Monday, March 16, 2009

PANAMA PART 4 "Riders in the Storm"

"Adios, Ulysses....Wish I'd Gotten to Know You Better"

Fifty Bucks? Why I wouldn't pay fifty bucks... I gave the man fifty bucks. Keep in mind that it is still pouring and the water's rising. I should be thankful he didn't ask for a hundred. OK. This gracious taxi driver was the proud owner of some unknown brand vehicle that was made in China about the same time they were making The Wall. The age and make of the taxi wasn't near as relevant as it's size. It could easily have been called "The Mouse Mobile". Maria had her backpack the size of the Goodyear blimp and I had my Hefty overnighter(which had all this time, been double wrapped in Hefty trash bags). The two pieces of luggage would have fit nicely had it not been for a HUGE guitar (maybe a cello) and A big black bag of "stuff". The black bag looked suspiciously like a body bag, but I wasn't about to even think like that. With a crowbar and help from the townspeople, we scrunched it in. That left Maria and me for the front seat...a front seat that is roughly 12 inches wide. We managed though, by Maria molding herself somehow on my lap. Uncomfortable wasn't the word. Actually, I thought it was quite cozy. OK!!!!...I was in hog heaven.

The winding 22 miles of road to Changuinola is beautiful. But the driver said we ain't going to Changuinola..the road's out. OH MY. Then where we are we going? Almirante, he said. OH, I said, I've never been to Almirante. Now it's 24 miles to Almirante and I'm sure the drive is quite scenic...a beautiful sight to behold with it's hairpin turns and thousand foot sheer drop offs into dense tropical foliage and other things. But not pitch dark in the pouring rain. "We gotta hurry...the last boat for Bocas del Toro leaves Almirante at 8!!" Just what I wanted to hear..."We Got to Hurry". My fears for breakneck speeds were unfounded when I noticed that the little overstuffed, Chinese made in prehistoric times, Mouse Mobile could barely make it to the top of each hill. I found my fears again when the taxi driver kept yakking at us, trying to ogle down Maria's blouse. "Shouldn't you be watching the road?" I politely questioned. "Why? I Know The Way" I was soundly assured. I continued to pray.

Prayers are answered. We got there. I kissed the ground again. My lips still bear abrasion marks. We unloaded and the driver disappeared into the void with his guitar, body bag, and my fifty bucks. It is still raining, but here we are at the boat dock and it's only 7:45. Bocas, here we come!!! Nope. The friendly guy at the dock (he sleeps on his boat) told us we were crazy if we thought we could get a boat ride to Bocas in this weather..."got fifty bucks?" Fifty Bucks?

Be back for Part 5.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

PANAMA PART 3 "At The Border....And Going South"

Sorry, I was away so long, I had to summon up some courage to continue.

This is a "pothole" compared to the way the road was that day.
That day, the road wasn't there.

This is a picture of a boat similar to the one we used, except for 3 things: (1) This boat has a top, (2) This boat is much larger, (3) This boat is fairly well-built

Now, before I get started, I posted two pictures above to kinda give ya an idea of the circumstances. The race begins..Maria and Jesse James Willie speed ahead down the road, while the overweight, ten pack of ciggies a day, 62 year old, "Loco Gringo Bozo" (that's me, in case you were wondering) chugs pitifully behind. At the little border office there are 2 Costa Rican Border Employees behind the glass drinking coffee and ogling the daily "La Teja". There are several fine daily newspapers in Costa Rica..La Teja is so popular because, lacking any talent for news reporting, it features several very exposing photos of a few beautiful Costa Rican women wearing little more than imagination. To see what atrocious and sensational photos this disgusting periodical is blatantly flaunting, I have to inspect it daily. Actually, inspect it several times to make sure I didn't miss anything.

But I digress. These "helpful" border agen
ts offer a broad, friendly smile as they tell us "Cerrado...Abierte manana, tal vez." "Closed...Open tomorrow...maybe". Maria and I stand on the road and gaze down at the inundated town of Sixaola, it's residences long since evacuated. We watch with rapt fascination as a bathtub-sized raft filled with roaches drifts past....evacuees from Sixaola's only hotel/brothel. I look at Maria. Maria looks at me. We both look at Willie with sheer terror and bewilderment. Willie looks back with amusement or boredom...can't really tell which. He, in very laid back fashion, utters two words..."Panama, mon".

"The Bridge From Hell"
One of the few Bridges I've known that you can
get a good view of the river, standing in the middle, looking down.

