October 5, 2008
We are saved by Skittles
Selva Bananito, Costa Rica
The second bathroom was in Salon Delia, a tiny bar in Bananito Town where we waited for our transport to Selva Bananito Lodge. The bathroom smelled like a portable toilet, and had no sink. Just outside the door, cases of beer were stacked, unsupervised, from the cement floor to the ceiling.
“Never’d last the night in a New York bar,” I muttered to myself as I walked back to Jeffrey and the tour guide. But the beer wasn’t in much danger here – the only guests other than us were three men at the bar, more interested in the soccer game playing on TV than in drinking. The slot machine in the corner was unplugged, dusty, and all the tables – simple wooden squares – were pushed to the walls, leaving most the cement floor free. There was no glass in the windows to block the occasional breeze from ruffling the faded, threadbare curtains. Nascent raindrops weighted the balmy air.
I sipped a Coke and tried to keep my eyes from slipping closed. I had tried to nap on the four-hour drive from San Jose to the Caribbean coast, but every time I had finally fallen asleep, Jeffrey would knock his knee into mine and wake me up. To mix it up, sometimes he’d jab his elbow into my ribs.
“What?” he’d ask innocently each time I glared at him. “Bumpy road.”
We’d passed something important on that drive. Biggest natural reserve in Costa Rica, maybe? The guide had pointed it out, but I couldn’t remember what he’d said. Top ratings like that would interest my dad – makes the stories sound more impressive when they’re retold, I suppose – but not me. Plants are plants and bananas are bananas and no matter how gorgeous, they are no match for the rumbling lullaby of a warm, rocking van.
During one of my more lucid moments, the guide had pointed out the window to a plant with round leaves maybe 2 feet across. “We call those ‘Poor man’s umbrella,’” he said. I would keep my eyes open for the rest of the trip, but though we passed many poor people, I never saw a single one using one of those leaves in such a manner. Somewhat of a disappointment.
“Gooooooaaaaaallllllll,” Jeffrey whispered in mock enthusiasm, bringing me back to the bar. The three men and bartender were high–fiving each other.
“Who’s winning?” I asked.
“Red. I think.” Jeffrey liked sports even less than I did.
The arrival of our ride, a red four-wheeler steered by a man in a Yankees cap similar to my own, saved us from having to watch any more of the game.
“You’ll be taking this car,” our guide told us. “You need to cross a river to get to the lodge, and our van can’t do it.”
Jeffrey handed the rest of our small cash to the tour guide, driver and the guy that sat in the front seat chatting the whole time. (We weren’t sure what his position was, exactly, but didn’t want him to feel left out.)
“Really?” the driver asked with raised eyebrows, looking surprised that we had given him anything at all. Jeffrey and I glanced at each other and then climbed into the SUV, fastening our eyes forward.
Mr. Baseball (he had a real name, but I couldn’t remember what it was) pulled away from the bar and Jeffrey and I silently watched out the windows as the tiny town skated by. The few people who were outside watched us back, with no less interest. About five minutes into the drive, once the houses had thinned out, Mr. Baseball slowed the car, concentrating as he navigated a stony stream. The thin trickle of water polished the rocks it graced, persuading them to sparkle in the sunlight that was slowly breaking through the cloud cover.
“River,” I snorted. What a bunch of wimps these Costa Ricans were. Jeffrey and I – neighbors since I was five – had grown up on the side of California’s Mount Diablo, where raccoons visited our homes in the night, and the homeowners’ association occasionally had to issue wild boar warnings. I had crested the devil mountain as early as six. I had killed wayward rattlesnakes with a shovel’s edge. I was not phased by such a piddly “river.”
I, the arrogant American, was making premature assumptions, and, as my father always liked to say, we all know what assuming does...
We reached the river soon enough, but not before we met another car coming the other way. The driver, Sofia, unleashed a flurry of words in Spanish to Mr. Baseball, patting her rolled-down window, and then looked back at us.
We shook our heads.
