Reflections on Palo Verde and Nicaragua

It was one of those old timey airports that you used to see in the Martin and Lewis or Tony Curtis movies, where the stewardesses were all young and busty with tight uniforms and little caps and the idea of flying Pan Am or TWA was thrilling.  But this wasn’t Paris or London, Pan Am and TWA had gone bankrupt years ago, and we weren’t the sexy jet-setters from which Hollywood movies are made.  We had flown into Liberia, the regional capital of Guanacaste, Costa Rica and realized upon landing that the airport was essentially an open-air hanger.  Just like in those 50s movies, when the plane taxied to a stop, large steps were wheeled out to the plane’s front and rear doors and everyone began to disembark.  Crossing the threshold out of the plane’s fuselage, you realize immediately it is unusually bright and hot – really hot.  People had left winter behind in the States, in the plane, but didn’t realize what it meant to be entering the tropics, entering Costa Rica.  Coats were coming off, sweaters pulled, jackets stuffed into carry-on bags, too hot to be wearing all of these clothes!  Someone asked me if we were closer to the sun, and I mumbled, too damn close.  I had given up on jeans years ago, but even the light-weight cargo pants I was wearing was creating a sweat running down my legs.  Walking away from the plane on the hot tarmac, the next thing you notice, beyond the sun’s intensive glare, is the wind.  It isn’t gusty, but rather, a strong and constant force; it seems to be trying to blow the hanger and everyone associated with it off the face of the earth.  The trade winds of this region are what have made the Pacific beaches of Guanacaste so famous.  For half of the year the wind never stops and, as sun bathers lie exposed to the treacherous sun, it blows endlessly, cooling the reddening body and reducing the excruciating pain of over-exposure.  Come summer the wind too dies and the mosquitoes rise in mass and turn this whole area uninhabitable.  Right now though the wind is a powerful presence and pushes hard against us as we struggle to get out from under the hot sun and into the open hanger, as we push past immigration officials, over to the one and only luggage carousel, and out through customs, where my driver is standing holding his hat squashed on his head and his sign crunched against his chest, buffeted along with the sweltering throng of Costa Ricans packing the exit.

Rocking along an old rocky road, bouncing in the back of a 4 X 4 Toyota truck and grunting over large craters in our path on our way to Palo Verde National Park in Guanacaste, Costa Rica.  The driver is explaining that the road has gotten worse over the past few years with the arrival of agriculture and the large trucks bringing out the cane.  I’m sort of listening while at the same time trying to determine how much of the window I can crack to get more of that wind and not let the dry choking dust suffocating everything within ten feet of the torturously slow vehicle filter into the cab.  The driver is saying the road now takes an hour and a half from the highway.  The road is in bad shape; I can remember when it only took 45 minutes.  Jeez, it’s hot – is the entire board meeting going to be like this?  I am heading to Palo Verde to participate in two-and-a-half days of meetings and am thinking, could we have found a more remote location?  When I first came to our research station in Palo Verde twenty-something years ago, this area consisted of abandoned fields of pasture.  It had been cattle country since the 16th Century and was known for the rancheros who herded criollo and Brahman cattle to market.  In the 1960s the North American fast food industry needed cheap hamburger, and this, in turn, created a major cattle splurge in Guanacaste in the 1970s, which resulted in the loss of hundreds of hectares of dry forest to thousands of head of cattle.  When the industry came under criticism and stopped buying cheap beef from countries like Costa Rica and Nicaragua, regions, like Guanacaste, were devastated, the forests could not be restored and pasture turned to useless fields of scrub brush and thorny thickets.  In the 1980s, the government received a loan from the Inter-American Development Bank to construct a hydroelectric complex that resulted in millions of gallons of water diverted from Lake Arenal, up along the continental divide, down through three dams and into two large irrigation canals that channeled the water across the Guanacaste plains to the Pacific lowlands.  The “greening of Guanacaste,” in turn, resulted in large agro-corporations buying up hundreds of hectares of land near the canals and planting massive tracks of water-intensive crops for export, such as sugar cane and rice.  The locals, having long lost title to their farms, now began to work for the agricultural giants and, even if they had no rights, limited health services, and few benefits, they did receive a minimum wage for their long, hard hours and were able to eek out a living in their little villages of one room huts alongside the road.  About ten years ago, electricity was brought into the area and now at night out of the open windows and door frames one sees the flickering glare of televisions, the sign of prosperity, as constant as the wind, as choking as the dust, for the rural poor.  Our field station, located in the heart of Palo Verde National Park, is at the end of this weary, rocky road.  Some say just follow the electrical lines alongside the road as the station can be found at the last pole standing.  That’s true, but also one can see across the fields the long arching electrical lines strung high on top of large metal towers.  These lines aren’t following the road, nor are they supplying electricity to the local villages, but, instead, they are streaking directly across Palo Verde and the lower region of Guanacaste to light up the hundreds of beach towns and exclusive tourist resorts that have landed, like the daily planes in Liberia, along the Nicoya Peninsula on edge of the Pacific Ocean.  Rather, it is the smaller wooden poles, standing like battered crosses beside the gut-worn road that is only one rotten log or one campesino asleep at the wheel from disaster which supplies electricity to this impoverished area and keeps our station from turning on its gas generators for the researchers working in the Park.  Palo Verde protects one of the largest tracks of primary and secondary dry forest remaining in Guanacaste.  After driving for an hour-and-a-half across dry-as-a-bone pasture land and wet, shiny-green, agriculture fields, up and down rocky, limestone hills, all of which at one time was a continuous forest, it is easy to see why dry forests are extremely endangered.  To my untrained eye, even the trees that remain appear to have given up, the woods are spindly and truncated; as if the struggle against the brazen sun and punishing wind is too much, like it has become easier to lose their leaves, lose their bearings, than to keep on growing.  However, in driving into the park, it is not the tough-knotted secondary forests with the occasional pochote or Guanacaste trees breaking through the canopy that is important here.  One realizes quickly in climbing over the last ridge to the station and reaching the six large, cinder block buildings on the hillside that the forest is only a thick, outer shell of the park and that the heart of Palo Verde is a spectacular, incredibly large expanse of wetlands that extends southward from the limestone ridges as far as the eye can see.  The reason the Park was established was not the endangered sputtering trees, but the hundreds of hectares of rich marsh land that forms a massive swampy basin, the result of the Tempisque River, the largest river in Guanacaste, flooding the entire area as it empties into the Gulf of Nicoya and the Pacific Ocean.  Palo Verde National Park protects the largest river delta in Central America and is home to hundreds of species of birds and animals thriving in an-eat-and-be-eaten world.  For researchers, the park is an extraordinary location from which to study thirteen different ecosystems, but it is the wetlands and its inhabitants that attract the most attention.  For many, it is the thousands of resident and migratory waterfowl, the white ibis, herons, great curassows, roseate spoonbills, wood storks, black-bellied whistling ducks, jabiru, and blue-winged teals settling down into the marsh or taking flight that makes this park so spectacular.

