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.


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How to be a monkey

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

Thursday, October 4

I wonder where the howlers go after they’ve spent a few days raising hell outside my window. Their calls grow progressively more distant over subsequent days until they disappear into the jungle. Then the cycle repeats.

A new website, How To Be a Monkey, attempts to answer that question. The site offers an inside look at what monkeys in the wild are up to. I’ve poked around in there and love it, even though my limited bandwidth here makes it slow at times. They’re tracking a group of capuchins here in Costa Rica at the Lomas Barbudal Biological Reserve, about 145 miles north of Uvita, near the boarder with Nicaragua. The star is Winslow Homer, a baby monkey that researchers tracked all day on Jan. 24, 2014. They then posted the results in a way that’s both educational and entertaining.

In a story about the project, I was particularly struck by the comments of Susan Perry, an anthropology professor at UCLA, who notes the negative and positive impacts of technology on science education:

This is getting to be true even in Costa Rica, where kids … have some of the most endangered and interesting habitats in the world in their backyard. But they never go in their backyard because they’re looking at the TV or their laptop or their phone … Part of my job as an educator is to try to lure people in to nature. And also get them to understand that even if they don’t want to be bothered to walk outside … that they should at least be able to appreciate what’s out there enough to be the kind of citizen that promotes the conservation of those areas.

I haven’t had access to TV now for two months and I don’t miss it at all. And while I twitch uncontrollably at times because I don’t have the Internet bandwidth I’m accustomed to at home, even that has proven a gift. It’s amazing what you see when you go outside, get quiet and watch.

For the past few days, we’ve had drenching, nightlong rain. No thunder and lightning. Just rain. It abates midmorning before continuing again later in the afternoon, and during that pause, the jungle jumps to life.

A coatimundi. Photo by Clark Anderson, via Wikipedia and creative commons license

The other day I heard an aggressive snorting followed by the squeal of an agouti, who shot past me with his hair standing on end. I jumped up to take a look at what had rattled him and saw a coatimundi — a cousin of the raccoon— stomping around where the rabbit-like agouti normally forages for papaya scraps. Moral of this story: Don’t mess with a coatimundi.

I’ve also been fascinated by the blue flies who harass me as I write. I’ve never seen anything quite like them and haven’t made a specific ID yet, but they’re impossible to kill. They fly up and hover, drone-like, in front of me, but the second I move to swat them they zip off. I’ve yet to hit one despite numerous attempts and strategies. (It’s important to note here that I am not an amateur killer of flies; I’m able to snatch run-of-the-mill U.S. flies with my hand and hurl them to their deaths). It’s almost as if the singularity has occurred, but instead of humans merging with machines, these strange flies have beaten us to it.

I haven’t heard much from the howlers the past few days. I think when it rains like this they pretty much hunker down and ride it out.

Odds and sods

  • I finished Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. Loved it. I’ve finally found one of the Russian masters I can relate to, though I intend to start revisiting the others now.
  • I read Henry James’ The Aspern Papers, which was mentioned several times in the fiction writing lectures I’m listening to. The way James crafts his characters is amazing, and the use of an unreliable narrator is subtle and very effective. The ending also fits John Gardner’s criteria for Resolution, where no other action can logically take place. One of the most difficult things in fiction, I think, is the ending. I’ve read so many great books that ran out of steam at the end or seemed contrived. Since I don’t know yet how The Book will end, that’s an ongoing concern I have.
  • Next up, Flannery O’Connor’s short story The River. This is driven because I’ve been listening nonstop to Ray Wylie Hubbard’s 1999 masterpiece Crusades of the Restless Knights. There’s not a bad song on it, and most of them are outstanding. Patty Giffin’s backing vocals are superb, especially on the song “The River Runs Red,” which apparently is based on the O’Connor short story. My obsessions sometimes become microscopic in this way. I just let them run their course. There’s also a wonderful bluegrass waltz on there, “After the Harvest,” that I can’t get out of my head. I think I’m going to quote part of it in The Book. Here are the lyrics (as transcribed by me, so they might be a tad off):

After the Harvest
Always before us
there have been true believers
rising up from
the rank and file drunks
now for a short time
we gather small treasures
and after the harvest
there’s sweet kingdom come

Once we had wings
and could fly over mountains
and in the blue yonder
we had a home
there was a time
we could all walk on water
if we saw a reflection
then we’d sink like a stone

There are these bridges
from the past to the present
there are these bridges
from now until dawn
there are these rivers
that flow on forever
we are like rivers
on our way home

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A geek screed from the jungle

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

Monday, Oct. 1

Breakfast of champions: Papaya, pineapple, banana, mamon chino, Costa Rican coffee and locally baked ciabatta. The jam is pretty damned good, too.

