Tag Archive for Talamanca

Total Destruction to Tourist Mecca: Limón

Rio Estrella

Rio Estrella

On April 22, 1991, at about 3PM—three years before my first trip to Grape Point*— a 7.7 magnitude quake that killed 65 people and injured hundreds of others, tore through Limón province. 22 seconds of shaking knocked out bridges, buckled steel girders like toothpicks, destroyed roads, split pavement open like melons, and twisted railroad tracks into spaghetti. It razed thousands of houses and businesses alike. It would take Limón province years to recover.

Years later my friend Miss Olga told me about that grim day. She said she crawled out of her house on hands and knees for safety. Instead, the earth opened up like a gaping maw and then closed again right in front of her. She escaped injury, but a neighbor lady broke her arm and had to be medevacked. She was transported to the Rio Banano, lifted over the river by crane, and then air-lifted to Limón.

Any tourists on the southern Caribbean coast were cut off. Eventually they were evacuated by small air transport, and food drops were instituted for those who stayed behind.

International Rescue Corps Workers

International Rescue Corps Workers

By the time I arrived in ’94, temporary bridges had been erected but the roads were still in total disarray. The train tracks, once Limón’s only connection with the Central Valley, lay wasted and made rail travel impossible. It has yet to be rebuilt.

It was dark by the time we left Limón. I thought we would be another half hour to our destination. That is what the distance indicated, anyway—55 kilometers, or about 35 miles and how long could that possibly take?

We began running into cavernous holes in the road, so many potholes it was hard to know where the pavement ended and the chuckholes began. They were deep and oncoming cars simply disappeared into them. Their lights vanished only to re-emerge on our side of the road. everyone picked their way through the gaping craters. Whenever we met other cars, we stayed our course rather than move over. Sometimes there would be three cars abreast as we navigated the obstacle course. But you could not drive any faster than about five miles an hour. No one was going to get in a wreck. The road was the wreck!

We struggled on through the night. Over four hours later we came to a little town of Old Harbour, or Puerto Viejo. I couldn’t see anything but little white lights twinkling like jewelry in the jungle night. After we passed through town, headed for Grape Point, we slowed as the road got worse, though I hadn’t thought that possible.

typical bridge of the day

Typical bridge of the day

The one-lane mud track was as red and slick as potting clay, and the truck sashayed back and forth as we crept forward. We stopped for any oncoming traffic, moving off the road to allow them to pass, but careful not to get too far out of the ruts and end up mired in the ooze. The bridges we crossed that night were nothing more than planks laid down over enormous logs. At one point A. got out and replaced the dislodged decking before we could cross.

Out the truck windows dense green foliage crowded the road on either side; occasionally a branch would slap the side of the truck. I heard insect sounds: cheeps, shrill police whistles, clicks, and a bug so alien I knew I’d landed in a truly foreign world. It was a high-pitched metallic and penetrating sound that punctured the night like a submarine’s sonic echo. PING! It left a faint echo in its wake. PING!

Those bugs still catch my ear at night, but so much has changed since that first trip.

It took Limón and Talamanca years to recover from that earthquake. In the late ‘90s an Italian firm contracted with Costa Rica to replace all of Limón’s sewer system, sidewalks, and gutters. They also created a new esplanade in the center of town where these days tourists, debarked from the frequent cruise ships, meander and shop for curiosities.

The many bridges between Limón and Puerto Viejo were slowly replaced or repaired, and the road was eventually repaved, although the area around the Bananito River took them years to control. For a long time that train bridgesection of road was often washed out–closed–causing a long detour through the banana plantation country, over railroad bridges, and fording small streams.

Now a trip from our house to Limón takes about an hour, and to Old Harbour, fifteen minutes- tops. The slippery clay road from Port to Manzanillo was paved in 2001.

There are more tourists here now, more expats living along these shores, more drugs, more crime, and yet…. there are conveniences that come with progress. Our old Jeep would certainly be dead by now had the roads not been improved, and fresh veggies arrive from the Central Valley three times a week. But… I’ll write more about food next time.

