The stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naive forgive and forget; the wise forgive but do not forget. -- Thomas Szasz -- born April 15, 1920, is a psychiatrist and academic. Since 1990, he has been Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at the State University of New York Health Science Center in Syracuse, New York.
Did I ever tell you about my first night in Costa Rica? No? Yes? Well, if I did, too bad. I’m going to tell you again. And, if I didn’t, sit back, fill up your beer glass, or grab another from the ice chest……..
March, 1999…….Fern, the bro-in-law, had been talking about Costa Rica for some time, and over the Christmas holidays, in 1998, he invited me to make my first trip with him. So, we planned it out. It was set for sometime in March, of 1999. I flew from El Paso, where we were living at the time, to Dallas, where he lived. The next day, bright and early, we got a ride from a friend to DFW. When we got there, I realized that I had forgotten my birth certificate, and the airline refused to let me on the plane without it. This was TACA Air, by the way. So, I had to go back to Fern’s and get on the phone to El Paso, while he flew off to CR.
I called El Paso, and arranged for our daughter, Blanca (better known as Ikis), to send me my birth certificate. I think she came up with the idea, but what she did was this: she drove to the El Paso airport, and walked up to the Southwest Airlines counter, with my birth certificate in an envelope. The counter staff accepted it, along with a fee of only $30.00, and it was given over to the flight crew on the next flight out to Dallas. I went to Love Field, in Dallas, that afternoon, and picked it up. The same friend that had taken us to DFW that morning agreed to take me back there again the next morning. Fern called from Costa Rica that evening, to tell me to just get on the plane in the morning, and he would arrange for someone, like a taxi driver, to meet my plane the next evening. One thing I have never figured out is how this worked: the flights out of DFW left there very early in the morning, went through Guatemala City, and did not arrive in San Jose until around 8:30 or 9:30 at night. No long layover in Guatemala, or anything like that sticks out in my memory.
Oh, well, back to the story………
I did arrive in San Jose, after one of the best flights I think I have ever experienced. You see, TACA, and I’ve been told, other Latin American airlines, provide more in the way of service than we Americans have become accustomed to seeing. The drinks are served from a cart that contains real bottles of a wide variety of liquors. When you ask for a drink, they pour you a real drink! No limit. No charge. Of course, that was then. I think that as recently as February of this year, my brother told me that he experienced similar service on Copa Air, from Washington, D.C., to San Jose, via Panama City.
Upon arrival in San Jose, after clearing customs, and making my way out to the arrivals area, I began searching for someone with a placard with my name. After a bit of delay, I did indeed discover someone who actually had such a placard, and he even had my name spelled correctly. This individual introduced himself as Walter (pronounced Wall-tair, with the emphasis on the first syllable), and I gladly went with him to his taxi. This turned out to be a real, honest to God Datsun. No, not a Nissan, but a Datsun, about 1974, four doors, tiny motor, complete with old school 40-4 air conditioning system (This car may have originally had 55-4, but by that point in time, it couldn’t possibly go more than forty miles an hour, with all four windows open). The car was literally held together with spit, paper clips, bailing wire, duct tape, and a lot of prayer. Well, Wal-tair started talking very quickly, Tico style, and bombarded me with questions, the first of which was, “What part of Mexico are you from?” I was, of course, totally disarmed, and said the first thing that popped into my mind, “Chihuahua.” After a short while, his questions eased some, and we proceeded on our way towards the metropolis of San Jose. At that time, San Jose had a population of around a quarter million people.
(this is just a representation of Wal-tair's taxi. This is much cleaner, and more complete in appearance than was his)
Wal-tair took me along the main highway (not a freeway, ‘cause they charge – to this day – a toll, and ‘cause it is not a divided highway, especially when it comes to any bridges; the bridges were, and still are, only two lane, so each major bridge is a bottle neck) towards San Jose. He abruptly left the highway after about eight – ten miles, and pulled into a Best Western Motel/Hotel. This was – and remains to this day – the Best Western Irazu, truly a mainstay of Costa Rican tourism, having been in this location since at least the 70’s. Wal-tair left me off out front, and I carried my bag (traveling at Fern’s suggestion, lightly, with only a back pack, and a rolling carry on size suitcase) inside. At the front desk they did indeed have a reservation in my name, and I checked in. I went upstairs to my room, took a shower, and climbed into bed. I think it was shortly before ten in the evening.
