The Last Resort – 1999
By Jill Green
Candy, Matt and I pack my Nissan Patrol and begin our drive south to the Osa Peninsula, the last frontier in Costa Rica. The road’s better than it used to be, but even when it turns slick and pot-holey with rain, we’ve got the best little tank-of-a-four wheel-drive ever made. At least that’s what everyone said when I bought the Patrol. I moved to Costa Rica parttime to be closer to my daughter. Candy and Matt are two of my oldest and best single friends, and they’ve finally made good on their threat to meet me here for an adventure in the wild: isolated beaches, primeval forests, vast monkey-filled jungles buzzed by flocks of tropical birds. Whatever we meet up with will be spicily exotic after the bland over-developed flatness of our So. Florida homes.
Driving the Pacific Coast Highway the tall craggy cliffs hang over crashing waves and settle down into flat expanses of giant mangroves and wide deltas. We turn inland onto the Osa Peninsula, when, Screech-Bang-Clang-Screech, the car totally seizes up.
“You have to go for help, Danielle,” says Candy. “I’ll go with you, and Matt can stay behind with the car.”
I’m the one who speaks Spanish, but Matt knows mechanics. We stand on the side of the road scanning up and down until bus rounds the corner. We flag it and jump on. “We’ll be at the next town, La Palma,” I yell, watching Matt’s uneasy smile recede in a cloud of black fumes.
In a short time the bus driver stops and points, “La Palma.”
“Muchas gracias.” I thank him and turn to ask a local about a mechanic.
“Si, hay dos acruzar de la calle. Vea, el rotulo Taller El Ceibo?” The friendly Tico (diminutive for Costa Rican) points to a rudimentary sign above a primitive garage. Two guys are working on a car up on concrete blocks in a clutter of black greasy tools.
“Hola, tiene un mechanico?” I hesitate. “Y un camion–uh”. What do you call a tow truck in Spanish? We need a tow truck before anybody can fix anything. I’ve got to be kidding if I think there’s such a vehicle anywhere close to this small dusty village. I get a ‘si’ on the former, but a ‘no’ with an unknowing shrug on the latter.
Candy hangs back nervously looking around, and spots Matt, his 6’4” frame stuffed into the front seat of a vegetable truck with two men, followed by the Patrol tied to the back bumper with a frayed rope. “My God, how’d you get here so fast?”
He smiles and pats his new amigo on the back. “The first car I waved to, stopped. Can you believe it? They jumped right out to help, stuck their heads under the hood, indicated it wasn’t a side-of-the-road job, using body language, and offered me a tow into town.”
A mechanic saunters over wiping his oily black hands on even dirtier pants. Though my car-mechanic Spanish is not good, the car is finally situated over a dark square hole in the ground and the hood opened. While waiting in the sweltering sun we scan the lot for a bit of shade. Not a tree, branch or leaf in sight. Just a pole, topped by a crude sign announcing the garage and a picture of the tallest tree in the jungle, el ceibo, the magnificent kapok tree. The joke’s on us. Jungle? This is a desert. A dry, hot, dusty one.
“It’s the clutch,” one comes over to say.
“Can you fix it?”
“Claro que si.” he nods smiling. “All we need is the part.”
“Where’s the part?”
“You must go to Puerto Jimenez. Maybe two hours down the road.”
“We have to go? Que lastima! Can you at least call to see if they have it?” My gringa impatience starts to show.
“Bueno okay. I will walk to the phone in the square in a little time. When I finish the other job,” the mechanic says.
What’s a little time? Maybe forty or fifty minutes? This Tico time thing works both ways. We are reminded there’s only one phone per village in these primitive areas.
“Everything’ll be all right. I’m sure it can be fixed,” soothes Candy smiling at the mechanic, who’s smiling back, ogling this blond good-looking gringa as we walk towards the phone. She is what her mother named her; tight spun sugar curls fly off her head, delicate blue eyes and soft pink skin. Her favorite colors. Her smile says ‘sweet’, her demeanor says ‘take care of me’, and men flock around her.
After a rapid unintelligible conversation on the phone the mechanic turns. “They will fly it in from San Jose to the parts store in Puerto Jimenez tomorrow.”
“Huh? Fly from San Jose?” I’m discouraged. Hardly anyone carries parts for a Nissan Patrol, an obscure model built in Spain. A trickle of worry dribbles into my consciousness. We have only a week down here before we must return for my daughter’s engagement party. I’m getting edgy, and it’s getting late.
