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.

We make house calls

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

Thursday, September 20

After nine days, my ankle still was swollen, sore, and in some respects, more painful. I started to worry that maybe this was worse than a sprain.

Time to see a doctor.

So at about 6 a.m. yesterday, I sent an email to the folks at Uvita Information Center asking for guidance on my medical options. In less than an hour Sonia León sent a detailed response with a series of options, including Dennis Ulate, who she said speaks English and might even be willing “to see you at your place.”

Wow. A house call? That would be cool …

When I called Dr. Ulate, he answered immediately and said I could meet him at his office or he’d come here to PurUvita to see me. He said he could be here within 30 minutes.

Wow again. I asked him to come here.

He rolled up in a 4×4 with muddy tires. A youngish Tico wearing scrubs, jeans and tennis shoes. He hauled his gear out of the truck and followed me up to the kitchen area for the exam.

He did a thorough examination of the foot, including questions about my medical history, the injury, current meds, etc., all of which he input into his laptop, which was hitting the Internet via a tethered connection to his phone. He was personable, professional and his English was flawless. HIs main concern, as was mine, is that there might be a fracture involved here, too. After the examination, though, he was pretty confident it was a grade 3 sprain, the most severe. But based on my ability to walk on it and my responses to questions about pain when he manipulated various parts of the foot, he was leaning toward it being just a sprain.

“If it gets worse over the next few days or doesn’t improve, I want to get an X-ray,” he said.

No problem. Where can I do that?

Well, that’s where it gets a little complicated. There’s apparently not an X-ray machine here in town, and the nearest one would involve a drive on roads that might or might not be affected by the national strike that has been dragging on for a week or so. But there is an alternative:

There’s a veterinary clinic here in town that can do the X-rays and email the results to him. If the foot gets worse or doesn’t start improving, he suggested I swing by there to get X-rayed. I was taken aback at first, but when I thought about it, there’s no reason not to do that. And maybe I’d get to see some dogs in the process.

Then my mind flashed back 30 years, to a situation that was the complete inverse of this. Before Lara and I married, she had an Amazon parrot named Taco who suddenly came up lame and whose head was drooping to one side. Our vet, an incredible woman named George Ranglack (her father always wanted a boy, she explained) snuck Taco into a human hospital in Vestavia Hills to do a CAT scan. The staff there cooperated, with one of them even bringing in her child to “see the bird get a CAT scan.”

Sadly, Taco died before we got the results, which indicated he’d had a series of strokes. Hopefully, I’ll fare better than my avian friend.

Dr. Ulate prescribed some pain meds that would do better than the Ibuprofen I’ve been gobbling (with less negative impact on my stomach) and a gel that I’m applying to the foot three times a day. If the foot isn’t improving in a few days, I’ll swing by the vet clinic for those X-rays.

The cost of all this? About $70 U.S. What a bargain. I can’t imagine even getting a doctor to make a house call back home, yet alone do it for this price. As of this morning, the foot is feeling better, though the swelling persists and I’m not ruling out the fact that the improvement could be psychosomatic. I breathed a deep sigh of relief after the doc had examined it and didn’t think there was a fracture so I’m obviously hoping hard for that to be the case.

Next up, I had to get the prescriptions filled. As I started to dial the cab I hesitated and wondered if my friend Gian was around and able to take me in to la farmacia. I pinged him on What’s App.

“Can you wait about 20 minutes?”

“No problema.”

Gian swung by in a badass turbo diesel Toyota 4×4 he’s renting to facilitate a parental visit and took me to the pharmacy, where a young woman filled the prescriptions, asking me in English if I had questions and explaining dosages, frequency, etc.

I offered to buy lunch to thank Gian for being a de facto cab service, and we drove out to Ballena Bistro, a great little lunch place right off the Costanera Sur a few kilometers south of PurUvita. It used to be called the Goathouse in a previous incarnation. While their site describes it as a “barnlike” building, I didn’t feel like I was eating in a barn. The woodwork is beautiful and it’s a wonderful space. I had ceviche, a falafel burger and a glass of white wine. Great food. Stellar service. As we ate in a small open area, the afternoon rains started to roll in. John and I talked and argued about politics, music, Costa Rica. The more I hang out with Gian the more I like him. There’s no bullshit or pretense there, and after two years living in the area he is expert on the best places to eat and frequent.

