The winds at Nosara blow warm and furious for three days at a stretch, we were told. Our informants failed to inform us that the three-day cycle could repeat three consecutive times as it did shortly after our arrival. They call it ‘The Christmas Winds’ and it is reported to be always strong enough to tear down the town’s infrastructure, maintained artificially primitive by choice: Electricity and telephone lines regularly get torn and roads blocked by falling trees, water supply is interrupted and internet connections go silent for few days at a time, all repeatedly repaired year after year with dogged resistance to the obvious alternative of a sturdier underground routing of such vital public utilities. This is part of the community’s conscious resistance to official modernity, the sane and calculated risk Nosara’s Civic Association (NCA) has chosen thus far in an effort to keep rampant development at an arm’s length. The most torrid local controversy to have raged over the past ten years in Nosara is reported to have been that of whether to approve the construction of a gas station on the edge of the American Project or not. It seems that the NCA, mainly well-established expat Americans, controls new development through the exclusive right it has to the water supply in the area. Anyone considering building a house or opening a business within its vicinity has to weigh his or her options in light of this reality, despite the fact that the law of the land guarantees everyone the right to water supply. But here as elsewhere the wheels of justice grind slow and one may be doomed to failure awaiting its final resolve if the NCA considers the project detrimental to the ecology.
With the same tenacity, the NCA, anxious to keep the area free of the onslaught of ecotourism and the insatiable greed of so many ambitious new businesses has stiffly resisted paving the town’s streets or the main roads leading to it. Better employment and easier living conditions for the locals in the original village of Nosara who don’t all own SUVs has to be sacrificed in the process. With the seasonally dry weather the dirt roads generate such a cloud of dust every time a motorcyclist or an ATV driver ventures by, usually sparingly clad and with a bandito-like facemask in an effort to avert the threat of pneumoconiosis, that visibility is cut down to near zero. In their fight against this combined curse of the primitively-inclined NCA and the unforgiving winds, the locals have come up with another ingenious solution: sprinkling the dirt roads with the liquid refuse from sugarcane processing plants. It holds the dust down till the next rain soaks away the sugary glue and turns the roads to a messy mud stream awaiting the next cycle of dry weather to return it to dust blowing with the fierce winds. The temporary relief from the dust clouds is further enriched by the heavenly stench of putrefied sugar molasses for the few days after it has been first sprinkled. When I first experienced it, it brought to my senses the same nostalgic pleasant scent of Arrabeh’s streets in late autumn with the liquid refuse from the four olive presses of the village, the same raw olive aroma that helped endear Crete to my heart when I first toured its rural environs. Something about the scent of the two fermenting residues is nostalgically similar. The rainy season here starts in April and lasts for some six months. It rains hard enough, I am told, to flush army ants out of their subterranean labyrinths in search of a dry refuge, the ants in turn breaking and entering human residences and driving people to abandon their homes; it rains that hard!
Now, in mid-February, as most treetops have recovered from their shameless deciduous nakedness, another forceful wind is blowing fierce enough to masquerade and envelope the morning’s howling of the howler monkeys. Nosara is in the dry forest of Costa Rica as distinguished from the rain forest and the cloud forest ecosystems such as Monte Verde further up the mountains. I step out on the deck with my coffee and laptop to add a few lines to something I had started about my Palestinian identity and how my state defines that to conflict with its very being. I straighten out the rocking chairs that the wind has toppled overnight and proceed to tackle my assignment for the morning. But the fresh green canopy of the forest, just recovered from the height of the dry season, beguiles my eyes with the extreme swinging back and forth in the warm gusty wind. The relentless wavelike motion of treetops on all sides of my perch claims my full attention. The coquettish swaying of so many flowering mangos, veritable brunettes adorned with their holiday best attire, overwhelms me. I focus momentarily on one magic beauty then the other and a third. It brings to mind the most erotic TV shows from the Arabian Gulf stations, fully clad babes except for their bare heads swinging violently side-to-side or back and forth and flinging their loose hair in tune to catchy love songs. Sharif, my anthropologist brother, thinks the conception of this flinging of hair, totally innocent by Western standards, as pornographic eroticism underlies the consensus by its target audiences regarding the need to cover the sexually explicit baring of hair and hence the requirement for hijab or head cover. A fellow villager of little education who gained a passable skill as a TV technician after a work accident in his original employment as a bricklayer, showed up one day to calibrate my TV dish and selected two such ‘pornographic’ stations, assigned them to the last two slots on my remote control and sought to convince me of the usefulness of the arrangement, declaring in a muted voice and in local Arabic code to keep the information secret from my foreign wife:
“I have the English Al-Jazeera and the BBC as numbers one and two as you requested. But should you get bored and need to spend an hour or two viewing lewd material for your manly entertainment all you do is to press downward from your favorite news channels and you have the best erotic stations I can recommend.” I checked the two stations and let the arrangement stand. Not long afterward I heard from friends and neighbors that the gentleman had started offering this recommendation as “Dr. Hatim’s choice for male entertainment.”
