A Kindle Of Kittens.
Michael raises one beardy eyebrow at the mention of afternoon naps and we realise that our lazy days are numbered. Within the space of a day he has collected a gnashing little motorbike from a German man in town, hoisted us out of bed, onto Robin Rawhide and up in to the mountains. He revs about happily sniffing the air and grinning. Sometimes he catches up to us on a skeltering road, opens the visor on his helmet and shouts,
We’re doing it! We are actually doing it!
Then shuts the visor and growls off in to the distance to admire a pleasant vista. To say he has been looking forward to this trip is rather an understatement; a busy London based doctor with minimal time off, he has virtually had to be cable tied to a chair as a preventative to leaping on to the side of a departing jet, Tom Cruise style.
The road wends an exuberantly green way up in to the hills north of Alajuela and vanishes in to a heavy swag of low, grey clouds into which we ride with unabashed joy. The cool pads of cloud dampen our jackets and faces and a delicious chill wraps itself around us leaving the tropical heat of Montezuma but a fading memory. We climb higher and higher, the palms give way to pines and the houses take on a distinctly alpine appearance. We stop at a supermarket to pick up dinner and try to buy a Costa Rican flag for Michael’s bike. It is Independence Day and the country is wreathed in banners and balloons. A small, now slightly frayed flag flutters on the front of our bike and Michael wants to join in the celebrations. Outside the supermarket, two women dressed in blue, white and red costumes are selling empanadas and flan, traditional food for the celebrations. They spot me eyeing up the flan unashamedly and follow us in to the shop. They stop me as I am examining a large chaw-chaw and wondering what one does with such a thing. Hastily I abandon the large, green vegetable and snatch up a wodge of coconut flan. Michael follows suit and we chew rumatively. Jamie is busy staring at the rum shelf and misses the mouthfuls of creamy wobble but returns just as we are donated a tamal sitting steamily on a folded banana leaf.
I say and smile appreciately, trying not to lose the flan.
Are you meant to be eating all of it?
Says Jamie looking at me suspiciously. I suppose we are, who would want the leftovers from three flanny gringos? The hot, savoury corn dough and shreds of chilli spiced chicken go down a treat and we buy four for dinner along with a heap of other groceries, beer and really cheap rum. Wishing the ladies a happy Independence, a little unsure about the correctness of the statement, we jump back on the bikes to sip the mountain air and smile at the bees.
Cabinas Las Fresas hides from us just off the road. It is disguised as an old, boarded up hotel with only curly paper signs to indicate it is anything but a horror film about to get interesting. We trundle the bikes in to the grassy carpark and look around quietly. Only one car and a closed up, shuttered looking building, no one in sight. Perhaps we have the wrong place. Or perhaps we are about to be murdered. Who knows? Practicality first though and I stroll up to a darkened front door. Unexpectedly, I find it open and wander in to a 1980’s Swiss ski lodge. The effect is rather startling and upon being greeted by a yougish man with a strong Italian accent, I find my Spanish has dried up. It takes a few minutes to recover the correct sentences and make myself understood by which time Jamie and Michael have joined me. We are led behind the gloomy building to a bright, sunny garden full of large bungalows and shown in to the first. The place is basic with no real cooking facilities and a stark appearance but after a quick count, we realise that between the three of us, we have eight beds and two bathrooms. Jamie is looking very pleased with the collection of napping spots when I return with a borrowed coffee machine, a hot plate and plates, mugs and cutlery all kindly donated by the owners. I busy myself with piling up exotic foodstuff by the microwave and Michael appears. He has sniffed out the impending snooze and wants to put an immediate halt on it.
I think we should go for a bit of a ride!
He says cheerfully and I find I am suddenly terribly busy switching on the fridge.
Oh good plan I say! Off you go Jamie, take Michael out on the slopes! I’ll fix dinner!
