Most tourists who came through that part of Costa Rica looked pretty foolish with their boonie hats, safari jackets, outrageously expensive cameras, and gigantic binoculars. We rarely interacted with them and, with very few exceptions, they avoided us and the places where we hung out. The tourist traps where they chose to wine and dine were too rich for the average expat and the locals were almost all priced out. So their authentic tropical jungle vacation didn’t include any contact with the natives except those involved directly in the tourism industry.
This worked out pretty well for us as well because the majority of the visiting women were viewed as generally unattractive—more pinkish than tanned–and the men were mostly metrosexuals who had long ago lost any contact with their masculine side. However, there was sometimes a an exception to the rule, for instance, when Sports Illustrated did a photo shoot for their swimsuit issue. Somehow or other we found out about the arrival of this young talent a day or two before they showed up, which was nice because it gave me a chance to clean up a little. There was an amazing bamboo grapevine in those remote and isolated places that was incredibly efficient in disseminating reliable information.
The problem with this primitive communication system was that it lost reliability as the distance increased and was totally inadequate for communicating all the way back to the US. For perspective, recall that all of these events occurred pre-internet/pre-cell phone and there were no public phones in the village where I lived. For the first month or two I would have to drive all the way to Puerto Viejo (a two-hour round trip) just to use a pay phone, and international calls on pay phones were not cheap. These phone calls had a major negative impact on my personality and beer budget. So after several months of donating heavily to the local Ma Bell, I somehow discovered that there was a fax machine near my house.
Now back in the day, a fax machine was worth its weight in gold. You could write a letter to someone and through some miraculous process it would spit out the same letter almost instantaneously half way around the globe. For guys like me who have phone phobia (FYI: As I write this in December 2013, I have no cell phone and no plans to acquire one), the heyday of the fax machine was truly a blessing because you didn’t have to talk to anyone on the other end of the conversation.
I had used the recently discovered fax machine at a local B&B a couple of times and would usually be offered a cup of real coffee while waiting for the connection to be made and delivery to be confirmed. I was surprised to see loco Tim show up there the very first time that I visited the B&B and was told by the Tica owner that he showed up there almost every day for his morning coffee. I later asked him why, although I had lived there several months, he had never thought to tell me about the Tica and her fax machine. His answer was that he forgot. Answers like that make you go hmmm.
Returning to the story about sissified tourists, most of them were just doing normal tourist stuff, but the truly mystifying ones were the bird watchers or as they liked to call themselves, birders—a new word for me. Now these guys and gals were especially hard for me to understand because I never saw the point of birds at all except as a moving target for shotguns. Birders might as well be from another planet and the males of the species appeared to be even more pathetic and effeminate than the average limp-wristed (NTTAWWT) tourist passing through here. On the other hand, some of their more daring females had been known to take a walk or two on the wild side, but usually they weren’t worth the effort and couldn’t dance salsa or merengue anyway.
So one morning I showed up at the B&B to bum a cup of coffee and found an American couple there that seemed to be regular people. They were in their mid- to late 60s and respectful. By this time of day, late morning, I had already worked several hours on the farm and it showed. There must have been something (which I’ll never understand) about my appearance that caused tourists to avoid me like the plague. In other words, I was not used to being treated like a human by tourists. But these new guests at the B&B were different. My uniform consisted of jungle combat boots, Marine Corps issue camouflaged trousers, and a ripped and faded T-shirt of whatever persuasion. For some reason this couple didn’t seem to be turned off by my outfit or lack of grooming standards. Turns out that the gentleman and his bride were birders. I would later discover that he was also a WWII era Marine who had fought on Iwo Jima. My opinion of birders was about to undergo a radical transformation.
I was drinking coffee on the patio of the B&B surrounded by hundreds of orchids and listening to the owner explain to the new guests how she collected most of the orchids by climbing over, through, and under fallen trees at the bottom of mudslides. Until I discovered the location of this wonderful, wonderful fax machine, I did not know an orchid from a dandelion. The owner of the B&B had given me a primer on all things orchids, and now I could tell the difference between Phalaenopsis, Dendrobium, and Oncidium. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit that I was even starting to like these flowers, especially the butterfly and lady’s slippers varieties. And who knew that vanilla was an orchid? Weird.