“OK. Because of the recent rain, the river is too high to cross. The water came up to here” – again the patting – “when we drove through. So, we are going with Plan B. The guys will be bringing horses for you to cross on. OK? Here, you always have to have a Plan B.”
I grinned. Extra horseback riding! Jeffrey groaned. Mr. Baseball continued to bump us down the road until all signs of people disappeared and we were flanked on both sides by sky-climbing vegetation. We came to a stop in front of a wooden gate and as Mr. Baseball got out of the car to unchain the bike lock that held it together, I started laughing.
“Not what I was expecting,” Jeff said. He was chuckling as well. “When our trip voucher gave us the code to the gate just in case, I was thinking more along the lines of metal gate with electronic keypad.”
“Me too. More James Bond, less Davy Crockett.”
Once Mr. Baseball had closed the ultra-high-security gate behind us, he turned the corner and we saw the river, twin gasps escaping us. This was an honest-to-God waterway, a tumbling rush of brown flanked by lush grasses, the kind of river you forded in Oregon Trail and lost half of your wagon party to. The parallel tire tracks in the gravel – two thin lines unclaimed by greenery – faded into its swell. Mr. Baseball parked the car and stood leaning against his door, watching the other bank.
I offered Jeffrey some Skittles. He turned them down with a smirk and slid out of his seat, unpacking his camera. Taking pictures of the road and river only took up about five minutes, and he was soon back, kicking rocks to pass the time. When the inside of the car grew unbearable, I oozed out and inserted myself between three stalks on the side of the road, unsuccessfully attempting to find some respite from the sun.
The minutes passed. A young man in knee-high galoshes emerged from the greenery on the other side. He waded across to us, the white-capped ripples of the river riding up his body as he progressed, reaching to his waist. He smiled at Jeffrey and me and began speaking to Mr. Baseball. It seemed to escalate into an argument, with voices raised and arms insistently gesturing, but as I couldn’t understand anything, they could very well have been discussing the best way to filet trout. Once they had decided that salmon was better anyway, the young man turned and disappeared back the way he had come.
The minutes passed. My originally pink shirt was now more of a cerise. Jeffrey looked like he had just taken a shower fully clothed. Mr. Baseball stared impassively out to nothing.
“Can I have some Skittles?” Jeffrey asked.
I chuckled. “I bet you’re glad I brought them now.”
“I didn’t realize we were going to have to survive on them.”
I poured him out a small ration. Who knew how long we were going to be here? I had to conserve our supplied.
Mr. Baseball seemed to realize we were getting antsy. He ambled over to us and kneeled at our feet.
“Look,” he said. “Look.” He reached out and brushed the leaves of what appeared to be a mini fern. The tiny green feathers recoiled at his touch.
Apparently Jeffrey and I are easily distracted. We spent the next several minutes distressing all similar plants in the vicinity.
About an hour after we had arrived at the river’s edge, and a half hour after the young man had so quickly come and left, we heard an engine growl from among the undergrowth opposite. Shouts flew back and forth across the waterway, some directed off-course by the breezes flowing down the canal.
“Get in,” Mr. Baseball said suddenly. “Get in.” He shook his head and muttered something that sounded suspiciously like profanity. Once we were seated he gunned the gas and the car jumped forward. Quickly, I grabbed my bags off the floor and pulled my knees up to my chest, just in case. As understanding struck Jeffery, he did the same. The brown water slowly climbed toward our windows, but just as I was sure the car was going to start floating downstream, the flow reluctantly receded, leaving fingers of mud clutching the sides of the SUV.
“We’re not in Europe anymore, Toto,” Jeffrey said in his high-pitched nasal voice, which means he was making a joke.
Our next driver introduced himself as Alan and explained that he would be our guide for the next few days. Slightly shorter than me, Alan had curly black hair, a cherubic face and a childlike voice to match. He took the opportunity of the 15-minute drive to the reserve to tell us the history of Selva Bananito in his almost perfect English.
