“La Casa de Chocoleto, Palmira, Costa Rica
07 January 2000
I’ve just had my second espresso and cream. It’s working!
It’s my first morning waking in the house that I’ve just rented, in Palmira.
It’s been cool and wet, since I got to Zarcero. The dry season normally starts in December. But so far this year, they tell me, the rain has yet not stopped; they’re still waiting for the dry season.
The house is a cavernous split-level, three-bedroom bungalow. It shares a common gated property with a much smaller, and more modest looking building, where the owner lives yet with his parents.
Richard, told me to call him ‘Chocoleto’. “Todo mondo”, <<everyone>>, calls him ‘Chocoleto’.
There is hardly any furniture in the place, except one of the bedrooms is full of junk. I’m enjoying the emptiness of it. More than anything else, it’s nice to have a place to put my head down for a few nights in a row, and not worry about all of my worldly possessions on display through the windows of the car.
There’s a fireplace here, in the big split-level common room. I write from this space now. The fireplace could be great but I don’t have any firewood to try it out. There is no other heating in the place that I can find. I like it cool in the winter, but I can hardly keep my hands warm enough to write, in here.
Luckily, I won’t have to freeze to death without something to distract me, thanks to the huge flat screen television, and the hundreds of channels that are received via a satellite dish on the roof. There is also a functioning stereo system with a pair of big-ass speakers. I’ve connected my portable CD player into the receiver, and it sounds okay. The old compact disc player has quite a few miles on it. It’s a miracle it still plays at all, right now its having a bout of hick-ups playing the first Blind Melon[i] album.
It’s so dark in here, I can hardly see what I’m writing. Outside, I reckon the sun is just about topped out behind the thick cloud cover. I haven’t heard the rain tapping on the roof for a while, maybe it’s stopped.
This morning was my first chance to wake, bake, lounge around, and write.
Yesterday was busy. After, paying the landlord, first thing in the morning, and moving my stuff in, I made several trips down the hill, into Zarcero to get stuff I need.
Everything before that is a blur of activities that I’m having a hard time sorting out in my mind. But, I’ve got a place to stay, for now; I don’t have to worry about that for a while.
For some reason, I’m remembering this guy I met, staying at the same hotel as I was, in Rhodes, in the early nineties. He told me he had resigned from his job as Assistant District Attorney in New York City, sold all his stuff, gone to the airport, and taken the next available flight out. Most of the times I saw him, he was totally engrossed writing in a quiet desperation. He wrote on scraps and waste paper. He wrote patches at varying angles, so that when a page was completely filled with writing, it resembled a patchwork quilt. At the time, it disquieted me, wondering how he would ever be able to decipher the order of the thoughts that he wrote down. It wasn’t until many years later that I came to know that the order of events is not always necessary to reconciling them, and sometimes actually interferes with understanding.”
* * *
That smell is so nice. I reach out my left hand, feeling around. I feel the first teasing flicker of fear. She can’t be gone, already!?! I want… just a bit more, to send her off.
I can’t find her. I reach out with my right hand, as I reposition the left to push myself up, and get my face out of the pillow.
Even through blurred eyes, I can see that she’s not in the bed. I listen. I hear my breath, getting faster.
Nothing. She’s gone! Only her smell remains. I take a deep breath of it in, and savour it.
I pull my jeans on, and put on a shirt as I fumble into sandals, walking out the door. I look in the garden at the back, but she’s not there, either. At the reception, nothing.
“Excuse me, mi amor, it’s the third, right?”
She looks up at me, from her seat behind the desk, “the third of January?”
“Yes, it’s still the third of January. Will you be checking out today?”
“I’m not sure. When do I have to let you know by?”
“Well, normally check out is by noon.”
I see for the first time the ‘1:03’ displayed on the clock behind the reception. It would be really easy to stay here. I sigh, realizing that easy is not the best path for me, right now. “Can I still check out today?”
“Ciertamente, señor Cassady.” She smiles convincingly.
Nick and FR left… this morning?! How could it be?
I pay, then go to my room, to take a shower. But I stop short; I want to keep this smell on me. When it’s gone, I won’t be sure that she wasn’t a dream.