At least once a week, I consider blowing up my Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and Google profiles and giving up on the social web. The data breaches alone are horrifying, and the intrusiveness of advertising increases daily. Heavy handed advertising ruined TV sports for me, making games tedious waits during commercial breaks for another tidbit of action. I gladly pay each month for an ad-free Netflix. And advertisers’ voracious taste for data is leading the Web down the same path. I use an ad blocker on my Chrome browser, which helps, but it doesn’t stop that constant, invasive data harvesting that occurs in the background. Not to mention the outright data breaches.

I have completely minimized my use of Yahoo! over the breaches they suffered and their criminal delay in acknowledging or acting on them. Someone should be doing time for what happened there. I keep that email address on life support with an auto-response warning senders I don’t monitor the account closely. Why don’t I just kill it outright? Because some key products/platforms use my Yahoo address and no sane, elegant way to change to a new address. I’m looking at you, Apple …

That’s why I’m cautiously enthused to read that Tim Berners-Lee, the “inventor of the World Wide Web,” is taking a sabbatical from MIT to work on a platform called Solid that will attempt to decentralize the Web, focusing more on peer-to-peer interactions and hopefully disintermediating middlemen like Facebook and Google. Pivotal to Solid’s thinking is the idea that your data will be stored by you, and you will decide with whom and under what circumstances that data will be shared.

Berners-Lee’s blog post makes some grandiose claims for what Solid will deliver. If someone pitched it to me via PowerPoint in a boardroom, I’d probably walk out shaking my head, thinking them quixotic, at best. But this is a windmill that’s worth tilting at, so it’s worth keeping an eye on.

My main fear is that they’ll build an Egghead Ghetto, a cave where only geeks and data junkies gather to hide from the commercial web. Getting regular users and attaining scale would be critical to the success of Solid. Developers and normal people would have to embrace it. That’s why I haven’t blown up my social media accounts. Like that Yahoo account, there is still some residual value there, some ability to connect with people I wouldn’t otherwise be able to, or with whom it would be much more difficult to interact.

Godspeed, Solid. I’m rooting for you.

Odds and sods

  • Today marks 3 weeks since I mangled my ankle. Progress continues, slow but steady. The meds are really helping, the swelling is down some and there’s a bit less wobble to my hobble.
  • I’ve started reading Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. I picked it up after Karl Ove Knausgaard discussed it at length in his book, Spring. My attempts to read the great Russians generally peter out before I get to the end. I greatly admire them, but they’re so heavy with religious themes and moral hand-wringing (not to mention the length) that it wears me down. Not so Turgenev. He’s more of a naturalist or realist and seems interested here in the idea of love, the relationship between generations, and how we behave in the face of societal change. His Bazarov character, a “nilhilist,” seems to herald some of the stupidity that would emerge decades later from the Russian Revolution.
  • Wildlife update. A blue morpho butterfly flittered past as I was writing this section, and last night, for the first time here at PurUvita, I saw a pair of macaws. They were distant — across the road, high in the trees overlooking the beach — but I heard their unmistakable squawks and after scanning the area for a few minutes spotted them right before they took flight, heading north up the coast. I wasn’t close enough to ID the specific type of macaw, but their profile in flight was unmistakable. They were raising majestic hell the entire way.
  • My next task this morning is a rewrite of a chunk of the The Book in third person. I’ve been worried that I’m outrunning my supply lines writing it from multiple first-person vantage points, and the fiction writing course I’ve been working through discussed the relative merits of each approach during the lectures I listened to last night. This seems a good time to do a gut check to make sure I’m not painting myself into a corner. I am smitten with that multiple first-person approach, though, especially after having read Tommy Orange’s magnificent There, There recently. But I’m not Tommy Orange … and maybe a more conservative approach would make sense here. We’ll see.
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Sometimes nature comes to you

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

Sunday, September 30

Gratuitous flower photo.

