It’s comfortable, in this bed. Where am I?! What time is it?
I stand, panic seizing me. My senses sharpen, in a rush. The bright light reflecting off the wall hurts my eyes. I know this wall. I’m at Aranjuez. John is gone. Oh yeah. Its 9:45 a.m.; another hour of sleep, is better than nothing.
I’m hungry and restless.
I come out from the hotel, not slowing for the typical banter with the current beauty at the reception. On the street, I’m disappointed by the dulling of the high cloud cover.
I take breakfast at a small café across the street from the hospital. I start to draft the story of the trip getting down here. It seems like a blur, at first. But as I start to lay down the markings in blue ink, my mind moves back to it, and it overwhelms me with a torrent of detail. I can’t keep up, getting it down in ink. I am forgetting details that were in my mind, moments ago.
I massage my cramped right hand. Three hospital worker in scrubs pass in front of the clock on the far side of the café; they take a table. It’s 11:00 a.m. Two more people come in. It’s getting too busy for me, here. I gather my stuff and go.
The streets are busy. Almost everybody has a tell-tale sign of their occupation in the health care industry, from the cliché stethoscope and lab coat, to facial masks, possibly forgotten, hanging limply around the neck.
I come around the corner. There is something about the stance and bearing of one of the two men standing in front of the entrance to the hotel that looks familiar.
The guy looks up, “Cassady, what have you been up to?”
“FR.” I walk up to him and hug him; he smells boozy. “I’m writing it down.” I hold up the notebook.
“Oh yeah, I’ll believe it when I get it.”
The other guy reeks. “Yuh got over that nasty bout of abstention, did yuh?”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
I nod, and smile, thinking how implausible it would be for someone to even try to imitate that demeanour. “What’s yer plan?”
“Paul…” he gestures to the other guy.
We shake, and interrupting FR, say, “you look familiar; where do I know you from?”
“Toronto. East end. The Beaches?”
“Oh yeah? I’m from there. Small world.”
“Where do you live now?”
“Costa Rica! See that?” I point at the station wagon. “That’s my stuff, over there, in the woody. I just need to find a place I can put it, for… now… a while, and chill out a bit.”
FR interjects, “what about the Riverdale Inn, or whatever you call it?!”
“’The Wroc Hotel’; yeah, it was still there the last time I checked. But let’s not dwell on that”, I say a bit cynically, shaking my head. “We’re here now.”
“Uh oh, what’s up with The Wroc Hotel?!?”
“Fucking administration, of course! Check it out, when you go back, if you want to.”
Paul says, “John”, referring to FR, “told me about your drive, all the way down here. How was it?”
“Well…”, if he only knew how many times I’d talked that one through. “Fuck, I feel like I’m still on it! I just want to clean my stuff, and mellow out in one place for a few days. I wish I could have taken my time a bit more; there are some places that I really would have liked to hang out at.”
“You were drivin’ hard?”
“Yeah, too much, but I’m happy to be here. What’choo guys gonna do, gonna come into Monty?”
Paul looks at his watch, “actually, I gotta go.”
“Geez, you guys just got here.”
“I’m goin’ to meet a friend of mine. I’m a little late. She’s got to go, late tomorrow. I go first thing New Year’s Day.”
“Life’s a bitch. Well, it’s nice to meet you. Pura vida.”
He gets into the nearest car, and turns it on.
FR pulls a pack from the back seat. “Well, have a good time, Paul. See you back in T.O.”
Paul nods, putting the car into gear, and pulls out, waving. He honks the horn, and is gone.
“He smelt pretty flammable.”
“That’s how he always drives?”
“You smoke and drive messed up all the time!”
“Fuck no! You got me wrong! I don’t drive impaired. More like … ‘repaired’.”
He laughs. “You fucker, Cassady.” He gives me another hug.
“You know I don’t drink and drive; unless I have to. Like in … Mexico, and some, well maybe, most, Latin American countries.” I chuckle. It’s true. “You wanna stay here tonight? It’s a great spot, man.”
“I don’t know. It looks expensive. The hotel in Monty is fine, and it’s almost nothing.”
“Yeah, yeah, it’s good. But, come take a look, anyway. I love this place. I’ve got to get the keys to the car; I left them in my room.” We walk into the hotel. “Just leave it there.” I point to a spot off reception, as I get my room key, nodding at the woman “señora”.
I turn to go, but pause. I might as well check out now. I turn back to her. She is a beauty. “¡Buenas dias, señora. ¿Cómo está usted?”
“Can I help you?”
How shall I count the ways? “I’d like to settle my account. I’ll check out, now.”
“What room are you in?”
“Cuatro, cero, dos.”
“Four-oh-two? Just a moment please.” She brings up my bill and calculates a few figures, and inputs some stuff on to the computer. The printer spits out a form.”
“Here you go.”
I take it from her outstretched hand, and look at it. That much?! I smile to cover the unpleasant surprise, and hand her my credit card. “That seems like a lot!?”
“Actually, I gave you a discount on the second night.” She points it out on the bill.
“The second night!?” What second night?
“You arrived December 28th, and departing today, December 30th.” I hand her the credit card, as it sinks in; I’d slept twenty-four hours.
“Approved, Me-steer cass-Ah-dee. Thank you.”
“Muy Gracias, señora. I love it here. Thank you for being here. It feels like home here.” I push away from the reception and wave for FR to accompany me.
I address the cleaning lady. “Parto ahora. Voy a buscar mi cosas.” I’d spoken with her before. “Hola señora. ¿Buenos?”
“Hola. Reconozco a usted. ¿Tú partes otra vez?”
I look at her and smile. “Otra vez…”
I walk past her into the room. FR follows.
“Well, this is a real nice place, Dean. How did they let you in?”
“The first time I stayed here, I didn’t sign the registry until the morning, when we were checking out; so maybe they didn’t check the blacklists.”
“You sly dog, you know how to confound the process”, he chortles, “you bastard.”
I begin putting my stuff together. “What did you do, anyways?”
“Large-bottomed surfer-chicks, coming down the Nicoya.”
“There’s all kinds of surfing on the Nicoya.” His laughter is cut short when he hears a whirring noise, coming from his pocket. He takes the cell phone, and presses a button, “hel-lo.”
“Yeah… Yeah, I just got here… Yeah… He’s right here. He looks…” He looks at me with exaggerated scrutiny, “okay… Yeah. Well I know that.” He issues a slight grunt. “Okay, we’ll see you there… What’s that?… The bus stop? You’ll have to look at a map of the city. There’s bus stations all over the city. I don’t know where you’ll be coming in. A cab driver will know where the bus to Cartago… I think its 8th and something, maybe 5th. … Do both then… Yeah. Alright then… Yeah. Same to you.” He grunts a couple of times, recognizable as a chuckle, and puts the phone away.
“The knucklehead, wants directions from where he gets in, to the bus stop for Montalba. He could come in anywhere downtown, all those bus stations. He said he’d meet us in Monty tomorrow before dinner. He was even grumpier than usual and hacking so much it hurt my ear.” He grunts a dry chuckle.
I’m ready. “Let’s go.”
I stop on the way out, to ask the receptionist what the best way out of town towards Cartago is. I do vaguely remember the way, through Cartago, and then Paraiso, then up and across a little range, and then the steep descent into Montalba, but I’m not sure how best to get out of San José.
She pulls out an eleven by seventeen printed map, and highlights the way from the hotel in fluorescent yellow. She does it slowly, checking to confirm that I understand what she is saying, each step of the way. I nod, but I can hardly concentrate on anything she’s saying.
She smiles, “buena suerte.” She hands me the map. “Yes, you can keep it.” She looks calmly into my eyes. “Have a nice trip.”
“I’ll be back in a few days. Feliz año nuevo.”
We load the gear and I pull away from the hotel and leave Aranjuez. The map confuses me. So I go by instinct; I recognize each turn and the roads I go along. I pull onto a highway; a sign overhead reads ‘Cartago’.
We enter Cartago, through a steady drizzle. It must be 24 or 25 degrees, but it feels cooler, with the wind blowing through the windows. Past the commercial centre, we approach a large church. I remember it. Somewhere around here, we have to make a turn down a side street to get onto the highway to Paraiso. There is a trick to this spot, but I can’t remember it. “That’s the church”, I say absently to FR.
“I think it’s the oldest or biggest or some kind of combination of those things?”
“It’s not really much, is it?”
“Well, it’s pretty old, Cassady.”
“It’s drab, dude.”
“Cassady, one of these days yer gonna have to do something about that nasty honesty habit.”
“I’m just saying. It’s nothing personal.”
