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 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.

“Gracias, Senora,”

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.

Surf’s Up.

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?”


Geckos make little barking noises at each other, drawing lines, setting boundaries, establishing who gets which insects from what corner near the light that draws bugs near. Occasionally, some sort of night bird screeches, and I hear cooing from one of the trees in the garden.

I talked to a woman who told me she and her family were so afraid of lizards that when one got inside their home, near San Diego, they all stayed outside. When the lizard ended up in the couch, they had a neighbor take the couch away. As a six-year-old, my daughter K.C. would have taken that lizard outside the house and put it somewhere in the sun to be happy, then brought it something to eat.

This morning, a long-tailed bird with top feathers, it’s a magpie or jay in Costa Rica style, lands on the chair on the opposite side of the table from me. He eyes my granola. I paid good money for this breakfast, I tell him, it’s out of the question.

This is by far the fanciest restaurant I’ve been in on this trip. The waiter is deferential, even after he asks, “Are you staying here at the hotel, sir?”

Um, no. I wandered up from the beach.

He is still polite after I order the cheapest breakfast on the menu (but it’s my first choice! Regardless of price! I want to tell him. But I stick to ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ He knows I know.) It was a lovely walk through the sand, past tents where the nomads live, if you will, past elegant round huts with peaked roofs and just enough room for a bed and bathroom for upscale guests staying at the hotel.

I’m on my fourth or fifth cup of Costa Rica coffee (I really should throw out all that Starbucks I brought. What was I thinking!?) when I finally arrive, late and out of breath, to a semblance of awareness. I debate whether watermelon is a waste of red. But covered in yogurt and a sprinkle of granola, it serves as a vehicle, if not a fruit.

Papaya, now that’s another story.

Other guests of all ages slowly fill the veranda. The waiter treats us all equally, but he is starting to get behind as he brings fruit and yogurt, or French Toast, or pancakes or omelettes.

I can tell he’s not catching up by the way he asks the couple dithering over a decision of what to have for breakfast, as if world peace hung in the balance, if they needed just a little more time. He’s still a pro.

Some of these people can purchase anything on the menu, possibly purchase the hotel. But there is silence on the patio, even between couples. Especially between couples. No one seems to be particularly glad to be here, having breakfast. Maybe it’s too early, but there was more laughter at the small bakery outside the back door of the cheap hostel where I stay in the middle of town, when I headed down the beach a little after dawn on my first walk of the day.

An ancient, tiny man, bird-like and nearly lost in the plumage of an expensive Hawaiian shirt not that large, and red shorts, comes to the table with a full figured woman who is maybe a third his age. I want to believe she is his nurse, but her top falls open when she leans forward to sip her coffee and she makes no effort to conceal her breasts.

“Maybe we should buy some aloe body lotion,” she suggests. “Should I look for some After-bite?” Both comments take me to a place I don’t want to go. When the waiter comes, she flashes him a coy smile.

“How are you today?” she asks in a tone that is intimate all by itself. The smile lingers as she looks at her aged companion, as if gauging his reaction.

“I am good. And how are you?” replies the waiter, just within a boundary that makes it seem he may be slyly mocking her. She has a small silk scarf that had been around her neck. Now she pulls it nervously between her two hands, twining and untwining it between her fingers. Eventually she wraps it tightly around the index and middle finger of her left hand like a bandage to staunch a bleeding.

Pelicans are masters of wave energy. As waves push air up on their way to shore, pelicans glide just in front of the curl, wingtips inches from the water, getting lift.  At the last second, just before the wave rolls over, they peel off and out from the land to hitchhike on the next set on their way up the coast.

If they see a fish, they quickly point up, do a wing over then dive, wings raked back and beak straight down, into the water to catch a meal. Sometimes they sit there and swallow, sometimes they miss and immediately take wing.

After writing all morning, I walk a hundred yards to a cafe looking over the beach to brave a lunch of bacon and chicken and cheese. A middle aged Tico collects sticks and leaves left by the surf on the sand. He moves slowly in the hot sun; I wonder if he has been hired to clean up the beach or is scavenging firewood.

