A LITLE SOMETHING FOR THE KIDS
The eight German tourists, tightly packed into the large white Toyota van, drew in their collective breaths, and became very quiet as they watched the driver settle into his seat and light a cigarette. Cesar Romero switched on the engine, jammed down the clutch, threw the vehicle into gear, and lurched onto the highway in front of his Rancho Corcovado Lodge near the Arenal Volcano somewhere near the middle of Costa Rica. As quickly as he could get into high gear, with the help of an agile left knee to steady the wheel, he exceeded the speed limit in his hurry to get the touristos to the Caño Negro Biological Reserve, close to the Nicaraguan frontier, 50 miles away. What got the touristos’ attention was that Señor Romero only had one arm. It would have been small comfort for them to know than don Cesar has been doing this sort of thing for almost 30 years, ever since he was sideswiped by an overtaking vehicle when he was driving with his left arm propped on the open window. One minute the arm was there, the next it was gone, don Cesar tells the story with a rueful smile.
Don Cesar has always been a high-risk sort of guy. The accident ended his airline pilot career, but he soon discovered to his surprise, that he had a talent for making money, probably not inherited from his father who was a Costa Rican cocoa farmer for more than 70 years. Don Cesar went to Mississippi to buy a truck, and after driving it back to Costa Rica, sold it for a nice profit. He returned to Mississippi and bought two trucks. And so it went. Two years ago he opened the Rancho Corcovado Lodge, five miles from Arenal, the most active volcano in the world, and one of the fastest growing tourist areas in Costa Rica. Just after sunset, he likes to load his van, at $10 a head, and take the curious to the very slopes of the volcano where there is a good chance they will feel the ground tremble, hear the roar of an eruption, and see sparks and fire in the night sky. Is it dangerous? Of course it’s dangerous, but one who stood in awe as warm ash began to fall, said to his companion, “I think we’d better get out of here,” then, as he looked back at the towering, cone-shaped volcano, cried, “Do it again.”
The Rancho Corcovado is a family business …daughter Agnes and her gringo (from Brooklyn) husband Sonny run the restaurant. Agnes went to school in the U.S., graduating from Livingston State College in Alabama. She and Sonny, along with their one and three-year old children, came home last year when things got tough in Brooklyn. Now Agnes has stories to tell about the clients from all over the world who come to her table knowing how to order a beer, but not scrambled eggs. She can say thank you in German and Japanese. She complains about long hours, and a shortage of thrills. “The biggest thing around here,” she says, “is to take your date to the volcano.”
Don Cesar laughs a lot these days, and can hardly contain his joy when the little ones come to sit on his lap. In all directions around the rancho you can see healthy green stands of cassava plants, evidence of a thriving export business, mostly to Estados Unidos. He lights another cigarette, sighs contentedly, and says, “I will work for a few more years, and then turn everything over to the kids.”
At Hacienda Los Inocentes, in the Guanacaste region of north Costa Rica, only 15 miles from Nicaragua, high on a short list of things to do, is sitting in a rocking chair on the open-air deck watching cloud formations shift across the top of the Orosi Volcano, five miles away. Except along the river, the landscape in mid-April, shortly before the rainy season begins, is bleak … shades of brown stretching for miles. Sad to think this was once Ficus and Eucalyptus forest. The wind is almost violent, and it blows all night.
Also near the top of the list is hearing the stories of people from far away places … George, “Just call me Bing,” Cherry, is from Tecumseh, Ontario, not too far from Toronto, and he is disgusted with Canada. “Canada is a big giveaway,” he snorts, “they just say, sure, come to Canada, we will take care of you. So what happens? Everybody who can’t make it in other parts of the world comes to Canada for a handout. And who pays for it? People like me.”
Bing Cherry is Vice President of a Bulk Waterborne Freight Company with a fleet of ships on the Great Lakes. This is his second trip to Costa Rica. Last year, he and his new wife (they both have grown children from first marriages) spent a week on the beach at Tambor where the Gulf of Nicoya opens into the Pacific Ocean.
Cherry stops to light a cigarette, and take three gulps from the Imperial he clutches in his left hand. “Can I buy you a beer?” he asks. “You wouldn’t believe the taxes we have to pay to support the Canadian welfare state, and I’m sick of it.”
In the morning, Dennis Martinez has the horses saddled for a three-hour ride along the river trails, where we see spider monkeys, howler monkeys, and giant anteaters in the soaring canopy, along with Keel-billed Toucans, Elegant Trogons, and a Great Currasow, a large black bird with a yellow knob on its bill, and a crest that looks like a lady in hair curlers. Dennis has a sore back because his horse is not amused by the two dogs yapping at his heels, and kicks fruitlessly at his tormentors. Dennis knows the monkeys … he cups his hands over his mouth and produces a high-pitched yipping medley that brings curious and acrobatic spider monkeys scrambling through the trees. When Dennis spots a group of howler monkeys, he claps his hands loudly,
bringing an immediate chorus of low-pitched hoots and howls from the agitated monkeys. The howlers fall silent, and stare in disbelief when Bing Cherry tries to imitate their hoots.