“Oh fuck, I forgot beer! Paraiso, we can stop there and get cold beer. At least we’ll have some for the mountain run. Which one of these little side-streets is the one, do you know?”
“We’ve gone too far.” This isn’t right; I haven’t seen the church from this angle, before. “Well, we might as well take another look at it.”
I hang a left and drive around the church. I come to the front of the church again, and pull over to ask a man for directions. He is elderly, and speaks with a drool. FR follows his dissertation with an almost absurd ingenuousness. I can’t follow a thing he’s saying. He points vaguely to the row of side streets running right, away from the church. I wave at him. He’s still drooling on, “Gracias, señor, Gracias. Pura vida, señor, Gracias.” I pull the car forward.
There is a young man in a school uniform about a hundred yards ahead. I pull up to him. “Hey, hombre. ¿Que direction para Paraiso?”
He scratches his head. I point down and to the right of the church, “¿es lo que la dirección a Paraíso?”
<<They all go down to the highway. Any one.>>
“De nada, hombres.”
Turning left on to the highway, inserting the car into a long line of traffic entering Paraiso.
“Tell me if you see a place that looks like it has cold beer.”
We’re in stop and go traffic into the town. There are no parking spots that I can see through the commercial centro. I turn left, past the Centro, to find the road leading to the highway for Montalba. We drive under the railway pass; I recognize it. This is the right way. The highway makes a big loop, “this is the right way. Do you recognize it?”
“Uh, is there another road?”
“Uh… yeah, I think there is. But I’m pretty sure that this one will get there.”
We come into a small puebla. I remember this place, Cervantes. The first time I came to Costa Rica, following FR Lee’s recommendation, I took the bus to Montalba. I remember the fast infatuation with a young woman who was on the bus, Viviana. She lived here. I see the bar where we had a drink together. I pull into the small parking lot, on the right side of the road. I get out of the car. It has stopped raining. I can feel the sun on my skin, but it’s hard to tell where in the sky it is. I get six bottles of cold beer and a bag of ice.
As we continue driving through town, I look for her image, dreaming of a re-acquaintance. But we’re out of town in thirty seconds. Up and up the highway goes, switching back in blind corners. I dive into the apexes to preserve the momentum. There is a slow truck in front of us. I tap the gas for a little extra stream coming around a 180 degree bend. “Fuck!” I lose the back end, just a bit, swerving right, back onto my side of the line. Another tap on the accelerator straightens it out.
“Whoa! Slow the fuck down, Cassady! Are you tryin’ to get us killed? I need a beer.”
“I’m not tryin’ to mess with yuh, but the fact is, we gotta stay ahead of the rush hour, or it’s a lot worse. But, uh…yup, I think we can file that one under ‘lessons learned’.” I take a slurp of beer. “I won’t make that mistake again.”
I can see him from the corner of my eye, staring at me with that… straining incredulousness. Involuntarily, a wry smile creases my face. He starts chuckling cynically. He takes a drink, and coughs out, “you kill me Cassady.”
He laughs, some more.
We’re going up, towards the edge of a point. Gently, I lift off the accelerator for a moment then tap it entering the turn. Perfect, but there’s a big water truck pulling out from a driveway, and oncoming traffic on the ridge, two hundred feet away. I stomp on the accelerator, and go around it, into the oncoming lane.
It was tight, but pretty smooth.
“You fucking bastard!”
It was the right thing to do, under the circumstances, as they became clear… quite abruptly. “I’m gonna slow down, now.”
“You fucking bastard.” He shakes his head.
I laugh. It was a bit scary. He’s taking it better than I would have.
“You bastard”, he chortles.
The way is mostly clear up to and along the plateau. I’m at 120 most of the way. I pass a small truck doing about 60 on a long open straight, totally clean. We pass the crest then hit a train of three. I slow down and follow at their pace, backing off a good ways. We’re almost there. As we descend, the sun shines through, illuminating the green carpet of the valley below.
One last switchback and we cruise down a gentle slope to a red traffic light at the main intersection of Montalba. I can see the hotel on the other side of the tracks.
I cruise around the market square and scrape across the steep bump over the rail-crossing. No trains pass on that track anymore, though the tracks remained a physical divider through the town. I back the car up into the parking spot at the hotel. The main door is open, but the steel gate is closed. FR tries the gate, but it’s locked. Before I reach the buzzer; Alura emerges from the office behind the reception counter. She sees me and smiles. “I was wondering when you’d show up.” She presses the button and there’s a hum at the latch; the gate springs lightly open.
We walk in, and she notices FR. “Uh huh. Dean and Lee, you are expected at Jane’s, for dinner tomorrow evening.”
I hug her warmly; “I’m happy to see you.”
“Welcome”, she says quietly in the embrace.
“I’m trying an experiment in a number of rooms,” she said, “I’ve installed several electric shower heads. It’s not for soaking! It is meant to be used for getting all soapy, and then rinsing off, very quickly.”
“Would you like a beer?” I nod. She addresses FR, “Lee?”
He makes an expression of exaggerated surprise. “That’s ‘yes’ isn’t it, Lee?”
He laughs and nods, “you got me.”
“You like Steinbrau, don’t you Dean?”
“Yes Alura, if you have one.”
“I do. Is that what you would like as well, Lee?”
“That would be great.”
“I’d love to buy you a drink, Alura.”
“I’ll have a rum and cola. That is very nice of you to offer Dean, but these are all on the house. It’s nice to see you again.”
“I feel like I have refuge.”
“You do. How was the drive? Did you come all the way from Toronto?”
“Just like I said I would.”
“You did, I remember.”
She brings the drinks to a table. We sit. “It’s nice to be back. Salud.”
Alura and I clink glasses, and I drink my beer back, “salud.”
Three young women arrive at the locked gate. Alura puts her drink down. “Dean, Lee, your keys are here.” She places each key down, as she says our respective names.
As she gets up, she calls to the door, “how can I help you?” She puts her hands together, and says, “excuse me gentlemen.”
“Gracias, mi amor.” I throw back the remainder of my beer, and swap the empty bottle for my key, on the table.
FR takes his key, “thank you Alura”, and follows me up, hiding his beer.
“You fucker”, I say quietly going up the stairs. “You’re such goodie-two shoes around her. She’s going to think it was me that did that, bringing the beer up to the room.”
He grins back at me.
I go into the room marked with the number on the key.
I’m tired. It was a little drive, yet I’m sweaty and caked with dust. I look at the fat Venetian blinds. The drizzle-grey filters into the gloomy little concrete cell. Why am I so tired?
I go into the water room. It’s one of the few rooms at the hotel with a private washroom.
A hot shower is such a luxury in this part of the world. I brush the shower curtain aside to see the electric showerhead. They are referred to as ‘suicide showers’, due to the fact that the little water heater, sitting on the end of the pipe, uses high voltage to flash heat the water. The water flow activates the heater. This one is installed as well as I’ve ever seen, two wires going into it are well covered with electrical tape.
I start taking my clothes off to get in, but I have no other clothes with me, and I’d rather get something cleaner from the car, before bathing. I walk down, discreetly avoiding all social contact in the lobby, and leave a thin piece of paper in the gate lock. I know it will start an alarm after sixty seconds. I hurry and grab what I need from the car. I get past the gate before the alarm goes off, and pass the lobby as discreetly as I’d come out.
I soak in the blissfully hot water. I lay down on the bed. The tightness in my back eases.
* * *
“Cassady, where are yuh? Cassady, are you in there? I need the car keys? Cassady?”
“Cassady, you numbskull. Pass me the keys? Can yuh open this god damn door?”
I get the car keys and open the door, standing back from where it might swing open.
It swings open. “There are laws against that in this country”, he chortles. “I’ll be downstairs. Jane’s here.”
I go down to the bar. FR is there with Jane.
“Speak of the devil. How are you Mister Cassady?”
“I’m happy to be here.” She comes across the lobby, meeting me half way, and hugs me. I hold on to her warmth and unabashedly enjoy the feeling of her ample breasts against my chest. We walk over to the bar.
“Would you like a beer?”
She uncaps a Steinbrau.
“FR, John, whatever you call him, wants to go white-water rafting.”
FR has been kayaking for years. That’s how he’d found Montalba, in the first place.
“Phil?” She says dubiously.
FR turns to me, “Phil? Who’s Phil?”
“Phil Coleman. He has a river company here. When I was here in February, I went down the Pacuare with him. Jane fixed it up.”
“Phil Coleman?!? He practically single-handedly opened up the Ottawa for commercial kayaking and rafting. He is a bad ass! Could you ring him up?”
Jane walks over to the phone, consults a cardboard sheet with numbers written all over it, and dials.
