The trips to Costa Rica were happening almost monthly as we began receiving requests from potential buyers for visits to the campuses in Costa Rica and Panama. At the same time we were negotiating a letter of intent with Sylvan, which we knew could come through at any moment. It was an exciting time for me.
And on each trip I always saw my girl. On one in particular she made the startling announcement that she thought it best that we end the relationship. I believe her decision was a result of not having deep feelings for me (due to her profession, that one shouldn’t have been hard to foresee) and also the fact that she knew I was married. I was devastated.
At first I accepted it, but then I began to think of ways in which things could possibly be mended. She had often spoken of her family, who were very poor, and specifically of her father, who was trying to make ends meet in ganado, or cattle raising. She told me he was in need of a truck to transport the livestock to the slaughterhouse. So, I thought, hey what if I offered to help. She was very fond of her dad and I knew she wouldn’t refuse my offer.
The next day she and I, along with my Nicaraguan friend, Yuri, set off on the five hour trek to Guatuso, a town near the Nicaraguan border, to meet her father.
At this point I’d never really even been outside of San Jose, other than one surfing excursion to the Caribbean side that was set up by Señor Salom when he learned that I was a surfer dying to try my hand at the famed Costa Rica waves.
We spent the night in a hotel with spectacular views of the Arenal Volcano. It was my first time seeing it and I remember hearing the fiery volcanic rocks hiss as they tumbled down its flanks. At first I didn’t know what the sound was until someone told me. The volcano was indeed an awe inspiring sight.
Her family home was far off the beaten path about an hour’s drive north of the volcano. In fact, we had to take a dangerously bad dirt road that seemed to go on forever into the pitch black night. When we finally arrived at the humble home of her parents, it was late and the lights were off, but flickered on as the engine of Yuri’s old sedan shuddered to a stop.
A young man came out to greet us, who introduced himself as her brother. He was followed by the mom and dad. Her dad was a tall, dark skinned man of sharp features and an endearing smile. He extended his hand in greeting and told me his name was Santos. She’d informed him in advance of our plan to visit and he seemed eager to see us arrive, even at this late hour.
In typical tica fashion, her mom offered us coffee and I sat down at the dinner table in the little house that wasn’t much more than four unfinished walls surrounding a concrete slab floor. I noticed that they did have a large TV set, which the brother had turned on to the local news about the weekend’s futbol games.
Santos and I tried to carry on a conversation, but at this point my Spanish was still very poor and he, just like his daughter, didn’t speak a word of English.
The gist of what he was saying, as I understood, with the help of Yuri, was that the family needed a vehicle, but not necessarily one that could transport cattle. I told him that I would be in discussion with his daughter about that and hoped I could help. My underlying motive at that point was more insinuating myself into the good graces of her, than it was about actually doing anything to help.
Our relationship from this point forward became one of friendship, without any sexual element. I didn’t really like that, but accepted it as I really wanted to help her and her family. I would make many visits to the family home in Guatuso. In fact, I became such a frequent visitor that Santos would always have a batch of fresh fish he had recently caught to fry up for me, knowing that I was quite fond of them. Santos and I, along with the brother, would also frequently go to the local bar to throw back some Imperials. That always made her angry, as she didn’t like to see her dad drinking.
One visit in particular stands out.
We were sitting around the living room one night when an interesting discussion broke out. I was again with my good friend and partner in many of my “criminal” exploits, Yuri. I don’t mean criminal in the literal sense, but we did seem to have a knack for getting into some interesting adventures. This was about to become one of them.
We were contemplating a border crossing in the Peñas Blancas area in order for Yuri to return to his homeland (Nicaragua) and replace a stolen passport. He was hoping to travel with me back to the U.S. Santos informed us that he had a “property” on Lake Nicaragua and that perhaps Yuri could cross the border there, pass the night at his place, then take a boat across the lake. The lake being one of the 10 largest on planet earth and more like a fresh-water ocean, complete with man-eating sharks. He also told us that we would have to park the car on the outskirts of Upala and walk from there. How far? “Only about fifteen kilometers”, he said. Yuri and I looked at each other and nodded in let’s go for it agreement. Sounded like another great adventure to us.
We drove northward to Upala, then continued on in that direction until the paved road ended. Another twenty kilometers or so and Santos told me to stop the car. We were in front of a little broken-down shack with some barefoot kids and pigs running around. “We can park the car here,” he told me. Santos assured me that it would be safe. He had kindly lent a couple pairs of rubber boots to Yuri and I, telling us that there would be some mud at this time of the year.
Now, one thing to understand is that this was no normal border crossing. This was the kind of crossing that many Mexicans make into the U.S. that Governess Brewer of Arizona rails about. There was no official crossing station where we were going. Only a barely legible sign that read “Bienvenidos a Nicaragua, tierra de lagos y volcanoes.”