I collect my gear and take it to the car. I take the car out from the tight parking spot, and park it down the street a bit. I walk back and drop off the keys at the reception, “Gracias, mi amor.”
I’m tired and restless of the impermanence. I’m sick of the smell of gasoline.
I have to eat before I set out on the road. I walk out from the hotel, without any clear destination. I find my way to the commercial street running along the hospital block. I go in a small café mid-block, and order casada. While I wait for my order, I write about the drive through Central America.
Food taken care of, I walk out, towards the hotel, but then pause. Who knows when I’ll be back? I should reconnoitre the area, at least a bit.
I turn back, in the opposite direction; I don’t know where it goes. I don’t know what is around here. The pedestrian traffic is pleasing.
I hit a main street with cars. They alternate between being still, idling at the red light, or racing by. The sidewalk is narrow. I turn north and walk a few blocks. I can’t stand the violence of the cars racing by; so I turn left, back into the barrio.
Directly in front of me, there they are, the three full-sized station wagons ‘parked’ on the street! It’s that funeral home! I saw them that first day, here; it seems so long ago, but it’s less than a week. It was no dream. They are a similar make to the car, but slightly older model years; they’re painted black, of course.
I walk in to the office and tell the guy I have a station wagon of similar make and model to the ones in front, and ask him if he might want to buy another; they must be difficult to acquire, down here. He is the director. He says he doesn’t need it right now, but he might know somebody who does want one. He asks me how long I’m staying. I tell him that I’m going to be here a couple months, for sure, but if someone makes me a decent offer for the car, I’ll take it. He writes down his number on a scrap piece of paper, hands it to me, then shakes my hand.
He says, <<call me in a month.>>
I go back into the hotel.
In February, when I came through Zarcero, en route to Arenal to see the volcáno, I’d thought, ‘that looks like it would be a good place to live’. Before I left Canada, I had found a guy on the internet who arranged long-term accommodations in Zarcero. I’ll send him an email, using the computer in the hotel. The woman at the reception recognizes me, and welcomes me to use it.
"Tom: Sorry for the delay. I've been on the road for a month. Connecting to the internet has been difficult. I've recently arrived in San José. Are any of the places still available? What are payment options, can I pay down here in Costa Rica? It would be difficult and costly for me to send funds to the US. Are there telephone lines? I am still considering both the one-bedroom, and the three-bedroom houses that you mentioned to me before. What would be the minimum length of stay? I am planning on being in Costa Rica until May; then I'll make my next decision. I hope to hear from you soon. If you are here in Costa Rica, maybe we'll even meet up. I'll be driving to Zarcero today. sincerely, dean cassady"
I get into the car and start off trying to follow the same route by which I took John to the airport, along Avenida 11, then onto Avenida 9, continuing west along Avenida 13, then it becomes Avenida 7 again? Or now, it’s Avenida 9, again? How can the street signs be right? My instinct tells me to keep going this way.
There’s a sign, ‘Carretera Panamericana 1’, made it.
The speed picks up after the toll booth. The airport comes up on the left, and a junction highway to Alajuela, off to the right.
The highway converges from 4 lanes, to 2 lanes, one lane in each direction. The traffic is bad. I’m ‘full stop’ on the highway, boxed in and no place to move. It makes me feel vulnerable.
I move along, so slowly, now picking up to 30 kph, but red lights, I have to slow back down, and stop, again! Ugh! But I can see the sign for the turn off, at Naranjo; so I pull on to the shoulder, and drive, very slowly, along to the exit.
Naranjo is just as lively as I remember it. I have to turn right and then left somewhere around here.
I’ve gone too far. I have to make a u-turn to go back and find the right way.
I see the traffic going up; I follow the flow.
Yes, this is the right way.
I’m climbing out of town. There’s a good view, down, but I can only catch glimpses of the vistas. Though they entice me, the road demands my attention. I approach a restaurant, just back from the right side of the road. The back of the restaurant is on long stilts, hanging out above the bluff. I remember this restaurant is not too long before Zarcero; I’m almost there.
The small house Tom told me about is this side of Zarcero. It must be near here. He sent me a photo of it. It looks like a gingerbread A-frame. I scan back and forth, from side to side, looking for it.