Before I could drift off to sleep, the phone beside my bed rang. On the other end, what to my surprise, was, not Santa Claus, but Fern, who said, “Get your ass down here!” “Where is here?” says I. “Down stairs. In the bar!”
So, up I get. I got dressed, and headed on downstairs. The bar at that motel, at that time, was located kind of central to the lobby area, and off to the side. When I arrived, the first thing I saw on the bar, lined up in front of an empty stool, were about six beers, basically one of each brand available in Costa Rica at that time. Fern was next to the empty stool, of course, and he was not alone. Next to him was a Tico (my first Tico, if you don’t count Wal-tair)! Said Tico was introduced as Lucas, who has since become one of our great Tico friends. Fern says, “Those beers are for you. You might as well learn what’s what as far as beer goes here in Costa Rica.”
Well, while getting to know Lucas (surprisingly, my Mexican Spanish did then, and still does, serve me well in communicating with Ticos), we began to drink in earnest, especially when Fern spotted a bottle of Tequila on the back bar, and immediately demanded shots be poured. So, things moved along pretty quickly, until a lady in her late 30’s walked in accompanied by her teen-age daughter. It turned out that Lucas – as improbable as it now seems – knew this lady, so she and her daughter were invited to join our little party. And, we were five.
Group dynamics are a funny thing, you know. It wasn’t long before we had ourselves a little comedy of errors working, as Fern started looking at the young lady (the teen) with interest, and her mother started looking at Fern with interest. Lucas and I just continued to drink. It wasn’t long before Fern announced that he wanted to hear Mariachis. Somebody said that there were places in San Jose that had live Mariachis, so out front we go, looking for a taxi. As luck would have it, right outside the front doors was none other than my good friend, Wal-tair, with his Datsun. So, the five of us piled in, and off we headed, for downtown.
Conveniently, Wal-tair said he knew just the place, and drove us right downtown, not too far from a big Cathedral (it must have been a Cathedral, ‘cause it was so big), to a place called Garibaldi’s. Now, if you’ve never been to Costa Rica, you are not aware that most businesses that serve the public rarely have four complete walls, but are as open to the air as circumstances allow. This one, therefore, was completely open to the street, with some sort of railing across the front, and an opening in the middle of the railing. So, we made our way towards this opening, where there was a host, and at least one bouncer type standing. They smiled graciously, and welcomed us, one at a time, to their establishment. That is until they came to the last person in our party of five, the lady (mother of that teen ager). “Oh, no!” they said. “You may not come in.”
It turned out that she had been there just a few days or weeks before, and had caused a scene when some men had hit on her daughter, and they had therefore banned her from the premises, evidently for life. So, what were we to do? Personally, I didn’t care about the lady, or her daughter, because I was ready for the Mariachis, and I already had a beer in front of me, by this time. When I noticed that things were stalled, back at the entrance, I decided to mosey on back over there. A hasty conference was then held, just outside the entrance, and we looked around for inspiration, as Fern said things like, “I just want to hear some Mariachis.” Meanwhile, since we had joined up back at the motel, those group dynamics had led to this: Fern was circling girl, mother was circling Fern, and nobody was getting anywhere. But, that circling thing pretty much came to a screeching halt, with the news that mommy had caused a big scene.
As we stood there, talking, various musicians began to come up to us. They would say things like, “Why don’t you come with us? We’re Mariachis, and we’ll play for you.” Fern would look at them, and ask them how many in their group. We got different responses, 2, 3, 4, etc.