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The six cinder block structures that comprise our research station cling up along the hillside because someone long ago decided to give all of the buildings full exposure to the marsh and the distant mountains beyond.  It is not a natural fit at all and a difficult environment; the woods behind the buildings, pushed hard against the limestone rocks, appear to be waiting to reclaim what has been taken from them; a strange forest of strange trees on strange, brutal ground that wouldn’t give an inch unless the inch had been acquired by force.  People love this station, but it’s hard to see why with so much working against it.  At one time it was simply one building carved out of the hillside, often empty, especially during mosquito season, but large enough during the windy season to fit everyone’s needs.  When I first came here, this one building was the only station we had – on the right side of the single-floor, rectangle structure was a classroom/dining hall/kitchen; in the middle were the researchers and faculty bedrooms, two rooms with two sets of bunk beds in each; and on the left was a large dormitory with 20 or so bunk beds complete with white mosquito netting draped from every bed.  All the students slept together in the bunk room with their packs on the floor.  When a large group of students visited the station, the room quickly became a surreal mess, with packs and shoes scattered everywhere on the floor, clothing and drying towels all over the bunks, and the thin, white netting from forty different beds pulled down, crunched up, curled in piles, or continuously fluttering in the ever-present breeze.  Students would stay for as much as two weeks in the bunk room, so if you didn’t like someone snoring or coughing or staying up late reading with a flashlight, you addressed it as a group and, maybe even, sent the culprit to the dining hall/class room to sleep on one of the tables or, perhaps, on the floor – though everyone understood that the floor, no matter where you were in the building, was not a good thing, given the scorpions that scurried around at night.  Definitely, not a building to be ostracized by the group and a perfect location to be sure that your mosquito netting covered your body at night, that you shook out your boots in the morning, and that you emptied your packs before you left the station!

On one occasion, back in the mid-1990s, I came here with our Board of Visitors, many of whom were new to the board and had never been to Palo Verde.  We had just built new bathrooms in a separate building next to the bunk room.  I remember Marigold, a very distinguished Costa Rican woman in her late 60s telling me politely that she had two problems with the accommodations:  first, if we were going to construct a women’s room outside of the building, the women’s room door actually needed to close, and, secondly, if you want the group to spend the night in the bunkhouse, it would be good to provide everyone with towels or at least let them know ahead of time to bring their own!  Jeez, our students always carried their own towels, what did she think this was, the Ritz?  We quickly purchased towels and fixed the ladies room door.  Since then, we have received two NSF grants to build additional facilities and, in fact, the meeting I was attending was to showcase the new classroom building we recently constructed with the second grant.  This new classroom/offices/library building was where our Boards would be meeting over the next two-or-so days.  Back in the 1990s, when sleeping in the bunk room was our only option, another board member, a well-to-do woman by the name of Joan, always reminded me that we had slept together at Palo Verde!  We were in the same bunk, with her in the upper and me below, and, yes, we had slept together for two nights, and when I visited her in Baltimore, she would ask half-joking if I wanted to sleep with her again, but I always declined, citing that what we had at Palo Verde could never be duplicated.  She died a few years ago of complications related to alcoholism and left our organization $1.2 million dollars in her estate.  I guess she liked the experience.  However, Palo Verde was not an experience that one could like easily.  During the rainy season in the late 1990s, we met here for a staff retreat and were completely consumed by mosquitoes.  You could see them rising like a brown cloud over the marshes.  We would get up at 5 AM before the sun climbed over the distant mountains and start spraying ourselves with Deet, a combination of horrific chemicals guaranteed to incubate agents of death in your body, but guaranteed, as well, to keep the swarms of mosquitoes from feasting on you throughout the day.  We would pass the Deet like it was a magic elixir and never stop spraying ourselves until we either had given up and accepted the mosquito as our friend or had consumed enough alcohol that we just didn’t care.

Too many trips to Palo Verde, I guess, but it isn’t the marsh or the stories of the board or my inconveniences that I am thinking about when my Toyota 4 X 4 finally arrives at the station – rather, I am thinking about a student from India who had been here back in the mid-1980s.  There is an extraordinary lookout at the top of the ridge behind the station.  Many people have climbed up the rocky face to watch the sunrise over the distant mountains.  I have done it myself and know how difficult the climb can be – as well as the fabulous payoff in seeing the sun climbing above the far off peaks, blazing its rejuvenating light across the snake-like river and endless marshes.  Essentially, to get to the top, after hiking up through the foreboding forest and scrambling across sharp-as-nails limestone rocks, the real work begins of climbing over a series of boulders to a spot on the ridge-line where the world opens fully below you.  Back in the 1980s, a group of students decided to climb to the ridge late one afternoon to enjoy the view before dinner.  There were ten of them laughing and joking around, but when they reached the top, someone stepped into the wrong spot or grabbed the wrong rock and, in an instant, they were attacked by a large swarm of Africanized bees.  These bees hadn’t been there previously, and no one knew of their existence.  The students, suddenly confronted by the angry, aggressive bees, started running down the hill as fast as they could navigate over the rocky terrain and unforgiving woods.  When they arrived at the station they were flush with excitement but realized upon catching their breath that someone was missing – in fact, it was the student from India who had traveled to Costa Rica in order to participate in the course.  With night setting in, the station staff and course coordinators started up to the ridge looking for him, but they couldn’t get far without being attacked by the bees.  At a certain point, with the darkness of night reducing the effectiveness of negotiating the trail and fighting the bees, it became clear that they simply had to ride it out and hope for the best.  The next morning the bees were gone, having moved their swarm farther north; the station staff climbed the ridge and found the student.  His shoe had gotten wedged between several rocks; it appeared he couldn’t get his foot extracted while fighting off the bees.  He was bloated from all of the stings and in horrible shape and had died what could only be described as an excruciating death.

Often I have wondered what it would be like to be the 10th man on the ridge-line at Palo Verde.  My old boss, our CEO at the time, had the student’s body shipped back to India.  What kind of note would you write?  What would his family have thought?  Their son leaves for Costa Rica to take an intensive, eight-week field-course in tropical biology and comes back a month later in a pine box.  I have watched in meetings the course coordinator who led that group of students; I would study her for signs of this horrific event playing out in her eyes.  She was an excellent researcher and a top-notch teacher, and everyone knew that we had one of our best people leading that course that day, but, still, I would look for the mark, the twitch that would forever identify her as carrying this unfathomable experience.  Mostly though, I think about the boy.  What would it have been like to go into toxic shock from the bees, how many stings would it take – forty, a hundred and forty, a thousand and forty?  How long could he have endured? What kept him from reaching down and simply extracting his foot?