Jamie looks at me a little desperately before I bundle him out the door, snatching the pillow from his scrabbling fingers and waving them both off. An hour of blessed quiet time ensues where I draw a face on the chaw-chaw so it looks like an old man with no teeth in and take photos of beautiful arrangements of mango peel while listening to my aunt singing lovely songs to a sad guitar on the tablet.
The delightful tranquility is soon broken by the sound of humming motorbikes and the two brothers reappear chattering about volcanoes and strawberries and cheese farms. They have ridden to the entrance to Volcano Poas which is just up the road to admire the ludicrous queues of tourists waiting to get in and bimbled back past the fruit vendors and little shops. They produce a pack of cards bought at 59% off from a shop where everything was 20% off (Latin American problems), politely refused a coffee and returned for dinner.
We play endless rounds of Michael’s favourite card game, Yanif, that evening with cups of crap rum or cold Imperial beer to wash the tamales down with. The evening ends with a heartfelt debate about secret legal courts in the UK in which a disbelieving Michael winds up a passionately engaged Jamie and I hide in one of the bedrooms to avoid a fuss.
The morning sees last night’s debating blown away on a puff of sulphur as we push hard on the tired engines of our motorbikes to Poas volcano hours before the crowds arrive to ruin it. The volcano is cloaked in a damp carpet of dwarf cloud forest pulled straight from a Grimm’s fairy tale. Having admired the beautiful duck egg coloured, smoking lake filling the crater and sniffed the gaseous breeze, we pick our way through a darkened path of jangling, jagged little trees draped in dampened lichen and mist beaded cobwebs. Clouds tumble in through gaps in the branches alighting on our faces with a cool lick and orchid roots stretch down from the blackened trunks to fondle the earth. We sit in the hollows of mossy root to take photos and admire the sombre, sepia toned light before the mist clears long enough to briefly reveal a lonely, rather desolate looking lake filling another crater and find that we are suddenly back in the carpark.
The bikes are parked in a space overlooking a careworn 1960’s visitor centre with a vague Bond villain air about it and a small museum in to which we wander before leaving. It is my favourite kind of museum, deeply shoddy and unkempt. There have been better examples along our route, most noticeably in Guatemala and El Salvador but this one will certainly do. There are oxidising brass replicas of Inca treasure in plastic cases on one side, the toes and tails of golden birds and mammals creeping with verdigris and dust. A turntable housing a mountainscape full of chipper looking indigenous types and charmingly wonky sheep revolves to reveal further smiling crowds and livestock doing their thing in the shadow of a volcano. Jamie turns and turns the handle, pleased by the motion and we stand for a moment, mesmerised by the scenes flipping past us. Finally we reach a map lit with a wreath of red LED lights.
Pacific Ring of Fire….
Michael translates and we swiftly descend in to unpleasant jokes about vindaloo before departing for the rest of the week ahead of us.
We make a great loop through the mountains stopping by to admire Arenal, Costa Rica’s most famous volcano which has recently ceased its incessant rumblings and lies dormant, hidden in a saturated layer of cloud. We stay in a vividly painted cabin overlooking, in Michael’s opinion, the best garden in the world. Indeed, the bushes have been trimmed in to iguanas and love hearts, the hedges are jazzy with orange flowers and a great, peacock like palm graces the neatly manicured lawns by the swimming pool.
Michael admires the garden enthusiastically for half an hour while we lie under the air conditioning admiring at a distance. After a quick change of clothes we all jump back on the our bikes and head up the road to some thermal springs that Michael has luxuriantly insisted upon gracing with our raggedy presence. We spot the tiny turning at the last minute and careen down the drive scaring a wild turkey and pull up in a deserted carpark. Within ten minutes we make the exciting discovery that our ragtag crew will be the only one supping cocktails in the hot, clear waters beyond the changing room. We are the one o’clock slot, no one else has shown up. Rock and roll.