Sometimes you just need to hunker down, get quiet and let the jungle come to you.

I was working in the bar area the other day when I heard the incoming buzz of a cicada. I hardly flinch now when they scream past, but this time a yellow flycatcher blew in right after it, missing me by about two feet and seizing the insect midair. It was astounding. I almost applauded as the flycatcher landed over near the banana trees to finish off the bug.

A photo of me enjoying the wildlife here in Costa Rica.

The bar area, in fact, is turning into my Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom. In the evening, I turn on the overhead lights, luring in a variety of insects for the house geckos to feast on. Add a soundtrack of Lee Dorsey’s funky take on Allen Toussaint tunes and Tim Maia’s psychedelic Brazilian soul and I’m as entertained as the lizards.

In the mornings, there’s almost always some strange visitor hanging out from the night before, from scorpions to frogs to chachalacas. And the agouti come out doglike, waiting for me to toss papaya scraps their way. They’re incredibly timid and it doesn’t take much to send them screaming back under the fence and into the jungle. I heard one screeching a few days ago and when I went over to take a look, a coatimundi had taken over, apparently running off the agouti. The coatis have a lot more attitude and don’t seem too perturbed by my presence. I’ve also been seeing black squirrels during the day eating the little berries that Uvita is named for (they look like tiny grapes, which is uvita in Spanish).

My one disappointment has been the green iguanas. They’re incredibly twitchy and bolt the second they become aware of my presence. A 4-footer lumbered up near the laundry room the other day but thrashed away before I could grab my phone for a photo attempt. I saw a smaller one escape into a hole on the hillside several weeks ago and I scan that area regularly but haven’t seen him since.

I’ll admit I was never a big Marty Balin fan, but I was really touched by Jorma Kaukonen’s tribute to his former bandmate, Now We Are Three. Hard to believe Jorma, Jack and Grace are all that’s left of Jefferson Airplane. Jorma’s blog, by the way, is definitely worth following, if for nothing else than the incredible drone shots he posts from Fur Peace Ranch and from various places across the country where he’s performing. I’ve met him briefly a few times and he comes across as the anti-rock star — quiet, unassuming and approachable. The tone of his blog very much reflects that.

Balin isn’t the only musician who passed recently. We also lost one of my favorite bluesmen, Otis Rush. I’ll be adding him to my play list today. Here’s a link to the New York Times obituary.

This quote in the obit, from Robert Palmer, sums up Rush’s work,  I think:

His guitar playing hit heights I didn’t think any musician was capable of: notes bent and twisted so delicately and immaculately, they seemed to form actual words, phrases that cascaded up the neck, hung suspended over the rhythm and fell suddenly, bunching at the bottom in anguished paroxysms.

Another gratuitous flower photo.

Posted in Music Bob, Travel Bob | 2 Comments

Good morning …

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

Friday, September 28

This little guy was hanging around when I came down for breakfast this morning.

I’m sitting here writing, not even 8 a.m. yet, when I hear a squawk. Then another. Then a third. A branch crashes down, landing less than 20 feet from where I’m sitting. And that sound. Very familiar. Like Sydney, our umbrellas cockatoo, when he’s extra full of himself.  I jump up (praying Sydney hasn’t somehow found me) and peer up into the tree in time to see a toucan — a Fiery-billed Aracari — raising hell about 30 feet above me. Then another. And then two more. That’s the most I’ve seen together here. Mostly they come through in pairs, but this morning there are at least four. And they’re whipped up. They don’t hang out long before soaring up the hill, deeper into the jungle.

What a great wake-up call …

Banana update … major progress since last weekend.

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Contemplating Cortes

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

Thursday, September 27

Pineapple in progress here at PurUvita.

As I hunker down to let my ankle heal and attempt to spit out The Book, there hasn’t been a lot to report. So updates are becoming less frequent.

I have about 20,000 words written and spent about 6-8 hours both today and yesterday writing away. More accurately, perhaps, I’ve been rewriting, editing and researching. Themes are becoming clearer and characters are growing more well-rounded. The Scrivener software I mentioned the other day has proven invaluable. I still have a long way to go, but I’m up above the trees now, getting a sense of the forest.

