El día de los muertos

(To read El Gringo Feo’s Costa Rica Diary from the beginning, start here.)

Friday, October 26

“Only against death does man cry out in vain.”
— Malcolm Lowry

At this time of year, my mind wanders the streets of Urubamba in Peru’s Sacred Valley. I brush past the spirits of Incan warriors who roamed the area centuries ago until I come to a heavy wood door secured by an imposing padlock.

I enter after being granted access by Hernan, who grew up here. We come to a second door, which opens into a courtyard lush with corn, herbs, tomatoes and clucking poultry. But before we enter this domestic Eden, I look up and spot several human skulls perched on a shelf above the doorway. They are surrounded by fresh flowers, chicha corn beer and other tributes from the living to the dead.

I’m taken aback to learn these are Hernan’s ancestors. The skulls aren’t clay replicas. They’re the bony remains of real people. In return for the humble offerings surrounding them, they guard the home from threats physical and spiritual. Perhaps that’s why Lobo, the German shepherd padding along behind us, seems unperturbed by the presence of a strange Gringo. Hernan’s ancestors have the situation under control.

It’s disconcerting to be in such close proximity to the dead, to have them occupying the same space as the living. But as the writer George Saunders has said, the dead are always with us, “whispering lovingly or harshly” in our ears. “We all carry dead people around with us, and we carry the prospect of our own death around with us.”

We all navigate this confrontation with mortality in different ways. I take great comfort in the approach I’ve encountered during my travels in Latin America, where life and death aren’t segregated to separate spheres. T.S. Eliot called April the cruelest month, for it reminds those of us plodding through middle age that the passion Spring once provoked in our youth is far behind us, beyond our reach. Perhaps October, then, is the most bittersweet month. The Autumn days tick down toward Winter, and El Día de Los Muertos awaits us at the gateway to November. This holiday is much more than candy skulls and dancing skeletons. It’s a time to pause and reflect fondly on those who are with us only in memory and to remember that we inevitably will join them on the other side. There’s a tinge of sadness in this, but it’s also life-affirming and conjures a flood of wonderful memories.

Life lessons in a cemetery overlooking the Mon Valley

“From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity. “
— Edvard Munch

I’ve been meditating on the Monongahela River valley during my time here in Costa Rica. I’m working on a book that’s steeped in the smoke and fire and cacophony of the steel mills that dotted the river. I remember drinking beer perched high on a hill overlooking the Homestead Works and Carrie Furnace back in the late ‘70s when I was a feckless teenager, marveling at the furious orange glow pulsing down below, never fully ceding the valley to night.

When I return to Pittsburgh, I always make time to stop at the Braddock Catholic Cemetery to visit my childhood buddy, Jimmy Shogun. Twenty-nine years ago we carried him there and lowered him into the ground. That was the first time death sucker punched me, beating back, at least momentarily, my cocksure belief that I was eternal.

Shog, as we affectionately called him, was my next-door neighbor growing up in Braddock Hills. We played street hockey together, fought each other, competed on rival Little League teams and attended the same college, Edinboro University. Shog always stood by me, even when I alienated many of my other childhood friends with a college-boy’s arrogance fueled by strange ideas, new musical tastes and non-Yinzer influences. “Benzy, you egghead!” he’d chide, shaking his head, grinning broadly and giving me a shove stiff enough to get my attention but not hard enough to knock me down. He was a big guy, Lunk Yargish, as one friend referred to him. There’s a massive hole in my life where Shog once stood. He died in October 1989, just a few months after I married Lara. I remember bawling like a bullied child as we carried his casket to that plot with a sublime view of the Mon, taking a modicum of consolation in the fact that Shog had met Lara when I brought her home that summer to introduce her to friends and family before our marriage. Shog and Lara hit it off immediately. I saw that as a benediction of sorts, his blessing of my marriage and my post-Pittsburgh life.

I think of Shog often. I have his picture within view of my favorite reading spot at our house in Athens. The approach of Dia de Los Muertos always conjures images of us launching Big Wheels off ramps and building shacks in the woods. The big guy lives on as long as I draw breath.

The dead are always with us. Sometimes, they send us postcards.