On the right side, I can see that the edge of the cliff is near. There is it! There is goes.
Should I pull over and take a look? No, if that is it, I’ll be back, if not… it’d be a waste of time, and getting my expectations up, unnecessarily; better to avoid that.
It looks so idyllic, surrounded by conifers, right on the edge of the cliff. It must have a great view down. That could be it; I’m pretty sure it was the same as in the photo Tom sent me!
There’s the sign, ‘Zarcero – 1736 meters’. The road bends 90 degrees right, flattens, and I have to stop, because I’m a red light. It looks like it’s the one, and only, traffic light in town, at the southwest corner of the central park. The white church reflects the haze-whiten sun light. The shrubs surrounding the park, have been pruned into animal figures.
The traffic light turns green. I cruise through town, taking a good look at it, with an eye for any accommodations. I keep going. The town dissipates behind me. I pass a small pueblo, Laguna. I pass another sign for a pueblo, ‘Zapote’. The highway drops steeply. Golden sunlight pours down on me. The entire valley is gilded in this light. It might as well be Shrangra-La. But I have to get some food, and there’s nothing, as far as I can see, along the highway.
I screech to a stop to turn around at a short broad spot, on the inside shoulder of the road that I saw at the last moment. I make a precarious three-point turn; the shoulder is very thin on the drop-off side of the highway.
I start back, towards Zarcero. I pull into a very large parking lot on the right, to look at the map, and figure out what to do. The sign says it’s a restaurant, ‘Rancho Cesi’.
The waiter introduces himself, and begins to speak to me in broken English. I can’t understand most of what he is saying, but I get his name, he calls himself, Minor. He brings me a beer, and a short time after that, a large platter of casada. He pauses, putting it down. He wants to talk; he tells me quickly about how he’s going to get a job in the U.S; he’d seen it advertised on a web site. He starts to ask me questions about what he should and shouldn’t do to get through immigration?
I tell him honestly, <<I really don’t know how that system works.>>
I suggest that he find out what the U.S., and/or Canadian governments allow in for economic reasons, then either get those skills, or make up a good story for having them, and apply using that. I’m talking to him in Spanish, because his English is even worse than that. I’m not sure how much he understands.
“Muy courto”, I mention, more than once, “muy courto”; I hold my index finger and thumb up, about 1.5 cm apart, “muy courto”.
He places the espresso on the table. I give it a sniff, then put half a packet of sugar in it, stir it and take a sip. It’s not bad.
I tell Minor that I’m looking for a place to live in Zarcero. He relates, dramatically, the virtues of the town. The other customers are looking over at him. Finally, he goes to serve other customers, but as he goes, he says, he is going to give me his friend’s card, somebody who can help me out.
There are a lot of curious glances over at me. Minor hands me a card, as he passes by. The card reads, ‘Home Stay Zarcero – Tom’.
<<¿Do you know where I can meet this man?>>
* * *
I turn left at the north end of the central park and pull into a spot on the right side of the road. Across the street is the post office. It should be around here. I turn the car off, but leave the electrical on, listening to the tape, “…little pink houses… ooh yeah… for you and me…”[ii].
I get out and walk across the street and go into the post office. There’s a cute woman getting mail from a mailbox. I smile at her. I walk out. I see a small sign, “Home Stay Zarcero”, on the next door. I walk in.
There is a tall, lanky man, with a big gut. He looks to be in his late sixties, by the full head of salt and pepper hair, and the reading glasses halfway down his nose. He’s reading some correspondence, seated in a wood and leather rocking chair, on the opposite side of a large table strewn with tourist pamphlets. On the near side sits a woman with short dark curly hair. Her skin is very pale.
I take my sunglasses off. The big guy notices me. He stands up and holds out his hand. “You must be Dean. I’m Tom Lytle, pleased to meet yuh.”
I shake his hand, smiling. “Tom, for some reason, I thought you were in the states. I’m glad you’re here; it’s great to meet you.”
“I’m glad I’m here, too.” He laughs. “This is my wife.”
She turns and offers the pale hand, I take it, “pleased to meet you; Jerry.”
