(To read El Gringo Feo’s Costa Rica Diary from the beginning, start here.)
Monday, August 27
Drenching, thunderous rain gave me a welcome excuse to read and write yesterday. I couldn’t help but allude to Eliot’s “The Waste Land” in the title of this post after thinking about his poem the other night at the shack. The thunder bowled through the valleys in long, guttural grumbles that shook the ground,. It was disconcerting, but not in the way a sudden bolt slaps you in the face. This was visceral, an earthquake rattling your core and leaving you wondering if it’s going to stop.
Phone calls with Lara and my parents were the highlight of the day. All is good back home, and I think everyone was relieved to know that I’m not only surviving here, I’m thriving. The beauty of the jungle hasn’t worn off.
I finished Poilu, and I’ll have to admit I’ll miss that French barrel maker. I’ve read extensively about World War I, from revisionist ideas arguing the generals and leaders weren’t as stupid and heartless as they’ve been portrayed to a study of poetry written in the trenches. One of the most surprising things to me was how literate this working stiff was. Louis Barthas drops classical allusions constantly and references obscure historical events in his narrative. And then he spins out lines like this while describing an artillery battery:
There were thousands and thousands of shells of every caliber, lined up like monstrous insect larvae which one day would burst forth in a blast of fire and brimstone.
And he offers insights like this while discussing a theft:
When killing becomes a duty, a holy thing, then stealing is no more than a peccadillo.
Incongruously, I then picked up Jack Ewing’s Where Tapirs and Jaguars Once Roamed: Ever Evolving Costa Rica, which moves from a geologic history of the area to an ethnographic study, relating tales of people who lived here around the turn of the century. This confirmed much of what Gian said the other night about this area’s isolation causing it to be a bit backward and insular. In the 1900s, the Whale’s Tail was an island where a family lived, and they were the only residents for miles around. Ewing traces the slow growth of the 20th century, fueled by blazed jungle trails and bongo boats that plied the coast, connecting the scattered people and communities along the way.
The Costanera Sur highway wasn’t finished until 2010, which precipitated the current growth that’s occurring along this stretch of coast, growth that endangers the natural resources. There’s a fascinating passage where Ewing works with the road builders to design and build “wildlife bridges” over the highway to allow fauna safe passage. It hasn’t stopped road kill, but apparently is it reducing it.
To close the day, I listened to a few lectures on character development in the Great Courses audiobook Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips and Techniques. I have to admit it’s been helpful so far and already has me revising some of what I’ve written. James Hynes, a novelist who teaches the course, won me over when he referenced John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. Gardner’s one of my favorite writers, perhaps my main influence for the type of work I’d like to produce. It’s been decades since I encountered the book, so I downloaded that and dove into it, too. I was instantly glad I did when I stumbled across this aside in Gardner’s preface:
(Not everyone is capable of writing junk fiction: It requires an authentic junk mind. Most creative-writing teachers have had the experience of occasionally helping produce, by accident, a pornographer. The most elegant techniques in the world, filtered through a junk mind, become elegant junk techniques.)