What I love most about Costa Rica is that I find myself in the strangest of places. It’s Sunday morning and I’m sitting on a broken bench in a football pitch in town called Paradise (Paraiso to the locals).
I think I’ve been to Paradise before, not this version of it, but some equally misnomered neglected backwater town in the outback parts of Latin America.
This certainly isn’t my idea of Paradise – a stifling humidity that makes clothes stick to a sweating body like a second skin; the kind of mosquitoes that buzz loudly in your ear before taking a bite; a couple of pulperias (local stores), sodas (restaurants – sort of) and a bar called Las Vegas, where there will be a free baile (dance) this evening – certainly the highlight of the year.
I’m afraid to say that every Costa Rican village looks the same to me – largely uninspiring places with the obligatory football pitch, iglesia, one bar and a pulperia. They all share at least these four common ingredients, although sometimes you might hope to find a ferreteria (hardware store), or perhaps an extra bar (maybe even one with naked ladies).
The houses are modest and small – the majority with simple corrugated iron roofs and walls made out of basic plywood, all different colors, with an aging relative rocking slowly on an easy chair on the porch or fanning themselves with a magazine.
Driving though these villages makes one feel somewhat like a celebrity, for everyone stares with a mixture of unabashed curiosity and hope – for something that will momentarily relieve the boredom and monotony that must make up life in the scarcely populated and oppressively hot interior.
We stop for a coffee in a small store that’s barely opening its doors. It’s a little after 8 am in the morning but soon these plastic tables will be full of people breakfasting on gallo pinto, frijoles, huevos revueltos and tortillas. It’s a hearty breakfast of rice, eggs and beans that doesn’t appear on my radar in such tropical climes and least of all at 8 am. We settle for a tepid black coffee, slapping away the flies that land on the sticky tabletops and in the bowls of sugar.
Today there is a bicycle race to raise money for the children’s Christmas party and Luca is going to do the short circuit (which is 10 km instead of the adult 60 km) on his unicycle. As he peddles back and forth on the spot to keep his balance the people giggle and point.
The president of the town’s youth club asks if she can take a photo of him for their page on Facebook – surely this bizarre foreigner with the Polynesian tattoos and one wheeled bicycle will be spoken of for many a year to come.
We wait anxiously for the start of the race. It’s 9.04 and the kick off was supposed to be at 8.30am. Apparently we are waiting for a family to arrive from Santa Cruz – I really should be used to Latin American punctuality and informality by now but the heat is starting to intensify and I’m a little tired and ratty.
There’s a DJ cranking out tunes from the early 90’s, offering cold beer and sporting a pair of neon sunglasses. It takes an iron stomach to start the day this way and so far there are no takers.
At last they announce the start of the race and it’s a somewhat scrambled affair and not quite clear if the adult and children’s circuits start at the same time or not. As Luca peddles off behind the group I marvel at the speed with which he manages that one-tyred apparatus and how he sits on that horrifyingly uncomfortable-looking saddle.
I look around at the somewhat shabby collection of entrants and doubt that all of the candidates will manage the full 60 clicks. One man in particular has a gut spilling out over his Lycra cycling shorts, getting in the way of the saddle.
As they leave I find myself almost completely alone – the only person left in Paradise – on the edge of the football pitch, a few stray dogs scratching their fleas around my ankles and a little cloud of pesky insects above my head.
The bar opposite suddenly cranks into life, going into direct competition with the DJ on the stand, blasting out their music even louder, so I now have two cringe-worthy variations of Cumbia crackling out through blown speakers, fighting to be heard.
Apart from that the village is practically empty. A mother and child sit down near me and the driver of the Cruz Roja ambulance is eyeing me up salaciously from his van. I yawn as I slap an ant off my toe and a mosquito from my thigh. Costa Rica isn’t all about beach and surf and wildlife. Sometimes you need a little trip to Paradise to remind you how most people live here.