We ask about lodging. A taxi takes us to the only accommodations in the area on a little backwater bay at Playa Blanca. “Hey this ain’t bad considering our predicament,” says Matt as we walk through an open-air restaurant and bar and look through swaying palm trees to the water’s edge. The duena shows us the only room, set behind the bar. It has three beds so crammed together that to get to the farthest you have to climb over the closest. Each bed is covered with a different, faded but clean, flowered spread. In the corner is a ‘private’ bath. Instead of a door, a thigh-high floral plastic shower curtain hung on a rope covers the opening. More floral curtains, similarly rope-hung, droop over the only window looking out on a huge sow rooting around in the backyard. All the flowers give it a certain country charm and it is right on a beach dotted with quaint colorful fishing boats.
Thirsty and hungry, we return to the restaurant and take a table overlooking the Gulf. Zeidi, owner, cook and waitress, suggests the whole fish with rice and beans. We all immediately nod, having spied the pangas awaiting the next high tide. Salsa music plays in the background as she arrives with huge delectable platters of red snapper, their backs slashed for quick even cooking. Heads with glassy eyes peek out from the rice, beans and salad. The plates, garnished with mandarinas (sour oranges) could be a 16th century still life.
“You will want to attend the party tonight,” Zeidi says.
“Que pasa?” Matt asks with one of the only Spanish phrases he’s learned so far.
“El cumpleanos de mi hermano. My brother’s birthday. There will be much dancing.”
Matt’s big handsome face has grown a bit long with age, as his belly has grown wide, but he’s kept his youthful love of women and life. “I can’t do that crazy fast-stepped stuff, but I like to watch. The women in your country are very beautiful.” His large laugh reveals a pornographic mind and a charming sense of humor. I translate. Zeidi blushes.
A particularly lively merengue starts playing. “I think I can dance to this one.” I jump up and two-step around trying to keep my upper body still while the lower part gyrates. It’s difficult, but after two quick beers, I’m loose. I’m always the first one to get up, arrive, speak, laugh, or lose patience. Though I’ve been coming to Costa Rica for several years, not too much of the lazy pace of Latin life has seeped into me yet.
“Muy bien! “ laughs Zeidi grabbing Matt’s and Candy’s arms, “Vengan. You two must try also.” After a few more beers we’re all up shuffling around, laughing foolishly and forgetting our problems. “Bueno, nos vemos. We will see you at the fiesta this night.”
It’s sunset. A great ruckus rings through the palm trees between the restaurant and the shore. A flock of scarlet macaws flushes in a squawking salute – multicolored Chinese kites of red, blue, yellow and black, moving not at all silently across the sky. My friends and I head to our room as a quick dark sets in. The big sow is snuffling around nearby. Matt sticks the key into the rusty lock. The jiggling and twisting alerts the sow to our presence and her curiosity gets the best of her. She saunters over. We scatter. Candy screams, “Watch out! She’s gonna trample us.”
The key’s still stuck in the door. I double over in laughter. “Help! I can’t run.”
None of us, obviously, are farm bred. Zeidi saves the day, chuckling her way to the door. We follow behind for protection as she easily flips the key.
Too exhausted to think about a party, we climb over each other, fall into our respective beds. What we thought was the beginning of a much needed good night’s sleep, becomes just a long nap from which I am rudely awakened by booming disco music. It makes the wall pulsate like the tightly pulled skin of a drum. My chest throbs. The beds begin to scoot across the floor. I look around. Candy has the pillow over her head and Matt’s gone. I try the pillow trick and fail. Thick anger creeps through my exhaustion. “Goddamn it!” I jump out of bed, throw on some clothes and head for the bar.
The party’s in full swing. Matt’s sitting at the bar with a big drink and a wide grin. I’m not smiling. He stiffens when he sees my wild-eyed look. “Couldn’t sleep either,” he shrugs sheepishly. “Thought I’d join ‘em not fight em’.”
I don’t take the hint; holding both hands over my ears I yell at the bartender, “Basta! Could you turn that music down!” He looks puzzled, not used to assertive, crabby gringas. He complies. Now embarassed I thank him and shrink back to the room. Matt reluctantly follows.
