place where the water would devour the earth, were most of it not diverted before it even gets to the falls. And yet, this little bit of the remainder packed easily enough power to knock a person down. I planted my disposable sandals on the wet wood and held out my arms to open myself to the full force of the water. It was a ritual bath. It was a baptism. For days I was stunned, wondering that anyone could leave that place not knowing it is a sacred node of water energy.

As we returned to the surface, five-year-old Rowan said, “That’s the wettest I’ve ever been in my life!”

IMG_000744. I was working on the novel that would become Post Rock Limestone Caryatids. I was well into it with maybe 40,000 words. That doesn’t sound like very much now, but it was a huge struggle at the time. One day I was sitting in front of the computer, not feeling too inspired, when the phone rang. I got up to answer it, and when I came back, Toulouse was sitting on the keyboard, and the screen was blank.

Yes, the file was empty. The cat had deleted my entire novel.

Yes, I had a back-up copy. I only lost a few sentences.

45. Trying to learn and use Photoshop had always been an exercise in pulling out my own hair. I asked Kevin to help me design a cover for my book, but he bogged the project down with alternative ideas that would make the whole design much more complicated, but, in my opinion, wouldn’t improve it significantly. I decided to bite the bullet and learn Photoshop. Whenever I had a question, I googled it, a strategy Kevin often espoused. Each step took forever, but somehow I managed to create a workable design. It was an amazing achievement for me.

Later, when I tried to make a cover for another book, I found I could neither remember nor figure out how to do what I’d done before. It was as if it had never happened.

46. After a couple years of occasional puttering, I got my studio not entirely complete, but into a condition in which I could work in it. Steve Thompson did a lot of work. Without his input, I  couldn’t have gotten it done. I chose a gaudy, sunshiny yellow for the walls. Steve thought that color was totally wrong, and tried to talk me into something softer, but I ignored him. It’s a room where I’ve had days of sitting at the desk for hours, writing, revising, publishing, promoting. I go in as early as I can get there in the morning, and if I let myself, I can get lost in the work.

Costa Rica Journal47. Our trip to Costa Rica straddled my birthday. It was my second time there. The first I wished I’d journaled more; so this time I made time during the trip to write down as much as I could remember, most days. After we got home, I started blogging our experiences in this magical place, and intended to write at least one post for every day we were there. I did several, before the project faltered. But still, I think the Costa Rica Diary blog posts are some of my best writing here on Veronica’s Garden.

48. Shortly after the new year began, before the end of my term as a 48-year-old, I made these goals/resolutions for the year:
Have a working dishwasher.
Girls have their own rooms.
Publish 2 more short stories.
Have a solid draft of Witchcraft novel by year end, ready to seek an agent or self-publish.
Find my birth dad, George Mah.
Manage my health effectively for lasting wellness. (Yoga 4x/week)
Massage Kevin regularly, minimum of 12 times through the year.
Clear/organize house.
Make progress on back debt.

I published four stories, so I exceeded that goal. I’m averaging yoga twice/week these days, and seeing benefits from it. Massaged Kevin three times. As for the others, I failed every last one.

49. What I did instead of working on those goals was spend most of the year struggling with bureaucracies. The Kansas Dept. of Revenue was claiming we owed back Transient Guest Taxes from the motel we’d closed two years prior, while our health insurance premiums grew to unmanageable magnitude. Talking on the phone, navigating institutional websites, hunting through files for papers, these became my unpaid part-time job. Astrologer Kaypacha, aka Tom Lescher, said repeatedly in his weekly forecasts that 2016 would be a year of purification. Apparently, for me, purification means doing the tedious business of managing finances.

Sometimes it occurs to me, normal people do all these things all the time. I don’t know how they do it. And people who work forty hours/week, when do they do these things? Living as a normal adult continues to be my biggest struggle, my most persistent failure.

50. On my birthday, I had a wonderful massage from Lana at Southwind Health Collective in Lawrence. A few minutes into the session, she said, “I’m getting that there’s something that you’re really, really worried about. Is that right?”

