Foreigner in the Shade

“Do you know anyone who wants to buy a ranch?”

The speaker, Arturo, a gaunt man in his late sixties, sat in front of a pottery shop in Guaitíl, chatting with an artisan named Elgar Sanchez. Arturo elaborated: The finca, owned by a Colombian, comprised 412 hectares and was for sale for 5 million colones. I can’t keep track of the exchange rate. Just shy of $100,000 ought to take care of it, I think.

A shopkeeper opens up at noontime on Sunday in Guaitil.

I said I would ask around. Of course, quite a few of my wealthy friends in Costa Rica, as well as in the United States, are presently looking for a finca of around 400 hectares, although none would want to run cattle but instead to open a yoga institute with a fitness center and spa—notice how “spa” and “sap” have the same letters—and would also want to produce organic herbs and vegetables.

So I made the rounds of Guaitíl (“gwy-TEEL”). The church was on the proper side of the town square, which was surrounded by Cortéz amarillo trees. My course through town took me past several domed ovens. Near each was a large pile of wood. I assumed the ovens were kilns for pottery, although the maid who cleans my apartment says her mother has a similar oven for baking bread. While on my rounds I also noticed a woman washing dishes in the free-standing sink behind her house, with the soapy water running out into the ditch. And I saw a soccer ball made of newspaper and tape.

One oven belonged to Filemon Campos, a slightly built fellow of around sixty years who wore sunglasses and had some whiskers under his lower lip. He wouldn’t pose for a photo, but he did tell me he’d built the oven twenty-two years ago with his own hands according to a formula requiring “pure earth,” something in the bag that he pointed to, and crude heavy tiles like those stacked against a tree. Those tejas are also layered along with wood when firing the kiln for a load of pots or baking focaccia or whatever he use he made of the oven.

Returning to the square, I sat down on a bench and started writing notes. Coming out from Mass (the Lamb of God Bible Church down the road had been in session at the same time), Marta Espinoza-Grijalba said hello. She was a plump woman in her late-forties and a Guaitíl native. She said the name comes from an arboreal fruit. The town has 715 inhabitants and sixty percent are in the pottery business, which according to her estimate has been going strong here since the 18th century. (It might go back even farther than that.) When I asked if there is any other town like it in Costa Rica, she said no, it’s unique.

Before leaving Guaitíl, I looked into a shack where a woodcarver displayed his pieces from rosewood and jocote. They were pretty crude and tended to repeat clichéd themes about ancient grandeur that Costa Rica’s indigenous peoples had never realized. The man told me that he works in business in Santa Cruz and only comes up here on Sundays.

I asked his name.

“Franklin,” he said, “like the president.”

I pointed out that Benjamin Franklin never was president.

“What was he?”

“Ambassador to France,” I said, perhaps confusing Franklin and Jefferson.

“But he discovered light!”

That, I agreed, was true. In its way.

From Guaitíl, I traveled east, running along the base of the Cerros Guaycamayo, which reach to 820 feet above sea level, and later along the comparable Cerros Del Rosario. The lowlands presented sugar fields, some dairy operations, single-lane bridges, and lots of iguanas running back and forth in front of me. When the gravel road crested a hilltop, it also tended to curve. I was riding a 125-cc Honda dirt bike that I rented for $45. It was fast enough, but the anemic drum-type front brake could barely stop the thing; but on the other hand, it was almost impossible to lock up the wheel, and this might once have saved me from low-siding the bike and sliding head-first under the rear wheels of an oncoming Pepsi truck. I was bound for Puerto Humo, which translates as SmokeyFumingVapor Port. Who could resist going? It’s on the Tempisque River just upstream from the mouth of the Gulf of Nicoya. I estimated the distance from my starting point in Tamarindo at 90 kilometers.

The dance hall cooks and their daughters posed for me in Pozo de Agua.

But before reaching Puerto Humo, I had to go through Pozo de Agua, which translates most literally as Water Wells, although it might also more generally mean Artesian Wells.

The towns are four or five kilometers apart. When I reached Pozo de Agua, I found in progress the preparations for a fiesta. I was more than a couple of hours early for the Sunday events. One man was swinging a machete as he tried to fashion a piece of wood into something that probably should have been made of steel in the first place. He and his partner said it was OK if I went through the open gate and photographed the bull ring/rodeo ring. There were two grandstands. One was of metal, while the other was a rickety wooden structure with banners advertising the Bank of Costa Rica and the Costa Rican Red Cross. It would be nice to know the Red Cross was at hand when the bleachers collapsed. The only other permanent facility on the fairgrounds was the dance hall. Some women in the hall’s food preparation area were roasting chicken over a wood fire, and they posed with their daughters for a photo. I gave my card to one of the ladies and said she could find the photo on the Internet, but she said there is no Internet in Pozo and she would have to wait till she went to Nicoya sometime. (The Spaniards founded Nicoya in 1521, which was before the Internet.)