A young woman stands beside my table taking pictures of the shore. I look up and she says to me, “It’s so beautiful, isn’t it?” I compliment her Nikon, trying to place her accent, different than most I’ve been hearing on this trip but vaguely familiar.

“I’m from Israel,” she says. I ask what part. She says the north. I ask what town or kibbutz.

“You know Israel? Have you been there?” she asks.

“I was a volunteer in the Yom Kippur War, long before you were born,” I tell her. “They called us ‘Mitnavin.’ The volunteers. ”

She says something to the others at the table and they look at me with interest.

“How did you go there?” she asked.

“I was in Greece when Syria attacked Israel. The leader of Israeli Defense Forces, Moshe Dyan, the man with the eye patch? said ‘Haifez Assad believes it is 200 kilometers from Damascus to Tel Aviv. I’m here to tell him it is also 200 kilometers from Tel Aviv to Damascus.’ I said to myself, this is a war I can believe in, and volunteered.

“Because I wasn’t a Jew, they refused me at the embassy in Athens, so I flew into Tel Aviv. Eventually I got a job driving a forklift in Kyriat Shmona, where Katyusha rockets had fallen. I watched Israelis retake the Golan Heights.”

“You have given me goose bumps,” she says to me, pointing at her arm. “I have never met a volunteer who was not a Jew.”

A large bird, it looked just like an owl but maybe it just had its head tucked tight to its body because why would an owl be out at noon in this heat, glided quickly past the corner of the restaurant. I stand to get a better look but it is gone, down and round the corner before I can see more. The girl takes a few more pictures, tells me she has to run, they are going to catch a ferry.

The trail up to the waterfall is like walking along smooth rock trails that wind along the McKenzie or Deschutes, rivers of “my” Cascades, though I wouldn’t do those in flip flops. It’s what I had on, I was wearing my usual black swim/running shorts, the white shirt I live in but had wrapped around my waist. It took about 20 minutes and I was glad for the uphill workout, though it was not at all difficult.

At the falls, two men sat on rocks, playing chess. A man played a small Hang, the drum-like instrument I’d been introduced to in Santa Elena, sounding more like a steel drum than anything else, hollow notes ringing in the rock amphitheater with a metallic harmonic that played with notes of the flute played by the man sitting in a hollow nearby. They were musical elves where falls filled a pool deep and clear. Thirty or so people all clapped when a young boy made a 40 foot plunge into the water.

Older, stronger men did not go nearly as high.

Two girls from the falls were stopped on the road as I walked back to the main area of Montezuma. I asked what they could see.

“A parrot, a tiny one,” said the blond, pointing to a bird the size of a sparrow and not  much more colorful. She was from Newport, Oregon, about 180 miles from my home town but she’d never heard of it, she moved to Newport only a year and a half ago from Alaska, she said, but spends winters elsewhere to get out of Oregon’s rain.

We talk about salmon fishing in Alaska, where I had worked in South Naknek, and she said, “I did salmon too, and squid,” I think she said.  She had elegant tattoos, some from Mexico, others from Hermosa Beach, California, one tracking the vertabrae of her spine with either a pattern or letters in Chinese, I didn’t want to be close enough to look.

“I wanted to get one in Costa Rica but I haven’t met anyone here who does tattoos,” she said.

I said goodbye because I wanted one more walk up the beach. There was a small outcropping of red rock I’d seen this morning. The rock pure in color and smoothed by the ocean. I didn’t know what it was, but knew it was something I’d not seen ever before.

At the edge of the jungle, birds were singing about something that made them happy. Afternoon brought many people to the sand, to surf and swim and offer to the softening sun as much skin as they possibly could, which in some cases, was quite a lot.

The outcropping of red rock shattered the stone I brought as a small hammer, it was much harder than I thought, but a small piece came loose and I put it in my pocket  for the trip across the gulf to Jaco the next morning.


The shuttle was late, but Ryan wasn’t back yet either. Ava came out several times to the dusty sun-baked street of Samara to look for him.

