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Witch Doctors & Sleezebags: The Untold Story of How I Came To Costa Rica

Hitch hiking in Costa Rica, 2009

Hitch hiking in Costa Rica, 2009

Note: This is Part 2 of the story of how dreams and divine guidance led me to Costa Rica and to the love of my life. Read Part 1 here.

A few weeks after leaving my husband in Madrid, I was sitting at my mom's house and trying really hard to focus on the future. It was mid April 2009 and I had four months before the next school year began at the University of New Mexico where I was working on my Master's degree in Intercultural Communication. I was specifically researching how food creates and sustains cultural identity and legacy and decided the next four months would best be served out of the library and looking at farms and farming communities. Besides, one of the things the psychic had told me in that fateful reading was that a guest lodge that taught sustainable living workshops was in my future.

I began searching online for sustainable and/or permaculture farms in the Washington State and British Columbia area. Somehow, one of the farms I landed on had a link to a permaculture farm in Costa Rica. At this point, "Costa Rica" did not ring any bells and I forgot all about the psychic's prediction. I checked out the farm, which looked like a place that never checked their emails, but I sent them an email anyway, asking if they needed any volunteers for the summer. They indeed wrote me back within a few hours and said they could use me next month. Next month? Next month was 10 days away. I should talk to Joel about this. No. He's not my husband anymore. I should talk to my mom about this. No. I'm adult! I can go if and when I want to go! I had a very small amount of credit left on my credit card, no income, and a move back to New Mexico to plan for. The last thing I should have done was spend $600 of my $1,000 credit card limit on a plan ticket to Costa Rica.

But I did.

And only after I bought the ticket did the psychic's words come to me. "You'll go to Costa Rica for research. You'll meet someone there."

She had predicted sometime in the next three years. Turns out, it was less than three months after her reading that I found myself being dropped off at the end of a road in Costa Rica . . .

My final destination was a small, sustainable and organic farm on the Caribbean coast. I was volunteering as the farm cook for two months and in those two months my goal was to figure out what the hell I was going to do instead of being married to a successful doctor in a gorgeous European city.

Living like a hippie in a commune seemed like a good place to start.

For several generations this farm had been a rural fishing and farming village and home to around 70 Afro-Caribbean families. Because the village was only accessible by boat or by a long hike through a sometimes dangerous and unpredictable jungle, in the 1970’s/1980’s there began talk of a road coming through the village. Many residents were excited about the road. Not only would the road bring traffic and customers, but it would provide a route to and from nearby towns and cities which would provide new job opportunities for the residents.

But when the road bypassed the village and instead went through the nearest village to the south, the residents picked up camp and abandoned the village for the greener pastures that the highway promised in the next village over.

All of the residents except for one.

And it was rumored that he’d used black magic to divert the road and to send the rest of the village packing.

But rumors about cranky old hermits tend to run that way. Especially when the cranky old hermit starts them.

Today, the village is still accessible in only one of two ways: by a 30-minute boat ride or by a nearly three-hour hike through the jungle. Both the boat ride and the hike begin in Manzanillo, the tiny little town where I’d just arrived.

The cranky old hermit’s name was Padi. When I met him he was at least in his early eighties. He plays into the rumors and tries to pull you into them with him from the moment he first looks at you through his cloudy eyes. He takes you in as if he knows your soul and he makes a proclamation. “You. You s’pposd to be here. You be running away from somebody who love you.” (he really said that to me). He’ll tell you that he’s read the black book of magic and if you’ll only write your name on a slip of paper he’ll burn a candle down over it and read your future in the drippings.

He’ll tell you he’s a witch doctor. Maybe this is true. But mostly, he’s a bullshitter. He knows it. His game is to keep you from knowing it.

However, his readings are startling accurate. Part of his genius, and part of his charm, is that it’s nearly impossible to tell whether Padi is a bullshitter who wants you to believe he’s a witch doctor, or whether Padi is a witch doctor who want you to believe he’s a bullshitter.

The village is now a farm and the farm is now owned by an American and Padi’s farm runs adjacent to it. Padi grew up on the land that is now the farm “Me umbilical cord buried right do’n dare in da yard!” he’ll proudly point out. Because the American owner is rarely present, Padi is the official unofficial governor of the farm— if Padi doesn’t like you, you don’t stay. If Padi wants something done, it’s done his way. Padi didn’t want a road, and so there’s still no road.