“Cassady, you have golden horseshoes stuck up yer wha-who; the guy is a legend.”
“Phil? … I’m fine, todo bueno. A couple of guys here want to go down the river. Do you have any trips going? … Tomorrow, I guess. … FR Lee, and Dean … that’s right… plenty of experience, I’d say.” She looks at me, raising her eyebrows.
FR puts his hand to his ear, like a telephone, and points at the phone in Jane’s hand. “Here he is Phil. He’d like to speak with you.”
“Phil? Phil Coleman? Yeah… yeah… yeah… the Ottawa.” He chuckles, “they still call that, ‘Phil’s hole’.” He breaks out laughing, “exactly. You’ll have to tell me the details of that find.”
“Uh huh… Dean, yeah… you know him don’t you? ‘He knows what he’s doing… uh-huh, that’s the guy!… That shouldn’t be a problem.” He puts his hand over the receiver and says, “so far it’s just us two and one other guy, a regular. It’ll be good.” Back into the receiver, “yeah, yeah, we can do that… No, no, you’re right, he has that reputation. I’ll tell Alura, she’ll fix it so he’s… what’s that… a lot of experience…?” He breaks into laughter, again. “Now, wait a minute… I’d… I’d… ”, he chuckles, “…be the first to say that, but…” He erupts in another belly laugh, catches his breath, “okay, 8 a.m. We’ll be ready, outside.” He hangs up.
“As usual, your reputation has preceded you, Cassady.”
Alura comes out from the office, “pick up at eight? I’ll get you up at 7 a.m.”
She walks over to the Mac that is used for internet access. A young man is getting up from it. They have a brief exchange and he walks over, “are you going down the Pacuare tomorrow?”
“Yeah, I reckon.” I roll my eyes; everyone in the room knows it now.
He chuckles. “I’m Andy. Welcome.” We shake hands.
“Dean, and my associate, and part-time publicist,” I hold my beer in the direction of FR, “FR Lee.”
“FR”, I call across, “this is Andy.”
He nods and goes back to his conversation with Jane.
“Phil’s good. I’ve been guiding for him, a few times. The water is big. Should be good.”
“Thanks Andy. You stayin’ here?”
“I’m here for now; I’ve been here a month. I’m looking for something a bit more permanent.”
FR looks over at me.
“Hungry”, I say.
“Me too. Let’s go to the train station and get some casada.”
Andy interjects, “the train station is closed by now. Try the café at the southwest corner of the park.”
“Thanks man. You gonna join us?”
“Thanks, I’m good.”
“Good to meet you. See yuh around?”
“Yup. I’m around.”
“Thanks Jane. You gonna come?”
“It’s my shift here now. Tomorrow night, my place for dinner, right?”
“I wouldn’t miss it.”
“FR said you had another friend who’d be coming?”
“Nick should be here by dinner time.”
“Of course he’s welcome, too.”
“Thanks Jane.” I stare at her, seeking a sign. I can feel the vibe, but it’s difficult to tell by the way she acts.
After dinner, I feel weighed down with fatigue. I go to my room and lie down.
* * *
“Dean?” I hear knocking and a woman’s voice. It’s Alura. “Your breakfast will be ready in ten minutes. Are you awake Dean?”
“I’m awake. Thanks mi amor. I’ll be down in ten.”
FR and Alura sit at the table. I sit at the setting prepared for me. The coffee is good. “It’s great Alura. Thank you.”
“Phil phoned. He’s having a bit of a delay. He now expects to be here at eight-thirty.”
FR is telling me what I need, as I inhale the breakfast and wash it down with the second half of the cup of coffee. I go back to the room and get ready, gathering the stuff I need.
There’s a knock, “Hey knucklehead, its eight-twenty-five.”
I go out with my gear and we go downstairs.
A white Isuzu Trooper is outside the hotel. Phil waits, standing, smoking a cigarette. I go to shake his hand, “yer late. Let’s go. Do you have? …”, he runs down a list. I’m missing several items.
Hearing some of the stuff he mentioned at breakfast, FR yells, “I told you, Cassady. You knucklehead.”
I race back to reception to get my key. Alura is typing at the Mac. I apologize and explain what I forgot. She comes across and gets me the key. I jog up. My junk sprawled across the floor. I find the must-haves and hurry back down. “Thanks, Alura. Adios.”
We drive to Phil’s place in a few minutes. He pulls up beside a flatbed truck. The rest of the crew are waiting.
I apologize for holding up the show. The flatbed is about six feet wide, by ten feet long, and housed by sturdy metal and wood railings, about four feet high, all around. Metal tubing, running about seven feet high at its peak, bridges the side rails, and supports the canvas covering.
We’re instructed to stay under cover as much as possible to avoid any hassles with the police.
Paul, the other customer who will be in the raft with us, does agriculture consulting in Central America for the U.S. Peace Corps. Adriano, Phil’s wife’s cousin, will be in the raft too; I don’t know if he’s being trained, or just getting a freebie to make up the numbers. Juan-Jo, the son of the truck driver, Luis, is going to be paddling the safety kayak. He looks so young. Phil tells me it’s his first time as safety.
It has started to drizzle.
The turnoff for the ‘put-in’ to the Pacuare is just past a small pueblo called Tres Equis. This, the ‘old highway’, goes to Siquirres, where it joins the new east-west highway, running from San Jose to Limón.
The truck lurches as we hit a large pothole, looping around a 180 degree turn, crossing the Reventazón and passing the turn off for La Suiza. We continue along the eastern shore of the Rio Reventazón river valley, climbing higher up the valley slope, as we go. The vistas are primordial. Even in this light, dampened by cloud above and veiled in a thin mist below, the green of it is overwhelming. It memorizes me. Detail catches my eye and I am lost to it.
I see the sign for Tres Equis, with an arrow pointing left. A minute past it, the truck pulls off, to the right, and comes to a stop. Phil jumps out of the truck and starts talking to one of the guys at the gate. He grabs a large cluster of bananas from the truck and hands them to another guy. He puts some Costa Rican banknotes in one of the breast pockets of the guy’s dirty and worn, plaid shirt. He says something then jumps on the truck yelling “hey-HAY”.
During this sixty second transaction, Phil has located his half-empty package of cigarettes from the breast pocket of his shirt, extracted one, lit it, smoked it, and butted it out with his last foot on the ground, before jumping on the truck.
We follow the tire tracks across a cow grazing pasture, and into dense forest which blocks the sun, only recently emerging through the cloud. The well-worn trail descends on the switch-backs. Whoa, we stop! The road is washed out. Phil gets out and surveys the situation, directing Luis, haltingly up the steep slope and around the washout. The truck tilts precariously, and some gear slides around, but we pass it, and Phil leaps back on board. At the last switchback, looking up, from where we’ve come. I can see that beneath many parts of the road, the earth has been eroded. I point it out to Phil and he says it’s because of so much rain this year. “La Nina,” he says, “crazy this year. The weather has been fucked for quite a few years. You want to see the effects of global warming, here it is, the ‘dry’ season!?!”
I nod. “But good for going down the river.”
“Oh yeah. The river is high, alright. I think we’re gonna have a really good run, today.”
There are several trucks and crews already at the put-in, most of them have logos of the large, international, outdoor sporting companies. People call over to Phil, who returns their greetings, naming most of them. His cigarette is lit by the time he touches the ground, immediately directing our crew to unload and start filling the raft with air.
The sky had reached its brightest, most promising clarity yet. A silver sun punches its way through the cloud.
I cart gear to the river’s edge. “Hey Andy!”
“Dean, you made it.” He grins as we shake. “They called me this morning, photographer!”
“Is photographer good?”
“Yeah, it’s the best, man. All the fun, none of the responsibility.”
“Rock on. Have a good one. See yuh later.”
The water is moving fast. We load the boat. Everyone gets in. We do the minimum practice manoeuvres. Phil directs from the stern, his feet strapped-in. Juan-Jo darts around us in the kayak.
We start down the river. I can see many birds and insects amongst the high grasses and sparse low trees along the broad valley floor. Behind it, dense forest rises over the ridges.
I get distracted looking for sloths and toucans amongst the green of the flora. I get nailed by a huge wall of water. It displaces me from where I’ve wedged myself in at the right bow.
“That’ll learn yuh, Cassady.” FR is looking at me smiling amusedly. “What?”
“What goes around comes around”; as if by cue, a huge wave blind-sides him from the left side.
“Pay attention you two clowns. It gets rough here.”