I finally told her that if she was going to be on watch, I was going back in the shade to drink my coffee. She laughed and said she’d keep an eye out.

Five minutes later she called to me that the shuttle was coming. Ryan got back at the same time, carrying two styrofoam containers of scrambled eggs, rice and beans. After we got our bags on board and climbed on, we sat together in back.The vinegary smell of chili Tabasco sauce wafted up when he opened the lid. It made my stomach rumble.

I’d bought my breakfast the day before. I knew I was truly on the road when I stopped going out to eat just to eat. One of the local tiendas sold yoghurt and granola, mangos and bananas. My room had a fridge, so I took advantage of a chance to breakfast like I do at home looking out on the Three Sisters.

I’d had dinner with Ron the night before. He seemed a bit lonely, stopping at chairs of various young couples to ask where they were going, where they were from. Most often, he sat on the beach in the shade, drinking beer from cans with an Austrian Eagle, smoking Viceroy cigarettes.

I wondered what his story might be, asked if he wanted to join me for dinner.

Rather than the conversation I was hoping for, he mostly complained about food prices in Costa Rica, prices at this restaurant on the sand in Samara. He said most things with an unpleasant half laugh, as if that leavened the complaining. A couple of times I suggested he didn’t need to keep me company, there were less expensive places up the beach, but he found something he was reluctantly willing to spend the money on, so I listened while he told me about jobs he’d had he didn’t like, exgirlfriends who were whack jobs, family members who were envious.

But there were benefits, he pointed out more than once.

“No wife, no kids; my money’s my own to spend.” I got up once to go back to my room for air, and to bring him cream so he wouldn’t have to compulsively scratch at bug bites he’d picked up in Nicaragua on his legs. He reminded me, for reasons I can’t quite pull together, of the hermit crabs I found scuttling about on my way back to my room.

I first noticed the tracks. They were everywhere. An uneven line drawn in the sand, flanked by little divots in a row on each side. I’d not noticed them during the day, and since they went over and through recent footsteps from the casitas, I knew they were nocturnal and fresh. But I could hear nothing, see nothing. I hoped they weren’t rats.

There were so many of these tiny trails, I knew whatever was causing them must be close by. So I stopped walking and stood as still as I possibly could.

It didn’t take long. One by one, what I thought were small rocks and shells in the sand started to stand up and move. Hermit crabs! Everywhere! As soon as I walked near, they pulled into their shell and dropped to the sand and became just part of the landscape.

I picked one up to peek at the occupant. His legs were wrapped into a fist guarding the entrance, the largest claw holding it all together.

On the bus the next day I worried that rather than the dynamic and creative Ryan, the accomplished and athletic Eaton, I was one of those older cliches traveling alone, unable to know why I had no connection, shelled up in a past I didn’t really understand but carried around with me.

But my breakfast mango had been fresh and sweet, a nice contrast to the tang of real yoghurt, all mixed up with granola roasted in fat and sugar I chose to ignore, or pretend it was oats.

On the bus, Ryan told me he always cut it close.

“You ever miss a connection?” I asked him.

“Once, in Paris, I missed a train. We’d been out, I overslept or my alarm didn’t go off. It wasn’t a big deal, I caught another. Once I missed a plane.” I couldn’t be sure but I think he said he’d overslept for that one, too.

Ryan is a young filmmaker from New York. He had wrapped up a “narrative comedy” just before coming to Costa Rica. Ava has two more months of classes at Brooklyn Law, and will take her law board exams this summer. She has already interviewed for jobs, wants to go into criminal law. I try out a joke I use in a book being reviewed by a publisher, also a female lawyer.

“The trouble with criminal law is that you have to deal with criminals.” I wait for her to smile. She doesn’t.

“But that’s what I like,” she says, not a hint she caught the glint. She is so earnest, so sweet. Ryan hasn’t figured out what to do with his styrofoam container of leftover breakfast. Ava takes and stacks it on top of hers, and holds both in her lap until our next stop where she will be the one to throw them away.

