Reporting in from Gillette, Wyo.

Dear long neglected readership,

No I don’t have a new post of adventures abroad. No one is sorrier about that than I.

But I am writing, and I wanted to share it with those of you who don’t have Facebook  (and perhaps drift between Vermont, Florida and Costa Rica like migratory birds).

For the next nine months I get the privilege of reporting for WyoFile, an in-depth reporting outfit focused on Wyoming. To start, they’ve posted me to Gillette, unofficial capital of Powder River Basin coal country. In a few months I’ll switch gears to cover the state legislature. Should be a trip.

Below is my first story. After reading (because you will read), scroll down to the bottom to find the option to sign up for a newsletter. WyoFile delivers new content by email every week. Roughly, I will have work in every other one of those emails.

I’ve copied the newsletter link below the article here as well, just in case. Sign up, and together we’ll learn more about Wyoming than any of us had ever planned.

Thank you all (especially the migratory birds) for the support.

Click here for the story.

Here for the newsletter.

-Andrew

Hangover Cure

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Matt Graham surfing.     “Radical!” – everyone on the beach.

Playa Negra, August 2015

It’s the day after our buddy’s wedding and the waves are perfect. They’re breaking cleanly overhead and running both left and right, but I’m too hungover to surf well. I’m getting occasional waves but somehow my brother, who drank at least as much as I did, is just ripping them. His smile is so big every time he paddles back out that I kind of want to clock him, but Matt’s unadulterated joy in the water is something I’ve always loved to see. I get a short ride and Matt takes off again as I’m making my slow way back out; setting his feet he crashes down the wave’s face, swoops low out in front, charges back up to a space just below the wave’s breaking peak and then tears off down the line.

I try to hang on out there, and when I get a wave, or even when I get thrashed by one things are ok. It’s the time in between sets that’s killing me.  Normally I find the warm salty water and soft bob of the waves outside the break soothing, but today it’s simply nauseating. I paddle in and spend the next hour lying in the sun and watching my brother surf.

Playa Negra is a beach in Guanacaste, Costa Rica. It’s a touristy strip of coast but this wave is big enough, scary enough and far enough offshore that it doesn’t draw a crowd. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if my brother and I have the least experience of all the surfers out today. Neither of us has been at it all that long. Two and and a half years ago I’d taken a marketing job at a travel agency and moved in with my brother in San José, Costa Rica’s capital city, where he was working at a law firm.

When I tell people I lived in Costa Rica certain things come to mind. Palm trees and hammocks are a given, and career opportunities range between yoga instructor and beachside bartender. For us this couldn’t have been further from the truth. San José is two hours from the closest beach, a sprawling metropolis in the shadow of volcanoes. Crowded and with laughably bad infrastructure, it casts daily doubt on Costa Rica’s squeaky green image. Though I would grow to love it, it was a long and often painful affair.

We both worked long desk bound hours, with a developing world mess of a city to cross between our offices and home. Matt faced a highway full of some of the worst, least structured driving in the world (no joke! – Costa Rica recently ranked 10th worst on a Global Driver Satisfaction Index put together by the navigation app Waze). Meanwhile I rode an ancient train that rattled through downtown and collided with cars and busses on a regular basis. Other times it simply came apart at one of the train car couplings. “It’s all part of the tour,” the conductors would yell laughing, as I watched the rest of the train move off down the tracks and grabbed my backpack to walk the remainder of my commute.

Surfing became our outlet, and the way we explored Costa Rica’s corners. Surf breaks line both coasts of the country, and while there’s too many to say we hit them all, we did surf a hell-of-a-lot of them. Whether it was the remote but world famous left at Pavones or the popular and hard-hitting beach break at Playa Hermosa, most Fridays found us leaving town. We’d return Sunday sunburnt and aching, our minds still back in the waves. Addiction came on quick and it was total.

Costa Rica ended for my brother first. Fed up with the traffic and the difficulties of practicing law in a country where its implementation was vague at best, he took a construction management job in Lima, Peru. Six months later it ended for me, when I decided to abandon marketing, pursue journalism and try writing about what interested me most. Matt still surfs every weekend, while I eye magazines and newspapers along the west coast and try to keep my last good ride from fading in my memory.