The ankle continues its slow progress. It’s a struggle to stay off it instead of testing it, but I’m sticking to the former. I sat in the bar area last night and watched a drenching rain, punctuated with considerable trueno and relámpago. After waiting about 90 minutes for a break so I could walk to the Treehouse, I gave up and got drenched. The rain continued until well after I went to sleep, though today we were rewarded with a cool, breezy respite filled with sunshine.

Tomorrow I’ll give Yair the taxi driver a shout and get a ride into town for food and prescription refills. It’s hard to believe that I’ll be heading to the States a week from Monday for a business meeting, returning here the following Saturday. From there, it’s just a few more weeks until Lara visits and then we return home together. I’m now in my sixth week in Costa Rica, and even with the mangled ankle, I have no regrets. This has been a phenomenal experience, and I can’t honestly recall I time I was more productive.

I launched into another book yesterday, Matthew Restall’s When Montezuma Met Cortes: The True Story of the Meeting that Changed History. It’s a fascinating attempt to dispel what he calls the “mythistory” of the meeting between Cortes and Montezuma and the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire. In short, he’s arguing, with extensive evidence, that Cortes was not the godlike conquerer of a leader who cowered at the sight of his galleons, guns and horses. Quite the opposite, he claims Montezuma toyed with Cortes, luring him to Tenochtitlan to study him almost as if he and his crew were zoo animals. Restall also notes that Cortes was not the mastermind warrior history remembers him as, reminding the reader time and again that the winners, in this instance, Cortes, control the historical narrative. In reality, Cortes was a barely competent Spanish commander, one of many vying for power and prestige in the New World. His real gift was his persuasive powers and his duplicity. The Spaniards spent almost as much time undermining and fighting among themselves in the early stages of the conquest as they did fighting native peoples. And the initial meeting, which has been portrayed as a surrender by Montezuma, was no such thing and that Montezuma wasn’t subjugated until after the actual war broke out, which was more than 200 days after Cortes, his men and members of the Triple Alliance entered the Aztec capital.

One of my favorite sections thus far is in his debunking of the myth of Cortes brilliantly burning his boats to ensure his men had no option but conquest. As has been noted before, the boats weren’t burned. They were sunk. And Restall cites evidence indicating they were actually grounded, not sunk, because several of them were rotting and no longer seaworthy. By grounding them, it was easier to harvest the hardware and rigging for future use. In fact, one ship remained seaworthy, and there was a force sailing from Cuba that could have rescued them (albeit a force sent by Cortes’ nemesis, Diego Velázquez, to rein him in, even though that force ultimately joined forces with Cortes’ men to help overthrow Tenochtitlan.)

There’s still more to read, and in the end, the real truth is known only to those who were there. But Restall is making a compelling argument for rethinking much of what we thought we knew about the conquest. He even calls it the Spanish-Aztec war, instead of conquest, reflecting the fact that it was a pitched battle where the Spaniards and their allies ultimately prevailed, not a cowardly capitulation by the Aztec leader.

As I wrote this, the sun set, the clouds crept in and a gentle rain began to fall. Let’s see if it goes nuclear again …

A lime ready for harvest.

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Slow and steady wins the race

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

Tuesday, September 25

Bananas are starting to emerge on one of the trees here at PurUvita. (At least I think they’re banans; also could be plantains.)

Yesterday marked two weeks since i sprained my ankle and I’m happy to say I’m making progress. It’s nowhere near 100% but the swelling has gone down a bit and the pain is easing. Several people have told me the biggest risk is re-injuring it so I continue to stay off it as much as possible.

I remain impressed with my doctor here. He reached out yesterday morning on What’s App just to see how things were going. The medicine he prescribed to offset the stomach problems from the anti-inflammatory is working like a charm and I was happy to report that things are heading in the right direction.

To top it off, Gian dropped of one of those yogurty gut bacteria things to help set my stomach straight.

I finished Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and while overall I enjoyed it, the second half was much less compelling than the first. I found his writing on prehistory much more interesting than the sections on religion, politics, etc. At this point, I’m taking a break to put more focus on The Book. I outran my supply lines there, with files and chapters and notes scattered everywhere across my hard drive. I’ve been using a writing app called Ulysses, which I love for its simplicity, but that simplicity is turning into a liability. I’d downloaded a demo copy of Scrivener in 2017 when I decided to go with Ulysses so I revisited that.