Ryan’s narrative comedy is about guys who are movers in New York. “A keyhole view of the city,” he says. It sounds full of possibility, but at first I didn’t get that these weren’t real moving men.

“When I pitch it, they always say, ‘Hey, that’s a great concept for a reality show.’ I say, ‘Really! That’s an idea.’ ” Ryan and I agree that reality TV has cumulatively lowered America’s IQ.

We get out of the minibus in Nicoya to change to a larger bus coming down the coast. Ryan comes across the highway with another styrofoam container of food. On the way out of town, I see a sign pointing to “Tres Hermanas Bar and Grill.” Three Sisters Bar and Grill? Are you kidding me? What kind of cosmic joke is that?

I want to tell someone that I live in the shadow of the Three Sisters in Oregon and there, right there! is a sign in Spanish about the Three Sisters Bar and Grill but … but it’s not funny. Not significant. It just is.

The hills in this central part of the peninsula on the west side of Costa Rica remind me of the hills south of San Francisco, California, between San Jose, California and Monterey. They are dry, low, harshly covered in scrub; waiting for the rainy season. When we cross river beds, sometimes driving through them, men are working on bridges, a backhoe reforms in the channel; preparing for rainy season.

There are large trees full of bright pink blossoms but seemingly without any leaves. I wonder how they do that, why the work/reward ratio isn’t out of whack. Don’t they need leaves to create the blossoms?

There are more seats on this larger bus. Across from me sits a younger woman reading a book written by a Norwegian, translated into German, about a murder in Sweden at a masquerade party in a park; three young people were murdered and put into plastic bags, so it was impossible to tell when the murders occurred.

As Donata is telling me this, she struggles to find the right word for why the plastic bags made it impossible to tell when the young people were killed.

“Decomposed,” I offer.

“Yes! That’s it!”

We stop again at another way point. I’m still not hungry and like me, Donata hasn’t found Costa Rica cuisine to be something of excitement. “I don’t like so much the food,” she says in her German accent. We stand outside waiting for the bus to reload. She is well over six feet tall in flat shoes. I can’t see if Ryan, thin as he is, has found another meal but I’m sure I saw him looking.

Donata is from around Cologne, in Germany. She is a doctor, OB/Gyn. She went to Heidelberg. “A great university,” I say. “You know Heidelberg?!” She is charming in her willingness to talk about the mystery she is reading, and why she is on this bus today, since her two younger sisters were already at the hostel in Montezuma.

“We had our laundry done. The laundry said it would be open at 8, but when we went to get the clothes, no one was there.” So, Donata stayed behind an extra day to get the laundry, her sisters went on to Montezuma where they waited for her. There is only one bus a day down the peninsula. She had to pay for both, for the bus she took and the one she didn’t.

Donata stayed behind because, at 28, she was the oldest. Her youngest sister is 23, a student, her middle sister, a midwife, is 25. There is something in Donata’s German accent that resonates, thematically, as if spoken from the middle of a large room.

They are going to stop in Miami for four days on the way back to Germany. She is baffled by my question, “Why?” and then I realize it was a pretty silly thing to ask. Donata really liked Thailand when she was there, and thinks Sri Lanka is a lot like India, but more modern. She is a traveler, when not a doctor.

I ask Ryan, since I’ve decided he’s an expert, what local food he likes best. Seviche, he and Ava agree has been very good, and grilled fish, either mahi or marlin. I don’t know if that qualifies as local cuisine, but then he talks about a dish of plantain fried with avocado which is something I want to try.

The roads are rough, usually potholed gravel and rock and barely two lane. Where paved, they are potholed asphalt and barely two lane. The bus driver expertly weaves around slower trucks and bicycles that would have had me pause and wait if I were driving my compact Subaru.

I’m finally hungry after I get checked into my room. One of the better restaurants is next door. I wander down and sit at a table closest to where large pacific waves crash hard on dark rock veined with minerals I can’t identify. This is the Pacific I know, full of hissing and low thunder, pounding at the continent, not the easy warm shallows I paddled about yesterday in Samara.

