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two on a bench.jpg
Two on a Bench, by Jeff Abshear

Dispatch: Shaking Like Shakira

In Search of the Mosquito Coast

Ecotourism vs. Narcissism

By John M. Edwards


“Ice is civilization!” declaims the protagonist in Paul Theroux’s popular bestseller The Mosquito Coast.

But on the rich coast of Costa Rica, “beans” are!

Buying a rolled-up tortilla with some mysterious gluey substance inside from an old Bribri Indian woman with gray braided hair, I inquired, “What is this?”

“BEANS!” she piped up, with a high-pitched squawk as atonal as a dog whistle.

Stifling laughter, with tears running down our eyes and phlegm dripping from our noses, my ex-girlfriend and I soon roared with laughter, going, “Beans! Beans! Beans!”

The woman wasn’t laughing; instead she held out three more stale tortilla flats for us to purchase.

And speaking of purchase, we had indeed done so by setting foot for the first time upon the hallowed grounds of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica.

Called “Walaba” in Creole, pristine “Puerto Viejo” is now known mostly as a “surfers’ mecca,” filled with snarly young backpackers wearing tank-tops and tie-dyes—all ready to brave the legendary “Salsa Brava” surf. Even so this little lost paradise, featuring three world-class beaches (Playa Chiquita, Playa Negra, and Punta Uva) still turns its back on development, casting a blind eye to its main industry--(“pharmaceuticals”?).

Instead, this bastion of social polity bills its overt popularity along the so-called Gringo Trail as a trendsetting “destination” governed by ecotourism rather than narcissism.

Indeed, it is hard to get to. Most of the roads are still paved with dirt and many of the cabinas are without hot water or electricity. All in all, the joint is ultimately a PC Paid Advertisement, a failed ecological disaster in the making. Yet its vibe remains true: a pennypincher's paradise.

But best of all, the laissez-faire local blacks insist that they are “Indians,” many of whom practice rampant witchcraft, but mostly upon each other and not us. Wow, with a wave of his hand, a local shaman called down a gaggle of awkward turkey buzzards, dispersing a set of novice backpackers looking for a cheap place to plop down. An iguana or three, afraid of becoming barbecue kill, scampered away from the backpackers’ tightly laced Timberland “Frankenstein” boots.

I rented a bungalow (requesting anonymity) with picturesque mosquito netting and pungent coils from a man who resembled the San Jose-based coffee-artist Saul Bolanos, a “Tico” (native Costa Rican) whom I had conveniently interviewed a while back for The Coffee Journal, on the edge of town right in the middle of a patch of primary rainforest, reluctant at best to offer up the goods that my cousin O’Reilly was a Christian missionary in “Rich Coast,” or that one of my other relatives was once the U.S. Economic Attaché here.

Costa Rica does just fine without any standing army.

The Bolanos doppelganger was a strict neo-conservationist, who cautioned me not to use more than three squares of TP per session and to chuck all paper in the basurero (garbage can); he also informed me, curling his fingers into Spanish quotation marks, that the hot water was “solar-generated,” meaning there were absolutely no solar panels at all and that the water was always naturally lukewarm.

Like a dream canvas of Rousseau (not the philosophe), the rainforest around me was filled with sage toucans and canny lemurs, excitably rude howler monkeys and endangered poison-arrow frogs, not to mention O that rarity: Blue Morpho Butterflies!

Indeed, entirely without hallucinogenics, I nevertheless felt like I was caught in a WWW-like fantastical exposé of Magic Realism, much like being in a short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez or even Isabelle Allende. I felt like “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World.” Or, the recipient of  “The Kiss of the Spider Woman.”

Waking up from a short nap in the center of town, I ordered a Mexican lime pop at an al fresco (outdoors) “soda,” an informal restaurant with usually a corrugated iron roof, upon which rain rhythmically pounds like a maniacal coked-out conga drummer.  There, I ate gallo pinto and spicy coconut sauce, a classic tipico dish, plus a bastido (milkshake).

“Wa’ appin?!”

“What what?”

There in front of me again was the good-looking couple staying at my bungalow complex who always seemed to bump into me wherever I went, maybe trying to check up on my activities.

 [Names withheld], one was an AWOL Peace Corps Worker, an obvious CIA field agent who resembled tall MIT graduate Ion Freeman (a cross between a Vatican Swiss Guard and “Max Headroom”); and the other, his loverly Algerian squeeze, an indifferent matahari  (spy) who said she was not a “Pied Noir” (I love that term) but a “Kabil” (I don’t know that term). I wondered if this “ethnicity” was indeed shorthand for the mythical Circassian wanderers known as “The Blue People”?

Zounds, if that is what North African nomad gals look like, bring ‘em on! We should capitalize right this second on the Maghrebi “Arab Spring” and de-chador and re-unveil these bold burnished beauties with copper buttocks, and then import them to the USA as “foreign domestics” and “TAFL tutors” (Teaching Arabic as a Foreign Language).

Later in the day, right before sunset (a big deal here with nothing much else to do but watch each one), I bumped into “Juppy,” a local dreadlocked guide. With his “Speedy Gonzalez” Spanglish, he spoke volubly about this and that, all of which I couldn’t completely follow, his discourse peppered with unfamiliar words such as finca (not a female snitch but a farm) and burro (not a donkey but a drug-runner).

