Vicente and Johanna found paradise nine years ago, but they may still get out. The loan will be paid this year and who knows… maybe someone else needs a chance to own a hotel where soft breezes caress with a cashmere touch, flowers bloom even where abandoned, the surf a playground offered for free.
It was a long time since breakfast and I’d said goodbye to Bocas in Panama. The water taxi took at least a half hour, then there was the bus to Costa Rica. The walk across the bridge over the river border was surreal, gaps between the planks and rusted girders big enough to swallow a foot right up to your waist.
The shuttle was newer and very comfortable. I opened the window.
“Close windows, please: Air conditioning!” said the young driver’s assistant riding shotgun.
We went through banana plantations, thousands of bunches grown beneath broad leaves, in blue bags to protect the fruit from insects. Every once in a while we’d motor past a group of workers surrounded by piles of green bananas on the side of the road.
When I got to Puerto Viejo, the sandwich board on the sidewalk said “A good day starts with a great cup of coffee” and pointed upstairs. It seemed written espressoly for me. Sorry. The cafe was owned by an Italian baker (with a pencil thin mustache!) on the second floor of a dilapidated building I mistakenly thought was on the main drag when the shuttle dropped me off in downtown.
“Eeees hot, whew, no? Not often theeees hot,” he said.
“You are Italian?” I asked him,
“Why YES!” he exclaimed, surprised. I was thumbing through the guide, asked him for directions and he recommended a hotel just up the street. The little cabinas were $35 and buried in this lovely jungle garden. Aside from the isolation of the cabinas, the heavy thick foliage meant there would.be.no.breeze. If I wanted air conditioning, it was $60.
That was a surcharge that just seemed unreasonable. There was something about the desk clerk. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, then. It felt like a soft resentment, but I let it go, thinking it was just a matter of style. I had a place for the night.
“If you want a second night, I need to know by nine in the morning,” the clerk said.
“I’ll let you know,” I replied.
Because it was close, I checked out a hotel around the corner. The clerk was attentive, the rooms she showed me were on the second floor, so if there was a breeze it might at least rustle the curtain. There were comfortable chairs in a tiled common area, coffee available all day, brewed to order, and a dog who was a tennis ball junkie, but subtle about it.
I told her I would check in the next day and walked toward downtown for a real lunch.
I’d gone about a block before I realized just how hot it had become. I turned around and went back to the first hotel and asked if she would let me out of my stay.
“You want to leave?” she said, and without another word got my $50 bill out of the drawer, I gave her back the exact change she had given me. The actual coins. I checked into the absolutely spotless hotel owned by Vicente and Johanna, instead. I was told to take my flip flops off before I walked upstairs to the rooms and I’d need my key to get in after 8 p.m.
Vicente is from Chile, Johanna from Germany. They met when Vicente was studying and working in Germany. They wanted to be someplace tropical, talked about going to Chile, traveled around the world for nearly a year on plane tickets that did not cost much more than round trips from Germany to Chile and back.
They stayed in this very hotel in Puerto Viejo. It was for sale. They bought it. That was nine years ago. It will be paid off this year.
The streets of Puerto Viejo are confusing by day because they connect to a road that wraps around a small point on it’s way south. So you can walk down two streets that are perpendicular to each other and end up on the same road, like leaving the center of a circle along two right angle radii. You still hit the same perimeter, just in two different places.
At night it’s even more confusing, because landmarks seen in the daylight disappear. The shops are open and brightly lit, selling hats and T-shirts and hammocks and beach cloths and dresses and artisan bracelets and necklaces. Every other storefront is a restaurant or a bar, vendors cook chicken and beef kabobs on the corner, fanning charcoal with a paper plate until it spits and glows and sears the meat, and sell them for $2.
The main road is both highway and sidewalk, because the sidewalk is broken and narrow and occupied in places by booths selling hats and T-shirts and hammocks and beach cloths and dresses and artisan bracelets and necklaces. Motorbikes zip between pedestrians picking their way along the edge to avoid being whacked by a car, SUV, delivery truck or giant regional bus. Rasta music blares from speakers, Ultimate Fighting shrieks from a wall of TVs.
Everywhere the smoke of marijuana, incense, street food, smoldering leaves and burning plastic blends like a carcinogenic haze.