“The lodge is built on a family farm owned by the Steins. The land was originally bought by Rudi Stein in 1974 for logging and farming. However, only one-third is used for farming and in 1994 the Stein family declared the rest a private biological reserve. The lodge is alternate source of income, but it doesn’t bring in very much. Not as much as the protected wood would have. The place is now run by Rudi’s children, Jorgen and Sofia. You met her on the way in, I think.
“We try to be as self-sufficient as possible. We produce our own milk and we grow our own organic fruit here. The bananas are some of the best I’ve ever tasted, although I get a bit tired of them sometimes. We tried to sell the bananas for a while, but there were problems. Like with transport, after rainy days we couldn’t cross the river. You saw what that was like. So we don’t do that as a business now.
“We don’t have electricity in the cabins, but the water is solar-heated, don’t worry. But maybe don’t use too much because then it will be cold. The cabins themselves are made of second-class wood. That’s the throwaway wood loggers don’t want. Did you know about 20% of a tree is second-class?
“We’ve held lunch until you arrived, so we can put your stuff away in your cabin and then you can explore after we eat. There’s only one other guest right now, a woman from Luxembourg, so we’ve put you in one of the premium cabins. It’s got the best view. See? Those are bananas. You probably saw a lot on your drive here. See?”
Alan didn’t leave much space for us to insert our own comments, so I contented myself with leaning out the window and letting the breeze dry my forehead and neck. I looked at the banana plants Alan had pointed out. We had seen many on our way in, most wrapped in blue plastic to protect them from snakes and other creepy crawly things. These bunches were naked, their giant scarlet flowers plunging toward the ground under the weight of the fruit. The bananas themselves, in even rows, reached like fingers toward the sky in defiance of gravity.
“I hope you didn’t mind the delay at the river,” Alan said. This time he seemed to pause for a reply.
“Not at all,” Jeffrey obliged him. “We figure it’s part of the experience.”
“Oh good. Sometimes people will get mad, but what can we do? I can’t control the rain. Speaking of rain, the riverbed near the lodge has some water in it from the recent storm. We’re going to try to cross, but I told the farm manager to listen for my honk, in case we get stuck. He’ll come save us with his tractor. But we should be fine. Don’t worry.”
Alan was right for a while, anyway. We made it about 7/8 across the rocky bed before the back tires started spinning. “It’s OK, lunch is waiting,” Alan said as consolation before going on foot to go find the errant farm manager, who apparently was not listening very hard for our honks.
Once the tractor delivered us safely to the other side, it was only a few minutes to the camp. Alan helped us carry our luggage to our cabin, saying, “We have only three rules here. Don’t wear your shoes inside because it can get very muddy. Don’t flush anything down the toilet – put it in the garbage can nearby, and only use the biodegradable soap we have provided. Ok? Ok. I’ll see you in a few minutes for lunch.”
At lunch Alan encouraged us to explore the grounds, and by dinner we had a few questions for him. Jeffrey and I had taken advantage of our free time to wander down to the pond we had seen from the dining lodge. As he had taken pictures, I had pointed out the ripples progressing steadily across the water toward us.
“What is that?” I asked.
“What is what?”
“That. It’s a thing.”
“It’s a fish.”
“No, it’s a thing. It looks like…doesn’t it look like an alligator?”
Jeffrey peered across the pond. “Yes. Yes, it does.”
“It’s coming this way. Do you think it really is an alligator?”
“I don’t know,” he said, “but I’m not staying to find out.” He turned up the trail, walked briskly back to our cabin and refused to leave again until dinner. “I am going to stay here, in my nice little hammock, and I am going to enjoy the view.” It took him several tries to actually settle into the hammock – he landed on the floor once – but apparently even my jokes about his coordination were preferable compared to what might be “out there waiting to eat us.”
At dinner I asked Alan about what we had seen.
“Yes, it’s an alligator. Well, a caiman actually. There are two of them.”
Oh, of course. That was better. “Have you had any problems with them?”
“No. You probably shouldn’t go down and stick your hand in the water though.”
“Yeah,” Jeffrey said, “I think maybe we’re going to stay out of that general vicinity.”