Following a jungle boy Manzanillo, Costa Rica, March 1999

7/3/99 - Following a Jungle Boy

After all the good things I'd heard about Manzanillo whilst on Bocos del Toro (see Panama) I invited myself back to Jungle Boy's just-completed tree house, just back over the Costa Rica/Panama border and a bumpy dusty ride from the rasta capital of Puerto Viejo. Despite the deceptively short distance on the map, it took almost all day to get from Bocos to Manzanillo on an assortment of buses, boats and lifts. And what a house it was. A hexagonal two-storey timber villa perched on a rise in the forest canopy with toucans, monkeys, sloths, giant butterflies and a catalogue of bussing things able to soar and scuttle through the large unscreened windows. Every stick of furniture, including the spiral staircase leading up to the open mezzanine platform which housed the bed, was handcrafted by local carpenters, one of whom lived in Jungle Boy's former,
fractionally more modest dwelling below. From the bed one woke to a six screen vista of sun rising through the jungle accompanied by wildlife in surround-sound. By this time I convinced myself that my boyish, blue-eyed 27 year old host who served me home made bread baked fresh every morning was not a hardworking, clean living Euro-expat ekeing out a living in a developing country but I drug lord, or at least the cousin of one. I sat around playing the guitar and watching his neighbour and building buddy Gilbert meticulously prepare slivers of wood for an inlay-dresser he was building. Meanwhile, Jungle Boy pottered about his rambling forest garden pulling weeds and planting seeds he'd nicked from someone's tree on Bocos. Eventually, the sun went down.

12/3/99 - A Life Less Ordinary

I'd planned on spending just a couple of days in this unexpected paradise but now found myself finding all sorts of weak reasons to stay another day. Doing nothing had become a time-consuming process, waking up in wild surroundings and playing the guitar or listening to tapes until mosquito-fall. Despite meticulous attempts to protect myself against the bitey things I was being well and truly eaten alive. I'd been dousing myself in tropical-strength DEET and taking 500 mg of Vitamin B1 (Thamine) daily, which is supposed to make the blood smell unappetising, but to no avail. It was just salt and pepper for the new dish on the block, la comida de China (Chinese food). Even Jungle Boy said he used to have to escape to mozzie-free San Jose in his earlier years to recover. Now, he had acclimatised. But in such beautiful surroundings, my suffering was a minor annoyance.

Yesterday (or was it the day before?), we walked three and a half hours along the coast to Puerto Viejo, an amazing amble through all kinds of beachscape - calm, rough, rock-strewn, driftwood-strewn, forested, never crowded. Half way along we started seeing sculptures made from found objects - coconuts, driftwood, fallen logs, stones. A little further on we chanced upon the artist, a young French lad who told us his work was progressing at the rate of an installation a day, and would be photographed and exhibited in San Jose. I saw many of the works as useful - one could throw a tarp over and take shelter for the night. I also thought young Francois might have been inhaling da ganja. Jungle Boy repeatedly chastised me for making jokes along the ganja theme, "gives this area a bad name", he admonished. He has a vested interest I guess - not many incense-inhaling hippies could afford his swank habitacione should he ever decide to rent or sell it in the future. Along the way we left the beach several times to pay a visit to his expat comrades, Dutch and German escapees who'd come to Costa Rica on holiday and never left, and wouldn't or couldn't return for unarticulated reasons. Seeing how they lived, in sarongs and shorts with the Caribbean waters lapping at their doormat, toucans criss-crossing flightpaths in the treespaces overhead and an endless supply of 5 cent bananas and 0 cent pipas, I could see how Europe, where I spent the last year and a half, was now a distant, chilly and stitched up memory. I lumbered several metres behind my strapping tour guide, surreptitiously admiring his tanned, lean frame, fit from five years of swimming, snorkelling, gardening and apparently little else. We'd left the house at 7am but even then it was leaving it a bit late; the tropical heat was already enveloping us like a damp mohair blanket. In my heat-struck haze I found myself fantasising about a tanned blonde boy exiled on a tropical island, who's blue eyes were lagoons of sea and sky, whose skin tasted of sea salt and whose hair was bleached the colour of driftwood and twisted like the matted seaweed washed ashore. In this somewhat rich storyline I was this Shirley-Valentinesque maroonee who could only look and touch, but never really access this young god. This syrupy, Tales of the South Pacificesque nonsense went on for quite a while but enabled me to make it through the soupier sections of the hike. We reached the town, I snapped out of my novella and we found a bite to eat. The popular dish here is gallo pinto con coco, ensalada with salsa and patacones. That's rice and beans cooked in coconut milk and coriander, salad and fried plantain (slices of green banana fried slightly, whacked with a mallet, and fried again). Puerto Viejo is a ramshackle village of gravelly roads and scattered businesses fronting a calm beach of questionable cleanliness. I felt privileged to be staying in Manzanillo where the beach is calm, clean, empty, and fringed by those tall skinny palm trees which are a cliche only in travel brochures. By now I convinced that if he wasn't selling ganja he must be selling turtle eggs to the Japanese, exporting howler monkey brains to Honk Kong floating retaurants or gigoloing on the side, I mean, when I was his age I was living in shoebox in middle of road (and still am). I finally asked him directly and I got the answer which should have been obvious. "I inherited some money" he said simply, "and I think I have done the right thing with it".

15/3/98 - Tearing Myself Away

Today was the day I would leave my Jungle Boy and head back to San Jose. Why I knew not, other than being mindful of not outstaying my welcome. As I ate breakfast he called to show me something "nice". I descended the rocky path and he pointed up into a tree. Curled on a  branch was a sloth, it's Telly Tubby countenance regarding us with studied indifference. It moved its head at the speed of a revolving restaurant. My friend Hannia had a theory about people who live close to animals. "They're freer, because animals do what they want, when they like; eat, shit, fight, sleep - they just don't care". We said goodbye on the road as the bus approached. Then he was gone. I sat with Dan, a fellow friend of his who'd been instructed to "make sure she gets on the bus and gets to Limon". Dan had travelled the world after selling his lucrative floristry in Amsterdam after 13 years. At 29, this lanky, quietly-spoken hippie had decided Costa Rica was the place to hang, and had even bought land with cabinas planned. He pointed out a spry, neatly dressed old man of around 70, who'd just gotten on the bus. "He's 93 and gets on the bus to go to work every morning at this time, this stop. At 4pm, he's on the bus home". A young sapling, ready to be planted, poked out of the man's shoulder bag. At Limon, I was shortchanged 50 colones on my bus ticket and Dan's ballsy mate Roberto demanded I be refunded. "That's 50 colones by 20 tourists a day - good takings", observed Dan. We ate the last Caribbean casado I presumed I'd be eating for wuite a while. Three hours later, and still hearing strains of my new busking repertiore, I walked to a San Jose guitar factory and emerged 10 minutes later with a second hand instrument for $40. When I play my guitar now, in San Jose, it sounds a thousand miles away from Manzanillo ...

Copyright 2003 Lynette Chiang All Rights Reserved