Excerpts From "Guanacaste Snapshots: Experiences in Rural Costa Rica" by Susan Gordon (pages 16 - 20)
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HOME - Tour, Vacation & Hotel Guide to Costa Rica - Maps, Rental Cars, Accommodations "Guanacaste Snapshots:
Experiences in Rural Costa Rica"
A New Book by Susan Gordon, Ph.D.

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Kudos to Susan Gordon's heartfelt and accurate accounting of her Costa Rican experiences and the Costa Rican people!   This was Costa Rica and still is Costa Rica in some parts, and accurately describes those around me even now - Ticos living, accepting and happy with life as it really is, and not as they wish it might somehow be. Susan's fluent and vibrant writing style will paint the most vivid pictures and emotions in your mind. Enjoy!
Forrest Geiger

Guanacaste Snapshots: The Rio Tempisque

The Rio Tempisque
If I were making a film at the Tempisque River, I would open with the entire screen filled by a deep mahogany brown pool reflecting ripples and splashes. A large blue dragon fly skims along the surface, its double set of papery wings making a faint clacking sound. As the camera moved back, we would see that the dark brown pool is the watery eye of an ox who is trying to lower his head to take a sip from the river but who is uncomfortably joined to his workmate by a creaking, groaning unpainted yoke. The angles formed by the four curled horns and two heads look totally unnatural, and the grunts and impatient pawing of their unsure footing in the gray sand give the viewer cause to wince. Panning a little further along the shoreline, the camera would slowly take in some milk cows with their young heifers drinking lazily, free of the headgear suffered by their bovine cousins. We would hear in the background a blend of nature's sounds, the cicadas' constant buzz, a woodpecker's hollow tapping, and the chirps, squawks, and varied melodies of enough birds to keep Audubon enthusiasts in ecstasy for hours. Flies of all sizes swim through the air, zipping in circles or lines, but staying within close range of the cows. Graceful, stark white cattle egrets hunker on the wide rumps and rippling shoulders of the cows. They peck at resident ticks and bugs, or simply rest balanced on one spindly leg, eyes closed, in the still, hot air. At dusk as if by some silent signal the entire flock of hundreds will take off together and fly downstream to the large cenÝcero (ash) tree. So many will roost there for the night, that at first glance, the tree will appear to be heavily covered with snow.

The mid-afternoon sky fills with dark clouds accumulating to block out the sun's rays and the remaining blue patches of sky. Thunder can be heard groaning in the distance, far enough away that everyone knows another hour will pass before the much-needed showers arrive. Then, some large leaves from plants growing near the river will come in handy as umbrellas for anyone without a plastic sheet to protect him. Every man, at least the older ones, passing by on foot or horseback carries a machete and knows which leaves to cut. They know which don't have hordes of ants crawling on the undersurface at this time of the day and which won't cause a rash if any white ooze from a stem should touch his face.

In the midst of all this pastoral hubbub of wild and domestic creatures, Jose Luis and his brother Jose Antonio tend the cows for their father, Don Chombo. His real name is Gerˇnimo, but he likes to be called by his nickname. Chombo ferries workers from the sugarcane fields and processing plant across the river in his panga, the dugout boat he made himself. He decided to provide this service when the company began operations and the foot bridge had not yet been built. One year later the foot bridge was destroyed by the flooded river, so Don Chombo's ferry was still needed. He guides it from a standing position, moving the single, long-handled oar much like a Venetian gondolier. Only a three or four men can cross in one trip, so the others wait their turn, smoking cigarettes and leaning against the trees away from the few remaining sunny spots along the shore.

Another day has passed, making it two weeks and two days since the cane cutters had been told their pay might be delayed a few days. Each guards his individual hostility tightly, unwilling to express discontent for fear of being labeled a rabble-rouser or worse yet, a communist. Someone surely would remark to someone else, and word would get back to a foreman with the power to hire and fire. That would mean losing the job, perhaps to a cousin of the one who started the rumor. Those jobs are coveted because the company pays higher wages to peones (day laborers) than any other employer in the area. Speaking out might mean being ostracized by the community for not conforming, or appearing ungrateful, or thinking he was better than the rest, or for any number of reasons. Luis Angel, one of the cane cutters who had worked two seasons in the bananera, cutting bananas, near Limon wonders, though, what would happen if they all ganged up on the field manager, if they could ever find him, to demand their money. He never seemed to be where he told them to be to collect their wages, Tuesday at 11 a.m. or Friday at 3 p.m., then most certainly Saturday at noon. This has been going on now for weeks and the men are still guarding their irritation. Luis Angel used to shoot the breeze with some of the sindicalistas (union members) in the banana zone. Maybe they could help the cane cutters. Luis Angel keeps the idea to himself, but takes a long last drag on his cigarette before flicking it into the river. He just might make a telephone call tonight. It's hard to live for long on the few colones their wives make selling tortillas and corn bread cakes or by washing and ironing clothes for others. The sacks of rice and beans and the five-gallon can of lard will hold out a while longer, but his own extras like guaro and cigarettes? So even the cantina owners wish these cane cutters would get paid soon, although they are more than willing to extend credit in the meantime.

