Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Puerto Viejo

I am in Puerto Viejo, a small beach community near the Panamanian border of Costa Rica.  English is ubiquitous due to the high concentration of American and European residents, drifters, and tourists who make their way out here.  It is home to a black sand beach, a white sand beach, a litany of coral reef, and some of the biggest waves in the world.  It has miles of shoreline where thick lush jungle kisses the ocean and tide breaks against steep distinguished rocks.

I arrive in town on Friday night exhausted after a 5 hour 3 bus journey roasting in the central american heat.  Like the sheltered gringo that I am, I feel woozy from too many hours breathing in a mixture of road dust, car exhaust and B.O. 

Unsuccessful after an hour looking for a hotel, I give up and book myself into a Canbana - the central american equivalent of a bed and breakfast sans the bed and the breakfast.  I can't complain though, for $10 a night I get a nice clean cot and my own private bathroom.  Not luxurious but compared to the "Backpacker heaven" renting out warehouse space with a shared bathroom and space to pitch your tent - think Katrina Superdome refugee center - for the same price it turned out to be quite a steal.

Plus I get roommates, and that's where the real adventure begins.  My immediate neighbor is Mike a retired Canadian from Vancouver.  I find Mike to be extremely nice and knowledgeable of the area.  He is also perhaps the laziest Canadian I have ever met (which is saying a lot).  I ask him what he is doing in Costa Rica.  He tells me he's been living in Puerto Viejo since the beginning of last June, that he used to work on the stock market while simultaneously taking care of his dad descending into Alzheimer's.   Sometime last year he decided enough was enough.  I ask him what he does all day.  He contemplates, then lifts  his self-made bamboo bong and tells me

"yeah, i don't know.  I guess you can say I go out of my way to do as little as possible you know ... because that's all what Canada and the U.S. is all about ... all that stress you know ... and all i want is to chill out and live my life ... living off the earth you know ... not eating all that crap ... and if you think about it its all very zen"

Being Japanese, my father a lifelong buddhist and having studied the works of Shinryu Suzuki, I'm a bit skeptical Mike knows what Zen Buddhism is about.  I let it slide.  Turns out he's a lot of fun to talk to and we become good friends.  He puts on some of his Barenaked Ladies collection onto my ipod and I in turn fill him in on the latest presidential election news.

In the next room over is Stephanie and Josh, also Canadian, also from Vancouver but that's where the similarities end.  Back home they are live-show promoters focusing on hip-hop.  These are the guys you talk to if you were say, Snoop Dogg's manager and wanted to tour Vancouver.  I learn that even the biggest, most established hip-hop acts rarely turn a profit on a show.  That the majority of the acts they promote end up smoking, snorting or dropping all the ticket proceeds.  It turns out that in the hip-hop world no one does any work or bears any risk save the show promoter.  I ask them what they are doing in Costa Rica and they go quiet. 

"well, we're not doing so well financially so we're hiding out for a bit" 

Stephanie says.  I nod, careful not to prod.  Stephanie and Josh look like really well meaning people my age.  I get the feeling that they went into the music business for the glamour, excitement and chance to own their own enterprise.  What they got instead was a slap from the revolving door of entertainment industry crap.  I hope it's the tax man that's chasing them, not some shady club owner.

On Saturday I ride about 11 km to the next town called Manzinilla.  Considering the heat, the mountainous incline, the bad roads, and the fact that my crappy bicycle is stuck on 7th gear, it feels more like 20.  Along the way I take in a number of beaches including Cocles known by surfers the world over for killer waves and Punto Uva a mountainous lookout point. 

Dread-locked hippies roam around while chiseled surfers and their bikini babes paddle and disappear into the big blue ocean.  Blackened roaches from marijuana joints litter the sand where Costa Rican children play.  I see bearded men sitting on dried out wood stumps staring blankly out into the sea, their faces cracked with wrinkles hardened by sun and sea air. 

I sense a trend.  I get the feeling the residents of Puerto Viejo are escapees of a colder, harsher place. 

I meet probably the only other Japanese guy in a coffee shop down the road.  The store owner tells me I should hear this guy play sax.  Turns out he's a jazz player, he's lived on 4 different continents and married a Canadian girl.  Their kids are all grown up.   She's in Canada while he's living down here.  They don't get along too well.  They're not divorced ... just separated.

On a recommendation by Mike I stop by a small coffee shop.  Outside is a poster saying "9-11 was an inside job".  I meet a skinny guy named Cliff with dark sunglasses and curly white hair that go down to his shoulders.  He is lecturing a paunchy hippie girl on the merits of Colloidal Silver.  Colloidal Silver it turns out has been scientifically proven to cure any disease known to man.  The reason that no one knows about it is because the medical community has conspired against the public to keep it's amazing curative powers a secret.  Why?  In order to fatten their pockets of course. 

I also learn that the same medical community have regularly been introducing viruses - i.e. AIDS, Ebola, Heart Disease etc - into the public in order to control, frighten, and make themselves rich.  I thank Cliff for the coffee and make my way. 

"When you go Neo and wake up from the Matrix, I'll be right here with the knowledge you need" he says as I walk out.

On the bus ride home I think that I - Bschool, management consultant, prompt tax payer, and computer geek - am nothing like these people.   The fact is though, I'm not.  I'm like these people too.  Hadn't I gone abroad to study in South East Asia?  Hadn't I chosen to restart my career in Germany?  I'm in Costa Rica to get away too but just in a different way.  I think we're all like that.  We're all looking to escape somewhere where the sun is shining and people are kind a polite to one another.  Puerto Viejo is fun.  I meet a lot of interesting people there, but where I'm trying to go is not like this.  I still don't know where my Puerto Viejo is.  Maybe I'll never know.

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