So now that I’ve begun this series of ruminations, digressions and scattered thoughts from the jungles of Costa Rica, the natural question to arise from you, dear Alaskan reader is, “How in the hell did this geekhead end up in a place like that? And why can’t I?”
Here’s a little story about how all this came about.
I was sitting in a bar (and don’t you love it when stories start with guys sitting in bars?) in San Francisco watching my friend Bob cut citrus into wedges for the start of a Saturday shift. I had the usual Saturday morning line-up in front of me; the sports section, a draft Sierra Nevada and a shot of Patron silver (just to loosen up the the blood). I had been the pedestrian victim of a Yellow Cab vs. Pedestrian collision six months previous and had emerged the battered loser with all the bones in my left leg broken, seven broken ribs and a shattered left elbow. I had had surgeries on my left knee and shoulder and was idling away my time in taverns awaiting another two. Work, as I had previously known it was a distant bump on my horizon and I was getting pretty good at morning drinking.
Bob and I were discussing the relative merits of whatever sporting events were about to take place. I could just as easily have been the NCAA playoffs as the beginning of baseball season, when our peace and tranquility was seriously disturbed by a florid young gentleman named John McGraw, a golfing crony and sometime fellow restaurant worker. John was excited as all get out and as he has a stutter, it was a little difficult to figure out just what he needed to say; it was all prefaced with a sputtering, “Chef, Chef, Chef…”
“Sit down and slow down, Johnny”, I urged him, “let me buy you a shot. You look like you could use one.” My philosophy at that time was that nearly everyone could use one, nearly all the time. “Chef,” he began again, once the shot had taken its desired residence. “What do you know about Costa Rica?”
“I know it’s not an island, John, and that’s about all I know.” The next most obvious question was, “Why?”
All of a sudden he got kind of hushed and secretive and gestured toward the back room of the R Bar. “Let’s go back here”, he kind of whispered and Bob and I exchanged curious looks.
“John, there’s only you and me and Bob in here. What’s the big secret?”
He snuck another look around, hunched over his not inconsiderable shoulders and said, “Okay, this is what’s going on.”
It turned out that his big secret was that he and his wife had been scoping out ways to get out of the country to go work (and there’s another odd story) and had been contacted by a friend who was just about to post an ad on craigslist looking for someone to assume management and a lease with an option to buy on a closed but interesting looking hotel/restaurant somewhere in Costa Rica. And for reasons not entirely clear, no one was to know. They wanted and needed a chef but hadn’t even seen the property yet. This kind of scenario pops up in my life far too often and I took the same stance with John as I do with everyone who has a harebrained scheme and needs a chef. “John, go down there, shoot some video footage and let’s look at it when you get back. Bob, I need another shot.”
Four Saturday’s later, in the very same bar, with the very same morning line-up in front of me and probably a different sporting event getting ready to take place, Bob was again slicing lemons or perhaps limes and I was reading, drinking and talking simultaneously; something which I have a particular talent for. As if in instant replay of events previous, John McGraw again burst upon the sanctity of our Saturday morning, but this time lugging a laptop under his burly arm. “Okay, Chef”, he semi-stammered although it was difficult to tell if it was his excitement or his natural stutter causing his odd speech, “I’ve got something for you to look at.”
And indeed he did. He had gone to Costa Rica and he had shot video footage. Not very good footage, mind you, but good enough to pique my interest. Now granted, as I had been walking with a cane, living in bars and sleeping sitting up in a chair for nearly six months, at this point it didn’t take a lot to catch my interest; but this was pretty good. The footage was of a tropical pink resort, covered in vines and mold; a disassembled and greasy (though not visably unfunctional) kitchen and a swimming pool with a greenish cast. What caught my eye in the video, however, was the when the camera made a sweeping pan across an amazing burst of blue that turned out to be the Pacific Ocean. Huge. And yes, blue, very blue.
“John”, I said, casually, “I think you need to fly me down there to take a look at this place.”
Just three weeks later, passport in pocket and carry-on in hand I stepped off the tiny barebones airplane and onto the blast furnace that is the two lane blacktop landing strip in Palmar Sud, a tiny but important crossroads pueblo at the top of the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica. My shirt immediately clung to my body, glued there with torrents of sweat . I squinted fiercely and shuffled across the rough tarmac to the shack that served as the terminal. And there was John, still red and still stammering, but this time also sweating fiercely. “Chef, Great to see you. I know where the coldest beer in Palmar is. Get in the car.”
The beer was indeed cold; each bottle sheened in ice as it was pulled from an ancient coffin style cooler. It got warm fast, but the solution to that was to drink quickly, very quickly. The next week was a blur of rum drinks, tropical fruits, body-surfing, jungletours and a lot of fresh shrimp. I liked the place, I liked the pace and I loved the lifestyle. We hit the beaches in the morning, we napped at mid-day and we ate fresh fish and drank big rum drinks in the evening. I was completely and utterly seduced. At the end of the week I got back on the airplane writing my first menu in my head. Yes, I took the job. I jettisoned everything I owned, left a great apartment in San Francisco and moved it all; knives, iPod and laptop to Costa Rica. I would have kicked myself for the rest of my life if I hadn’t.