A raft of green water hyacinths with delicate purple flowers floats by. Jose Antonio dives under the gently flowing water, surfacing with wreaths of waxy thick leaves and clusters of hyacinth flowers around his head and shoulders, arms outstretched imitating his idea of the monster from out of the deep. His brother laughs and throws a pebble so it skims across the water. The river is slow and shallow and only about 50 meters wide in late May. The rainy season is just getting underway. By September or October the river's temperament will have altered considerably, becoming torrential and fearsome. Playing in its muddy swirls will be out of the question. For now, though, a handful of nine or ten year old boys on the opposite shore chase a garrobo (a kind of iguana). They all scramble up the enormous balsam tree, the boys hugging its smooth barked limbs, moving carefully, and the garrobo clamoring rapidly but clumsily, its claws clicking and scratching audibly in the chase. It's hard to know if the garrobo is having fun or is terrified. Suddenly they're at the end of the limb with nowhere else to go but down. The lizard tailspins into the water, one or two boys cannonballing right after it. The garrobo escapes, and the boys swim and splash each other. They hoot and yip, miniatures of their fathers and older brothers who make similar sounds in the cantina or at the bull riding events during fiestas. In nearby trees along the river, families of congos (Howler monkeys), lounge placidly, draping their bodies over the limbs. A mama congo with her baby clinging to her back changes locations to reach for some fresh leaves. The large old granddads and younger males just seem literally to "hang out" in the same spot for hours. Occasionally they are moved to engage in some deep baritone howling, imitatable by a human who draws inward in short breaths, "Uwwuu-uuu-uuu-uuuuuuuu."

Downstream from this game of garrobo tag (or is it torture?), Constanza, Tancha for short, stands thigh-deep in the water. Never married and around forty- five, she is the aunt of one of the boys frolicking in the water. She is bent over her favorite flat rock on the river's edge, finishing the laundry that she, Rocio and Arlen, her sister's teenage daughters, had been at all afternoon. It is hard to ignore the noise the boys and the monkeys create. Yet all these sounds are part of the completely natural scene. Constanza wants to get home before the showers arrive. She and the girls had been there for hours, assiduously scrubbing each blouse, towel, or blue jean, first rubbing the bar of blue laundry soap over the entire surface, then scooping water up in a gourd bowl to make the soap lather up. The girls helped lay the clothes out or hang them on nearby bushes to dry but left Constanza to finish alone. They had to get back to help their 'buelita (abuelita, grandmother) with the late afternoon chores, sweeping the yard, feeding the chickens, and bathing their brother Ivan. Every now and then Constanza stands and leans backward to flex her aching back. She yells sharply at the boys to be careful, fixing her gaze on their tireless play. At the same time she chips off bits of the soap bar with her nails to try to distract the annoying sardinas (little fish) nipping at her legs like tiny pinpricks. Her laundering spot is conveniently located near where Don Chombo beaches his panga, and Constanza wonders if there still might a chance for her to enjoy a little romantic pleasure with him even though his dark skin looks gray and cracked like an old leather albarda (skirt-like, hornless saddle), and his smile is more gummy than toothy. She glances sideways, respositioning her back so he'll notice her as the boat approaches. The guys in the panga also notice her subtle shift and begin to tease and taunt, "Ay, mira Chombito, mira la lavanderota, jueputa, parece que te tiene un regalo, cabrˇn!" (Hey, Chombo, look at the big washerwoman, sonofabitch, looks like she has a gift for you, you old goat!) Usually taciturn and kindly, Don Chombo grumbles, and Constanza pretends to be indignant and vigorously swings her scrubbing arm outward as if brushing at a bothersome fly with the back of her hand. "Ach, you're a bunch of necios, molestones (bothersome pains in the neck) all of you. Dejen de joder!" (Quit messing around!)

None of these people is a stranger to any other. They've all lived their entire lives in this town, dodging each others' gossip and taunts, aware of every newcomer in town from the occasional dry goods salesmen to Spanish priests to school teachers from the Central Valley to Peace Corps volunteers. But as Don Chombo once reflected, all the outsiders eventually leave. Those born and raised here have lived each other's flirtations and rejections, survived each other's unpaid loans and unreturned favors, shared each other's illnesses. They know who's to be trusted or not, and who can fix or make any item, from tractors to brooms. They remember the night that Miguelito was fatally hit on his bicycle by Pedro from another town, who was driving drunk in his fancy new pickup truck. They remember how Edwin gave up drinking then but only had to pay a shamefully modest fine because his father was a big deal in the Liberacion party. They put a white cross marker with some plastic roses on the side of the road to help remember that spot. They know how many children old Sanchez has fathered with how many women in the area. They know and remember volumes that have never been written down. And, when all is said and done, they will recite each others' funeral rosaries and walk together behind the caskets to the cemetery. They still half joke about the time they were forced to move the cemetery. One year during an especially fierce rainy season the river overflowed its banks and flooded the cemetery. Caskets were unearthed, frightening and sickening the neighbors and drawing the attention of all the dogs in town. A team of townsmen quickly acted to re-inter the caskets with bodies in various stages of decomposition. They built cement casings above ground under the direction of Don Martin, the carpenter and cement mason. Blocks of beehive-like structures now stand, some with statues of angels or covered with pastel pink or white glazed ceramic tiles. At various times of the year family members adorn the graves with vases or wreaths of Easter lilies, roses, and other flowers made from silk and wire and sold by Do˝a Elena. She's the bar owner's wife in the next town who has turned her hobby into a good business.

They also will remember each other with rosary gatherings, special masses and notices in the paper every year on the anniversary of a death. There is no doubt in their minds that this is where each of them will ultimately end up. They will be laid to rest near their mother who died at fifty-five after toiling to raise fourteen children; and their brother who was gored by the bull as everyone gasped in horror during the church fiesta to raise funds; and their uncle who developed cancer after years of mixing insecticides for the local crop dusting enterprise. And they know they will not be the last to rest there. There will those who come after them, an infant nephew who will die of gastroenteritis, a daughter who develops peritonitis after a Caesarian, or a son who loses control of his Yamaha100 moto (motorbike) after too many ice cold Pilsens.

They suspect they are locked into eternity together, so why not joke and tease and flirt and lust and laugh while they can?

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