I have an excellent salad of smoked tuna, lettuce, tomatoes, olives, mild onions, croutons and feta cheese. I ask for an iced tea instead of a Coke and what they bring me is the color of tea but must have been made with full cup of sugar. I pretend it’s okay for me to drink since my intentions were good. After a short walk, the sugar leaves my system, taking any residual energy with it and I fall asleep in the hammock outside my room at 5 p.m.

I was awakened just after 10 p.m. by a man’s loud hollering in Spanish. It wasn’t a howl, because his words were distinct. I just couldn’t understand them. It wasn’t simple shouting, either. It sounded like he was making angry demands of someone or something. I could tell he was drunk, maybe making demands of his wife, or kids.

Occasionally he would break into song, of sorts. He had a very powerful voice and was close, maybe in one of the shanties next to the hostel. I finally got up from my sleep, drugged from heat and travel and an iced tea listed as herbal but laced with sugar of near lethal proportions. I walked out to the barely lit tiny main street of this tiny town stretched along sand and palms and mangos in a thin line between cliffs and the Pacific.

He is as big as his voice, or would be if he could stand tall. His huge head has a full full beard shot through with gray that merges with long uncombed hair. Together they form a matted mane. Two metal crutches wrap around his forearms to assist his withered legs. He has a bottle of clear liquid in one hand, maybe a plastic bag in another, a cup sits beside him on the concrete step.

He looks at me as I walk past, only 10 feet away, but doesn’t see me, I don’t think. The cadence of his rant doesn’t change. It’s as if he’s in an argument with people I can’t see, maybe from his past.

Maybe he is arguing with God.

He has a case to be made, after all. Having made his case, he staggers up, trying to hold bottle, bag and crutches. He drops one and I suppress the urge to get it for him. I wonder if he will topple over as he bends to pick it up, but finally he gets all in hand and begins an uncertain progress forward. But just as a couple comes around the corner behind him, his pants fall nearly to his knees, exposing him completely.

God’s rebuttal.

“Mi pantalones…” is all he says, much more quietly than anything he’s said in the last two hours. It takes him a long while to pull them back up with the one hand available after he put the bag of whatever it was in his teeth.

I wonder how many steps he will take before his beltless pants fall again, exposing him again, arresting his agonizing progress again, down a tiny street that ends a hundred yards away in the sand.


There is a culture, on the road.

That isn’t exactly right. Maybe I should have said, there is a culture OF on the road. Or maybe I should have said: There is a culture of “on the road.”

I mean it in the way they used to talk about a “ tribal culture.” And actually, I should have just said tribe.

There is a tribe of “on the road.”

James Michener wrote about it once in “Drifters.” I was one of those, on one of the circuits between Europe and the Mideast and India. Others rotated between Europe and Africa, and visited places like Marrakesh. We’d meet in transport centers like Istanbul, or on a kibbutz in Israel, on trains to and from Afghanistan.

Not through Afghanistan. There we’d have to disembark and get on buses or jeeps in Kabul or Herat to cross one or another of the borders. There are no trains through the Khyber Pass.

Then, as now, it is fascinating how many accents there are on the road. Yesterday, I was the lone North American.

“People in South America call themselves ‘Americans,’ too,” said Cheyenne, my seat mate on the bus up from San Jose. The accents are French, German, mostly. There are Dutch, and Poles. There are Canadians and yes, there are young people from Massachusetts, Texas. But most of the travelers grew up in other cultures, speak with a heavy accent, and speak Spanish fairly well, too.

It seems to flow, this tribe, driven not by season as much as by a blend of curiosity, common values, similar definitions of beauty and “cool,” and ease of living. This  “on the road” culture of my past is obviously still vibrant, and I obviously don’t “belong,” because I’m too old, wear too many clothes, and frankly, was never really that carefree or good looking.