A closer look at the "Bridge from Hell"

The three of us nonchalantly stroll past the border station, it's two dedicated agents lost in their "Tejas". It's almost dark, so they probably wouldn't have noticed us anyway..or cared. And so we set out across the Verrrrrry Long Bridge that crosses the Sixaola River to reach Panama. I am not exaggerating one single bit when I say that crossing THAT BRIDGE is somewhat dangerous in broad daylight. Crossing it in the pouring rain at almost nightfall is suicidal and downright stupid. We crossed it in the pouring rain at almost nightfall. Reaching Panama, I kissed the ground....I would have kissed Maria, too, but it didn't look like she was in the mood. Actually, I've seen stuff washed up on the beach that looked more content than she looked at the moment. And more say that she looked like a drowned rat would have been complimentary.

The Panama border town was at least not underwater. I don't know if they have a hotel there, but I do know that the town is about the LAST place I'm going to spend the night. Willie, our current "Mighty Mouse" came to save the day. Or save the night, really, because it is now dark....and, needless to say, pouring rain. He found us a taxi to take us to Chaguinola...the staging town for the boat ride to...BOCAS DEL TORO!!!! The taxi is usually only 5 or 6 bucks. Willie smiled as I gave him a ten dollar tip and then told us that the driver was only going to charge us 50 bucks. FIFTY BUCKS??? FIFTY BUCKS??? CINQUENTA U.S. DOLLARS??

At this point, I'm going to have a cup of coffee and paint a bit. I'll continue this saga when I'm good and ready. Your buddy from Mesoamerica...James

Sunday, February 22, 2009

PANAMA PART 2 "On Your Own in BriBri"

Maria, My little German "River Rat" Joins the Journey

So the bus gets to Bri Bri...a small town about 6 miles from the border...named after the indigenous Bri Bri Indian tribe. The driver says "that's further". WHAT???? A local taxi driver shows up with a helping hand...a hand turned up, into which you are supposed to place large quantities of American dollars. The remnants of tourists pile back on the bus to go back to Limon. However, Maria, my adopted little German sweetie companion, and I, and three other stalwarts board the taxi and give the smiling driver a 20 dollar bill. We go 5 miles. The driver says "that's further". WHAT??? We get out of the taxi (and, keep in mind, that it has NOT ONCE stopped pouring ). Some twenty yards down the road from where the taxi stopped is a raging river. Wait! That's not a river...that's the road. Make that "where the road used to be". The three stalwart (sissies) got back in the taxi.

Maria looked at me. I looked at Maria. We both looked at a little boat at the edge of the road with a guy waving for us to come on. Now I have a tendency to exaggerate, but in this case I'm not. The boat appeared to be constructed from what you might find in Home Depot's trash dumpster. It was powered by something that looked like it spent the best years of its life attached to a lawnmower. But the worst part was that it already had 20 people in it and appeared to be taking in water very rapidly. I might add that 2 friendly Costa Rican Policia were standing nearby in yellow slickers, enjoying the amusement, and telling us that this was the last boat. Period.

Maria looked at me. I looked at Maria. We both looked at the taxi down the road on its way back to Bri Bri. In gallant fashion, I told Maria, "Oh Shucks...Why Not". Inside me, a little voice was crying out "I Want My Mommy". So I gave the boatman a twenty (10 for me and 10 for Maria, because she was now out of funds without an ATM in sight) and I asked the Boatman if his name wasn't Charon and if this was the river Styx. He told us to get in the boat and muttered something like "Loco Gringo".

Maria and I have the front seat of the "boat" and try to look nonchalant as the water in the boat gradually rises over our ankles. Not to be overly dramatic, but it is still pouring and darkness is beginning to descend. The twenty minute meandering ride through the flooded landscape brought to mind images of being endlessly lost in the Amazon basis...Bogey and Hepburn in "The African Queen"...piranhas and leeches. Always having my sense of humor in my pocket, I turned to Maria and said "Boy, you sure don't get this at DisneyWorld!" She put her head on my shoulder, hugged me and convulsed. To this day, I don't know if she was laughing or crying.