In the morning a taxi takes us to Puerto Jimenez. Dropped at the parts shop, we find out that the clutch hasn’t arrived. “Tomorrow it will come, por supuesto. No problema.”
Puerto Jimenez is an old mining town on the Osa Peninsula and not a resort area. We gringos are told there are a couple of hotels on a strip of beach on the Golfo Dulce. A taxi drops us off at the one called The Last Resort. “Espera, por favor.” I ask him to wait. “There’s no one around. Is it open?”
A down-at-the-heels, expatriate American couple appears from around the corner. “Oh yes, we are,” the wife says as she tries to plump up her stringy grey hair.
“It’s the rainy season. Not many tourists this time of year.” The husband looks irritated to have been disturbed. Doesn’t care that his sweaty grayed t-shirt doesn’t cover his protruding belly.
Before they show us to a room the man informs us, “There’s no electricity. We’ll give you candles,” he hesitates. “And when you want to flush the toilet or take a shower please let us know.”
“Why?” Candy asks.
“Well, we have to turn on the generator.” He looks uncomfortably at his wife.
“Turn on the generator to flush the toilet?” Matt’s puzzled. “Why aren’t you using gravity for the toilet and the generator for some lights?”
The wife looks irritated. “I’ve been asking him the same question.”
He shrugs. “Oh yeah, well, we’re working on that.”
“You do serve dinner don’t you?” Candy asks, looking around at this deserted strip of beach.
“How about showing us our room first?”
Climbing to the second floor of empty rooms overlooking the Gulf, the wife shows us the one next to theirs. “If you need anything we’ll be right next door,” she smiles, shutting the door behind her.
“Hmm, is this to make their job easier or are they thinking, two gals and a guy in one room. I’ll bet they have a peep hole.” Matt laughs. “Like in Psycho.”
“The Psychokillers,” Candy christens them.
After a rest we come down to the candle-lit dining area, sit down, and check out an extensive menu. About halfway through Mrs. Pyschokiller appears and Matt asks about the fish. “No, we’re out of that. Ummm, actually, all we have is spaghetti. We weren’t able to get supplies.”
At least there’s a bottle of wine to go with what tastes like Chef Boyardee. We begin to relax, laugh at the crazy day, crack jokes about the strange couple. Matt, who always turns the conversation to sex after a few drinks, comments, “Why don’t we give the Psychos what they want? You girls just jump in bed with me tonight.”
“Maybe we will, Matt. It might be the only fun we have here.” I laugh.
“You can’t help being a dirty old man, can you?” Candy rolls her eyes.
“Nope. You know I’m just a horny hermit. Nobody takes me seriously though.”
We don’t see Mr. Psychokiller lurking in the shadows just out of range of the candlelight, eavesdropping. He makes himself known during our continuing conversation about whether the car part will actually arrive. We jump as his voice filters through the shadows, “It’ll never come in one day. Nothin’ happens that fast around here.” We realize he’s heard the earlier part of our conversation. This is creepy. We quickly finish and retire.
My sleep is troubled by dreams of large pink fish with bulbous eyes leering at us through the peep-holed walls, but morning dawns with all my body parts intact. I sneak out to the beach and dive into the warm water. Suddenly I’m stung all over. Stinging jellyfish. I almost fly to shore slapping and rubbing at my skin. “Ouch, ouch, shit!”
Matt has arrived to see my wild gyrations, with Candy not far behind. Her face is drained of color and she’s shaking. “You left me alone in the room with the Psychokillers next door.”
“Well I thought I shouldn’t let Danielle swim alone.”
“I was half dressed, brushing my teeth when I looked in the mirror and saw just eyes peering at me above the windowsill. I screamed and ducked, threw on a robe, checked the hall before I opened the door, and ran like hell.”
“Oh my God, Candy!.” My stinging forgotten, I hold her until she stops shaking.
“I could’ve been murdered!”
“It’s my dream come true.”
“Let’s get the hell out of the ‘Last Resort’.” No use checking with the police. There’re no such force in these primitive areas. We throw our things together and wait for yesterday’s taxi out on the road that will take us back to town. Thank God we paid in advance. Our one mutual thought – will they have the clutch?