As Phil says this, I have to jerk my head to one side to avoid a large butterfly of iridescent blue, flying past me at high speed. I yank my head around to see Phil taking similar evasive action. “It’s a morpho butterfly. Did you see the colour, blue?”
I nod, facing forward again.
“When you see then still, their wings are brown”.
We pass through a number of rapids, “right forward.” “All forward.” “Right backwards, left forward three strokes.” “Right forward. Let’s go, all forward. All forward, full. Go!”
So it goes…
The valley walls have been slowly closing in to the river. There is no longer an expansive valley floor between lazily sloping hills on both sides.
A fine, grey mist hangs in the air everywhere, varying in thickness.
Phil directs the raft to a sandy flat, past a rapid, on the left side of the river, to stop for lunch.
We pull it up onto the stones. I’m soaking wet. The mist obscures the sun. The stony beach runs a hundred feet to a ten foot high embankment. Past the embankment is thick forest, level across another hundred feet, thinning approaching a steep granite face.
A pod of bananas is put down for everyone to eat while Phil prepares the main course on stacked coolers.
Phil places untoasted burritos, some condiments, four large shot glasses and a bottle of guaro on a large, flat rock. “Dean, grab that cooler over there and put it down there” next to the rock.
I bring it over, set it down and take the lid off. Inside there are twelve bottles of beer on ice. The rest of the space contains half-litre bottles of water.
“FR could you get that pod?” He nods at the pod of bananas. FR brings them over, as Phil pours the guaro.
“Okay.” He picks up one glass. Paul, FR and I take one each. “Salud.” We clink glasses.
“Burritos: these ones are beans only, and these guys, over here, meat and beans.”
Phil is pouring another round of guaro. As he pours the fourth one, he calls out, “hey-HAY, guaro!”
“Pura vida.” I down mine. “Burritos, good”, I say, nodding to emphasize it as I put hot sauce on my second one. I stride off towards the embankment.
At a low spot, I take a step up and into it. It’s like another world. The floor is mostly thick moss and tree roots, separated by soft patches of spongy flat colonies of ferns. Droplets of mist flow around in the air. The fog goes in gradients. I finish the second burrito and wash it down with the rest of the beer. I can feel my blood sugar stabilizing in a much more pleasant range. I go to get another, and exchange my empty bottle for a full one.
FR lounges, lying along a large rock, next to the river, vainly trying to dodge river spray. Juan-Jo works, tightening a seal on some equipment.
Phil signals clean up; everyone finds something to do, and we finish in a few minutes.
We push off for the second half. Phil steers us out into the flow. I look down the river, for the next challenge, and take in the entire view before me. I turn as a morpho butterfly breezes by me. I face Phil in the stern, “look at the morpho.”
It flutters around him for a moment, resisting the wind. “What do you think, so far?”
The valley walls, thick with green, climb steeply from close to the narrowing river’s banks. I feel like the whole thing is alive. “I love it, here. This is where I want to be.”
“Well, you’re gonna love this, three in a row, one of them is definitely at level 4. Okay, listen up, it was really big yesterday, already. Then it rained all night. Pay attention! Okay let’s do it. All ahead, three strokes, ready? Stroke, stroke, stroke.”
We launch into the smashing, churning energy…
Finally, after an hour and a half, we coast. Steam rises up from me. I take some water from the tied-off bottle. I unhook it and hand it to FR, “well this was a good idea.” He drinks and hand the bottle back to me, strangely silent.
The river valley has continued to close in, becoming a gorge. The shear stone walls, almost vertical, extend up more than 200 feet. It’s dark, lit only by the white snaking crack, echoing the course of the river, far above.
Vines hang down and brush across my face in the gloom. I see that many of them hang from trees at the top. The walls are covered in dark green mosses. Incredibly, at a few places, trees grow out of the shear stone wall. Small eddies trail from the vines dangling in the river.
The water moves more slowly than in the white-water. But I can feel a deep force here. For while the river is narrow here, only fifty feet wide, we’re just gliding elegantly along, not too fast at all. All that volume of water passes beneath. The walls go up two hundred feet; I wonder how far they go down?
Phil takes off his helmet, and dives out of the boat. I go in, directly. But can’t swim very well; so I jettison the helmet and lifejacket into the raft. I go down, and down. I pass thermal levels. It’s so dark, I start to fear running into the bottom, even though I know it must be way too deep to reach.
I look up. Way up, the raft is a smudge on a crooked white line. I pause, taking in the uniqueness that I get to behold. But, I have to get up there, now.
I breach and inhale at the same time! Now, I float along on my back, breathing easily, looking up at the much closer and brighter squiggly line of white sky.
“Cassady, where the fuck… ? Yeah, here he is, over there.”
Phil swims over, “we were looking around for you, buddy.”
“Sorry ‘bout that.” I mean it. I forgot about it. I know it’s not normal. “It didn’t seem all that long, at the time. But it won’t happen again, dude.”
I swim around, mostly under water. Phil’s getting out of the water, into the raft. I swim over. “I’m gonna take another dive. This time, don’t panic… for the first minute.”
“Make it snappy. We gotta get going.”
I dive. The isolation of it is relaxing. I can see the raft above, and nothing below. I have complete freedom of motion. I pause and drift upward. I like it on the river, but this is amazing! I’d go down the river again in a raft, just for this! I swim up to breach at the side of the raft and continue up. I’m surprised, and maybe even momentarily alarmed, at my speed coming over the gunnels. I land partially on FR Lee.
“Cassady? You bastard!” He’s startled, but then he starts laughing, “where the fuck did you come from?”
“Dean, yer supposed to where a PFD[i]. Insurance is a bastard.”
“Lifejackets, like insurance companies, are a drag.” I nod, concurrence. Too much fun for the insurance companies to allow, obviously.
We drift down a little further, and the walls open up. The full silver daylight is harsh.
We approach an old, rusting metal train bridge, spanning the river almost a hundred feet above. Kids are playing on a rope swing, attached to latticed metal girders on the bridge’s underside.
“Hey-HAY”, Phil yells out.
The sound echoes back across a range of higher-pitched voices, “hey-HAY”, “hey-HAY”, “hey-HAY”, “hey-HAY”.
A kid swings out, and drops, it must be eighty feet, to the river! The jumper swims over to the raft and hangs off the side, excitedly chirping to Phil.
Phil calls out to the rest of them, name by name. This time the echo comes back in a chorus of questions in Spanish, all beginning with “Phil…”, “Phil…”, “Phil…”. Two more swing out on the rope, and splash into the river. They surface quickly and splash and yell as they make their way towards us. One of them swims to Juan-Jo and rides hanging on to the back of the kayak.
We’re drifting past easy swimming distance from the bridge. He calls out to the remaining pack high up on the bridge, waves, and takes two strong strokes propelling us along with the slow-moving river.
“That’s the nursery,” says Phil, “my future river guides, in training.” He lights another cigarette.
We come around a ninety degree bend and the whole valley is splayed open again.
Phil points to the take-out, “that’s it men. All forward, easy.”
As we approach the shore a horde of children, mostly boys, shout and whoop it up as they catch sight of Phil. He calls a salutation to them, which is responded to with an uncoordinated sonic assault. Several start to swim out to the raft. Phil, pulls in the first kid who swung out from the bridge. He seats him in a mirror fashion to his own position, hands him the paddle, and instructs him on steering the raft to a spot on the beach. Then Phil dives into the river and swims ashore. We beach a few moments later.
The army of assistants grab everything not already in hand, and haul it up the steep 40 foot embankment.
A mist of a rain floats down. At the top of the embankment, a little ways back, I see Luis getting out of the truck.
Phil comes up to FR, Paul and I, “you guys can get changed and we’ll get dinner at the restaurant.”
The change room is jammed. I take my stuff to the back of the restaurant. Facing the river, there is a rough-hewn wooden bench on a concrete pad under a small thatched awning. Nobody else is there. I peel off the soaked skins and use an extra shirt to try to dry my nakedness as fast as can be done in a rainforest; I forgot to bring a towel. I’m shivering. The dry denim scratching over my cool damp skin feels good. I bundle up my wet stuff, ringing it out as best I can, before stuffing it into the bag.
I walk past the mouldy-smelling, crowded change room, back to the bar.
I get four beers and four shots of guaro at the bar, and join Phil, Paul, and FR at a table.
There is a black-labelled bottle of guaro at the table, well-opened. I put the beers down next to the bottle of guaro. I hand out the shots, and take mine up. “Salud.”
“Yeah, beers too, boys.”
“Help yerself, Dean.” He nods at the bottle. “Thanks for the beer.”
Murmurs of thanks emanate from Paul and FR
“Pura vida”, I pick up one of the bottles of Steinbrau, nod, and drink half of it down.
