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Shambling through paradise headerAfter 15 years at the beach, I was back in the city of San Isidro del General. I had come full circle from the 1990s. The place had not changed much, except there were double the people and triple the vehicles. This made things difficult, as the bicycle had previously been my preferred means of transport. Over the years I liked to joke that I was signing my death warrant every time I went out for a bike ride on our narrow potholed roads. Now it was even more daunting with more cars, more people—and with the addition of cell phones and texting, already easily distracted drivers were all potential killers.

Back in the 90s I had ridden just about every road that existed in the San Isidro/Perez Zeledon vicinity. I had just gone through a messy divorce, and cycling was a fantastic outlet. To give you an idea of how avid a cyclist I was, I would sit my son and daughter, then aged 5 and 4, across the long frame of the bicycle, make sure they had solid holds on the frame, and pedal them the 5 miles or so up and down hills, through traffic, into the center of town to drop them off to their mom on the occasions they stayed with me. My daughter had a child’s bike helmet, my son preferred to wear a too-large motorcycle helmet that a previous housemate had left behind. (This is one of the many things that made Costa Rica great in my eyes—had I cruised around a busy city street in the states in this manner I may well have ended up facing a panel of child protection services agents and been stripped down to an occasional supervised visit; here, where it was not unusual to see a family of four hanging on to one another while puttering down the road on a 125cc motorcycle, no one batted an eye).

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Mr. Green

Shambling through paradise headerI was caretaking the mansion of my friend Carlton while he accompanied his obscenely wealthy family on another jaunt around the world. The mansion was amazing — high on a mountaintop, with a view of the Pacific that stretched from the Whale’s tail in Uvita all the way north to Playa Herradura. There were enough bedrooms and bathrooms to house a soccer team and the kitchen looked like chef Gordon Ramsay’s wet dream.

Carlton and I had met over drinks — we were sitting next to each other in a Quepos bar, watching college basketball, and we bonded because we both had a bet going on the same game. One thing that for me set the international community of Costa Rica apart from say, anywhere I had ever lived in the United States, was the absence of economic class distinctions. Working stiffs like myself rubbed elbows with rich kids like Carlton on a regular basis. In the states the only way I would have met someone like him would have been serving him drinks while I was bartending at some exclusive catered function. Here I might hang out with Carlton over beers, and then pay a night time visit to one of my gringo friends here on the other end of the economic spectrum — for example Vinny, who was camping on the beach in a tent, living on coconut water, bananas, and whatever he could pull in while shore fishing with his homemade line spooler.
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The Second Half-Century Club

Shambling through paradise headerI promise this entire article is not going to be a bummer, but—I have reached the age where the death of a contemporary no longer elicits a response of ”O my god, What happened?” No, it’s more like “What was it she had again’’? Or “Yeah, no great shock, last time I saw him he looked like garbage wrapped in skin”.

When I arrived in CR almost 30 years ago, the core of expats I first got to know were primarily 2nd half century club members. Not too long ago I ran into one on the street. Back in the day we called him “Memo Loco’’. His real name was William. I had not seen him in at least 20 years. My last recollection of him was a rainy Sunday morning at the San Clemente in Dominical. I was having breakfast when Memo Loco entered. He was in the middle of an extended coke and alcohol-fueled party. On a dare, in front of all the customers, he stood in the middle of the restaurant, tilted his head to one side and poured his beer into his ear.

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The Unsellable Curvito

Shambling through paradise headerMy first car in Costa Rica was a ‘77 Jeep Curvito. Like most of the seven cars I have bought since, it was a teenager. It had a removable soft top, no radio and was a dull purplish gray—the color of a bad bruise. It also had an extended back end. In my years of owning it, I never saw another Jeep anywhere on the road that had an extended back end. The body of the Jeep had been manufactured in Costa Rica, in the mid-70s—there was a metal stamp on the inner hood that said so. I had never heard of a Curvito, didn’t know what the word ‘Curvito’ meant. With time I decided it meant either, “Jeep that makes mechanic shake his head in dismay’’ or “Jeep that’s replacement parts are nonexistent”.