I didn’t post an entry Wednesday because there wasn’t a lot to say. I finished Middlemarch and, perhaps foolishly, started re-reading Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, a dark, dipsomaniacal modernist tale set in the shadows of Mexico’s twin volcanoes, Popocatépetl and Iztaccihuatl. I remember the first time I saw them, looming over the Valley of Mexico as my friend José and I drove his powder-blue 1971 Dodge Dart to Puebla in the early 1990s. He explained the Aztec legend behind the names. Every time I return to Mexico City I hope for clear days so I can see the Aztec warrior and the princess he loved, capped with snow, stunning in their volcanic repose.

I’ve never been shy about having a few drinks, but I’ve never understood the all-consuming obsession of the raging alcoholic. Lowry did. In a horrifying way. Under the Volcano is set on the Day of the Dead in 1938 Cuernavaca and details the story of a British Consul right after Britain had cut off ties with Mexico and recalled its diplomats because President Cardeñas had seized and nationalized foreign oil concerns on the cusp of World War II. The Consul refuses to return to Britain, remaining in Mexico where he wavers between delirium tremens and mescal-infused lucidity. The story is told from several perspectives, including the Consul’s wife, who recently divorced him, and his half-brother. Lowry’s writing is gorgeous as he dives into the minds of each character during that single day in Mexico. But after a few hundred pages of this brutality, I needed a break. So I started tinkering again with The Book, making decent progress and drafting my way through Chapter 4. I waver between being overwhelmed at how daunting the task is and impressed at how the story is starting to take on a life of its own, writing itself as I go. But I still have a long, long way to go. I’d love to return from Costa Rica with a first draft, regardless of how messy it is, but that might be too ambitious.

Yesterday, I continued reading Under the Volcano but also carved out a few hours to read Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedie, a late 16th century play with revenge as its central theme. That’s a theme I’m toying with in my book, and as I worked on it the other night I inserted one of my favorite lines from Kyd’s play into my book: “Vindicta mihi!” (Latin for “Vengeance is Mine.”) It’s a line uttered by Hieronymo in The Spanish Tragedie, and it always stuck with me. (This is the same Hieronymo who pops up in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land):

These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe

In Kyd, Hieronymo’s searing drive to be avenged and demand that vengeance should be his is an abnegation of the fact that in the Bible, God cautions that only He can mete out vengeance. The Biblical verse (Romans 12:19) is

Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.

When Hieronymo seizes that prerogative as his own, things go horribly wrong and he’s out of sync with God’s law.

After all that acute alcoholism and bloody revenge, I lightened things up last night by listening to a 2014 podcast interview with Karl Ove Knausgaard. It’s the first time I’ve heard him speak in his polite, calculated English inflected with a Norwegian accent. Jeffrey Eugenides had the unenviable task of questioning Knausgaard. What do you ask a guy who has (at that point) written a six-volume autobiographical novel?  It’s pretty much all out there already. It was delightful to hear Knausgaard read the first several sentences from My Struggle: Book 1, though I guess one could arguing I’m returning to the dark place again:

For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops. Sooner or later, one day, this pounding action will cease of its own accord, and the blood will begin to run toward the body’s lowest point, where it will collect in a small pool, visible from outside as a dark, soft patch on ever whitening skin, as the temperature sinks, the limbs stiffen and the intestines drain. These changes in the first hours occur so slowly and take place with such inexorability that there is something almost ritualistic about them, as though life capitulates according to specific rules, a kind of gentleman’s agreement to which the representatives of death also adhere, inasmuch as they always wait until life has retreated before they launch their invasion of the new landscape. By which point, however, the invasion is irrevocable. The enormous hordes of bacteria that begin to infiltrate the body’s innards cannot be halted. Had they but tried a few hours earlier, they would have met with immediate resistance; however everything around them is quite now, as they delve deeper and deeper into the moist darkness. They advance on the Havers Channels, the Crypts of Lieberkühn, the Isles of Langerhans. They proceed to Bowman’s Capsule in the Renes Clark’s Column in the Spinalis, the black substance in the Mesencephalon. And they arrive at the heart. As yet, it is intact, but deprived of the acting to which end its whole construction has been designed, there is something strangely desolate about it, like a production plant that workers have been forced to flee in haste, or so it appears, the stationary vehicles shining yellow against the darkness of the forest, the huts deserted, a line of fully loaded cable-buckets stretching up the hillside.

Have I been hacked?

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

Tuesday, September 18

I sent a friend a link to this blog on Sunday. He responded within a few hours.

“I tried the link but somehow got a text file downloaded to my computer. Do you mind sending me the link again?”

