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Losing my Self-consciousness

Shambling through paradise headerRecently, I had a dream where everything I had ever done in front of a mirror was broadcast for the world to see. In my dream, I was not embarrassed—I was actually promoting the broadcast to friends, saying things like, “Yes I really was flexible enough to do that to myself at one time in my life” and, “I really do use a Gillette razor to cut my nose hairs.”

There was a time in my life where this dream would have been mortifying—one of those dreams you awaken from with a sigh of relief. Yet here I was in my dream, boasting of my strange and occasionally bizarre actions. I give Costa Rica a lot of credit for my change in consciousness. Or maybe better said—my change from being overly self-conscious, which I was in my younger days.

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Not as I do

shambling through paradiseSome people have noticed that when it comes to talking about daily life in Costa Rica, I am not nearly the sardonic, sarcastic, overbearing, know-it-all, gringo wiseass I once was. Part of it is age—once I hit the second half century club, with over half my life now in the books, I began gravitating more toward thoughts and activities that make me feel good, and avoiding topics that make the choler rise inside.

But there is another reason. For the past few years, I have been in the business of selling Costa Rica. I bring people to Costa Rica, and like thousands of others here, I make a living doing so. Tourism is the golden egg, and Costa Rica has adapted to this reality nicely. When I first came here almost 30 years ago, tourism was not what it is now. Coffee and bananas were bigger money makers for the country. Sometime in the mid-1990s, this dynamic changed, and the natural beauty of the country itself became the meal ticket. The bandwagon is big, and I jumped on some years ago and never looked back.
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Quelling My Inner Fascist

shambling through paradiseWalking the streets of Quepos on a hot and hectic Friday afternoon, two voices fight for space in my head. One is the voice whose philosophy is simply ‘Live and let live’. It is the voice that brought me here almost twenty years ago, the voice of tolerance and tranquility, a voice best personified by a man lounging in a hammock, eyes slightly glazed after a short smoke and a long drink, beatific smile painting his face as he stares out at a panoramic Costa Rican vista.

The other voice demands attention every time I see someone double parked blocking traffic, or aggressively and arrogantly turning a one way street into a two way street, or most definitely when I see that emaciated little guy wearing the second hand traffic cop vest in the street in front of the bus station and the Super Mas supermarket, blowing his whistle and acting like he is directing traffic, unhindered by the local police. This other voice is not charitable or tolerant or even remotely me, yet it occasionally boils up unexpectedly, like Volcan Turrialba, emitting gas and noxious smoke, and almost but not quite erupting and sending the passersby running for cover.

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A Few Hours in the Life

shambling through paradiseI finished work, had a short smoke, and went straight to the beach. It was late afternoon, the tide was out, the rain had stopped, the waves were steady, but not of the monstrous tourist-killing variety. I am an avid body surfer, or as I like to joke with my surfer friends, a surfer without a flotation device.  I was in the water for close to an hour, rode some waves, breast-stroked in a meter of water, dove and flopped and stroked and floated—the ocean is better than any gymnasium once you learn to move with the waves.

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The Tourism that Dares not Speak its Name

shambling through paradiseI was seated in the bar of a downtown San Jose hotel, waiting for friends to arrive. An attractive young woman took the seat next to me. We exchanged holas. Then she told me that I reminded of her of that ‘galan’ in Hollywood, “como se llama?” I looked at myself in the bar mirror—with my recent haircut and beard trim, and the gray in my beard offset by my still dark head of hair, I ventured: “George Clooney?”

“Si, si,” she said. “Yorzh Cloney!” Then she offered to have sex with me for 100 dollars.

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I Need a New Signature

shambling through paradiseAnyone who has lived here long enough remembers the old days of going to the bank. There were no numbers to take, and few chairs in which to sit. Everyone stood patiently in line because the ability to stand patiently in line was in the DNA of most all Ticos. I have heard that the original Himno Nacional of Costa Rica even included a line that went ‘’esperando en fila con la paciencia de un santo’’ (waiting in line with the patience of a saint), before it was edited out for the sake of brevity.

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Saint Clownfoot

shambling through paradiseRight now, as you read this, someone in Costa Rica—most likely a foreign man—is walking down a street in agony. This man has just bought a pair of shoes from a local zapateria, and the agony is because they convinced him that all would be bueno if he bought the size 44 shoe for his size 46 feet. This man, exhausted after having visited a few dozen shoe stores, finally relented and forced his foot into a shoe meant for a man with slightly smaller feet. Every step produces a wince and the beginnings of a ripe and bloody blister.

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Patient 25

shambling through paradiseI was getting this occasional pain in my solar plexus, usually after eating. It was a sharp and constant pain, and the most comfortable position during these episodes was standing. I would check my pulse, which was always a steady 60 or so beats a minute. I would google cancers of the stomach, colon, pancreas and liver and read over and over the symptoms, and reassure myself that I had none of the above, while my midsection felt like someone was applying  pressure with something hard and pointed. Usually the pain receded within a few hours. One day the pain came and would not go away.

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Welcome Invierno

By Matt Casseday

I was walking down the street at mid-day. It was late in the dry summer season, and the sun was right overhead, blazing hot, ready to fry the skin of anyone who lingered in the glow for too long. It was heat that could wound as easily as heal. The afternoon before I had gone to the playa, walking at full stride through the sun-baked sand, bouncing and grimacing like some beach loony, making little noises of pain until I reached the shoreline and immersed myself in the sea. Twenty-four hours later the bottoms of my feet still tingled. This flaring sun could do the same thing to your face or back or shoulders in the time it took to eat lunch. Pedestrians sought whatever puny shade they could find in the center of town. Indoors, people hunkered down near ceiling fans or hid out in air conditioned offices. Life went on under the sun in a distorted, hazy, slow motion dance. Days and days of unabated heat could make one crazy, or at least desperate for a change in the weather. 

