Category Archives: San Jose

The Obligatory Sunset

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A fast, glorious, and punctual sunset is a perk of equatorial living. Once the sun starts its steep downward slide at 5.50pm there is barely time to prepare a rum and coke before it drops below the watery horizon. The sky, in its trail, turns scarlet, purple, pink, and the air fills with the heavy scent of ylang ylang. You stop everything you are doing to enjoy this spectacle for ten minutes. Then the light is switched off, the world goes away until dawn, and you continue with chopping onions, or playing solitaire or some such banal thing before going to bed and waking the following morning to find the light’s back on.

To my mind, this is infinitely better than sunsets in the more northerly northern hemisphere which are either scheduled ridiculously early, or drawn out to such a degree that people, compelled to make the most of the late evenings, become cold, tired and fractious, eventually abandoning their barbecues, to go inside to watch the X-Factor results.

I don’t like to think too much in case I can’t pull the line back in (especially here, alone, on the edge of so much space), however the drama of the setting tropical sun is conducive to deep thoughts. Many, many years ago, Fitz and I would sit on the steps of the house in the post-dip glow and discuss life and ambitions. Now when he’s here, we talk about the past.

He has more past than I do of course, but one thing we both puzzle over is the fact that no matter how far you travel, or remote you make your home; no matter how hard you try to do things differently, you still, in Fitz’s words, ‘end up with all the same shit.’

We have a good wry chuckle at this because he’s gone to a hell of a lot of trouble and sunk a fortune into drawing this conclusion. Obviously it’s something I’ll remember before I pack my bags and set off to see what’s around the next corner, when I live my life again.

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Costa del Crime

sierpe police station

Sometimes in the dead of night I hear the low droning thrum of a boat moving fast, from south to north. I’ve stood outside in the pitch black to look, but there are never any lights. It’s likely they are drug boats running up the Pacific from Colombia to Mexico and the United States. The traffickers strip them right down in order to carry the maximum amount of fuel and cocaine, paint them grey, pack on powerful engines, and they pass by here, not far off the coast, usually around 3am.

Since January of last year, there has been a coordinated multinational effort to patrol Central America’s coastlines. Operation Martillo, as it’s called (martillo meaning hammer), has necessitated or enabled (depending on your politics) an unprecedented level of US involvement in Costa Rican security. Homeland Security keep tabs on trends in trafficking, and the conclusion of a recent subcommittee hearing is that most drugs from Colombia no longer go north via the Caribbean, but travel up this coast, the Pacific coast. Presumably they’ve stepped up the number of patrols, but if so they must be focusing on the Central Pacific area around Manuel Antonio, because there’s not much going on round here.

Possibly, ironically, as a consequence of the threat of patrol vessels, instead of attempting to shoot past Costa Rica, traffickers have been avoiding the interception hotspots by landing the drugs in remote areas along the coast to be collected and moved on by road.

Costa Rica’s vast, unpopulated, jungly national parks, protected by a woefully small number of guards and volunteers, make an ideal drop off point. A few abandoned drug boats, signs of drug trafficker camps, new, rough roads have been found, along with the occasional trafficker and cocaine haul. Round these parts there’s little distinction between the parks and the sparsely-populated peripheries – in fact there’s a fine specimen of a Colombian drug boat that was found in the labyrinthine mangroves now parked beside the kiosk-sized police station in Sierpe.  Some 15 tons of cocaine was seized in – and off – Costa Rica last year, a record high. But there’s also plenty of evidence that much more is getting through – more drug consumption, more drug-related crime, revenge killings between rival traffickers, more cash in private banks, more money laundering, and more suddenly wealthy locals.

Moving drugs across land has to involve a degree of local cooperation, and for low paid workers the temptation to be ripped off and dragged down into criminal activity for what appears like high returns, can evidently prove too much.  More pitiful than the recruits are those people who find packages washed up, or stashed in the undergrowth, and decide to make off with them.