At first, I thought I’d copied the link incorrectly. But when I tried to call up the site on my phone, a screen came up showing a text file to download. That’s not what should be happening. I systematically started trying all the other sites I host.

Same message.

I instantly feared I’d been hacked. That happened once before, when some script kiddies from the Middle East gained access after I’d failed to update my WordPress installs quickly enough. WordPress pushes frequent updates to add functionality and repair potential vulnerabilities. The script kiddies watch for those, knowing many users don’t do the updates quickly, if at all. The vulnerability then becomes a revolving door for mischief and mayhem. When I was hacked, they just graffitied my home page with something in Arabic and an Iraqi flag. It was pretty easy to undo. Now I update WordPress within 24 hours of a new version release.

I went up to the Treehouse and switched to my computer. I couldn’t even see the content of the sites when I tried to view them via an FTP client or CPANEL. At this point, the adrenaline was surging while the fear of a malicious hack ricocheted around in my mind. The text file appeared to be innocuous enough. It was basically a comments section in PHP code indicating where the WordPress theme should load, etc.

So I sent a panicked note to my ISP, Hosting Matters.

I’m having major problems with my sites. All appear to have disappeared. I can’t even open a support ticket via your site. Affected sites include:

And basically every other site I have. Not sure what’s going on. I can see some things via CPANEL, but when you try to access one of the sites it downloads a text file and that’s it. Is this a hack? Something else going on? Please respond ASAP.

As always, they responded quickly.

No, it isn’t a hack. It’s a byproduct of the PHP upgrade on the server and something in the .htaccess file under each one creating the issue. We’ll have to go through the ones under each domain and kill it.

Within 20 minutes, the sites were back online as if nothing had happened. I’m a big fan of Hosting Matters. They’ve always been responsive and helpful, even on a Sunday night at 11 p.m. Eastern time.

Deep breaths. Much calmer. Though I had to read a lot of Middlemarch and listen to myriad versions of “Sweet Jane” to come down off the adrenaline rush and go to sleep …

My other woman in Costa Rica (don’t tell Sunny)

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

Monday, September 17

Misha, a study in perpetual motion

I had a little fling on Saturday with a girl named Misha. Total babe.

She’s a rescue dog who belongs to Gian, a friend of mine who kindly agreed to drop off some of the incredible bread his partner, Sara, makes. They’re both Italian and know their way around a kitchen. I usually walk to the farmers market on Saturdays, largely to get some of that bread, but with the ankle still swollen and gimpy I decided to beg Gian to drop some off for me.

More Misha

As a bonus, he brought Misha with him. She’s a high energy rescue pitbull who is insanely sweet. As Gian apologized for her frenetic jumping around, I stepped forward to get a face full of dog. What a great way to boost my spirits. I love watching dogs play on the beach, but they’re usually attached to their Tico humans so I can’t do much canoodling with them.

Misha ricocheted around the porch while Gian and I talked, chasing her favorite toy, a coconut. Each time I’d throw it for her, it would bounce hollowly across the patio with a series of clunks until Misha would chase it down and bring it back for more.

And one more shot of Misha

I felt a little guilty about playing with Misha while poor Sunny is sitting at home. But not too guilty. Lara texted me a photo of Sunny chewing on one of her favorite treats on Sunday and says she’s doing really well. Of course, Sydney the Cockatoo from Hell is being a royal pain. When I was there, I took care of the dog and Lara took care of the parrot, but with me in the jungle Lara is pulling double duty, and Sydney is completely ticked off that he has to share her affection with a lowly canine.

A photo Lara texted me on Sunday of a very content Sunny.

Still pretty swollen.

Foot update: Things are about the same. It’s still swollen and sore, but I continue to take solace in the fact that it’s not getting worse. I’m doing a good job of staying off it, but my impatience is mounting. Today marks one week since I sprained it and while I’d like to see the swelling down, everything I’ve read suggests it can take several weeks before there’s real improvement. I have a reliable taxi and Gian has offered to drive me around if need be, so I’m feeling pretty good about things. I do hate these sunny mornings though, knowing I could be down at the beach frolicking with the Tico puppies. We seem to be moving into the teeth of the rainy season. Mornings generally are nice, but around 3 clouds move in and it rains anywhere from a few hours to all night. The sound of the rain pinging off the metal roof of the Treehouse is soothing so no complaints there.