I said, “Yes.”

She said, “I’m also getting the message that it’s gonna be all right.”

***

So there we go. It may be as hard for you to believe as it is for me, but I have lived fifty years. I have the memories to prove it.

Costa Rica Diary: Jeep-Boat-Jeep to La Fortuna

Lake Arenal lies between Monteverde and La Fortuna, so the most direct route utilizes what’s called a jeep-boat-jeep network. We actually went in a van, but the road was very rugged, bumpy, and steep. In some places I would have wondered if a vehicle could pass, had it not been for the calm confidence of the driver. I sat in the back with my seat belt on, and watched the scenery.

Not far out of Monteverde, the cloud forest gives way to cleared pastures, though the mountain grasslands feel as remote as the forest. There were long stretches of dirt road where we didn’t see another vehicle or person. Some slopes were so steep I wondered that cattle could graze there.

This is a regular route, not a chartered van, so we picked up some other passengers. There were a couple teenaged girls who embarked in Santa Elena, but in a village along the way, we picked up a little girl standing in front of her house. (She turned out to be with the older girls.)

Eventually we stopped in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, next to the lake. When I saw the narrow dirt footpath down to the water, I was glad I had packed lightly, and had everything in a backpack.

The boat was the kind with a roof and open sides, and benches for passengers. Everyone got at least a little spray on us as we zipped across the lake. We saw several great egrets near the shores.

In La Fortuna, we checked into Cabanas Rusticas, which turned out to be not so rustic at all. Korey and Valeria had a cabana to themselves, while the rest of us shared a 2-story, 3-bedroom cabana with a full kitchen. There was a lovely garden surrounding us, and a tiny pool where the girls splashed. The cabanas were built in a log cabin style, but were very well-equipped. There were lots of windows on every side of the building, and doors too, all with shutters that could be easily opened. Upstairs, there was a porch with rocking chairs and a perfect view of the volcano. (Volcan Arenal wasn’t active when we were there, so it looked like a regular mountain, when we could see it through the mist.)

They don’t use window screens much in La Fortuna, which wasn’t really a problem. We didn’t get bugs in the cabin, though when I wrote in my journal in the evening, I could see geckos converging on the ceiling of the porch, to catch the bugs flying around the porch light. One night there was a monarch butterfly flying around the light, skillfully avoiding death by lizard. I was surprised to learn that there are monarchs in Central America, though they don’t migrate as they do up north.

The lack of window screens was uncomfortable for me, even though, clearly, the people who live there all the time don’t think twice about it. I probably never told you, dear readers, that one of the reasons I began studying entomology, many years ago, was as a constructive way to channel my childhood phobia of insects. It mostly allayed my fears, though there are rare times when the thought of creepy things hiding in the shadows gets me paranoid. I managed myself, though, at our stay in La Fortuna, and nothing got me.

Costa Rica Diary: Agritourism

The last activity we did in Monteverde was a tour of El Trapiche, which is an agritourism plantation that grows coffee, sugar, and cacao. This was one of the tamer of our adventures. Our guide (whose name escapes me, but you can see pictures of him on their site linked above) was excellent, very knowledgeable and confident. The tour was quite well-done, and we all enjoyed seeing how these plants grow and become the foods we eat. We took a leisurely walk around the farm while chewing chunks of raw sugar cane, which was tasty though too fibrous to eat whole. We also sampled the fruits of both coffee and cacao, which were also surprisingly sweet and tasty, if not terrifically fleshy. We tasted raw beans of both, and the only surprise there was that anyone ever figured out that fermenting and/or roasting those could lead to a food or beverage so fabulously palatable as coffee and chocolate.

