Four times twenty nine.
Oh oh and fuck it! Yeah and bollocks!
Crows Mary gleefully.
Yes fuck it!
She says again enjoying the taste of an English accent on her tongue.
It is Michael’s birthday and a birthday in paradise is a tall order. What more can you add? So we have taken a boat tour to a little island off the coast called Isla Tortuga where an extra dollop of utopia awaits. Sharing the trip with us is a Californian couple staying in Costa Rica for a month with their daughter and son in law and they are very keen to try out some English expletives. We shout over the engine on the way down the coast sharing stories and hamming up our accents. The wind whips everyone’s hair into impressive shapes and the sea gleams in the morning sunlight, reflecting on to our faces.
Forty minutes later we are popped on a small beach skirting the southern end of the island to marvel at the glowing white sands and to float about in the sea. Anika gets on to Michael’s shoulders and remains terrifically poised, water streaming off her in to the sea. She stays sitting there surveying the horizon and it obviously looks like fun to Jamie who swims underneath me without advance warning and hoists me out of the water.
I shout loudly and fall immediately off, swallowing a large gulp of brine. When I resurface, a man has waded in to the sea to talk to the Californians and I catch the word ceviche. Just the mention of the word has me simultaneously running, swimming and shouting ceviche?! at him. He stops and looks at me sensing he may just have a sale and says,
Yeah, oyster ceviche.
And he is right, I am totally sold.
Michael and Anika bob about in the water and watch as Jamie and I scurry to the little boat that the ceviche man is working from and peer in at the buckets of oysters. A great, scaled shell is plucked from a bucket and cranked deftly open. The mother of pearl inside gleams blue and purple and the oyster sits unhappily in two pieces, black and frilly like expensive Marks and Spencer knickers. Another man is cross hatching the top an onion with a knife and scrapes the little chunks off in to on half of the shell after the oyster is diced then a ripe lime is squeezed on top. And that’s it. I am handed an unlabelled bottle of chilli sauce which I blot carefully on to the mess in the shell and then slurp the whole lot down in two gulps.
It is so perfect and timely and delicious and the sun catches the shell so right that I raid Michael for cash even though it is his birthday and immediately have another made up. Jamie joins me, slurping at the plate like shells and fending off Michael who wants to try but not to buy. I lick the smooth, radiant shell clean and pronounce,
Mejor del mundo!
to the fishermen. Best in the world; a phrase Michael has been sledgehammering in to as many conversations as he can since learning it to describe his favourite garden ever up in La Fortuna. No one hears it except the fishermen who look perplexed at my compliment as though there was never any doubt in their minds but it makes me smile nonetheless.
Lunch approaches and we are herded in to a gazebo shaded area where several peacocks and a tail wagging pig surrealy roam around looking for scraps. We dine on marlin and potatoes and are offered, rather oddly, weak American lager in place of the cheap but far superior local beer. We aren’t complaining, its a condensation licked, icy cold tin of beer on a tropical beach after all,but something more is needed to properly celebrate the occasion. From our rucksack we produce the bottle of Nicaragua rum we have bought to toast the birthday boy and the whole bottle is swiftly despatched in to a congregation of plastic cups. Each glass finished with wedges of the lime we picked earlier in Montezuma and a slosh of Coca Cola and suddenly it’s Cuba Libres all round. Jamie pops a plate of cake slices hastily purchased at the local supermarket when we realise birthday cakes don’t exist here. There is a waxen number 29 burning atop the brownie and everyone sings happy birthday and holds up their cups. Michael is very pleased to be officially turning 29 for the fourth year running, an age he has assured us he will now remain at indefinitely. He blows out the candles and everyone cheers and looks pleased to be here. Unfortunately the cakes are rubbish and we end up licking the guava jam off one and poking the chocolate brownie, which seems to have been made with something wholly other than chocolate.