“His soul swooned softly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
― James Joyce, ‘The Dead’

During my most recent visit to Mexico City, I met Alex Dorfsman, an artist who lived upstairs from the AirBnB Lara and I rented in the Condesa neighborhood. He invited us up to his apartment, where we sipped herbal tea and listened to classical music in his bright, uncluttered apartment lined with book shelves that sagged under the weight of myriad art and photography books. We talked about a wide range of topics, including how social media is having a chilling effect on letter writing and other more calculated forms of communication. Alex focused his curious, intense green eyes on me as he told me about his latest project, Correspondencia, which he was working on with a local yoga studio. Participants were encouraged to pick up one of his art cards, fill it out and send it to someone, anyone. He gave me five of them, which I promptly addressed and sent to friends back in the States.

I couldn’t help but think my friend Barb Page was looking down from the great Copy Desk in the sky, smiling as we had that conversation in Mexico City. Barb loved to travel, and she always detailed her adventures in a swarm of postcards that would arrive in clusters. The narrative flowed from card to card, and each was numbered so I could reassemble them in order to read the message. Sometimes it would take weeks to assemble the verbal puzzle, but it was always worth the effort. Our friendship was punctuated with postcards. They came from Europe. From James Buchanan’s homestead in Pennsylvania. From New York City. From Albuquerque. From thrift shops. It was always a delight to receive this stream of smart, encouraging, literate correspondence.

Barb ventured to the other side in 2011. I’ll never forget the winter evening when she called to tell me she was ready, that she was going to refuse to be connected to machines that kept her alive. She’d had a nasty fall, which resulted in a broken hip and a domino effect of health problems. Her eyesight was going. I was disembarking from a Metro Bus in Washington, D.C., and as I walked the four blocks to our rental house in the Brightwood neighborhood Barb broke the news to me. I wanted to argue, to protest, to insist that she reconsider. But I knew Barb. She didn’t do anything without a lot of thought. So instead I listened, tears streaming down my cheeks as I approached the house. As a young, cocky copy editor I learned a hell of a lot from her during the time we sat side-by-side at The Albuquerque Tribune, the greatest paper I ever had the honor of working for. Through the years, we never lost touch. Sometimes our communication was a tenuous trickle of postcards. Other times it was random gifts we sent each other. Best of all were the out-of-nowhere phone calls, where I filled her in on my latest life updates and received thoughtful advice and encouragement. She always seemed so filled with wonder and amusement at my antics. Her approval buoyed me like the praise of a parent.

The Tribune closed years ago, another death in the family. It lives on in the memories of those of us who thrived there, and so does Barb. I’m confident she’s sitting there at the copy desk, trying to get the hang of whatever new technology the afterlife has dropped in front of her and making some post-mortem reporter’s prose sparkle.

A Boogie Down Production

Heaven and Earth are heartless
treating creatures like straw dogs
— Tao Te Ching, Chapter 5

Few losses in my life were more heart-breaking that Lynn Rawlings’ premature death. She and Lara were best buddies in college, a friendship I had the privilege of piggybacking on during my Birmingham years. Everyone called her Boogie, a nickname she earned in college. I remember the pain in Lara’s voice when she called to tell me Lynn had died. I was in some soulless hotel room in Atlanta, suffering through another in an endless series of business trips. I cried all night, unable to come to grips with the news.

Some of my most outrageous times in the Deep South were punctuated by Boogie’s infectious laughter. We were together at Honey for the Bears, an after-hours dive bar in Montgomery, Alabama, when I talked a gun-totting idiot into stepping out in the parking lot to talk, where I slowly, gently convinced him to put the gun away. I plucked her out of the Alabama River when she overestimated her limited ability to swim on a crushingly hot day. And she was the maid of honor at our wedding. I’ve never been so sad as when I sat behind Boogie’s children at her funeral, wondering what would become of them in a world devoid of their mother’s love. But Boogie lives on. Her daughter is still a key part of our lives. She’s a police officer in Alabama and comes up to Ohio about once a year to visit us and remind us that her mother lives on in our memories.

Finding transcendence in a band of humans

I ain’t no Sylvia Plath
I ain’t gonna die never
— Phil Pollard, ‘Sylvia Plath’

I learned Phil Pollard had died when Lara and I were in to Mexico City to celebrate the Day of the Dead at San Gregorio Cemetery, surrounded by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Mexicans gathered around the graves of their loved ones to celebrate their lives. I’d been playing hide and seek with the dead since we landed in Mexico City. News of Phil’s death hit me hard.

