Howlers in the Night

A howler monkey issuing protests about Iranian centrifuges at 4.00 a.m., which surely is what caused this morning’s clamor, is about as fun a surprise as being caught without a parka, boots, and mittens in an Arctic storm. It imparts a similar fear for one’s life, too. Howlers are called congos by the people of Costa Rica, who in turn are called Ticos, perhaps by congos and certainly by themselves. A congo’s enlarged hyoid bone gives his voice more horsepower per cubic inch than any other animal. His call is a slowly downward spiraling syllable inescapably repeated several times: “OOOh, Oooh, oooh.” Or maybe that was, “UUUrrr, Uuurrr, uuurrr.” It first erupts from his lips like a dragster from the starting line, like Malcolm Young’s guitar chords through his Marshall amp, but finishes like Congressional reform. The call has the same dire sonorities as a million gallons of water swirling into an open manhole in the street.  

(Bloggers note: Although it would be easily done, the reader should not confuse dire sonorities with dirty sororities.)  

On the other hand, trying an afternoon nap in Tamarindo means being prevented from sleeping. Two days ago it was the blaring announcement for a concert. A vehicle went up and down the street playing this notice through loudspeakers at ear-shattering volume. It would be impossible to miss, even for a semi-deaf, 94-year-old maxi-abuela­­ who’s still vigorously chasing her chickens around the yard thanks to the low-fat, high-protein, fishy, anti-oxidant-rich diet and the savannah-oak-solid family structure of this region. On my first visit two years ago, the noisemaking concerned the city’s imminent power shutoff while some work was being done to the system. Today, just as I was about ready for a nap, a dreadful racket went up: pop music and a woman’s voice interspersed. I couldn’t make out what our program hostess was saying, but the songs were of such vastly different styles that I concluded this wasn’t the weekly Friday afternoon free concert but some sort of karaoke free-for-all. Whence it originated, I couldn’t tell. I did manage to doze off for a while but snapped awake to a Michael Jackson number. Hey, it was time to go to the beach anyway. On my return, I found the source of the hullaballoo was right in front of the Super 2001, which abuts the Hotel Portofino’s property. It originated at a mobile signboard with loudspeakers. The sign, unmistakably in fuchsia, promoted the Saba brand of tampons. Inside the store, the team of five Saba girls, all uniformed in fuchsia polo shirts and black slacks, swarmed the small super and staffed an information stand, promoting their unimpeachable product.  

Claire says the Portofino’s ban on putting paper in the inodoro is a deal-breaker. I think a limited amount of paper is OK. Obviously, Danish people have been in town and clogged up the toilets with massive wads of paper, and therefore we have warning signs on the bathroom walls of Hotel Chocolate and Hotel Portofino. I suppose Danish people clog up the toilets wherever they go. It’s the predominant national trait. At home they’re used to unlimited supplies of tissue and super-powerful toilets that are capable of flushing clear to Norway piglets wrapped in knitted scarves of heavy homespun, two or (if the handle is held down) three bundled piglets at a time. Nothing, I say nothing—there is very likely J.D. Power initial quality survey to back this up–NOTHING lights up a Dane like a jumbo roll of Charmin. Their large, elongated Danish heads teem with visions of inefficacious Central American toilets and anemic Central American sewer systems that can be ­choked up, clotted, wadded, and utterly packed with paper. The hidden truth is now understood. That’s why charter flights from Kastrup and Billund are always jammed with Kirstens and Birgits, Kaspers and Bjarkes. The rest of the world suffers because of the Danes.  

Today, at the large supermarket outside Tamarindo, I found two brands of rice predominating on the shelves. But just as Ford and Chevy have long predominated in America, each with many different models, Luisiana rice and Tio Pelon rice present numerous offerings in different sizes. Luisiana boasts that for 50 years it has been on the table of Ticos. Uncle Pelon’s claim, I guess, is that it’s just friendly rice, like Uncle Ben’s, at home. Both offer two-kilo and five-kilo bags. Luisiana has several grades: enriched, classic enriched, premium enriched, and precooked enriched, which latter, I suppose, equates to instant. I’ll have to ask a Tico how the decision is made between the two brands.  