I’m closing in on the end of Middlemarch and I’m completely smitten. There are times when I want George Eliot to just cut to the chase and move the plot along, but her writing is so engaging and, at times, downright snarky, that I’m willing to indulge her. It really is a masterpiece of interwoven plots and character development. Initially, I was worried about how I was going to keep track of all the characters, but she breathes them so full of life that they rise up off the page and take a seat beside you. I switched over to my U.S. phone number on Sunday so I could call home, which also comes with a half-gigabyte of data. I sucked that down quickly downloading more reading material, including Bleak House by Dickens, Aristotle’s Poetics, the complete works of William Shakespeare and Turgenev’s Father and Sons. I’ve been heavily mining Project Gutenberg for items in the public domain, and I found several pretty cool bargains on Amazon’s Kindle store (i.e. 50 Masterpieces You Have to Read Before You Die, including works by Conrad, Dante, Austen, Dostoyevski, Melville … the list goes on. Not bad for 49 cents.)

Breakfast selfie

I’ve also been listening to a lot of music. Saturday night was blues night, starting with East-West and The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw by Butterfield Blues Band and then Rory Gallagher’s first album with Taste. Last night I cruised through a playlist packed with music by Ike Reilly, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Bap Kennedy, John Prine and Gillian Welch. And oh, yeah, there might have been four or five versions of “Sweet Jane” in there, too. I’m nothing if not consistent. The Cowboy Junkies version is sublime, but I also love the live version from Cold Beans & Bacon and, of course, the Velvet Underground’s original.

And finally, I have been working on The Book. I bogged down in chapter 3 over details, especially a scene where the protagonist uncovers a stash of letters from the 1890s that will launch a parallel, epistolary plot line. It dawned on me I know little/nothing about what those letters would look like — the type of paper, the ink, the envelopes. So I’m doing some research along those lines.


The bread (and pizza) Gian dropped of for me. I have some in the freezer and some ready for breakfast this morning.

¡Viva Costa Rica!

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

Saturday, September 15

Google’s tribute to Costa Rican Independence this morning.

Ticos are celebrating independence day today. It’s a remarkable story, one of the few instances where a revolution actually resulted in a stable, functioning democracy. As I listen to the Revolutions podcast about the tumult and unfulfilled promise of Mexico’s myriad revolutions, the Costa Rican story becomes even more remarkable.

While today marks 197 years since Costa Rica and the other countries of Central America won their independence from Spain, the key event, in my mind, occurred in 1948 when José Figueres Ferrer took up arms after a disputed presidential election. He prevailed, but instead of going the route that victors in these instances often take, he disbanded the military and granted universal suffrage. The country remains a democracy to this day, and instead of a standing army, money is spent on education and social welfare.

Sadly, we’re in the midst of a national strike here over President Carlos Alvarado’s proposed fiscal reforms. National unions have taken to the streets, and there have been reports of bad behavior on both sides of the picket lines. Here in Uvita, I’ve not seen much sign of this. Most of the action has been centered in the capital, San José. And it could be argued this is the sign of a healthy democracy. The bad behavior thus far has been the exception rather than the rule.

Here’s hoping Ticos find a way around their current plight. There definitely are problems here. But there’s also massive potential. From my brief experiences, this is an experiment in democracy that is invigorating and worth defending.

(As an aside, I was reading up on Costa Rican history this morning and came across something my Gringo friends should take note of when people from the Americas express skepticism about our intentions. William Walker, a Tennessean who had dreams of creating a series of slave states in Latin America, managed to get control of Nicaragua in 1856 and marched on Costa Rica. The Ticos defeated Walker’s advance army at Santa Rosa and chased them back into Nicaragua, where Walker was ultimately forced to turn himself over to the U.S. Navy, which took him to New York City, where he was “greeted as a hero,” a welcome that he quickly wore out by blaming the Navy for his loss in Nicaragua. Of course, he wasn’t done there and returned to cause problems in the Americans, where he thankfully was executed in Honduras in 1860.)

My step counts this week.

Yesterday, I called a cab and went to the grocery store, where I stocked up on ibuprofen and enough food to last me a while. The driver, Michael, was awesome. I’m glad to know I now have a reliable ride I can call on. I also have a full fridge, so I don’t need to worry about conserving my last two cans of tuna, har. The foot is doing slightly better. I’ve been icing it throughout the day and I walked a good bit yesterday in the course of buying groceries without any noticeable ill effect. The key, I think, is to avoid any sort of twisting or sudden turning motion. That’s where sharp pain stabs me, reminding me to take it easy. At this point, I’d say I’m cautiously optimistic that if I don’t do anything stupid (big “if”), I can get this thing healed.

