I found a cheap room in Palmar Norte and shambled into a soda (cheap Costa Rican eatery) across the street. I had just bicycled about forty miles and could have salted three pounds of pork with the dried, crystallized sweat on my cheeks and forehead. I ordered a typical dish, casado con bistek – rice, beans, some greens and meat. As often happens, the only other patron of the soda struck up conversation.
One must undertake special efforts to become lonely in Costa Rica.
¨Pura vida!¨ It was both a statement and a question. ¨Sí, sí. Pura vida.¨ I was exhausted and it was obvious.
¨Don´t worry,¨ he said with a toothless grin. ¨Be happy.¨ His name was Jose and he was 54 years old. Jose spoke Spanish, English, German and Chinese, and he demonstrated his fluency in each language as I ate.
¨I am an old man. People think I am crazy because I am still happy.¨ Jose said this many times over the course of our conversation. He repaired rocking chairs and made leather hats for a living.
¨All of life is a story,¨ he said. ¨I have my sob story and my success story.¨
And he told me both of them – lost love, last left of his family, no children, poor health, yet still living happily, taking everyday anew. We got a beer next door and shared more stories.
The next morning, I ran into Jose once again in the soda. The waitress brought me a breakfast of rice, beans and eggs. She exchanged a few words in Spanish with Jose and walked away.
¨She thinks you are muy guapo,¨ he said.
¨Oh,¨ says I.
¨Don´t worry. Be happy.¨
We went – Jose, the waitress Jeimy, her younger cousin and I – over the bridge to El Parque de Los Espheros in Palmar Sur. The large stone spheres around the park had been brought in from the jungle, where thousands had been found between Palmar Norte and northern Panama. Some were even found on an island far off the coast. They range from about tennis-ball size to two meters in diameter and are often perfectly round. Nobody knows how or why they were made, or why they were often found arranged perfectly mimicking certain constellations. An awesome mystery, to be sure.
Jose acted as our translator as we poked around the spheres and exchanged bits of language for each other’s edification. Naturally, we began with profanities and digressed from there. I learned perfectly vulgar ways of expressing in Spanish just about every conceivable human emotion. We also traded some bombas – rhyming four-liners originating in the Guanacaste region, announced by yelling ¨BOMBA!¨
I asked Jose to take a picture of us on one of the larger spheres, but because he is mostly blind, the lens swung wildly in every direction except at us as he tried in vain to distinguish our figures on the view screen. Finally, he took out a single lens from his broken pair of glasses and used it to focus in first on the camera, then focus the camera in on us.
We sat by the river and watched some locals leaping into the water from the high bridge. It became apparent that I was something of a novelty to the girls. There was much giggling and taking of pictures from afar.
Noon passed and I decided to stay another night to get an early start on the long ride to Golfito. We walked back to town and I slowly began to realize that Jose was trying to arrange something between Jeimy and I. I was introduced to her mother and father as we passed them on the street. Her brother appeared and we all piled into his SUV and went to the beach. There, Jose folded up bits of foil lining from a cigarette box and made an origami flower. He gave it to me and pointed to Jeimy, winking and smiling his gummy smile.
Ticos have a huge knack for origami. Everywhere you go, a hopeful young Tico is producing an intricately folded U.S. dollar or Costa Rican Rojo and urging you to open it. There is a way to do it, but it isn´t obvious. Others, like Jose, make flowers, boxes, balloons from the foil of their cigarette packs. The mischievous glee they get from such tricks says a lot about the national character. Pura vida. Pure life. Don´t worry – be happy.
That evening, after everyone had gone home, Jose and I went to a bar called Casa Blanca. Jose ordered us Imperial and turtle´s eggs. The eggs, which appeared in a small window behind the bar, were served raw suspended in ¨blood,¨ a spicy tomato juice. The experience was pretty much like taking an oyster shooter – tasty and exotic, but mildly repulsive if you happen to think about it too much halfway through. Judge me not, twas a cultural endeavor!
After the eggs, Jose turned to me and said morosely, ¨She will cry when you leave tomorrow.¨ I was getting sick of hearing it. He had taken every opportunity to remind me of how much my departure would shatter her heart throughout the day. Whatever happened to ¨don’t worry – be happy¨? I wanted to cry out and silence this strange charade. After all, the extent of our romantic involvement had been a few half-comprehended exchanges in my broken and her machine-gun Spanish, and maybe a total of fifteen minutes splashing around together at the beach.
But what could I say? Jose had behaved like a true gentleman all along – first offering his friendship to a stranger in a new town, then conducting a tour of the locales of undeniable archaeological import, and finally topping it off with a beaming young bride-to-be who cooks a mean casado. Some pay great sums for a Costa Rican package of such a nature, and my new friend had taken it upon himself to drop it right into my lap, expecting nothing in personal gain.
I tried to explain my position, but the semantics didn´t carry. ¨It´s just, you see, it´s about inertia, man. Momentum. I can´t just up and get married now. Not now! I´ve only come so far, see, and, like, there´s a whole world out there, a whole world! It´s like an avalanche, ya know? If you just decide to stop halfway down the mountain, you get pummeled! It´s a precarious slope I´m traveling, my friend! I don´t even love her. Ya know? Not like that. How would it look, marrying a girl you don´t even love? It´s criminal! Besides, we can´t communicate, and what about the kids? I wouldn't be able to communicate with my own children! Can you imagine how awful that would be for our relationship? It would tear us apart!¨
My dear friend didn´t seem to understand. He ordered more eggs.
The following morning I packed my bag and met Jose for one last hurrah at the soda. Jeimy brought us hot rice, beans and sausage. About halfway through our breakfast my friend began, ¨What will you do for your poor girl?¨ But I cut him off with what must have been a sufficiently menacing look. He didn´t mention her again. I said adios, then, and shook Old Jose´s hand. He is a good man and his brief friendship was a blessing. I gave Jeimy a hug and a customary kiss on the cheek.
¨No te preocupes,¨ I whispered softly into her ear. ¨Sea feliz.¨