The owner of the B&B wrapped up the tour of her garden as hummingbirds danced all around us. Before heading back to the farm, I invited the American couple to dinner for freshwater lobster at Charley Blackberry’s restaurant which was located just up the road overlooking the Sarapaqui River. The restaurant owner’s real name was Carlos Mora but he introduced himself as Charley Blackberry (which is the correct translation of his name) to all English speaking customers. Charley was as odd as a three-dollar bill and owned the only restaurant between here and San Jose that served gin and tonics, which was a nice and necessary break from time to time from my usual diet of Cuba libres. Charley was also a fantastic host with a simply marvelous sense of humor, dahling; and his restaurant, while extremely rustic, was always good for a hoot.
I jumped into my 4×4 pickup truck and drove back into the jungle to bush hog on the farm for a couple more hours. Bush hogging in the tropics is a fantastic adrenalin rush for those that are into that sort of thing. There was a constant reminder that you were about a half heartbeat away from life-altering injuries or death. The weeds on the jungle floor were thick and probably two to four feet high. Not wanting to go flying off the tractor head over tea kettle, I drove very slowly. Even so, I managed to go three-wheeling a couple of times per week. When I got too nervous, I shut down the tractor and grabbed my trusty machete before praying and jumping with a leap of faith into the jungle. That jump was always a bit nerve-wracking because there was the all too real possibility that I’d land smack dab on top of a bushmaster or the one that would permanently close out my medical records, the fer-de-lance. I’d luckily never jumped from my tractor onto a snake. If I ever did, it would be the end of the chronicles written by me of this little adventure. Again and again and again, I turned off the tractor and jumped into waist-high bush to recon the terrain in front of my tractor. After determining that my chances of surviving were at least fifty-fifty if I proceeded, I waded back through the jungle to the tractor, cranked it up, and drove until I tipped onto fewer than four wheels again or otherwise got too nervous to proceed. Lather, rinse, repeat.
The sun was now overhead and baking everything. We worked for eight hours a day, starting just after sunrise in the “cool” of the morning and finished in the early afternoon when the heat became almost unbearable. The day over, I pulled the tractor into the shed, while the boys climbed into the back of my truck. I dropped them off and headed home to take another cold shower and change into my least dirtiest clothes before picking up my dinner dates. Not too deep into the gin and tonics I find out that the couple were high school sweethearts, and got married right after WWII. The gentleman was a Marine infantryman whose first, last, and only battle was on Iwo Jima. I told him that he was unpatriotic for not participating in more battles and he broke my nose with one punch. Just kidding about that last one, but seriously, even though he was probably in his mid-60s, he was still hard as nails and not the kind of guy you would want to test. I guess if you’re only going to have one battle on your resume, Iwo Jima is about as good as it gets.
The lobster was history and were now neck-deep into the gin, so I offered to take the couple on a tour of my snake farm in morning. At some time during the proceedings, the gentleman began talking about the battle for Iwo Jima from his perspective. Even though there were more than 30 years’ difference in our ages, by then we were just two Marines sharing stories of love, life, and death. His wife occasionally participated but mainly nursed her cocktails while enjoying the funky tropical evening and listening to our war stories. Some of her husband’s tales of blood and guts she heard that night for the first time. My “radio” was set on the receive mode only, rarely transmitting. Charley brought us a few minutes of comic relief with every new round.
As told to me, más o menos (more or less), by the WW II Marine, “The first thing to know about Iwo Jima is that the sand is about the size of ball bearings so you can hardly walk, much less run in the stuff. You cannot dig in it either because the sand fills back in as fast as you can shovel it out. So you’re always either a slowly moving target or a sitting duck. The months of bombardments probably ended up helping the Japanese more than us. They went deep into their caves until the bombardments ended, but the bombing of the island burned or blew up all the plants on the island so we had nowhere to take cover.
“Some of the bravest guys on Earth were our flamethrower operators and BAR gunners. They were walking dead and knew it. The rest of us learned quickly not to get near them—ever. They caught holy hell from the Japanese, and drew so much fire that anyone near them would eventually get hit too. I doubt any of those boys got off the island alive.
“When we boarded our landing craft, I was scared as hell, and was sweating bullets by the time we headed toward the island. The amtracs were supposed to take us in a little ways off the beach, but there was still no beachhead and the vehicles couldn’t get up over the beach anyway because of the type of sand there. So they dropped us right at the waterline and we slogged in past the dead, dying, and crippled landing craft that clogged up every inch of beach.