I had arrived in CR as half of a couple, but in 2 short years we had become a family of 4 and it was time to go back north to make enough money to return. I took on the task of selling the Curvito. It was the early 1990s in Costa Rica—no cell phones, no internet. We lived about a 20 minute drive from the nearest pay phone. A retired alcoholic American I knew had a house with a landline phone in San Isidro del General. He loaned me his phone number so I could place an ad in La Nacion. I spent the weekend at his house, fielding inquiries and trying not to drink too much. But I had a half dozen calls that expressed interest, including a wealthy Texan who assured me that he was ready to buy it sight unseen, and that, aw shucks, if he didn’t buy it, he had an off street parking area where I could store it until I did find a buyer.

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Losing my Self-consciousness

Shambling through paradise headerRecently, I had a dream where everything I had ever done in front of a mirror was broadcast for the world to see. In my dream, I was not embarrassed—I was actually promoting the broadcast to friends, saying things like, “Yes I really was flexible enough to do that to myself at one time in my life” and, “I really do use a Gillette razor to cut my nose hairs.”

There was a time in my life where this dream would have been mortifying—one of those dreams you awaken from with a sigh of relief. Yet here I was in my dream, boasting of my strange and occasionally bizarre actions. I give Costa Rica a lot of credit for my change in consciousness. Or maybe better said—my change from being overly self-conscious, which I was in my younger days.

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Not as I do

shambling through paradiseSome people have noticed that when it comes to talking about daily life in Costa Rica, I am not nearly the sardonic, sarcastic, overbearing, know-it-all, gringo wiseass I once was. Part of it is age—once I hit the second half century club, with over half my life now in the books, I began gravitating more toward thoughts and activities that make me feel good, and avoiding topics that make the choler rise inside.

But there is another reason. For the past few years, I have been in the business of selling Costa Rica. I bring people to Costa Rica, and like thousands of others here, I make a living doing so. Tourism is the golden egg, and Costa Rica has adapted to this reality nicely. When I first came here almost 30 years ago, tourism was not what it is now. Coffee and bananas were bigger money makers for the country. Sometime in the mid-1990s, this dynamic changed, and the natural beauty of the country itself became the meal ticket. The bandwagon is big, and I jumped on some years ago and never looked back.
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Quelling My Inner Fascist

shambling through paradiseWalking the streets of Quepos on a hot and hectic Friday afternoon, two voices fight for space in my head. One is the voice whose philosophy is simply ‘Live and let live’. It is the voice that brought me here almost twenty years ago, the voice of tolerance and tranquility, a voice best personified by a man lounging in a hammock, eyes slightly glazed after a short smoke and a long drink, beatific smile painting his face as he stares out at a panoramic Costa Rican vista.

The other voice demands attention every time I see someone double parked blocking traffic, or aggressively and arrogantly turning a one way street into a two way street, or most definitely when I see that emaciated little guy wearing the second hand traffic cop vest in the street in front of the bus station and the Super Mas supermarket, blowing his whistle and acting like he is directing traffic, unhindered by the local police. This other voice is not charitable or tolerant or even remotely me, yet it occasionally boils up unexpectedly, like Volcan Turrialba, emitting gas and noxious smoke, and almost but not quite erupting and sending the passersby running for cover.

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A Few Hours in the Life

shambling through paradiseI finished work, had a short smoke, and went straight to the beach. It was late afternoon, the tide was out, the rain had stopped, the waves were steady, but not of the monstrous tourist-killing variety. I am an avid body surfer, or as I like to joke with my surfer friends, a surfer without a flotation device.  I was in the water for close to an hour, rode some waves, breast-stroked in a meter of water, dove and flopped and stroked and floated—the ocean is better than any gymnasium once you learn to move with the waves.

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The Tourism that Dares not Speak its Name

shambling through paradiseI was seated in the bar of a downtown San Jose hotel, waiting for friends to arrive. An attractive young woman took the seat next to me. We exchanged holas. Then she told me that I reminded of her of that ‘galan’ in Hollywood, “como se llama?” I looked at myself in the bar mirror—with my recent haircut and beard trim, and the gray in my beard offset by my still dark head of hair, I ventured: “George Clooney?”