We pad barefoot down a leaf strewn path carefully avoiding the monkey poo and arrive, mostly by accident, at a river diverted in to a series of stone lined pools crisscrossed with bridges and waterfalls. Steam rises tantalisingly from the water and we jump in with little woops as the the heated water gulps us up. The barman watches us from behind the bar and eventually we generously offer him a little reprieve from the monotony with a jolly order of piña coladas, margaritas and a tequila sunrise. He even lets us sit in the steamy water with our chilly sundries, quietly observing as I, distracted by a maraschino cherry, spill a good slug of my drink in to the crystalline waters.
The boys, restrained by driving duties, stick to coke after the first round but I am not so unlucky and order a second just as the rum from the first hits then spend a woozy half hour floating about and overheating pinkly and enjoying the distinct feeling of having no legs. Frequent squealing bursts under a cold waterfall bring us back to our senses by which time the clouds brewing above us can carry no more and a glorious, plinking rain begins to fall. Nearby howler monkeys voice their distress at the inclement weather loudly and we lie back listening to the sounds and staring up at the chattering leaves above us until our blood pressure can stand it no more and we wobble back to our bikes and fall helplessly asleep by 8pm.
A nights sleep helpfully gives us back the use of our limbs and we are able to hit the road once more to skip round the bottom of Lake Arenal chasing a distant German bakery. The hand painted yellow signs tease us for 30km promising a plethora of freshly baked treats and it is only with a great deal of effort that I manage to turn from sign spotting to admire the water. Surrounded by lush forest and heavy with cerulean reflections and banking clouds, the waters are almost enough to hold my attention but not quite. Pastry pastry pastry. We pass by a place called Toad Hall, consider stopping but agree that streusel comes first and zip past it almost running over an alarmed looking crested bird in our haste. Pastry….
A German biker stands on the bakery steps when we arrive, distraught at the theft of her rucksack from their hotel and I have to force my face in to an expression of dismay on her behalf.
Oh no! That’s terrible! Don’t hesitate to ask if you need any help or translating!
I say energetically and then push her to the floor and stand on her face to get at the pastries.
I don’t really but I don’t exactly linger by her side for long and when I next turn round, she has vanished and we have spent our entire savings on pastry perfection. We order up a raisin swirl, a cinnamon swirl and an apple swirl washed down with tea and coffee then pause for 14 seconds before going back for seconds. I swap to cinnamon, something crumbly for Michael and a nice slab of strudel stuffed with apples for Jamie. Afterwards we waddle onwards, the bikes straining under the increased weight.
Sometime later we reach Santa Elena via a dirt road over which Robin Rawhide is distinctly unhappy to travel. She trundles and skids, skitters and growls and eventually I am ordered off from my perch to squash in to the tiny space on the back of Michael’s bike which is a little more grit ready than Robin. Within two and a half minutes my knees are shrieking in defiance at the cramped position and continue to do so all the way through the vast mountainscapes to Hotel Mar. We have come to the area to take in the local wildlife and found a guest house which will feed us lavishly with pancakes in the morning.
Bags and jackets dumped and defilthing process complete, we march out in to the tiny town to book a night tour in a nearby nature reserve. By the time we are done and are heading back up the steep road to the guest house, the clouds have lain themselves wearily over the town enveloping everything in a thick grey. The palm trees in the garden are spectral; grey cut and pastes on a billowing white background and the mountains have completely vanished from sight. We are concerned that the mist will render our wildlife hunting impossible but luckily, torches have also been invented in Costa Rica too and in the blackened forest, our guide picks out tarantulas, enormous stick insects as long as a forearm, spiders and snakes with the bright beam. High in the tree tops, a monkey cat hybrid clambers about waving its tail at us and we all coo.
What is it?
Someone asks, catching up after a minute. A kinkaju! We breathe.
A kinkaju! And my new favourite word after chicane is born. Further down the path a large puff of green feathers adheres tightly to a branch, it’s long tail hanging regally behind it. It is a sleeping Resplendent Quetzal, Guatemala’s national bird no less. We whisper conspiratorially around it so as not to wake it from its slumber. The group has no staying power and moves on to gape at more creatures and I spot Jamie hanging back taking photos of the snoozing quetzal.
