First published by the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, January 2, 1977
POSTMARK: Costa Rica
By COLLEEN McGUIRE And TOM McGUIRE
Cahuita, Costa Rica, is a savagely beautiful and still obscure paradise 30 miles north of the Panama border on the lush green shores of the Caribbean Sea. Even the’ name of the little village (pronounced Cah-wee-tah) rivals Tahiti in evoking images of tropical splendor.
To arrive at secluded Cahuita we first had to pass through the principal east coast port of Puerto Limon. This is the site where Columbus landed on his fourth and final voyage to the New World. Forty kilometers south on a partially paved road that parallels the sea lies Cahuita. We pass infinite rows of banana trees. A large majority of the banana plantations in the Limon area are owned by the infamous Robert Vesco of Watergate notoriety who is presently in political exile in Costa Rica.
The tropical countryside is so glorious that upon entering Cahuita we were clapping and singing, much to the amusement of the Tico truck driver who picked us up in Limon. Tico refers to Costa Ricans in the same sense that Hoosier designates Indiana residents.
The truck pulled to a halt on Cahuita’s main dirt street and deposited us in front of the town’s only bar. It was mid-afternoon and, judging from the size of the crowd hanging about, these folks don’t, seem to take their work as seriously as do Americans.
Four ethnic groups comprise Cahuita’s estimated population of 1,000 – a handful of Chinese, young homesteading Americans who have purchased cheap land, Latins and the Carib blacks. It is the blacks, whose ancestors were brought in from the West Indies to build the railroads, who are dominant.
The blacks of Cahuita are by far the most colorful and mercurial faction of the population and are almost a direct reflection of the black culture of deep, rural Georgia.
This striking resemblance is apparent in the slow pace of life due to two forces – the intense heat and a mode of existence that is infinitely removed from the hustle-bustle of a sophisticated technological world.
We encountered Roy “Pepe” Carter (no relation to Jimmy!) sitting at the bar selling his lottery numbers. He’s the local bookie and the owner of a ten-room dwelling which he leases out to backpackers looking for cheap accommodations. We accompanied him to his place, walking at our normal pace. As Pene tries to keep up with us, he cries, “Hey mon, slow down. You ain’t in the city no more.”
the blacks’ native elocution is delightful. Instead of a conventional “hello” which implies very littie, they substitute “OK” or “Alright.” Their vocal inflection indicates that we actually are OK and alright in their eyes.
Another frequent colloquialism is “pura vida.” It is generally used in the same instances when Americans use the expression “right on” – that is to denote enthusiastic support of an idea or feeling. Pura vida translates as “pure life” and you know they really believe it when they sing out the phrase accompanied by a vigoous shake of a clenched fist.
The blacks, as opposed to Cahuita’s other ethnic groups, are trilingual. Most of them speak English, Spanish and Carib, although not in that order of proficiency. Even amongst themselves they tend to jump from one language to the next, making it difficult to discern which exactly is their mother tongue. When we asked Winston, the town sheriff, which language he knew best, he replied in a mixture of English and Spanish that he was unsure.
The merchants of Cahuita seem unconcerned about whether they get your business. You never know when a store will be open and, even if the store is open you can expect to wait indefinitely for someone to “jump” to your service although you’re the only customer in the store.
Normally in America when you go to a restaurant you’re expected to order something. Often you’re asked to leave if you don’t. Here it is the opposite; loitering does not have a negative connotation. Perhaps this explains why one’s presence in a restaurant often goes unacknowledged.
Instead of patronizing Cahuita’s three restaurants, we got a better deal and better service by dining at “Mizz” Rachel’s. Mizz Rachel is an old, black woman who serves meals to tourists in the casual atmosphere of her home. By making informal reservations with her that morning you can expect the most decent meal in Cahuita that evening. For the price of one meal, she heaps double portions of everything on your plate.
Somehow she has the culinary skill for enhancing the simplest dish of beans and rice. Her specialty is yam soup. We asked her for the recipe and she eagerly recited the ingredients. But contrary to Betty Crocker style, Mizz Rachel is vague when it comes to explaining how to combine them into soup. “I jes put um together,” she smiles.
After dinner we walked uptown to check out the action of Cahuita on a typical evening. The favorite pastime, besides drinking beer, is playing dominoes. It’s fascinating to watch a group of four or five blacks engage in a spirited contest of dominoes. They are not passive contestants, instead playing with the aggressiveness of cutthroat gangsters playing poker. There is a smooth rhythm in their style which captivates our attention. Each turn is executed by slamming the decisive domino onto the wooden tabletop. The loud clack and the exuberant chatter of the players is heard all up and down main street.
Cahuita has all the magical charm and rustic beauty of the most mythical tropical paradise. Highlighting the setting are two sprawling beaches. The black one is studded with roots of trees jutting out of the sandy terrain like the polished antlers of some aquatic elk.
The other has glistening white sand and tranquil blue waters of many shades. The contours of its densely palm-fringed shores arc for a mile to a distant coral reef where a sunken Spanish Galleon lies dating back to the 16th Century. Scuba gear and an adventurous spirit are needed for first-hand exploration.
The refreshing aspect of these gorgeous beaches is that they are still totally devoid of the hotel chains that spoil the beauty of other already developed beaches. Thus, we consider ourselves fortunate to have visited Cahuita before the impending onslaught of tourism. Recently a bank and a post office have augmented the community’s civic growth. These establishments are sure indicators of a sleepy tropical hamlet destined to evolve into a potential “hot spot” resort.
The new bank seems incongruous in Cahuita. The banker, a Latin, reflects the city’s image. He is efficient and meticulous in his work. His official manner – performing calculations on the adding machine or acting very business-like while counting insignificant sums of money is a parody. He thinks he’s a teller at Chase Manhattan instead of a mere clerk in Cahuita, Costa Rica. But still, he represents change and progress.
Another subtle indication of change and progress is the installation of electricity at Pepe’s. For years the only source of light was candles. However, the day we left, the electric company from Puerto Limon came to install electricity. Within two years Pepe intends to add a restaurant to his place.
Cahuita’s mystique lies in its virgin land and dynamic people. Its appeal is best expressed by our black friend Opie’s classic one-liner: “I came to Cahuita for a day and I’ve been here ten years.