“Pleased to meet you, ma’am.”
“Well, come here Dean.” He beckons me to a computer monitor. “Here’s the place I told you about.” He clicks the mouse a few times. “Here’s a drawing of the property. The three-bedroom house is over here. Now, just to give you an idea, that,” he indicates the distance between the two buildings, “is about, oh, I’d say, a hundred yards. Now, I haven’t been able to get the superintendent, if that’s what you can call him.” Jerry snorts. “But, I’ve been dealing with the owners; so I don’t think there’s going to be a problem. You can stay at our place until we get this settled out.”
“Wow! The place looks great. I still want to take it.” I’m uncomfortable with the idea of going to stay at their place. “I couldn’t impose on you. Isn’t there a hotel in Zarcero?” I’d seen a place, just up the street that looks like it might be a hotel.
“Not really, Emanuela, just up the street, has a place, but people live there full time; it’s full. Anyhow, it’s no trouble at all. We’ve got lots of space.
I would be fine driving back to San José and the familiarity of Aranjuez. He’s so damned hospitable.
I follow them to their little ranch, just out of Zarcero. On the main highway, going towards Quesada, he signals and goes left, up a steep path. I bottom out, and the car is really chugging, going up. I hope it doesn’t stall. Tom pulls left along a twin track and stops at a steep set of stairs, leading to a one-story house. The front deck is two-stories high because of the steepness of the hill.
Tom shows me around and explains the hassles he’s had with the local customs and habits, “not very straight-forward, business-like, if you’re askin’ me.”
We stand on the porch. Tom chain-smokes. He tells me, on a clear day, which there haven’t been too many of so far in the year, you could see down to the Gulfo de Nicoya, and the peninsula on the far side. He said he’d spotted a big cruise-liner in the bay by its big white glow.
I’m worrying about the car. The gas tank is so full of holes, it leaks continuously. I hate that smell now, more than ever before. I feel guilty for exposing other people to it, especially people who are being nice to me. Because of the hill, the parking spot is a hundred feet away from the house, but when the wind changes, sometimes I smell to revolting stench of the petrol vapours.
Tom smokes one after another. He tells me how his by-pass surgery was like a new lease on life. Now he launches his latest cigarette butt out towards where the car is parked. I have visions of all my stuff exploding in a ball of flame. He lights up another, and tells me about growing his one-man construction business into a crew of over a hundred, and what sacrifices he’s made.
* * *
In the morning, Tom and I go to the tourist office to, in his words, ‘finalize’, the rental of the one-bedroom house. I’ll be his first successful placement. I can see that he is eager to reach this milestone in this, his new endeavour. He bustles and pulls back on the cigarettes with extra vigour.
He phones the superintendent, to let him know we’ll be coming down to take a look at the houses, as affable as I’ve become used to seeing him. Suddenly he pauses, <<could you say that again, I don’t think that I understood you.>>
He puts his hand over the receiver, “I can’t understand this guy very well. I never could.” He removes his hand from the receiver. “No comprendo, yo telephono mas tarde, con mi amigo, Mariposo. ¿Conosca Mariposo, si?… Si…No comprendo amigo…Telephono mas tarde. Adios.”
“I can’t understand a thing he says. He was saying something about the rent, $550 for the one-bedroom.” He says it incredulously. “That’s twice as much as what the owner agreed to. It can’t be right. Maybe he was talking about the three-bedroom. But even there, that’s not the amount that was agreed to for that, neither. This guy has been a power unto himself since we started this. We’ll just wait for Mariposo to come. He’ll sort it all out.”
He’s distracted. We walk outside, in front of the office. He lights up a cigarette, distractedly sucking on it. “I’ll tell yah Dean, yuh can’t take ENN-neh-thin for granted down here. I love it here. I like the weather, mind you, it’s been a bit rainy this year. It should be dry by now, and it’s still been raining. I like the people, but they don’t always say what they mean, here. They might say one thing, and do the complete opposite theng, for God sake. It’s the thing that is the hardest for me git used to.”
I look in the Post Office, fanaticising about having sex with the woman I saw there, yesterday.
Unfortunately, I’m pulled out of the reverie by Tom’s fit of coughing.