I wouldn’t say I knew Phil. My relationship with him was like a pebble skipping across Knoxville’s night life. He was one of those defining personalities of our years there, keeping the beat for Sara Schwabe’s Yankee Jass Band and numerous other musical endeavors, including his eclectic, electrifying Band of Humans. He and Sara played our Christmas party on several occasions.

“We’re all having a little funeral in our souls right now, too,” Knoxville’s Matt Morelock wrote on his Facebook page after Phil died. “He’d reject the mourning and admonish us to celebrate and get off the damned computer and do somethin’ freaky! I think it’s our duty now. I’m going skinny dipping in broad daylight.”

Yes. Exactly. Mexico City was my skinny dipping in broad daylight. The flamboyant colors. The persistent DayGlo presence of the deceased. No time for a funereal remembrance of things past. This was a rave.

During a subsequent trip to Mexico City, I bumped into Phil again while watching the frenzied subsonic celebrations of Aztec drummers and dancers near the Zócalo. He lives on in every drum beat of every song I listen to.

Fallen Alpinians and other friends gone but not forgotten

With all darkness closin’ in
Will the light reveal your soul
Yes one sweet kiss on your clay cold lips
I’ll know sleep you’ll never know
Where do we go, where do we go
Where do we go from here
— UFO, ‘Rock Bottom’

A frightening number of my high school and college friends are no longer with us. I remember them fondly. I remember hanging out in the rocky parking lot of Alpine, a dilapidated ice rink in suburban Pittsburgh. Shog was there. And Bilson and Glenmo. Carmine roared through occasionally in his revved up Datsun 280Z. Micki Simko showed up more than a few times. A beautiful breeze that made those Pittsburgh summer nights shine. I learned so much in that place, at that time. Those of us who survive serve the memory of those who departed much too soon. They ring as true as the notes of a Michael Schenker guitar solo.

Canines I have known and loved and lost

King went a-howlin’ after a deer
Wasn’t scared of jumpin’
off the truck in high gear
King went a-sniffin’
and he would go
Was the best old hound dog
I ever did know
— Neil Young, ‘Old King’

Mitzie, the dog who brightened my childhood and never lived up to her alleged Britany spaniel pedigree but was my constant companion; PigPen the black lab/golden retriever cross who emerged from the dust in Algodones, New Mexico, and won his name on the way home while we listened to a bootleg tape of the Grateful Dead’s Ron “Pigpen” McKernan howling the blues at the Filmore East; Crystal the cocker spaniel, daughter of Brandy, another dog I loved and lost during the Birmingham years; Fluffy, a poorly socialized chow cross, unpredictable, snappy, but fiercely loyal to me; Kesey, a tired old collie abandoned at a Tennessee park and rescued on the day Ken Kesey died; Ozzy, another dumped Tennessean who won our hearts and was stuck with the name of a bat-eating metal maniac he had nothing in common with; Gilligan, a black and tan coonhound found emaciated, frenetic, plagued with worms, craving a pack to join on the day Bob Denver died; Xena, the Newfoundland who lumbered into my life and never left, still roaming my dreams whenever water is the central theme; Mully, a frustrating adrift Maltese we took in when Boogie passed.

We continue

by W S Merwin
For Galway Kinnell

The rust a little pile of western color lies
At the end of its travels
Our instrument no longer.

Those who believe
In death have their worship cut out for them.
As for myself we
Continue

An old
Scar of light our trumpet
Pilgrims with thorns
To the eye of the cold
Under flags made by the blind
In one fist

Their letter that vanishes
If the hand opens:
Charity come home
Begin.

And finally, a few words from the Grateful Dead. Perhaps now I understand the grateful part of their name …

There comes a redeemer
and he slowly too fades away
There follows a wagon behind him
that’s loaded with clay
And the seeds that were silent
all burst into bloom and decay
The night comes so quiet,
and it’s close on the heels of the day
— Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia, ‘Eyes of the World’

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Return of the howlers

(To read El Gringo Feo’s Costa Rica Diary from the beginning, start here.)

Sunday, October 21

One of the howlers I was hanging out with on Saturday.