I am home alone in this rented ideal vacation spot atop a steep hill in the natural forest along the Costa-Rican Pacific coast, part of what locals call “the American Project.” The house is part of a development that was pioneered by an American businessman in the mid-twentieth century and now populated mainly by retired well-off Americans or younger fellow expats, my son-in-law and his family amongst them, fleeing the nosedive of the American economy and taking temporary refuge in this warm, friendly and relatively inexpensive tropical Paradise with its unthreatening business climate. Yet I find the prices unreasonably high in comparison to labor wages: Anything beyond rice and beans is half again as expensive as it costs in Manhattan, our last stop. If a laborer were to eat out at the cheapest café here he would have to spend above his daily wages at $3 an hour.
That is as far as my business acumen allows me to speculate on the motives of the over one hundred ruddy and tanned American surfer couples and their young children that I see daily on sultry Guiones beach, the five-mile stretch of fine sand welcoming the gently rolling waves across the shallow half moon of water expanse that fans out to the infinite crimson evening horizon that has just swallowed a huge sun. I survey the waters from my position clear above the downhill canopy and can make out dozens of surfers on their boards and more sun worshippers ambling on the shore. I am able to judge the tide to be low by the distance from the tree line where the rolling white breakers succumb to the calming embrace of the shore and by the relative prominence of the rocks battered by the surf at the bay’s right tip.
Walking the full arch of the half moon beach at the early hours of the morning is a visual delight beyond my artistic comprehension. The mixed constituent of its sand, from black grains of volcanic lava to glistening white quartz, with all the varying hues in between, fine gray silt from the rush of the waters from the many inlets in the rainy season, brownish crushed bits of coral reef, and all sort of components whose origins I fail to ascertain, add up to an unimpressive overall gray mix. But the sifting effect of the receding tide, each wave crashing and rolling gently back just short of the last, patiently sorts out the various ingredients of the sandy shore, each according to its origin and specific gravity. With the endless minute interferences and physical interruptions by the beach’s community of live forms, from ever-dredging tiny mollusks and busy hermit crabs to the pesky sandpipers forever racing to comb the shallow waters of the beach, it all adds up to magnificent line patterns that would take me a lifetime of admiring, interpreting and imagining as postmodern visual creations of muted hues on recycled paper, bark sheeting and native cloth. I am enchanted enough to box several line combinations out of the many hectares of magic drawings in photo frames that I snap to my later disappointment and chagrin at my instrument’s failure to capture the magnificent play of morning light on nature’s random doodling.
For now, I am lounging on the deck of the MB (Monkey Business) compound: A garage and parking lot at the top level, a two-bedroom, a large living room and kitchen combination with an equal-size wooden deck facing the sea to the west at the second level, and a guests’ quarters, the casita –little house- with a kidney-shaped swimming pool and concrete lounging area at the lowest rung. Each of the three entities occupies a distinct and separate plane on the steeply sloping hillside. None of them juts out above the forest canopy to betray our presence in the hideout. Mango trees, coconut palms and frangipanis are the only tree species familiar to me from my days in Hawaii. They also happen to be the tamest and least expansive out of the over two dozen tree varieties enveloping the house on all sides. Members of the largest variety are currently blooming and seem to attract an over-a-dozen-member brood of howler monkeys on their twice daily journey up and down the forest at dawn and near sunset. The youngish male leader surprises me by its sudden shameless flashing of his scrotum at me in a most unexpected manner, a bright milky white bag contrasting sharply with his gray-black thighs and reddish chest and torso hair. Lulu, my three-year-old granddaughter has learned to imitate their howling as they forage for tender leaves and the stem and base of flowers. Their tremendous roar, possibly the loudest in the animal kingdom, is loud enough to be heard up to five kilometers away. It belies the friendly animal’s small size and benign nature, its worst offence that any naturalist has ever documented in a book is its tendency to surprise curious eco-tourists by sneaking secretly up to a branch directly above them and releasing some liquid or solid excrement at them. Alas, Lulu lacks the prehensile tail to swing across treetops for they do encroach on the perimeter of the balconies of our residence and she would be able to join them by extending her arm over the railing. It is easier for her to play the role of the iguana, the Pyzote, or, best of all, a baby sloth.