I could tell he thought I was a “smuggler.”

I wasn’t exactly acting like a Peace Corps volunteer.

Juppy then offered to lead me around the nearby Gandoco-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge, supported by ATEC (Asociacion de Talamanca de Ecoturismo y Conservacion). But I was here to witness a different sort of wildlife: sexy harmless slags!

Although in the daytime dream, the place seemed a little bit like a deserted Iberian colonial ghost town, at night it came alive, sparked up like a series of Tikki Torches.

And so, let the fiesta commence!

After all, romancing backpackers with healthy T-shirt-covered bagpipes was what ecotourism was really all about. In their khaki shorts and halter tops, batik skirts and bright bikinis, these PC “Import-Export” artists, an international euphemism for “chronic unemployment,” shaked like “Shakira” shimmying around at the open-air discos, plus bopping and nodding their heads to The Red Hot Chili Peppers (whose lead singer, I think, was a childhood friend of mine in Riverside, California):

“What you got you got to get it put it in you!

 What you got you got to get it put it in you!

 . . . .


Giveitawaygiveitawaygiveitaway now!

Giveitawaygiveitawaygiveitaway now!”


 Or, Aces of Bases:


“All that she wants is another baby she’s gone tomorrow but

 All that she wants is another baby uh-wuh-oh!

 . . . .


All that she wants is another baby she’s gone tomorrow but

All that she wants is another baby uh-wuh-oh!”


Hot-blooded local Romeos and unpaid gigolos--as well as “Salt ‘n’ Peppah” (the so-called Rent-a-Rasta syndrome wherein white backpackers hook up with tawny dreadlocked locals, sometimes paying for it, and not just in kind)—do the Macarena and pause when their god comes on: “La Vida Loca,” by Puerto Rican popster Ricky Martin, whom I knew vaguely from TGIFs on the Quad at Tulane University in New Orleans, which has the largest Latin American Studies Program in United States. Now the local lads were sliding on their knees across the dance floor like real rock stars, playing air guitar and screeching, “Reeky! Reeky! Ayeee!!!”

 On the last full day of my vacacione, I was hitchhiking when a sturdy Jeep pulled over.

Already onboard were a gregarious Swedish couple from Stockholm, Mats and Amelie Astrand, both of whom had worked in St. Petersburg, Russia, in a successful joint-venture op, wherein, according to Mats, “Our Russian partner was given a nice big office, but of course he didn’t do anything at all.” Which gave new meaning to the term “silent partner.”

Anyway, we drove south all the way to Sixaola on the border of Panama. I mentioned Paul Theroux’s book, and Mats and Amelie looked genuinely excited. “Maybe, we’ll find it?” Amelie said with only a trace of a smile.

I will not bore you with the grueling details of the harsh and hellish hike in the rainforest, filled with bromeliads and butterflies, creeping trellises and liquorice-like vines. Alas, describing physical movement by foot across any landscape is the travel journalist’s worst nightmare. Okay, so I stubbed my toe on a mossy rock, and slipped and fell a few times. The mind can only correlate so much of its contents, an iguana spotted over here upon the shining path, a toucan glanced over there brushing against the prelapsarian ferns. No dinosaurs though—yet.

Mats unfolded a topographical map, and pointed to a spot near where we were standing, all of us completely out of breath and with tears in our eyes. Maybe we were in fact already lost, already lost, already lost? “We’re almost there,” Mats said.

Ultimately defying the playful Native American gods and goddesses, we illegally crossed the border between two countries and took a fast look-see. But then we abruptly turned back and trudged all the way back to the Jeep, elated in retrospect at having at last ultimately achieved our adventure.

Though we had not been able to locate the fabled “Mosquito Coast,” we had disturbed an evil colony of rapacious mosquitoes, many of which were female anopheles, carriers of malaria and misery. In the oblong rearview of the Jeep, I noticed my newly acquired pizza face, resembling the acne-scarred visage of the Scandinavian lead guitarist from Vandenburg. Or, a young Brian Adams on a bad day.

I had never been attacked by more mozzies in my life, except peradventure as a kid at the survivalist Camp Waganaki in Maine on a canoe trip down the Bow River, which included an insect-filled five-mile portage through uncharted wilderness.

So freshly arrived as a pseudo plague victim from my energetic hike across the cross-cultural divide between two similar-looking Central American countries, I plopped down at a pleasant beach near my wooden cabina. All over my body, the bites swelled up into ugly blistering pustulent bubos. (Unfortunately I was fresh out of my favorite cure-all: Neosporin ™.)

I therefore avoided all eye-contact with the laughing beach babes untying their bikini tops and buried my face into a Best Of Borges paperback. I revisited one of my favorite short stories, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” In this comic masterpiece, the protagonist, Pierre Menard, rewrites and revises Cervantes, using exactly the same words. He thus comments:

“The task before me is not impossible; I would only have to be immortal to achieve it!”


John M. Edwards, a usually unpaid “stringer” and pretend Peace Corps voluntourist, finds a likely locale for the fictional setting of Paul Theroux’s novel The Mosquito Coast on a cross-border raid between Costa Rica and Panama.

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