I’ve been struggling mightily with a section of The Book, and yesterday morning I started to hit stride, making more progress than I had in a few days.

Then the howlers showed up. Monkey business ensued.

I noticed two of them in a tree about 25 feet from where I was writing. They’ve been scarce since the days became bloated with rain, and I guess yesterday’s nice weather convinced them it was time for a feeding frenzy. I still act like a little kid at the zoo every time they come around, so I promptly abandoned my computer and went over for a closer view of what turned out to be a mom and baby munching leaves and seed pods from a tree about 15 feet above me. They seemed completely unfazed by my presence.

That’s when I noticed two more. In the same tree. And three more in a nearby tree. The sound of dropping leaves and branches prompted me to spot another handful making their way toward the bar area of PurUvita. Within 15 minutes about 15 or 20 of them emerged, hanging out in the nearby trees.

So much for momentum on The Book. But I did get to spend a quiet hour watching the monkeys move gracefully through the trees, and the alpha male even unfurled a magnificent series of howls. That’s the first time I’ve actually seen one screaming. Very impressive. Even cooler, there apparently was another band of them over behind La Jungla Ferretería (The Jungle Hardware store), so their alpha started shouting back at our guys.

I also had a really strange coatimundi encounter on Friday. I was in the Treehouse reading Jennifer Egan’s incredible “A Visit from the Goon Squad” when I heard a racket that sounded like the distress call of some bird that had been nabbed by a predator. When I hobbled out onto the deck to see what was up, I saw a swarm of coatis hopping around in an extremely agitated manner. There were easily 15 or 20 of them, and as I watched closely I realized there was a larger, darker one who was the center of their ire. I assumed it was a male, and it wasn’t backing down. I pulled up the Wikipedia entry on coati’s and found this:

Males over two years become solitary due to behavioural disposition and collective aggression from the females and will join the female groups only during the breeding season.

I’m betting that’s what was going on here. They’re a lot like raccoons, and they can be just as fierce. After snarling at each other for a while, the entire pack ran in unison up the hill and disappeared into the jungle.

Last night, I took Gian and Sara out to dinner at a wonderful Mexican place here in Uvita to thank them for their help and friendship. If you ever find yourself in Uvita, I highly recommend Carlito’s, especially the shrimp enchiladas and the pineapple margaritas with jalapeńos. ¡Que sobrosa!

My first time atop the property in about 6 weeks. Stunning.

This morning, I decided to take the steadily improving ankle for a test drive. I toyed with going to the beach but opted instead for a walk up to the top of the property, which I figured would be lower impact. Th ankle did well and the view was breathtaking. I’d forgotten how much I love it up there.

Banana update: I’m not sure I see a lot of difference sine the last photo, but they do seem to be doing well. I suspect they’ll be ready after I’m gone. Something for Jeff to look forward to …

The bananas continue to grow.

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The scorpion’s failed attempt at revenge

(To read El Gringo Feo’s Costa Rica Diary from the beginning, start here.)

Thursday, October 18

The Sibu dog waiting patiently for something worth begging for.

I made my weekly run to el supermercado today, and as is my custom, I locked up my valuables in the bodega, a secure, gated part of PurUvita, before I set off to torture the Ticos with my mangled Spanish. I have the key to that area hidden on site, tucked in a magnetic key holder that’s attached to a strategically located piece of metal.

I’m of a paranoid nature (see above), so I always take a good long look into the crevice where the key is stashed before sticking my hand up in there to dislodge the magnet. Never know who might have decided to call it home since the last time I checked in.

When I returned from the market, bristling with enough food to last me a week or so, I looked up into the crevice, and retrieved the key. But I noticed something way up in there, a bit farther back, that I thought might be those odd pods that contain spider eggs. So when I went to return the magnetic key holder I carried my trusty broomstick, stuck it in there and gave it a quick stabbing motion.

The first scorpion I dispatched here in Uvita …

A bad-ass scorpion promptly plummeted to the ground, no doubt kith and kin to the one I encountered and terminated in the kitchen not too long ago. I proceeded to bash the bugger with my broomstick until it stopped moving, which took a surprising amount of violence. After I swept him off the patio and into the jungle, I got ready to put the key back in its hidey-hole, and paused. Maybe not. I now have a new location. Just as concealed but easier to assess before I stick my paw in there like a drunken bear digging for honey …

Anyone who has Suffered the Benz knows what an insufferable creature of habit I am.