A waiter engaging Phil in conversation as he sets the table.
Phil calls the crew and we dine on huge platters of casada. The hall is full of people, and several tables are set-up as buffet, but no one else dines as we do, with table service.
I’m stuffed as we head outside and finish loading the truck. The wafting mist grows heavier as we pull onto the long straight road, out of Siquirres. A steady, light rain, starts and persists. Below, fields of banana plantations, roll away behind us.
“Why are the pods in plastic bags?”
“Chemicals. They cover them in plastic bags because they’re sprayed almost constantly with, pesticides and fertilizers. Banana production is an industrial process. It starts before the plant is germinated, manipulating genetics for traits, like… you know, when they pick these for transit, they are green, they have to put them in these chemical ovens, which artificially ‘ripen’, or at least makes their skins turn yellow; so they genetically manipulate them to be able to do that, and also resistance to the chemicals.”
“But they still have to bag them?”
“Oh yeah, those chemicals are lethal. Every so often a worker dies from accidental exposure, and the all the workers have really high incidents of cancer.”
“But not my bananas.” He picks one up from the half-eaten pod on the floor. “I don’t know the exact specifications for ‘organic’, but that’s an organic banana.”
We’ve started to sway on the switchbacks. A steady rain taps the canvas over head. “We’re going up, eh?”
“Yeah, Siquirres is just above sea level, and Monty is up around 550 metres, in the valley. A couple of these passes are up around eleven hundred metres.”
I nod. We’re in thick fog, now. I can’t see anything past fifty feet. We sway around a switchback, and I can see the road drops steeply off on one side, and butts against a stone wall on the other.
The rain is pouring in through a loose tarp, flapping in the wind. Paul closes it and ties it off.
“The weather has been really whacked this year. Climate change is already here. The jet stream is pushed way down. That’s why we still have all this rain, in the dry season.” He yells something in Spanish to Luis.
We pull off the road into a large deep parking lot, and drive across it towards the bar perched on the edge of the cliff.
‘Salute’s erupt as Phil goes in.
There are half a dozen men drinking. The bartender is immediately pouring the appropriate number of shots of guaro, and now draws the corresponding number of Imperials from below the bar.
As I look out through the grey gloom, the sun pierces a weak spot in the clouds and illuminates an idyllic, mist adorned valley in a golden light.
Shortly, we’re moving back out to the truck. I watch the bar at the edge of the cliff get smaller and smaller as we role down the road, until it is lost as we bank around the first corner. The grey has closed ranks again. It grows darker.
After half an hour, Phil bangs on the cab, and says to us, “last stop before Monty. If yuh gotta go, then go here.”
I walk to the edge of the shoulder, beyond it, is dense rainforest. Mist rises from the floor of it. I walk into it. It’s so comforting amongst the trees. The steady rain is transformed into a mist, coming both down, and up from the forest floor. Phil is yelling for me. I have to run to catch the truck, already pulling away. FR laughs at me as I drag a boot in the gravel.
We pass the turn off for the put-in, then turn off for La Suiza, around the hairpin across the Reventazón, and then run along the straight flat, along side and past CATIE[ii], now into Montalba.
We drive to the house. The truck stops in the driveway. Paul says his goodbye, gets into a car parked on the street, and takes off. We unload all of the gear.
Phil drives FR and me to the hotel.
She looks up and smiles. She turns to open the beer fridge and says, “your friend Nick has arrived. I believe he is sleeping, now.”
She uncaps the beer. Looking over my shoulder, she says, “oh, there he is, now. How are you feeling Nicholas?”
Nick hacks, “Cassady.”
I shake his hand. “Hey buddy. Alura’s looking after yuh, eh? I’m glad you made it.”
“I feel a lot better after the nap. I’ve just been wiped with this cold. The beach was amazing!”
FR has been waiting. “Hey Nick, you old so and so.” He hugs Nick.
“Happy to see you, too.”
“How was the border and the way down here?”
“No problems, no complaints. I got a cab in San José to take me from where I got dropped, to the bus station to come here. Cost me, twenty, what are they, colon, colones?”
I nod, “good. That’s about right.”
He launches into a discussion with Alura, about costal ecology in Central America.
My mind drifts to the midst of the rainforest, mist coming down and up, looking way, way up, from the cold darkness to the tiny raft on the white crack of silver.
Nick and Alura are so fully engaged in the conversation. I skulk off, nonchalant, with my almost full beer. FR sees me, and does the same. I go to a long, hot shower in the solitude of my room.
* * *
Nick is at the bar, with a drink and smoking a cigar, inside!?
“Now Dean, those showers are for getting all soapy and rinsing off really quickly.” Nick laughs turning a wry eye to Alura.
I grin, raising my eyebrows.
She flashes him mock reproach, then smiling.
“Uh huh. FR? Getting all soapy and rinsing off really quickly?” He laughs aloud.
Alura bats him with a folded newspaper.
“Alura, the booze store is still open, isn’t it?”
“Yes, dear. I believe it is open until eight tonight.”
“I’m going.” I move towards the door.
Alura intercepts me, “please return this.” She hands me an umbrella. “You’ll need it.”
“Thank you, mi amor.”
“And when you’re out there, remember soap up and then rinse off, quickly.”
* * *
Just after eight, FR, Nick and I, armed with wine, stand on porch of the last house on the street. Nick pushes a button. I hear the ring, inside. A cute woman with light brown hair opens the door. “Are you Dean?”
“Who’s asking?” I laugh.
We shuffle in. I smile at her, “Yeah, I’m Dean, this is Nick Black, and FR Lee.”
“Oh yeah, how’s it goin’ Lee?”
“You look different.”
“Pleased to meet you.”
“Nick Black. Nick Black? Is that your real name?”
“That’s what they tell me.” He laughs.
“Hi guys.” Jane comes out and greets us, embracing me then FR and Nick. “Let me show you the house.”
She has a large covered porch at the back of her house. The rain has stopped, but there is still the sound of running water. A tributary of the Reventazón runs through the gully below.
I join them in the living room. Jane brings tray after tray of appetisers and I keep opening the wine.
We speak of the weather and the changing millennium. Kaitlin talks about the dumping at the end of the street and her difficulties with the municipal officials. After the fourth bottle, the conversation simmers down. The appetizers are gone. Nick looks ready to pass out.
A tall, beautiful woman enters. Jane introduces Hendrikje. Her grey eyes see right through me. We’re waiting for Hendrikje’s boyfriend, Russell, to show up. There’s been some delay.
Kaitlin leaves to join her boyfriend for dinner.
After another bottle, Nick is on the verge of unconsciousness. He turns to me, “I’ve got to go buddy.”
“I’ll walk back wit’chuh. I need some air.”
As we walk up the street I say, “I’m sorry I couldn’t get you fed, dude. I don’t know what the problem is. I’m starving.”
“I’m not all that hungry. Alura gave me a bowl of chicken soup. If I could get another one of those, I’d be perfect for bed. I’m sorry for bailing.”
“No worries, dude. I think this whole New Year’s thing is over-rated.”
We’re at the hotel. I hear the buzz unlocking the gate. I walk him to his room.
“Happy New Year. I’ll see you tomorrow. Get better.”
I go to my room and roll a joint, then walk back smoking it.
Coming down the dead-end street to Jane’s house, I hear Hendrikje, in a heated discussion. I can see Hendrikje on the front porch. She goes in, slamming the door behind her, as I open the gate.
Inside, the mood is stifled. FR sits alone in the living room, “how’s that wuss, Nick?”
“He needs to sleep. He did the right thing.” I move close to him, and speak in a low voice, “if I wasn’t so hungry, I’m fucking starving, I would’ve gone to bed, too.”
I grab the closest wine glass, down the last of it, then fill it up with tequila. I walk past the kitchen to the back porch. A mist of rain comes down. The sound of the running water of the stream soothes me. Gusts blow the mist into my face even though I’m under the roof. No houses can be seen from the deck, only trees. I down the tequila. Relaxing, into the ample cushions on the large wicker chair, I feel the booze enter my veins and the world spinning around. But, the rumbles in my gut, and edgy clarity make it impossible to forget how dangerously hungry I’ve become.
I hear activity inside. I walk in. Russell has arrived, finally. We’re introduced; he’s a bit sheepish. His hand is damp and cool. I wipe my palm as discreetly as possible then go to the washroom and wash my hands. The clock on the wall shows ‘11:31’.
“Dean? Dean? Hurry the steak is ready.” Not a moment too soon.
I come into the kitchen. “Could you bring it?” She brushes by with three heavy-looking dishes. I grab the platter, upon which sits an entire beef tenderloin, and follow her through.