“However long this takes to sort out, you got a place to stay with Jerry and me. We’ll probably git it straightened out today, but it’s no problem for you to stay with us for a few nights.” He smiles, trying to encourage himself.
I groan inwardly, while putting on the most grateful smile I can muster. “Thanks Tom.”
We walk back in. “I think I’ll call Mariposo, and see if we can’t sort this out right now.” He picks up the phone and dials. “Uh, hola Martilla… Bien, bien, gracias. ¿Eh ustedes? Si, si, bien. Uh, Martilla, I was hoping I could speak with Mariposo. Uh huh. Uh huh. Comprendo. Muy Gracias, Martilla.” He puts down the phone, and turns towards me, his mouth opening to speak; but, a man walks in the front door.
“Hola, Tom. How are you my friend?” He’s a healthy-looking mid-sized guy. He looks to be in his late forties. His grey eyes stand out.
Tom’s face lights up like the fourth of July. “Mariposo, I’m hopin’ you can help us out with sumpthin’. But first, I’m gonna introduce you to Dean Cassady.”
“Hola Dean. I’m Mariposo.” I stand up and he takes my hand and shakes. “It’s good to meet you, finally. We’ve been expecting you for a little while.”
“Gracias. Muchos gustos. Yo gusto mucho vuestro pueblo, aquí. ¡Que bonito!”
“You know, Dean, Costa Rica is a beautiful country, the entire country. And this,” he pauses briefly, “is my favourite place in all of Costa Rica. ¡Que bonito!” He hold his hands out, palms up.
Tom explains the story with the superintendent, and the new, higher, amounts for the rent. He’s very animated by the end of it. Mariposo assures him that they’ll work it out. “I’ll call him right away.”
Tom relaxes a bit. He walks out.
“Mariposo, mucho gusto. If the place doesn’t work out, it would be alright with me.”
“Yes, we’ll find you a place to stay. But this one will probably work out. Let’s see what happens.”
Tom comes back in. Mariposo is talking with the superintendent; it’s not working out. Tom turns red.
“Well, we’re gonna call the owners.” Then, he says, under his breath, “God dammit.” He walks out shaking his head, taking his packet of cigarettes from the breast pocket of his shirt, as he goes.
“We’ll call the owners. They live in Venezuela. No problem.”
I nod at him.
Tom comes back in, hacking. Mariposo phones the number for the landlord, in Venezuela. He waits a long time for the connection. Mariposo cups his other ear with his free hand. He’s concentrating. He repeats his questions, several times. Eventually he says “Gracias”, and hangs up the phone.
“Well, that’s the price, now.”
Tom looks like he’s going to burst. Barely repressed rage radiates from him.
“That’s okay. It doesn’t matter. Martilla will find a place today or tomorrow. No problem. Tom, we’re going to sort this out. This place didn’t work out, but we’ll find another place.”
Tom is huffing. He goes on a short rant about having set up the deal. Mariposo listens patiently. Tom stomps out to front of the shop, again. Mariposo follows.
I feel trapped. This really has nothing to do with me, and now, I don’t care one way or another. I could make the new rent, high though it is, but… they’re likely be a minefield of ‘misunderstandings’, and eventually, it could get ugly. I look around the office and see if there is anything interesting. I find some topographic maps of the area; so I look at them.
Tom and Mariposo come in. Mariposo says goodbye; he has some other business to attend to. He assures me that his wife will have found a place no later than tomorrow.
Tom falls into telling me the story about his career, how difficult it was establishing himself in the aggressive, cut throat, building business, from the ground up. Eventually, he had a large payroll, supported by hefty revenues. He’d made many mistakes along the way, over-promising on more than one occasion. But in every case, he said, he delivered, even when he had to pay for it out of his own pocket. He was “that kind of a guy.”
He’s restless, he tells me that he wants to get out of the office, and asks me if I wouldn’t mind driving his car. On the way back to his place, he confides to me that it seems like that this type of thing happens often, “down here”, and he’s starting to get tired of it.
* * *
The next morning, we drop Jerry off at the tourist office, then continue in the car, a block and a half along the main road running south. We get out. He wants to show me his favourite breakfast place.