Another day of literature and ice packs

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

Friday, September 14

I’m not going to lie. I’m already a bit stir crazy. I miss my walks on the beach. I even miss my death marches into town.

On the bright side, I’ve spent more time reading in the past few days than I have since I did my master’s work in Birmingham almost 30 years ago when I was devouring the Western canon, preparing for my comprehensive exams. I holed up in my claustrophobic apartment on the city’s Southside, reading one book after another by day, editing new stories at the now-defunct Birmingham Post-Heraldby night. I did little other than read and eat. It worked. I earned the degree.

Compared to my Birmingham reading frenzy, this is an upgrade. I saw a pair of Toucans yesterday while reading, not to mention countless yellow flycatchers. And while the howlers have moved on for the next several days, my house gecko, Chuckles, has been doing a good job of keeping me amused. He was even joined by an impudent frog who leaped on me while I was reading in bed. At first, I thought he was one of those nasty green cicadas who seem to be everywhere here. But then I saw him hopping across the floor and realized it was a frog. I tried to capture him but he was incredibly fast and agile. Unlike me.

Gratuitous beach dog photo. I shot this the other day right before me lastimé el tobillo.

I finished Knausgaard’s Spring and recommend it highly. It’s an amazing work. As I started considering my next book, I realized I’d been reading male authors. thus far so I switched it up with Middlemarch by George Eliot, the pen name of Mary Ann Evans. It’s telling that she chose a male pen name in an effort to have her work taken seriously. It took a bit to get into the flow of the book. Her writing is serpentine and rich in classical allusions, not to mention the fact that she weaves in an array of characters moving through multiple plot lines. But I’m already in awe of her ability to capture the nature of her characters through their speech patterns in the dialogue she writes. The book is about 750 pages, so that will give me something to chew on for a while.

The ankle is about the same, maybe a bit improved. Or maybe that’s wishful thinking. I’m hitting it with ice packs three or four times a day and I’m doing my best to stay off it. I spent a good bit of time yesterday in the hammock reading Middlemarch, and I take my Kindle along with me when I hobble down to the kitchen to eat. In the evenings, I’m still plugging away at The Book. I’ve stopped writing and am currently working on plotting. John Gardner’s section on plot in the Art of Fiction was revelatory, and I’m rethinking things based on some of what I learned there. With luck, I’ll be ready to make a run a a first draft of Chapter 3 this weekend.

I plan to call a cab today to go into town on a supply run. I’m hoping to find a driver who will be willing to wait for me while I run into the grocery store to stock up. Should be an adventure. I’ve created a list of Spanish phrases to use with the cab driver, including me duele el tobillo (my ankle hurts) and me lastimé el tobillo (I injured my ankle). With luck, I’ll find someone who speaks a smattering of English and we can meet in the middle.

The healing power of howlers and books

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

Wednesday, September 12

Well, it’s been 48 hours since I tore up my ankle, and I’m encouraged by the fact that it hasn’t gotten worse. I didn’t expect much improvement in the first few days, but I figured if things degraded I’d need to head to a doctor. It’s swollen and hurts, but not excessively so on either count. I can hobble down to the kitchen to make food, and I’m spending most of my time reading and hanging with the howlers. It was almost as if the monkeys knew I needed a friend. They came around yesterday and hung out in the trees right next tot he Treehouse, where I watched them for over an hour as I felt sorry for myself. Then they woke me this morning and graced me with a few more hours of their antics before moving on via the arboreal highway through the jungle. They’ll be back.

I’ve already chewed through three books. The first, Cherry, is by first-time author Nico Walker, who I believe is doing time for the antics described in the book. The New York Times talked it up when it was published, and while it’s interesting it also annoyed the hell out of me. It’s a first-person account of a feckless kid from Cleveland who drifts into drugs and then the Army, where he ends up serving as a medic in Iraq circa 2005. (The troops call newbies “Cherries” when they first arrive in Iraq, thus the title of the book.) His descriptions of Iraq are mind-numbing. He returns after his tour and quickly gets caught up in opioids, leading to a career as a heroin addict and bank robber. I’m assuming the narrative is largely based on his actual experiences since he, you know, is doing time for holding up banks. The narrator isn’t terribly likable (even though he says he revised it in the editing process to make the narrator more likable), and the details of the junky life actually get pretty damned boring, or more accurately, predictable. If you’ve read one account of junkies being useless lowlives, you’ve read them all and this one does nothing to diverge from that pattern. (I’d much sooner listen to Ike Reilly’s “Heroin”; same general idea but distilled into 3 minutes and 20 seconds of heartbreak.) His Iraq experiences are interesting, but it leaves you hoping his account is specific to the types of people he gravitated toward and not all the young men and women who served there. It’s extremely depressing. But while he links his service to his addiction, I’m not convinced he wouldn’t have become exactly what he did without ever having seen the horrific stuff he witnessed in Iraq. He was heading down that path anyway, and the Army really just delayed his trajectory for a few years.