The "boat" finally made landfall and there was, quite naturally, a "Jesse James" there to help us. At the border there are always more than a few fellows who are very eager to assist you to lighten your load...mainly the weight of your wallet. And, for some reason, they all seem to be named "Jesse James". I knew this Jesse James (Willie) from past trips and he grabbed my overnighter and told us to "Hurry..the border closes at 5". I told him it's only 5 to 4 and he reminded me it's Panama time (East Coast) now, Mon. Duh...dat's right...I knew dat. So the race to the border begins. And this chapter ends. Stay tuned for Part Three.

OH....and I posted a picture of Maria up top, so you can kinda identify.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

PANAMA PART 1 "Bus or Ark?"

Wednesday afternoon, Feb 4, it started raining, and, as usual, I put out my 5 gallon, 18 inch high rain gauge. It poured all night and at dawn , the bucket was overflowing. For those of you that might be slow at math, like me...that's 18 inches of rain overnight. And it continued to pour. I was leaving for Panama that morning, and I sure wasn't going to let a little thing like a flood bother me.

At 6 AM I did a check to make sure everything was, camera, paints, deodorant, passport. Passsport? Passport? PASSPORT!!!! I frantically checked all the usual places. I just had it at the bank, the day before...did I leave it there? I unpacked my suitcase. Twice. At a quarter of 7 I located it. I won't tell you that it was in one of the 28 zippered, velcroed, hidden pockets of the shorts I had on...I wouldn't want you to think I was a Bozo or something. Ten to normally takes 15 minutes to make it to the highway where you catch the bus to the Panama border. The Bu
s comes at 7. Since Costa Rican buses are seldom on time, I wasn't too concerned as we pulled up to the pick-up point at 3 minutes past 7. Wasn't too concerned that is, until the bus barreled by 150 mph. The bus is a straight through to Limon, and you DO NOT catch CR bus drivers who think they are in the Indy 500. We returned to the farm in the pouring rain.

The next bus was at 11. As I watched more pouring rain, I painted a big sign that read "SIXAOLA"...the border town destination. We got to the pick up point at ten to 11. It would have brought tears to the eyes of most compassionate people to observe an old man like me standing in the pouring rain in a bedraggled straw hat, holding a soggy Sixaola sign waiting the 45 minutes I did to catch the bus...a bus that did not want to stop. It did though....100 yards or so from where I was waiting. All those
physical fitness programs, stop smoking projects, lose weight diets that I meant to take flashed before my eyes as I jogged that 100 yards in the mud, toting a 250 pound overnight case. Arriving at the bus, it's full. They did manage to stick me in the rear stairwell, amid 30 or 40 hung-over backpackers from the UK. Two delightful young ladies befriended me though, and made the next 50 miles painfully enjoyable. Painful because their accent was so thick, I could understand only one word in 20...painful because they talked continuously...but enjoyable because they were just so darn cute.

This is a sloth...very common in these parts. What is uncommon is to see him not in a tree. While the bus was stopped for the fallen power lines, I noticed this poor fellow traveller and snapped a shot of him trying to figure out how to get back to some tree somewhere.

We had a 15 minute stop in Limon, where I had a Milky Way and 4 cigarettes for lunch as I watched it rain. Boarding the bus and on the road again I fell into a little catnap that was more like a deep coma. Jostled awake by some bloke standing on my hand, I noticed people getting off the bus. My first thought was that the bus was on fire. My second thought was that we were having a bus robbery. My third thought was that I sure was snoozing good. A tree roughly the size of the Eiffel Tower had fallen over some power lines. Aha, another 3 hour delay! But no...about 20 guys with long bamboo poles lifted the lines and let the bus sneak under and around. As we edged by, I couldn't help but reflect...pouring rain..wet poles...a billion volts of electricity going through the wires...probably not a good idea. But nobody else seemed concerned. This method of handling problems in Latin America is ever so common and reminded me of the photo I posted below.

This also concludes Part One of my little odyssey tale. I'll continue with "On Your Own In Bri-Bri" in a liitle bit.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Money Talks..It Usually Says Goodbye

About 20 years ago, Costa Rica issued a series of banknotes in four denominations included the 5 Colone note pictured above. The reverse of the note features a painting depicting the coffee trade and export of Costa Rica around 1900. Shortly after they issued the notes, the currency was revalued, and the notes became obsolete. Today, 5 Colones is worth about one penny. However, the 5 colone note became popular with collectors and the tourist trade as souvenirs. San Jose tourist shops easily sell these notes for 3-5 dollars U.S.