After the supermarket, I went to the ferretería, or hardware store. Except for the fact that there was no yard, this place was more lumber yard than hardware. I sought two items. First, I wanted a basket strainer for the kitchen sink in my apartment. How is it supposed to be possible to wash dishes and then keep all the pieces of egg and vegetables from washing down the drain if one lacks a basket strainer? (As expressed in some technical jargon I found, “The basket traps the unwanted material [eggs, vegetables,] while allowing the process media [water, fer cryin’ out loud!] to flow freely.”)  

Of course I don’t know the word for basket in Spanish, more or less how to express the basket straining concept. I don’t even know how to say “kitchen sink” or “drain.” The young man who helped me launched into quest this with tremendous ambition. He guided me down a dusty aisle—this ferretería was nothing more than an enormously long shed—and pulled out a cardboard box full of drain mouths.  

“No,” I explained, “I want the part that goes on top of that.”  

He indicated that he knew what I wanted. “But do you mind waiting a minute?”  

A truck had a load of a few long pieces of lumber, which he counted before stamping an invoice.  

Guano on Witches Rock


Then I was led up some stairs of steel, like those in a nineteenth-century steamer, and past a sign that said prohibido, to the very rearmost part of the building, inasmuch as it could be called one. I hoped there was no earthquake at that moment, for no trace of either of us explorers would have remained after the boxes of various odds and bits, as well as the pieces of corrugated metal that sheltered all this inventory, came down and cut us to shreds.  

The sales associate, who had a pony tail and a light beard, pulled out another carton and sifted through more drain mouths, all of them encased in plastic, until he actually found one with a gleaming basket silver strainer stuck in it.  

“That!” I said, tapping the pull knob.  

He led me back down the stairs to the front desk.  

“And there’s something else I want.” Again it was most difficult to describe. I wanted a lap board, which would allow me to put a sheet of watercolor paper down on my knees, where I could do a sketch. Then I could put masking tape on the sheet and apply the washes. “It should be very thin,” I stipulated.  

He led me back on the ground floor to a bin that contained shoe moldings. I pointed to some pegboard nearby that was nailed to a frame, saying it was more like this. It should be a meter wide and two-thirds of a meter tall.  

He led me to a stack of masonite sheets. One was broken, the end chipped. We agreed I would buy the whole thing for about $4, and he would cut off a piece of the required size. While he was using a T-square to mark his cut line, he mentioned that he’s in his final year of architecture studies in Santa Cruz.  

“That’s great,” I said. “Here you’re starting with the basics.”  

He agreed and said the basket strainer was thrown in at that price. I could come by and pick up the other part of the board whenever I wanted.  

“I don’t think I’ll be taking it with me when I go home to the United States,” I informed him.  

Maybe my hosts at Portofino can put it to use when I’m done. I’ll be sure to mention it.  

I walked the two kilometers back to town, carrying my grocery purchases over the shoulder in my big green shopping bag from Acme Mercantile while clutching my Masonite board with the free hand.  

Walking against the scant traffic, I caught up to a couple of guys ahead of me in their early twenties, obviously tourists by their neat, trendy, expensive way of dressing. (It turned out they came from Bordeaux.) Just as I moved right in behind them, a raggedy Rasta-looking dude pedaled past ever so slowly on a coaster-type bicycle.  

“What up, man?” he said to one of the French. “Buy weed?”  

Because it seemed such a cliché, I burst out laughing, and Rasta-man actually uttered a word of protest. I’d wounded his dignity. Eleven hours after the congos’ dire threats, it looked as though Rasta-man would take up my undoing.  

3 thoughts on “Howlers in the Night

  1. Fuschia clad tampon girls. What a marketing concept. Did they dance, or just…oh dear, this could go so many places that I don’t want to take it!

  2. No one captures the atmosphere of a place like you do! I see real progress down there. Tampons used to be ‘invisible’ and much harder to find than weed.
    From hidden behind dusty counters to dancing girls!
    Sleeping is discouraged in Costa Rica, as you point out so well. Just as you adapt to the circadian rhythms of the wildlife, its back to the airport.
    Anyone in those parts who could invent toilet paper that could do the job then dissolve could make a fortune.
    Never met a Rasta who had a sense of humor about himself. Carrying around all that hair gives one an attitude. Hot, mon.

  3. A friend writes:

    “Not knowing the language well would make me feel constantly stupid.”

    Hey, even the guy in the hardware store lacked a name for the thing. When I got back here and showed Marisel, the maid, she didn’t know what to call it either. So I didn’t feel stupid.

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