Arriving at Palo Verde over the dusty, rocky road and through the remnant, tough-it-out, secondary forest is a mixed-blessing.  Ostensibly, forty or so of us are here for board meetings, some staying at the station, others at an old resort on the Pan Am Highway.  Palo Verde is so full of stories, what will this year’s be?  Immediately, after the meeting, I am leading twenty-six board members, donors, and friends of our organization into Nicaragua, a country I don’t know and have been to only briefly once before, I can’t speak a lick of Spanish, and now I am with a group of board members and strangers who have trusted themselves to me.  It will be a week-long trip of hiking up volcanoes, of walking in caves, of large and small boats on lakes and rivers, of touring Nicaragua’s most important and historic cities, and of numerous unknown elements that will present themselves along the way, all the while interacting as a group and as individuals with a very impoverished populous not overly happy with Americans or Costa Ricans.  What will the next few days bring?  Who will be our 10th man on the ridge-line?

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I had been on the border of Nicaragua back in the mid-1990s when it was too close to the Contra War to be comfortable.  We were with the Costa Rican National Park Service at the time and traveling up the San Juan River, the historic water passage out of Lake Nicaragua which separates Nicaragua from Costa Rica.  In the 16th and 17th Centuries, the San Juan River was the key route from the Caribbean for Spanish conquistadors and a century later for English pirates pillaging the lake towns of Granada and Leon; later in the 19th Century, it was an important alternative route to the West Coast for hopeful 49ers; and, later still, at the start of the 20th Century, a highly touted route for the construction of a canal across Central America.  For us, in the early 1990s, it was the key part of a two-day adventure; I was with several administrators from the Park Service as well as our Board Chair, my old boss, and the Head of our Operations in Costa Rica, and we were in speed boats out of Tortugero, the more famous of Costa Rica’s two national parks on the northeastern coast.  Located below Colorado National Park, Tortugero is known for its flooded forests and tranquil beaches frequented by great green sea turtles that crawl out of the Caribbean to lay their fragile egg-clutches; as a result, Tortugero is also a tourist haven with numerous eco-tourism lodges and a small airport.  Toyotas from La Selva, our research station on the Caribbean side of the country, had dropped us off in Limon, the major seaport on the Atlantic, in time to take the daily commerce boat, along with a large group of tourists, up the inner seaway to Tortugero.  After wasting the afternoon sitting in small, flat-bottom boats motoring through the flooded forests along with many other tourists, and a long night of walking the beaches searching for turtles that never materialized (while listening to a high school student from the U.S. whispering excitedly of how he had volunteered to do this all summer), we were glad to meet up with the Park Service right on schedule early the next morning!  We were in three Park Service boats roaring through the San Juan delta of Colorado National Park in a driving, pouring rain, cutting across what they said was the wettest spot in Costa Rica, racing each other around the tiny islets and onto the San Juan River.  As we slowed down considerably, I learned that the San Juan was owned entirely by Nicaragua – Costa Rica’s sovereignty, I was told, began on the southern bank.  Our trip was to take us west to the mouth of the Sarapiquí River and, then, south back into Costa Rica on the Sarapiquí to the town of Puerto Viejo, which lies just north of La Selva.  Such a trip would take us most of the day.  In the 1960s when researchers first traveled to our research station from San Jose, they spent eight hours driving over the mountains to Puerto Viejo, the last town in the Sarapiqui region, where, at the public dock, the rocky, grinding road finally ended.  From there, our researchers would hire long, canoe-like dugouts to take them and their trunks, equipment, fuel, and provisions up river to the mouth of the Puerto Viejo River and, then, up the Puerto Viejo to our station, which consisted at the time of a converted two-story farm house that had been carved out of the forest on a bluff near the river’s edge.  This final stage was considered by most researchers the last stop in the known universe.  With 47,000 hectares of continuous rain forest from the confluence of the Sarapiquí and the Puerto Viejo rivers at 100 feet in elevation to the top of central mountain range more than 35 miles later at 9,000 feet, it truly was no wonder!  However, our trip on the San Juan and the Sarapiquí was to show us an entirely different reality: the environmental degradation that had taken place alongside Costa Rica’s major rivers over the past several decades as the forests north of La Selva were cleared for large-scale agriculture and cattle grazing, and the importance of a new law before their congress that would require land owners to keep a wide corridor of trees intact along Costa Rica’s river banks.  In fact, in our situation, the Park Service boats would go no further than the dock at Puerto Viejo, where our 4 X 4’s would be waiting, due to massive trees and debris from countless unlawful dumpings lurking under the water further upstream.  Unfortunately, the San Juan River was proving to be problematic too.  I had seen the river previously from the air flying back to the States and was startled by the amount of red silt streaming out into the Caribbean Sea.  My old boss, who was sitting next to me at the time, said Costa Rica’s largest export was its soil.  From a 747 at 20,000 feet, it definitely appeared to be!  However, actually working our way up river in speed boats brought home what ”so much soil being carried out to sea” means.  As we navigated the river, we slowed to a crawl and began to criss-cross back and forth working our way up river and around sandbar after sandbar where soil sat clogging the river.  At several points, even in our small boats, we had to lift the engines up, jump into the cool water, and pull the scull over shallow bars so we could continue.  I read somewhere that, even at the turn of the century, many engineers thought dredging the San Juan for ocean-faring vessels would be nearly impossible.  Now, nearly a hundred years later, I could only imagine what that would be like!  As we proceeded cautiously up river, I couldn’t help but notice two different worlds on the river banks: the Costa Rican side more often than not deforested with open land either consisting of degraded pasture or active pasture with cattle grazing in fields of fallen trees – trees that the local farmer never bother to move, sell for timber, or use for firewood.  On the other side, Nicaragua was forested, cool, and dark.  One of the Costa Rican park rangers pointed out that the Contra War was actually a good thing environmentally for Nicaragua – it kept the government speculators, farmers, and logging companies out of the jungle, especially along the river where the Sandinistas had been fighting the U.S.-funded insurgents.  All of this silt in the river, he admitted, was coming down from Costa Rica’s deforested mountains and that our struggle with the sand bars would change when we got on the Sarapiquí.  However, what the Costa Rican didn’t tell me was that soon we would be required to stop at the Nicaraguan border station to register for traveling on the river.  It became clear, though, that this was coming up when the Costa Ricans asked for our passports.  In rounding a bend, the Costa Ricans pointed out both border stations – Nicaragua’s and theirs.  Costa Rica’s was a building on the southern bank near the Sarapiquí River.  The Costa Rica flag of red, white, and blue bars flew proudly in the breeze.  However, the Nicaraguan station was back in the woods and harder to see.  I spotted the dock, of course, and the fluttering light blue and white Nicaraguan flag, but little else.  As we approached the dock, the Costa Ricans insisted repeatedly that they do all the talking.  Two rangers quickly got out of our boats with our passports and went up the hill into the forest.  I could make out what appeared to be a lean-two in the woods.  The rangers came back shortly with a Nicaraguan guard who did not seem happy at all; he was wearing cut-off shorts and flip flops and looked tired and sweaty.  No shirt and no credentials, that is, other than the ultimate credential, in his left hand a polished AK-47.  We all watched him closely, but no one said a word.  I quickly realized that he was way too young; I couldn’t tell exactly, but he could have been in his late teens or early twenties.  Certainly he was younger than any of us and that wasn’t good, wasn’t good at all.  In Spanish he told us to get out of the boats, and we silently complied.  We couldn’t all stand on the dock, so, after a few minutes, as he started going through our packs, the Costa Ricans signaled for us to leave the dock and go up the hill.  In the forest was an open-air shelter with a thatch roof and a heavy wooden table and chair.  Between two poles in the shelter was strung an old hammock.  Near the hammock, a small table on which sat a shortwave radio.  A big barrel of water stood to the side with a wooden lid, seemingly to collect rainwater and keep out insects. Clothes were hanging on a line in the back between two trees.  All of our passports, Costa Rican and U.S., were in a big wooden bowl on the table.  Next to it, I could see that he had been eating a plate of beans and rice, but it didn’t look good at all.  No wonder he wasn’t happy – young and restless and stuck with nothing to do on the edge of a river in the middle of nowhere.  A place where either he was waving off refugees coming back to Nicaragua with their hard-earned pay or returning to Costa Rica to work illegally in the banana plantations, pineapple fields, and orange groves on the Caribbean side of the country, or he was yelling at the same Costa Rican families time-and-time again coming and going out of the mouth of the Sarapiquí, locals forced to travel, by necessity, on the San Juan to get to their one-acre farms given to them by the land reform agency of the Costa Rican government.  It was the same, sad story, day-in and day-out, and, then, suddenly out of the blue, us, Americanos with gringo passports mixed in with Costa Ricans with official government passports.  Damn!  This would have to be reported.  Bureaucrats in Managua would get involved.  The afternoon would be lost explaining what had taken place over the shortwave.  I was sure he was down at the boats considering how he could shoot us as drug runners – if only there weren’t so many sand bars to snag our bodies before we floated out to sea.  I was standing there thinking that this was incredible and wondering what was he going to do next, when, in a few short minutes, I found out.  The guard came back up the hill and without speaking, reached down to the bowl on the table and handed the Costa Ricans all of our passports.  Then he said something that I suspect was close to “get the hell out of here.”  I didn’t ask for a translation, and we didn’t linger on the hill.  In what I was sure was only seconds, our boats were crossing back over the San Juan heading for the Sarapiquí.  In turn, I imagine his radio remained silent, and he went back to his plate of rice and beans.  That was the only time I had been in Nicaragua, and, like a lot of people, I continued to envision a wild-west environment with young Nicaraguans and their polished AK-47s dispensing on-the-spot justice.