Everyone has gone to swim with the turtles today. Considering my proclivity to seasickness and my stage of recuperation from my recent surgery, I have decided to abscond and, instead, to take in the full brunt of another sunset from the deck all alone. Last night was another turtle watching adventure and I took part fully. Playa Ostional, the beach half an hour’s dirt-road drive crossing four rivers on the way from here, is the world’s premier nesting grounds for the Olive Ridley Sea Turtle. A huge nature protection area, the Ostional Nature Reserve, has been established by the environmentally aware Costa Rican government and we paid our fees and went with a teenage guide, Malaika, our fourth-grade granddaughter serving as our translator on this bit of ecotourism. The young man led us to the beach and easily located the huge turtles busy digging their nests or on their way out of the water to start the fateful task. The time that the turtles come for their egg-laying fest, known locally as arribada -the arrival- is not entirely predictable though it is somehow tied to the phase of the moon and to the season of the year. Major arribadas have already taken place this year. On those phenomenal occasions the beach gets entirely covered by the invading turtles, driven berserk by their maternal instincts and competing aggressively to the point of climbing atop one another in their mad race.
None of that for us though, our guide having to use his red-tinged flash light (regular light distracts and confuses the mother turtles and drives them back to the ocean, mission unaccomplished) to locate the dozen Olive Ridley Turtles we saw. We chose one that had already progressed well on her sand-digging task and stood around patiently to watch the magic process. In about half an hour she had finished digging a foot-and-a-half-deep hole by flinging the sand with her hind legs to the side. Now she finally balanced her egg-laden rear abdomen over the hole and proceeded to exude volleys of golf-ball-size reddish white eggs glistening with the protective copious antibacterial mucous that oozed in intervals. In about another half hour the arduous patient procreation process was completed with a total of several dozen eggs, perhaps near one hundred. The majestic creature then proceeded to cover the nest with the repetitive inward flipping of her hind legs in equal knowing consistency to the earlier outward directed flipping away of the sand. Soon the hole was filled and a small mound accumulated over it. Our queen then swiveled around, first in one direction then in the other, with forceful up-and-down patting motion of those powerful hind flippers, pouncing her whole bodyweight repeatedly in a sort of jumping aerobic dance exercise to pack the sand over her hidden treasure into as solid a state as sand on a beach can possibly be packed. The sand was then smoothed over to obfuscate any remnants sign of her nesting accomplishment and the clever thing moved this way then that way and back and forth well away from the actual site of the nest to leave evidence of her having visited the area at a distance from the actual treasure site, a clever and convincing camouflage to mislead the cleverest of predators. It was impossible for me as I watched this fellow creature not to read intelligent strategy, willful planning and comprehension of cause and effect in this presumed instinctive grand performance. In another few days the same mothering instinct will bring her back to lay another batch of eggs and thus redouble the chances of survival for some of her progeny. Perhaps one in a hundred of those buried embryos will survive to where, in another twenty more years, it will swim back to Ostional Beach in another procreational fest. As we followed our exhausted heroine shuffling her tremulous hind legs to push off back into the Pacific I could hardly contain my own sense of satisfaction and achievement for having shared the miraculous act of creation that I have witnessed. Not since I walked out of the hospital’s maternity ward on the eve of the 1973 war swaddling my hours-old child in my arms after having participated in his delivery have I sensed such a rich personal fulfillment and exuberance admixed with the vague sense of eminent danger.