But now we’re both back here for this wedding, and that’s about the only thing we’ll stop surfing for over the next four days. After my rough morning and Matt’s elation at Playa Negra we drive half an hour north to a beach called Playa Grande, where I have slightly better luck on some crumbling, peaky waves that are practically breaking on the sand, and where Matt bitches. In waves, as in life, he is something of a perfectionist. From there we recharge with a few beers, tacos and a soccer game. My arms are already sore. Still, we decide to head back to Playa Negra for the evening tide.

The light is already dim as we paddle the long way back out to the break. I remind myself that off to the left (facing the beach) is a rocky reef. Overhead waves scare me when I’m staring right at them, but in this oncoming dark I’m surfing strictly on feel and perhaps because of this fact I suddenly emerge into the rarified air of totally hitting my groove. Somehow I’m in the perfect place for each wave, and dropping in is effortless. I can’t see the beach or even the whole wave in front of me, but I can hear it breaking over my shoulder and I know just where to guide my board to extend my rides into long fast lines. I break off four waves in a row, each seemingly longer and faster than the last, until finally I go over the top of one, step off my board and find myself standing on the reef. It’s probably time to head in.

I feel a deeply satisfying buzz as I paddle towards the dark beach to find my brother, who thinks this last session was a total waste of time. The rush will fade but the memory of it will stick with me, well into another semester in landlocked Montana.

Clearly.

"That guy might puke!" -Matt Graham
Andrew Graham flailing.     “Watch him! That guy pukes!” -Matt Graham

Little Saint Michael

11027511_10203722277205654_7952083280318831297_nSan Miguelito, January, 2015

Until I spent time in Nicaragua, I didn’t believe that a tranquility like San Miguelito’s could be found in a town with more than one street. But here was a town like a forest, where life happens day in and day out, but without dramatic fluctuation. People farm, their fields behind the line of trees shading the gently rolling road that brings you to town. They fish, poling wooden canoes and flat bottomed boats out across the shimmering fresh water of the lake. And they live sano, just as they’ll tell you. In the cool of evening the town is out to greet and converse, to stroll or sit in the plaza square for a cigarette.

Always there is the backdrop of the great freshwater lake, called Cocibolca (sweet water) in the indigenous tongue and Lago de Nicaragua in Spanish. On clear days the twin volcanoes of the island of Ometepe; steep Concepción and low sloping Maderas, loom in the distance. The idealism and the lake attract some travelers, and the wetlands some bird enthusiasts in the know. The wetlands are internationally recognized, and allegedly protected, by a Convention on Wetlands of International Importance. But it remains through fishing, and not tourism, that the San Miguelito wetlands provide for the town’s economy.

For the most part the world has been passing San Miguelito by, much as it has with Nicaragua as a whole. A Chinese interoceanic canal project however has thrust Nicaragua back onto the world stage, and with it dragged Little Saint Michael and its wetlands out of their backwater and into the eddies, if still not quite the mainstream. When first drawn, the canal headed straight for San Miguelito and the Piedra river, which meets the lake nearby. The route however was suddenly diverted south; a pen stroke on the map, and a brief but unsubstantial announcement by a government spokesman. The change was ostensibly made to avoid the protected wetlands, but some said it was actually the bordering communities of El Tule, where local opposition was growing in both ferocity and public profile, that was being dodged. Still, the canal will change San Miguelito one way or another, as it will all communities along the lake. Maybe, anyways, depending on who you talk to and what they last heard.

San Miguelito is a microcosm for Nicaragua in ways outside of the canal as well. There are the houses; old and at times crumbling, where double doors with chipped paint open up to interior worlds of patios and living rooms shaded from the heat of the day. It is the same crumbling style being bought on the far side of the lake, in Granada, for ever-rising prices by North American and European retirees. Here hammocks swing in doorways and on porches. Around the center of town, every house is also a vendor, even if they only sell a single item-scrawled or painted next to doorways are signs of se vende (for sale) ice cream, tamales or stationary.

There is the scrawled propaganda. Black and red stripes on light posts read “Let’s Stay with Daniel Ortega” and on the bridge into town the same message is spelled out in the happy pink of El Comandantes attempt at a public image facelift. On a wall in the central park is fresher pink paint: “My Nicaragua, blessed with the Great Canal.”