 

Here is a YouTube video showing the extensive damage of the Limón Earthquake.

And, if you have about 25 minutes and want to know what it was like to ride the train from Limón to San José, you can watch this YouTube video.

* A. Had been coming to Costa Rica since the late 80s, but my first trip to Grape Point was in 1994.

Talamanca, Maps, and Why Everything Here Has at Least Two Names

Courtesy Moon Travel

Courtesy Moon Travel

As long ago as the 1700s, fisherman plied the southern Caribbean waters because of the abundance of turtles that came every year to lay their eggs. These fisherman took the meat and sold the valuable shells. These would later be transformed into European hair brushes, combs, spectacle frames, guitar picks, and countless other items made from what we called “tortoiseshell.” tortoise shell

Sea turtles were hunted until near extinction, but, happily, they are making a slow comeback due to conservation and volunteer efforts. My old friend, John John, was a “turtle striker” in his youth, and he told me in order to land the monsters, he had to swamp his boat, lowering the gunnels into the sea, float the turtle inside, then bail the boat to raise it once again.

turtle conserveMany of those fishermen originated from the Bocas del Toro region of Panama, but paddled as far north as Bluefields, Nicaragua, when the turtle season was on— March through September.

They were Afro-Caribbean and Indigenous men , and they built provisional camps along this southern Caribbean coast line; they planted coconuts, yucca, yam, and other crops that would help them survive during the season.

Then, in 1828 one of these seasonal fishermen decided to settle permanently. William Smith, along with his family, settled at one of the camps located just north of the current town of Cahuita. I don’t imagine they had much when they first came. Perhaps their rudimentary huts looked something like this. leaf hut

Other settlers followed: the Hudsons, who settled just north of William Smith; The Dixon family, who settled south of Cahuita; the Sheperds, in Puerto Vargas; Ezequiel Hudson and Celvinas Caldwell, both of whom chose to live at Monkey Point; Horacio MacNish, north of Old Harbour, and Peter Hansel, in Manzanillo. Many came with families, but others formed connections with indigenous people of Talamanca. Thus began an interracial population that is characteristic of this region. In fact, it’s fair to say that this coastline has the most diverse population of any part of Costa Rica.

Beach Grape

These original settlers often settled next to small streams and creeks and those landmarks still bear their names. These pioneers also christened areas along the coastline with names like Little Bay; Hone Creek, whose name comes for the plentiful palm of the same name; Grape Point, where beach grape is plentiful; Manchineel, named after a huge tree of the same name that died back in the 1940s. Some of the names originate from the indigenous people. For example, Cahuita ( “where the Sangrillos grow”) ,and some are leftovers from another time: Old Harbour, from the pirate days and the likes of Horatio Nelson and John Davis.

Tourists who come to this area today are often confused because there are two and sometimes three names for locations along this coastline: Spanish, English, and the indigenous names given by the various ethnic groups in the area.

The original settlers were native English speakers, and in the map you can see the names of the landmarks as I knew them when my husband and I arrived in the late 1980s. As the area has gained notoriety, and Spanish-speaking Costa Ricans from the Central Valley have begun moving to the area, the names have changed to Spanish. But I like the old names, the Afro-Caribbean names.The REAL names.

And here is a recent tourist map. ¡Que diferencia!

Puerto-Viejo-to-Manzanillo-Map

 

 

 

Cacao, Miss Olga, and A New Beginning

 

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I read in The Tico Times this morning that a French competition awarded first prize for Latin America to a sample of cacao grown on a farm in San Carlos, Costa Rica. This does my heart good.

When my husband and I first arrived in Punta Uva in the late 1980s, the people here were suffering from the devastating effects of a fungal blight on their cacao trees. When the Moniliasis, or frosty pod rot, hit their crops in 1978, these Afro-Caribbean’s lives were changed irrevocably. No longer did they have the best chocolate in the world, demand and prices plummeted, and they abandoned their plantations letting the jungle grow over. This is how we came to buy our place.