‘Scholars also calculate happiness by determining “happy life years.” This figure results from merging average self-reported happiness … with life expectancy. Using this system, Costa Rica again easily tops the list. The United States is 19th, and Zimbabwe comes in last,’ wrote Nicholas Kristof in a NY Times op-ed piece about the same time we arrived here, few days into 2010. It brought back to mind a story from my village lore about a hapless man named Jebir. (That had to be his name so it rhymes with the Arabic word for ‘grave’ –Qebir- to facilitate the creation of a catchy phrase that makes a well-known local saying.) Poor Jebir led such a miserable existence, not a single bright day or a happy occasion, he decided to seek a new life in a different location. Any man worth his salt should be able to have a new start in some other corner of God’s wide lands. He packed some wheat bread dipped in olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt and an onion and hit the road in search of a better fortune with no specific location in mind. He went for seven days and seven nights till he came to a small town on the banks of a lovely river in a lush valley, a paradise on earth if there ever was one. He decided to seek his fortune in this locale. To start things right he did his ablution on the riverside and spread his white headdress on a green batch on the side of his new town’s cemetery. As he finished his religious duty of the morning he looked around and found that the headstones of the graves had a strange peculiarity: They all recorded the lifespan of the dead in extremely short periods: One of the dead was reported to have lived a year, another two and a third four or five years. No one had lived over the number of the fingers of your two hands of years. Jaber’s amazement was even greater when he saw the people of the town on their way to their farms or to the market. He judged their ages to vary, like members of any other community, from the newborn to the middle-aged and the few elderly. Failing to comprehend the mysterious contradiction he greeted the next man he saw with “Peace unto you” and asked directly for the explanation of what he had read on all those headstones. “Of course, that is correct. It is our tradition in this town to count only the years a person had lived happily.” “I see!” Jebir said. “I am new here. Should I die in your beautiful town, please let it be recorded on my grave: ‘Jebir, min batn immu lal-qebir’ –from his mother’s womb to the grave.”
No matter how you cut it, Ticos, as native Costa Ricans call themselves, are the happiest people on earth. It could well be constitutional, cultural or the warm weather, plentiful rain, fertile soil and beautiful beaches spanning the country on two sides, its Pacific and Atlantic coasts. More likely and quite in tune with my personal logic, it is the fact that the country had abolished its army and invested the savings in education. I haven’t met a nasty Tico so far, or a physically threatening type despite the abundant machismo demeanor among men; it seems to be expressed more in line with the virile natural abundance of the place than against other humans. The first contact ever that I had with a Tica, at the airport as it happened, she was extra friendly, apparently in an effort to make up for the immigration system’s technical shortcomings; the Christmas winds had blown the electric wires down and we had to wait patiently till they were fixed before we could be processed through. And it had to happen exactly as the lady inspector held my passport and was trying to ascertain that the youngish photo in it did belong to the aged specimen standing before her. I took the opportunity to rush to the bathroom and take off the thermal underwear I had donned earlier in the day in freezing New York. I came back and waited patiently, occasionally breaking the boring wait with tickling my little granddaughter and then glancing at the lady inspector with a friendly smile, proud of my happy relationship with the child. As the electricity came back to the excited applause of staff and travelers alike, my first Tico friend swept the electronic edge of my passport through her desktop computer and beamed a ‘Thank you and sorry for the inconvenience we caused you.” Then she leaned over with her rather hefty chest and whispered half secretly to me: “You have such a beautiful smile! It is good to welcome you to our country.” Then she got more personal: “And I like your thick moustache.” I wanted to tell her the explanation that my friend Toufiq gives for growing a thick moustache, but people behind me in the arrival line were pushing impatiently and I had to move on, incidentally negating the very statement I was about to make on behalf of my friend: “People nowadays have lost all sense of shame and propriety,” he thinks. “The only way you can get anyone to respect you is to instill fear in their hearts with the ferocious first impression you make on them, and a mean-looking moustache is part of that.”
