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E-Pao! Incidents - Jayenta - Latin American journey

A LATIN AMERICAN JOURNEY - THE BEGINNING & COSTA RICA

At a business conference in Paris, a Spanish delegate once said to me, "What do you call a man who speaks two lamguages - Bilingual; what do you call a man who speaks three languages - Trilingual; and what do you call a man who speaks one language - British." Little did I know that one day his comments would haunt me and I would be learning his language to save my skin. Technically I guess I am a quadruligual but outside India I am a "British".

In a foreign land a British always speaks to a local in English, very slowly with the volume raised a few notches. Most times it works as the standard questions tend to be "Where is the nearest bar?" or "Where can I buy a ticket for the football match with the English team?" As I wanted to do a bit more than go to bars and watch football matches in Latin America, I realized that my journey into Latin America would have to start with a crash course in Latin American Spanish.

Chasing girls with "aber" at "Yaoshang", early morning visit to "Mahabali" at "Krishnajanma", endless festivities of "Kang", the fragrance from gardenia bushes by the pond gently wafting through the air on a full moon night of"Mera", the sheer beauty of thatched roofs covered with frost on a "Wakching" morning, driving on unpaved roads through paddy fields dancing to the tunes of gentle breeze - what more does a boy from Manipur need from life. How did Latin America enter his life to compete with these visions and memories ? To use the cliche, it is a long story which will have to be told another time.

My journey into Latin America was to start with a five week Spanish course in San Jose, Costa Rica. The decision to leave my job as a high-flying Sales & Marketing Manager with an IT company in London to travel and do voluntary works in Latin America was not an easy one, to say the least. The intervening period between making the decision and boarding the plane to San Jose was all very hectic. Finally on a wet April morning, I boarded a British Airways plane to Miami, USA. After a few hours, I was on an America Airlines plane bound for San Jose.

The warm humid air, the chaos, the noise and taxi touts were all a pleasant change from cold, wet and soulless England. In many ways it was like being back in India and in a quaint way very reassuring. At the exit, I found a man holding a placard with "Jay Tayenjam" on it. I walked up to him and shook his hands. Pointing at himself he said, "Alexi" which I understood to be his name. Unfortunately, the train of communication got totally derailed at that point. Alexi did not speak a work of English and I did not speak a word of Spanish. It was back to basics; sign language became the lingua franca. I guess sign-language was adequate for cave dwellers but then they did not have to discuss accommodation, school, local customs etc.

Alexi was a representative from the Spanish school. As part of the deal, I was going to live with a local family to give me more opportunities to practice my Spanish. As we drove from the airport, I was full of consternation about how I was going to communicate with the family. Suddenly I could totally empathize with Manipuris of older generations who ventured out beyond Dimapur. My fears, as it turned out, were not totally unfounded. The taxi finally pulled up in front of the house, which was going to be my home for the next five weeks. A lady about 40 came out to greet me. Pointing at me she asked, "Jay ?" and then pointing to herself she "Norma". We shook hands and I went inside. From my Latin American Spanish Phrasebook, I asked Norma, "¿Habla ingles? (Do you speak English ?)". She shook her head and my heart sank. Then she called out for a girl called Vicky. Vicky turned out to be an American girl studying Spanish at a local university and living with the same family. Vicky was to be my interpreter and lifeline for many days to come.

For the first day at the Spanish school, Norma escorted me to school. There were many other students, escorted by their respective housemothers. I have no recollection of my first day at school nor has anybody at home talked to me about it. Here destiny was remedying the situation. At 40 I was a schoolboy again.

Costa Rica is small Central American country bordered by Nicaragua and Panama and the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean on two sides. Despite its tiny size of 50,000 sq. km, Costa Rica is an extremely varied country. A series of volcanic mountain chains, with many active ones run through the country. Its diverse habitats harbor some of the richest flora and fauna in the world. This bio-diversity attracts nature-loving visitors from all over the world. Like most countries around the equator, Costa Rica has only two seasons namely, summer or Dry (Dec - April) and winter or Wet (May - Nov). The wet season was just starting when I arrived. The interesting thing about rain in Costa Rica is that it normally comes only during afternoons. Most people plan their lives on the assumption that mornings will be dry.

About 27% of Costa Rica are protected in one form or another for conservation. Rainforests, active volcanoes, miles and miles of sandy beaches with pristine waters, swamps, waterfalls, fast rivers, orchids, birds, animals, insects, reptiles.. -- Costa Rica has them all in big numbers. The outdoor activities visitors can persue are numerous. The first cultural shock was addresses. In Costa Rica, there are no house numbers and street names. This is true of most Central American countries and to a certain degree applicable to many South American countries. In cities and towns an address is given with a help of a position on a grid of criss-crossing roads. Avenidas (Avenues) run from east to west and Calles (Streets) run from north to south. On a map, Avenida Central and Calle Central intersect in the middle to form a + sign. On the north of Avenida Central are ascending odd number Avenidas, 1, 3, 5 .. and to the south are ascending even number Avenidas 2, 4, .. Similarly for Calles, ascending odd numbers to the east and ascending even numbers to the west. Each block formed by intersecting Avenidas and Calles are generally treated to be a 100 sq. m.; seldom true. The address of a building will start with the nearest intersection point and if applicable number of metres and direction from the intersection. A business address will be something like this, "Avenida 5 and Calle 4; 25m to the north; ABC Ltd is on the third floor of the Green Building on the right hand side".