  • Evidence, exhibit 1: When I go in to the supermarket, I always stop for lunch at a place called Sibu, which has been consistently excellent. Today was no exception. I had their Sibu salad and a red snapper burrito that were superb, as well as a papaya-banana smoothie. As an added benefit, there were several dogs milling around, including one Gian once told me is a fixture around town. She came up to let me pet her and then went on her rounds, showing no interest whatsoever in the salad I was shoveling into my mouth. But when that snapper showed up, she suddenly materialized in front of me. Smart dog. I also see her ranging around the parking lot in front of Sibu at times, and she’s clearly street smart. That stretch of the Costanera Sur is almost always congested, and the truck drivers like to barrel through as if it’s a stretch of Kansas Interstate.
  • Evidence, exhibit 2: After lunch, I always swing over to the catercorner side of the intersection, trying to be as traffic-aware as my canine friend, and buy a kilo of mamon chino from a guy who sets up there. That 1,000 Colones (about 2 bucks) is the best money I spend each week. So I’m sitting here cracking those buggers open and eating them like a hungry howler as I write this. I love market day.
  • Evidence, exhibit 3: As I hopped out of the taxi (a crewcab white Toyota pickup, more accurately) my driver, Michael, grinned and said, “¿Hasta la próxima semana, no?” (Until next week?). Sí, hasta la próxima semana. Like clockwork.

Is that snapper I smell?

This morning was gorgeous, which was much needed after the ceaseless rain we’ve suffered. The howlers were in full flail and the jungle was buzzing with yellow flycatchers and a bunch of blue, finch-like birds I couldn’t ID. The agouti were out, foraging for scraps of papaya I’d tossed them earlier. I flock of parrots flew high overhead, chattering noisily, paired up, maybe 20 or so total, and I heard a macaw or toucan somewhere out in the jungle, but I didn’t get a look. Several insanely beautiful butterflies flittered through. It was sublime.

When I returned from the store it was cloudy, but I still managed to steal an hour or so in the hammock before a light rain started to fall, chasing me inside to read Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot on my Kindle. But several hours later, as I write this, the relámpagos y truenos are raging, the rain is falling and the electricity is being incredibly fickle, flashing on and off, pitching me into sporadic bouts of blackout. It’s amazing how inky it gets here when the lights fail. Really eerie with the lightning illuminating the jungle in flashes like a B horror movie.. When the lights die, the glow of my computer screen becomes a magnet for swarming insects. And when the electricity comes back up, bats zigzag through to snatch the bugs that regroup around the restored lights. The bats don’t bother me at all. They come and go all evening while I type. I’m assuming one of them is BatBoy, who spends his days snoozing above the doorway of the Treehouse. I always stop to say hi to him when I’m coming and going. I’m sure he’s told his comrades I’m cool, for a human.

Oh well, light or dark, rain or shine, at least I have my mamon chino.

Munching mamon chino between lightning strikes.

Last, but certainly not least, Happy Birthday, Lara Edge. I can’t put into words how much I miss you or how utterly happy I am to have you in my life. I love you. Only two more weeks and we’ll do Costa Rica in a more decadent way than the Tarzan life I’ve been leading for the past two-and-a half-months …

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Who’ll stop the rain?

(To read El Gringo Feo’s Costa Rica Diary from the beginning, start here.)

Wednesday, October 17

It’s been raining nonstop for 36 hours here in Uvita. So I figure if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

As long as I remember
The rain’s been comin’ down
Clouds of mystery pourin’
Confusion on the ground

Good men through the ages
Tryin’ to find the sun
And I wonder, still I wonder
Who’ll stop the rain
— Credence Clearwater Revival

It’s Raining In Love
I don’t know what it is,
but I distrust myself
when I start to like a girl
a lot. 

It makes me nervous.
I don’t say the right things
or perhaps I start
to examine,
evaluate,
compute
what I am saying. 

 If I say, “Do you think it’s going to rain?”
 and she says, “I don’t know,”
 I start thinking : Does she really like me? 

 In other words
 I get a little creepy. 

 A friend of mine once said,
“It’s twenty times better to be friends
with someone
than it is to be in love with them.” 