Everyone else is seated around the table. FR is refilling the wine glasses. Hendrikje looks at Russell, who self-consciously looks around and announces that he should wash his hands; he gets up and goes to the washroom. FR squints at me and makes a face.
“Dean, why don’t you serve that?”
Way ahead of you, Baby. I hack pieces from the meat and lay them on the plates. Russell, who has rejoined the table, says, “oh, I’m a vegetarian. No meat for me.”
I’ve already placed the hunk of steak on the plate. I take it from his plate by hand, and toss it onto my pile, “thanks.”
I can see FR holding back a chortle; and some of the wry smile creases my lips.
I’m desperate to eat, just barely keeping it together.
“Okay, now everybody hold hands.”
As deftly as I can, I tear half of a slab of tenderloin, and pop it in my mouth, then wipe my hands on my jeans, below the table top.
The juices ooze around in my mouth and settle underneath my tongue. I can feel it entering my blood stream, I’m trying to avoid laughing, practically giddy, waiting for the moment I can chew indiscreetly. Somebody is saying something, but I can’t track it, at all. I chew very, very slowly, squeezing the juices out of the meat. I’m practically blinded by it.
They’re pushing my hands away. Everyone starts eating. I sip some wine and chew the chunk of meat, once or twice. The other half bangs off my teeth, following it down.
Whoa, I gotta concentrate and chew my food! I look around discreetly to see if anyone noticed my momentary loss of control. It looks good.
There’s talk, but I have to focus all my attention on chewing the meat.
I swallow the last piece, savour the remnants in momentarily, and then wash it down with a touch of red.
People start coming back into focus. FR has barely begun his chunk of steak. He sees me eying it, “what are you looking at?” He picks up his plate and moves it, slightly further away from me, laughing.
I grunt a chuckle, looking at him. “Jane, this is really, really good.”
I look directly into her eyes, “thank you. I’m glad to be here, wit’cha. Thanks for having me.”
“Try the salad.”
“I was just about to do that.[iii]” I look down at it, and stab my fork in several times, skewering a goodly portion. The bitter leaf is offset by the lime and berry vinaigrette.
I look back to Jane, “that is amazing!” It really is, like a flavour explosion.
I take a neglected stock of asparagus by my left hand and munch it down, with forkful of spinach, chaser. “Amazing. Asparagus is amazing.”
FR starts laughing, “Cassady, you’re so full of it.”
I say to Jane, “do you know this guy? Who invited him?”
“I don’t know.”
“He”, I point at him, catching Hendrikje’s eye as I do, “knows that what he is saying, is opposite of the truth. What kind of a disorder would that be?”
I start laughing, “calm down! Who invited you?”
He smiles insipidly, “you Cassady, are the disorder, of a higher order.” He barks out self-pleased chuckle.
I top him and Jane up, and empty the rest of the bottle in my glass. FR picks his up. The others follow. I clink his first. I gulp it back, and then chuckle, “a disorder of a higher order?” I chuckle some more.
Russell looks bewildered.
I break out into full laughter, at the way it worked out. “Speaking… , … of disorders… ”, but I can’t get it out, because I’m laughing uncontrollably. I’m not sure whether has FR figured it out, or not, but he starts laughing uncontrollably, too. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see the look of bewilderment start to morph into dim alarm; it makes me laugh even harder. I have to push back from the table, and hold my gut, bent over.
FR peters out, “I can’t remember what the doctor called it”, ostensibly to everyone else, but me. I’m racked by another wave. My stomach hurts. FR grunts out a few more chuckles at my discomfort. Slowly, I calm down enough to see.
Jane gets up, and turns to go to the kitchen. She’s tense. I’m giddy.
I grab another piece of the tenderloin, just to be on the safe side. Smiling as innocently as possible, I say, “it must be just about time”. I casually pop the entire chunk in my mouth, like a punctuation, and start chewing as discretely as possible. But I start grinning uncontrollably, making it difficult to chew and completely indiscreet, unfortunately initiating a short seizure of laughing.
I have to calm down, or else I’ll spray the vegetarian with very lightly chewed beef tenderloin. It might kill the mood.
Jane returns with two bottles of the fizzy wine.
She’s gone again, but returns with glasses, and sets them down. I take a stopper out of the first bottle, and hand it to her. I work on the second bottle as she pours. She finishes the first bottle, so I pour my own with the second bottle, just in time for the count down; tres, dos, uno… and we all clink glasses.
I’m glad we weren’t waiting long, in advance of it, and I’m glad its meaninglessness is over. “Thanks Jane.” I hug her, feeling her hot breasts against my chest. She kisses me on the cheek, lingering in the embrace. She moves her hand through her hair, looking at me wide-eyed through her glasses.
Hmm. I turn and hug FR, “well, we made it this far. That’s something.”
In the ruckus of ongoing hugs and what not, I edge out of the room, and wander on to the back porch. There’s a slight breeze, resonating the drying leaves to the sound of the stream trickling along. It’s damp and cool. I lean back in the huge bowl chair and remember, as a young child, thinking how far away it was, the change of the century. I remember thinking that I’d be such an old man; I couldn’t imagine being thirty-five years old. Now I can’t imagine the youthful optimism I had then.
FR comes out. “I thought you might like one.” He hands me a cigar. He holds an almost full bottle of fizzy wine.
“Well, dude. What the fuck? I’m glad to be here, but I’m not sure what’s next.”
“I think I know what’s next for you.”
He grunts out a laugh. “It’s been on the wall since we got here.”
“No, you dumb fuck, since we got here to Montalba. She’s been lining you up.”
“What time is it?”
“It must be one-thirty.”
“Already?!” I just came out here. “This can’t be all there is!”
“What, you get fed a gourmet filet mignon dinner, New Years Eve, then fucked to boot?”
“Gimme that cigar.”
I bite the end off, and fire it up with the little torch he has in his hand. He must have swindled it out of the car. I hand it back to him. “Handy, that.”
“So… Cassady… What are you gonna do?”
I look at him, nodding. “Smoke a cigar. Thank you, by the way.” I nod at him, indicating the cigar, breathing out the rich acrid smoke. “A sensuous death.”
We knock our glasses together.
“You are fucked, Cassady.”
“A higher order of disorder.” I laugh aloud. “I don’t have the market cornered around here, dude.”
“Well, yer one of a kind, anyway, for sure, you bastard.”
“I like the sound of the river, eh?”
“Yeah, she’s got a nice spot here, for sure.” He raises his eyebrows, conspiratorially.
I laugh at it, playing along with it. “Fuck, it’s really nice.” I raise my arm out, forward. “All these trees.” I take a deep breath, filling my lungs with the smell of rainforest. “I could get used to it.”
“If I’m not already”, I say conspiratorially, under my breath, and laugh at it. “What was that saying, by Zorba[iv]?”
I finish my cigar. The bottle is empty. FR is mellow, sitting on a deck chair. “I’m going in.”
We walk in. Three pairs of eyes look up. “Strangers.”
I’m surprised that the party animal is still here. We sit. They look sedate. “Stranger than strange.”
Russell, makes small restless movements, gripping Hendrikje’s hand. She goes to the washroom.
“What are you two going to do tomorrow?”
“What, FR, take Nick to the coast?”
“Yeah, something like that.”
Russell mentions something, and walks out, possibly towards the washroom.
I look first at Jane, and then at FR, not saying a word. The thing with Russell has turned into a parody that’s becoming boring.
I can’t help staring at Jane’s large and well-shaped breasts.
She looks at me with touch of disbelief, but certainly no anger. “Dean.”
As I’m trying to figure out if there’s a question, here, Russell and Hendrikje return to the living room.
They both look a little relieved. They’re going, she tells us with her lovely accent. They go.
“Well, that just about does it for me.” FR moves to get up. I’d love to get fucked, but something ain’t quite right.
I move to Jane and kiss her on the cheek. “Hey Jane; thanks for the company. I’m think I’m going to go, too.”
There is some surprise, but she’s practically comatose. I smile at her, once more, then call after FR. “Hey! Wait for me.”
“What?” He stops and turns, with naked incredulousness.
My momentum takes me right into him; I keep him moving, out the door.
He turns to say something. I put an index finger to my lips. We walk up the street.
“You are fucked!”
“Not yet, but millennium is young! I guess I could go back, but she’s not going to be awake too much longer, whether I stay or not. That was a weird night, waiting all night, for that fucking bitch-with-a-dick? Oh, but she was looking so scrumptious, dude.”
FR lets loose a full blown belly laugh, “a higher order of disorder.”