We were treated to a demonstration of the traditional ways of pressing sugar cane. They had a water-powered sugar mill, which was fun to watch. There was also an ox-powered mill, and I admit I was a bit distressed to see oxen wearing on their massive necks a gaily-colored yoke that I probably couldn’t even lift. They only had to walk around the mill once, though, and they didn’t seem any more inclined to stop than they had been to start. Everyone was a safe distance to avoid getting splattered when one of the oxen let out an abundant stream of urine. I think that part is usually machine-powered these days. Then we made the traditional form of sugar by stirring the thickened juice until it hardened into a paste. We took a block of it with us, and used it when we baked and cooked on the rest of the trip.

We harvested coffee beans from a field, and we watched the various machines that sort and roast the beans. We tasted cacao beans in different stages of fermentation. Now, if you’ve ever looked up the etymology of the word chocolate, whatever you found wasn’t true. Forget about the Aztecs and the Mayas. In fact, the word is from cacao and some Latin-derived version of milk. So, if you see a product that is called chocolate, but doesn’t have milk in it, it is really only sweetened cocoa, called chocolate because, you know, marketing. If it doesn’t have milk, it isn’t chocolate.

Please don’t tell that to the people at Chocolove. Or this fabulous lady.

We tasted a shot of guaro (distilled spirit of cane), which was more alcoholic than rum, and nearly came back up as fast as I tossed it down.

To settle that, we finished our tour with a delicious little taco filled with a vegetable called arracache, a drink of cane juice and lemon, and a cup of coffee.

We bought coffee to take with us in the shop. Rowan bought a baseball cap that said “Costa Rica.”

And we were off to La Fortuna.

 

Note: Kevin’s and my photos got mixed up on iphoto, so I have no idea who took which. They’re probably all Kevin’s. Also, since Rowan is wearing the Costa Rica baseball cap on the tour, she can’t have bought it in the gift shop at the end. Oh, now I remember, I think she bought it in Santa Elena the day she made friends with a stray dog and it followed us into the supermarket/souvenir shop . . .

Costa Rica Diary: The Tarzan Swing

I wrote last time about the zip line tour at Selvatura Park, which was great, though I discovered myself to be inexplicably afraid of heights. But the Tarzan swing took the fear to another level.

When I was little, I remember my older brother egging me on to do daring things. He liked that I was more of a risk-taker than my sister. Later I loved roller coasters and other adventurous activities. In my twenties . . . let’s just say I did some risky things without thinking twice. I don’t see myself as person who is afraid to do something exciting.

The Tarzan swing was simply a step off a platform while attached to a cable, so there was no danger of falling. The platform was twelve meters high. We’d already zipped over the forest canopy, a hundred feet or more, so twelve meters should be nothing, right? But, the view from the platform wasn’t especially notable, and the stairs went straight up. I’d done plenty of walking already, and didn’t think I needed the thrill. It was optional, so maybe I’d sit this one out. But my daughters would hear none of it. They’re seven and ten, and full of the enthusiasm of youth. My mother-in-law Pat wasn’t sure she needed the Tarzan swing either, but she doesn’t say no to the girls much. They ran ahead of us up the hill to the bottom of the stairs. “Who’ll go first?” “Baba!” (That’s Pat.)

So everyone in the group decided to do it. I hung back, but the girls pushed Pat to the front of the group. She didn’t seem thrilled to go first, but, like I said, she’s not one to say no. Did she have to do it? She did it. Then the kids, my husband, brother-in-law, his girlfriend, and everyone else in the group, except for one other person who thought it would make her sick.

I’m not a sucker for peer pressure. I can say no. But if my sixty-five-year-old mother-in-law can take the jump, surely I ought to be able to, n’est ce pas? If I’m forty-eight and afraid to do adventurous things, what will I be like when I’m sixty-five? What kind of grandmother will I be?

I decided I wasn’t going to let my mother-in-law be more adventurous than I. I would jump. I didn’t know how, but I would find a way. I tried to think of scary things I’d done. Surely there’ve been plenty. All I could think of was finally getting years of back taxes filed, which was an overwhelming task I’d been positive I couldn’t do. (The refunds funded this trip.) But sitting at a desk under a pile of papers didn’t even seem scary compared to this, so that didn’t help. I thought of that Alanis Morissette song, how did it go? Something like, the minute I jumped off was the minute I touched the ground. Thank you. Thank you India. I liked the song. But it was just a song.