“I went in on the fourth wave and was thinking that all of the good fighting would already be over by the time I hit the beach. You always think that someone else is going to get hit, but about as soon as we hit the beach I figured I was going to get it too. No one was going to survive.
“Many of my buddies were on the first three waves and called me a coward (I think he used a stronger word) for not going in with them—the real Marines. Everybody on the waves that landed before me was dead. I didn’t have time for a couple of weeks to think on that.
“My unit was to fight all the way across Iwo at the base of Mount Suribachi and after cutting the island in half, pivot right and head up hill to the wide end of the island. We fought the Japs on three sides—the front and on both flanks–until we hit the beach on the far side of the island and turned right. Other units turned left and fought straight up Suribachi. I pitied those poor bastards that fought on Mt. Suribachi.
“The bitch of Iwo is that from the base of Suribachi it rises very sharply in one direction and gradually in the other. This meant that every Marine had his back completely exposed to the enemy at all times. The Marines fighting up Suribachi were getting it in the face from the Japanese above them and in the back from the ones we were fighting. We got shot in the back until our guys took Suribachi. The reason we cheered when the flag was raised was because that meant we ‘only’ had to fight the enemy in front of us and there would not be so many guys dying from holes in their backs.
“Night time gave us the cover of darkness but brought its own nightmares with it. The fighting was a lot closer after dark and a lot of the hand-to-hand happened then. Even after we took Suribachi, we still got shot in the back when the effing Japs popped up behind us, especially at night.
“They butchered our wounded too. Slaughtering helpless guys in aid stations is not easy to forgive.”
I don’t know about you, but sometimes my eyes get a bit watery when I see a grown man cry. Finally, gentle reader, may I remind you that the above is based on a conversation that occurred more than twenty years ago during which a minimum of one liter (a conservative estimate) of high-quality gin was consumed.
We drank too much and stayed up too late. Finally, I dropped them off at their B&B and poured myself on down the road to my bat cave. As agreed during the dinner and drinkathon, I met them at their place just before dawn for coffee and Alka-Seltzer. Mrs. Marine seemed to be in somewhat decent shape but it was still pretty drunk out for the two Leathernecks.
The three of us staggered to my truck and headed toward Puerto Viejo and soon turned left just after loco Tim’s house onto the gravel road that bordered Jörg’s pineapple plantation. We drove on until we got to a fork in the road where “Body Guard’s” boss lived and took the road to the right, literally the road less traveled. Minutes later I pulled off the dirt road into a tiny village of only a few huts where all of the boys except for Rosita’s dad lived.
Mrs. Marine was brought to tears when she saw the living conditions of these boys and the pregnant young wife of Pedro. I introduced the Nicas to Mr. and Mrs. Marine; the boys grabbed their machetes and miserable lunches and jumped into the back of the truck. We headed deeper and deeper into the jungle until we reached the shack where the oldest boy, Rosita’s dad, lived on the farm with his family. By now Mrs. Marine was pretty much in shock, maybe Mr. Marine too but he hid it better.
Later the lady would comment that all of the Nicas seemed very happy despite their abject poverty. I told her that they had arrived in Costa Rica with nothing more than the shirts on their backs and machetes in their hands, and they were carving out better lives for themselves. She would have adopted little Rosita on the spot if it were possible.
I gave the couple the executive tour of the black pepper farm which was finally just beginning to shape up. I explained the five Ws and H of black pepper farming and we ate green peppercorns plucked fresh off the plants. After the tour of the farm, we went into full-out birding mode—a first for me. We saw parrots, tanagers, toucans, and other beautiful birds, and they each got lifers when we spotted a quetzal sitting majestically on a branch at about eye level.
I don’t know why he shared this with me, but at some point during that hot and humid day while sweating out buckets of gin from last night’s drunk and just out of earshot of his bride, for reasons known only to him, the gentleman told me that he had never cheated on his wife. He was an elderly and honorable American who fought and lived through one of the most terrifying battles of WWII enjoying his golden years and birding in the tropics with his sweetheart. Meeting him gave me the freedom to embrace my inner birder. I figured if a Marine who survived the battle for Iwo Jima was a birder, then I could be one too, and I am.