Sunday, July 27, 2008

Thoughts on Costa Rica

In 1991, still reeling from a two-year train-wreck of a relationship, I joined a public service group called Youth Service International. The foundation planned trips to places like Papua New Guinea and the Australian outback to assist with forestation projects and construct eco-tourism camps. The year I signed on, the team was going to Costa Rica to start construction on a lodge in a remote part of the indigenous rainforest on the southwestern coast, a place known as the Osa Peninsula. The expedition would last approximately seventy-five days.

The group numbered around forty. Mostly recent college graduates, the age ranged from seventeen to twenty-five. I was twenty-four years old, in need of a fresh outlook and anxious to experience unspoiled areas of the globe, if there still are such places. In order to go I raised the money myself, somewhere in the neighborhood of four thousand dollars. The two biggest fund-generators were a 120 mile bike-a-thon and a chicken-pie-brunch for the First Methodist Church in New Bern, North Carolina. I learned then that the best way to raise money is to feed people. The brunch raised about a third of the funds in around five hours.

To rendezvous with the other members, who were coming from all over the country, I had to reach Miami International Airport. In any international airport, especially in the late spring and throughout summer, one can see groups like ours strewn around on airport floors leaning up against over-stuffed back-packs and nervously checking passports and tickets. Some are less concerned with documents, reading battered paper-backs or exploring the terminals in search of the bar. Most represent a loose group of temporary expats, dipping their toe in the “other” world for a moment in hopes of life-changing insight or a fling with another culture. Whichever it is, it keeps an underground of back-packing adventurers moving around the globe like misplaced beetles in a never-ending column of ants.

Before the trip got underway, we were all assigned duties to be performed once we reached camp. Because of my background in restaurants, I landed the responsibility of purchasing all of the food for the camp. This was not an easy task, the camp was three hours away by boat from even the most remote town, and the boat trips were few-and-far-between. On top of this, I had to account for the tastes of forty Americans and roughly twenty Costa Ricans (nicknamed ticas and ticos) and all on a strict budget. I learned within a few days what most Costa Ricans think of oatmeal for breakfast. My Scotch ancestry took it for granted that everybody ate oatmeal for breakfast. Not in Costa Rica.

On top of this, I had a boss. Because I was a little late getting the job, the true supervisor of the food supply was an eighteen-year-old lawyer’s daughter from Westchester County New York. I’ll call her K.

I met K on the floor of the Miami airport when the YSI leader introduced us and claimed me as K’s assistant. She was small, ninety pounds maybe less, wearing over-alls and a deep scowl. She was about as impressed with me as she was with the spot on the wall she went back to staring at as soon as the inconvenience of shaking my hand was over. I tried to strike up a conversation, but this provoked only monosyllabic grunts. Still, she was pretty, I thought, and that helped.

K liked control. She didn’t know the first thing about supplying food to people, but she new a great deal about being bossy and difficult. This took her far on those first couple of supply outings where she would either ignore my suggestions outright or purse her lips and stubbornly contradict me. I had to just accept it for a while, she was in charge.

The trip soon created its own rhythm, and as we settled into the camp K became more comfortable with my help. I made some blunders yes (oatmeal) but I worked very hard, building a BBQ pit out of rebar and organizing a fresh coconut assembly line so we could have the delicious coconuts that were in never-ending abundance on the beach. Almost every morning fishermen, fishing in some of the best game waters in the world, would unload their throwbacks on us, mostly yellow-fin tuna and wahoo. The high energy arroz y frijoles and handmade corn tortillas always augmented these local gifts. I learned to make tortillas from the locals and in return I gave them some very bad but entertaining English lessons.

The insects were the drawback of the trip. Vicious sand-flies plagued any exposed skin, and one would have to wait until they bit to swat them because of their speed. In the forest, large bees would zero in and sting-at-will. An afternoon shower could bring on the hatching of millions of flying termites who would frantically fly and fornicate all over the camp, sending all inhabitants running for cover. I once found an intimidating scorpion on the inside of my shirt after pulling it off the clothes-line.