When you talk to the older people in this area, they will likely tell you that the banana companies brought the monilia so they could take away their land. Whether it was that or one-hundred plus years of mono-cropping, the result was the same. The blight, it was felt, was permanent, and until a few years ago no one had been able to develop a resistant variety. It is a hit or miss crop.

Then people began to try different growing methods. According to an article I read a few years ago,“… rehabilitation efforts and those of 400 families in 14 villages stem from a World Bank-financed organic cacao and biodiversity project created and implemented by the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (Spanish acronym CATIE, pronounced Kah’-Tee-Eh), headquartered in Turrialba, Costa Rica.” Before local farmers had planted from seed. This time the farmers were taught to graft new species onto existing rootstock. They were also trained in diversifying their crops so the land was more sustainable. Within a few years, they were getting reliable harvests from their cacao trees.

As expats have settled the area, once famous for its chocolate, they have also either grown the cacao themselves or become buyers of the indigenous tribe’s crops. New businesses have popped up in the area marketing organic chocolates and baked goods made from the new strains.

Before my husband and I built our house, we rented from a woman with a long history in the area. Her family and others like hers were the original cacao farmers. Miss Olga’s mother was born in Punta Uva. Her grandmother was born here, too. She now lives in Limón with a son as she will be 99 years old this February. She always told me she’d live a long life. “My mother lived to be 99 and 6,” she always said.

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Olguita flirting with Alan

Olga’s coffee and cream complexion made her look more Spanish than black, and the lack of wrinkles made it hard for me to believe that she was in her eighties when we lived in that little rental house she owned. She wore her curly gray hair tied tightly against her head in two braids at the base of her neck. Olga had a great sense of humor and would flash her gold teeth when the joke was on, and her tales of how it was in Punta Uva when she was a child were a pleasure to listen to.

“You know when my family first come, there was nothing here. We just staked out the land we wanted and started growing things. My father and my mother, they had this place and they give it to me. They give the place you have now to my sister, Casilda, and they give my brother, Bai, the place on up there by Little Bay. Now there’s all manner people here I don’t even know anymore. In the old days we all knew each other, and we was family. I used to ride my horse from Manzanil to Ol’ Harbour, stop off at all the farms them for a drink. We had some good times.”

Outside her front door is the most beautiful Mango tree I have ever seen. It is over fifty years old; she knew, too, it because she remembered planting it. Its solid, twisted trunk divides off into five or six branches. The bare limbs twine up over the house some thirty feet, and a canopy of mango leaves and fruit created a wonderful umbrella of shade for her sea-green clapboard house. She often sat outside under that tree in the late afternoon, resting off after a day’s work.

Her favorite chair was made out of old rusty rebar welded together to form a frame. The plastic caning had long ago worn out. Instead, she fashioned some torn rags tied with some rope in places, some string in others. The cushion was made from an old pair of pants.

In all that, she had a way of holding herself that was regal. Sitting in that chair, her chin tilted slightly as though she were looking down on you, her legs crossed at the ankles, one elbow on the chair frame and her arm raised to express herself with those long bony fingers; she could easily be in any fashionable sitting room in any big city in the world.

She was no rube. She’d been to New York City to visit relatives, she’d been on an ocean cruise, and she’d traveled to the capital, San José, when she had to. She just preferred be on her farm.

Behind the house was an old cacao shed, a relic from the past— back when the pods rolled in and the money was flush.

She tore the drying shed down several years ago, and now it appears there just might be a viable crop again in Talamanca.

Another Carlsberg Perhaps?~

(Back, by popular demand- I deleted this post but have posted it again…. for those looking for it, here it is.)

Our lawyer, PMT, who also happens to be the local municipality’s lawyer, was in Limon talking with the DA on our behalf (another story altogether). While there, she got a phone call from E. Cyrus, the local head of MINAE, the Costa Rican Parks Department. “I’m here in Punta Uva and have a small problem. Well… actually it’s a big problem. There is a group of people here making a Carlsberg beer commercial…. When I gave them the okay, I didn’t realize it would be this big.”