Next up was E.M Forster’s A Room with a View.As I’ve been reading and listening to lectures on fiction writing, Forster’s Aspects of the Novelpops up frequently so I downloaded it under a public domain license via Project Gutenberg. While I was digging up Aspects, I stumbled across Room so I downloaded that, too. It’s an interesting look at class, social norms, gender and mores in Edwardian England. I liked it much better than I’d anticipated. Very well written and plotted.

And finally, I’ve launched into Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Spring. I just finished the second section — where he describes his wife’s depression and overdose — with tears in my eyes. Thus far, the book is an extended letter to his infant daughter. It’s also part of a suite of books he’s created, I guess you could call it his version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. After Spring, I’ll probably chew through Autumn, Winter and Summer. I’ve taught Knausgaard to journalism students (a piece he did for The New York Times magazine on the doctors who do brain surgery) and I’ve read the first installment of his autobiography, My Struggle: Book 1. There’s a dark Proustian quality to his writing that I find irresistible, mining the mundane for large, metaphysical statements about the human condition. But without the pretense that the sentence I just wrote implies.

The mangled ankle and the miracle Tico

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

Tuesday, September 11

Low tide was at about 9 o’clock yesterday morning, so at 10 I set off for the Whale’s Tail. What a difference a day makes. After Sunday’s crowds of happy Ticos, the beach yesterday was desolate. I had it pretty much to myself, passing only an occasional beachcomber. By the time I got to the tail, the tide already was coming up, with water from both sides starting to overlap the sand bar leading out to the rocks.

On the way back, I figured I’d swing by Flutterby House for lunch. They have decent fish tacos and wireless, which would allow me to download the latest episode of the Revolutions podcast.

That’s where things took a turn for the worse.

The dirt roads here are often mud pits flooded with water, which describes the route I chose to Flutterby House. It started off fine. I was feeling my way through it and while my Birks were getting muddy, it wasn’t too bad. Then I hit a stretch where about a 18 inches of mud was under the water. I think I was on something rocky and when I stepped off it, my foot slid into the mud, sending me twisting to the ground. I heard a pop in my ankle and managed to lose both of my sandals.

This wasn’t good.

So there I am, ass covered in mud, taking the whole Gringo Feo thing to an entirely new level as I sifted through the mud trying to recover my sandals. I found one almost immediately and was starting to lose hope for the second, dreading the walk home with only one sandal. I already had walked about 4 miles on the beach, and the route home was rocky.

Ankle on ice.

That’s when my saviors emerged, three Ticos pushing bicycles along the far opposite side of the mud-pit road. They were older, maybe 50s or even early 60s, and rather than burst into laughter at the sight of a Gringo groveling in the mud, one of them put his bike down and started helping me look for the missing zapata, which he located almost immediately by noting my path into the mud and looking farther back instead of the spot where I had fallen.

¡Que milagro! I called out. (What a miracle.) I thanked them profusely in Spanish and then started to think about how I was going to get home. At that point, I knew I’d twisted my ankle pretty severely, but there wasn’t much pain. So I decided to head back toward the beach, where I could step out into the surf to wash off the mud, and continue from there. As I walked it was clear my ankle was sprained, but I took it slowly and got back to the house.

Once there, I put the ankle on ice and started munching ibuprofen. It looks as if I’ll be out of action for at least a few days. There’s a good bit of swelling, but the pain is manageable and I can walk on it, though gingerly. I’m hoping if I stay off it and read for a few days it will recover. I’m still worried about that pop I heard when I went down but at this point I’ll have to wait and see. Fortunately, I’m stocked up on food so I don’t have to go anywhere for a while. This morning I’m encouraged at the fact that it didn’t worsen overnight. I think that’s a good sign. And based on everything I’ve read on the Internet, the key from here is to stay off it as much as possible and let it heal. If the swelling or pain increase, I’ll call a cab and go to the medical clinic.