We pick up cameras at the hotel, and head out, hoping to capture continuing festivities. Crowds of teens cluster along the market street. Many of them pose and ask if we’ll take their pictures. We continue north to the main square. At the north end, there’s a bar with people spilled out onto the street. Inside, it’s jammed with people; I get four beers because I don’t want to have to fight my way through this crowd again, any time soon. The clock in the bar shows 3 a.m. I pause after paying and ask for a couple tequilas, as well.
I find FR sitting on the curb, at the edge of the park, across the street from the bar. We nod toasting the tequila.
“When we left Jane’s place, I thought I might be able to find a nice young, happy tica, craving gringo companionship.”
“I don’t know. … I don’t know, but it was sumthin’. Anyways, it’s too late now, to do anything about it, one way or the other.”
I hold my bottle aloft, looking him right in the eye.
He picks up a bottle, and we knock them together, “prost”.
“Well Cassady, the bar looks pretty stocked.”
I look over at the sprawl, out on the street. It’s thinner than it was five minutes ago. I feel the weight of weariness, and all of the booze. “What d’yuh think?”
“What does it matter?”
“What’s wrong with you?”
I look around. The wave has crested, and now, the back wash retreats. The crowd around the bar is evaporating as I watch it. I take a sip. “When you don’t feel like beer anymore, it’s a sign.”
“Sounds like another disorder, to me.”
We stumble back to the hotel. I want there to be more, but there is just the stuff the wave leaves on the sand, stranded, moving with desperation to hiding spots.
* * *
“I recommend Cahuita.” Alura refills my coffee.
I drink; it’s strong and rich. “Ah, thank you mi amor. Why Cahuita?”
“I went down there. I didn’t know too much about it, to be honest with you. There is a nice hotel right on the beach; it’s not too expensive. It’s a national park. The beach is nice. I liked it. That’s why.”
“Sounds good to me.”
I look at Nick. He’s perkier than last night, but he still looks sick. “This’ll cure you.”
* * *
We’re passing CATIE, on the highway heading out of Turrialba. “That was fast; look at the clock, it’s been only twenty minutes since we decided.”
“Yeah, you’re right Dean, you getting out in fifteen minutes is a miracle.” His laugh breaks into coughing.
“Now Nick, … ”, FR says in that measured tone. “Don’t rile him, when he’s driving.”
“He knows it’s true. I’d luuvvv to have a cigar, if not for this fucking cough. Aw fuck it. I brought these number fours…”.
“It’s a rare thing to see somebody truly enjoy a cigar, like that.”
“It’s the addict in me. Before I quit, I used to smoke two packs a day. Remember that FR Lee?”
“Your temperament was better; even though, it was still nasty.”
I’m trying to mellow a bit from my typical style. I take it slow through the first mountain pass on the way to Siquirres.
The road from Siquirres to Puerto Limón, is smooth and straight, running parallel to the abandoned rail line. Approaching Limón, as we pass the massive banana plantations, I recount, to Nick, some of the stuff that Phil had told me about banana production.
Nick says he read about how two giant American fruit corporations had influenced the government to bring in the armed forces in response to the attempts to organize labour unions, in the tour guide. And how, since that time, fifty years ago, Costa Rica has had no formal armed forces.
“But the fruit companies are still here.”
“Pretty fucked, eh? Costa Rica is the biggest exporter of bananas in the world; two companies control most of it.”
“The fuckers.” FR says it with an overwrought seriousness.
FR starts laughing. “Nick. Nick. I’m just razzin’ you.”
“Don’t start with me. Hey, Dean, pull over. I want to get a shot of this, shipping containers, as far as you can see.”
We continue into Limón. “There seems to be a lot of Asians, here.”
“It’s no surprise that you noticed that.”
“That’s what the book says.”
“Oh. You mean the yellow fever, … fuckin’ joker. Yeah, well, as you know, living in Vancouver, you never really get cured, it just goes into remission, for a while.”
They both laugh.
“Are you still at the place on 12th, off, Main? No, no, is it Robson?”
“Yeah, still there.”
“That’s a good spot. How’s the winter, rain?”
“Since September. Like, I know it drizzles all winter, but this year, I swear it’s been every day.”
“Uh, excuse me for s sec, dude. FR, it’s around here somewhere?” I’m looking for the right turn, to get on the coast road. But it’s not easy to tell, because the road is not marked at all and looks like just another residential street, cars on both sides, children playing; all of them look like this to me. There are no street signs at all.
I have to brake hard, because we’re almost along side of it. I swing the wheel to turn right, still slowing down, as the driver behind me leans on his horn.
“Are you sure this is it?”
“Yeah, I think this is it.”
“Okay. Nick, you know, Phil was telling me about how fucked the weather is down here, too. This is supposed to be the dry season, but the rainy season never ended.”
For the first time in Costa Rica I see some people with some African descent. The road gets smaller. There are quite a few people in the street. How could it be the right road?
But now the houses are thinning. There’s the water, on the left. There are few buildings now. We drive by a small airport. The car shutters going over a big hole in the pavement. I slow to make sure the tire didn’t get punctured. “Sorry about that, guys. But, uh, that’s it, right? The airport, this is the right road.”
“I told yuh.”
The road gets worse. I slow and ease along a part without pavement, for ten kilometres. It’s really hot now. The windows are down and the dust from the road blows in and sticks to sweaty skin.
There is a gate across the road. It looks like a check point. We pull up. He asks where we’re going and for passports. <<We are going to stay at the hotel in Cahuita.>> I hand him the passports.
He looks quickly through them, and hands them back, making a sign for the gate to be raised, <<have a nice vacation.>>
Ten minutes later, I pull off at a small arrow sign with ‘Cahuita’ on it. It’s a track more than a road. We reach some buildings and the road stops. “I guess we’ll stop here.” There is a sign for the entrance to the national park, dead ahead. Palm trees run close to the surf as far as I can see. It’s oppressively hot now. “Do you guys want to see if you can get something at the hotel? This must be it, here. I’m going to back behind it and see if there’s a parking spot in the shade.”
“I’m getting a beer.”
“I’ll check out the hotel.”
“I’ll meet you in there.” I nod towards the bar on the west side of the street.
They get out and I back out fifty feet against a steady flow of traffic, both vehicles and people. I pull into a driveway for the hotel, and I park beneath a thick growth of palm trees. I shuffle a few things around, so that nothing too lucrative shows, and put the windows up to a crack.
When I get out, I’m soaking with sweat. A black man with a large bag of coconuts on his back approaches me. “You want’em coconut?”
By his face I’d say he’s in his fifties, but his body is lean and strong, without wrinkles. He speaks in a strong patois. “Yeah, I’ll take one. Where could I get some smoke to go with it?”
He chops an edge off the coconut then from the cap, cuts a narrow rectangular portion. “You know what to do wit that, man?”
“Yeah. How much?”
“Twenty”, he says somewhat tentatively.
I hand it to him.
“You wait ten minutes. Mind me coconuts.” He saunters off.
Ten minutes pass. I’m restless, I want to be on my way. I look around a bit, keeping the car in site. Its ten more minutes before he returns with something rolled in newspaper. He hands it to me. I look at it, as he looks on. It’s pretty miserable looking. I thank him. He cuts another coconut and gives it to me then heaves the sack onto his back and saunters off. “Yeah man, yuzz have a nice day, suh.”
I walk to the hotel. I can’t find an office. I walk up a flight, and another. I can’t find any reception, or office, and anybody, actually. I walk down and over to the bar. Nick and FR drink. FR bites into a grilled chicken leg.
“I couldn’t find anybody at the hotel.”
“Where have you been?”
“I had to take care of something, parking the car.”
“Oh yeah, what kind of ‘something’?”
“Fresh coconuts and marijuana.”
Nick nods, “the Deanster tracking down the smoke.”
“It’s a disorder, Nick.”
FR and I laugh. “It’s the medicine for the disorder.”
“Are you getting food?”
“I feel like vegetables. I saw a restaurant down the street. I’m going to check it out.”
“What about lodging?”
He hands me two keys. “There you go.” He finishes his beer, “see yuh later.”
I sit and look at FR and his chicken. “Dude, are you gonna be here for a bit?”
“Yeah“, he munches.
“Could you order me a beer and another of what you got? I’ll be right back.”
I go to the news store down the street. I’m happy that they have rolling paper. I walk back to the car and roll a sweaty joint sitting in the passenger seat. I step out and light it up. It has a pungent acrid flavour and a strong skunky smell. I’m nervous about attracting attention. I smoke as discreetly as possible, but when I blow it out, it billows in the breeze and heads towards the main street. I finish it quickly. I can feel the effects right away. I hurry to the bar, hoping my chicken is there. I sit across from FR. He nods and smiles.