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I am told to go straight to the new building where the meeting is taking place.  I walk past the original building in which I have stayed in the large bunk room on so many occasions and follow the path past the bathrooms to the new facility.  A number of Costa Ricans on the staff are standing in the hallway and most shake my hand in greeting.  Being in my 22nd year, one of the benefits is that everyone knows you or has heard of you ahead of time.  I go into the classroom where the meeting is taking place and sit in the back of the room.  The board has pulled together two or three tables at the front and is sitting around them with some of the staff sitting in the chairs facing them.  A number of board members look up and smile and give a quick nod so as not to interrupt the discussion.  I can’t really tell what’s going on, but, in time, I realize the board is questioning our science director who announced her resignation a few weeks earlier.  They seem to be seeking her advice regarding her job and what she would recommend to strengthen the position.  This is not overly engrossing stuff and having traveled for hours to get here, including, most recently, grinding it out over one long, pain-in-the-butt road while nearly choking to death from the dust, I can’t help but think that now that I am here, this is close to horrible.  Someone kill me!  Clearly, I’m lost, the group has been meeting all morning, and now it is mid-afternoon; I simply can’t get a feel for what has occurred and where they are going.  Large windows line both sides of the room and are wide open, allowing for a wonderful breeze to flow through the building – thank god for the wind, but still, it’s so damn hot.  Everyone is in t-shirts and light polo shirts.  I notice the curtains beside the windows frequently billow in the wind, creating a life force of their own and a nice counter-balance to the stifling conversation in the front of the room.  I recall my first meeting at Palo Verde, back in the early 1990s; it consisted of a group of us sitting in a semi-circle outside of the original building, the only structure at the time at the site.  I remember listening to the discussion while watching different-sized ctenosaurs and iguanas fighting over a small natural spring of water about ten feet away, or, later that day, a White-nosed Coati foraging around the corner of the building, paying us no mind what so ever.  Back in those days our board meetings were critically important to me; I had been hired to be the organization’s fund raiser, but I had no experience in conservation or environmental causes, let alone the international arena or causes centered squarely on tropical issues.  My old boss, the man who hired me, said he was looking for someone who could raise him money, and he could care less I wasn’t a biologist as he had plenty of them already on staff.  Raising money is what he wanted and that’s what I did for him, and, seven years later, when he retired, it’s what I did for the next guy who lasted about nine years, and that’s what I have been doing now for the past six years with our current CEO.  My first boss was about twenty-five years older than me, my next boss was about ten years older, and now my current boss is about ten years younger.  I can’t help but feel the weight of the trend and can’t imagine my next boss being twenty-five years younger!  Though I know the reason for my tenure, with each change, the pressure to reaffirm and reinvigorate myself grows.  At some point, I truly will have to move on.  Of course, the other trend line I’ve noticed is the declining interest in board meetings.  Our board is composed primarily of biologists, and, though they are earnest and forthright in their discussions, they do not represent a “give-and-get” type of non-profit board and have never helped with any of our fundraising campaigns.  That is, other than in offering advice: I can remember one board member coming up to me and asking if I had ever considered approaching Bill Gates.  I asked him if he knew Bill Gates, and, he said, no, but he read he was a billionaire.  Far out!  At another meeting, a board member, who was a member of the faculty of the University of Arkansas, asked if we were aware that the Walton family had given the University $300 million dollars.  He said he personally didn’t know the Waltons or anyone on the faculty who knew the family, but he could ask permission from the department chair to contact the university’s development office for their contact.  Great!  Later, he said his chair told him the contract was their chancellor and he didn’t think the chancellor would want to speak to the Waltons on our behalf.  Bummer!  Now days, at our board meetings our current CEO prefers to handle staff presentations herself, and that is fine with me.  In fact, I can’t think of a single reason I’m sitting here at Palo Verde.  If it wasn’t for our Board of Visitors or our subsequent trip to Nicaragua, I swear I would have begged off.  In truth, it’s the trips that keep me going.  I love the adventures, though I am not sure why, or what my role should be, or what exactly I’ll be doing.  It’s hard when you can’t speak Spanish and you aren’t a biologist.  For our trips we now hire tour guides to lead us, biologists who can answer questions about the local flora and fauna of the sites we visit, and we have a department full of staff who handles the logistics.  In the past, I saw myself as someone who simply accompanied the CEO.  Now, I am not so sure – our CEO rarely takes these trips and, I know, others on the staff could be more helpful to the group given our destinations.  Hmmm…  Looking up, I realize that the board in the front of the room now is discussing institutional membership and dues; I am in dire need of a cup of coffee and a sandwich.  I look at my watch, the curtains dancing in place, the board droning on and on, and stretch in my chair.  I guess we will be here for a while.

