I arrived in Puriscal after a three-and-a half hour ride from the mountain village of Mastatal. I rode in a yellow American School Bus (Blue Bird Incorporated, the logo above the driver read), that would have failed inspection decades ago if ever subjected to strict American regulations. The windows were jammed open. Neither door closed. The brakes squealed wrathfully down to each valley, and the acceleration strained like a shackled wildebeest up each hill. The road itself was a serpentine dirt track that would have given a BMXer a run for his money, and yet the jalopy somehow made it. I slept fitfully next to an older Tica, and only became aware we had gotten a flat at some point when I blearily glanced out the window to see half the bus gathered around a deflated tire, smoking and pointing.
A couple hours into the ride, my knees began to ache with the yen for movement, and the glorious glade-green mountains that slowly crawled by only increased my desire to pull the stop-line and walk the rest of the way.
The 210-minute ride only took us about 30 miles (do the math), but we finally screeched and skidded to a halt in the main square of Puriscal. The square centered around a public park with walking paths radiating outwards from a concrete pavilion where youths were always trying out their latest breakdance moves. Behind the square, as undeniable and monolithic as the mountains that surrounded the town existed El Temple, a giant smasshedup cathedral surrounded by a 15-foot tall barbwire fence. I don’t know when El Temple was built, but in its current form, it existed with giant, crooked holes in its greyed façade, and the windows had all been stoned-out: it was beautiful, especially when the sunlight hit the monolith full-on and the pureblue sky contrasted the blown-through destruction of this human institution.
El Temple was by far the tallest building in the municipality, which seemed to have a commercial center the size of a small American city. Everything else was two stories: Fried Chicken shacks, Bakeries, MotorBike stores, Fish Markets, Sausageries, stores that seemed to sell whatever sundries that they could get that particular week…there were people walking around everywhere; I was by far the only white one.
My mission for the day was to take care of a machete wound. I had gotten it my first full day at the farm in Mastatal, when, in an attempt to immediately dive into the rustic, dirty life of a work-trade farmer (WWOOFer), had over-enthusiastically tried to hack open a coconut. I had gotten the tough fruit partially open and was bringing the heavy blade down for what was to be the final cut when I realized that my steadying hand was too close to the blade’s trajectory. Too late. The machete sliced far deeper through the coconut then I had expected, and continued on through my arm. I removed the blade to a spurt of blood and remarked:
“Oh, shit. THAT doesn’t look good.”
However, my response to the bloody mess was too subdued to attracted attention, so I continued, a little louder with:
“Uh…I think I need, like, medical attention?”
One of my fellow WWOOFers screamed at me to put pressure on the wound. I clamped my hand down on the cut and opaque redness oozed between my fingers and dripped down the other arm. A second fellow WWOOFer, who happened to be in her third year of a pre-med major, applied pressure with a towel. The bleeding stopped after about 20 minutes.
But now I had a deep incision on my wrist, deep enough to have cut through veins, tendons and the like, but had miraculously missed them all. Still, the wound was open, and I wasn’t about to get some sort of hell-sent Centroamerican infection two days into my journey. Marcos, the village elder who owned and operated the farm, had called up a clinic in Puriscal and assured me that they could stitch me up for the lowlow cost of 50 dollars. He had even drawn a map; the clinic was on a street adjacent to the central square.
I took my time getting to the clinic—the return bus to Mastatal didn’t leave until three that afternoon. I wandered around, bought two pieces of fried chicken (surprisingly similar to our American version of the bird) that came with a corn tortilla, sat in the park, read a little. By 10:30, I figured I should go to the clinic to leave time for complications. There were to be many.
First of all, I don’t speak or understand Spanish. It was hard enough to get the fried chicken; getting medical care seemed like it would be worlds harder. I arrived at the clinic and HabloEnglais’d the young, professional-looking man sitting at the desk. He did not. Only one person working at the clinic did, who was able to inform me that they were unable to treat me because I wasn’t a Costa Rican national. I didn’t have the cultural or language know-how to debate this, so took the woman’s suggestion of hailing a cab and going to the local hospital. I knew this was going to be far more expensive (I had only brought 60 dollars) and far more complicated (yep). However, the Taxi Driver was a true saint. Not only did he not overcharge me, he walked into the hospital and informed them that some klutz had accidentally hacked his arm open with a machete and didn’t speak a lick of Spanish.
The clinic had looked like some sort of field hospital set up by GIs in Vietnam; the hospital was a far more modern affair. It also seemed to be staffed exclusively by flaming-hot Costa Rican doctresses. Again, no one spoke English. They set me up with a particularly hot doctress that knew a phrase or two, who haltingly inquired if I had travelers insurance.
“Do you have…identification?”
“No.” Shit. I had left my passport at the farm in case I was mugged by a Central American gang or something.
“Do you have…your…passport number?”
“Non…I mean, no.”
Damn useless French. Shoulda taken Esspagna.
…and, just as I was prepared to be booted out into the hot Costa Rican sun, something strange happened.
They treated me. Applied antiseptic, stitches, gave me antibiotics and Acetemetiphen.
And didn’t charge me a cent.
Guess Michael Moore was right on that one.
I hopped a bus back to the main square (also a BlueBird) and still had four hours to kill before the bus back to Mastatal arrived. I seated myself on a plot of grass and pulled out Dharma Bums, the Kerouac I had been reading since I picked up a faded copy at the farm. Perfect reading for a traveler. I had laid down, blocking the noontide sun with the pages when, suddenly, a shadow fell over me.