I couldn’t find Laslows to have the fish dinner I promised myself. I went back to a spot I had seen.
“You probably want the salad?” said the waiter, pointing to the cheapest thing on the menu.
“No, I would like the chicken and rice,” I said.
“Oh, the CHICKEN!” said the waiter. I could not figure out why he seemed to resent I was sitting at a table in his restaurant facing the scene on the street.
“What would you recommend?” I asked, trying not to reflect the attitude.
“We are a fish market,” he waved at the counter. “The sea bass is very good.”
So I had the sea bass. It was okay, too.
I threaded my way back through the smoke, noise and traffic to my hotel. I fell asleep late because I’ve developed an addiction to ginger ale and cola in Costa Rica and the sugar lights me off for at least a couple of hours. And I needed to write about Bocas. The burning smell was not mitigated by being away from the main drag. In fact, it was worse at the hotel. I went into my room when the mosquitoes started drilling into my legs.
It was the dogs that woke me up. Not the hotel dogs, who muttered their barks, but dogs from the house just below and a little back from my window. There were two of them. Excited. Shrill. Tied up. Running back and forth the length of their rope yipping, yelping, whining barking. Between the two of them, it was a cacophony of anxiety.
I looked out. There was a large black man working in the yard. The dogs seemed to want his attention, but he was deaf to them. They ran back and forth, back and forth, ran at him, stopped just before their tether would have snapped them around by the neck, did it again and again and again and again.
After working for a while I walked down to buy the beach cloth I’d promised myself, huge, red and gold with bright suns vying with moons for attention. But the woman who had it wasn’t there, and the ones who were there did not have what I wanted, though what they did have cost much less.
I walked the mile and a half down to a beach I’d been told was worth visiting. I realized I’d not eaten and was ravenous, got a quarter chicken with rice and a delicious ginger laced lemonade from a street vendor with dreadlocks. I sat on the sand near speakers booming out a wonderful Reggae I’d never heard. A Black woman, a girl really, walked up.
“You want a $10 massage? I got the table set up.”
I’d walked past her table on the way to the sand, she was working on a very sunburned white guy. The sign said, “Massage $30, locals $20, backpackers $10.”
“No, gracias, I’m going to finish my lunch.”
She shrugged and headed down the beach.
A father played with his son in the waves. Dad was hugely muscular and ebony black. His son was alive with energy, chasing the boogie board up the beach when the small waves got it away from him, lifting his feet out of the water back to dad, washing sand from the bottom of the board as soon as he could. Dad would reach down for his hand and they would walk again back out to deeper water.
As I walked back toward town, young white guys bragged about how hammered they were. It did look like it was going to be a long, long Saturday for them.
I followed a family through a grove of dark and gnarled trees back toward town. Thier littlest boy tripped and fell right in front of me. He was silent for a moment then started to wail in a voice every parent knows. I bent over and set him back up on his feet without him knowing what happened. He looked up at me in silence and then ran to mom, who gave me a warm smile and said, “Gracias.”
In the afternoon I talked to Vicente. I told him I needed to go back to San Jose the next day or the day after, and asked him about transportation.
“Which day do you want?”he asked.
“It really doesn’t matter,” I said.
He tried to call, but there was no answer on a Sunday. “I will keep trying and let you know,” he said.
That evening I found Laslows. I’d walked by it at least a half dozen times the night before. Locals said Laslows had the best fish dinner in Puerto Viejo, if not all of Costa Rica, or maybe the Caribbean. Laslows looked very much like Mama Mias Pizza next door. That first night I thought they were the same restaurant and didn’t ask, which is why I didn’t find it. The next night I asked.
Laslows doesn’t have a sign, because everybody knows where it is. Laslows isn’t always open, because sometimes Laslow doesn’t catch any fish. And when Laslows is open, there is only one dish on the menu: the fish just caught by Laslow and prepared the way Laslow prepares fish by the guy Laslow trained. It is served to people who know about Laslows and are sitting at one of four small tables or three tiny stools at a “bar” which is mostly a half dozen bottles of booze on the counter and another half dozen bottles or so on tiny shelves behind the bartender who “can make anything anybody orders.”
Including drinks for people dining next door at Mama Mias, if they ask.