Most of all there is the sense of community on display every evening. As dusk falls the houses spill into the streets. Chairs are moved from the living room out to the sidewalk and the sitting converse with those strolling by. Watching this never ceases to charm, and so every evening I joined the ranks of the strolling, though no one ever greeted me. One evening I sit in the lobby of my hotel, where big double doors open out onto the main plaza and the lake below, chatting with the receptionist. It was a very pleasant place to sit, with the breeze drifting in and out, and we were both engaged in the conversation. My companion however was continually glancing out the doors, until finally he suggested “wouldn’t you rather move the chairs outside?” I said of course and we did so, carrying our chairs across the street to sit in the plaza. He became visibly more relaxed. We sent a young boy off, to where I don’t know, to change forty dollars for me, and I didn’t think about it again until he came back with a fistful of the pale-colored cordoba bills.

This communal shift to the street every evening takes place all across the Pacific side of the country, with stubborn efforts persisting even on the side of Managua’s busy and dusty highways. One night, the husband of the woman who runs the hotel and his friend took me up to a high point called La Barrera on their dirt bikes. I’d mentioned wanting to go, and they refused to let me walk. La Barrera turns out to be a government housing project, with a million dollar view of the lake at sunset. Ometepe loomed off to the right with its volcanoes framed against the orange sky. The hilly islands of the Solentiname archipelago, a national monument, showed as hazy mounds to the left.

The husband points out where the big ships will pass by – south of the archipelago. When he talks about the canal every thought is punctuated with uncertainty. Asi lo dicenhe says repeatedly, raising his hands. That’s what they say. But there is a note of wonder in his voice as he describes the path big containers would take across the lake, and it makes me realize that there is a danger in the canal’s incompletion that I have missed, environmentally concerned as I am at the thought of it’s construction. Nicaragua is a land whose people have so many times had their hopes raised up, only to always watch the bottom fall out. In modern memory it begins with Agosto Sandino, Nicaragua’s George Washington, assassinated after his hard fought victory over the US Marines to leave General Somoza free to seize control. A burgeoning industry ended up strangled by the oligarch’s hands, along with foreign aid. Then the against-all-odds revolution, a moment of hope, only to be plunged right back into war and mistrust with the beginning of the contra war. Finally peace, and actual elections, with the Sandinistas internationally applauded for stepping peacefully out of power and the country beginning to open back up. Until the corruption of President Alemán and maybe of Bolaños, and then the latest blow, at least to many – the unconstitutional presidency of Daniel Ortega and the difficult to avoid evidence that the country is once again slipping into the hands of a dictator.

The canal might bring Nicaragua out of poverty and onto the world stage, my hosts suggest, but oh so tenuously, with their fears unspoken but palpable all the same… If it gets built right, if it doesn’t ruin our lake, if someone doesn’t take it away, if we’re not getting fooled again.

Whichever way things go, it’ll likely be out of their hands.

The Last River

Note: I believe this will be the final post – a funeral dirge for the long slow death Snapshots has seen over the last few months.

But it is not the end of this blog! I hope to come up with a new scheme soon enough. And if you’re just joining at this late hour, please scroll down to explore past posts. Thank you for reading. I hope you’ve enjoyed this experience as much as I have.

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Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, Argentina, January, 2013

I’d walked three days, chasing glaciers. Hanging ones draped the crags above my path, showing their ice-blue underbellies as I passed beneath. I crossed one, watching its surface for cracks as I angled up towards a mountain pass where the snow fell away to gravel and scree. At the top I had my first view over the ice field. Whipped by the wind that always seeks the same passes as me, I had to come down a little ways before I could really take it in. When I did it looked like the end of the world.

Below me for a little ways was the barren rock and scrub of high mountain country, but there was soil still, and plant life. The land made a brief shelf, then dropped off, down to the ice. The field itself was a giant off-white mass with no end in site and a geography all its own. There were small white mountains and big black swirls of dirt – soil blown in from the living world.

On a map the ice field weaves behind the backside of El Chalten and splits the Argentinean and Chilean sides of this transnational park – a glacial inland sea. I came down from the pass and sat where I could spend a long time staring down at the field’s surface. Snow swept across in the sweeping winds.

All this ice, which I suppose is technically one giant glacier, ends in a large dramatic wall over Lago Viedma, a lake which keeps the glacier’s width as it moves out from its calving front. If you wait long enough you can watch a chunk break off and drop into the water, this is the calving. I wasn’t so lucky, but I did hear one – a sharp crack followed by a splash as I lay in my tent that night, high above where the ice hit the water.