Some years ago, I wrote about how teenagers, some as young as 14 and 15-years old, were setting up business as drug lords in Belize City after finding waterproofed packages of cocaine on the beach. Whole areas of Belize City were out of control at that time, as child-dealers protected their turf with semi-automatics, and their penniless buyers mugged and murdered – often their own families – for the cash.  I spoke to an old woman who’d had her gold teeth removed. Not nice. Some of the packages had intentionally been dropped from boats where they would float ashore roughly in the area of  of a designated pick-up point, others had been jettisoned. Either way, there was always someone looking for their lost property.

A few months ago, I was swimming by a ranger station where some packages of cocaine had just washed up. The rangers radioed the police and the Guardia Costera arrived to collect them. Around the same time, the watchman at the next remote property along the coast from here, went missing. They say he found something he shouldn’t have found on the beach, and that blood and signs of torture were found at the property to suggest he was made to give it back. When I was next in Sierpe, I spoke to my friend at the police station who said they had continued to search for him for eight days but with no luck; that they could only hope that he’d got away and gone into hiding.

Anyway when I hear those boats I keep my fingers crossed they just keep going, but I can’t see everyone returning to an age of innocence any time soon.

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Forest Monster

danta tracks“Besides the lions and tigers and other animals which we already know, or which have been described by illustrious writers,” scratched Peter Martyr with his inky quill , “the native forests of these countries”, (referring to the dark space that became Central America), “harbour many monsters.”

Martyr, an Italian writing in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, was the greatest of all correspondents. He never travelled to the new world, but he is responsible for De Orbo Novo, the best and most exciting book about discovering it. His role, at the behest of the Duke of Milan, the Pope, Queen Isabella of Spain and various other highly-placed political players of the day, was to debrief explorers on their return to Cadiz, and to send detailed accounts. His long letters caused a considerable stir at the time; not only were they highly entertaining and evocative tales of derring-do, but they also contained  intelligence that was key to political domination. De Orbo Novo covers three decades of correspondence.

Martyr was an astute and well-connected player, (he helped build interest and support for Colombus’ early expeditions), but also the archetypal Renaissance man, thirsty for knowledge, fascinated by interesting facts, gossip and drama. He provides vignettes of indigenous Indian society, the latest on the power struggles between rival leaders – or caciques, physical descriptions, information about medicinal plants and the custom in some parts of burying a favourite widow alive with her late husband. He keeps up with pirate activities and, of course, the endless wild goose chase for gold, as well as the fortunes (misfortunes) of the early settlers. He makes a special note of anything with potential scientific value and takes great care with his descriptions of flora and fauna. His is the first published description of both the potato and the pineapple. He liked the potato, however, he notes regretfully, he never actually got to try a pineapple himself, the only one that hadn’t rotted on the voyage back to Spain having been eaten in its entirety by King Ferdinand, but he has it on good authority from sailors that they are delicious.

He interprets the information he gets to make a good fist of describing the new world mammals. Of course there aren’t lions or tigers, so he got that wrong, but it’s fair enough to say there are ‘monsters’.

“One animal in particular” he continues in this particular bulletin to Pope Leo X, “has Nature created in prodigious form. It is as large as a bull, and has a trunk like an elephant; and yet it is not an elephant. Its hide is like a bull’s, and yet it is not a bull. Its hoofs resemble those of a horse, but it is not a horse. It has ears like an elephant’s, though smaller and drooping, yet they are larger than those of any other animal.”

I could add “it is there yet it is not there, it is endangered yet it is common”. This is the tapir, or danta. The population of tapir, specifically the Baird’s tapir, native to Central America, is in decline, but the population in the Osa seems to be healthy and rising. Every morning their prints are all over the beach. Everyone from the park rangers to the guides at the hotel has seen at least one – and often. And I know there is a tapir that totters north-south past the house on the beach  every night between 6.30pm and 7pm, because I hear it, but never see it, and one night it ate all my bananas. But this elusive (yet not elusive) animal joins the puma on my ‘seen by all but me’ list.