Finally, a man dressed like a real Mariachi, came up to Fern, and said, “Señor, vengen ustedes con nosotros. Somos El Mariachi Vera Cruz (or, Zacatecas, or Guadalajara, or some place in Mexico; I don’t really remember).” Fern asked him the magic question (how many in your group?), and got the best number yet: 7! “OK, vamanos, muchachos.” We followed the Mariachi (OUR Mariachi) out to the curb, where the rest of his group was already assembling. They said to follow them, and they would even give us a ride. We walked a short distance along the street to a by-gawd 1961 Ford Econoline van, painted a kind of a sickly institutional green. We stopped, and collectively did a double take. Immediately, Fern said, “You guys are not the Mariachi Vera whatever! You’re the Scooby Doo Mariachis, ‘cause your van looks just like the Mystery Machine!”
No photos exist to show our particular Mystery Machine's finer attributes, but this is close to what it looked like, other than the paint job could well have been done with a brush (a big brush).
So, they became El Mariachi Scooby Doo, and off we went, now twelve of us. At the time, it seemed like we drove some distance, but let’s not forget I had already had some shots, and I don’t know how many beers. At any rate, we eventually stopped near an intersection, and they said, “This is it.” We followed them (actually, they stood to one side, and waved us on ahead, into the doors of a corner establishment).
I don’t remember the name of the place, and I know I could never find it again. All I know is that it was a corner location, with the front doors located right in the corner, so as to catch traffic, from two directions. I stepped inside, and thought I’d just stepped back in time, and across the Atlantic Ocean, in that one step. I swear I was looking at a Bistro in Paris, and it was 1920 something. Hemingway, or one of those American Ex-pats was going to walk in any second. Besides a table or two of misplaced Americans, the place should have been peopled with local (as in, Parisienne) characters, with thin European mustaches, perhaps here and there, a kerchief around an unwashed neck. The air should have been filled with cigarette smoke, arising from off-white, unfiltered cigarettes, with long, long ashes, the cigarettes themselves languidly drooping from the mouths of locals and expats, alike.
Way in the back, mostly to the left, as you entered the doors, was the bar. The bar itself, and the back bar, other than the standard issue over-abundance of mirrors, was shiny zinc. The tables, scattered about the large room, had those little spindly legs, you know the kind, the ones that have those little dinky chairs that you just know can’t possibly support my weight, if I was able to actually fit my big, fat ass on one of them. Table cloths, a bit less than clean, sort of a dirty white, of course, covered the tables.
But, instead of any of the characters that had adorned those books I used to read about Europe after the Great War, and before WWII, the place was inhabited only by one couple at a table along the left (the street) wall, being serenaded by a trio of local musicians, and two or three young people, apparently gringos, back to the far right of the bar, at a table by the back wall. To further spoil the effect that my imagination had created, the waiters and the bartender didn’t sport any of those sexy (in their time, and in their place) pencil-thin mustaches that my imagination required. Instead, they had those great big Latin bigotes*, and they were short, swarthy, smiling Ticos.
We staked out a couple of tables together, near the front of the establishment, and then, looking around, Fern spotted the capper (for him, at least). Way up in the corner of the back bar, to the left, rested not one, but two bottles of Mexico’s most famous export, our old friend, Jose Cuervo, or maybe it was another brand. Either way, that is stuff that I should never touch, and I really think that idea should apply to most of us, since most Tequila drunks in my memory are clouded by mostly silly people doing pretty silly things. At any rate, the mere presence of those two bottles helped Fern reach an immediate decision, and he quickly yelled out for those two bottles to be brought to our tables, along with salt, lemon, and shot glasses.
As the Scooby Doo Mariachis began to unpack their instruments, there broke out a discussion, almost an argument. It seems that the trio of local musicians felt that the place belonged to them, and they resented the intrusion of our seven as yet unheard Chente* wannabes. After much intense debate, a compromise was worked out, no doubt assisted and lubricated, so to speak, by ample portions of Tequila shared by all. It was happily announced that the trio would play a piece for their customers, the couple over by the wall, and then, our guys would play one for us. We figured this wasn’t a bad deal at all, since we got – in a sense – two songs for the price of one.