The next day, as I dropped down out of the mountains and onto the long plain I would follow back to town, it was with the awareness that it was my last day walking. Tomorrow I’d start a series of bus trips, and in a few days fly to Costa Rica and a new job. It was sunny and the cold disappeared with the altitude. Rain pants and coat were packed away, and I carried along in shorts and a fleece, savoring every stride through the waving brown grass, with the bluest of blue Patagonian skies above.

All day I crossed this plain, my head on a swivel and my feet struggling to keep the path, which appeared and disappeared amongst the tall grasses and softly rolling ridges. Soon enough it was evening, and were it not for being able to judge my position against the lake, little would have told me that I’d progressed at all. The strides became less pleasant as my legs took on the burn from the day before, and I knew that I still had a long ways to go. Though I knew I would soon miss it, I didn’t want to spend another night in Patagonia’s backcountry. Today I had town on my mind. There had after all been tell of an authentic czech pilsner on offer, my favorite type of beer.

Lost in this pleasant vision I came over a last rise, and before me was the river. I’d been warned; “don’t try to cross it close to the hills,” a park ranger told me, “do it farther down, where it starts to break up.” So I walked along besides it for a while, until it split. I reached a point where I could cross one stretch, then a rocky bar, and then another stretch. It looked shallow enough, so I decided to try.

I’d crossed other rivers on this trip, and they’d been damn cold. One strategy I’d used was to get naked, pack my clothes in my bag and hold my boots above my head. There was a cold bite when you reached the other side, but you had dry clothes to put on and no one was around to witness the cold’s unmanning effects. But I was so close to the end, and convinced only my legs and feet would get wet. I left my clothes on, but unbuckled the waist and chest strap of my backpack, so I could shake it off if necessary.

This river was as cold as the others, but I kept my eyes on that rocky bar as I waded in. I was halfway across that first stretch when I knew it was too deep, and too fast. But I kept trying, until my feet went out from under me.

Downstream I went. Panic didn’t strike until I tried to bring my feet beneath me and found no purchase. I bounced a knee off one rock, my pack off another. Soon the pack was on top of me, pushing my face into the cold water. I couldn’t shake it off. Instead I tried to dig in with my hands, desperate to get a grip on something but failing. I rolled onto my back, and finally got my feet under me. I rose panting, shocked with cold and adrenaline, in the middle of the river and on a rocky bar. But not the one I’d been aiming for.

I don’t know how far downstream I’d been swept. On the bar I rested a moment, trying to regain control of my pounding heart, before I waded into the other side. When I did I again got halfway, before the river took my legs away. Again panic, and scrambling, and finally finding a purchase. But not on the right side of the river.

Standing on a different bar, farther down still, I don’t know how long I looked at the cold rushing water. I didn’t want to get back in. Yet the channel behind me seemed deeper than the one in front, and crossing back the way I’d come to take the ranger’s advice more seriously seemed out of the question. I waded in again and again got swept away, slamming off rocks on the stream bed, gasping in the frigid water, but getting my feet under me on the right side of the river.

It had been crossed.

I stood there for a long time, shaking with cold and adrenaline, amazed at my own mistakes.  Patagonia had been good to me, but I’d let my guard down, and it had let me have it one last time.

My water bottles were gone from the outside pockets of my pack, as was my map. I’d been washed so far down that now I could see a ranch house by the lakeshore, and for a moment I considered showing up and asking for warmth and help. It was getting late. But town couldn’t be far, and I decided to keep moving, faster now to stay warm and beat the impending dark. Faster now because I had no water and because my gear was surely soaked through. Staying another night was a possibility I was now desperate to avoid.

There are many memories from this trip, but I will never forget those last long hours, trudging towards El Chalten. The dark came down and still I walked, abandoning hope of the trail and guiding myself by the faint and distant glow of town. It would be almost five more hours before I reached it. The stars came back out, and rare headlights would show me where the highway was. They never seemed to get closer.

Yet the leftover fear from the river dissipated, and as I felt my clothes drying off against my body my strides turned long again. The exhaustion didn’t go away, but something else seemed to rise up in front of it, blunting the tiredness in my legs and pushing me to live this moment. The stars were back out above me, and the night was cold and clear. I’d been handed a beating on that river – my knee gave a sharp pain every few steps, and both arms had deep scrapes from elbow to mid forearm. But I was grateful.

