As the battered old bus gasps and wheezes up the bumpy, unpaved road, I clutch the seat in front of me and ask myself why we didn’t stay in that lovely hotel in San José, with its fountains and squawking parrot, its lace curtains and soothing ceiling fan, so much more soothing than the gears grinding beneath us on this steep, dusty grade. Jesus stares at me from his perch above the driver, a decidedly Latin-looking savior with a wild suntan and light emanating from his heart, and, if that’s not enough to ward off accidents, the driver has dangling above him a miniature soccer ball, and a fuzzy bear in a sock. I pay homage to each of them, not wanting to take any chances, not here on this mountain ridge with sharp drop-offs on either side.
It happens all the time in the Third World, buses going over the side. And this driver is young, too young to really care about my life, Norma’s life, our plans for tonight and tomorrow night that stretch like an endless road he drives with impunity, barreling across the one-lane bridge as if he were a kid hurling himself into a pile of leaves, ignoring signs that politely suggest he slow down, that he proceed with caution, ignoring Trepidadores (bumps in the road), ignoring Derrumbes (landslides), ignoring my pounding heart.
Sitting in the front of the bus means we’re more likely to be killed if there’s a wreck but less likely to die of the heat if there isn’t, since the only air conditioning is the breeze from the open door. These seats are as narrow and stiff as those on a school bus; in fact, this is an old school bus. But I’m not complaining. Norma hates it when I complain.
So I try to remember why we’re here when we could be taking a real vacation. Why the humidity, the dust, the jangled nerves? Why rice and beans every morning? Why the extreme duress of yet one more bus ride, fretting that some other bus, heading down the mountain, will suddenly loom before us, nudge us gently off the road, and send us soaring over the achingly beautiful valley below? Our driver, steering with one hand while he reaches with the other for a sweet, flaky empañada, must think the chances of that happening are pretty slim. Chatting amiably with the man standing beside him, and the comely teenager two rows back, he’s like a small-town mayor who seems to know just about everyone — and, like mayors everywhere, he doesn’t have to obey the rules. Instead, he brushes the pastry crumbs off his shirt, speeds up as we approach a blind curve, and passes the car in front of us. He jokes about the frightened gringo behind him whose knuckles are whiter than his face.
I ask Norma to remind me, again, why we didn’t rent a car. It would have been too expensive, she says. It would have made us feel like tourists. It would have been like never leaving home.
And I needed to leave home. I needed to be reminded how attached I’d become to billowy curtains and firm mattresses and toilets that flush. The guidebooks call Costa Rica the Switzerland of Central America, and compared to its neighbors it’s peaceful and prosperous. There’s no army, almost everyone can read and write, and no one goes without medical care. Still, the average salary is less than two hundred dollars a month — and the refugees from Nicaragua, the out-of-work miners, the beggars squatting outside the banks and churches don’t make even that.
I think that’s the real reason Sarah invited us. Not just so we could visit the Quaker community high up in the mountains where she’s lived for twenty years; not just so we could walk through the nearby cloud forest, where orchids and weblike moss hang from tree limbs and swing lazily in the breeze, and flowers blow through the air, and ferns cover the ground. No, Sarah knew I needed to be jostled by the sight of ramshackle towns and clapboard shacks, by barefoot kids on muddy paths, by farmers working for subsistence wages to harvest the coffee we drink and the bananas we eat. Sarah wanted me to see how important I’d let hot showers become in the two decades since I, like her, was a hippie living out of a backpack; to see there’s a whole hemisphere called the Americas, that we’re all on this bus.
Sarah had written, “You feel like a good old friend. Reading your essays, I’m fascinated by how many parallels there are in our lives: the similar college experiences, the reaction to Kennedy’s death, the van in Europe in the late sixties. There’s the present similar endeavor to be visibly of and for this world. Hippies come of age, I guess.”
The Quaker community in Monteverde, she explained, was founded forty years ago by war resisters from Alabama. Drawn to Costa Rica because it had abolished its army, the Quakers bought land in the mountains and began dairy farming and cheese production. Since then, the community has grown slowly, attracting others who share the Quakers’ ideals.
This was Sarah’s invitation: she would put us up in her small guest cabin built out of an old tree stump, with nearby outhouse and outdoor shower. Just down the road was the cloud-forest preserve, an enchanted, fairy-tale environment much like a rain forest, except the moisture comes not just from rain but from the steady cloud cover over the mountains.
Norma thought it was a great idea, but I was wary. Costa Rica might be an ecological paradise, but what about the dripping heat and endless rain, what about mosquitoes and malaria? Then too, there was a war going on just over the border in Nicaragua. In nearby El Salvador and Guatemala, death squads roamed the countryside.
But every year or so Sarah renewed the invitation. The fighting in Nicaragua ended. The guidebooks insisted there was no country in all of Latin America that was safer to visit, that malaria was problem only in the lowlands, that the buses weren’t known for comfort but got you where you wanted to go.
After five hours of bouncing and shaking, we arrive in Monteverde. It’s dark and raining, but I’m thankful to get off the bus — until I realize there’s no bus station, no gas station, no shops, no streetlights, no streets. In fact, there seems to be nothing in Monteverde but a cheese factory, closed for the night.