God these kids are good looking. Some of them are surfers, all of them seem amazingly healthy, quite apart from their youth. Maybe it’s fresh air and sunshine. Maybe it’s the minimal diet of beans, rice and fish, many of them are vegetarians. Maybe it’s genetic, and they are the spawn of good looking privilege. But so many of these kids are genetically gifted, it’s not like walking down any major city street. It’s not even like walking across a college campus.

And they have their own style. T-shirts, shorts and sandals, mostly. Dreadlocks abound, those of some young men longer than those of any of the women. But some of each have shaved heads. Tattoos are essential, either simple ones, like the small tattoo of an Native American dream catcher on the neck of the young Polish woman at the bus station in San Jose, or incredibly ornate “sleeves” of multiple colors. Backs, shoulders, ankles, chests… all are a canvas.

Earrings, nose rings, other rings certainly. I’m sure some could set off an airport metal detector, but they don’t fly much, except maybe between continents. And if airlines allowed them to stack themselves six-deep to save a few bucks, I think they would.

At the butterfly sanctuary are some wonderful young people. But they are no more members of the tribe than I am, perhaps even less. My barrier is age, theirs is earnestness. They are between jobs, or between university and a job, working for room and board in Costa Rica, which is a pretty good gig, after all.

They are responsible. They wear polo shirts with the logo of their employer. They are not “on the road.” Or maybe they are, but at one end of a spectrum.

At the other end are what I used to call the “stayed too longs.” I don’t remember which of us coined the phrase, but I do remember the first reference. We were wary of those who had spent too much time, and spent all their money, in Goa on the coast of India. There were drugs of every sort in Goa. Hashish, opium LSD… You could get high for pennies in the 1970s, eat for a few pennies more, and sleep somewhere for not too much more than that.

We’d see those who had burned through everything they had, and more, who were drifting back to Europe. For some reason, many were French. Sometimes English. Occasionally American. Their clothes were in tatters, most of their belongings could be knotted up in a bindle, and they were horribly skinny.

“Whoa. He stayed too long,” we’d say.

Eventually, it stuck. We called them “StayedTooLongs,” and kept away from them, because they’d steal your ear wax to sell you a candle.

They would be at the other end of the spectrum from the young etymologists at the sanctuaries today, waiting for the female scorpion to give birth, excited to watch her carry her young on her back, or feeding the spectacular butterflies (some bigger than my hand!) with wings that iridesce to warn off birds with a message that they are poison if a mouthful.

I don’t see any StayedTooLongs on the road here, in the rain forests near Santa Elena. You have to want to get here, it takes effort. And once you’re here, there’s too much to do. Maybe they are all down at the beaches. But then again, that’s where the surfers are, and where the sport fishermen from Texas were going, men my age, the ones wearing polo shirts over big bellies and jeans and deck shoes, in a group laughing loudly on their way to the plane from the airport bar in Houston.

Some call these young travelers nomads, and that makes sense. And perhaps that’s another reason I don’t belong. Even though I’ll be here, somewhere, a month or so, I still have a home and things to do I’ve got to get done. A young man from Switzerland, I believe, has an incredibly awkward Hang drum on his back. He explains that it’s worth it, though, he can earn a hundred dollars or so playing for an hour and that nearly pays for his trip.

Then there’s the wonderful family from Canada. Mom, Dad, Akayla, Niko. The tether between parent and child is strong but flexible. These kids don’t know what they have, but will always be better for it. They will always be part of this tribe.

Today I headed into the jungle. Sort of. I did the zip line, because you just do. I walked the forest trail, because I’ve been told to be wary of snakes. The bushmaster is the largest of the pit vipers, and the fer-de-lance is called by some the ultimate viper because it packs seven times the venom. I hoped I see one or the other, from a distance to be sure, and maybe a sloth, and a monkey.

Being here offers both sides of jaded. The concrete lined trails were not very romantic, the suspension bridges more contrived than the trails through Forest Park in Portland, those up South Sister, at the tip of Fidalgo Island. But rather than jaded, it’s also possible to realize how incredibly lucky we are in the Pacific Northwest.

Still, I’d hoped for something a little more raw.

Until I came upon the monkeys.