But it’s ok. I didn’t need a road. I had directions to walk to the first pink house on the right and ask for a boat captain named Baco.

The sun was getting close to setting by the time the boat began heading for the shore. I was with another farm volunteer, Rebecca, and Baco had kept us waiting for him all day. We passed the time in Manzanillo eating mangoes, telling each other our life stories and swatting off flirtatious marriage proposals from the locals.

Speeding along in the boat, the coastline stretched out for miles. Uninterrupted sandy beaches and green swaying coconut palms for as far as the eye can see. The absence of development was due, in part, to a Costa Rican law that forbids any building or structure to be closer than 100 meters to the shore, as well as a law that declares all land between the 100 meter mark and the water to be public property: no on can own the beaches in Costa Rica.

The other reason the coastline stretched out uninterrupted for so far was that we were in the middle of nowhere. Which meant that the farm was nearly an island unto itself. As you walk up from the beach there’s a beautiful wooden structure that serves as the main house. The main floor is an open-air kitchen with a brightly tiled double-sink and an industrial stove/oven with a large wooden bar wrapped around two of the three sides of the kitchen. The sink lined the third side and the back wall led to a pantry. The manager’s office and a few hammocks for lounging made up the second floor of the main house.

Right next to the main house is the guesthouse. This building is nearly identical to the main house but has a covered dining area on the main floor and three dorm rooms on the top floor— each room having the capacity to sleep 8 or 10 people. The farm supplements itself by inviting high school and college tour groups, mostly from the United States, to come tour the farm, learn a thing or two about sustainable living, stay the night and eat some good grub. Hence, the dorm rooms. Behind this house stood a tool shed with a path leading to the volunteer quarters.

As I made my way to the volunteer quarters my dreams of living in paradise quickly disintegrated. The volunteer quarters were disgusting. The mattresses had mold all over them. Dirty clothes and garbage from volunteers long-gone were strewn across the rooms. Bats were sleeping in the eaves, guano was all over the place. The place hadn’t been swept in months and smelled wet and dusty all at the same time. I took one look at the rooms offered as volunteer quarters and decided that I’d be sleeping in the guest house. If any guests came while I was there, well. I’d have to figure something else out.

When we arrived there were about eight other volunteers living and working on the farm. Three of the volunteers were the gardeners—tending to the 80+ acres of farmland and gardens. Four others alternated all of the other duties on the farm, including helping the gardeners and cooking and cleaning. The only paid position on the farm was that of the farm manager. The farm was currently being mis-managed by a New Yorker who was more interested in rum and ladies then in permaculture and sustainability. Rebecca and I hadn’t been on the farm more than two days before he tried to bed both of us. In the same day. He didn’t succeed on either count.

A month into my time at the farm and things had gotten better. The New Yorker had gotten the idea and left us alone. Isolated, life on the farm fostered some immediate and powerful emotional bonds between the rest of the volunteers and everyday we were becoming more and more like family. By that time most of us had also moved from the musty and dank volunteer quarters to the clean, spacious guesthouse. But now a group of American college students on a study tour were coming to the farm for a night and we needed to find somewhere else to sleep. Many opted to pack up their bedding and head back to the volunteer quarters for the night, despite the risk of malaria or staph (I kid, I kid . . . kind of). Two of the other girls and I opted to sleep in the hammocks on the mezzanine level above the kitchen. First of all, I didn’t want to move all of my stuff back to the volunteer house for just one night. Second of all, I had bigger fish to fry.

No really. I had to cook for almost 40 people. And I was nervous. The group was arriving via the jungle, which meant that after a three-hour hike through the jungle they were going to be twenty-some hot, sweaty and famished twenty-somethings. Because they were walking in through the jungle I had to consider that it was quite possible some of them might perish along the way (again- kidding. kind of) . . . I was figuring the odds when my sleazy manager reassured me that the group was being led by their competent Costa Rican guide who was, presumably, familiar with the law-of-the-land (hint: there aren’t any). Right. Forty-one people then, counting the guide . . . and a good lot of them were likely to be 19- and 20-year old college boys. Better cook enough for sixty.

Little did I know that the entire course of my life would change when that group arrived . . .