Heading for the barn, don Bing draws his horse alongside, and smiling happily says, “I really love this, you know. What I want to do is invest in some land down here, and start an export business. I could build it up, and have something nice to leave for my kids, and grandkids. You know what I mean?”
A map of Costa Rica looks like a big crab, the claw on the left is the Nicoya peninsula, the one on the right is the Osa peninsula in the south. The Pacific beaches of the Nicoya peninsula, 30 minutes by small aircraft, and 3 to 4 hours by car from the International airport near San José, are sprinkled with luxury hotels, to the dismay of environmentalists, and the delight of the Ministry of Tourism which promotes “ecotourism”, and beginning in 1993 saw income from tourism soar to near a billion dollars, passing banana exports as the number one source of foreign currency in the country. To drive to the beaches you can take the Pan-American highway to Liberia where you will see the most important four-way stop in Costa Rica, proved by the presence of a large Bomba (gas station) on each corner … the usual suspects … Texaco, Esso, Shell, and 76. While filling our tank, we noted the passing of a large white trailer-truck sporting the label, Pepperell Mills, West Point, Georgia. For a moment we thought we were back in Alabama. You can’t get to the beaches from Liberia without passing through Filadelphia, but that takes only a minute. There is also a place called Vientesiete Abril (translation – April 27th), so small that if you go through on April 14th as we did, you will not even know you passed through. What you mostly see here, in this very dry time of the year, is scrawny cattle nibbling on dusty scrubs, and evidence of cleared and burned sugar cane fields. Still, the land looks like it would flower with a few good rains, or maybe a good irrigation system.
You can cut an hour or two off the ride from San José to the beaches by taking the Tempisque River ferry; the river flows south and widens into the Gulf of Nicoya. The ferry is big enough to hold three trailer-trucks, and about 20 cars. The trip costs $3, and takes about 20 minutes. Passengers leave their cars, and stand on catwalks or sit on benches above the main deck. You have to speak loudly to be heard above the rumble of the engines, and the squawks of the Gulls who ride free on the lead ramp.
Overheard on the 11:30 ferry . . .
“How long will you be here?”
“We’re going back tomorrow, we’ve been here a week. You live here?”
“Yeah, I export ornamental flowers.”
“No kidding? How’s business?”
“Business is good. I have fifteen acres of private beach; it’s for my kids, you know.”
Costa Rica is a small country, about the size of West Virginia, and about as close to heaven; at its widest part it is only about 150 miles from the Caribbean Sea in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west. The population of just over 3 million is about what you might see on an average day on the Schuylkill Expressway in Philadelphia. From sea level at the eastern Tempisque river ferry landing to the Monteverde cloud forest at 5,000 feet is only about 50 miles, but let me tell you about the last 26 miles. How bad is this road? This road is so bad that chickens refuse to cross. This road is so bad that birds fly around it rather than over it. This road is so bad that at the top there are three muffler shops, two tire stores, and a junk yard for ruined cars. The mother of bad roads is the daughter of this road. So why do tourists brave this road to come to Monteverde? Not for the cheese, which is pretty good. Maybe for the chance of seeing the Resplendent Quetzal, or the Three-wattled Bellbird with its resounding gong that echoes through the forest, and startles you with its loudness if it settles in the canopy 100 feet overhead. Maybe it’s for a stroll through the awesome cloud forest where you can hear, but not easily see, the Black-faced Solitaire with its song that sounds like a squeaky hinge or a rusty gate, but with style. On this trip we uncovered one of the best kept secrets of Monteverde … the mating dance of the Long-tailed Manakin; the Quaker founders would be shocked.
Some people might come to Monteverde just to sit and watch the sun set. Perhaps on the deck of a cottage at the Sapo Dorado Lodge … Monteverde at one time was famous for Golden Toads, but nobody has seen one here for years. From the Sapo Dorado the view of the Nicoya Gulf and Peninsula 50 miles away is spectacular … it looks like a gigantic map of Costa Rica. There is also the night sky. On a clear night at Monteverde you can’t count the stars, but you can see the Southern Cross, rising at its cockeyed angle in the southwestern sky, and Venus dotting the exclamation point of a crescent moon. One can feel at peace on nights like these.
A man calling himself Gary breaks the peace. “Tell me about Costa Rica,” he said. We first met this guy three days ago at Los Inocentes, and now here he is at the Sapo Dorado. He is from Vancouver, Canada, and is here coupling a holiday with business. “I have this friend who is interested in buying some property here, and starting an export business… He wants to do it for his kids.”
As we start the slow descent down the grandmother of bad roads, I am thinking out loud. “Maybe we should buy a cocoa farm, I’m sure we could make it profitable … it would be kind of fun, and we could have something to leave to the kids.”
Liddy is silent. I steal a glance without turning my head. At last she speaks. “Why don’t you just write A Little Something for the Kids?”