La Finca de los Payasos Costa Rican Caribbean, Semana Santa 2000

"THE TRACK starts 200 metres past Playa Chiquita Lodge, and from there it’s about thirty minutes straight ahead. You can’t get lost."

 I scuffled along the dusty road in the clammy Caribbean heat under the weight of camping gear, excess clothing, food for a week, my guitar, and absurdly,material I felt obliged to read for work (fat chance). It was my first Easter in Costa Rica, the country I had been stalled in for over a year. Although I had long come to the conclusion that San Jose was not the place for a single, lonely foreign female, the relatively laid back attitude of the people and natural wonders an easy bus ride away kept me prolonging my tourist visa. I searched for a ride and scored a swarthy moreno in a dilapidated yellow pickup truck who knew where to go, more or less. We bounced along the dusty track making smalltalk, then abruptly pulled up in front of a small gap in the bushes where a pebbled path led directly into thick jungle. 

"You’re brave to go in there" grinned the driver, propping himself against the hood to watch me make down the path feeling a little like Hansel and Gretel without Hansel. My friend Ernesto had been living in this remote patch of the Caribbean jungle for six months though hell and high water and had given me strict instructions to keep to the right all the way. He did not, however, embellish on the exact nature of this thirty minute stroll - before long I was calf deep in greasy mud swatting clouds of crazed mosquitoes whilst dripping with sweat in the extreme humidity.

The track snaked up, up, up, through thick moist foliage, deeper and deeper into the jungle. Several times I sank to my knees, desperately holding my guitar aloft under the weight of granola, cans of tuna and packets of ready to serve salsa. I made my mind up to eat everything I´d brought and souvenir nothing. After many twists and turns I came across some seedlings neatly planted in pots.

A little further on the first of the open air shelters built by the owners of the finca came into view. All around the ground rose and fell, tufted with tough jungle grass and exotic flora. There were no neat paths or lit walkways, no electricity or gas stoves, just water from the silty stream nearby and bananas and pineapples sprouting amongst all the greenery. A handful of Europeans had bought the finca 17 years ago and came to be collectively known by the locals as the Payasos, or clowns, on account of their hippie appearance and mother earth lifestyle. The cashed-up clowns were no slouches though; several owned property on the beach and retreated to the primitive finca when it suited them. The only truly hardcore resident was my friend Ernesto, a revolutionary in his former life as a Sandanista and Nicaraguan diplomat, and a spiritual revolutionary now.

"Capitalism is destroying the planet", he said, studiously poking at a bamboo fire with a stick. "I live here to make a statement, to show people you can live simply and fulfillingly without plundering resources."

Ernesto had certainly been through the hoops, fought for love and war, written books, fled for his life many times over, and had finally arrived as a Tao master, or teacher of the ancient Chinese philisophy Tao de Ching. From his tarp-covered shelter without walls he moved very little, just to collect bamboo for the fire, forage for herbs and root vegetables growing wild in hidden places, squelch through the muddy trails to visit neighbouring payasos, or bathe in the stream that encircled his little isle.

The sun beat down through wide leaves. The only sounds against the constant burbling of the steam were the rat-a-tat-tat of cicadas, the burr of humming birds, whoop-whoop of howler monkeys and the coo-ee of the payasos themselves when they wished to summon each other. I felt as far away from powerlines, pulperias and petrol fumes as I could possibly be. I busied myself making a set of fifty yarrow sticks to consult the ICHING, the ancient chinese philosophy to which I had been introduced by a friend.

This consisted of picking my way across the finca to the grove behind the communal house and cutting chopstick-length pieces of bamboo with a machete. Finding the last ten sticks became quite an challenge, since I started out with a precise thickness and length in mind, but soon had to concede to varying thicknesses when the available dry bamboo ran out. That night, I sat laboriously honing the sticks with my penknife to remove the hard knobbly joints until my fingers blistered.

 Ernesto prepared the simple meal he´d been preparing with minor variations every day and night for the past seven months - rice, lentils, green banana slices, fresh herbs and root vegetables from the ground, all boiled up over bamboo-fuelled fire with water carted from the stream. We ate by candlelight and moonlight and talked about the disparity in our lives - me in the dirty, stressy, loveless city and he well, he simply here. After washing our the coconut-shell bowls I retreated to my tent and slept to the sound of the payaso’s bongo drums emanating from one of the shelters hidden in the darkness.

At dawn I woke with the first cicadas of the day. I picked my way down to the river, treading carefully on the carpet of sodden leaves and mud so as not to slip. It had rained ovrnight so the stream

 "Keeps your mind sharp", counselled Ernesto, lightly stepping along the centre plank without any hint of overbalancing. I teetered along the planks like a nervous duck. I finally made it to the other side, almost landing my butt in a mudslick, and ventured down the the waters edge where the real mud bath lay. I stripped, stepped into the stream then from under the roots of a tree I scooped out an orangy-grey crumbly clay that melted into a smooth mush on contact with water.

I rubbed the mud all over my face, body and hair then crouched like Cro-Magnon woman on the riverbank waiting for it to dry. ‘Sucks out the impurities’ said the payasos. The mudbath left my skin feeling cleaner and softer than the fancy face wash I purchased in Miami, and I made a mental not to fill a bag with it for use in the big grimy city.

The next few days and nights were spent tramping along overgrown paths through the jungle, inspecting other shelters erected from local fallen trees honed with manual tools, playing my guitar and nurturing the fire that converted jungle produce into something delicious and edible. But eventually, I had to return to the misguided world. It was criminal to leave. The descent to the beach was too rapid. On emerging at ground level I was dusted by a convoy of passing all terrain vehicles hell-bent on comfort and soft adventure. I saw their occupants sealed behind rolled-up tinted glass, protecting them from the kind of life only true revolutionaries like Ernesto have come to know.

  Copyright 2003 Lynette Chiang All Rights Reserved