It’s a bit dingy inside. The food is fine, but nothing out of the ordinary.
We drive the block and a half back to the tourist office. We walk in. Tom tells Jerry that he doesn’t feel well. He’s going home.
There is another woman in the office, speaking on the telephone in Spanish. I don’t know why I am so certain that this woman is Martilla, but I am. She is looking at me. She looks to be between thirty and forty years old. She has brown hair. She has a medium build, and medium height. She has an elegance. I believe she will be successful, in finding me a place to stay. She hangs up the phone.
“Martilla, mucho gusto.”
She greets me, “I am very pleased to meet you too, Dean. There is a house for rent in Palmira, a smaller town, further up the mountain. Would you like to have a look at it?”
Martilla drives. We continue up the same road the tourist office is on. It goes up and up through a mixed, woodland. It bends to the right, alpine meadows appear on the right-hand side. A coniferous forest runs along the left. Now grassy hills roll up on the right side. We bend around a left turn, and up a shallow grade. On the right side there is a misty field, backing into a wood, the fog hangs low. A house sits at the edge of the wood. The concrete fence posts and completely covered in moss. We continue across and over a ridge into the clear sunlight. On the left, is the valley; Zarcero is far below. We turn back right and through two large hills, both extensively planted; it looks like tomatoes and cabbage. Up we continue, bending left, rolling grassy hills on the right, fields backed by trees on the left. We slow and turn a ninety degree right-hand turn. There is a soccer field on the left. It is lined on the far side, and the top, the east side, I think, with houses. We turn left along the top lane, and stop in front of the last property. There are two houses, a small traditional design, and a larger modern-looking one, further back. A new, smooth, asphalt driveway leads up to the front entrance on the large house.
The air is clean!
A young man greets us. He looks like he’s in his late twenties, or early thirties. He has dark hair, and dark olive skin. He’s about five feet, ten inches tall, with a lean build.
Martilla introduces him as ‘Richard’.
<<But everyone calls me ‘Chocoleto’.>> He shrugs his shoulders in a demure manner, shaking my hand.
He invites us in, and points out this and that, as he shows us around.
I’ve already made up my mind; this will definitely do, for now at least.
The bedrooms are full of junk. He says he’ll move it. I tell him that I’ll do it. I’ll put it all into one of the three, no problem.
The two of us walk out, down a lane and into the bar. It’s without much affectation. It has a concrete floor; it’s dark. I hear a few greetings of “Chocoleto”, from the gloom.
After a few moments, Richard introduces me to the barman. <<Señor is renting the house. He’s going to be staying for a while. Two beers.>>
He opens two bottles of Bavaria. We knock bottles.
Murmurs begin, and slowly increase in volume to conversations. The barman says, <<welcome to Palmira>>, as he shines a glass.
<<¿How much for a case of beer?>>
“Si, veinticuatro botellas. ¿Cuánto?”
It seems like he’s making this up as he goes along. I don’t care. Finally he gets to an amount, <<¿I bring the bottles to you when I’m done?>>
He nods. I hand him the money. He kicks a case of beer on the floor, <<there, that one.>>
“Gracias.” I walk out with Chocoleto, carrying the case.
* * *
I wake up early, and clean the room at Tom and Jerry’s place. It was a tough night. Tom was hacking all night, stomping around, and going outside; the screen door, right next to the room, slamming every time.
I creep out. They’re not up yet. I go, being careful to ease the screen door closed. I turn the car on and go as fast as I can.
I get the money at the bank and drive up the hill to Palmira. Chocoleto is there, as planned. I hand him the wad of cash. He hands me the ready receipt.
[i]. “Blind Mellon”, www.blindmelon.com , according the current version at Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blind_Melon , “… an American rock band formed in Los Angeles, California by two musicians from Mississippi and one from Indiana, active from 1990 to 1999 and 2006 onward. Best remembered for their 1993 single “No Rain“,”, released on the first album, “Blind Melon”, “released on September 22, 1992 through Capitol Records”; first track: “Soak the Sin”
[ii]. “Pink House”, by John Mellencamp, from the album Uh-Huh, released 1983 Riva Records