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As Politically Correct As He Wants To Be

By Matt Casseday

A friend of mine who shall remain nameless collared me in a downtown Quepos bar the other day. “Have you heard about the new law?” he asked. 

I admitted I hadn’t. 

“The Costa Rican congress is about to pass a law making smoking in bars—and any public places, illegal.” 

My friend smokes a couple packs a day of a cigarette called Delta. I have sampled Delta cigarettes a few times over the years and am of the opinion that the name of this cigarette should be “Nicotine Bomb”, so briefly head-spinning is the rush from inhaling one. My friend lit one up and shook his head in disgust. “Its going to be just as bad as in the United States,” he said. “Once that law is passed they’ll probably have the health department making surprise enforcement visits. Busts left and right. Every bar in downtown Quepos will have “clausurado” stickers plastered on the doors and windows.” 

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My Salute to El Diario Extra

By Matt Casseday

When I was in college I had a friend who was getting a PhD in Literature. His opinion of my choice of reading material was typically summed up as, “While you spend time reading THAT, another classic sits unread”. I think my usual response was, ‘Yeah, I can dig it’; I had read some classics but left thousands unread, while perusing 20th century bombast. And I am still guilty of leaving classics unread. The other day, I started The First Circle by Solzhenitsyn, a highly praised  post-World War II Russian novel. I struggled into chapter two, put it down and picked up Murder Machine, a long ghastly true account of a 1970s Brooklyn Mafia gang that killed and dismembered dozens. This was 450 pages of sensationalism, death, sex, gore, betrayal– the Mafia food chain in action, 15 years of slaughter leading up to the ascension of John Gotti as Capo di Capos. I devoured Murder Machine while another classic sat unread. This book had all the graphic shock value the modern reader could ask for; even the cover had the words Murder Machine in blood red capital letters.

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My Evil Twin Tomás

By Matt Casseday

My given name is Matthew, but for better than 20 years I have also been known as Mateo, the Spanish equivalent of Matthew. In my early years here, like many wishing to reinvent themselves in one way or another, I sought to be called only by my new Spanish name. I became Mateo—to my wife, kids, friends and acquaintances of all nationalities. Over time, I have introduced myself as ‘Mateo’ to countless people. Most remember my name, but for some unexplainable reason, there are a number of Costa Ricans who upon seeing me a second time, call me ‘Tomás’. It is not as if this has happened one or two times—indeed, it occurs with such startling frequency, that it makes me wonder why I am never misremembered as ‘Marco’ or ‘Miguel’, or another name that begins at least with the same letter as mine.

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La Pobrecita

By Matt Casseday

We live in a sort of throwback time here. Things taken for granted in the “developed” world–uninterrupted electricity, watching your favorite team play online, well-lit thoroughfares, mandatory high school education—are still considered a luxury—at least to those living in rural Costa Rica. Recently I was driving from Dominical to Quepos, on the “new “ road, the paved road, remembering how absolutely giddy I felt the first time I drove the new 40 kmstretch, grinning nonstop now that the bone-jarring 2 hour travail had been transformed into a 25 minute breeze. As was my custom when the road was bad,  I stopped for a break at the Savegre River bridge. There is a space with a ledge, right as you turn in toward the mountains, and it is a good place to sit, maybe have a long drink and a short smoke, and watch the river. At that spot, the Rio Savegre is bottoming out from its long savage run down the mountain. In the late afternoon grayness that followed the day’s rains I saw that the river, even here, was swollen and rushing and mud brown, carrying branches and small pieces of zinc and wood. Something had been destroyed upriver, possibly somebody’s rancho, another lean-to built too close to the riverbank.

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Road Tranquility

By Matt Casseday

A few years ago, I was on the receiving end of the only “road rage” incident I have experienced in over 20 years in Costa Rica. It was near the airport, at night, at a stoplight on the multi-lane highway from Alajuela. I had unknowingly moved in front of another car while coming to a stop at the red light,  concerned with positioning myself for the upcoming airport exit. While awaiting the green light, the driver began flashing his high beams and blowing his horn. When the light turned green, he blew around me, cut dangerously in front of me and braked. When I attempted to pass he sped up and when I returned behind him he slowed down again. Obviously whatever I had done while approaching the previous stoplight had angered him enough to risk an accident while he worked out his anger toward my benign driving error. (He was actually very lucky, as I was driving a sleek, compact rental car, on the way to pick up my teenage son and daughter at the airport. Had I been driving my Trooper or Pathfinder—whichever aged and battered model I owned at that time—I might have just rammed into him when he cut in front of me and slowed abruptly).

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Juan Santamaría Must Be Rolling Over in His Grave

By Matt Casseday

Every April 11th, Costa Rica celebrates Juan Santamaría day. On that date in 1855, young Juan helped defend Costa Rica’s northern border against the forces led by the American mercenary William Walker, whose goal was to annex Central America for the ignoble purpose of the slave trade. The image of the humble young campesino, torch in hand, giving his life to ensure that Costa Rica was not tarnished by any kind of occupying force is in the heart and mind of every kid who grows up here; so great is the remembrance of his deed that the country’s largest airport is named for him, and a large statue of him greets every arriving visitor.

Flash forward 156 years to a little piece of land called Isla Calero. Part of Costa Rica, the isla has been technically occupied by Nicaragua for the past few months, while they allegedly work to improve the navegability of the San Juan River, which flows between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, but is considered part of Nicaragua.

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