The guide on the platform gave a couple people a bit of a nudge on the back when they hesitated. I thought about telling him to push me. But it might be even scarier to be pushed than to step off voluntarily. When I got to the platform, I told him, “I don’t know if I can do this.”

“Just put your hands right here,” he said reassuringly.

I made myself breathe. I held onto the harness attaching me to the cable. It would hold me anyway, had been tested already, there was nothing to be afraid of, but I was terrified. All I had to do was hold on, and take one step.

He opened the gate. Panic. “I can’t—” I said, and grabbed the railing. Holding onto the railing felt better, even with that gaping opening that threatened to suck me down.

Very calmly, he said, “I need you to put both hands here.”

Yes. Do what he says. It’s probably safer that way, maybe if I fell while holding onto the rail I’d go sideways and tear a knee ligament or something. That would be worse than just doing it the right way. I just have to do it.

I put both hands in place and didn’t wait to be pushed. I closed my eyes and stepped forward.

Half a second of freefall.

Then the cable caught, and it was just like any old playground swing.

It seemed like I should be smiling and laughing, but I didn’t feel happy. When asked how it was, I said, “I did it.” It seemed like that should be triumphant. I’d conquered my fear. I’d beaten the Tarzan swing. But I didn’t feel triumphant either. I just wanted to be back on the ground.

And that seemed wrong too. The whole point of the tour was to have fun, and, no matter hard I looked inside, I couldn’t find any enjoyment there. Maybe it was a waste of money. Maybe I should have stayed back with my father-in-law and enjoyed the entomology museum. I love entomology. Was I just trying to prove I’m not a stick in the mud?

Sitting at my desk here in Kansas, listening to coyotes howl outside, I don’t know the answer to that. But I find if I had the chance right now, I’d march myself right up to that platform and do it again, acrophobia be damned. Because now I know I can, and I’m not going through life dancing with fear like a friend, I’m going to jump right into it. Go ahead fear, suck all the fun out of a day, but you do not win.

Later I told Pat that I’d done it because I didn’t want to be less adventurous than my mother-in-law, and she told me earnestly that she wasn’t sure she was a good role model.

Costa Rica Diary: Hanging Bridges in the Matrix of Life

The Monteverde area has many more ecotourism parks and reserves than it did twelve years ago. Andrea at La Colina Lodge recommended Selvatura Park for a zip line tour, but they have much more to do there than that. We took a walk in the bridges hanging in the cloud forest before our zip line adventure. It might sound pedestrian (no pun intended), but I’d rank it among my favorites of all the wonderful activities we did in Costa Rica.

It’s an understatement to say that it’s wet in the cloud forest. It’s not like the ethereal fog we have infrequently in Kansas. It’s like the air is hypersaturated with moisture. You get thoroughly wet just being in it. We couldn’t quite decide if it was sprinkling or not, and half of us put up the hoods on our rain jackets, half did not. Though there were other people around, we let them walk past us, and lingered in the quiet. We saw a slate-throated redstart and emerald toucanets, and other birds that I wasn’t able to identify.

Epiphytes grow everywhere. Wherever a seed or spore can land, it can grow. Trunks of trees are covered in shades of green, from so many kinds of plants that they would defy counting. The hanging bridges connect the steep sides of the mountains, so we walked among the clouds, wisps of which swirled silently among the trees. Looking down, I’d see a fern with leaves longer than my arms; when I’d crossed the bridge and come down the slope a bit, I could see that huge fern was growing from a crook in a tree, twenty feet off the ground. With so much water, who needs soil to grow in?