Rum swimmy and full of food we lie back for a little waiting for snorkel time to approach. Jamie finds a series of gigantic seashells in amongst the rocks and cannot be persuaded to leave the largest where it was found. He drags it on board our little boat when the time comes, heroically overlooking the fishy stink emanating from the shell’s depths. One of our guides dives to the bottom and reappears with another shell, just as big but shiny and well kept. Jamie looks on enviously, evidently considering the new shell’s superior shinyness. Inside is a large, disgruntled crab who stares at us in abject dismay and waves it’s giant claw unproductively. Once we have snorkelled up and are paddling ridiculously about in the water, there are big black fish, little stripy fish, brown ones, yellow ones and blue ones. There is one with a long body and big round eyes, there are huge shoals of silver ones. An angel fish flits in and out of sight pursued by a parrot fish. A pelican sits on the big rock jutting out of the sea that we swim around and sorts his feathers. His dangly, loose skinned throat wobbles as he preens and yet he looks pretty regal sitting there on his perch, owning the rock. I am lost in admiration when a panicked splashing breaks my revelry and Jamie surfaces, coughing on seawater and rasping,
Something bit me on the foot!
And indeed, when he gets back on the boat, a thin stream of blood runs from a little nibble on his foot.
Someone says and points.
Something bit him!
I say proudly, peering at the small chunk missing from Jamie’s damp foot. The rest of the group look dubious. Bit him? What would bite him? The consensus is that he probably just hit his foot on the coral. Jamie looks at his foot and shrugs.
He says but I can tell he is not convinced and his mind is full of dark, toothy creatures hiding in the depths. I have made the unfortunate error of watching a large selection of shark attach videos on youtube and am thus busy imagining it to be a Great White. Perhaps a Great White with concussion who can’t bite straight. Whatever, I don’t like it and am suddenly pleased to find that the afternoon has raced and a murky bank of mussel coloured clouds has built on the horizon. The wind is starting to gently push at the boat and the air has cooled suddenly, it looks rather like time to escape the brain injured shark and head back. Mary is also rather anxiously twittering from one end of the boat.
Come on! Time to go! Come on! Not safe!
She calls, tinging her snorkel mask lightly on the canopy frame to garner attention. Less concerned with imaginary sharks, she is looking nervously up at the sky where lightning has begun to flash silently in the distance. She later explains that her first husband was struck and killed by lightning so her concerns are rather graver than mine. The guys who have brought us out here stay cool as sea cucumbers in their sunglasses but I can see them eyeing the skies when they think we aren’t looking. They net the last snorkellers and turn the engine on, distracting us from our early departure for a moment with a starfish brought up from the seafloor. It is squashy solid all at the same time. The surface of it is glazed in deep indigo blues, blacks and browns and as I hold it, a curious suctioning begins on my outstretched palm. When I turn my hand slightly, the starfish has glued itself on and has to be gently peeled away. I try it again and am rewarded, suction, unpeel. When I look up Jamie is watching me with mild pity and the boat is already rushing through the bay heading for the open sea. I gently flip the starfish back in the water and soon we are bouncing and slamming back over great heaving waves. Each wave has us laughing a little hysterically as we are lifted from the benches and thumped painfully back down. I feel the shock waves skittering up my spinal column and wonder if I will be paralysed by the morning before I am lifted and thrown again. Seawater splooshes over me at intervals and I stick my hand into it as it slops over the edge of the boat. It is bath warm in contrast with the rain laden cool air rushing past us.
So warm! It’s hot!!
I shout but the sound is lost in the wind and I am content to be batted about by the mountainous seas watching the coastline zipping past us. Neat little seabirds bob on floating logs which I mistake for sharks and dolphins. Tiny beaches dotted with tiny holiday makers whistle past us. There, a waterfall, there Tambor beach, the surf school complete with mini surfers making mini whoops. Toy sized Montezuma beach draws closer and closer and, dripping wet, we are soon tumbling off the boat in a rush of forgotten flip flops and salty puddles. Our skin is peppered with grains of sand and we all have rosy pink cheeks to match our mood.