There’s a bit of a learning curve. Normally when I get new software, I just launch it and start banging on it. But this time I used the tutorial, which was very useful in understanding how Scrivener thinks and organizes information. After about an hour I started loaded all the the myriad components of The Book into it. I’m jaded where software is concerned, but in this instance I’m smitten and intend to fork over the money for a license. I spent most of yesterday setting things up. Last night, I revisited several of the books I’m using as source material, including Myron R. Stowell’s Fort Frick, or the Siege of Homestead: a history of the famous struggle between the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers and the Carnegie Steel Co. of Pittsburg, Pa. I love that concise title. I’m also relying a lot on Arthur Gordon Burgoyne’s Homestead: A complete history of the struggle of July, 1892, between the Carnegie steel company, limited, and the Amalgamated association of iron and steel workers. Another to-the-point title. Both books were published in 1893, and they crackle with the electric charge of the battle. I’ve read several more-modern accounts, too, but Stowell and Burgoyne bring more of a reporter’s feel to the details since they were on the ground for the actual events. The prose tends to be purple at times, but that’s part of the reason I enjoy their accounts.

Burgh trivia: Apparently, Pittsburgh officially lost its “h” for a while there. In 1891, the United States Board of Geographic names mandated that places using “burgh,” a Scottish derivative, would drop the ‘h,” using the German suffix. So a lot of the source materials from that era, including newspapers, use the Pittsburg spelling. According to Wikipedia, that decision was reversed in 1911. I guess it’s another one of those “Burgh things.”

Finally, I went on a Neil Young binge yesterday, listening to all four of his albums that I have downloaded to my phone: Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, On the Beach, Tonight’s the Night, and Zuma. I’ve always been a fan, despite the inaccurate hippy history he indulges at times (his depiction of the Aztecs in “Cortez the Killer” is freakin’ laughable; they were every bit as savage as Cortez). And while some of the songs haven’t held up well over time, the gut-wrenching pain throbbing through Tonight’s the Night still resonates in today’s opioid plague. He released that album after Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry died of drug overdoses. Some things don’t change …

Another view of the bananas. Since I shot this on Saturday, there’s been even more progress.

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A taste of Italy in the jungle

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

Sunday, September 23

I love it when a plan comes together.

I went A Team last night here in the jungle, pulling together a Tico-infused version of one of my favorite meals, Seafood fra Diavalo. It took advance planning and a liberal dose of red wine to pull it off.

On Friday as I hobbled up and down the aisles of the supermercado here in Uvita, I stocked up on garlic, onions, basil, oregano and pasta. I also secured the best Chilean boxed wine money can buy, knowing I’d need that to enhance the tomato sauce I’d be using as a base. Finally, I picked up a package of frozen local seafood — white fish, mussels, clams, crab and shrimp.

So far, so good.

When Gian arrived yesterday morning to deliver Sara’s incredible pizza, focaccia and ciabatta, I had the final components of my master plan. While I was cooking the sauce, I added a liberal amount of wine and an almost equal amount of my favorite Tico hot sauce, Spicy Life. I’m having a hard time getting the cook top here to simmer. Even at its lowest setting, the flame is a bit too much so I cooked the sauce for only an hour or so. Normally, I’d do that for several hours on a low simmer.

The picture really doesn’t do the final product justice. While I’d be reluctant to serve it to Italians like Gian and Sara, it was more than adequate for El Gringo Feo. I ate it with a big hunk of ciabatta and a piece of rosemary focaccia. For dessert, a chunk of Costa Rican chocolate and another glass of wine. ¡Que sabrosa! (Y muchas gracias, Sara y Gian, por el pan.)

After dinner, I decided to hang out in the bar area since the evening rain had started, making the prospect of a return to the Treehouse rather wet. My ankle has been improving slowly but I’m still not wanting to make a mad dash through a tropical downpour. I spent an hour or two reading the latest book I’ve embarked on, Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. It’s a fascinating, sobering, concise view of our history on the planet, and at times it’s nothing short of brutal. This should be required reading for anyone who rejects evolution. The science is compelling, and Harari is quick to concede when the scientific record is vague, conflicting or incomplete.