****

It’s a day later, and a number of us are taking time off from the meetings.  It’s late in the afternoon; we’ve walked up to an impressive structure, a magnificent edifice that had shimmered off in the distance from our station for years, and, now, now that we are here, we’ve discovered that it is completely empty!  What is going on?  About 20 people are milling around questioning why we have gotten off the river and hiked up the stiff hill to this.  Certainly explains why no one was at the dock to greet us, but hadn’t we been invited for an afternoon tea?  Clearly, though, no one has been here for awhile.  The buildings off to the side from the main structure are boarded up and chained and look in dire need of fresh paint.  The central building itself, sitting magnificent at the top of a jutting knoll with picturesque windows that provide a 180 degree vista of the winding river below, the expansive wetlands as far as the eye can see, and the purple mountains off in the distance where our station is located, is, in peering inside, completely empty in spite of its beautiful, polished, wooden floors.  It’s as if the wind, which had been fighting us every inch of the way, had succeeded in blowing away everything, the diners, the dancers, the waiters, the chairs, the tables, the chandeliers, everything. Something is wrong, dreadfully wrong.

From Palo Verde, the resort, known as Rancho Humo, sits like a gross monstrosity across the wetlands on a distant bluff far off on the other side of the river.  A hotel with its seeming modern architecture and shinning, sun-filled windows reflecting back at us staring at it in disbelief from the cinder block station.  Using binoculars to get a closer look, I often wondered who would build such a structure and what kind of people would stay there?  But, it was too far away for me to see anyone.  Just a man-made building where there never should have been one, where clearly one did not belong.  Earlier, back in the states, I had contacted the owner, and he had invited a group of us to leave our board meeting and come over for a late afternoon tour and tea.  I had arranged for a boat to take us down the river to dock at the lodge – though the captain and his first mate, local guys from up river, were surprised we were stopping.  When we spotted the crocodiles slipping into the murky waters to follow our boat as it powered past the stunted tree-lined marshes, the idea of stopping seemed like a good one, but now that we were here standing on the knoll facing a stiff wind, a locked, empty building with polished floors, and a setting sun, the idea of getting back on the river and away from this creepy place seemed even better.

Yet, as our group starts back down the hill, two trucks come driving up and stop in front of us.  A guy in blue jeans and a t-shirt gets out of a beat up pickup while the driver of a battered cattle truck just sits there looking bored.  The guy from the pickup begins talking excitedly in Spanish to the Costa Ricans who have come along with us, and, to me, bringing up the rear of the group, it sounds like things aren’t going well at all.  In fact, one of the Costa Ricans traveling with us keeps pointing to me and responds just as excitedly.  Okay, forget the tea, let’s just keep me out of jail!  What are my rights in Costa Rica?  One of the Costa Ricans turns to me and says you forgot to confirm our visit; they thought we weren’t coming.  Oh, I say, but what about the buildings?  I thought we were going to tour them, and he says he was told they were built by the previous owner who went bankrupt creating an exclusive ecotourism lodge.  He says the guy I contacted back in the States wanted to show us something else, something else altogether.  However, to see it, we will need to cross his farm before the sun goes down, and, to do that, we’ll need to get into their trucks.  So, the Costa Rican asks, what do you want to do?  I consider our options: it’s either a long, hot walk back to the dock or a last-minute, make-shift, we-can-do-this adventure.  Hmmm…  One of the Costa Ricans laughs and says, he knows, it’s always the adventure with me.  I laugh too, though, thinking about the days ahead, I am not sure that’s a good thing.

The guy in the cattle truck looks disgusted when he hears the idea, but takes down one of the slates on the back of his vehicle, and we start climbing in; soon there are about fifteen of us standing together crowded in the back of his cattle truck.  Others pile into the cab and battered pickup and off we go, pounding over the road and around the bend, everyone in the back of the cattle truck holding onto each other, their hats, and the wobbly slats.  Past the barn, the ranch house, a large garage with tractors, trucks, and other pieces of farm equipment.  Down a lane, another lane, and another, past hundreds of cattle and a number of campesinos staring up at us in disbelief with their worn machetes dangling in hands, around bend after bend and into a small forest, until, suddenly, the road opens up to another wetlands, seemingly as large as in the national park and extending too as far as the eye can see.  No wonder he wanted us to see this.  His wetlands are just as massive, with hundreds of wood storks and jabiri flying and settling in the distance; on a nearby Palo Verde tree sits two white ibis staring back at us.  We are looking toward the gulf, away from the creepy, hill-top edifice and our cinder-block station miles behind us, and I realize for the first time the extent of the wetlands that can be found in this region of Costa Rica.  Someone said up to 45,000 acres!  From national parks to privately held lands, Costa Ricans and an international community are struggling to keep it all intact, to protect it for the intrinsic value it represents to the region and the world, to stem the inevitable march of progress from damming the river for more electricity and eliminating the Tempisque’s uncontrolled annual flooding into the marsh, from siphoning off the fresh water for more agricultural fields outside the park or more community developments along the burgeoning Pacific coast, from dumping agricultural waste water full of insecticides into the wetlands in an unending quest for cheaper exports, from cutting the forests, the giant pochete, cedro and Guanacaste trees for polished, wooden floors, from drinking it all, like vampires with an unquenchable thirst, sucking the very life blood out of the region, just like they have done outside the park and elsewhere in the country.