Jamie looks at me a little guiltily and I am about to question him when I look up at the bird and see why. The moment the crowd leaves him, Jamie has woken the bird who is staring blindly in to the torch beam looking confused and understandably touchy.
Jamie! You woke it up!
I say accusingly and Jamie looks at me again shamefaced.
I just pointed the camera at it and the assist beam woke it up! Honest!
He protests and bird cocks its head a little pathetically, wobbling the crest on its sleepy head. I drag Jamie away, apologising to the bleary bird and find the group crowded around a fern covered tree trunk. The guide is patiently explaining how scorpions contain a protein that glows when placed under UV light and that finding them with a normal torch beam is very difficult. He demonstrates by shining the light at a patch of moss at which we gaze dumbly for several moments. At last a little, nearly invisible grey brown scorpion materialises from its camouflage clutched into itself and utterly motionless.
We say obediently. With a flourish, our guide pops the torch off and produces a smaller one. He switches it on and aims a UV beam at the spot where the scorpion crouches in the dark. The UV beam has an extraordinary effect, lighting up the creature in luminous blue against the black background.
Say the crowd.
Says Michael and takes a few thousand photos of it, flanked by Jamie who adds a couple of hundred more for good measure.
After a couple more stick insects, an army of lizards, an opossum and a sad bundle of grey fur we are reliably informed is a sloth, we are posted back into Santa Elena without further ado. We eat pizza, we sleep and, following Michael’s strict regime, we kick off early in the morning full of pancakes on to a dirt road we have been confidently to told is tarmac.
Jamie curses and mutters as Robin grinds rocks in to rubble below her uncooperative tyres and shakes herself to bits. Before two large dobermans spot a bit of easy meat and join in at thirty miles an hour to a soundtrack of,
Erm they’re still coming!
They’re still coming!
Still catching up!
From me and increasingly scrambley attempts by Jamie to outride them and retain purchase on the road. We finally lose the beasts and share a moment of phewing before Michael whizzes by grinning and thumbs upping with two hands. Occasionally he lies back on the bike, has a piña colada and makes a feature length film of the scenery.
He gurgles and we spit out the dust he leaves in his wake.
Finally, Jamie has had enough and pulls to a halt to gnash his teeth and shout a bit at Robin and it is decided that I must cram on to Michael’s bike again for the remainder of the journey. We make our steady way down the mountain sloshing through mud and chucking up gravel until finally the dirt road dissipates ad tarmac reappears. Jamie does a victory rev up and zooms off angrily down the road, nuts and bolts pinging off in his wake.
Fortunately the bike survives all the way down the coast for a brief stop in Quepos and then carries us up all the way to the very top of a mountain. The hotel stands overlooking the valley and we are the only guests. Despite the nearly vertical hills, winding, rock strewn roads and Shiningesque lonliness of the place, we are warmly met by James and Roy who are not wielding axes, don’t try to chop through our bedroom doors nor announce themselves as Johnny at any point. Much to our relief.