And mud there was. To reach the border we traipsed through several kilometers of road that was more like a river of the stuff, up and over the very tops of our boots.
Just beyond the border was a little shack that proclaimed to be a bar. After the blaring sun and the mud, we were definitely ready to see that. We ordered a round of Victorias, a Nicaraguan beer. It was served hot, as there was no electricity where we were and certainly no ice. As we sat and imbibed, a young man approached us and seeing that we were weary travelers, invited us to some horses to make the trip to the lake a little less wearisome. Sounded like a decent idea.
We followed him to his place, which was a bare-bones shack on stilts with a pair of gigantic hogs sleeping blissfully underneath. His father appeared and the young lad explained our situation. Not too long after that another dude showed up with our rides. But it wasn’t exactly what we’d bargained for. Rather than three fine stallions, we received the following: a horse (of sorts), a donkey and a godzilla-proportioned beast that I was told was a “buey” (that’s Spanish for ox, but it looked more to me like a water buffalo). I was the largest of the three, so guess what? Yep, I got the buey.
I’d never had the privilege of riding one of these creatures. There was no saddle. And the reins consisted of a rope tied around his gargantuan neck. I was assured that the animal was docile and that I would not have to worry much about guiding him, as he already was quite familiar with the route. Yuri, being the smallest of our trio, rode the donkey.
So we proceeded on. At this point in my Costa Rican life, I was not yet fully cognizant of the degree of difference there is between life back home in the U.S. and life in this place. But traveling on that road that fateful day brought the picture into stark clarity. These people had no running water (at least not the chlorine-laiden type that runs through taxpayer paid pipes in the U.S.), no city sewer system nor septic tank, and no hope of taking advantage of the inventions of Edison or Bell. They lived as primitive a life as I’d witnessed personally, up to that point. Yet they seemed relatively happy and content.
The older dude who brought us our livestock accompanied us as a guide. He was a jovial sort who told jokes in Spanish the whole time that I had no hope of understanding. But I laughed along in order not to appear too conspicuously gringo. That was probably a good idea because it wasn’t but a couple decades before that this whole area was a war zone and the U.S. had unnecessarily taken sides in the affray. And that did not make gringos very popular among the country folk. So I did what I could to blend in.
We stopped at a dilapidated pulperia (small neighborhood store). Santos and Yuri went in to buy something, cigarettes I believe. I decided to stay as incognito as possible and not to dismount. An old man who was obviously three sheets in the wind approached me and offered a swig from the cup that he was drinking. I peered down into the sloshing liquid and even though my brain was screaming don’t do it, I did. The taste was bitter sweet, not all that bad to be honest. I later learned that it was chicha, a home-made corn or fruit-based fermented drink that originated with the indigenous that once occupied the area. I held the substance in my mouth while the old man blathered on about god knows what. As soon as his attention was directed elsewhere I spat out as much of it as had not already seeped its way into my esophagus. I just did not have the slightest bit of faith that my stomach would withstand whatever might be lurking invisibly inside that concoction.
After a few more hours of dense jungle and with my rear end at this point feeling the wear and tear from the buey’s backbone, we arrived at our friend’s property. I wasn’t expecting a mansion of any sort, but perhaps a tad more than this. It was basically a shack on stilts. And stilts were highly necessary because the whole area was surely below “lake-level” and completely flooded in water that almost crested the tops of our boots.
The plan was to deposit Yuri at the lake house to pass the night. Then a neighbor would shuttle him across the lake to a point where he could take a bus on to Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua. Santos and I would head back to civilization. Before doing so, he just had to take Yuri and I for a canoe view of the lake. This was my first glimpse of Lake Nicaragua and it was truly breathtaking in its immensity.
We bade farewell to our little friend, mounted our steeds, and started back towards civilization. By this time the sun was getting low. That made for a cooler ride, but there was one problem. The blazing sun was obviously too hot for the mosquitoes since on the ride to the lake I hadn’t really been bothered by any. But the ride back was a far different story. They attacked us with reckless abandon. I was convinced that malaria induced delirium lay in store.
The other problem was that I had given all the money I had on my person (about $10) to Yuri. When we arrived at the house where we had previously received our four-legged 4x4s, the host expected us to provide some quid pro quo for his gesture of undeserved kindness. But there was none to be given. Or, at least, none that I was willing to give. When he brought out his AK47 to show off to Santos, I immediately got the itch to make it back to the car as fast as possible. We thanked him profusely and left into the night.
We made it back to the car. It was still there, thankfully. We dove in and drove directly to the nearest cajero (cash machine), then on to a bar that actually offered ice cold beer.
After that adventure, I was definitely ready for a few of those.