So the next few updates will more likely read like a hospital chart.

High tide at Ballena National Marine Park

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

Monday, September 10

After a few phone calls back the the States yesterday, I decided to take a walk on the beach. I’ve been avoiding the beach on weekends because I figured it would be more crowded with tourists. And one of my favorite things about Ballena National Marine Park is the solitude it offers most days.

Turns out, there’s something to be said for crowds.

At the Playa Colonia entrance, several vendors were selling ice cream and I noticed a lot more people in the area as I paid my $6 U.S. entry fee. Normally when I arrive, it’s just me and the worker who collects money.

Today, there were Ticos everywhere. Some where local. Some come from other parts of Costa Rica to vacation on the beach. This is the Whale and Dolphin Festival, which runs Sept. 7-16, so that drew even more people. (Ballena is Spanish for whale.)

I saw very few Gringos as I walked. I noticed the tide was coming up and checked the tide chart I’d downloaded on my phone, so I knew I had a few hours till high tide. As I stepped carefully to dodge shell fragments, coconut husks and the occasional rock, I saw people flying kites, children splashing in the surf, dogs chasing each other, young couples … it was a cross-section of Tico society playing in the sand.

At the beach near the main park entrance, there were about a dozen boats loading and offloading customers for whale and dolphin tours. I love watching the mates as they stand in knee-deep water, steadying the boat and keeping the bow pointed into the surf as they wait for the right moment to launch. After a wave crashes past, the mates push off, the captain trims the outboard down and a rooster tail of water erupts, propelling the boat into the surf and on toward the whales. I always worry one of the mates will get mangled in the outboard prop as it screams to life, but they step aside like nautical bullfighters.

At that point, the tide already was too high to venture out onto the tail of the whale, so I tracked south, toward Playa Hermosa. The crowds thinned quickly and after several hundred yards I found a stretch of beach with a population of three: me, a gray-headed kite and a white ibis, who was scurrying frenetically from one crab hole to another, trusting his beak deep inside to try to catch its occupant by surprise. When the ibis drifted too close to the kite, the raptor took umbrage, leaping into the air and herding it away. The kite was just hanging out on the beach, like me, not really hunting for anything in particular. After a while, he flew off into the jungle that ran right up to the beach.

At this point, a pair of young men approached. I greeted them in Spanish, as I always do, and they made the mistake of thinking I speak the language, unleashing a gatling gun of words at me.

“Lo siento. No hablo español bien,” I stammered. I could tell they were official. Each was wearing an ID badge.

“English?” the shorter guy asked.


He told me it was time to start heading back south, back to the other side of the point where Rio Uvita flows into the sea. Otherwise, I’d be cut off and spend a few hours on the edge of the jungle waiting for the tide to go out.

“The tide is coming up fast,” he said.

And that was true. I walked back the way I came, and when I crossed Rio Uvita where it flows into the sea, the water was almost waist deep. It had been ankle deep on my way out. I also saw several people lying on the beach who were caught unaware as an early-bird wave swept in, swamping their towels and coolers.

At this point, I started re-evaluating my frustration with the $6 park entry fee (Ticos pay a $2 fee). I don’t mind paying, but if you go to the beach every day, well, it adds up. I’d found a way to dodge the toll at an unguarded beach access near Flutterby House, but with the festival happening a toll collector has been stationed there, too.

Now, I’m happy to pay the toll. The guys who approached were good-natured and professional, and the park is an incredible resource. There are regular police patrols in the area and Playa Colonia has bathrooms and basic shower facilities. When I think of the crap I spend 6 bucks on, it’s a bargain.

My most sublime moment of the walk came as I arrived back at Playa Colonia. I walked up off the beach, past a couple who had dug a trough where their toddler was lying while they covered him with sand. The little guy couldn’t have been more than 18 months and had the most beatific smile I’ve ever seen on a child. It was infectious. I grinned the whole way home.

Clouds crept in as sunset approached, but I walked up to the shack hoping they’d hold off just long enough. And they did, treating me to a rainbow over the jungle and a brilliant sunset. Great end to another day in paradise.

The banana caper

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

Sunday, September 9

Survivors of the banana caper.

Strange noises in the middle of the night are routine here. That’s why I didn’t get too rattled when I heard a racket down near the kitchen as I turned out the lights to go to bed. “’T’is some visitor,’ I muttered. ‘… Only this and nothing more.’”