In my beloved tallgrass prairie, soil is the source from which springs everything that lives. There are insects and animals in the grass, and in the sky, and in the rivers and ponds; but the grass that anchors it all comes from the soil. It’s a thin but incredibly rich source of nutrients and moisture and the microorganisms that make other life forms possible. Old gardeners will tell you that the key to gardening is to feed the soil. Poets and scientists speak of soil in reverent tones. Soil is the matrix of life.

Monteverde cloud forest is so saturated with water everywhere, that the entire ecosystem itself is that matrix, from the soil up through the underbrush, and on up, two hundred feet into the tops of the trees. Many of the forest’s creatures rarely or never even touch the earth. If the prairie’s soil is a two-dimensional plane, the cloud forest is life exploding into three dimensions.

Amidst this fecundity, my Costa Rica story began to conceive itself. My character would have to journey from San Jose to the cloud forest. (There would be similarities to Maeve’s journey to the prairie, don’t you think?) I told Kevin about this as we walked, and he suggested mixing in some study of botanical medicines. Yes, I thought, she would be sick, seeking healing that couldn’t be found in civilization. What kind of illness? What sickness can only cloud forest heal? Forests are the lungs of the earth, so it would be a lung ailment, one which becomes more prevalent as the forests are inexorably razed. Somehow that led to the question of to what extent plot is necessary. Some authors (myself not included) excel at plot; I find myself moved more by other elements, as a reader and writer. Some books I’ve loved didn’t have much plot. We thought of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as an example of a story with not a lot of plot, but a journey.

If I were to make my story a heroic journey, then the heroine would have eventually to go back to her home, to bring newly acquired wisdom to share with her people. What form would that take? What wisdom will she find, and how will she share it?

I’d thought, I can’t write about this place without being here for a while, living in Costa Rica for months, learning the language and studying the culture. I’ll put this story on the back burner. But once I start talking about a story with Kevin, it takes on a life of its own. The story has no regard for my timelines and preferences. The story does not care that I don’t belong here, that I have deep roots and commitments elsewhere, that my eyes haven’t yet learned how to see this place. The story wills itself to being through me, its vessel. The story has magical power I cannot constrain, especially in this fertile matrix of life.

Cost Rica Diary: Night Hike in the Cloud Forest

La Colina Lodge, outside the town of Santa Elena, feels like a house where generations of hippies have lived and left their mark. The rooms are painted in pretty colors, and there’s a reading room with enough books that I could stay and read for six months, if I didn’t get distracted by the lovely mosaics in the floor. There’s a large yoga room with lots of windows. Andrea the manager was terrific at making recommendations and arranging activities for us.

The first evening we took a night hike at El Refugio. Our guide’s name was Javier. Before we began the hike, he asked us if we’d been to Costa Rica before. It was the first time for everyone in our group except me and Kevin, who had been there twelve years previous, for our honeymoon. He asked how we liked it this time. I said I was enjoying myself more than last time, which had been great. Javier was surprised, and remarked how much things had changed. How, I asked? There had been a lot of development, lots of paving of roads, with more planned. The gravel road we’d come on would soon be paved. He liked the way things were before, but said that the development is needed, in order to compete with other locations, as in the US.

Why compete? I’d love to have had a chance to talk at length with Javier about ecotourism and conservation of the cloud forest, but it was time to begin our hike. It wasn’t until a couple days later that I put together my memories and the place as it is now. Santa Elena was the dusty town we’d ridden into by bus. We were greeted by several people with binders, showing us pictures of rooms, to entice us to stay there. Not having a reservation, we took a chance and followed a man to a family-operated lodging that turned out to be inexpensive and scrupulously clean, and the only person in the family who spoke English was a little girl. That town, as I remember it, had one main, gravel street. Now there are more cross streets, and when I looked for it, I could recognize only one block. Everything seemed to have rotated and expanded. There are ten times as many restaurants, both casual and more upscale, and a supermarket. The town grew so much that I hadn’t recognized it.