Fortunately, Sarah is waiting for us under a big umbrella, and we follow her up a steep path. Monteverde isn’t exactly a village, she explains, but a series of dirt roads leading off the main road to houses back in the woods. Somewhere there’s a meetinghouse, a school, an arts-and-crafts cooperative, and other people — but all I can make out now are hanging vines and trees with gigantic leaves. When Sarah offers to carry one of our bags, I self-consciously hand her a suitcase filled with insect repellent and anti-itch cream and lip salve and sun block and toilet paper and anti-diarrhea pills and motion-sickness pills and compass and canteen and snakebite kit and two flashlights — or is it three? Sarah doesn’t need a flashlight.
She can’t put us up in her guest cabin, Sarah says, because her daughter has arrived for a visit. But we can have the use of a neighbor’s house down the road, with our own kitchen and indoor toilet and shower. I’m delighted that we won’t have to stumble through the jungle at night in search of the outhouse. Still, I find the neighbor’s place a little depressing, with its bare light bulb over the bed and revolutionary posters on the wall. It reminds me of the houses so many hippies built in the sixties to resemble Third World slums, except this is the Third World: we can’t put toilet paper in the toilet bowl because it clogs up the system, and the water heater is broken. But I’m not complaining, not to Sarah.
I feel vaguely shameful in her presence, as if I’d cheated on a test — or decided to skip the test altogether. I, too, once tried to live more simply: at the height of the back-to-the-land movement, I moved to North Carolina to build my own house and grow my own food and bake my own bread. I was inspired by a vision of self-sufficiency until I learned that, for me at least, the simple life wasn’t so simple; that it was easy to romanticize the primitive but romance wasn’t love. I, too, lived in a cabin with an outhouse, but only until I could afford a septic tank. I cut wood, resenting the time it took me away from my desk.
But Sarah persevered. A warm and intelligent woman with a self-effacing sense of humor, she makes a modest living selling her paintings, but she still does her laundry with an old wringer-washer, walks or rides buses wherever she needs to go, and refuses to get a phone. Her small house is filled with flowers and colorful hangings and books, but few labor-saving devices. (When her teenage son wanted to make extra money, he started a pizza-delivery service, without phone or car; it took an hour and a half to bake each pizza in their wood stove.) Her life isn’t austere, just simpler, less crammed with distractions; she’s turned her back on consumer society, and its hymn of thanksgiving to the newest and the shiniest. Her politics feel authentic: a bridge between the haves and the have-nots, the North and the South.
I wonder what Sarah would make of our home in North Carolina with our three bathrooms, our computer and CD player and microwave, our electric washer and dryer, our coffeemaker that wakes up before we do.
It’s muddy and dusty in Monteverde, and after a couple of days’ hiking we run out of clean clothes. There are no laundromats nearby; we could use Sarah’s wringer-washer, but this is the rainy season and our clothes would take too long to dry. Sarah says there’s a woman in nearby Santa Elena who does laundry at home. How far is that? I ask. Not far, Sarah says, putting on her shoes.
An hour later, sweaty and weary, we arrive in a sleepy little town where the bank closes for lunch and horses paw the ground beside jeeps and pickups. Unfortunately, Sarah’s friend doesn’t seem to be around. Sarah stands by the locked gate calling, Patricia, Patricia, while I try to keep from scowling. Did we come all this way for nothing? Such things happen, I suppose, when you don’t have a car or a phone, yet I’m the kind of guy who wears a wristwatch with an alarm, who writes every appointment down twice.
Walking back to Monteverde, the sack of dirty laundry still on my back, I wonder why I’m not being more honest with Sarah. True, we’re her guests, and she’s been kind and generous — but she invited us here because she respected my candor. What is it I don’t want Sarah to know? That I’m impatient? That flush toilets matter to me? That the new hotels being built near Monteverde — the hotels that will probably spell ruin for the Quakers’ simple, peaceful lifestyle — are the kinds of places I like to stay?
But Sarah doesn’t insist that I or anyone live the way she does, and she’s hardly a purist. She recently decided to get electricity because, she says, it makes the simple life simpler; she acknowledges she’s thinking about getting a phone. And she knows it took a plane to get us here, a big jet spewing tons of pollutants.
Ironically, it’s well-meaning tourists like Norma and I who imperil Costa Rica’s delicate environment. Even the cloud-forest preserve is threatened by the huge influx of visitors: trails have become eroded, litter falls where leaves once drifted to the ground. And despite the government’s environmental conscience, 80 percent of Costa Rica’s forests have already disappeared, most of them cut for banana plantations.
Walking back to Monteverde with my sack of dirty laundry, past run-down farmhouses with their colorful gardens, with their poor campesinos scratching out a living, I wonder about all those trees cut down in the name of progress. For whose benefit was this land “improved,” as forests were turned into pastures for raising beef? For whose benefit do trucks still roar down the Pan-American Highway, loaded with giant logs?
Time seems to move more slowly in Costa Rica, but time is always hungry, and eats anything we put before it: coffee beans, bananas, rain forests. I wipe the sweat off my forehead, moved by the beauty around me but still frustrated at not having gotten the laundry done. How odd for me not to get a task done, me with my car and my phone and my fax and my credit cards; to be walking with a sack of dirty laundry, under a blue sky, past farmers bicycling to work with shovels strapped to their backs, past cows with droopy eyes flicking their tails at flies. How odd that the brightness of the world is a message I still don’t know how to read, as I move through my days in such a hurry, like a gang of men with chain saws in a stand of thousand-year-old trees.