Crossing the bay would take only an hour or so. It was early enough I thought it was safe taking off my shirt. I had my eyes closed, trying to send good thoughts to a friend who was at that moment on an operating table. But the water reflected the sun and I was getting burned.
The heat in Jaco was intense. There was no breeze. Air conditioning at the first hotel was an empty promise, the main draws were beach and bar, neither a draw for me. So I left and found a place downtown. Though I tried to walk near the waves perfect for surfing, my sunburn sent me back inside to the deep shade.
White men on the street had a furtive air. Maybe their wives were all shopping, or maybe their wives didn’t come down for the sport fishing or the surfing. Groups of men wore similar clothes, like the feathers of a flock of birds. This flock wore black polo shirts with brown shorts and flip flops. That flock wore striped business shirts with rolled up sleeves, tan shorts and tennis shoes. Over there getting ice cream were men in sleeveless shirts with either the brand of a beer or “pura vida” written on one side.
After dark I went out for food, and realized the town had changed from day to night. Birds gathered in the trees, and on wires above the sidewalk along the main street through Jaco. The ground under the wires is white with droppings and not a good place to walk. Black birds sit on the wires and in the trees and they talk to each other about what someone may have dropped outside the restaurants on either side of the street.
Men stood outside the bar with “two for one daquires,” talking to each other and any women who walked by, then came across the street to negotiate a price on an Indian meal for a large group, crossed back over.
Women in plumage began to appear on the sidewalks, stuffed into tight shiny dresses, on platform high heels that added inches to the length of their legs. One reached for my hand as I walked past, asking if I wanted some companionship. When I declined with a smile and as much grace as I could, she pouted and said she could make me more happy. The scent of her perfume lingered on my hand.
The next morning, a white man different than those of yesterday perched on a stool at the bar, then stood, like a jay or a magpie in a Costa Rica style, at a table where a man and woman waited for their breakfast. Skinny, unshaven, longish hair, blue jeans in need of a wash, flip flops and a Hawaiian shirt. He is animated talking politics, in English to the blond man, Spanish to the Tico woman.
It’s breakfast, I’m barely in possession of my first cup of coffee, and one of the first things I hear was, “I just feel privileged to be able to vote in two places, you know what I’m sayin’?”
Eventually he sat at another table and ordered breakfast. I ask if he gets to vote in Costa Rica, how long has he lived here?
Bill came down here about 30 years ago for the surf and never went home.
“Yeah, but I’m going to open a hostel,” he pauses, leans forward in a conspiratorial whisper. “That guy owns a hotel…” and nods toward the blond man he had been talking politics to.
“I’m going to open a hostel!…” he says in a much larger voice, as if the man who owns a hotel will be intimidated by a surfer hoping that American hostel transients will fund his dream of an endless summer.
But running a hostel is a lot of work.
“Yeah, but I know this Nicaraguan woman who can cook. I think it’ll work. Then I’m going to drive around this country, and look for my future ex-wife.” He waits for reaction to his clever discount of security, a line funny when he was 30 years-old and could discount romance so easily. Who will a 62 year-old surfer dude find who will be looking for him?
“Yeah, but there’s so many women in this country. It’s unbelievable. I think the diet of rice and beans produces girls,” he says.
Bill came down to Costa Rica with a family, a long time ago. After a year, his wife returned Texas with his two boys, then four and eight. He does not dwell, but I see a small squall ripple across his eyes when he says, “I still don’t know what … why…” but he doesn’t finish the sentence.
His boys, raised by his ex-wife and her mother, she never remarried, “are killing it.” One works for Merrill Lynch, the other for Goldman Sachs. Bill goes back to Texas to see them a few times a year, he says, but it’s a year since he’s been. He has a child with a Costa Rican woman, too.
Bill has been out of the business of building surfboards for a while. He built boards with styrofoam blanks that he carved out of styrofoam blocks with a hot wire. He’d hand shape the boards, sand them down, build them with glass and resin.
“You don’t really need stringers (the wooden strips that give a board rigidity) in a styrofoam board,” he said, “but I like the way it looks. Especially with three stringers, one in the middle and one between the middle and the rail.”
He sold boards to people who appreciated the hand made.
But thousands of boards are available on the street running through Jaco. “There are more boards than there are surfers,” he says. “The hotshots and the corporations and the Chinese ruined the business. I think the Chinese should sell boards to the Chinese, and Americans should buy boards from Americans.”
But that wasn’t the only problem. “Me and my partner, we were building an inventory of surfboard blanks, but then he told me he wanted out. I told him we were just getting it going but he wanted out so I told him to just take what was his. He gave them to a guy we were selling the blanks to, who was going to pay him back as he sold boards.” Bill looks into the distance at what might have been a betrayal.
“He was a friend, too, used to be a friend, well, I guess he still is…” Bill’s voice trails off, then his momentum, never far off, returns to pick him up again.
“But I was ready to get out anyway, away from the fiberglass, the resins.” He seems remarkably healthy for a 61 year old surfer. “Yeah, at least I got that.”
But he knows all that sanding can’t be good for him.
“You gotta wear a mask. Well, you should wear a mask. I like to work where the wind blows through so you don’t have to wear one.”
He has a piece of property up in the hills he doesn’t want to sell. Only 20 minutes away, it’s at least 1,000 feet higher in elevation, maybe 2,000 feet, I can’t quite hear him, until he says, “it’s a lot cooler up there.” He’s tried to sell a piece of it, but anyone who looks wants the whole thing.
“I don’t want to sell the whole thing. In fact, I don’t want to sell it at all,” he says, and his face gets that same expression it had when he talked about his wife moving back to Texas with his sons, or when he talked about how his younger brother died six months ago, “one day before his 60th birthday,” which he repeats, as if that one day made it more tragic than if it had been a year before that birthday, as if his brother had just barely missed crossing some sort of finish line.
Bill finishes his breakfast while trying to figure out if one of his sons can put him on a payroll of sorts so Bill qualifies to receive whatever social security he may have earned before he became an expat in Costa Rica. “I think they left out the years I worked in Austin,” he says.
A little later he may go back to the house he has cut in half to turn into a hostel. “I got everything I need: beds, sheets. Everything, except for people to stay there.” He may go on the internet, but leans forward slightly to say, “I don’t really want to be seen, if you know what I mean.”
I didn’t want to guess what the conspiracy might be, so I play it safe. “Hard being seen without being seen,” I say.
“Yeah, I know that,” he replies, as if I had just insulted him.
But his flyers from a copy machine aren’t working, though everybody who’s seen them thinks they’re pretty cool. He’s thinking of changing the wording from “near downtown” to “near the beach, because people will think it’s not downtown and really it’s only three blocks off the main street.” He’s going to drop the nightly fee from $12 to $10, though everyone had been telling him he should charge $15.
Bill comes here to the Oasis nearly every day for breakfast. He thinks running that hostel will be the answer. Maybe it will won’t be like the cabinet building business, or the remodeling business, the surfboard business, the marriage.
“Thirty years,” he says, looking across the restaurant but seeing off into a distance, years more than miles. “I can’t believe it’s been 30 years. Where did it go?”