We squelch back to our hotels to sluice the day from our bodies before strolling back out to enjoy a lobster dinner. We poke lobster meat out of the shells with our forks and suck our fingers. We spike ourselves on the spiny shells and crow when we manage to lever a big bit out, dip it in the rich garlic sauce and pour it in to our mouths. A great plate of beautiful, golden patacones and a mound of guacamole appears and disappears within minutes. I can hardly resist these crunchy rounds of flattened and fried green plantain, salted and heaped with the ceviche that is set down beside it, and it is everything I can do to stop myself pouching the lot and batting away the other’s hands.. Luckily, a murky, boozy round of superb mojitos turns up and then another and the rum swirls in to my blood stream, distracting me from the patacones and pretty much everything else except this moment right now. We toast Michael again and toast Costa Rica. Here’s to birthdays in paradise every time!
The evening draws onwards and Michael and Anika’s time in Costa Rica is nearly at an end but with the last slurps of rum and rough crystals of brown sugar on our tongues, the last mint leaves peeled from lower lips, we start to discuss our journey back to San Jose. We want to take Anika up to our castle in the sky. It’s not practical, it’s not really on the way but we have kittens to check on and a grand piano to play.
Our previous two days at Corona De Los Santos with James and Roy were, in part, so enjoyable because we worked so hard to get there. We dragged Robin up nearly vertical roads, skidded, slid back down, got lost, asked directions, got lost again and only after a couple of hours searching did we find the big white house on top of the mountain. Waiting for us was an open fire, red wine and a view to put on your bucket list. This time is no different. If anything, even more taxing. We get lost in the outskirts of San Jose and drive back and forth in the pouring rain trying to follow non existent road signs and a low calibre map and trying not to argue. The roads turn quickly in to lively rivers and the fog closes in so thick we can barely see the road markings in front of us. Darkness falls, completing a trio of the top most unpleasant driving conditions. It isn’t until 10pm that we finally find ourselves heaving the car up the steep, narrow lanes, grinding over soggy, rocky mud and pulling up to a dripping but otherwise silent house. The big gates are firmly locked and no one answers our increasingly anxious rings on the bell. I start picking around the puddles down the lane and assessing the climbability of the fence but become almost immediately entangled in barbed wire. Face, damply pressed in to a rose bush I carefully extract myself and start to consider an exciting nighttime climb up the steep, muddy bank and garden wall. I have just laid hands on the damp grass and am looking up in to the dark as Jamie comes to tell me the gates are open. Brushing the filth off me quickly I saunter back up the lane as if I weren’t just about to break in to his house and greet Roy apologetically.
It has been a long day and we clamber the steps to bed eagerly though the little, cluttered shed at the back of the garden remains at the front of my thoughts. I wonder if the tiny kittens, abandoned by their injured mother, have survived or not. I err on the pessimistic side, listing the predators in my mind who would snack on baby cats. Jaguars, eagles, hawk, lynx….do monkeys like kittens? It doesn’t seem very hopeful for them but we have a revolting lump of ham made from a chicken that we bought in error and I promise myself to stuff the little cats silly if they have been deft enough to make it through to their fifth week.
Five thirty arrives with a lambent, pale blue wash brushed over the mountains at the far side of the valley. I open the curtains to gaze with adoration at the steep hillsides painted in morning light then put my shoes on and let myself quietly out the door leaving Jamie slumbering. I tread lightly over the sandy gravel that stands in for a garden whilst James and Roy continue to renovate and stride up the tussocky path to the tumbledown shed. A great bunch of bananas hanging in the doorway has burst in to golden ripeness since last we were here but nothing else appears to have changed. No kittens greet me. I cautiously approach the broken door and look inside. Nothing but an empty margarine tub and a pile of planks and tarpaulins. I call the kittens quietly and wait. A scuffling sound from under the tarp. I call again and out from under the junk, a little orange face appears and looks at me with startling blue eyes. A second later, the little orange face is joined by a little buff coloured face and soon after, I am hissed at and simultaneously greeted by the mother cat. All of them! Here in the shed and alive! Cats, it’s mixed up chickennham time!
