Hot, stinging pain singed through my blisters with every whack of the machete. My clumsy attempt at a field dressing—a sweaty bandana wrapped and tied around my hand—hadn’t made a difference. Each whack! whack! whack! chafed candescent against my skin. The mountains, green and wild, shifted to muted blue with the passing daylight, and the squawky croaks of toucans reverberated in the distance.
But I didn’t notice them. It was as if the tediousness—whack! whack! whack!—had sapped my senses, pooling their collective energies toward the glowing red nerves in my hand. Whack! Whack! Whack! I paused, looking around at the patch I was clearing. It was small. Too small, surely, for the hours I had been out there hacking and hacking at the overgrowth. Ignoring the stray grasses clinging itchy to my arms slick with sweat, I put the machete back in its leather sheath tied to my waist. It was funny, silly really, how wonderfully cocky I had felt when I fastened it there earlier that day, as if I were donning a superhero weapon that would imbue me with a sureness of strength and mission. But as the mountaintop chill slowly seeped into the late afternoon air, I felt a brittleness of spirit creeping with it. I had gone to Costa Rica for an adventure, but surely this wasn’t it.
I had arrived on the farm following college graduation and a year of little note. Spent largely behind a drive-thru window and a computer screen scheming for better options, it was a year I was ready to leave behind, choking in the dust of a roaring grand adventure. I pored over the book Work Your Way Around the World as if it were a spiritual text. Caring for sea turtles in Greece? Working as a film extra in Thailand? I was giddy with the possibilities. When the time came to buy the ticket, though, my bank account called for a slightly more modest adventure. Costa Rica ended up being the furthest my money would take me. To sustain my stay, I decided to work on a farm through the organization WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms).
Coming home from work during the weeks leading up to my trip, smelling of burnt coffee and a slight sourness from splattered milk, I believed that farming would very much be the grand adventure. It was romantic even, being of the land and truly inhabiting it, not just passing over it. I longed for a sense of certitude and a quieting of the constant, crippling feeling that I was doing it all wrong. By inhabiting the life of a farmer, however briefly, I’d be experiencing an existence where there was daily purpose free from the distraction of customers, computers, and television showing me all the things I wasn’t doing, should be doing, or hadn’t even realized I could be doing.
* * *
Without the usual punctuations that accompany travel—a change in location, a visit to a notable site, the mapping and planning—the edges of my days began to soften, fuzzing into each other as the quiet and predictable rhythms of farm life set in. Mornings began early, about an hour before the sun crested the surrounding mountains. Usually, Ramon—a tico in his late 40s who lived and worked on the farm owned by an expat, Domonique, and her daughter—was already awake and fixing coffee in the kitchen by the time I began stirring. He didn’t need an alarm.
Buckets in hand, we’d walk through the dark to where the land started its steep slope toward a river hidden beneath a canopy of trees. Sending out deep lows across the hillside, we’d call up the cows for milking. I’d milk until my forearms bulged, Ramon laughing at the wimpy trickles my efforts produced as he deftly sent streams of golden milk gushing into the pail. Breakfast was beans and rice studded with cilantro that grew wild among the yet-to-be-tamed sections of the young farm. Work consisted variously of building or repairing barbed wire fences, planting papaya saplings, and clearing land for new crops. Ramon didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Spanish, so apart from some elaborate miming, my daytime thoughts swirled and pinged largely without outlet in the confines of my head.
It was about two or three weeks into my stay when those wretched blisters cropped up while I was out with the machete. It was as if they had created a physical portal for that uncertainty—which I was sure I had left behind—to come flooding back in. Or perhaps flow back out. I wasn’t sure. But whether it had burst from within or had traversed the miles to find me way up in the Costa Rican highlands didn’t matter. It was there all the same.
During that afternoon’s siesta I sought retreat in the swaddling comfort of the farmhouse’s hammock. The dense afternoon heat brought with it a welcome stillness and soon I was wrapped in a blissful somnolescent haze. After some time, though, I was roused by the faint plip! plip! of the old percolator spitting coffee against its metal walls. I headed to the kitchen and found Ramon pouring a cup. He took down another mug and gestured toward the sack of sugar. I shook my head—ticos love their sugar, and having practically crunched my coffee on previous occasions when Ramon fixed me a cup, I’d learned my lesson. Instead, I pulled a battered, repurposed two-liter Coke bottle from the fridge and poured out fresh thick milk that unfurled creamy blooms as it hit the coffee. Sidestepping the six dogs curled up nose-to-tail on the cool cement floor, I headed outside to sip.