****

The idea is to meet on Sunday morning at our old, resort hotel, known as La Pacifica, located on the Pan Am Highway near the turn off for the Park.  We are to take off for Nicaragua first thing that morning.  We want to be on the road by 7 AM, passing Liberia and the final town to the north before we hit the border at 9 AM.  The word is that it will take two or three hours to cross the border, and, with the relations between the two countries somewhat strained, the later in the day we get there, the longer it will take.  La Pacifica is about 45 minutes down the road toward San Jose from the airport in Liberia.  It is in the middle of no-where, but a good gathering point where those of us going into the park for our board meetings can meet up with those driving up from San Jose and those flying into Liberia just for the trip.  However, getting everyone, board members, donors, and friends of our organization, together for that 7 AM bus on Sunday is going to be dodgy.  One couple, a sixty-five year old woman and her 85-year old mother from Arkansas, in fact, is driving in from La Selva over on the Caribbean side of the country, and it is just as likely their trip will take more than the five hours projected; in fact, it is very likely that they will become lost before finding this needle of a hotel in a countrywide haystack.

It’s Saturday morning though, and I am manning shotgun on a coaster bus that seats about 24 people max but is better with 15 to 18.  The driver is going to Liberia to pick up three couples who had flown in the night before and are staying in hotels near the airport.  The driver doesn’t know English and has a scribbled list of who he is picking up.  I don’t know Spanish and had never met the three couples who would be joining us for our Nicaraguan trip – still I thought I better go along.  It is time to begin gathering the tribe and no one can be left behind.  Already I am dealing with one situation that was unfolding that morning when one of the ladies from Miami, a sister of a board member who had signed on for the trip, announced to her sister, the board member, that she didn’t like the dust, the wind, or the tough roads and wanted to go home.  The board member said her sister was going to sleep all day to see if she would feel better.  But I am thinking, she needs to get to the airport if she wants to go home.  We’re striking out for Nicaragua at 7 AM tomorrow.  She doesn’t have a day to feel better if this is what she wants to do.  But, to the board member, I said, good, just let me know.

Riding shotgun on an empty coaster where you and the driver can’t communicate due to the language barrier is a nice way to travel, to think, to envision the days ahead, to be free of people wanting to know what was going on, who didn’t get their itineraries, who don’t like who they will be rooming with, who hadn’t read their travel materials or brought the right things, who were already suggesting changes to the trip, a possible stop at a local pharmacy, or a bank in Nicaragua to exchange money, or a department store in Costa Rica to buy clothes…  Indeed, the empty coaster represents a blessed moment of incommunicado-induced freedom.  Just drive.  The driver says something in Spanish, miming winding down his window, and we open our windows and face the onslaught of the wind as we roar 65 to 70 miles an hour on the Pan Am Highway, passing trucks and vehicles full of produce and animals that seem to be standing still.  It’s a great morning.  The sun is up but not as abusive as it’s going to be later, and the sights and smells all around me are new, and different, and good, and local people are out and about alongside the road.  I offer the driver a stick of gum and together we enjoy the shared solitude.

For some reason I have this tremendous sense of déjà vu and my thoughts turn to my old boss – had he and I traveled this way before?  Soon I am reflecting on something he said when I last saw him.  He died of cancer literally the week prior to my trip, and I count myself extremely fortunate to have visited him in his home a day before he slipped into a coma.  I had stopped by to tell him that I was leaving for our annual meetings, that I would be gone for awhile because of the trip to Nicaragua, but that I would visit again as soon as I returned.  He was sitting on his recliner in his pajamas and bathrobe and looked very thin and pale, and when he heard that I was flying into Liberia, his eyes lit up and he smiled a great smile.  We had taken so many trips together – he and I – I knew he gladly would have joined me right then, and, really, right then and there, I would have given anything to have gotten him out of that recliner, to have helped him put on his stained pair of old Docker pants, his faded t-shirt, and those beat up sneakers he should have thrown out years ago; right then, I easily could have lifted him into my arms, bathrobe and all, and carried him with me, once more, to Costa Rica.  Instead, I reached down and squeezed his hand and gave him a careful hug, whispering that I would miss him.  He stirred and said something that I couldn’t quite decipher.  I stepped back not sure what I had heard, but made my warm good-byes.  On the road to Liberia, I am reminded of that moment and his response.  Was it ‘Stay true,’ or ‘I love you,’ or something like ‘Continue’?  I just didn’t know… every time I reflect on this, I come to a different conclusion.  I decide on the bus it had to be “I love you.” – which was so unusual – he had never said anything like that to me before.  I loved him, for sure, and would miss him terribly.

We arrive in Liberia too soon.  The growth of the city is remarkable.  As the capital of Guanacaste, Liberia always has been the biggest town in the region, but now it is no longer an old, cattle town but an up-and-coming city of the future, one focused squarely on its wild-cat strike in tourism.  We stop at the first of our two hotels right on time, a brand new Hilton Garden Inn, but our pickup isn’t there, and, at the desk, the clerk says no one by that name is registered.  Not a good sign.  I’m staring at the papers my staff has given me and clearly it says one couple is staying here.  I’m thinking I am going to kill my staff when I get back to the States.  Off we go to the next hotel, the Bamural, and two couples, as expected, are waiting in the lobby with their packed suitcases.  They are delighted to see me hop off the bus, and I don’t know who is more relieved, them or me.  Only, it turns out, upon introductions, the one couple, Dick and Nancy, is the couple who is supposed to be at the Hilton.  The husband, maybe 15 years older than me, says he decided at the last minute to change their hotel when he saw everyone else was staying here.  The other couple, two guys who could be my age or slightly younger, is obviously gay; they seem nervous, but are happy to make the pickup.  Okay, but, if Dick and Nancy are here and Don and Steve, doesn’t that mean another couple is missing?  Checking registration – yes, the couple arrived last night, but no, they are not in their room.  I run over to the hotel restaurant and look for any twosome who could be a “Jeff and Taconna.”   I spot a couple who I think could be them sitting at a table eating their breakfast.  The guy is white maybe twenty years younger than me and his girlfriend is black and maybe ten years younger than him.  What a relief they say when I introduce myself.  Jeff mentions he sent me three emails that very morning asking if we would be on time to pick them up.  He says they just now were discussing their options, sitting in the middle of Liberia on their own with no contacts.  Don’t worry, I say, you’re with us now.  Glancing at my watch, it is clear we are 15 minutes within the half-an-hour I had given them for our arrival.  Okay, I guess I am not the only one worried about making connections.  Pushing the three couples toward the coaster and thinking of the 20 others who would need to be at the bus for tomorrow’s 7 AM departure, I have a fleeting image of commanding a rubber Zodiac at full throttle in dangerous waters, picking up a boat-load of swimmers fighting the undertow, struggling in the curling, crashing waves.  Give me your hand – now!  It’s now or never to swing on board for Nicaragua!