“This big” included three good sized generators, three helicopters, and an ocean freighter with containers on deck stacked like sky scrappers. These held all the equipment needed for the 200 (TWO HUNDRED!!!) staff members working on the commercial. Also, the Carlsberg people had cordoned off a kilometer of public beach using police tape (a Big No No) to keep people out. This is why Alan and I were refused our morning walk that I blogged about a couple of days ago.

Apparently Cyrus signed a permit so Carlsberg could use the beach without consulting of the Municipality. The permit simply said “en la playa,” on the beach, not delineating exactly how much beach would be used. And what kind of park steward okays a noise making project like this with three helicopters low-flying overhead 12 hours a day for three days as the monkeys run through the jungle in the opposite direction? (That was a rhetorical question.)

Later that day the Muni, the police, and PMT all went to Punta Uva to confront the beer company. There were words.

Testy Columbian in charge of the project to the gathered officials: “You can’t stop us. You have no right to do that.”

“Oh… no?” said the municipal official, motioning the police to begin to seize the equipment. They loaded up one of the generators and were working on the next when the Columbian relented and suggested that perhaps they should adjourn to the municipality office in Bribri for a discussion.

At the municipal office, the Columbian boss glibly flipped a piece of paper across the conference table toward the president of the Muni, Roly. “Here! We have a signed permit from MINAE.”

Roly, a linebacker-sized black man replete with gold chains and rings on every finger picked up the paper between thumb and index finger, as though it were contaminated, stared at it for a second, then flipped it back toward the film director.

“And?”

It’s bad when you come to a foreign country and think you have a handle on how to move and shake your way around. There are many things you don’t understand when you do that. I am sure they felt, like Donny Rumsfeld and George Bush, that they would come to this stretch of Costa Rica and be welcomed like conquering heroes, the locals showering them with adoration– if not flowers. Those silly locals would at least stand in awe of such a miraculous event taking place right here in their backyard.

Instead, the Carlsberg people entered a place called paradise by some visitors, but Green Hell by many others of us who actually live here. A place where rancor has become a district-wide pastime, and almost anyone you talk to has some pending legal action against their neighbor.

But there was more they failed to take into account before deciding on this strip of beach to film their beer commercial.

There has been a mud wrestle fight here for the past 20 years about just who would have jurisdiction over this part of the country. The municipality has always maintained they have the right, as they do in the rest of the country, to collect taxes, provide services, issue permits, and generally act like a municipal government. The parks department, MINAE, has argued that they are the best stewards of the land because this is a National Park with “mixed use” designation. I won’t even go into that discussion for the moment because this blog does not have enough megabyte storage space for it. The battle has raged and burned like a peat fire all the way to the Supreme Court.

This year the Municipality of Talamanca finally won.

The formal agreement was signed by Cyrus last week– yes, the same Cyrus who gave the Carlsberg people unilateral rights to close the beach.

So, the Columbian filmmaker probably paid someone (or sometwo) a handy sum to slide this thing through and now faced the municipality and a fine for failing to get the proper permits. Once they realized they had no choice, an agreement was struck. Roly told them that they could pay the multa, fine, and make their little film, but they could not close the beach to the public.

“But this commercial is about a deserted island and there cannot be any footprints.”

“Well, you can see that it is NOT deserted and it is NOT an island. Pay the fine or leave.”

Roly then got up from the table, tucked his paperwork under his arm, and ambled out of the meeting leaving the Carlsberg people speechless.

The secretary for the municipality who is Spanish, petit, and normally quite charming, but who has worked side by side with Roly and has picked up some of his language, said to the filmmakers, “Paga los focking impuestos o no hace su focking pelicula.”

Pretty clear.

I’ m sure the Columbians felt that their own country might have been a safer bet to make their commercial right about then. They might even have found a deserted island where they would be left in peace.

I have not heard the helicopters today except from afar. I am sure the monkeys, if they are still around, are as happy as I am.

(Nope, I take it back. I was just about to post this when whoop-whoop-whoop, the focking hueys are back.)