Corona De Los Santos is actually a paradise tucked quietly away in folds of a mountain range that stretches all the way to the Caribbean sea. In the middle of absolutely nowhere, it takes us a good hour to find, sliding down muddy tracks, bursting into peoples gardens via their bougainvillea, retracing our steps until finally, up a tiny back road to the tip top of a mountain, the big, white, Dutch gabled house appears through the pines. We sigh in delight at what awaits us in the brilliant sunlit afternoon. Backed by a tinkling fountain and an abundant herb garden you can stand and look out to the smoke of Irazu and Poas volcanoes, acres of luxurious coffee plantations and a great sweep of watercolour sky stretching itself over and beyond the green slopes before retiring inside to hand painted stonework and wamr, creaking wooden floorboards. An open fire is lit in the sitting room when we arrive and the grand piano that James had trucked in from New York gleams in the low light. We are quickly offered an extra bedroom for Michael at no extra cost so that we need not share and we pad about in socks stroking the quilts and making astonished faces at the warmth and comfort of the place. Ordering up a bottle of Spanish red wine in a fit of luxury we settle down to an evening of cooking, playing cards and over imbibing in the way of those who are truly comfortable. The night finishes with a drinking game involving rum and the replacement of all multiples of three with a phrase I can’t remember and the number ten with a miaow. My overwrought brain cannot operate on such elevated levels and I fall asleep to the soft murmerings of one, two, something, Jeremy Corbyn, five, six, green, why ay man, nine MIAOW……
I wake at 5.30 to the sun rising over the mountains and illuminating the tiny houses and neat rows of coffee plants far below us. Michael has shouldered the heavy burden of 180 Yorkshire Tea bags from England and it is the first thing on my mind as I zip up my fleece (bliss!) against the chill in the air. Roy is already up, silently busying himself with breakfast and greets with a quiet, cheerful buenos dias. A small tortoiseshell cat with a limp yodels up to me seeking affection and Roy reappears just as I am stroking the cat in to a minor revelry. He explains that the paw injury may have been from a run in with a snake or a coyote before pointing to the very far side of the unfinished garden murmuring the words very small until I see a little white face amongst the grasses. A month old kitten is bumbling about on a tiny path leading up to a locked up shed and it is mewling hopefully at it’s mother who appears completely unaware of the pitiful cries of her bundley offspring.
Cuppa tea, the house, the mountain, the world forgotten I make my way towards the scrap of fluff who sees me coming with wide, popping blue eyes and runs away unsteadily but surprisingly quickly to a little gap in the shed door. Just as she slips inside, I spot another, buff colour furry bottom, tiny spikey tail rigid with fear disappear in first and I stop.
Easy does it. Easy does it, those kittens are going to loved until they pop but all in good time. I sit on the wall and and sure enough, within a few minutes curiosity gets the better of the white and ginger one and a tiny, sad faced head appears in the gap and looks at me. Five minutes later I have captured the trembling bundle and am cooing in delight when the kitten starts to bite my thumb and miaow at the top of its miniature voice. Hungry. I dip my finger in my milky cup of tea hold it near the kittens mouth. The intensity of the chewing increases and the trilling miaow increases a notch or two. I spot Jamie coming up the path and send him quick smart to the kitchen with instructions to bring milk.
The kitten slurps and gurgles, chunters and gnaws at the drops of milk then squeaks and bites my thumb hard in desperation for more. The little buff coloured one has appeared at the door but scatters as I return its sibling to the floor along with more milk. Both kittens leap on the saucer, paws in, bellies in, faces in until they are both shuddering and sopping. Still mewling for more I bring them some pappy bread in milk with a little tuna mixed in which culminates in two rather oily, damp and gurgly but finally sated kittens. The dirty kittens burble about in the grass, dragging their bellies behind them still mewling and hunting. Looking for their mother. I look around but the limpy mother cat clearly has a paw to attend to and isn’t coming back soon. I sigh and return the dish to the kitchen, worrying about starving kittens while I make the forgotten cup of tea.
Later, we take a sweaty, heart attack inducing walk to the bottom of the mountain, scissoring down the vertical paths quite without will of our own. I pick up spikey things and have to have the prickles removed by a sighing Jamie then go on to poke at insects, lick unfamiliar fruits and cover myself in mud.
I shout excitedly when I spot a tree baubled with green fruits but Jamie and Michael are already ahead of me talking animatedly about an idea we have had involving stag parties, butchering and whiskey. I look at the avocados desperately and drop my arms to my side then stumble on to catch them up. The kittens are at the back of my mind and I begin to wonder if perhaps I should feel a little less concerned with small cats and more concerned with small humans but its no good, I like them fluffy. Is it possible that I am actually a cat? I ponder. I have been known to bite people and sometimes hiss when provoked. That must be it. I am deep in my revelry when the path starts to incline and we find ourselves heaving back up the mountain.