The farm was quiet, almost inert; even the insects, having ceased their chirping and buzzing, appeared to be taking a siesta. The only movement came from Sergeant, the farm’s lone turkey, pecking idly at a rotting piece of fruit beneath the guava tree. I looked at my hand, now covered in proper bandaging. The monotony of rhythm had propelled me to Costa Rica, yet there it still was, boring holes both physical and metaphorical in me. I thought I had planned. Did I not pick the right place? I grabbed one of the hard green guavas from the ground and took a bite. Inside, a tiny pale worm poked up from the pink flesh.
* * *
That evening the four of us were invited to town by friends of Domonique. Located a handful of bumpy, vegetation-thick miles from the farm, the town was a small community of around 100 with just the basics—a school, a church, a bar, and not much else. Outside the bar, a group of men drinking Imperials greeted us—¡Pura vida!—their r’s rolling and tumbling with rich vibrancy. Ramon grinned widely, slapping each of them on their backs and returning the greeting—¡Pura vida!
Despite the coolness of the evening, the air inside the bar hung heavy and sticky. A perfunctory fan cut into the back wall rotated lazily. At the bar a group of teenage ticos clutched at a single microphone belting out a ballad while the small television hanging from the ceiling scrolled the lyrics over an ‘80s-era scene of girls with perms and scrunchies on a picnic. It seemed completely out of synch with the tenor of the song, but, not being able to read the Spanish lyrics, I couldn’t say for sure.
As we took a seat, a man with a gray goatee and a Hawaiian shirt covered in palm fronds and parrots came over balancing four tumblers sloshing clear liquid. Domonique jumped up to kiss her friend on the cheek and distribute the Cacique. With a hearty ¡Salud! we clinked glasses and downed the fiery liquid, chasing it with fat wedges of orange-fleshed limes. The shot simmered in my gut, sending out warmth like sparks through my limbs and out my teeth and my toes. There was something about Cacique that just set the body alight.
Spanish ballads continued to pour out of the speakers, the microphone passing from tico to tico. We drank bottles of Imperial and downed more shots of Cacique. Muscles flush and liquor-loosened, we headed to the bare stretch of floor in the middle of the bar to dance. Young ticos with their dark hair greased back under a slick of gel danced over, surrounding us. From the bar Ramon glared at them like a protective father. At one point the microphone was passed to us. Scanning through the slim binder of songs we at last found a sole English selection, Hotel California.
On a dark desert highwaaay, cool wind in my hair…
The lyrics scrolled across the television over a scene of a red convertible driving along cliffs above a dark blue ocean.
Welcome to the Hotel California…
The bar filled with voices yelling, screaming, the familiar line along with us. On the screen the red convertible cruised on seemingly driverless and with no apparent destination, the ocean foaming and swirling below.
And she said, “We are all just prisoners here, of our own device”…
We sang the last few verses and as the guitar surged into its closing, eternally coiling solo, we burst into laughter, raising our glasses—¡Salud!—to the rest of the bar.
The ballads resumed and another of Domonique’s friends, Alex, came over with fresh beers. From his half-unbuttoned shirt to the look of presumed gratification in his green-gray eyes, he wore a smug confidence that I found repulsive yet curiously attractive. He was one of the Frenchies. Domonique had told me about them earlier that evening—French expats who lived nearby in fancy homes and split their time between Costa Rica and the rest of the world.
Dispensing with the usual pleasantries, Alex looked at me a moment, cocking his head inquisitively.
“Why are you spending such a long time on ze farm?”
“I thought it would be nice.”
He took my hand and held it up. “Zees bandages don’t look nice.”
“It’s just part of the work. It happens.”
Smiling slightly, he dropped my hand and leaned against the back of his chair.
“Ave you been anywhere else? Ze beach? Ze volcanos? Zey are gorgeous.”
“No.” I took a deep breath, ignoring the prickles in my blisters.
“Zat seelly zipline?”
His eyebrows rose slightly, but he didn’t say anything.
“I wanted to be somewhere, not see somewhere.”
He considered that a moment. “I see,” he said, though I didn’t think he did.
* * *
A week or so later I spent the morning with Ramon building a fence around the new clearing. The day was hotter than usual—a white-hot that bleached the farm’s spectrum of greens into a pale monochrome. Already saturated, my bandana did little to prevent sweat from getting into my eyes as I bent over to hammer.
“Duro! Duro!” Ramon instructed.
I wiped at my forehead with the edge of my shirt, irritated. Dropping the hammer, I brought my palm up to Ramon. “See?” I said, dragging a finger across its surface. “It’s slippery. I can’t hammer any harder because I can’t get a good grip.”
