The International Writers Magazine: Travel

Montezuma’s merry men
Mariska van der Linden

he three-inch cockroach lurking under my mattress made the bile rise from my stomach. Costa Rica is famed for its progressive approach to wildlife conservation so I wasn’t surprised to find some of the local fauna in my room. But the super-size bug wasn’t exactly what I had been hoping for.

A jovial hostel manager in the capital San Jose had recommended Montezuma. I had wanted to get on the road less well travelled in Costa Rica in a bid to avoid the hordes of American ‘spring-breakers’. Their impressive consumption of Imperial, the local beer, resulted in decibel levels too overpowering for my eardrums.
I arrived in the only street of Montezuma on a hot and sweaty afternoon in March. After a spine-crunching bus-ride, the lime green jungle and electric sun, reflected by a laughing sea, stunned my eyes. “Eve returns to Eden” I thought.

The damp air was filled with fecund fragrances, reminding me simultaneously of a tropical fruit smoothie and a compost heap smothered by the summer heat. I feared for a moment that a warm, humid and fertile mother earth would soon engulf the few wooden huts. Montezuma seemed to be falling of the map. I found a $10 a night room in a hostel by the beach, recommended by Brad, my new California beach babe buddy. Along with his Rasta girlfriend, Brad was one of several travellers who had settled semi-permanently in Montezuma to smoke quality soft drugs in a surreal setting.

Brad liked to share this past time with the three Italians running my hostel.  The Italians took a thoroughly laid back approach to life in the tropics – one of them turned my white laundry a fetching shade of blue, and gave it back to me without blinking an eye.

I decided to celebrate my fatal, albeit slimy, victory over the super-roach and headed to the Montezuma’s local beach hangout. Several rum cocktails I felt myself easing back and drifting into happy oblivion.
But all was not peace and tranquillity. Beneath the happy hippie facade of this one-street village, lay a simmering malcontent.

Jose, the local drunk, had just woken up and seemed hell-bent on disrupting my post-dinner peace. Sleeping off his hangovers by day, Jose, dark eyes alight with the need for cheap rum, would awake at dusk to haunt the tiny neighbourhood.

His rich family from further up the coast had found a straightforward solution to dealing with his less than sociable habits: dump him in Montezuma and give him a monthly allowance big enough to ensure he drinks himself unconscious every night. Swearing at anything that moved, Jose stumbled around Montezuma. The local population moodily yelled abuse at him.

It was some time before I realised that the chatty hostel owners provided limited conversation. Prolonged recreational drug use, and a lack of entertainment, seemed the main reasons for the Italians’ prattle.
Speculation on their guests’ sex-lives, and what food would best re-fuel them, constituted the main threads of discussion. Unfortunately the menu didn’t provide much food for thought either, pasta and broccoli being the all-time favourite.

To escape the gossiping Italians and their over-boiled broccoli, I slipped away to the beach. It was there that I met one of the local Costa Ricans, or ‘Ticos’. Mauricio’s shining shoes were the first thing that caught my eye. They were polished threadbare. The soles were worn down to a slither. I was struck by his hushed eloquence as we exchanged polite pleasantries.

Once settled down comfortably, Mauricio launched into a downcast cathartic rant that grew increasingly vocal. Settled tourists had driven up prices and left no jobs for the villagers. Mauricio’s family struggled to get by doing the odd job here and there. But there were still the elements to contend with – his house was almost washed away by a flood the year before.

I remained silent as that familiar feeling crept over me, the one that tourists often experience when they connect, however briefly, with a stranger. I felt privileged to have had an insight into a life far removed from mine. But at the same time, I felt reluctantly guilty as I thought of my boring desk job and monthly pay-check.
As I caught my bus back to San Jose, I wiped the dry-season dust from the window to have a last look at Montezuma. I reflected on the people I’d met and I realised that they were more than just colourful characters to tell my friends about in the pub.

Back in London, the homeless guy I see every day in the tube station is perhaps not that different from Jose. My colleagues who get high at the weekend would surely get along well with Brad and the Italian hostel owners.
And maybe Mauricio’s frustration was not unfamiliar to that of the people living in the council estate down the road.

So what did I gain from going off the beaten track? Maybe just a growing awareness that without the exotic backdrop and holiday mindset, I’m less inclined to get to know the same strangers back home. What I got after flying halfway around the world was not just a glorious tan, but a greater understanding of the almost invisible people in my daily life.

© Mariska van der Linden October 2006

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