Infection was also a problem, with the smallest of nicks turning into a festering sore within a couple of days. At a later date I plan to write about the staph infection on my foot that came very close to becoming gangrenous, but that will require a whole new post.

K and I managed to become close. I built a little home-away-from home down the beach from the main camp. In a palm grove I pitched my tent on a platform made of material I pilfered from the construction sight. The platform at least kept the ground-dwelling bugs away. The tent was usually hot, but at night, with only the screen up, the breeze coming off the crashing waves of the Pacific would lull me into a light sweaty sleep.

In the camp was a mess tent with a long picnic table where the whole expedition would cram themselves at meals and play cards into the evening. I never considered the things I would miss from home until I reached the camp. One of these was chair-backs. Leaning forward over a picnic table for two-and-a-half months made me long for a lawn chair, a high-back chair, or even a church pew. So on my platform I made a porch of sorts. It was two twelve-by-fours hammered into the form of a bench. A bench with a back. Here, before dinner, I would watch the surf, drink a beer, or crack open a coconut for K and I to share. Often some others would join us and I’d pluck away on an old guitar I was teaching one of the ticos to play.

K moved into my tent not long after I finished the platform and the bench. She stayed there every night for the rest of the trip. We became friends despite the uncomfortable living conditions and differences on how to supply the camp. One night, when the entire camp had come down with pink-eye (yep pink-eye) except her, she led me like a blind man to the main camp in the dark so I could wash out my burning itching eyes. Something, possibly my habit of humorous complaining, got us laughing. We both were in hysterics over some inanity, laughing desperately while the giant indigenous trees listened and the insects kept up their relentless onslaught. It seems such a long time ago, but these things rarely leave the forefront of my recall for more than a day or two. I realize now that this is what I was looking for in Costa Rica.

So much about that trip transformed me into who I’ve become today. It was the briefest of periods, less than three months, less than a semester, less than a single season of football, less than a forth-of-a-year. Not long after, I went to Oregon while K went to Africa, at my urging. Sadly we lost touch, but as this entry suggests I haven’t forgotten her. Maybe it’s the same with her.

The dynamics and diversity of that group influenced me so positively after a period where I had foundered in the negativity of my home-town, that I felt spring-boarded forward. Now, when things are tough, I console myself with the never-ending mantra, “Well I survived Costa Rica, I can survive this too.” Its things like these that teach what you’ve really got inside of you.

Post Script:
This is Companario. Our group was the second to go down and start construction. None of what you see on the website was there when we started. Makes me want to go back.


Jeremiah Paddock said...

That was absolutely amazing. You always have such great stories. I know I'm terrible about keeping in touch, but I wait with much anticipation for every new blog from you. Hope you are having a great summer.

IM said...

thanks jeremy, It's been a busier summer than I imagined so I've given myself a break on posting. I hope to write more now that things have eased up. Hope you're doing well.

Anonymous said...

Another great story--I didn't know all those details about Costa Rica. I looked up Campanario--pretty impressive, and you were in on the beginning. Wonder if the platform is still on the beach. linser

Anonymous said...

really great story Ian. I had a similar life changing experience when I volunteered in vietnam

IM said...

Lindsay, I had to tear the platform down when we left. Pretty metaphorical huh? I watched a total eclipse form there, all the daytime animals went to sleep and the night animals began their calls.

Nursemyra, volunteering has always brought me the most important life experiences. I plan to do more, not sure at my age how I would do at those extremes though.

IM said...
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Danny said...

Fabulous post! I was riveted and living vicariously through you...but let's face it, at this point I'd check myself into the Cartago Hilton the minute I saw the first bug. I kept waiting for the torrid love story between you and K to emerge but perhaps it's just as well that you didn't go there! Did you try googling her to find out where she is today?

IM said...

Danny, can't provide every detail but I will say that it was not the place for comfortable physical intimacy, not at the camp anyway (it's probably different now). And, as the Cracker song says, "I've searched the world over, for my angel in black." There are millions of women with her marriage/name change etc. By the way, going to see Wilco next Friday night...woohoo!!!