(For photos of the forest trail, click here)

No Clue

At the first hotel in Costa Rica, I realized I had no clue of where to head next. But I had a month and could take it a day at a time.  After all, I never expected to to have an interest in butterflies. 

My first exposure to butterflies was decades ago, long before I’d heard anything about the “butterfly effect,” or metamorphosis, or anything to do with the bug, which really didn’t interest me.

It was from Chuang Tzu, a Chinese philosopher, who wrote something to the effect: “I dreamt I was a butterfly, happily flying among the flowers. Then I awoke. But how do I know that I am not a butterfly, dreaming I am Chuang Tzu?”

 More recently, I came across a couple of facts about butterflies that struck me as wonderful and bizarre. The first was that in its metamorphosis, the caterpillar essentially dies, its body turns to soup, and from this soup, a butterfly is assembled.

To me, that’s like making a rooster out of chicken broth.

The second was that in the migration of butterflies north in the spring, the butterfly that arrives is not the one that left the south. It is the fourth generation: It takes three generations of birth, life and death to get north, and the fourth generation of butterfly goes south again to winter in the very same tree as its great, great, grandparent. Four soups ago.

That challenged my notions of  “an individual.”

In the hostel in San Jose going through the Lonely Planet,  I decided my first stop had to be the Monteverde Rainforest. I called up a hostel in Santa Elena recommended primarily for their honest advice, made my reservation and faded early, about 8 p.m.

Admittedly, there are  lows traveling this cheap. But there are  highs, too, that for me outweigh the troubles. I’d walked for miles through the city. I’d taken photos of architecture and guitar players, enjoyed the sights and sounds. I especially liked the rotunda where teens were breakdancing while adults sat on benches along the promenades.

At dinner at the hostel, I had a burger and watched 20 somethings start to get drunk on the upstairs deck. Which I didn’t need to remember in quite that much detail. I was probably asleep by 9.

I woke up at three o’clock to the sound of violent retching.

“Whoa, she’s really sick,” I thought, and rolled over to go back to sleep. I wondered if it was the pot or the vodka the kids were consuming, the sugar in some of the godawful drinks.

“Whoa, he’s really sick too,” I thought a couple of minutes later. I figured I knew which couple it might be.

I was wrong. When I finally got up at 5 a.m., showered and sat in one of the alcoves waiting for coffee to be available at 7 a.m., three girls had taken up residence on the sitting shelf outside stalls of the communal bathroom. Every 10 minutes or so, one of the three would go into one of the stalls and loudly throw up the water she had been drinking. Unless she hadn’t been drinking any, then she’d sing the high notes of dry heaves.

“You are so sick,” I said with sympathy as I walked past. It was sincere, I did feel bad for them.

“Food poisoning,” said the young woman. “The seviche.”

“That’s awful. I’d figured it was the vodka.”

“I don’t think so, we all had the vodka,” she said. After thinking about that, I let it drop. The misery on their faces was something I could still feel, nearly 30 years after last drinking vodka or anything like it. And mostly avoiding seviche in second world kitchens.

I finished the book I was reading, left it behind on the couch and headed out the front door. A book?! I can read on my phone! But leaving things behind is one of the treats of on the street travel. You get lighter the longer you’re out there.

I’d been told to head to the Coca Cola Terminal to catch the bus up north to Santa Elena. A cab driver was at the door. And I jumped in.

We had driven 10 minutes when we came to a park. One of my favorites from my walk the day before. It had the rotunda, and was about a five minute walk from where we started the cab ride 10 minutes before.

“Ah, no,” I said to the cab driver, who spoke no English in that moment. At least I didn’t hear any. But he could tell from my pointing at where we were on the map, and where we started, that our route was far from my favorite. Eventually we were close enough to the bus station I told him to let me out. He didn’t argue.

For 10 minutes I threaded my way through stalls and vendors who had taken up occupancy on already narrow sidewalks, my backpack making me larger sideways than straight ahead, my big bag bumping behind me on the broken pavement. It was hot, the sun was out, the streets busy, cab and lorry drivers seemingly speeding up and on the horn up when I was only half way across an intersection. I was thankful for the miles I’d spent on the river trail at home, the hours in the weight room. It made it pretty easy to haul me and my stuff through the city.

