Jack, Versus the Men Who Drink at Tortilla Flats

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Dominical, Costa Rica
June 2014

The bar Tortilla Flats has a Baltimore Ravens flag on the wall and is named after a book, so it’s sad to find it’s just a tourist trap. I’ve never found anyone able to converse about either the Ravens’ prospects or Steinbeck’s novel. There must have once been a fine mind at work here, but a return of his attentions is sorely needed.

I’ve spent the last few days up the road at Jack Ewing’s – a rancher turned conservationist. Jack moved to Costa Rica to run beef cattle for investors in Tennessee. In 1976 he moved onto a property clear cut of rainforest for pasture. Over the years and as his passion for tropical ecology increased, he gave his property bit by bit back to the forest, eventually abandoning ranching entirely.

Every morning I wake up and walk his trails, and each morning I am astounded at the life around me. A herd of wild pigs runs by on my right, white faced monkeys move through the trees above me, and I always feel that the big cat must be right around the next twist in the trail. One night Jack showed me lengthy footage of pumas and ocelots, peering into wildlife cameras he’s positioned throughout the property.

Then, when the tide rises around eleven, I get in my car and drive the short stretch of road to the wave break at Dominical. I surf until my arms hurt and then paddle in to have lunch at Tortilla Flats.

The conversations I listen to over my sandwich are that mix of real estate and surfing found up and down this stretch of the pacific coast. This week in Tortilla Flats it’s leaned more towards real estate. The men order beers in English, with pointed stares at the bartenders, who serve them without smiling. I hear a joke or two about the bad service.

On my left two men are talking about finishing houses and getting ready to flip them. One says he may move on to Nicaragua. It’s interesting up there because of the canal project, he’s saying, and the opportunities this may bring for big profits. I have heard these conversations many times, but today, after spending my morning with Jack – a man who brought back rainforest, is the first time I feel a mild revulsion at these men.

They follow booms. When Costa Rica’s boom was up they came in, buying and selling. Now, with political stability, a Chinese sponsored canal project and an absurdly low cost of living, southern Nicaragua is up, so their gaze turns. The pursuit, the dream, is the easy flip – that one property where you get in with the price low and then turn around and sell for many times over. The less you have to build or invest in the land the better. The dream is the big score, which is found not made.

Fine – we’re all working towards pay offs. Except when I look at these men and watch them settle in and order their drinks just after one pm, a rosy shine on their cheeks, and talk about how they “didn’t do shit yesterday,” I can’t help but figure they aren’t exactly working. Not much anyway. Certainly not in an invest in the community, leave your mark kind of way. They buy, they build, they drink at an ex-pat bar and talk football, then they sell and move on.

Thirty years ago Jack Ewing looked around, and ahead, and decided to stop cutting the grass. He dedicated his life into giving a piece of coastline and hills back to the wild. He built a home, not a house, for his family, his employees, and forest animals starting to run out of space.

Costa Rica is better off because Jack decided to stay. The men at Tortilla Flats don’t even bother to learn Spanish.

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