I made a concerted effort to find one a few days ago, leaving at first light and following fresh tracks in the sand and through the plantains and then the forest into Corcovado National Park. Ending up in a swampy, muddy, dark place, I found something amounting to a tunnel through the foliage. At the end it widened out into an area of flattened leaves, and a muddy chute led to a small stream. There was a horsey smell (tapir) but also something else. I was quite happy thinking this was a tapir’s lair, and then I got to thinking how similar it looked to a puma’s lair, and how pumas had also been spotted along here, and decided to back out, at which point the skies opened and it got dark again and poured with rain, and I had to run back through the sea because the tide had come in.

But I have seen a tapir in Costa Rica. It was in a shallow concrete bunker, completely exposed behind railings, a shy and pathetic animal trying to make itself invisible while people threw Coke cans at it. This was Simon Bolivar Zoo, back in 1995. I loathe zoos. I’ve heard the self-serving good for education, breeding and research spiel numerous times.I find it extraordinary people still use it or believe it given that you can learn an infinitesimal amount more about an animal from a well-crafted wildlife film, and breeding programs are being carried in-situ all over the world using frozen sperm, dart guns and chicken basters.

It is possible that San Jose’s zoo might have improved over the years, but I found the experience so repellant I never went back. Like many people, I was amazed to discover there was a zoo in that congested, polluted corner of San Jose. Given the country’s much-touted wildlife protection record, the bunch of cages and their miserable occupants have been a bit of a dirty secret, an anachronism. However, good news: the Simon Bolivar Zoo along with the Santa Ana Conservation Center (‘home’ to around 400 animals, 60 species) is finally going to be closed down, and the date set for early 2014. “We are getting rid of the cages and reinforcing the idea of interacting with biodiversity in botanical parks in a natural way,” environment minister, René Castro, is reported as saying. The zoo still holds a tapir. It is possible, but unlikely, it’s the same one.

Anyway, having seen a pathetic tapir that couldn’t hide, I very much like Peter Martyr’s wild monster description (he’s rather overdone the trunk part). And I’m thankful that these Osa tapirs aren’t exposed but, 500 years after being described in De Orbo Novo, remain mysterious and harboured in the native forests, even if this means they’ll always give me the slip.

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Garden Macaws

The macaw turf war seems to be over. Actually, maybe it wasn’t a turf war – maybe it was a series of aerial soirees, raucous coming out balls for macaw debutantes. Anyway, the season’s over and the flock of thirteen that spent its days flying up and down this beach during January has broken up. Now it’s mainly a pair and a trio that feast on these almond trees –  I’ve just heard squawking and looked up to see two pairs and the trio, so who knows. Macaws mate for life and are generally in twos, so I’m curious to know more about the spare macaw. Is it a widow or widower the others take pity on? An offspring that won’t leave the nest? Are they having a ménage a trois? The groups come together in a tall palm beside the track up to the hotel, and then head for their preferred trees, one of which is the beach almond in front of the house.

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Found In My Room & Just Outside It

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The anxious yet indignant frog (here being humiliated by my friend) makes an appearance in a couple of days, but I wanted to include him because he is a constant presence, and I’m fond of him and his singing. I admire the beetle for attempting to camouflage himself on the Insects of Costa Rica Identification Chart. That is smart – although he slipped up when he chose the wrong genus. The magnificent mantis made a loud scratching noise as he rustled across the tile floor that gave him away, not that a large, fast-moving leaf wasn’t going to attract my attention anyway. The Jesus Christ lizard has decided to share my bedroom, as well as my bathroom. I like him, but he gets so panicky. The scorpion . . . well, the scorpion was the only casualty, and that’s because he climbed into my bed and stung me. He’s shown here, shortly after his demise, on an emergency numbers call sheet. I woke with nausea, a stiff shoulder and neck, general aching and a bad headache. It was an effort to get dressed, and up the hill to the hotel, and over to the kitchen to ask if any Central American scorpions were deadly. When, after some consultation, the answer came back ‘no’ I felt instantly better. I’m not really sorry he had to die, because, apparently, there are plenty of them left out there.