I think he’s right and besides,
it’s raining somewhere, programming flowers
and keeping snails happy.
That’s all taken care of. 

BUT 

if a girl likes me a lot
and starts getting real nervous
and suddenly begins asking me funny questions
and looks sad if I give the wrong answers
and she says things like,
“Do you think it’s going to rain?”
and I say, “It beats me,”
and she says, “Oh,”
and looks a little sad
at the clear blue California sky,
I think : Thank God, it’s you, baby, this time
instead of me.
— Richard Brautigan

Bleak House
London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.
— Charles Dickens

Rain Travel
I wake in the dark and remember
it is the morning when I must start
by myself on the journey
I lie listening to the black hour
before dawn and you are
still asleep beside me while
around us the trees full of night lean
hushed in their dream that bears
us up asleep and awake then I hear
drops falling one by one into
the sightless leaves and I
do not know when they began but
all at once there is no sound but rain
and the stream below us roaring
away into the rushing darkness
— W.S. Merwin

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That coatimundi munched my pineapples

(To read El Gringo Feo’s Costa Rica Diary from the beginning, start here.)

Monday, October 15

The first piece of evidence. This pineapple was eaten almost completely.

When I returned from my trip to the States, I went over to the pineapple plants to harvest one since I knew they’d be really ripe. That’s when I realized someone had munched an entire pineapple, leaving only the nub still attached to the plant. My first suspect was that massive iguana who hangs out in the parking area.

Nope.

I went down to open the gate for Gian, who was coming by to take me to refill the propane tank that fuels the stovetop and I saw a coatimundi bolt from the pineapple plants and bound over the fence. The raccoon-like bastard had started working on another ripe, delicious pineapple. So I picked two others that he hadn’t gotten to yet and then pulled the one he’d started working on, cut away the part closest to where he’d been munching and diced it up for myself. It briefly ran through my mind that maybe the critter had rabies or something, but screw it. I’ll teach him to mess with my pineapples, even if it leaves me foaming at the mouth and fearing water. I tossed what was left where the agouti hang out, and they were quick to find it and finish it off.

After I spooked a coatimundi, I discovered he had been working on a second pineapple.

Overall, I took it easy yesterday. I’m going to return to my work on The Book this morning, but I wanted to take a day to decompress. Unfortunately, I started reading John Kenneth Turner’s Barbarous Mexico, which is thoroughly depressing. Turner was a socialist muckraker who traveled to Mexico several times in 1908 to report on conditions under the Porfiriato. He poses as a Gringo with millions to invest in the de facto slave plantations. Early in the book, he writes the following prophetic passage:

Mexicans of all classes and affiliations agree that their country is on the verge of a revolution in favor of democracy; if not a revolution in the time of (Porfirio) Diaz, for Diaz is old and is expected soon to pass, then a revolution after Diaz.

After reading his accounts of conditions on an agave plantation in the Yucatan and his reporting on conditions at the tobacco farms in Valle Nacional, it’s not hard to understand why the country exploded in bloody, chaotic civil war in 1910. A system was in place to funnel people into indentured servitude in both places, though this really was outright slavery, as Turner points out. Yaqui Indians, Mayans, petty criminals and working people who thought they were signing up for decent jobs and wages all were hoodwinked into signing contracts that put them on these plantations with no ability to escape. It was systemic, with government officials, the police and the owners of the reservations conspiring to work these people, literally, to death to keep costs low. People were little more than fodder for this capitalist nightmare. Turner writes the following about why the slave owners made women grind corn by hand to feed the other slaves rather than use machines:

I asked the presidente of Valle Nacional why the planters did not purchase cheap mills for grinding the corn, or why they did not combine and buy a mill among them, instead of breaking several hundred backs yearly in the work. ‘Women are cheaper than machines,’ was the reply.

His reporting was impressive, and he names names, quoting the perpetrators of these atrocities, who, in their insatiable greed, told him everything believing he was about to invest tons of money in their operations to make them even richer. We often look at the murderous rampages of Mao in China and Stalin in Russia to rightly condemn the horrors of communism. This book makes it clear capitalist economies were just as quick — and brutal — in grinding people under foot to attain their goals.

