Plain Vanilla it is Not by Jeffrey Willius

We were headed from Alajuela, Costa Rica’s second largest city after capital San José, south to the Pacific coast, down through Jacó, Parrita and Londres to Quebrada Arroyo, the village home of La Reserva de los Campesinos. Los Campesinos is a former vanilla-growing co-op of 14 families, which had lost its livelihood to a vanilla plant blight. To survive as a community, they decided to develop their spectacular 33 hectares (about 84 acres) of primary and secondary rainforest into a network of trails, build modest lodging facilities and invite paying guests.

We wound our way up into the mountains on increasingly rougher roads and arrived at a nearly-deserted little roadhouse where we were to transfer to the back of a 4×4 pickup truck for the rest of the way. It was November, still the wet season in Costa Rica. Our guide, Luís, told us he’d just learned the road ahead had been washed out by rain and we’d have to hike the last mile or two. So, he said, forget your luggage.

So, as dusk approached and the rain increased, we hoisted our big duffels up on the café’s tables and quickly rummaged through them, trying to pull out a few essentials we could hand carry or stuff into backpacks for overnight and the next morning’s hiking.

The truck lurched and bucked over hub-deep ruts. We held on for dear life to a couple of the vehicle’s flimsy metal posts as every other bump threw us well off of our thinly-padded bench seats. The meager canvas top only served to collect the heavy rain and pour it down our backs by the bucketful. Before long, everyone was laughing hysterically—a thin guise for the soggy terror we were experiencing.

With every turn, night drew the jungle in closer around us. The truck clawed its way up and skidded down 30-degree grades. One such plummet ended in an abrupt 90-degree left turn directly onto a ten-foot wide bridge. As we approached the critical maneuver, the flailing headlights revealed yet another challenge: six inches of reddish mud right where we had to make the turn.

Our driver, a young member of the Quebrada Arroyo community, managed to bring us to a stop just feet from the turn. Then he knew there was only one way to negotiate it. With a series of short forward-and-reverse moves, each with a ten- or fifteen-degree turn, combined with a few controlled skids which scuffed the tire sidewalls against the bridge’s concrete curbs, he managed to pull it off.

A minute later, we slowed down and stopped. A landslide—we weren’t sure yet if it was the one to which Luís had alluded—recently had taken out the whole road, the void hastily filled in with tons of very loose-looking gravel. We held our breaths as the truck gingerly tiptoed over the makeshift fix.

After a couple of miles the thrill ride finally came to a stop at an even bigger washout, this one still agape. With handfuls of toiletries and scant changes of clothes in our daypacks, we set out on foot in near-total darkness on the home stretch to dinner and dry beds…we hoped. We slogged along for another mile or more through what seemed like the thickest, most primeval of jungles. The still, saturated air and strange jungle sounds enclosed us like a large hall. Somewhere inside it, the rana martillita (little hammer frog) enchanted us with a sound just like the loud clink of a fork against a crystal wine glass.

At last we came to a row of modest little homes. Through the bungalows’ windows the cold light from a few compact fluorescent bulbs barely punctured the darkness. Against the dim glow, we could make out the silhouettes of a few curious inhabitants looking out at us. After running a gauntlet of several more homes, we were met by Miguel, the head of the community co-op, who escorted us by flashlight off the main (and only) street and down a long, sloping path to our quarters.

At the base of the hill was a large, open-air dining hall and kitchen. Behind a counter, a couple of women worked on dinner, one of them stoking a wood cooking fire. They seemed all business, but one of them broke character long enough to smile warmly and reply to my greeting: “Hola, buenas.”

Our cabinas were basic, but clean and functional, with electricity, running water and actual flush toilets. While other members of our group shared cabins, I had mine, big enough to sleep six, to myself. Or so I thought, before spotting the six-inch mega-moth (it looked like our sphinx moths on steroids) on the inside of my screen.

Harmless, I told myself. Still, the prospect of its flapping around my face during the night suggested action. So, as I’ve done several times with bats and once with a cockroach of nearly the same size, I plopped my cap over it, slid a piece of paper under it and released it harmlessly outside the door and under the eaves. Thank God, I thought, now my little haven is pretty tight against bugs, especially mosquitoes—suspect here for carrying things like dengue and malaria. (Only the next morning did I notice the quarter-inch gaps between the floorboards!)

After a fine chicken dinner in the dining hall, I retired to my flimsy bunk mattress and listened, in awe, to the gentle chorus of exotic music reaching out of the rainforest. Falling water, insects, and who knows what else chimed in. And all the while the percussion section kept time. Clink….clink…. clink…

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