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.

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 …

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,
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. 


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

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.


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.

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.

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.”

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 …


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.

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.

Drying out after the deluge

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

Saturday, October 6

This beauty emerged after the rain finally relented.

After five days of pretty much nonstop rain, the skies cleared last night in a spectacular way. There have only been one or two nights since I arrived here (almost 8 weeks ago now) that we’ve had clear skies in the evening.

As if to make a great situation better, the power went out, creating blackout conditions. I walked out into the parking lot to star gaze. There are few things more humbling that standing beneath the stars in pitch-black conditions. That almost made all the rain we endured worthwhile.

The lucky streak continued this morning with brilliant sunrise filled with bird songs and the distant sound of surf. I was struck with inspiration and awoke at about 4 a.m. and started writing. I do that pretty frequently. The sun rises here every day around 5:30 and I love to sit there and listen to the jungle wake up while the light starts to filter in through the Treehouse. After all that rain, it was wonderful to walk out into a sunny morning after I was done writing. I guess the bad news is the inspiration created more complication in The Book. I was running parallel story lines. Now I have three, including a retelling of the Joe Magarac tall tale. It’s coming together in increasing strange yet interwoven ways.

I read Flannery O’Connor’s short story “The River” the other day for the first time in years. What an astounding story driven by her typical themes of the Southern grotesque and redemption. Her ability to craft rich, complex characters is second to none I have an anthology of all her short stories and I almost kept reading, but her work is so dense I decided to move on to something else. So I picked up Conrad’s Lord Jim, which I made a run at once and ran out of steam. I’m faring much better this time but still believe he should have made it a novella, ending with the trial Jim is subjected to. I haven’t finished yet, but the tale of Jim’s years in limbo after the Patna incident feels anticlimactic thus far. I love the way Conrad works the pace of the story, sometimes entering the “ripping yarn” territory and other times slowing down to dive deep into the characters’ inner impressions and motivations. That quality always floored me when reading Heart of Darkness. If you just pull it apart and put it in an outline, it’s an action-packed adventure tale. But he intentionally retards the pace, forcing the reader to turn inward and focus on the motivations and subtexts behind the action more than the action itself.

Gian swung by on Thursday and took me out to a resort south of here where I booked a room for when Lara comes to visit in early November. She’ll be here for about 5 days and then we’ll return to the States together on Nov. 7. Initially, we were going to go the discount route, but it will have been almost three months since we’ve seen each other so I figured, what they hell. Let’s go 4-star. Cristal Ballena definitely is that. It has a wonderful view of the ocean. While I was checking out the room options it was raining, obscuring the ocean in a thick, misty haze that was every bit as stunning as a clear Pacific view. Vultures circled lazily and a pair of macaws squawked there way through the rain toward the ocean, disappearing into the murk.

I’ve decided to name my favorite agouti — he is now Fela Agouti after the late, great African music legend Fela Kuti. He joins Chuckles the Gecko as my constant companions here.

This week, I head back to the states for a business meeting, but I’m not swinging through Ohio. I return here late Friday night, but I have to admit, I’m greatly looking forward to being able to walk into a store and asking for something in English and being understood. I’m just hoping I can navigate the airports without a setback for my ankle, which continues to improve in its glacial way.