So, things proceeded from there, all the way to the bottoms of those two bottles, helped along by liberal doses of local brew. Eventually, at some hour of the late night, or more likely, the early morning, we realized that we were getting just a bit peckish. Now, this would not be a problem if we were back in Texas, or better yet, in Northern Mexico. We’d just head off to the nearest Hamburger Inn/Happy Burger/Good Luck Café*, or any other establishment that might offer us some life-saving menudo*, with all the fixins’. But, alas, Ticos don’t know from menudo. We naturally bemoaned this fact, and discussed it with all still present. I believe that the lady and her daughter had by this time slipped off into the darkness, but my memory is just a bit clouded by ….uh, er…….time! yeah, that’s the ticket! Time! (All right, I had a lot to drink, and I simply have no recollection, your honor).
Well, it turned out that our Scoobys had a place in mind. So, we all piled back into the Mystery Machine, and they drove some more, until we stopped at a local eatery. I have no recollection of what we ate, but I know we did eat something, the musicians happily joining us. They hastily finished whatever it was that they ate, and picked up their instruments, and played us some more music, while we finished our meal. Then, they offered to take us all the way back to our motel, and this offer we gladly accepted. They hauled us all the way back to the Best Western Irazu, a not inconsiderable distance. Upon arrival there, we could not just head for bed, since there were three of us, so we asked for another bed to be placed in my room, and only then were we able to crash.
Somehow, we managed to get up by about ten the next morning, and after a hearty breakfast, we headed off to Arenal, the area where I now live. After a welcome night like that one, how could I not end up living in Costa Rica?
*bigotes – Spanish for mustaches
*Chente – a clever reference to Vicente “Chente” Fernandez, perhaps the very best Mariachi singer of all time, and loved all over Latin America.
*Hamburger Inn/Happy Burger/Good Luck Café – an inside joke, sort of; these are all sources of pretty damn good menudo in El Paso (“El Chuco”), Texas, where we lived for so many years.
*menudo – probably Mexico’s greatest single achievement, and a true gastronomical delight for the discerning palate. The world’s only bona fide, guaranteed, honest-to-God for real hangover preventive. The breakfast of champions. Menudo is a sort of soup made by first washing, scrubbing, cleaning, and almost disinfecting beef tripe (the actual stomach of a cow). This is then cut up into small, bite-size pieces, and put into a huge pot, with huge amounts of garlic, and salt, and lots and lots of water. Proper menudo should then be simmered for many hours, preferably overnight, which would be at least eight hours. Then, New Mexico Red chile, which has been boiled, nearly to a pulp, is run through a colander, so as to achieve a thick, viscous red sauce, that should be added to the now soft, but rather unappetizing (in appearance) pieces of tripe. Next, a large can of hominy, or, preferably, two packages of frozen hominy should be poured into that same large pot. This is all brought back to the boil, and then left at a simmer for as long as it takes to either feed all comers, or it runs out, whichever comes first. It is best if served with finely chopped onion, dried oregano, and lime (to be squeezed to taste into the individual’s bowl), all of which serve as garnishes. On the side is either sliced francesitos, or better yet, toasted halves of francesitos (francesitos are little bread rolls, made by hand in northern Mexico, and along the border. They are called francesitos because they resemble little loaves of French bread. Other places substitute bolillos, or other little pieces of bread, but nothing beats toasted francesitos. Some places make you go without or offer you a corn tortilla, but menudo is not the same without this bread).
Editor's Note: I composed this piece in Microsoft Word, and was able to create what I still call foot notes, but Word says are really endnotes for my clever little references. However, once pasted into the html composer on the blog's web site, those footnotes went away. So, I have had to settle for using asterisks instead. Sorry for that.