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Expat Living: a Lesson in Costa Rica Jungle Culture

I have always loved animals. I get along with almost all of them. The exception is horses. They own me. A horse can see me coming from a hundred miles and I’m sure they start thinking, “I’m going to mess with guy´s head.” This goes back to since I was a teenager.

Long before internet social media, Tinder, TikTok and a million other sites to chat and meet people, we had the “spook line.” It was actually a telephone company test line and men in the field, people in the Central Office, and dispatchers could all be on line at the same time to communicate with each other. They only used it during working hours and some teenager discovered the number and nightly there would be 50 or more kids on it at the same time. If you wanted a private conversation, you exchanged your home number.

A Lesson in Horseback Riding and Wildlife Conservation

I was 13, and met Collen on the spook line, she was 15 but we started talking almost nightly and she invited me to go horseback riding. Although we had never met face to face, I was sure excited it was about to happen.

When I showed up she was beautiful. Much more mature than me. She had two girlfriends with her on horses. She was on another towing one for me. I mounted a horse for the first time off we went. It was really fun at first as the horses walked alongside the edge of a lake. Then the girls decided it was time shift gears and they took off.

I guess my horse decided he needed to join them because it rose up, dumped me on my keister and took off. The last thing I remember is lying flat on back and raising my head long enough to see the rump of my horse galloping off into the sunset. Horses have owned me ever since.

Ironically after high school I went to work at the telephone company and used the spook line during the day to communicate with fellow workers many times. Now and then I would have to access people´s back yards to hike the pole that fed their neighbor’s telephone. At times they wouldn´t be home.

Often people would arrive home and find me standing on my spikes in their backyard and ask, “how did you get past the dog?”  I had a knack for making friends with dogs. If it had horses, I wouldn´t even chance.

Years later when I ended up in Barra del Colorado Costa Rica to work with the late Archie Fields at his famous Rio Colorado Lodge. Archie had a zoo. I was thrilled to oversee the animals in the zoo as well as other operational needs. (Save your Comments, I know having a zoo is no longer politically correct but 3 decades ago we were fully permitted and had regular inspections from the government.)  

My pets included macaws, parrots, toucans, spider and white face monkeys, a coatimundi I let get way too fat who we called Gordita. She loved to snuggle. But by far the most popular of my pets was out tapir named Baby Doll who would visit guests nightly in the bar and gulp down bananas I passed out for the guests to give her as a treat.

An Untouched Village

Barra del Colorado is the last Village in Costa Rica before reaching the Nicaragua border on the Caribbean side. The pueblo is divided by the Rio Colorado into Barra Norte, and Barra Sur. The majority of the residents live on the north side of the river and a small amount live along the beach and airport runway on the south side. Raised sidewalks keep residents dry during the annual flood. You can only get there by boat or by plane.

If you go there today it will look a lot like many other small Costa Rican towns. Concrete houses, a  soccer field with kids hanging out, scrolling on their cell phones, laughing while watching TikTok videos.

Thirty some years ago it was quite different. Most of the homes were clapboard structures built high enough off the ground to avoid the flood waters and dirt pathways connected the neighbors’ homes. School only went to the 6th grade. There was only one telephone on the north side of the river and two on the south side of the river.

There was a phone at the lodge and another in the pueblo, the public telephone which an operator dialed the number you wished, and people would wait in line for hours for their turn to reach the outside world.

Our phone at the lodge was in the office and if I got a phone call, the receptionist would step out on the veranda and holler, “Todd!…..Todd!…..Todd!.” Her voice would carry throughout the property. Three decades later, every morning there is a yellow-naped parrot still screaming, “Todd!….Todd!….Todd!.”

Locals survived on fishing, either commercially or taking tourists to fish snook and giant tarpon. There ancestors hunted sea turtles. Others had small farms or lived off the land often hunting deer and other small game in the nearby jungle.

People would sometimes bring animals to the lodge. One day on of the locals brought a baby chanco monte, (wild pig) the size of a puppy and explained it had been orphaned. One of my tarpon guides Manny, was listening to the conversation. Manny’s mother-in-law Evanette , was our cook at the lodge. An always joyful Jamaican woman who had never been to school a day in her life but had more wisdom than anyone I have ever met.

Evanette gave some advice that I have lived by for my 30 some years in Costa Rica when one day she said, “Todd, I’ve taken to liking you so I am going to tell you the secret to get by here. You only need to know two things. First, always go with the current. If you try to swim against it, you will surely drown. And second. If you don’t want someone to get your goat, don’t let them know where you keep your goat tied up.”

Manny seeing me holding this pig chimed in and told me if I was to rub the little guy under my arm pit and put my scent on it, it would follow me everywhere. I’m gullible enough, so I did as instructed and sure enough it started following me so I decided to care for it and began to bottle feed it little guy. I named him Solito, because he was all alone in this world.

Soon it was following me everywhere and growing fast. We would meet the boats as they pulled into docks everyday after fishing. I would always ask what kind of day the guests had. Tarpon really chafes up a 100 lb leader when hooked to a line and I knew their answer before I even asked the question. Solito would be right by my side as we went slip to slip meeting the anglers.

Solito learned to walk with a leash, and we would often go for walks on the airstrip in the afternoons. He got to be around 50 lbs or so and began to act like a chanco monte as much as he did a pet. He started to root in the gardens that Archie liked to keep meticulously groomed and I needed to decide which I preferred, a happy boss, or a happy pig.

I asked my employees if any of them wanted to take Solito to their home to live. One quickly volunteered. Without a second thought I sent him away figuring he was going to a good home.

Several days later my employee walked into the hotel with Solito. Only this time Solito was on a plate and well barbecued. The other employees enjoyed Solito immensely, but I just couldn’t. There was a difference in our points of view. A cute pet or a food source. I now understand them both.

Source: Tico Times