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on the mind on the road

Pura Vida

A day in my life while living in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica.

The sunrises and sunsets are vivid, watercolor paintings come to life, each more breathtaking than the last. The brightness and hue and interplay between light and shadow so delicious, the inky blackness of night comes as a surprise. The days go from technicolor to noir in 45 short minutes, and then you’re left with just one naked bulb hanging from the ceiling.

I grew up in the woods but I wasn’t prepared for the all-encompassing darkness of the jungle. The canopy is so tightly woven together, starlight can’t penetrate; to see the moon and stars, I have to walk across the muddy dirt road that runs parallel to the sea, pick my way through rather treacherous palm roots, and step out onto the glittering black sand.

But that would mean I have to leave my mosquito net and, right now, two weeks into a several-month stint living on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, that is non-negotiable. A small white desk lamp is bolted to the side of the bed and its neck cranes around to point downward, giving me one solid yellow pool of light amidst the darkness. The double bed has room enough for me and all of my books so that, once the sun has set, I can spend the next few hours reading.

At the equator, the timing of the sunset doesn’t change at all throughout the year, and here it varies by about 45 minutes. It begins setting at around five in the evening while I’m living there, and in order to avoid the vast insect population that has made it quite clear that it’s their world, I’m just living in it, I tuck the mosquito net around the bed and read deep into the night. Those that are attracted to the light come over and hang out, covering the net in glistening black bodies and curving antennae.

I first read all the books that I brought, but then I have to fall back on the strange selection of books left behind by previous travelers. There’s a whole series of South African murder mysteries involving equestrians, a couple of political thrillers, and a collection of Stephen King short stories. They aren’t books that I would have ever chosen myself, yet I am transported from my small, glowing, jungle bed to Johannesburg, Washington DC, and Castle Rock, bouncing around the world and back all from the safety of my mosquito net.

In the morning, a rooster struts under my elevated house and promptly crows directly underneath my pillow (at least, that’s what it sounds like) as soon as the sun starts to climb out of the sea. He’s rather proud of himself and he doesn’t really care who knows it; the chickens follow him on his route around the little clearing, pecking and clucking and fluttering. In the light of the day, the jungle seems far less menacing, the insects almost friendly, and the warmth envelopes me. I make scrambled eggs on the tiny hot plate, do a round of laundry — this is always a must as my sink is so small, a load is really only two or three things — and hang them to dry. Then the sweeping begins. 

Overnight, the insects have left detritus throughout the little house, and if you let it build up for just one day, the jungle will overtake it. The collaboration and efficiency of these insects are astounding; you can toss a banana peel out the kitchen window and it will cease to exist within a couple of hours. Cleaning is the only way humans can assert their sense of dominance over the wildlife.

Obese bees fly in throughout the day carrying small bits of wood and moss, whatever they can find in order to rebuild their tubular hives that line the walls. I have to knock them down with a broom each morning, and they spend the entire day rebuilding, only for me to knock it down again the following day. We’ve come to somewhat of an agreement as they’re able to stay in the hive overnight, but come morning, it’s time for them to go. You can hear them coming from across the clearing, their robust bzzzzzzzzzz providing an insistent bass note in the jungle’s music. 

After breakfast and cleaning, I walk to the beach and run quickly over the graphite sand; it’s been baking in the sun since morning, rendering its surface into a makeshift griddle. Diving into the sea feels amazing, and even though it doesn’t actually happen, I imagine steam rising from my toes as my feet hit the cool waves.

Then it’s back to the house and to the hammock; the sway of it melds almost perfectly with the sound of the waves and, lying there, I’m floating. In and out of naps and reading and talking to my neighbor, Charlotte, out to walk her German Shepherd puppy Andy, and then it’s time for lunch — fruit and patties and a soda.

As the day moves on, slowly and aimlessly, I decide to head into town. I like walking along the beach to get there instead of on the dusty dirt road, and I listen to Massive Attack on my Walkman, Karmacoma writhing and guiding my pace. Birds coast by me and the wind is picking up, shaking the palms, cooling my cheeks. Some of the hot sand has gotten into my sandals and, for a moment, I consider walking on the road.

I arrive at the small bridge at the entrance to Puerto Viejo and make a left, walking along the water line. There’s a barge that’s stuck out in the middle of the tiny bay, and it’s been there so long that bushes and birds and grass have taken root. I need to get some groceries so I stop at the Chinaman — the store is technically called Manuel’s, but it’s run by a Chinese immigrant, so everyone just refers to it that way — and pick up a few items. With only a hot plate and humid weather, I don’t really cook much, but I do buy a lot of fruit. 

I continue around the edge of town, talking to a few street vendors hawking their wares — necklaces and postcards, Bob Marley everything — and then I cut back through the center of town, heading back up the beach. I have to time my visit just right because the sun is setting soon and I don’t want to be caught out in the jungle in the dark. I don’t know this place like that yet.

The sun is just a small shard hovering on the horizon as I step through the small patch of jungle and across the dusty dirt road and into the clearing where my house is. I put all of my fruit in the small bar refrigerator — otherwise, it won’t be there in the morning! — and I rinse off my feet. I change into my pajamas, reach for the lightbulb’s string, pull it quickly and then sprint across the room, jumping into my bed. I tuck the mosquito net securely around me, then reach through it and turn on the small desk lamp. As I open the night’s reading selection, the net reverberates around me, as something rather large falls on it. I look up and see the shadowy outline of a small scorpion above me, its legs scrambling in confusion as it attempts to gain purchase on the malleable surface of the mosquito net. I watch it as it finally gets its bearings, then scurries to the other side of the net, well outside of the puddle of light the small lamp provides. I panic slightly, but then take in a deep breath, settle into my pillow, and head to Castle Rock.

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