The second Tica was no less friendly, a young receptionist at the Nosara Reef Hotel where we spent our first night. She enquired about my rather unfamiliar last name. I said it was the Arabic form for Canaanite and that I come from that part of the world. “My mother is originally from Lebanon. She speaks the language but I never learned it. Here is our home phone. Should you ever need a couple of dancer to liven up your birthday part, we would be happy to be your guests. My mom has taught me raqs balady –Arabic folkdance. And it never seems to end: Since I returned from my surgery in the capital, San Jose, everyone in this small community seems to have heard about my ordeal with a misdiagnosed (I am to blame partially) ruptured appendix that necessitated emergency air evacuation. The cleaning woman, the gardener, the clerk at the car rental office, the waiter at the internet café, the parking lot attendant at he Guiones Beach and the partner of my physician, all seem to know what has happened and to really care about my health. They greet me with a big smile, the men thrusting their clenched fist high in the air with their motto for all that is cool and worthy in Costa Rica: “Pura vida –pure life!” There is something endearing and quite telling as well in the physical statement one sees in every town, village and hamlet in the country: At the center of the communal life of each is the traditional sacred triad of a church, a school and a football field, always adjacent to one another. It beats the defining landmarks of the smallest communities I remember noticing in rural Wyoming in my two summers of rough-necking there as a college student: a gas station and a bar.
There is a certain softness about these people; the most muscular Tico, bare-chested and with muscle masses rippling underneath nasty-looking tattoos on his shoulders, and the most aggressive-looking Tica hussy, in short shorts and Bikini tops, turn out to be absolute softies the moment you ask for directions to the beach. “Latin countries generally do well in happiness surveys,” Kristof opines. “…Perhaps one reason is a cultural emphasis on family and friends, on social capital over financial capital.” I must admit to a twinge of jealousy at arriving in late afternoon at a neighboring location, Pelada Beach, to find a group of native seaside squatters, a half dozen young adults with few older people, lulling on the edge of the soft surf with children of various ages running in circles around them and an infant or two at their mother’s breasts. The idyllic setting and relaxed social atmosphere said it all for me. The only question that I had was what in the world were they all so intently chattering about? Surely not Obama’s recent state of the Union! Like folks back in Arrabeh, 80% of Ticos are construction workers, mostly unemployed currently. That helps focus topics of discussion closer to home.
The super-macho image society here maintains of itself didn’t prevent it from electing a woman president, the fifth female president so far. Contradictions seem to be the rule: In this most democratic and least corrupt of Latin American states, two ex-presidents are serving jail terms and a third has fled to Switzerland. The countries efficient railroad link between the interior and the Atlantic coast, hauling coffee and other merchandise from the countryside was simply abandoned and left to rust in favor of another president’s cousin’s trucking business. Or so another mild mannered Tico tells me. A Mexican politician reportedly explained it all in one wisecrack: “A politician who is poor is a poor politician.” When those Christmas winds caused another light airplane to turn around and leave after few failed attempts at landing, I joined my son-in-law on a drive to San Jose. The road to the capital, which houses half of the countries total population, and back was so over-choked by that president’s cousin’s fleet of trucks that it took us over twice the estimated time of travel.
In the capital I asked a Tico colleague who doubled as our guide to take me to see one of its many sprawling slum neighborhoods. He explained with dismissive and disturbing body language that those slums residents were all Nicaraguan refugees from the years of war there or current economic refugees. “They take advantage of our socialized educational and health care system. The moment they enter the country, legally or otherwise, they have automatic coverage. And look how they are dragging our entire welfare state down with them.” He proceeded to warn us against the danger of entering one of the slums because of the resident’s habitual criminality. Three times he promised to drive us through one and three times he reneged on his promise. It all confirmed the stereotype Ticos have of their less fortunate northern neighbors, a smaller and darker version of themselves. Nicaraguans are Costa Rica’s Jordanians in Israel, Egyptians in Jordan, or Sudanese in Egypt, a lesser and cheaper version of oneself. You can observe the same cascade of social worth and labor prices in South East Asia: Thai-Burmese-Chinese and the chain is probably longer for the knowledgeable.
A different issue now comes to mind: what difficult patients doctors themselves make. In my case it was actually out of my control. I did follow orders and paid adequate attention and fully trusted my physicians. It was more the attending staff’s own self-consciousness about their performance after they were told that I was a physician and that I wanted to know about every step and every medication in advance. It put a slight damper on their performance and led to some of it being a little clumsy. Laiali, my little granddaughter awaiting her third birthday in another week, was a little alarmed by her visit to me in the hospital where she couldn’t quite overlook all the tubes and catheters leading in and out of my body. Now, after the abdominal surgical wound has healed well, she seeks to overcome her fears by playing doctor and tending to my presumed abdominal problem as I lay in the hammock on the deck. She feels my stomach and proceeds to apply imaginary cold compresses all over it reassuring me that I am the best howler monkey patient she has. She then wants me to know that her cold compresses work wonders in helping to cure me. “These will stop farting too,” she assures me.