Laslow looks Italian with broad shoulders, bald head and mustaches. He plays with an unlit cigar as he sits in the corner; his tiny wife washes an occasional dish but looks like she feels out of place and the Black girl beside her seems to do most of the work. Laslow’s blond, tall and skinny son, Robbie serves the meals and talks about putting the fish they don’t cook and serve into an onion bag with a hook and pulling up a 100 lb. grouper. He pulls out his phone and shows the photograph.
Robby is moving nearly as fast as the tall, good looking bartender who is from New York but upstate and talking so fast I can barely catch the words about his camping in Oregon with his girlfriend he didn’t even take his camping gear figured he’d buy it there but she just hated the cold and the wet until about the third night after he taught her to build a fire with one match and she did it the first time even he didn’t do it the first time he tried and she really loved camping after that everything gets so mellow with no hassles about finding motels whatever…
Laslows was worth it, when I found it that second night. Best meal I’d had in a month.
The next day, I found the woman with the beach cloth I wanted, and she beat me at negotiating. When we’d done the deal I smiled.
She smiled wide and shook my hand.
“Mucho Gusto,” and I think she meant it. I headed back to the beach for an obligatory sit on the sand on my new cloth. One of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen was sitting nearby, her dark skin smooth, nose prominent, her dreadlocks pulled back and wrapped in the rainbow weave used by so many here that it no doubt has a name.
At first she was carefully eating a quarter chicken like the one I’d had the day before. I noticed her forearms were longer than mine, her muscles more pronounced. She must have been well over six foot two. When she was done, one of the ubiquitous beach dogs walked up and nosed the container. She reached over and with the most gentle caress possible, stroked the back of the dog’s head while talking to him so softly it must have been a whisper. The dog wagged its tail.
Eventually she opened the carton and let the dog lick the contents, then stood, took the container to the garbage, came back and sat on the sand where she started writing in a journal of sorts. The already filled pages were ragged, which meant she’d been working on whatever this was for many months, at least. She would write a few words, look out at the sea where her daughter played, then mouth the words she was writing as if tasting them, and write some more.
I wanted to to ask what she was writing, of course, but I was intimidated by both her grace and her concentration.
Her daughter ran up crying. The woman adopted a look of concern, leaned back for a moment for a better view of her daughter’s lip or nose, I could not be sure. Reassured that the injury was not significant but recognizing that the tears still were, she unwound a large scarf or small beach cloth the same color as mine, wrapped it around her wet daughter, and held her in her lap.
She didn’t say much, the holding was the communication.
Eventually the little girl released herself from the embrace, stood up out of her mother’s arms and ran off, safe again and ready to explore the world, once again. Everything this woman did flowed from a languid, perfectly pitched intention to whatever the need was at the moment.
I still could not ask what she was writing. Eventually she got up, asked something of the man who was spinning Reggae, waved in the direction of her husband or partner or daughter I couldn’t see and disappeared.
When I got back to the hotel, Johanna called out to me.
“I made your decision for you. You are going tomorrow on the 2 p.m. shuttle. There was only one seat left.”
“That’s perfect. Thank you,” I said.
I stayed up later than I intended, working even though I’d skipped colas with caffeine, but I did finally fall asleep. It was the screaming that woke me up.
Men’s screams and shouts at first, it sounded like it was right in front of the hotel. Men screaming and yelling and shouting in Spanish. Then a woman screamed several times. They weren’t fake screams, it sounded like she was suffering from violence. Then again, “Aller! Aller!” Or something like that. I expected to hear gunshots or sirens, but there was neither. Eventually it stopped.
The next morning I was on my fourth cup of coffee or so. Johanna came out with a towel and wiped away two cat hairs that had landed on the glass at some point. I asked about how they came to own a hotel here in Caribbean paradise.
“You take wonderful care of it,” I said.
“Yes, well, we try. This is our home, too,” she said.
“Then you heard the screaming last night, too.”
“Ah, yes. It doesn’t happen as often as it used to,” she said. Apparently one of the husbands of the neighboronthecorner returns periodically. Last night he was run off by one of neighboronthecorner’s sons. I wondered if it was the one who smoked enough reefer it was possible to get high on the other side of the fence separating the properties.