The kid was probably no more than 17, a skinny runt of a character that for some reason spoke better English than the hot doctress from the hospital. He asked me if I wanted to smoke.
I did. However, if a decade of drug experience had taught me anything, it was that you shouldn’t buy drugs off the street. Nearly 100 percent of the time, you would be ripped off, or worse. I told the runt no thanks.
We chatted for a couple minutes, then I went back to reading, though I was distracted by certain thought patterns.
Still, I held my ground, kept reading the Kerouac. I glanced back at the group the runt had come from at one point and met one of the kid’s eyes. I couldn’t tell if he had been looking at me or if he had just glanced back when he saw my head turn in his direction. Several people in the group starting straying away, until it was only the runt and one other kid, a baby-faced child with curly locks that looked like some kind of street cherub and musta not been more than 16. When the two of them passed me on their way out of the park, the runt inquired again if I wanted pot. Marihuana. I said yes.
I gave them 2 mil for the pot, a little less than four dollars, and we went into a shop to grab papers. We continued to walk away from the main square, the buildings along the sides of the road becoming more residential.
“We got-to walk a little out of the town? So no cops will find us.”
Costa Rica has stricter pot laws than New York State. Apparently, if a foreigner is caught with marijuana, they are immediately thrown in jail, then deported to their native land where they have to face criminal charges. They are then not allowed back to Costa Rica for 10 years.
Walking along, the runt and I haltingly tried to communicate.
“You should practice your Spanish.” He kept insisting. “Use your SPANISH.”
After a 10 minute walk, we came upon a soccer field. There was only one other person there, an older guy the street cherub knew. The older guy was setting up for a field goal kick, and the cherub raced to defend the netless goal. The older guy kicked a perfect shot, arcing the ball up above the cross bar, then dropping it down just in time to score.
We continued walking to the far side of a field and sat on a log. The runt tore the baggie open with his teeth and started breaking the nug up onto the paper, taking his time and chatting with the street cherub. He was smiling.
He looked to the far side of the field where we had entered and his smile disappeared. There, five guys in their thirties were staring across the pitch at us. Runt and Street Cherub began talking in low tones, glancing nervously at the group of men every few seconds, who had begun to approach us. I wished I knew what they were saying.
When the men reached us, runt was staring down at his weed-work as though trying to ignore their presence. The main guy, a giant in an orange wife beater, started talking loudly to the runt, leaning down over his squat form. After a minute or so of talk, he turned to me and stuck out his hand.
“Yo soy Roger.” Damnit. Shouldn’t have said ‘Yo.’ Unnecessary except for emphasis. The giant told me his name, then continued talking to the runt, his booming voice taking on a more aggressive tone. He started thrusting his finger in the boy’s face. He then thrust his finger in my face while still addressing the runt, his voice rising in menace. He turned to me and said something in Spanish.
“What?” I turned to the runt, who was staring down into his hands. “What is he saying?”
“He says you have to give him dinero.”
“Wait, what?” I was taught and nervous, not thinking straight. “I have to buy him dinner? Why?”
“Dinnerro.” The kid repeated.
“What?” I made the international gesture for eating with my hands. “Why do I have to buy him dinner?”
“He wants money.” The runt didn’t meet my eyes.
“Diinnnnerrrro.” Now all the men were leaning over me, leering, making the international gesture for money.
I stared back for a moment, nervous and confounded.
“Fuck that.” I rose and slid around the line of scowling faces, then started walking away as calmly as I could. I knew they were going to jump me. I perked my ears up for signs of movement, and when one came, I twisted around as one of the men ran up and grabbed me around the neck. I threw him with my shoulder and he spun halfway around in midair, landing on his feet facing me. He was holding something in his hand. I glanced down at it as quickly as I could: he was holding a shiv.
Then the other men were on me. They plunged their hands deep into my pockets, groping me. I started shoving them away. One got into my left pocket and came up with my new Droid. I didn’t want to lose it, so I illogically pulled out my money, thinking that if I gave up the money they would give me back the phone, as if this was a negotiation and not a mugging.
“GIVE ME BACK MY FUCKING PHONE AND I’LL GIVE YOU THE MONEY.”
“Diiinnnnnero. Dinnnnnerrrro.” They all clawed at my clenched fist.
“GIVE ME MY FUCKING PHONE.” One of them wrenched my backpack off.
It was over. I released my hand and then men ripped the money away. One of the smaller ones tore everything out of my backpack. I looked up to see the street cherub staring at me wide-eyed from a safe distance. I used the international gesture for ‘fuck you’ while trying to convey how much I wanted to end him through my eyes. He fled.
The men had gotten everything they wanted. One of them handed back the hoodie from the backpack, which I snatched back, scowling. The men scattered. The older guy who kicked the perfect field goal was visible loping over the cusp of the field. Only me and the runt were left.
As I was cursing this stupid fucking country and all the spics that inhabited it, I glanced at my left arm to find it again spurting blood. During the struggle, one of the men had hooked a finger in the sutures and reopened the machete would. Blood poured down my arm.
The runt seemed to be trying to apologize, but I didn’t want to hear any of it. My left arm was covered with blood, and it had dripped all over one of the only sets of clothing I had for the next six months of travel. The men had gotten 50 dollars, my droid, a flashlight and two packs of cigarettes.
“We should still smoke. Still have the marihuana.”
The runt kept following me as I stumbled back to town, trying to find a bottle to smash over his head. After about five minutes, I turned down a side street and shoved him in the other direction.
“Pleeease. Just GO. Leave me alone.”