Ramon looked at my palm, then at me. He grabbed one of the U-shaped nails, placed it delicately against the knobby post and with his other hand mimed a swift hammer blow. “Duro,” he said with an encouraging smile. Seeming to regard that as sufficient explanation, Ramon picked up the dangling barbed wire and pulled it taut, ready to receive my stabilizing nail.
Ramon’s level-headedness was confounding. I had never seen him get frustrated. When a cow was in a temper one morning and kicked over a nearly full bucket of milk, he merely gave it a stern slap on the rump and a quick admonition, then went on milking. It was if he didn’t see worries or problems; a situation wasn’t “wrong” or something to be solved, it simply was what it was.
When we ran out of posts, Ramon pointed at me and mimed a hacking motion. I ran to the house to grab our machetes before descending the hillside to collect tree limbs from the riverbed. Swollen by the previous night’s rain—a ferociously percussive deluge that had woken me up as it beat down on the corrugated metal roofing—the river was gushing and gurgling with particular zeal. The blazing sun had partially penetrated the tree cover and creeping vegetation, steeping the riverbed in a muggy haze of suspended evaporation.
I hacked at tree limbs until my arm grew heavy and sore. Each whack landed with a dull thud that thrummed through my muscles. Ramon, however, despite his slim build and soft paunch, had a swift and definite strength that skillfully felled branches with a few precise blows. When at last we had a sizable pile, we gathered the branches onto our shoulders and started up the hill.
We were only a short way out of the tree cover when a sharp bite entered my side. I let out a low stream of expletives and jerked around to inspect the bright pink welt blooming itchy and painful over my skin. The slender tree limbs balanced on my shoulder teetered uncontrollably and tumbled. I flailed around stupidly trying to catch the errant branches, but slipped on the squelchy earth and pitched forward into the mud. The fire ant went in for seconds and I reached my limit.
Suddenly there was laughter—high, cackling peals bursting through the thick heat. Ramon’s weather-crinkled face was thrown back in amusement, his slim brown shoulders shaking. I noted, furiously, that his full-body mirth did not upset the balance of his considerably heavier stack of tree limbs.
“RAMON! It’s not… it’s…” my words fizzled out. Sticky with sweat and mud, my side hot and throbbing, I sat there surrounded by Ramon’s laughter. Above the cloud of giggles, two red parrots sailed across the sky and disappeared into the green forest canopy in the distance.
Laughter subsiding into light chuckles, Ramon extended his hand to help me up. “¡Pura vida!”
Pura vida. All the time pura vida. Saying hello, saying goodbye. An exclamation for the good, an exclamation for the bad. Pura vida. How can something mean anything when it’s supposed to mean everything?
* * *
About a month into my stay on the farm, Ramon and I returned from milking the cows one morning to find a group of familiar ticos chattering under the enormous ceiba tree by the farmhouse. Cans of Imperial and a sack of limes sat on a plastic table nearby.
“¡Pura vida!” they greeted us as Domonique bustled over carrying grocery bags bulging with cans of tomato juice.
“It’s Guanacaste Day! No work today!” said Domonique amid cheers. “Here.” She handed me a cup. “Start celebrating.”
Among the group that day were our nearest neighbors, who turned the farm’s milk into soft, white queso, and let me knock down sour green mangoes from the trees that grew tall and wild on their property. Another couple I recognized from town. On the younger side of middle-aged, they each bore huge smiles that showed off teeth lined in silver braces. There was also the woman who sold us plantain chips from her tiny store about a mile up the road, and the man who ran the adjoining bar. A bunch of Ramon’s friends—men with soft bellies and booming voices—were there, too.
Under an awning of matted vines entangling the branches of the ceiba, we drank and danced. The sky was clotted with gray clouds that seemed to trap the energy being thrown off by our bodies, sending it swirling back into our limbs as we spun and swayed. The ticos, possessing an innate rhythm that imbued them with an enviable fluidity of movement, laughed at my spastic hops and leaps. The men took turns trying to coax me into more supple steps but found little success. Ugly and imperfect as they were, my movements felt wonderfully right and in harmony with the notes of the marimba trilling through the radio.
The day slipped into a cool, blue twilight. Discarded lime wedges and empty beer cans covered the table. From the radio came the liquid melodies of a guitar, its melancholies sweet and pure. My body unconsciously slowed, absorbing the music. I could feel its ardor. It was beautifully honest. The notes bore an understanding of life’s blisters and sweat. There was a gentle quietude in the acknowledgment, though, as if these things weren’t something to be painfully endured or avoided. They were laced with sweetness.
I continued dancing, my body, my marrow, in rhythm with the leaves and vines, with the dip and sway of the couples around me, with the river rushing unseen in the distance, vibrating with that very moment. Pura vida.
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