I slice off some cubes of the slimy meat and scatter them on the floor. Out pops the little ginger one and launches itself straight at it, paws splayed and teeth bared. It’s little sibling trots out and eyes me warily but picks up a piece of chicken in its mouth and chows heartily then moves on to another and another and another. Mother cat slinks through the gap in the door and nibbles delicately on a large chunk but is usurped by the orange one who jumps on the delicious breakfast and growls at her. She backs off and licks her feisty offspring on the head.
The kittens swallow and chew until they shudder uncontrollably and I feel it my duty to remove further meat from their presence before they pop. The little ginger one sinks her claws in to my hand and her chicken and growls and growls. I submit. One more piece then….ok two more pieces…fine three. Eventually I hold her up and look at her. Enough? And she licks her lips, shudders and lets out a piercing shriek that says NOT EBLOODYNOUGH NO! and looks about desperately, twisting in my hand. A quiet hola issues behind me and I turn to find Roy carrying a bowl of cat biscuits walking up the path. When we left previously I embarrassed myself by mock casually suggesting the kittens needed someone to feed them if they had been abandoned.
We want to take them in our panniers but…..sadly, it’s not possible….maybe if you are soppy as me about kittens….?
Roy and James paused and looked taken aback.
Err well…yeah I…I mean we don’t know what to do with them…er…
Said James and I left feeling I had overstepped the boundaries a little but it seems my cringey approach worked. Here is Roy with cat food! He smiles at me and laughs at the great chunk of revolting chickenham and I make a face.
Bought in error….but the cats like it!
I say and he sets the food down. The kittens look at it and teeter a little, eyes half closed. One makes a sort of hiccuping belch and rocks in surprise. The biscuits, for today, will go untouched.
When I finally drag myself and Jamie away from them, Michael and Anika are also breakfasting but are fortunately avoiding the chickenham. James has cooked up eggs and toast with fruit and coffee. The smoothies are made from guayabitas, a little fruit picked in the garden that tastes like a cross between apples and cherries. He presents Jamie and I with a small bowl of them and then Roy appears with a freshly plucked avocado for us too. I look out over the gorgeous, sweeping valley crunching the guayabitas and then back at Michael and Anika. In twelve short hours we will be waving goodbye to them as we head to Panama where we will catch a boat to Colombia. Sitting on the back of the bike watching them disappear behind the tropical flowers in the garden of our guesthouse, I will realise that we won’t see them again for another 6 maybe 7 months and I suddenly want to turn the bike around. Come get the boat with us! I’d say. But it’s too late, the boat is fully booked and they are heading back to their jobs, their real lives on the 16.35 flight out of San Jose airport. The rest of our journey stretches out in front of me and suddenly seems impossibly far, terribly lonesome. The last thing I see is the top of Michael’s head and a flash of Anika’s blonde hair and then they are gone and we are alone again. We reach the end of the little lane, wait a minute then turn left and are swallowed by the traffic. Only 9000km to Buenos Aires from here. As the crow flies.
2 green plantains – you can get about 4-5 patacones per plantain
Oil for frying, use an oil that won’t burn at high temperatures (groundnut oil is good)
Salt to taste
Peel the plantains, the easiest way to peel a green plantain is to make the lengthwise cut on one of the angles, the cut should be skin deep without touching the actual flesh of the plantain, then use the knife to raise the skin and peel it off.
Cut the plantains into thick coins, you can make straight cuts or slightly diagonal cuts.
Heat the oil over medium high heat in a frying pan – use enough oil to almost cover the plantain slices, fry the plantains until they start to get yellow, but not golden. Remove the plantains and place on paper towels to drain the oil. Use two small chopping boards to smash and flatten the plantains together in to little mashed cakes. Do this gently, the aim is to keep the coins in one pieces but flattened and squashed together. It is best to do this when they are still warm.
Sprinkle the plantain slices with salt.
Reheat the oil, temperature should be about 190 degrees c and fry the plantains until golden on each side, about 1-2 minutes per side.
Remove from the oil, drain again on paper towels and serve warm…especially good with acidic foods such as ceviche, dressed salads etc….