“Si, si,” she said. “Yorzh Cloney!” Then she offered to have sex with me for 100 dollars.

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I Need a New Signature

shambling through paradiseAnyone who has lived here long enough remembers the old days of going to the bank. There were no numbers to take, and few chairs in which to sit. Everyone stood patiently in line because the ability to stand patiently in line was in the DNA of most all Ticos. I have heard that the original Himno Nacional of Costa Rica even included a line that went ‘’esperando en fila con la paciencia de un santo’’ (waiting in line with the patience of a saint), before it was edited out for the sake of brevity.

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Saint Clownfoot

shambling through paradiseRight now, as you read this, someone in Costa Rica—most likely a foreign man—is walking down a street in agony. This man has just bought a pair of shoes from a local zapateria, and the agony is because they convinced him that all would be bueno if he bought the size 44 shoe for his size 46 feet. This man, exhausted after having visited a few dozen shoe stores, finally relented and forced his foot into a shoe meant for a man with slightly smaller feet. Every step produces a wince and the beginnings of a ripe and bloody blister.

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Patient 25

shambling through paradiseI was getting this occasional pain in my solar plexus, usually after eating. It was a sharp and constant pain, and the most comfortable position during these episodes was standing. I would check my pulse, which was always a steady 60 or so beats a minute. I would google cancers of the stomach, colon, pancreas and liver and read over and over the symptoms, and reassure myself that I had none of the above, while my midsection felt like someone was applying  pressure with something hard and pointed. Usually the pain receded within a few hours. One day the pain came and would not go away.

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Welcome Invierno

By Matt Casseday

I was walking down the street at mid-day. It was late in the dry summer season, and the sun was right overhead, blazing hot, ready to fry the skin of anyone who lingered in the glow for too long. It was heat that could wound as easily as heal. The afternoon before I had gone to the playa, walking at full stride through the sun-baked sand, bouncing and grimacing like some beach loony, making little noises of pain until I reached the shoreline and immersed myself in the sea. Twenty-four hours later the bottoms of my feet still tingled. This flaring sun could do the same thing to your face or back or shoulders in the time it took to eat lunch. Pedestrians sought whatever puny shade they could find in the center of town. Indoors, people hunkered down near ceiling fans or hid out in air conditioned offices. Life went on under the sun in a distorted, hazy, slow motion dance. Days and days of unabated heat could make one crazy, or at least desperate for a change in the weather. 

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As Politically Correct As He Wants To Be

By Matt Casseday

A friend of mine who shall remain nameless collared me in a downtown Quepos bar the other day. “Have you heard about the new law?” he asked. 

I admitted I hadn’t. 

“The Costa Rican congress is about to pass a law making smoking in bars—and any public places, illegal.” 

My friend smokes a couple packs a day of a cigarette called Delta. I have sampled Delta cigarettes a few times over the years and am of the opinion that the name of this cigarette should be “Nicotine Bomb”, so briefly head-spinning is the rush from inhaling one. My friend lit one up and shook his head in disgust. “Its going to be just as bad as in the United States,” he said. “Once that law is passed they’ll probably have the health department making surprise enforcement visits. Busts left and right. Every bar in downtown Quepos will have “clausurado” stickers plastered on the doors and windows.” 

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My Salute to El Diario Extra

By Matt Casseday

When I was in college I had a friend who was getting a PhD in Literature. His opinion of my choice of reading material was typically summed up as, “While you spend time reading THAT, another classic sits unread”. I think my usual response was, ‘Yeah, I can dig it’; I had read some classics but left thousands unread, while perusing 20th century bombast. And I am still guilty of leaving classics unread. The other day, I started The First Circle by Solzhenitsyn, a highly praised  post-World War II Russian novel. I struggled into chapter two, put it down and picked up Murder Machine, a long ghastly true account of a 1970s Brooklyn Mafia gang that killed and dismembered dozens. This was 450 pages of sensationalism, death, sex, gore, betrayal– the Mafia food chain in action, 15 years of slaughter leading up to the ascension of John Gotti as Capo di Capos. I devoured Murder Machine while another classic sat unread. This book had all the graphic shock value the modern reader could ask for; even the cover had the words Murder Machine in blood red capital letters.

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