“Just testing the goods.”
“Yup.” I’m ready for chicken. I see a full beer, the bottle’s bleeding is pooled beneath it. I take a slurp. “Still ice cold, good.”
“You can finish anything here, I’m done”, he says nodding to his plate.”
I take and untouched drumstick.
She brings my plate of chicken. FR takes a handful of fries, as he asks for another beer, looks me, and then asks, “dos mas”.
After we eat, we go to the car and get our gear. FR’s room is on the second floor, mine is on the third. The room is clean and basic, with a ceiling fan. I take off my clothes and roll a fat joint. I pull on shorts and a shirt, grab a towel, and a bottle of water.
I walk along the beach, sometimes dipping into the palm forest running along it. Most of the people speak Spanish with a recognizable Costa Rican accent, but there’s a spectrum of ethnicities. A beautiful, fit cocoa woman smiles at me, as she passes by in the other direction. I stop and turn to take a look at her back; she’s looking at me, smiling. But she turns and keeps on walking.
I turn back. There’s nobody about, not a person. It seems a strange.
The haze is burned off, and the sun comes down pure and strong. I keep walking. Occasionally, I pass a couple or a small group, but fewer and fewer as I continue.
I haven’t seen anyone for over twenty minutes. I move into the palm line and sit with my back to a tree. I smoke the fat joint slowly, savouring the muskiness of it. I take a drink, and walk to the water. I can see half a mile in either direction; I can’t see another person.
I drop my shorts, on the spot, and go in. I swim out past the lazy two-foot rollers and float on my back, looking at the sky.
Finally, I’m here.
I shut my eyes. I hear the water against my ears, obstructing the sound of the waves, and birds. Where my skin is uncovered by water, I feel the heat upon it. Yeah, finally! It’s strange that I arrive, in the Atlantic, after coming all that way down, along the Pacific coast.
I open my eyes and dive out, swimming under the water for a hundred feet before surfacing again. The water is warm. Ahh… the saltiness.
I dive and scrub my scalp with the sand, sitting on the bottom. I come up and throw the hair back, so that it’s out of my face. I look back at the land. A small group takes no heed of my abandoned shorts as they walk by, at water’s edge. They’re not even looking out here.
I swim in and pull the shorts on, and walk up to the shade of the palm. I lay down and feel the sand on my back and the breeze upon my skin.
* * *
What’s this?!? I grind sand between my teeth. I open my eyes. The sun is a crack on the horizon. Low bands of clouds, above it, glow orange. There is no one around.
I sit fully upright. Sand falls into my eyes. I squint and brush it off of my face.
I’ll have to hurry back, or it’ll be dark. But I have to take a quickie. I take off my shorts and go into the ocean. I swim out, breast stroke. I enjoy the heat on my face, but there’s something wrong about it!? I feel disoriented. The sun is in the east?!
Holy fuck! It’s the morning!
I swim back in. It’s nice and cool on the sand. I hope the guys didn’t worry about me. I should get back, just in case.
I go to the room and crash until it’s too hot to sleep, anymore. I roll one and put it in my pocket. I walk up to the roof. Nick is lounging with several other crusty characters. They sit around a heavy dining table with coffee. Nick is talking to an elderly man with a long pale beard; they both smoke cigars.
“I say, Santa, you’ve finally caught up to me. I admit, I have been a little naughty.”
“Stoned yet, Dean?”
“Uh, what’s yer definition of stoned? Can I get coffee?”
“You can get more than that buddy. You can get some rolls, butter, jam, and a coffee.”
White Beard says, “she’ll be around in a minute.” He holds out his hand, smiling, “the name is John Smith.”
“Yeah, right, the famous”, I say, deadpan, continuing with the Santa shtick. “Pleased to meet you, finally. I’m Dean Cassady. Yer a long way from home?”
“I always take a vacation at this time of year.”
I laugh at the co-incidence, “Well, you deserve it. How long you stayin’, eleven months or so?”
The woman comes by and gets me coffee and bread.
Mid-morning we load up the car and cruise out of town. Nick wants to drive by an old wooden house; he directs me up a side track. I pull the car over into the ditch at the right side of the track. Across, to the left, is a dilapidated shack. Nick gets out with his camera.
“Look at that!”
FR looks up from looking for his camera.
“Look at it!”
“What is it?”
“Cassady,” he waves a hand in front of my face, “are you blind? It’s right there. Look at it.”
I can’t see what the commotion is about. Nick takes photos of something, but not the shack.
“What is it?”
FR starts laughing. “There’s a sloth right there, wrapped around the fence post.”
I see it for the first time. It’s the same colour as the fence post. “Holy shit! Wow! It’s incredible how well he’s camouflaged!”
FR spits, continuing to take photos. I get out my camera and snap a few.
We drive off. I pull over at a gas station. Funky music plays loudly from the garage. I ask the guy to write down the name of the band. He is happy to oblige; it’s his favourite, he says, “Banton y Ghetto”. It has a house sound, with Latin and Caribbean influences.
We get stopped at a checkpoint, and I have a slight panic attack about getting searched and having my stash sniffed out. But we get through without incident. We stop at Limón.
Nick thinks he’s going to stay overnight in Limón, then take an early morning bus straight to San José. He’s brought all his stuff with him. We cruise through town, and stop at the beach, on the north side of the centro. There is a heavy haze.
But after a while, he changes his mind, and we start off for Montalba.
FR needs to be on the first bus to Liberia, and Nick is now itching to sample some of the night action that he’d experienced during his first evening in San José, before he flew to Antigua.
Back at the hotel in Montalba, Alura is trying to convince us that we should stay in Montalba and head out to drop Nick at the airport and FR at the bus stop, in the morning.
But I don’t want to have the stress of getting the guys out through rush hour into San José, in the morning. I promise to return to see her in a week, or so.
It’s raining as we leave. The road is crowded all the way into San José. It’s pouring rain as we arrive at the hotel in Aranjuez.
Once installed at the hotel, Nick takes off.
FR and I take a cab to the same place John and I went to. After eating, we take a few drinks at the disco. FR catches a conversation with an attractive young woman; I think she’s Argentinean. I slip out.
I’m pretty sure I can walk back to the hotel. It’s a long way by cab, but I’m pretty sure that it’s less than a mile across the ravine below. So I head off on the adventure, not knowing for sure, but it only takes fifteen minutes and I crest a ridge into the barrio, around the corner from the hotel.
As I come by the reception, I walk into the young woman who works for Mexicana airlines.
* * *
What that noise? Hmm, what’s that smell? There’s a knocking. “Cassady, what the fuck are yuh up to in there? We gotta go.”
I get out of the bed, gently, and pull on some jeans and a shirt. I open the door and go out, shutting the door quietly behind me.
FR is red-faced. It’s like a pantomime. He looks at me and chuckles. “You fucking rascal.”
“Are you drivin’ me downtown?”
Nick comes up behind him. He shakes my hand. “I’m really glad that I came down on this trip. I’ll see you when you get back, or maybe I’ll fly down in a couple of months and check on you. My cab’s here. Pura vida.”
“Dean?” It’s a woman’s voice, coming from my room.
FR rolls his eyes. “Nick, can you wait, just five minutes and give me a lift?”
“You fucking rascal, Cassady. You bastard.”
He takes my hand and shakes it solidly. In a low voice he says, “yer off to a good start. Keep it up.”
I hug him. “I’ll send you the next entry, today, later.”
“See yuh, Nick. Come any time you want. I should be here for a few months, anyways.”
Alesandra isn’t leaving until noon; she assures me my friends will get along just fine without me.
[i]. “PFD” – personal floatation device, what used to be called a ‘life jacket’
[ii]. “CATIE” – Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza; http://catie.ac.cr/en/
[iii]. “I was just about to do that.” Is a quote from The Flintstones animated television series (1960-1966) animated television series, season 5, episode 9; new neighbours have moved in, the Gruesomes, based loosely on The Addams Family television series characters (1964-1966), the father Gruesome, at Fred (Flinstone)’s door, asking to borrow “a cup of red ants”, says, “… you can call me Weirdly…” which is his first name, and Fred responds, “I was just about to do that.”
[iv]. “… that saying, by Zorba?”; Dean could be referring to multiple quotes from the main character of the Nikos Kazantzakis book, first published in 1946, “Zorba the Greek”, but may be referring to, “If a woman sleeps alone it puts a shame on all men. God has a very big heart, but there is one sin He will not forgive. If a woman calls a man to her bed and he will not go.”