The next morning, I realized I’d been robbed. A massive bunch of bananas, which had been ripening on a table next to three mangoes and a pair of limes, had been decimated. There still were several bananas left, strewn about the concrete floor. The ground beneath nearby bushes was littered with banana peels. Total carnage. I also noticed the remaining rambutan (mamon chino) had been plucked from the tree.

I’m not sure who grabbed the bananas, but it was someone agile. I had a flashlight and several other items on the table near them, all undisturbed. Even the mangoes and limes were exactly where I’d left them. This was the work of a sharpshooter. I think if I lived here full time I’d invest in a trail camera. It would be fascinating to see who’s coming and going in the wee hours …

Speaking of night sounds …

I love waking up in the middle of the night to the roar of surf. It’s especially noticeable when the tide is up. It sounds almost as if I’m on the beach it’s so loud. The ocean is maybe a kilometer distant and visible from multiple points here at PurUvida, including the deck of the Treehouse. As the day sounds melt away and night grows so deep that even truckers have forsaken the road, surf sounds rise to fill the silence. What a great way to fall back asleep.

New (to me) birds

After a light rain halted Saturday, the birds came out. As usual, I was dazzled by the antics of the yellow flycatchers. But I also spotted two other birds that I was determined to identify. I have each of them narrowed down to a few possibilities.

The first, a predominantly black bird with red beneath, might be a Cherrie’s Tanager, or possibly a Red-Breasted Blackbird. The range for both includes Uvita. It reminded me very much of the Red-Wing Blackbirds who raise hell along the Hocking River back in Athens when I walk SunnyDog.

The second was aSlaty Antwren or Dusky Antbird. I need to get a closer look to determine for certain. What I saw was a female, which had a yellow/orange belly. Apparently the difference is that the Slaty has a light area all around eye. On the Dusky the orange/yellow stops below the eye. The male of each species is dark, with Dusky being closer to gray than black and the Slaty more of a — surprise surprise — slate color. Curiously, neither species eats ants. They “follow foraging army ants, which flush out hidden arthropods that the birds eagerly consume.” Watch out, arthropods.

The Book

I took a second run at the second chapter of The Book the other day and I’m a lot happier with where it landed. It’s definitely not done, but it’s progressing. I’m trying to tell the story through several first-person narrators, and I’ve been struggling with this one. As I listen to podcasts about writers discussing their work, they often talk about how the plot takes on a life of its own as the characters rise up off the page and become fully formed. That’s starting to happen here. Still a long way to go, but I’m making progress. I spent last night listening to fiction writing lectures on plot. Very helpful. Even if the entire thing crashes and burns, I think this will make me a more erudite reader.

I’m reassessing my view of Darkness Visible, the historical novel set during the Homestead strike. After a slow start introducing characters, motivations, etc., Trilby picked up the pace in the second half leading up to the actual strike. I finished it yesterday and overall give it a thumbs up. I shifted from reading it because I was researching my own book to reading it because it was a good story.

Blistering hikes

I’ve been bedeviled by blisters here, and I can’t seem to find the right footwear that facilitates my mega-treks without inflicting further damage. I brought Birkenstocks, Tevas and Merrill hiking boots. The latter two have served me well for countless miles in Athens, but here they crucify my feet. The Birks don’t cause problems, but they’re not great for walking long distances. I’m hoping a few more rounds of blisters and my feet will be able to handle it. I guess I’m a true tenderfoot here in the jungle. If nothing else, it’s taught me the Spanish word for bandages: vendas. I stopped by la farmacia yesterday to buy another box, and surprisingly, a four-mile trek in my Tevas didn’t inflict further damage, though I did have both of my big toes wrapped mummy-like in vendas.

While I was out, I managed to catch a G4 connection while eating at Sibu Cafe, which has WiFi that I couldn’t get into despite multiple attempts and clarifications of the password. But that G4 still was like jumping on a rollercoaster after chugging along on the G3 kiddy train out here near Playa Colonia. Damn. I miss massive bandwidth. I have about 12 app updates queued up on my phone. Even when I tap a wireless connection at a local restaurant, I’m lucky to get one or two apps downloaded during a meal.

Same sunset, new view

I trundled up the the shack yesterday with low expectations. A light rain had given way to general cloudiness, but I still got a show. At first, a sliver of orange zipper formed between the sea and sky, then the clouds caught fire. I shot a few of the usual views and noticed the scene was being reflected in the window of the gutted Suzuki 4×4 that’s sitting on blocks next to the shack. So that’s what I went with.

Sunset reflected in the Suzuki.