The perforation of my appendix apparently had taken place unannounced several days before I became fully aware of anything really wrong with me. Whatever it was, I managed to keep my panic threshold rather high: First, the afternoon before the night I became alarmed, we went to the local physician in Nosara where he (and I) had to rely on clinical signs only; in the present case those led us astray. I was subjected to an injection of a massive dose of a long-acting broad-spectrum antibiotic for a presumed kidney infection. My symptoms persisted and late that night I became certain I had an inflamed appendix, though I didn’t know it was already perforated. I made the diagnosis based mainly on my interpretation of the right lower abdominal pain associated with a certain movement of my right leg, the classic Psoas sign that surgeons look for, spontaneously elicited from within. It had woken me from sleep that night. Next Seth, my son-in-law, drove me ever-so-carefully in his small SUV over the 20km of dirt road to reach the paved road to Nicoya, the region’s capital. A perforated appendix tends to accentuate the gut-jarring bumps a passenger in an old standard-shift car speeding in a race against time experiences. Seth was anxious that a major bouncing on a rut in the road may well rupture my appendix, a development that could end in sudden shock and possible death. At the same time, any extended delay could well yield the same calamitous result. Weighing the odds of one disastrous development against the other, he tried to adjust his speed to match the condition of the road a few yards at a time. We finally made it just before dawn to the hospital at Nicoya where the sleepy staff made the right diagnosis. Surveying the seen at the hospital while awaiting the arrival of the surgeon, I was intrigued and charmed by the quaint and casual atmosphere of the dozen inpatients sharing the same open space at the end of the open corridor. I started considering which corner of the corridor would be the airiest in the heat of the day.
Only one factor made me finally opt for an emergency medical evacuation to CIMA hospital, a modern private hospital in San Jose: I couldn’t communicate with any of the bed occupants. And a slight doubt still lurked in my mind: I had undergone a hernia repair elective procedure some ten years earlier and I recall the surgeon speaking to me about the option of taking out my appendix while at it. I was convinced they had done that. My nephew, a senior surgeon in Germany was involved in the decision and I finally reached him on the phone. Though he had opted not to participate in my hernia operation, he recalled clearly that his colleague chose a surgical approach that didn’t allow for the optional appendectomy. This finally clinched the diagnosis for me. Seth accompanied me throughout the debilitating saga. He tried to keep a step ahead of the medical game by acting on his instinctive early panic leanings and by reverting to his I-phone internet connection and running simultaneous consultations with his infectious disease specialist uncle in NY and with my surgeon nephew in Germany. The surgeon chose first to perform the procedure through the less invasive endoscopy. When she realized the complexity of the situation, a well walled-off perforation of the appendix, she converted to an open abdominal surgery. Despite all of that I had no real early warning of what was happening in my gut. Toufiq, my friend back in Arrabeh, later explained it on the phone with a chuckle: “In some old clunkers the motor may well go kaput without any red light ever flashing on the dashboard; your fuses are all shot to hell already.”
Now, in retrospect, I am aware of another strange aspect of this potential brush with mortality, another ‘shot fuse’ phenomenon: I chat on the phone with a colleague back home and he expresses his longing and interest in hearing my ‘new outlook on life after the scary experience.’ Except that throughout the ordeal it never crossed my mind that there was a threat to my life: I knew what was happening and had full trust in the competence of those in charge of the system to which I succumbed. It never occurred to me to consider the alternative of a possible failure of the system, rare as that is statistically. It could have been happening to a total stranger and I wouldn’t be less concerned or uncertain of the outcome: A burst appendix that had to be cleaned up and covered with massive doses of intravenous antibiotics, a procedure not so unfamiliar or complicated once the underlying problem was discovered; it was the same if it were happening to me or to any other human. And it went well with no untoward delays or unexpected complications. Why would this necessarily inspire a new outlook at life still escapes me.