It’s difficult to piece together how Costa Rica won its reputation as a safe place, sandwiched between Panama on its southern border and the ambiguous charms of Nicaragua and then the well known danger of El Salvador on its northern one, yet tourists still flock here for its wildlife, beaches, rainforests, mountains – some still volcanic and its climate of sexual liberation, if loud conversations overheard in the bar are more than drunken male bravado. But like lots of others I come for work, usually a few times each year, and so know little of the countries charms beyond the fifteen minute drive from San Jose Airport to the hotel. In many places in Central and South America, my finger prints can be found somewhere in the local company’s history, Costa Rica is no exception.
I was involved at the beginning. It was 1995 or thereabouts when I was instructed to fly down from New York and perform some due-diligence work on a company that we were secretly in talks to purchase. We had to open an office in Costa Rica for a single customer that manufactured computer chips, and our choice was stark; start from nothing or buy an existing successful logistics company. Performing due diligence work is in theory simple but in practice hazardous. It was my job to make sure that all the claimed “value” of the company is real so that the price agreed on is reasonably accurate. It encompasses the valuation of buildings, of the numbers of genuine, paying customers, how much those really owed, how much money the company was actually making and how much cash they had. The books had to be opened up and talked through painstakingly and I had to be convinced quickly. Secrecy too was a concern as our competitors were also on the prowl and we also had to convince several shareholders to sell their stock. I learnt for the first time the complexities of Central American book keeping, its perverse pride in complexity, the layers of regulations and tax rules, my head span at the end of each day.
At night I ate mainly alone. The restaurants were uninspiring and although I grew a taste for the sweet small plantains and appreciated the luscious quality of the steaks, there was not a lot of diversity in the cuisine in those days. However one evening I was invited to the owner’s home as I think they slowly began to suspect that the deal was at least partially dependent on the degree of my enthusiasm and positive observations. I’m not sure if I should have accepted, it might have been more correct to keep some distance as socializing like this be seen as a conflict, but it seemed impolite to refuse and after a while confess, I was in need of company to shorten those drawn out lonely evenings.
I was picked up in an old SUV by the owners son, it was one of those early, boxy Japanese four wheel drives that rattled at every pot hole on the road, the engine whined and raced as we leapt backwards or forward with each harsh traffic stop, hill climb or sudden descent. He was about my own age I guessed, and being also the accountant, it was he who had been walking me through the numbers each day. We drove away from San Jose up into the forest to a modest home was hidden from the road, the interior characteristically clad in polished wood and with local leather flourishes everywhere; the wine holder, place mats, chair coverings which were all from local cattle that once roamed in the Costa Rican fields. The father was also leathery, when we first shook hands I was instantly aware of my own feminine soft palm against his abrasive course hand, his face showing every year of his advanced age, telling a story of a long, rich life which he was keen to share through increasingly wild stories over a three hour dinner.
He took us back in time to a different world where small propeller planes moved cargo across jungles and oceans, where the unpredictable weather changes caused changed schedules and your bed might now be the cockpit or a make shift tent. He talked of landing strips quickly carved out of a forest, deals made in strip joints , quiet pay off’ s, mergers not just of companies but of families, life time relationships built upon the foundations of extreme discomfort in a lawless place, the fear of landing in an un-bribed airport, the inside of a prison cell.
Bottles of sweet dangerous rum came out, small glasses (from leather holders). As the night progressed the stories became more raucous; revolutionary names were not being dropped casually, it was free fall, Fidel in the jump seat, terrifying night landings in Bolivia and Honduras, names of Caribbean Islands new to me, wars, politics and uprisings slipped into his urgent verbal history, but never drugs, that forbidden topic. I don’t know if it was pure mythology, how true any of this was but it hardly mattered to me if he knew Castro or Che or Batista or if he really gave them a ride through moonlit Caribbean nights. Sometimes the travels in your imagination are more important that the real ones. His son caught my eye, don’t take my father too seriously he seemed to be saying, a photo album had been threatened but the night was drawing to a close and he had to be helped up from the sofa to say goodnight. We were all a little drunk and yet reputations had to clung onto, the family was to receive a significant amount of money once the shareholders votes were won. As I left he came to the door I thought he mumbled “thanks for all the goodwill” with all the other well wishes, I assumed he had slurred the words and was just part of his rudimental English, but I caught a sharp, dark look from his son pass between them at that moment.
