I just spent two years in Costa Rica with a firm grip on a wire pulsing two hundred and twenty volts of vice.
Costa Rica is a fabulously beautiful country full of get-rich-quick schemes and landlocked oceanfront property. It is a haven for confidence men, fugitives, and degenerates. It is, however, advertised as an oasis for honeymooners, surfers, and eco-tourists.
I came rifling into the country full speed just one month short of my twenty-sixth birthday, 3 September 1999. I was as “unwashed” as the average, American tourist. I had only one thing going for me: I am an American of Latino descent and I can pass for a Costa Rican. My Spanish was sub-par, but this only elicited a response of impatience from my Tico (Costa Ricans call themselves “Ticos”) hosts. They dismissed it as though I were drunk or retarded or both. And at times, that was the case.
My idea that Costa Rica was a country with magnificent beaches and panoramic mountain views became my reality on the second day in the country. I had grown up in a landlocked area of the United States, and I was by God determined to live at the beach. To that end, I was on the bus to Quepos/Manuel Antonio at 5am on my second day in Costa Rica. I spent the first seven months living the “beach town” experience. I learned the language and became accustomed to the sheer sloth of rural Tico society.
I had arrived in September with little idea that employment for a foreigner at the beach would be almost non-existent for the next three months. Late November is the beginning of the “High Season” when every business dependant on tourism is in need of English speakers. The majority of those first three months I was roaming the area looking for work. I spent most of my money on beer and hookers and the rest – I wasted.
There are two distinct flavors in Quepos/Manuel Antonio. Quepos is “the town” and has a constant population. It has little to offer except cheap hotels, one scant casino, a couple of Gringo restaurants, the bank, and the supermarket. Quepos has four streets and no stop lights. The biggest attractions are the two brothels at the edge of town and the sport-fishing pier.
Manuel Antonio is “the tourist area” and is the picture perfect, lush, tropical rainforest that juts down the hill onto the white sand beach. It is complete with iguanas darting through the underbrush and monkeys playing in the palm trees. Accordingly, all of the tourist hotels are on the road to the beach with the most expensive ones being on the slope of the hill that runs down to the water.
It was at the very top of the hill that I found employment in early December 1999. Hotel Si Como No is one of the best and the most expensive hotels in Manuel Antonio. It is owned by an American, Jim Damalas. Thank God, this particular high season, they needed a bilingual night auditor.
I had a job, and everything was going fine until I found out that I could charge at the bar against my next paycheck. I abused my credit for all that it was worth. Every two weeks I owed my soul to the company store. This would not have mattered if I were not also mounting a huge hotel bill in Quepos. You can live in a hotel in Quepos for about $5 per night. That is for a clean room, with razor thin walls, and a communal shower that only has cold water.
As February got underway, it occurred to me that I had not paid my hotel bill since early January. Things were getting tense. High Season ended in April and I knew that my job would end sometime in March. I figured that the bar at Si Como No was going to suspend my credit sooner rather than later to ensure that they got paid.
I was having a bout of angst because I did not want to leave the old man that owned the hotel in a lurch. But, I couldn’t see any way of paying the bill. My love affair with myself prevailed and I fled to the beach and slept in a hammock.
At the beginning of March 2000, I was living on the beach and interpreting in exchange for beer. The cheapest place to buy beer on the beach was Soda La Rosa right across from the water. (NOT to be confused with Bar La Rosa, a cut-rate whorehouse as you come into Quepos from San Jose) Herman, the owner, “no speakie English.” That was a problem because the majority of the people that patronized Soda La Rosa were English speakers. I thought that this was a fine arrangement. Herman had perfect communication with his customers, and I had all of the Pilsen, my Costa Rican National beer of choice, that I could drink. Every day I would lounge in the plastic chairs and play rummy with Sam Vaught as we collaborated on our joint-work, Ungermann Syndrome.
It was in the heat of an interpreting frenzy that I met three American fellows about my age. They were from Iowa. The ringleader, Michael Riggins, claimed that he was the nephew of John Riggins, the former Washington Redskins great. I tended not to believe him because in my experience, Americans, upon entering Costa Rica, lose all feeling or desire to tell the truth. Everybody has a story, and it is generally replete with lies and half-truths.
I never knew whom to believe or whom to trust. I solved this quandary by not trusting anybody. Before I left The United States, I was an extrovert. Seven months in Costa Rica turned me into an introvert on par with a psychotic hermit. My one recurring thought: Why, Lord, why must these people bother me?
“Riggins” was bent on making a porno movie in Manuel Antonio. He already had the models lined up and the profit points figured. I just laughed and smiled and drank the beer that he bought. During the first shoot, he found out the hard way that his “models” were transvestites. It had struck me that they had abnormally large hands, but I hadn’t said anything. Far be it from me to get between a man and his dream.
All I heard as I was finishing off his last bottle of rum was :
“Why didn’t you tell me that they were guys? That one gave me a blow job. Do I have AIDS?”
I said nothing and kept to myself. I borrowed $100 from Riggins and got the hell out of dodge on the night bus to San Jose. I couldn’t stand it anymore.