****

First, though, there is one more trip to Palo Verde to negotiate – a final Saturday afternoon and evening with our boards before I can get back to the hotel to see who has arrived and who hasn’t for our 7 AM monster trip.  The coaster returns to La Pacifica, and soon it is full of board members, spouses, and the participants that I picked up from Liberia.  Don and Steve have stayed behind, but Dick and Nancy are game for a day in the national park as are Jeff and Taconna.  They look like they will be a good addition to the group.  Dick mentions on the bus that he had taken a course offered by our organization back in 1967, and it changed his life.  Though he has traveled the world studying invasive plants, this is his first time back in Costa Rica.  As he stares out the window, he marvels at all the changes and admits not all of them are for the better.  Jeff and Taconna, it turns out, have been to Costa Rica several times over the past few years, but they have focused their trips on La Selva, where they are considered “old hands” and welcomed guests.  In fact, I soon realize that they are the famous couple who spotted two highly-endangered Great Green Macaws mating in a tree near the station; this news swept through the research community like wildfire, and I even heard about it within a day in the States.  In fact, it wasn’t long before a camera crew came out to La Selva and filmed the macaws, which we then put out on the internet for the world to see.  This automatically made Jeff and Taconna pretty cool in my book, and I let them know that I was delighted to have them along for the ride.  My board member from Miami, Marisa, says her sister, Liliana is feeling better and will join us for Nicaragua but has decided to stay back in their hotel room for the day.  Marisa and another board member, Luisa, are sitting side-by-side and are known affectionately on our Board of Visitors as the Miami girls.  Both were born in Cuba and airlifted out of the country with hundreds of other children when Castro took over in the late 50s.  Luisa subsequently lived with a family in Arizona and Marisa was sent to northern Florida.  Over time when their families made it to Miami, they were reunited; today they are considered “environmentalists” and “good garden-people,” but their true passion remains focused on removing Castro from power.  Christiane, sitting near them, is our other board member from Miami.  She’s in her late-70s; when she was a girl her father was the president of Nestle.  She still owns the family villa on Lake Geneva where I stayed once for a 24-hour trip to Switzerland to meet with Nestle officials.  It was a lot of effort, but nothing ever came from it, though eating dinner in Vevey, Switzerland was pretty cool.  Later, a Nestle official came to our offices in the States to meet with us.  I remember one evening after taking him out to dinner he wanted to tour our local supermarket, and he ran up and down the aisles looking at where Nestle’s products were placed.  As he became angrier and angrier, I prayed that he would not make a scene with our local store manager.  To this day, though, I always note where Nestle’s products are on the shelves!  Christiane’s son has Lou Gehring’s Disease, and she told me she is taking this trip to get some personal time away from her aging husband and her 55-year-old son’s inevitable descent.  On the bus next to Christiane is Myriam whose own son actually died about ten years back.  Myriam’s son was a doctoral student studying Titi monkeys at the Cocha Cashu Research Station in Manu National Park in Peru.  He had spent three years at Cocha Cashu crashing through the forest chasing after the monkeys and was about two weeks from finishing his field work when one evening to wash up before dinner – there are no showers at Cocha Cashu – like everyone, he went for a swim in the oxbow lake next to the site.  Only, even though he was an excellent swimmer, he never came back, and to this day his body has never been found.  Peruvian authorities think an alligator pulled him to the bottom of the lake.  Myriam doesn’t know what to think; Myriam’s husband had died a few years earlier than that on a TWA flight that crashed in the Atlantic Ocean off of Long Island; I am sure she thought she was jinxed.  I thought she had suffered enough and was glad she accepted my invitation to be on our board.  I worked with her in creating an endowment that funds students to continue to do research in Cocha Cashu.  I think she likes being with us and feels, somehow, closer to her son.  Near Myriam and Christiane are Rudy and Sally – Rudy has family inheritance and Sally is his second wife, a former bookstore owner.  Rudy has traveled the world but is getting older and his ability in handling difficult environments is limited, which is somewhat startling as he is famous in our circle as the guy who has done so many amazing things, like taking a week-long cruise under the Arctic on a Russian sub.  Rudy and I take time while on the bus bouncing down the dirt road to Palo Verde to discuss his potential gift of $150,000.  I’m thinking I really must make sure he has a good time in Nicaragua and ends the trip not as stressed as he was when a few years back he went with us to the Osa Peninsula and Corcovado National Park.  Corcovado, one of the wildest parks in Costa Rica, protects most of the Osa Peninsula, which is located on the Pacific just above Panama.  Park service personnel at Corcovado are fighting the fight, keeping gold miners, poachers, locals, hotel proprietors, and hundreds of tourists and tour operators at bay.  We went in at their invitation with a group of about twenty board members and friends and stayed at their headquarters, the Sirena Biological Station, which, as it turns out, is one of the most rustic stations we have ever visited.  Getting to the station by motor boat, you literally have to jump into the ocean fifty to a hundred feet out and wade in with your luggage, food, water, and bedding all over your head.  The station itself is a half-mile inland and though we arranged for a tractor with a wagon to carry the boxes and luggage, everyone had to walk to the station regardless of their age or health, and it was hot, really hot and really humid!  Once there, we discovered the bathrooms were worse than horrible, and though we had brought in mosquito netting and sheets, once again, no one thought of towels.  It would be four days before we would be extracted, so we started ripping apart extra sheets and handing them out to everyone as towelettes.  We asked couples to share rooms – four to a room, but soon it became clear that we had to rethink our sleeping arrangements.  The second night we reshuffled the group, and all the men slept in one set of rooms and the women in another.  That seemed to work best.  It was a tough site, and a tough environment with sharp mountainous terrain, typical of the Pacific, coming right up the water’s edge, tough enough that I hired a medical rescue expert to be with us throughout our stay.  I remember one of the most adventurous guys in our group coming back from a day-long trek and marveling at how much he had seen.  In looking at his legs, he couldn’t believe all the dirt that he had picked up on the trail until someone pointed out that the dirt was moving.  He was inundated with ticks and had absolutely no idea.  It was a place where whiskey was a valuable possession and frequently passed around the group.  However, it was also a place where you might encounter three or four species of monkeys passing over your head in the low canopy, one troop after another swinging right above your ears and paying you no mind what so ever.  Like it was meant to be… Unfortunately, Rudy shut down after about a day; people would mention that he was back in the bunks napping, always back in the bunks napping, and it was clear that he hadn’t taken well to the site.  Rudy stopped traveling with us after that and now the trip to Nicaragua is the first time he has come back.  Now he is with his wife and negotiating a pledge of $150,000 with me that I can’t afford to lose.