“For the first three years, one of us was here at all times,” Johanna said. She and Vicente never left together. Not to go to dinner. Not to walk the dogs on the beach. The neighboronthecorner was difficult. One of the men, I didn’t get if was one of the sons or one of the husbands, regularly peed near or through the fence on the back of the hotel’s coke machine.
“I asked if he could stop peeing on our machine. They said, ‘You want I should kill you?’ ” Johanna said.
As to the dogs belonging to neighborwiththedogs, at first there was only one dog. Then there were two. Johanna said she asked if the dogs could at least be moved to the front yard, but was told they had to protect against burglars, presumably those entering the property from the highly secure hotel where I was staying.
“It’s just a lie,” Johanna said. “The reason they don’t put them in the front yard is they would bother the Tico across the street. The Tico would just kill the dogs. I’ve been told many times I should just kill the dogs, but of course I am not going to do that.”
I said there is a certain disadvantage being one who plays by the rules. She looked at me a little differently for a moment. I mentioned the burning plastic.
“It is easier to burn it than carry it away,” she said.
Johanna has been in Puerto Viejo for nine years. She told me she did not have a single friend in the community.
She said she understood the resentment. “The government of Costa Rica sent no money here. Ever. They didn’t even let Blacks to the other side of the country until the 1960s,” she said.
“Vicente has tried. He tried to get them to stop burning, explaining it was so bad for the health. ‘You don’t like it go back to your country,’ he was told. He found out there was a machine here that ground up branches? He got a couple of people to help for a couple of weeks, but then no one showed up, and the machine didn’t show up again.”
Vicente wanted to talk when he heard me mention a sailboat. Vicente is thinking about a sailboat, too. The loan is paid off this year.
Vicente told me his dream had been to start what he called a “university” in Puerto Viejo, but I think he meant a trade school. Right now Vicente is teaching Spanish to foreigners. He wanted to provide an education to locals so young men and women could learn to be electricians, plumbers, maintenance workers.
When I said I didn’t think education could work without opportunity, he said, “There is much opportunity!” None of these professions had someone who would show up and do the work.
As someone who has done very little of most of these, I wondered whether my skill set would be useful here. I thought about it for a little less than half a moment. I thought about The Italian baker. Johanna. The drunk white guys on the beach. The quiet air of resistance, if not resentment I felt below the surface. The smell of burning plastic.
“But no,” Vicente said at last. His dream of providing opportunity and an education here would leave with him. The heros of the youth of the town were drug dealers and robbers, men with guns, girls, and machismo. The bad guys were guys like him, or me, or Johanna who had come to town. We made people feel bad because we expected them to show up for work, do what they say they were going to do, when they say they would do it, Vicente said.
On the way out I met a woman from Norway, a hydraulic engineer. She had just finished working on a project to rebuild a hydroelectric dam in Liberia destroyed by the civil war. Her task mostly done, she was told to take a month off. She and I laughed about learning to watch where you walk or put your hands in countries where poisonous snakes were often fatal.
Then we got to the real snake. She told me there had been many injustices in the distribution of wealth when Liberia was founded. This she could understand, but what was just shocking to her was the attitude of “successful” Blacks toward their less successful Black neighbors. Having suffered from racism, they were racist.
“It was just awful. They would say things you would never hear anywhere else.”
“They regarded the differences not as a result of chance or opportunity, but proof of inferiority?”
“Yes. And what they don’t own is run by the Lebanese, including much of the government.”
“I thought Liberia was supposed to be a return of Blacks to a country, a redress of slavery, without racism, a land of opportunity for the oppressed. I thought it was a success,” I said.
“That’s what I thought, too. That’s what’s in all the books. It’s simply not true,” she said.
I wondered how those men on the side of the road next to piles of bananas felt when we drove past in our air conditioned newer Toyota shuttle. I wondered what the woman at the first hotel thought when I came back and untook my room. I wondered what the waiter really thought when I tried to keep my budget leaner than my waistline.
There I was, complaining about paying too much for air conditioning none of them could ever afford, no matter how hot or sultry the day; wondering why the food was so expensive, forgetting they have to eat, too; dickering over a $2 difference for a beach cloth because I didn’t want to be taken advantage of by a woman who’d lost her history, had no hope for the future, and faced injustice she could never conquer.
Resentment? Imagine that.