A small dog follows us for 4km provoked by a pat on the head from me and promise of the fakey bacon treats Jamie carries in our tank bag for kidnapping puppies with. When we finally round the last corner to our castle in the sky, the doglet trots unfazed straight in to the garden and has a look around. After the promised porky snacks, she sits a while and smiles at us and then comes to visit the kittens with me. She blinks at them kindly as though she is seeing fairies. The kittens freeze, arch their backs and teeter for a moment until I shoo the dog back a little and then everyone decides the best course of action is pursue for bacon or pretend that dogs don’t exist. The kittens slurp down their body weight in tuna pap until their tiny bellies stretch like drums and they shudder and shake in that strange way that tiny cats do when fed. The dog licks her nose and itches for a while. I wonder how to tell Roy and James we adopted them a dog.After a while, everybody stretches out in the sunlight to clean themselves unsteadily and very badly except me who happily watches despite being covered in tuna.
That afternoon Roy and James show us jaguar prints in the mud at the bottom end of the garden, explaining this is what may have helped spooked the neglectful mother cat. I stare at the prints and try to picture the powerful, spotted paws fitting in to the indentations at my feet. Later, five eagles wheel in the sky above us, once letting out one of those lonely shrieks you hear in Westerns. We gaze squinting in to the canvas skies above us as the eagles climb higher and higher on the rising warm air pushed up by the coffee carpeted hills and I turn to Roy.
I think we will stay forever.
I say seriously.
Just put us in the shed with the kittens or something. We’ll be fine.
And he laughs and points over the valley
We have a cabin over there. Lots of banana trees, coffee, fruit trees….$20,000. It has its own water source too.
We have to collect Michael’s fiancee from the airport, we have to go to the beach, we have to cross the Carribbean sea to Colombia, we have to drive to Argentina. We have many things to do but when he says that, I can feel my resolve crumble.
Do you take cheques?
Costa Rican Coffee Flan
On our way down from Volcan Poas we stopped at a little cafe overlooking the valley and ordered flan de cafe. Unfortunately the lady there didn’t have the recipe as the chef wasn’t there so this is pulled straight from the net to remind me to test and make it at home. This seems like the closest recipe to the smooth, unctuous and silky desert we had in the cafe…..i have tweaked it fairly thoroughly to help match it to what we had a little better…..hope it works.
½ cup Water
1 cup Sugar
½ cup Melted Butter
1 ½ cups Cream1
½ cups Whole Milk
1-2 shots of good, strong espresso or a very strong infusion from your cafetiere
6 large Eggs6 large Egg Yolks
½ medium Vanilla Bean, seeds and resin scrapped from the inside
1 ½ cups Sugar
– Preheat the oven to 350°.
– Place the water and 1 cup of sugar into a small saucepan over med-high heat. Bring to a simmer and reduce until medium caramel color. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly.
-brush the melted butter on the inside of the ramekins . Divide the caramel among the bottoms of the ramekins.
– Bring the cream and milk along with the espresso to a simmer in a saucepan over medium to med-high heat. Let simmer for a couple minutes and remove from the heat. let cool to room temperature.
– In a large mixing bowl whisk together eggs, egg yolks, vanilla seeds/resin, and sugar until well blended and smooth. Whisk in the cream/milk mixture until fully incorporated. Divide the mixture evenly among the ramekins (making sure not to fill them quite to the top).
– Place the ramekins into a large baking or roasting dish. Pour warm water into the roasting/baking pan until it comes about ½ way up the ramekins. Place into the oven for about 30-40 minutes until the mixture looks thickened and has reached an internal temperature of about 170-175°. Remove from the oven and let stand about 5-10 minutes before unmolding (or not) and serving.
– taste the mixture before cooking. If it is a littke undersweet or undercoffeed for yoy, adjust sugar and coffee or wait until the end and drizzle a thin stream of ciffee liqueur over each flan….nom.