Cortez amarillos predominate in the dry-season landscape between Pozo and Puerto Humo.

I started up the bike and continued to Puerto Humo, which turned out to be a little nothing place of about 250 souls. I’d counted on having a late lunch, but there wasn’t even a restaurant. Staying only long enough to snap a few pictures, I turned back to Pozo de Agua, which had two cantinas: La Conchita and La Sombra. I chose the latter for the eponymous shade. It offered a small bar, a separate food counter with five kinds of chicken and rice, some wooden stools, and dusty tabletops of plywood. The floor was of concrete. The men’s urinario was an unlit closet with an open pipe going out the back wall at floor level. Several of the men who used this facility didn’t even bother to close the door. After exiting, they rinsed one or maybe both hands in the nearby sink that stood outside; the rinsewater was piped into the urinario at knee level and drained through the outlet. Something made me hope the outlet pipe led to a septic tank. I couldn’t work up the nerve to ask what the women’s restroom was like.

An agreeable collection of polka music by xylophone was playing through loudspeakers. The festive crowd were all wearing brimmed hats, nicely pressed white shirts, and despite the heat, jeans and boots.

The plastic cup I’d received with my beer contained three ice cubes. I didn’t want to fling them out on the concrete floor; it seemed disrespectful.

“I don’t like ice with my beer,” I told the older of the two teenaged girls working the chicken-and-rice counter. “Could you throw this somewhere?”

She took my cup out back to another sink and dumped the ice there.

The remaining girl, who was bent way over on her side of the counter, so that I could only see her face, kept staring at me.

“What are you looking at, the foreigner?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

I couldn’t think of a snappy comeback. Maybe, if I hadn’t wanted to leave there alive, I could’ve asked about the status of her virginity.

One of the male customers, a young guy in his twenties, more than stared: he was glaring at me every time I glanced his way. I figured he’d been indoctrinated about Yankees and the evil United States, and tried to avoid looking at him. (Just last week, Óscar Arias, the outgoing leader of this nation, lectured his fellow Latin American and Caribbean heads of state at a big conference, telling them to stop blaming the U.S. for the region’s lack of progress.) The piece of chicken I’d received with my rice and salsa—which in this case amounted to minced up red pepper and tomato—was from the ribs and hip. I couldn’t help thinking the poor bird had probably escaped to Costa Rica after being held in a dungeon maintained by the Ortega regime in Nicaragua. The first bite kept me spitting out huesos pequeños for several minutes.

Luckily for me, the repast was interrupted by the arrival in Pozo de Agua of about 150 caballistas: men and woman mounted on horses, many of which pranced in the unique style of this nation’s equestrianism. I soon learned the procession is called tope de caballo. Riders and horses came in on the main road from the west. Proceeding once around the square brought them to La Sombra. The staff rushed out to greet them with cups and bottles of beer. I ditched my plate of rice and bones and went into the street with the camera that I had until now been reluctant to pull out of my knapsack. This action resulted in a long conversation with a man named Berny, from Nandayure, who couldn’t tell me enough about Costa Rican horsemanship. I also talked to an older fellow leaning against a very dusty 1990 Mazda Miata. He was the original owner. He takes the car out about once a year, he said, because it’s too low for the gravel roads. I hadn’t even seen pavement for at least thirty-five kilometers.

By now it was around 4.00 p.m. I wanted to return to Tamarindo before the motorcycle rental place closed at 6.00 p.m. I retraced the route through Zapote, San Lazaro, and Guaitíl. At Santa Cruz, the Nicoya Peninsula’s major commercial town, I stopped for a quick fill-up. Indeed, with about seven minutes to spare, I made it back just in time to see the sun half sunken in Tamarindo Bay. The full moon was just rising behind me. Between sun and moon, my head was filled with everything from the day’s journey.

One thought on “Foreigner in the Shade

  1. What a brave motocicletorrero! I never knew there was a type of horsemanship unique to Costa Rica.
    Sounds like a snorting good time, and hopefully ahora you won’t be infirma from the less than pristine latrines.

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