If you’re interested in the Mexican revolution, which is a fascinating story, Mike Duncan’s Revolutions podcast currently is focusing on it. It’s well done and Duncan is doing a solid job of following the myriad threads of the conflict in a way that’s easy to follow. It also points out yet another instance of American intervention in the Americas, largely to protect the interests of corporations that were benefitting greatly from the excesses of the Porfiriato. It’s a good reminder of why Mexicans are so leery of their neighbors to the north.

Turner’s Barbarous Mexico is out of print, best I can tell, but it is in the public domain and available free via the Internet Archive and I think you also can download it from Amazon for .99 cents.

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Missing my critters … and Lara’s cooking

(To read El Gringo Feo’s Costa Rica Diary from the beginning, start here.)

Sunday, October 14

I talked to Lara for a while today, and she sent me a few photos via What’s App that made me a tad homesick. Only a few more weeks before I can hang out with Sunny and Sydney and eat Lara’s amazing cooking …

Sydney hangs out in the kitchen keeping an eye on Lara’s vegetarian potpie.

Sunny after her morning walk.

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Back in Uvita

(To read El Gringo Feo’s Costa Rica Diary from the beginning, start here.)

Sunday, October 14

Iguana crossing: There are several of these signs on the way from San José to Uvita. I kept my eyes peeled but didn’t see any actual iguanas.

I’m back in Uvita after several days in the States, and it really felt good to return here. I was dreading Friday, which was an airport gauntlet (Dubuque—>Chicago—>Miami—>San José), but the only real problem I hit was a minor delay on the San José flight. I stayed at the airport Marriott Courtyard Friday night and then my driver, Fernando, picked me up Saturday morning for the 3+hour drive down to Uvita.

Fernando doesn’t speak much English, and my Spanish is severely limited, but we get by fine. At one point, we were rocking out to Sweet’s
“Fox on the Run.” At first I wasn’t sure if Fernando was playing the local classic rock station in a bid to appease me or because he genuinely likes it. But when this tune came on, there was no doubt: He’s a fan. Credence was another band that clearly is among his favorites. Best of all, Fernando’s a very good driver, finding the right balance between speed and safety.

We did pass some downed power lines and trees when we went through Dominical, which is about 25 kilometers north of Uvita. Apparently, there were nasty storms last week while I was in the States. An American honeymooner  is missing and presumed dead after getting caught in a flash flood in Dominicalita. I think we’re in for another rainy week, but I’m not complaining. It was in the 30s when I flew out of Dubuque on Friday. We even had to de-ice before taking off.

Overall, the trip was a success. Best of all, my ankle did really well. I’m not ready to start hiking on it now, but I looked at the pedometer on my iPhone and I hit 5,000 steps on both of my travel days without substantial pain. It’s best described now as sore unless I turn my ankle while walking. I’m going to continue staying off it in the hope that I get get it almost healed by the time Lara arrives in less than three weeks.


During my airport purgatory, I finished reading The Golden Ass, which I enjoyed immensely. My only complaint is that some of Lucius Apuleius’ digressions became tedious at times, though it generally was bawdy enough to keep my interest even then. And the translation by Sarah Ruden was superb.

After the Ass, I moved on to George Saunders’ short story collection Pastoralia. Another winner. As Thoreau wrote in “Walden,” “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” This collection was Saunders’ effort to come to grips with that sad fact. There is some transcendence in there, but it’s largely existential angst.

Been So Long

Finally, I started listening to the Audiobook version of Jorma Kaukonen’s “Been So Long: My Life and Music.” I’ve been a fan for a long time, from Jefferson Airplane to Hot Tuna to his work at Fur Peace Ranch in Southeast Ohio, and I’ve met Jorma a few times and came away impressed at how grounded and humble he appeared to be. That comes through in the audiobook, which he reads himself. His range of interests is amazing. Everything from motorcycles to speed skating, and there’s plenty of musical discussion, including the details guitar geeks would crave about his guitars and how he gets his sound. My main disappointment is that he tends to hold back. He discusses Marty Balin’s departure from Jefferson Airplane in a few sentences. No insight into what drove it, and while I understand he might not have been central to that, he must have at least had an opinion or seen the impact on the band. There’s a guarded nature to the book overall. His shields are up, though he does drop them occasionally. One of my favorite anecdotes was his discussion of jamming with Janis Joplin in 1964 while his wife at the time, Margareta, was typing away in the background. It was recorded and became known as “The Typewriter Tapes.”