Even the headlights stopped after a time. It was midnight when I reached the hostel, and what a beautiful sense of relief when they told me that while the bunks were full, there was a space to pitch my tent amongst the climbers camped around the yard. And more relief still when I realized that my pack lining had held up, and my tent and sleeping bag were only somewhat damp.

I felt a drive to share; to convey my exhaustion, my relief, and my elation to someone, anyone. Yet not the denizens of a hostel, where bragging about your latest adventure was a cliche. And I am of the digital age, so when a raw experience grabs me out in the wild I make the mistake of getting on the hostel computer, before crashing into a deep sleep, to try and convey it through a Facebook status.

It’s a little bit shameful to republish what I wrote, but I came up with the following:

“Scratched, scraped, soaked, shaken… satisfied.”

When I checked on it the next day two college friends had commented. One wrote:

“Looks like your sexual horizons have really broadened over there, Graham.”

And the other:

“Did they put you up for adoption?”

Before leaving I drank that pilsner, and it was damn good. Then I began the long series of bus trips out. I stayed a night in the tourist stopover town of El Calafate, where I watched the Ravens win the super bowl. And I remember being very lonely, and one of only two people in the bar paying any attention. The other was a 49ers fan.

Border Crossing

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San Miguelito, Nicaragua
January 2015

East of Lake Cocibolca the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border is defined by the Rio San Juan.

To cross the San Juan one begins in San Carlos, a port town at the river’s outlet from the lake. The town is crumbling and humid, but the marketplace is busy and the bustle is of commerce and border intrigue. From here downriver there’s not much in the way of social structure. A Spanish fort watches over town, and has since the 1600s. It was built after pirates sailed upriver from the Atlantic and across the long lake to sack Granada. The fort’s construction accomplished little – different pirates repeated the same feat a few years after its completion, after stopping briefly to take the fort.

I passed through San Carlos in late January. A light rain was falling, which I didn’t mind – it seemed to fit the setting. I got off an early bus and had a cup of coffee amongst the market stalls before making my way down sloped streets to the wharves.

The next boat to Costa Rica left at 1:30, and no passports would be stamped until an hour before, despite the already crowded immigration office. I busied myself roaming San Carlos in search of a bottle of Flor de Caña, Nicaragua’s cheap and excellent rum, and a bar that might be willing to break the serve before noon law and let me run down my cordobas on a few beers. I’d been traveling too cheaply for too long, buses and taxis were wearing me down and I knew that many more still sat between me and a friendly home in San Jose. This wasn’t the first day I’d sought a beer far too early, and it was surely time for this particular trip to end.

I returned a few hours later, rum under my arm and patience re-fortified, for the frantic herding of forty people through immigration and onto a low slung boat. We sat while our passports were checked by a customs official, and then again by a boatman in a tank top.

Lists of names were compared, pronunciations were butchered, and the boatman pleaded with three Germans to move astern by repeating endlessly in Spanish, “move back to arrive early”. The Germans sat, puzzled looks marring their tans and worldly airs (one had his corduroy shirt unbuttoned and had been smoking a cigarette, reveling in the adventure of it all as he blew smoke in the face of his fellow passengers). I finally intervened to explain weight displacement and its benefits to boat speed, but not before sharing a good chuckle at the boatman’s antics with the man seated next to me.

He looked a few years older than me, and was heading to Costa Rica to return to his job – a migrant workers fortunate enough to have legal residency. Many more Nicaraguans cross this porous border in search of work illegally, much as so many nationalities do to the U.S. They pick coffee, they work in the pineapple and banana plantations, or on construction sites or in the city. In San Jose, the poorest neighborhood is said to be Nicaraguan, and it is popular to attribute most crime to them as well, though this is greatly exaggerated and seeped more in cultural bias than reality.

Since my neighbor knew this border well, we talked about the crossing and the best way to get from  Los Chiles, on the Costa Rican side, to San Jose. Both of us wanted to make a 3:00 direct bus and were worried that we probably wouldn’t.

Finally the boat pulled away from the dock and motored slowly into the San Juan. As town fell away to stern only water birds and the occasional shack broke up the long stretches of green riverbank. The boatman came round to hand out customs slips, just as is done on any international flight. My neighbor asked something I didn’t catch, to which the boatman answered “15 cordobas”. The cordoba is Nicaragua’s currency, 15 equals about 60 cents U.S.