We pull into Palo Verde National Park for the last time, and the bus stops at the park entrance.  The park ranger comes over to the bus and peers into the window next to the driver.  People have been coming and going for two days now. The question I can see running over in his head is whether or not everyone has paid the $10 one-time entrance fee.  Sitting there, I know they haven’t.  I am staring back at him but, in truth, deciding how best to proceed.  He recognizes me because I stopped at the entrance on the first day and paid the fee; more significantly, I have driven past and waved at him on three or four occasions over the past two days.  I’m on a bus full of wealthy gringos, my board members, and no one’s making an effort to move, waiting for instructions – from me?  It dawns on me that I really am leading the group.  There is no one else at this point, no one else at all – my old boss and the senior staff I have traveled with over the years are dead or long gone.  My thought process happens instantaneously, and I see with incredible clarity my role on the bus in that space of a moment.  I don’t need to speak Spanish or hold a degree in biology for this; I need only to stay true to what I have learned from so many others, to be the best of what our organization represents.  I stand up before the ranger can speak and say, okay, everyone, we must pay the fee to go into the park.  I pull out my wallet and take out another $10 to show the group I am paying my fair share.  Everyone begins to give me their money and no one questions me at all.  A good vibe is passing through the group, I can feel it!  The ranger looks relieved too!  Is it Rudy who asks, how do we know way out here he won’t simply pocket the money?  I respond by saying we don’t, but we are doing the right thing, what we are supposed to do as guests of the park.  To me, it feels like I’ve resolved my uncertainty, I have made a pact with those who have gone before, I have passed a test, not with the ranger, or the driver, or the Costa Ricans on the bus, or the board members, or our new-found friends, but with me alone and, of course, the ghosts who ride along.

When we reach our station there are more than 40 people milling about for the afternoon and evening session.  People are eating lunch, so we walk up to the dining hall and get in line.  Within minutes the group from the bus has acclimated to the site and is with other board members.  After lunch, I wander down to the meeting room in the new classroom building.  This site once had been the director’s house.  The previous CEO, the guy who was hired after my old boss retired, convinced the widow of a well known botanist, Rexford Daubenmire, to give a gift of $10,000 to construct a small director’s house in Rexford’s memory.  We placed a plaque on the side of the little building acknowledging Rexford and Jean, his wife, who actually gave the gift.  Over time, as the staff at the station grew, the building was used to accommodate additional people.  On an earlier visit in the late 90s, in checking out the Daubenmire House, things had changed dramatically; the place looked like a slum with staff staying in horrific conditions.  Our first proposal to NSF for Palo Verde came complete with photographs of the squalor the staff was living in at the time.  We received our grant and moved the staff, but the old Daubenmire building remained, unused and dilapidated.  The most recent grant finally razed this building and enabled us to construct the new classroom in its stead.  I noticed this time in walking to the new facility that the Daubenmire plaque is now on the corner of the original station building, a structure that had been built more than twenty-five years before Jean Daubenmire’s gift.  No one seems to notice the incongruence.  In fact, while I was standing there reading the plaque, Dick and Nancy come up to me and say how wonderful it is to see that Rexford and Jean, who they had admired for years, do such a marvelous thing.  I didn’t tell them about the director’s house, or that the current CEO wants to raise money to tear this original building down and construct a new aesthetically-pleasing, environmentally-certified center.  I wonder what then will become of the old Daubenmire plaque.  Will it pass to the next oldest building?  Will it go from station to station as structures that need to be torn down are identified?  Rexford is dead, Jean is dead, the previous CEO is long gone, and the station director has turned over too.  Is there anyone here anymore who even knows?  Even cares?  Perhaps, like so many things of late, I should take the plaque, the only thing that remains of Rexford’s memory at Palo Verde, the only thing that will remain eventually of the original building, the bunk room, so many stories, and hold it close for safe keeping.

That night, after the close of the meetings, a group of local dancers come to the station to entertain us.  A mariachi band has set up under the old Guanacaste tree near the dirt road and twelve dancers begin swirling around on make-shift flooring, the men in traditional white shirts and bandanas and the women in beautifully woven white dresses with red and blue ribbons.  I ask if these dancers come from Liberia, and the station director says no, they are from the communities outside the park; they are trying to preserve their dances and what it meant to be raised in Guanacaste before all the changes, before cheap hamburger, or the cane, or the sun-bathers who have descended on the region.  It is clear that the dancers are delighted to be with us, to show us another side of their lives, and they are having a great time swirling, swirling, swirling to the distinctly Costa Rican music.  The hot sun is long gone and the wind feels good against my arms and face, the night sky is beautiful, stars everywhere, and it’s nice just standing outside the station buildings in a large semi-circle of new and old friends watching the joyful dancers.  But, then, out of the corner of my eye, I see the bus driver moving toward the bus.  I can feel instantly it tugging at me.  People are watching too to see if I start moving – with a torturous, hour-and-a-half bus ride on a horrible road to get back to the hotel, 7 AM will come way too soon, and, of course, Nicaragua will be waiting.  I turn back to the dancers, forcing myself to linger a moment longer, and try to recapture that fleeting moment of contentment and beauty, and I see in amongst the dancers the boy from India, and he seems so happy, and he swirls with the ladies, laughing and weaving in and out of the group, and he’s pulling behind him Joan, my old board member from Baltimore, and she seems happier now than I ever recall.  Then, over near the drums, I see Myriam’s son from Cocha Cashu – what’s he doing here?  Yet, he is laughing, clapping to the beat, and Myriam looks thrilled, and isn’t she standing next to her husband?  And next to them, isn’t that the Nicaraguan border guard?  He hasn’t aged one bit, and yet, he appears to be shaking hands with the Costa Ricans from Rancho Humo – how strange!  And isn’t that Rexford Daubenmire dancing with his wife near the Guanacaste tree?  They seem so at peace, like they love being together again.  And isn’t that my old boss, who showed me so much of Costa Rica over the past twenty years, isn’t that him near the bus?  How could he be here?  Wait a minute, what’s he saying?  Doesn’t anyone hear him?  He’s actually singing and the Costa Ricans are dancing to the song, and the words spring through the marsh and resound off the limestone hills:

 

So long, so long,

It’s time to go on,

Living is an adventure!

 

Go on, go on,

The story goes on,

Living is an adventure.

 

****

 



Categories: Essays, Memoir, Travels

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