There’s a section where he discusses the Aché, a group of hunter-gatherers who lived in the Paraguayan jungle until the 1960s.

When an old Aché woman became a burden to the rest of the band, one of the younger men would sneak behind her and kill her with an axe-blow to the head.

I recoiled when I read that. It’s so cold and foreign to our world view. But then I started thinking about it. I live in a society that has decided those who can’t afford health care can be left to die slowly and horribly of cancer or other afflictions, many of which could be cured or even prevented with the right medical care. I guess the difference is that rather than having a young man brutally eliminate a member of the herd who is a burden, we have wealthy old men who do essentially the same thing with laws and platitudes about not being able to afford to care for those who are a burden. It’s not blunt as a blow to the head, but the end result is pretty much the same.

I also found fascinating Harari’s argument that the Agricultural Revolution was a step backward for Homo sapiens, not forward. The population explosion it fostered threw things irreparably out of balance. “We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us,” he writes. He doesn’t soft-sell the life of hunter-gathers, as the passage I quoted above makes clear. But the more you read about the history of Homo sapiens, the more you wonder if we’re really moving forward. Early in the book, he ominously notes that Homo erectus was the longest reigning human, living in the eastern regions of Asia for 2 million years. “It is doubtful whether Homo sapiens will still be around a thousand years from now, so 2 million years is really out of our league,” he writes. It’s tough to argue the point.

Maybe DEVO was right. We are de-evolving …

I shifted over to Shakespeare’s poetry after getting thoroughly depressed about our prospects of beating Homo erectus’ 2-million-year record. As I read Venus and Adonis, the storm grew exponentially, with the thunder and lightning (trueno y relámpago) mirroring poor Venus’ fury at being unable to seduce Adonis. It got to the point where the electrical tempest was so vicious I was genuinely afraid, wincing each time there was a flash in anticipation of the roiling explosion of thunder that followed in successively shorter intervals. Surprisingly, we never lost power, though when things subsided and I returned to the Treehouse, I noticed the low-voltage lights outside weren’t on and once I got inside, I discovered that one set of track lights was completely burned out. All three bulbs gone. There’d been some sort of surge up here, even though I didn’t notice it down in the kitchen area.

I emerged from the Treehouse this morning to run down to the kitchen for some bread to eat with the anti-infammatory drug I’m taking for my ankle. As soon as I stepped out, a shimmering blue morpho butterfly floated by, dipping here, zagging there, riding the morning breeze with calculated randomness. I felt a bit like Moses emerging after the flood, but my rainbow was a single hue and had wings. After I got my bread and a banana, I returned to the Treehouse, where the rains have resumed. The deluge wasn’t done, merely paused. It’s rainy season, after all. Here’s hoping there’s no trueno y relámpago this time around …


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It’s what’s for breakfast

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

Saturday, September 22

El escorpión was waiting for me when I came down for breakfast this morning. He was delicious with a side of chiles. This is why I never stumble to the bathroom in the dark at night. Always carry a light …


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Trueno y relámpago

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

Saturday, September 22

Since I injured my ankle, I’ve let my Spanish studies slip. I get the occasional painful nag from Duolingo reminding me my progress is nonexistent. And I haven’t been working through the exercises in my workbook.

I am picking up some new words and phrases here and there, though. Sadly, most of them have to do with ways to describe ankle pain (me duele el tobillo) or to explain that I injured my ankle (me lastimé el tobillo) or the words for sprained ankle (esguince de tobillo).

Damned tobillo.

I’ve been on a pain killer/anti-inflammatory that’s working well but is decimating my stomach, so I reached out via Whats App to the Tico doctor who makes house calls to ask if there’s an alternative. True to form, he pinged me back quickly, within 30 minutes, asking a few questions via text and then he called me. He recommended something that will help my stomach handle the drug and said he’d send a prescription via What’s App. About an hour later, the prescription showed up, along with a profuse apology for taking so long.

I laughed and responded, “no problema.”