That meeting was to be the next day, my work was over but I did attend the vote and it was a remarkable day. Firstly someone had parked outside the hall a secretly rebranded van with our companies’ joint logos’, giving the impression the deal was already too far gone to turn back. The shareholders themselves were an older generation; elderly women seemed to possess the highest authority, dressed in immaculately formal outfits, their hair and makeup clearly worked on for hours. I nursed a hangover and I was grateful to take a ride with the owner’s son out to the countryside once the deal was done. The landscape changed from the dense cargo area with chain fences, metal warehouse buildings and suddenly I was in pastoral England, farm animals and hedgerows. We stopped for lunch in a traditional restaurant (Steak, Plantains) and talked about the night before. I knew of course, the point of the stories and their urgency from the old man, was to illustrate an alternative story of his company, the real one. It was not the state of the balance sheet, the grubby outcome of years of risk and adventure, I guessed his comment about goodwill was pointed in some personal way and held some special meaning; in accounting terms it is the difference between the price paid for the business and what the balance sheet shows but in his mind it is all the things that could not be described by Dollars or Colones. It was a rebuke I guessed for his son, and for myself, as he had seen us during the day peering into the icy grey glow of our laptops. My biggest triumph would be an under depreciated asset, my greatest fear would be a number on the balance sheet missed, a line that failed to be scrutinized. His opinion did not need to be said out loud, when he looked around the office with everyone intent on staring at screens, this is no way to live a life and I would agree with him. On the other hand, I justify to myself, at least I am here, under a rainforest canope in Central America, absorbing and observing the worlds wonder.
Now, twenty five years later I am back, in the same hotel, I come here twice a year and its a place, I realize now, that also has something of little England to it. The rooms have windows both the front, where other guests walk past and at the back facing the bar and pool area which is heavily screened by greenery. It’s a voyeur, or exhibitionists, delight. Our modesty is protected both by heavy curtains and flimsy lace ones, for a moment you think that you could be in a small town like Hull or St Ives with tightly drawn net curtains. Walking past the rooms you occasionally see outlines of guests and the flicker of a TV screen, lives partially revealed through the gauze. Outside I hear the sudden and melancholy drone of a decelerating truck, rain falls, heavy and persistent on the steel roof, but otherwise silence overwhelms this grey evening. There is something wonderfully comforting about the downpour, when I am sitting in the early evening watching the sky perform its evening multicolored show and the surface of the swimming pool, animated and dancing, offering the illusion that it is coming to boil.
The hotel is a miracle of landscaping, employing countless men in high visibility vests to tame the creep of the jungle; still from where I am sitting I cannot help noticing the immodesty of the blood red flowers, or the palm tree tree’s, a perfect exercise in design with thin, finger like leaves and pliable trunks to survive whatever the weather throws at them. And the sounds around me fill the air with carnality, the voices and mocking whistles of the birds, sounds of yearning and loneliness that are almost human at times.
Thinking about the encounter all those years ago with the old man made me think for a moment of my own father who was still alive at that time. He belonged to the same generation but could not have been more different. Mine was Edwardian in spirit, culture, or perhaps we could blame education, one who thought his role was to be distant, feared by his children, perhaps because his own had been taken from him at an early age. He wasn’t someone I could ever be close to; if I phoned home and he answered there would be a short uncomfortable exchange until the phone was passed quickly to my waiting, over compensating, Mother. When at home we would barely talk and instead use that reliable arbitrator, the Television set, to enable communication between us; laughing at the same joke, disapproval at over sentimental Americans, it acted as a safe filter for our emotions. Night after night, saying nothing, in front of the glow of that square machine. Perhaps, the days of telling tall stories are over and there is too much safety in our lives now, we are not the generation who rattled in the sky searching the Central American horizon for threatening storms or the ground for plausible landing strips. I was never to be the son who listened at the foot of his father, who adopted the parenting role himself at the end of his life, to apologize for his exuberance, for the wild romance of his stories.