Rustic and remote is always my preference when traveling to see nature; so why was I more thrilled to be in this place now? The answer lay not in changes in the place, but in the changes in myself. I’m much happier now, with myself as well as the world, and more able to be present and enjoy the moment. Also, while there is much pleasure to be had in discovering something new for the first time, there’s a special satisfaction in sharing that discovery with loved ones, especially one’s children. To enjoy a place, start by being able to enjoy yourself. Then find someone to share it with.

But I didn’t have time to figure this out, and tell Javier, because it was time to go off into the dark forest. Javier turned out to be an excellent guide. He knew the habits of the animals, and how to find them in the dark. He made a point of telling us that the animals at El Refugio are neither fed nor hunted by humans, and therefore don’t pay much attention to us at all. There were several groups out, and the guides talked to one another via radio, telling each other where they’d seen a coati, a kinkajou, a possum, or a tarantula or a trail of leafcutter ants. He also showed us a sleeping warbler, a walking stick insect more than six inches long, and a pit viper, which had placed itself, obligingly, at a comfortable distance from the path. Javier even walked off the path to get closer to the pit viper to take pictures for us.

We didn’t see any monkeys, which Kevin had hoped for. Monkeys were to come later.

By the time we returned to La Colina we were exhausted. Everything was damp, including the beds. You can’t keep moisture out when you live in cloud forest. I was chilly in bed, but quickly warmed up and fell into a deep sleep.

Costa Rica Diary: Highway From City to Cloud Forest

Costa Rica Journal

We had a van chartered to take us from San Jose to Monteverde. We were joined by Kevin’s brother Korey, who has lived in Argentina, and his partner Valeria, who is a bona fide native Spanish speaker, from Barcelona. That was nice, because the driver didn’t know a lot of English. We needed to buy a few things, but the stores weren’t open yet, so between Valeria and the driver it was decided that we would take a slightly longer route through San Ramon, where there is a mall that would open about the time we got there. But there was a need to get going.

Central American city driving is exciting. My father-in-law Mike gripped the handle on the back of the seat in front of him, from start to finish. I didn’t hold on, but my hips got sore from leaning into the seat belt as the van swerved and wound through narrow streets. Even when we got onto the main road, the lanes were narrow, and motorcyclists frequently rode the median, just inches away from moving cars and trucks.

“What does ‘Alto’ mean?” my mother-in-law asked. It was obvious that those signs had the international design of a stop sign, but nobody stops for them. She wondered if “Alto” meant “slow,” or “caution.”

“Welcome to Central America,” said Valeria.

Graffiti tells about a city what tour guides will never tell. “La nacion esta miete y quiebra.” With a swastika. Valeria told me “quiebra” is “broke,” but had no clue what “miete” was. I can’t find it in any dictionaries. If you know what that means, tell me in a comment. Another one: “Zombies en la vie [something] policia ¡No!”

The mall in San Ramon was shiny and expensive. Stores were supposed to open at 10:00, but at 10:20 most of them were still dark and gated. Kevin wanted some sunglasses, so he picked out a pair, but it turned out we had misread the price by a factor of ten. $117 went against his usual rule of never paying more than $10 for sunglasses, so he didn’t buy them.

Getting seven Irelands in and out of a mall quickly, even when half the stores are closed, is no easy task, but Valeria urged us on as the driver insisted we couldn’t stay long.

San Ramon is smaller than San Jose, but it still feels urban. Traffic continued to be heavy as we drove through countryside. We were on the Panamerican Highway. After a while, trees gave way to cleared pastures where cattle grazed. The fence posts were stalks of yucca, which looks like a sapling, grows into a small tree, and is harvested repeatedly for food.

Then we were climbing into mountains. Though the road was gravel, it was smoother and wider than I remembered rural roads being from our last visit. Still, it was very curvy and sometimes steep as it hugged the side of the mountain. I noticed traffic had fallen to nothing. I didn’t see other cars for miles. The only people were construction crews, sitting by the road in orange vests with styrofoam carry-out containers on their laps. I said a silent prayer for their safety, sitting on the edge of a mountain highway. Valeria explained that this was why the driver had been in a hurry: this stretch of road was closed for work—widening the road–as long as the workers were working; but vehicles were allowed to pass when the workers were on lunch break. The driver didn’t want to take the alternate route, which was more difficult. We had just made the cut.