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Returning to Costa Rica

(To read El Gringo Feo’s Costa Rica Diary from the beginning, start here.)

Friday, October 12

Somewhere between Dubuque and Chicago. Listening to Ray Wylie Hubbard and flying high.

I had to get an early start today. I’m flying from Dubuque to Chicago to Miami to San José, where I plan to stay at an airport hotel before finishing the journey with a 3- or 4-hour drive to Uvita Saturday morning.  I’ll be in the country for another month before returning to the States for good.

It’s been a great trip. Very productive and the ankle is holding up well. Here’s hoping the return goes smoothly.

I was  delighted by this morning’s Google Doodle of Roberto Clemente, the greatest baseball player of all time. It brings back a lot of fond childhood memories. I still have a tattered 1971 Clemente baseball card squirreled away somewhere …

 

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Out of the jungle

(To read El Gringo Feo’s Costa Rica Diary from the beginning, start here.)

Thursday, October 11

I made it to Iowa, and thanks to Lara and FedEx, I didn’t have to wear my jungle loincloth to my meetings. In fact, I fit right in with the rest of the business casual crowd.

Cleaning up after two months in the jungle

Four Mounds, the facility where we met, is just outside Dubuque. It’s a wonderful old building — series of buildings, actually — and I always enjoy coming here. The photos don’t do it justice.

Outside of the main building.

Living area of the main building, where we gathered to discuss strategy in front of the fireplace. It was cold in Iowa …

View of the Upper Mississippi River from Four Mounds. Quite a difference from the Pacific Ocean. They’ve had a lot of rain here, like Uvita, so the river is running high and muddy.

I love the restoration they did here. This is the bathroom sink, complete with original fixtures.

It took a degree in rocket science to figure out which combination of knobs to turn to get a hot shower. After several failed attempts, I finally figured it out.

This door knocker outside one of the suites is very cool.

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Next stop, Iowa

(To read El Gringo Feo’s Costa Rica Diary from the beginning, start here.)

Wednesday, October 10

Sunrise over Miami, as seen from the fifth floor of the Courtyard Marriott near the airport.

I woke up in the United States this morning for the first time in two months. The trip thus far has been uneventful. I hired a driver, Fernando, who got me safely and quickly from Uvita to San José, where I spent the night in a Marriott Courtyard near the airport. Nice hotel. The flight out was no problem and the only complaint I have on the trip thus far was a long line at passport control coming into Miami, including an asshole French Canadian who decided to just walk past everyone in line until he got to … me. I stepped in front of him and he got a little indignant. But he wasn’t willing to push the issue. He went through after I did.

I’m flying out this morning for Iowa via Chicago. More fun and thrills in airports. This is a lifestyle that I don’t miss in any way, shape or form. I think there was one year when I worked for Scripps that I traveled 40+ weeks. (Some of those trips were one-day jaunts, but still … 40 weeks of airports and hotels and crap food. I’m still not sure how I survived that.) So far, my ankle is holding up really well. It was sore after yesterday’s travel but not abnormally so.

I also started reading The Golden Ass by Lucius Apuleius. It was written in Latin in the second century A.D. and I did a little research on translations after initially downloading the 1566 translation by William Adlington from Project Gutenberg. I just wasn’t up for wading through archaic English spelling and style while trying to read it, and I also wanted a more contemporary take since the book is pretty bawdy in spots and I didn’t want to read  through the gauze of some translator trying mightily not to offend.

Enter Sarah Ruden. Thus far, I’m really impressed with her translation. I have both her version and Adlington’s on my Kindle so I’ve jumped back and forth a bit to see how they compare. Very similar, but her language is much more fun and interesting. I’m glad I opted for it.

This book is the story that inspired Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Instead of a cockroach, the narrator here is turned into a donkey when he messes with witchcraft that he doesn’t fully understand. It’s an early take on the picaresque novel that Don Quixote, Tom Jones and Confederacy of Dunces all took inspiration from. I also am working on a sub-theme in The Book that is inspired by this story. So there’s that.

Onward to Iowa. Hopefully, no one will turn me into an ass. Or a bigger ass, as the case may be …

Banana update. Shot this Monday before leaving for the States.

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