So with my prescription on my phone, I called the taxi and set off for la farmacia, figuring I could hit el supermercado at the same time. Never hurts to stock up. The cab let me off at the pharmacy, and from there I hobbled across the street to the grocery store, where I stocked up on fruits and vegetables, including a juice box of red wine and other makings for spaghetti sauce. (I’m hoping Gian will drop off some of Sara’s bread today, and I want to have a sauce on hand that’s worthy of those glorious carbs.)

As I was checking out, I told the clerk in Spanish that I needed to recharge my phone card, which you have to do in person at a store using cash. She plugged in the info, took my money and then told me, also in Spanish, to check my phone for the text from Kolbi confirming the credit had been added.

It was so rapid fire I didn’t catch what she was wanting me to to. Generally, they just hand me the receipt and assume it all worked. Which to date, it has.

Through hand gestures, grunts and broken Spanish I finally got it, checked the phone and sure enough, there was my text.

“Lo siento,” I said sheepishly to the clerk. “Soy solamente un Gringo tonto.” (Sorry, I’m just a dumb gringo.) She started laughing, and one of her cohorts who overheard also started laughing. I’m assuming they encounter more than their share of dumb gringos in this tourist town. I’ve found that’s a great way to defuse situations where my Spanish just isn’t cutting it. I suspect they’re used to getting the opposite response.

Why don’t you speak English?

I always try to be respectful of the fact that I’m in their country. It goes a long way toward generating goodwill. For instance, I never walk in and ask, “Do you speak English.” I back into it, greeting them in Spanish and trying my best to operate in Spanish until the inevitable flood of words swamps me. Then I confess, No hablo español muy bien and we work toward some degree of mutual understanding.

On the way home, I got a quick Spanish lesson from my cab driver, who speaks some English but clearly is more comfortable in Spanish. It had started raining hard, and lightning was erupting all around us.

“Relámpago,” he said after one spectacular flash.

“Ahh,” I replied. “In ingles, es lightning.”

As I repeated “relámpago” over a few times trying to commit it to memory, he did the same with “lightning.” When I got home, I went to Google Translate (amazing resource) to look up thunder: trueno.

So I sat on the deck, reading the final chapter of Under the Volcano while el trueno y relámpago raged all around me. That proved to be a perfect accompaniment to the finale of this beautiful, dismal, tumultuous book. I guess it’s no surprise that Malcolm Lowry died before he turned 50 of alcohol-related misadventure. He definitely knew what he was writing about. But this isn’t just a book about dipsomania. I love the descriptions of Mexico and how layered the novel is. After I finished it, I started Googling around for analysis, realizing there was a lot going on there I was missing, and I found a wonderful resource, The Malcolm Lowry Project, a digital extension of Chris Ackerley’s A Companion to ‘Under the Volcano.’ Sadly, the site uses frames, which I’ve always found to be a horrendously kludgy way to organize digital information. So I extracted the text from each frame and pasted into a doc on my computer so I could read it offline. Turns out, there’s 200,000+ words of analysis there. Damn. It was invaluable, though, especially for the penultimate chapter, where Yvonne is killed. I love Lowry’s final sentence in that chapter.

Yvonne felt herself suddenly gathered upwards and borne towards the stars, through eddies of stars scattering aloft with ever widening circles like rings on water, among which now appeared, like a flock of diamond birds flying softly and steadily toward Orion, the Pleiades …

I have to admit there was a tear in my eye as I just transcribed that. Lowry does such an incredible job showing us the world through this character’s eyes, her desire to flee to British Columbia to live by the sea with the Consul, her sundered dreams of being a movie star, her college obsession with astronomy, the allusion to the “hurricane of immense and gorgeous butterflies” that greeted her ship when she arrived in Acapulco in a final effort to save her marriage and to save the Consul from himself. There’s a sense of transcendence there that I didn’t fully anticipate, even though I’d read the book before many years ago. Of course, the Consul’s experiences in the final chapter are more Dante’s Inferno than return to stardust. Under the Volcano, indeed.

After that light reading, I dialed Kamasi Washington’s Heaven and Earth into my earphones, keeping the volume such that I could hear my howler monkeys arguing with their rivals across the road while birds clucked into their roosts,  insects buzzed awake and the jungle wrapped itself in darkness, a call-and-response to Washington’s transcendent saxophone.

Somehow, it felt like a fitting requiem for Yvonne.

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