I thought he was referring to what we owed him for the slip. Crossing land borders in Central America, I’d seen many people hawking these slips along the line. I’d smile at the pure huevos of selling something that was handed out for free at the immigration window, and shake my head at those who fell for buying them.

However it seemed that this time I would have little choice in the matter. I filled my slip out, and then offered my pen to my neighbor, who I’d seen wasn’t writing anything. He shook his head, and I respected what I took to be a small stand against extortion.

It wasn’t until the boatman filled out the form for the couple in front of us, and then began on my companion’s, that I realized he couldn’t read or write. The boatman copied the information from his residency card and then made a mark to indicate where the form was to be signed.

It struck me, hard, that what I’d been laughing at was not a scam but a legitimate service; 15 cordobas to hire a momentary scribe to do what you yourself are not capable of, write your name and copy the information from your passport. My stomach flipped as I realized how much I’d missed.

Maybe he felt my embarrassment, or maybe I just felt it too strongly, but some of the camaraderie had now escaped us. I stared at the passing jungle, where white-faced monkeys played on branches over the water. 15 cordobas wasn’t much money, but had I understood, been less naive, I would have happily filled out his form. It would have taken me thirty seconds.

Our boat was waved over to the river bank at a military outpost. Dark green and black buildings and brown soldiers in uniforms colored the same all blended into the jungle. Costa Rica and Nicaragua like to argue over this river, sometimes all the way to the international court at the Hague. I re-broke the ice with my neighbor by asking if this outpost was new. It was not, he said. We would end up sharing buses and ruefully shaking our heads at one another all the way to San Jose, which we made just before midnight.

Nicaragua has a 78 percent literacy rate, according to the CIA World Factbook. I wonder about the unofficial number, and I suspect that if you surveyed only migrant workers the illiteracy would be much higher. Border scribing must be an ok business, all things considered.

Snapshot from a Sordid Surf Town

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Photo by Juan Carlos Menzies.
Dominical, Costa Rica
January 2014

I wax my board, and loiter in the shade of the palms. The day is hot and still, and at noon the palms provide protection only directly beneath their fronds; the tropical sun will be on me the second I come out from under them. So I linger with my waxing, watching the waves break.

Someone calls to me, and I turn to see a young man on a bike. He wears board shorts and no shirt, and carries the dark tan and lean muscles of the everyday surfer. I nod to him. He holds up a bag of something and asks if I want any. His accent is Latin, but I don’t think he is Costa Rican.

As an obvious foreigner in my twenties, this is a routine occurrence in most pacific coast beach towns. But this doesn’t look like weed, and I’m curious.

I set my board down to go get a closer look, looking for spectators as I do so. The sky is clear, but it is technically the rainy season – the low season for tourism – and the beach is deserted. He holds the freezer sized zip lock and I see it’s packed with something dark. When I make out a red mushroom cap in the middle, as big as my palm, I laugh.

He laughs with me, but is disappointed when I tell him I’m not interested. We seem to part on good terms, neither interested in wasting the other’s time.

Today the waves are big but come in slow. I like this because they aren’t crashing down on me and don’t require a fast drop in. And here, because the break is farther out and not on the sand, the waves feel harmless, even when they’re big. But slow waves are harder to catch. You have to paddle like hell and if you don’t have the surf hardened muscles of my friend on the bicycle, then you’ll miss two for every one you catch.

Now I’ve been surfing for two hours, and for every wave I’ve had, I’ve missed three. I drift with the swell and struggle against the hot sun bouncing endlessly off the water and into my skin. Still determined, I see another slow rolling monster coming in, a blue-green mass. I line up in front of it and start paddling, hard, despite my sore arms. I feel the push as it rises up beneath my board and paddle even harder, but then the push disappears. I’ve missed it again.

I swear loudly at what has been an empty ocean, except now I see a brown-skinned surfer paddling towards me. I don’t recognize him until he’s pulled up beside me, and even then I can’t be sure. As he paddles by me he looks over one shoulder and calls: “you should’ve taken my mushrooms… then you’d be strong!”

I watch him catch the first big one to come his way, and I see the tail of his board flash above the crest of the wave as it rolls past me, towards the beach.

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.