To the wrong bus station.

A cab driver there told me the buses to Santa Elena left from the station in the north. I’d been misinformed. Squinting at the map, and trying to summon enough of my nonexistent Spanish to understand the flea-size print, I decided he was right. He offered to drive me to Santa Elena.

“Three hours,” he said. Three hours was how long it was going to be until the next bus left the station for a five hour ride. But he was saying it would take him three hours to take me to Santa Elena. I told him no, and grabbed the handle of my bag and threaded my way through industrial streets to the bus station for northern destinations. I got there an hour after I left the hotel.

I could have walked there directly in 20 minutes.

I bought my ticket and went to sit in a cafe where I tried unsuccessfully to boot up my computer, had a bit of lunch. Eventually I sat next to a woman from Santa Elena who spoke nearly no English, a younger couple from Poland whose English was quite good, and a young woman with red hair the color of aged and lacquered copper. We watched each other’s bags while we went to the bathroom one last time.

When the bus pulled out of the station I was sitting next to the woman with red hair, 26 years old and from Holland. She was still a university student, and has been traveling for four weeks on a two-month trek through Central America.

She had already been through Asia on a similar adventure, one that took about six months and included riding on the back of a motorcycle for three days through Viet Nam, a trek in Indonesia. Now she’d snorkeled in the Caribbean of Nicaragua, was hassled at the border for not having a specific exit date and nearly denied entry, and like me, is looking for giant butterflies in Costa Rica.

I told them I’d once been on the road for nearly two years in the 70s. The young man from Poland lamented he had gone to work before he started to travel, now he is limited to two week stints. His girlfriend had a dream catcher tattooed on the side of her neck.

We rode for five hours through the low but steep sided hills of Costa Rica. My bus mate told me Holland was quite flat.

“I don’t like having an agenda, an itinerary,” she told me. “If you have an agenda, you don’t see something new, but who you already are. I’d miss so much.” I’d already used that line in a book, or I would have stolen it. She was studying social psychology, would probably teach others. She had been an art student, but could not find enough purpose in that.

When we got to Santa Elena after dark, she went to find a room at one hostel, I trundled off to find my room in another, where I’d called ahead. I’d decided that for the next couple of days, I wanted my own bathroom.

“Oh,” I turned around. “What’s your name?” I thought I’d at least like to know with whom I’d shared the ride and conversation.

“Cheyenne,” she said to me.

“Excuse me?”

“Cheyenne,” she repeated, laughing at the expression on my face.

I turned and walked away, knowing I’d never learn why a young woman from Holland who looked like she’d not seen a day in the sun with hair the color of copper had a Native American name.

After I checked in, I had dinner in Morphos, a restaurant decorated with giant butterflies.

Final countdown

In little more than a day, I’m off to Costa Rica. Took a photo of home, and a dinner from the last week to test the camera and the links. (Click here for photos. Please let me know if something is not working).

Those pictures are also to remind me what I get to come back to when I’m stuck  for a day or two in a bus station where fluorescent lights draw clouds of bugs with teeth, stingers, or suckers, and the hotel, if any, is too far to walk at 3 a.m.

On the other hand, my hope is to see butterflies larger than your hand. And listen to a cacophony of  howler monkeys. To get there, you have to go there. In some places, avoid a couple of poison snakes, and poison dart frogs. Covered in DEET and netting, too, I suppose.

But the ocean beaches are spectacular, I’m told, and warm weather will be a welcome respite. It snowed here again this morning. I’ve been told by experienced travelers that Costa Rica is the most beautiful place they have ever been. Two days of work left and 30 hours to get it done, and I can hardly wait.

It’s been decades since I’ve trekked with no agenda, time targets roughly defined by “or so.” I’ll be in San Jose for a day or so, Jaco for a few days or so, Golfito and David and Boquete for a few days or so each. Back in a month or so.

More to come.