Will we ever see idyllic beaches, crashing waves and monkey-filled jungles? Candy’s optimism is showing stress cracks. She no longer sees herself frolicking on black volcanic sand beaches. Matt assesses the amount of time it’ll take to install a new clutch in less than perfect condition. And I’m in the future counting back. There just aren’t enough days left on this trip to find paradise, even if los mechanicos are Kryptonite-carrying supermen. My spirits droop. How will I tell my companions it’s all over? We’ll have to leave as soon as the car is fixed if not before.
The men at El Ceibo greet us with smiles and immediately start to work.
“Dos horas no mas.”
“Two hours,” raising my eyebrows. We wander the streets buying snacks at the pulperia, checking out the offerings at the only tienda – mostly cheap towels, the ubiquitous blue jeans and plastic housewares – displayed in the manner of a 1950’s US Five and Dime. We end up at the cantina for a beer. We trudge back through the dusty heat to the taller.
Matt and I check on the car. The clutch has been installed and they’re ready for a test spin. The car starts. It begins to move forward. Jerks. Something’s wrong. It’s sputtering, laboring. The driver changes gears. First, second, no more. No power. No speed. No more vacation. No way home.
I go to find Candy. Lying in the dirt behind a rusted out hulk, she has found one of the skinny mange-covered Tico dogs that wander the countryside. “Poor thing. It’ll be run over if it stays there.” She kneels down. “Oh my God! It’s almost dead.”
The emaciated animal trembles in its death throes. My heart sinks. I grab a guy by the arm, “El perro esta muriendo.” It’s dying. “Can’t you do something?”
“Nada. There is nothing we are able to do. It will die here or in front of a car. One less is better.” He shrugs, “There are too many starving dogs in this country.”
Tears spring to my eyes. I walk away. I cry for the dog. I cry for the car. I cry for our ruined vacation. Then I take a deep breath, return and apologize, “I’m so sorry guys. You’re always telling me I take too many chances. Now I’ve included you in this mess.”
Matt puts his arms around me. “Hey, it’s an adventure, by God.”
Candy gives me a big hug, “Even though it’s not the one we planned. We’re in this together Danielle, and we’ll get out of it together.”
Matt takes charge, “First let’s find out what time the next bus leaves.”
“And if we can leave the car here,” Candy chimes in.
After waiting and riding. More waiting. More riding. We’re back to Cortez – the end of the bus line and only 30 miles from home. The rain pours down from a dark sky. Wet umbrellas reflect the one street light . No taxis. One old pickup. The driver agrees (for a high price) to take us as far as he can go. He has no four wheel drive. We’re desperate. We all pile in the front this time. I straddle the gear shift. And Candy sits on Matt. He’s happy – at least until his squashed accordioned limbs start whining.
There’s been an attitude change. The trip has become a quest. Like climbing Mt. Everest. The rain becomes a tormenta. “Come on, bring on more.” My fist rises into the air. “We can take it!” Potholes disappear under rivers until the wheels find them. Kaboom! A tire blows.
“Hit us again. We can do this.” I’ve found my stride – and a cantina across the road. “Yes!”
After a couple beers, the blowout (an everyday occurrence to a Tico) is patched and we’re on our way to our last challenge. The mountain. And my house at the top.
“Derecha! Turn right. “ I yell through the roar of the rain. The driver steps on it when he feels the steepness of the grade. “Vamos rapidamente!” We pick up speed until the tires pick up mud. Slow to a halt. Start sliding backwards. We climb out, Matt pays the driver who turns down the hill and slithers out of sight.
We’re on our own now. “Okay. I’m used to walking this last kilometer. You all take the flashlight. I’ll go ahead and bring back the car. “
“You shouldn’t walk alone.” Matt and Candy agree.
I quash their concern and start trekking, easily distancing myself from them. Their legs are made for cars not mountains. I round the bend into utter blackness. Fear grabs me. This is fer-de-lance country and I can’t see where I’m stepping. Thoughts of poisonous snakes make me start singing, “Johnny comes marchin’ home again. Hoorah. Hoorah.” One step in front of the other. “Summer tiiiiime and the living is eeeeeasy. Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high.” I sing in a high falsetto. The faint outline of the driveway appears in front of me, the rain-shrouded house behind it. I collapse in exhaustion and relief.
Before I go to retrieve my friends with the truck, I hear them coming. Adrenalin pumping fear has kept them right behind me. “We made it !” I hug them.
“Now that was an adventure!” Matt exhales.
“Armchair traveling right here on your balcony sounds great to me.” sighs Candy, “watching the crashing waves and the soaring birds.”