If you think this is confusing, hear about addresses outside the centre. The address starts with a popular landmark as the reference point in the area and directions are given from that point. It could be a church, a school, a McDonald, anything. The address of the family I stayed with was, "1 km south of the Theology College in Guadalupe; 250m north of the Communal Hall; third house on the right; white with black grills". If they repaint the house with a different colour, the address changes of course. Even taxi drivers do not always know the reference points on the address. What are the chances of non-Spanish speaking foreigner locating a place - very slim I would say. With such an address system, it is hardly surprising that postal system plays only an insignificant role in the lives of average citizens. In all my time in Costa Rica, I did not see a single postman. Those who regularly receive letters will have post-box addresses. One time, I was trying to explain the concept of house numbers, street names and post codes to my Spanish teacher. Her face very eloquently said, "What a strange and silly system !". I left it at that.

It is time to share a few memorable moments and journeys in Costa Rica. Tortuguero in the north-west Costa Rica and on the Carribbean Sea was where I first experienced the magic of mother nature. Tortuga is Spanish for turtle. Tortuguero is a small village with about 600 inhabitants on whose beaches endangered green turtles, leatherback turtles and hawksbill turtles come up from the sea to lay eggs. Villagers used to harvest the eggs. Libido comes into the equation again ! Locals believe the green turtle eggs to be aphrodisiacs. Fortunately both the locals and the government have realized that as a turtle conservation site, income from tourists are a lot more lucrative than harvesting the eggs. Womenfolk are yet to form "Sisterhood For Green Turtle Eggs For Our Menfolk". Perhaps with earnings from tourism they now buy Viagras. One never knows.

From the port of Limon, Tortuguero is about 4 hours in a small boat. The boat negotiates its way through rivers and a few stretches of artificial canals connecting the rivers in a lush thick rainforest teeming with life. For me, the journey redefined the meaning tranquility. Crocodiles basking on the riverbanks, sloths hanging from tree-tops, howler monkeys screaming, poison-dart frogs in the bush, fresh-water turtles swimming in groups, trees laden with orchids, birds - nesting, feeding, flying -- I was at peace with myself. For two days I was lost in the tropical paradise.

The absolute magic moment place will have to be reserved for my encounter with a 400kg-leatherback turtle. Leatherback is the largest of all marine turtles. Unlike green turtles who come up in their hundreds during August - October, leatherbacks have a longer egg laying period and never come up in groups. Turtles normally come up the beach after 10 PM at night

Visitors at night have to be accompanied by local guides. Dark clothes, no flash photography, no smoking and only small torchlight covered with red cellophane paper - these are the rules. A sight of a turtle can never be guaranteed. A Canadian visitor and I hired a guide for the turtle watch trip. We set off with the guide and his wife at about 10 PM. It was a paid after dinner stroll on the beach for them. Within about 20 minutes we hit the jackpot, the guide and his wife to be more accurate. The guide signaled us to stop and pointed us to a dark track from the sea going up the beach. In the dark all we could see was the track increasing in length. As the turtle was dragging itself up, it was exposing wet sand and hence the track. The wife turned back to the village to collect tourists at $5.00 per head for the chance to see a leatherback laying eggs. Yes, the turtle indeed was a jackpot for them.

The guide explained that once on dry beach, above the high tide, the turtle would find a suitable place and dig a hole for the eggs. Turtles, like crocodiles go into a trance once it starts laying eggs, totally oblivious to its surroundings. If it were disturbed before then, it would turn back to the sea. Finally the moment to experience the magic arrived. The turtle looked like a small tank. Its head was as big as a human head. It was groaning and gasping for air as it continued to drop eggs. It dropped about 65 eggs into the beautifully prepared hole. Mission accomplished, the turtle covered up the hole, slowly turned back and disappeared in the sea.

Another close encounter with Mother Nature, this time displaying her raw power in full, took place at River Pacuare during a white water rafting trip. For those who have done white water rafting, the Pacuare has class IV-V rapids. Crystal clear water, fast rapids, big waterfalls and rainforests on both sides - it was beautiful. Then the sky really opened up. Small rivulets carrying rainwater began appearing on both sides. Two hours or so later, at a bend we were suddenly confronted with a swelling dark brown River Pacuare. The stream, which brought down the rainwater with silt and debris from the mountains above, was now almost as big as the river itself. The gushing sound of the water flowing into the river drowned all other sounds. Tossing large boulders and logs like feather, I thought I heard someone say in unspoken words, " Look at my power".

Arenal Volcano which continues to pour out lava, white sandy beaches of Manual Antonio with rainforests extending inwards, rainforests amidst clouds at Monte Verde and sheer isolation at rainforests and beaches at Tiskita, definitely deserve a mention. Gliding over the rainforest canopy, harnessed to cables running between highest trees in the canopy, definitely deserve a mention as an adrenaline pumping experience.

I also spent a few weeks working as a volunteer with an organization run by an American couple in their 80s, breeding endangered macaws in captivity and then releasing them back into the wild. The intensity of their passion and commitment to the cause they believe in still leaves me bewildered, often reminding me compared to their lives how mundane and empty my life actually is.

It is time to say Goodbye to Costa Rica and move on. Pura Vida Costa Rica! (a Costa Rican expression literally meaning Pure Life but used wherever English expression such as Very Well, Great, Brilliant etc can be used.)

All comments and questions are welcome. I will be in the continent until the beginning of November 2000

By : Jayanta Tayenjam


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