Winding and climbing higher, we could see between mountains Lake Arenal on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. There was mist over the ocean, and the tops of the mountains were enveloped in clouds. Here the mountains were much less cleared and cultivated. It felt like we could be the only people for miles.

I watched a massive bank of clouds rolling relentlessly in from the east. But hard as the clouds pressed, they never cleared the top of the mountain, and the west side where we were driving remained serenely clear. We were near the continental divide, where weather coming from the Atlantic Ocean meets weather from the Pacific Ocean, in a perpetual stand-off.

And suddenly we crossed a line, and we were in those clouds. It was cool and moist and the muted light made the greens of the forest more vivid. And on we climbed, up to La Colina Lodge.

I got out of the car and almost cried with relief. Though I hadn’t felt weighed down by the city, coming to the mountain felt like a weight lifting off me. I wouldn’t say it’s light there, with the air thoroughly saturated with water, and the forest dense with life; but there is a lack of the heaviness of the city’s smell of diesel fumes and endless pavement. I like San Jose, but maybe I don’t belong in the city.

Costa Rica Diary: Social Strata and the City of San Jose

Costa Rica Journal

I really enjoyed the city of San Jose. It has a distinctly different flavor than the North American cities I know. I never saw a central business district with skyscrapers; everywhere, buildings are low, mostly one or two stories, even though they are crowded onto narrow streets winding around between the mountains, which surround the city in every direction.

The socio-economic strata are unabashedly evident in a way very different from the US. Shiny high-end stores display imported goods for prices —in dollars— that startle me (not being a recreational shopper, myself). At those stores, you approach the door and wait for someone to buzz you in. A few minutes’ drive away, grimy buildings with peeling paint press against the street, bathed in a sauna of diesel fumes. And everywhere, every store has gates. Every residence of every size has a tall stucco wall around it, painted in a pretty coral or sky blue, with razor wire spiraling along the top.

The strata were particularly evident when we went to the bank. It was late on a Friday afternoon and we wanted to change some money before we left the city. Kevin and I took a cab to the only bank in the area that was still open. It was at the Multiplex, which turned out to be a large, brightly-lit mall with trendy shops, some whose names I recognized from malls in the US. Who shops at this place? I wondered. I guess tourists and rich ticos.

When we were in Costa Rica twelve years ago, we noticed the guards at the banks always had automatic weapons. So I wasn’t surprised by the security at the bank; but the system was complicated and the guard didn’t apparently speak English. We had to wait for him to buzz us in, then go through a tiny metal detector booth, then choose our purpose from a menu on a screen, to get a number. Fortunately a kindly tico hippie boy who knew English explained the system to us.

The lobby was filled with rows of chairs, mostly taken. Why did I feel like such an obvious tourist? Let’s see, maybe it was the bright tie-dye dress I was wearing, in contrast to the black jacket and super-tight jeans sported by every other woman in the room. We waited for a while. I kept my eye on the nice hippie boy, thinking he would get called shortly before we did, so I’d know when our number was about to come up. I looked at a screen above the waiting area and tried to translate to Spanish, but it turned out that my poquito Spanish was even more pathetic than last time we came to Costa Rica. The screen showed a series of messages, including exchange rates, but only for colones and euros. Kevin was doing something with his phone, until the security guard came over and told him in Spanish that using cell phones wasn’t allowed. “Oh yeah,” I said. “See, it says on the screen, ‘está prohibido el uso de teléfonos celulares.'”

A few minutes later I heard the guard speak perfect American English to another person. I think he was from California.