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Sierpe: Heading up to Town

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The first place you come to when you take a boat north is Drake (Drah-kay, after Sir Francis Drah-kay, the explorer, the conqueror, the pirate, depending on how you look at it). Four hundred and a bit years on, Drake is, essentially, a cluster of funky cabins, a few venerable ecolodges, and a bar which is sometimes open.  Wade ashore, and hoof it up the hill, and you will find two pulperias, or stores, facing each other across the dusty lane, selling the same stuff, although one is good, and one is not so good. You will probably find what you are looking for, as long as what you are looking for sits on the tinned tomato paste – local cigarettes – tuna – onions spectrum.

My preference is for steamy Sierpe, further north, and some distance inland up a slow green river full of crocodiles. It’s an hour and a half there, and an hour and a half back by boat, plus time for loading and off-loading, and buying music off the back of a truck and captain-to-captain catch-ups, but I’ve done that trip for a papaya. Sometimes it’s just nice to get out.

Today I’m off to get me some soy sauce, and to hang out at Las Vegas, ‘Pearl of the Osa’. Vegas is a sort of holding camp for tourists fresh off buses and waiting for boats, and damp and fusty off boats, waiting for buses. Around the tables there’s a lot of urgent negotiation regarding tents, guides, and boats.  It has something of the atmosphere I imagine hotels in East Africa must have had when they were full of 19th century explorers and planters, planning expeditions into the interior – although of course, few people here will get speared or mauled by lions, and most will be back in a couple of days, rather than a couple of years (although you wouldn’t think it to look at their backpacks). The ideal thing is to sit on the balcony and watch crocodiles and water lilies drift by. It’s a great place. Until not so very long ago, you could buy rum with gold dust. My friend and the owner, Don Jorge, go way, way back, and have done each other some favours, and the service is always good.

The boats take clients in and out of Sierpe most days, and so I trot along the beach at 6.45am to cadge a ride. Some days I read all the way. I pride myself on being able to do that whatever the size of the waves, even though I’m sure that being engrossed in a book as we pass whales, dolphins and rare seabirds, must look pretty peculiar, especially if the book is a bad one. But today, the world here is so, so beautiful, with the gold sea mist rolling up the shore, four blue layers of distant mountains, and our boat trailing champagne froth across water as still as a lake, that I don’t read, I just gape and marvel, and feel like clapping. Well done! Well done!

I get two hours in Sierpe and need to move fast, which makes me about the only thing there that does. The temperature must be about 40 degrees. I’ve been trying to get a zip fixed in a dress for several weeks now, but Olga, the local seamstress who is looking into the matter, is a slippery fish. Sometimes her house (official address: two houses left of  the giant mango tree – which is actually a jocote tree) is locked up, with just a dog loafing outside. Today, though, when I rattle the gate there is movement from within. There has finally been progress – the old zip is out. Unfortunately there are no new zips available. Instead, she suggests, maybe I could have a skirt? So I buy a skirt. It just seems easier. She gives me a well-thumbed underwear and jewellery catalogue to drop off with Lorena, who runs the hotel’s Sierpe office. Next, the farmacia. It’s closed but there are four deoderants, all identical, spaced out along a shelf in the barn style store that is El Fenix. I grew up with this style of no-choice shopping in Uganda, and to be honest, I prefer it. If I’m going to agonise over decisions, I’d rather they were slightly more critical. I get my soy sauce and two avocados at Super el Combo, grab a drink at Vegas, (internet not working), say hello to Pinky the one-eyed captain, and Don Jorge, take a look at the Colombian drug boat the policeman has impounded (actually it’s been there for a while, but it’s still good to examine every so often), flick through Lorena’s new acquisitions of literary fiction and wonder whether I will ever be sufficiently desperate to read The Kite Runner again but in Spanish, and return across the seas. It’s been a big day out.

Walking back home, swinging my purchases, I see Carmen on the steps of the caretaker’s house. This is most wonderful. Not only do I like Carmen, the house has now been made beautiful in a way that I can never muster the energy to attempt. All smells of fresh laundry and flowers, the floors are gleaming, and palm leaves, ginger and massive heliconia have been lovingly arranged in tall jars.  A human touch. Oh, it’s very nice; most uplifting.

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