Back in the mid 1800's Costa Rica built the National Theater, in attempts to charm some of the European operatic talent to the country. They built a masterpiece that rivals La Scala. The National Theater is truly a wonder and a "must see" for visitors to San Jose. On the ceiling, in the center of the Theater, is a very large painting. I would guess about 10 feet by 30 feet. It is the coffee trade painting featured on the 5 colone note painted in 1897 by J. Villa.

About three years ago, when I first moved to Costa Rica, and began painting, one of the workers here on the farm brought me a 5 colone note and told me I should paint it because it was "muy bonita". Well, yes, it was pretty, but..... After a few days, I got to thinking it might be interesting to paint and good practice, in any case. It took a little over a week, but It resulted in my rendition above, painted in acrylics on a 20x50 panel board. It is now hanging in our office, and gets comments from everyone who sees it.

One note of interesting little trivia. J. Villa never visited Costa Rica. He created the painting in his native Spain and had very little idea of life in Latin America. He made an error in his depiction which most people wouldn't notice, but, to Costa Ricans, and Latin Americans in general, it is a glaring mistake. The gentleman in the foreground is holding a large bunch of bananas by the stalk at the bottom. This would mean that bananas grow pointing down. They don't...they grow pointing up. Small thing, but, since Costa Rica was built on coffee and bananas, it becomes a major BOBO.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Arenal and Poas

Costa Rica is a land OF volcanoes because it was made FROM volcanoes. Within 50 miles of my doorstep are six volcanoes...four of them active. Arenal, Poas, Irazu, Turrialba, Barva, and Cache Negro. I am working on a series of volcano paintings, but I thought I'd show you what wonderful subject material I have to work with. I have included two shots with my picture on them, not to show off my mug, but to show you how brave I am.

The top two are Poas. Poas is now a gurgling, belching composite volcano, having nine distinct craters. It's being a good boy now, but back around 11 million years ago, Poas and its buddy, Barva, started coughing up enough stuff to form the floor of the entire central valley. And it has remained active ever since, with an occasional flare up. On January 25, 1910, it spewed almost a million tons of ash into the atmosphere...nearly as much dust as piles up behind my refrigerator each week. In 1989, they closed the whole park for the year. And nowadays, it's rather serene. It is actually in a cloud forest region and the clouds do come and go very unpredictably. The last time I was there, nothing was being in a cloud and looking into another cloud. But you could hear it. Sounds like a bunch of bulldozers working at a distance. There's some great hiking trails and overlooks, but you're pretty high up, so it pays to be in shape.

Arenal is the attention getter. Around 1200-1500 AD, Arenal was quite active. Then it abruptly quit smoking and folks classified it as inactive. Then, just as abruptly, it erupted in 1968 in a huge pyroclastic explosion, killing 78 people in a very sparsely populated region. There were no seismic instruments of warning then, so no one knew it was coming. But the old-timers tell tales...livestock and pets acting rocks around the mountain...the Tabacon river running warm...even an evacuation of insects and wildlife from the mountain. It has remained active ever since and spawned a tourist Mecca and hot springs spa business. It is beautifully awesome at night. Only once have I been there when it was quiet and not showy. For 2 days, not a glimmer. Then about 10 A.M. the morning I was leaving, there was a terrific sound like a big jet fixing to take off, and POOP, a big billow of smoke came out and rose about 2 miles into the sky. Then it went back to sleep.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Egret on the Rocks

Though living in rural Costa Rica allows me to have access to many of the fascinating creatures I like to paint, it doesn't allow me to have access to the skills of using a camera. More times than I feel comfortable to mention, I have ventured into the rain forest with a good digital camera, an empty chip and a handful of batteries, only to return with some superb shots of my belly, or my feet, or a blurry image that could possibly be an elephant. Or a hummingbird. Can't tell for sure. So I rely on photos from pros with permission, friends who can use a camera, and an occasional shot I lucked out with. My friends at MINAE, Costa Rica's Ministry for Energy and the Environment, have supplied me with some priceless photos. When they encounter wildlife of interest, endangered or not, they photograph it and log its location. And give me a copy. Bless em.
Normally I wouldn't post my reference photo and my finished painting, but occasionally, I think it might be interesting. This photo was taken of a lone egret sunning himself on the banks of the Sarapiqui River. By no means endangered, the egret, with its snowy white feathers, often provides quite a striking visual display. I loved the image and composition, and, to me, it represents the best of rainforest nature...a haunting serenity, uncomplicated and unafflicted by human presence.
This is in acrylic on a 16 x 24 canvas, and is available for sale.