We waited some more. We watched the numbers carefully as they came up on the screen. Finally it was our turn. Kevin had the money and he changed most of our money to colones, as well as some that his mom had asked us to change for her. Naturally it added up to a larger transaction than either of us makes regularly at home. We aren’t rich by a long stretch at home, I’m not even sure we’re middle class. But to a poor Costa Rican, we might look obscenely wealthy. I thought it was a good time to watch our backs. While Kevin handled the transaction, I turned and looked back toward the waiting area. No fewer than three people quickly looked away. One was a broad-shouldered man in a pink t-shirt. As we walked away from the counter, he stood up and walked toward the door. We went out and I tried not to be too obviously keeping an eye on Kevin’s pocket with the money in it, while scanning the crowd for Mr. Pink Shirt. There he was. We needed to get a cab away from here. I saw two men in uniforms, mall security, and I quickly walked up to them. It turned out we were right by a cab stand, and there was one ready.

Driving away from the mall, I settled back into the cab and enjoyed the ride through the winding, busy streets. I could write a lot of stories about this city, I thought. But I’d have to stay here a while to find out what they are.

Costa Rica Diary: Flying Into San Jose

When Kevin and I married, his brother Korey gifted us with airline tickets to wherever we wanted to go. He suggested Paris, which I’m sure would have been a wonderful choice, but our friend Amy Carlson had raved about her travel in Costa Rica, and it was much cheaper to go there, so we chose to stay in the western hemisphere. I had a pocket-size notebook that I decided was perfect for a travel journal, but I only wrote a few entries. It seemed to take so much time, which I could be using to do more stuff, instead of writing about the stuff I’d done. I quit, literally in mid-sentence, on the third day.

This year, several factors converged to make it not only possible, but almost necessary, for us to go back to Costa Rica. Strangely, I knew exactly where my old journal was. (In the pile of miscellanea on my dresser. Why on earth was it there? I have no idea.) I picked it up and began to read to my daughters.

1/6/03
When we arrived in Costa Rica it was so beautiful I almost cried. The city of Alajuela* felt strangely familiar to me, like a place I might have been as a child, too young to remember— only to recognize. Even in the city, the air smells sweet, like flowers. There are brilliant colors everywhere. The buildings are painted in blue, yellow, orange, and green . . . .

Oh, journaling can be magical. This trip, I brought that same little book, and I made a point of writing as much as I could, most days. It didn’t interfere with my being present in the moment; it inspired me to experience everything in more detail, with greater presence. And, like a shaman or hero on a journey, I return to the regular world with gifts for everyone back home, with words and stories to share.

We begin with our arrival.

1/9/2015
Well, here we are in Costa Rica again, twelve years later. This time we’re with Pat and Mike [my in-laws] and our two hijas, Rowan, 10, and Kiran, 7. When I wrote the previous pages, I certainly wouldn’t have had the slightest idea of how our lives would unfold from that time.

As the plane descended toward San Jose, I was again struck by the beauty of the mountains, the verdant forests, wisps of clouds floating among the mountain tops. But as I watched the landscape, I was somewhat dismayed at how much of the cloud forest had been cleared. I remembered Memo, our guide in our cave tour on the last trip, who told us that the area around La Fortuna had been mostly forest when he was a boy; but which had, by then, been largely cleared for agriculture.

There’s been a lot of work toward restoring and preserving the forests over the years. The clearing no doubt continues. People have to eat. Money has to be made. (Doesn’t it?) We do the same in the US, but in most places the destruction took place so long ago that nobody remembers what was there before.

So, as I watched the landscape from the window of the jet, I had mixed feelings. I was reassured when I saw turkey vultures circling over the mountains. Despite the destruction, the cycle of life persists. Kevin said that maybe some of those very birds had been in Chase county only a few months ago.

Next entry will be about the city of San Jose.

This is from a different flight than the one I wrote about in this post, but it's the best shot I have of the mountains from the air.

This is from a different flight than the one I wrote about in this post, but it’s the best shot I have of the mountains from the air.

*San Jose is the capital of Costa Rica. Alajuela is the location of the primary international airport, Juan Santamaria International Airport, and is part of the greater San Jose metropolitan area.

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