Costa Rica: Expedición de Canoas

¡Me cago en el ICE (eee-say)! ¡Me cago en todas las represas! ¡Me cago en el ICE! / I shit on ICE (the power company)! I shit on all the dams! I shit on ICE!” sang Otto, sopping wet, trudging through knee-deep water.

Moments earlier, not 50 meters into our seven hour canoe trip, Otto and Araya got flipped in a Class 2 rapid. Otto was pinned under a branch until Hugo helped him out of the rapid. All of their equipment was dumped, including Otto’s camera, Blackberry, wallet, planner, rechargeable batteries and charger (Otto would later exclaim, “Por que puta traje las baterias recargables y el cargador? Donde las voy a cargar? / Why the hell did I bring the rechargeable batteries and charger? Where am I going to charge them?)

Ñacas, Otto’s brother, and Vikis (bee-keys), Otto’s soon-to-be son-in-law, were in the canoe in front and they managed to save nearly everything. The only thing they didn’t rescue was a bag of food and a bottle of rum.

Don’t worry, we had second bottle.

The impetus for this trip arose a few weeks ago when an opportunity to buy four used canoes from a former outfitter presented itself. My boss was beside himself with excitement at the prospect. Once Hugo, my steadfast Costa Rican friend and coworker, confirmed the purchase, I suggested we take a scouting trip before taking boys out. Fast forward three weeks, and here we are.

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I left my house at 7:02 A.M. It was 9:06 A.M.

At 8:36 A.M. we were unloading the canoes and hauling them down to the river.

Already the scouting trip had proved educational. First off, we had stored the canoes at our house in the mountains about 2km up a cobblestone road. Getting them down was not only a pain in the ass, but we nearly damaged the canoes in the process. We decided that we would store the canoes at Otto’s house in town. Second, we learned that even though our MacGyver trailer setup worked to transport the three canoes (we had another sitting in the garage), we needed to construct something more reliable; we decided upon a plan before we even unloaded the canoes. Third, less stuff, more dry bags.

We loaded up again, hopped into our canoes, and slid off the sand bar, Otto serenading a group of tourists in a river raft to our right, “¡Me caaa-ago en el ICE! ¡Me caaaaago en las repreee-eeh-sas!

Otto is a serious opponent of dams in Costa Rica. Did you know that Costa Rica has enough power to meet its needs for the next thirty years? Yet ICE and other private-interest companies want to continue constructing dams. The energy that those dams create? It’s going to be sold to other countries. Otto and the organization that he is president of are responsible for the prevention of the construction of a number damns throughout Costa Rica. He once showed me a map on which he has marked existing dams, proposed dams, and dams he has been responsible for constructing. It’s quite impressive; all of it.

Currently, we were floating in the middle of the Peñas Blancas river. This great sinuous snake slithering its way through the land was gaunt. Branches, stones, roots, tree trunks, sand, all poked up out of the water like the ribs and hips of an emaciated street dog.

Don’t get me wrong, the scenery was absolutely breathtaking. When I suspended my disappointment about the dam and how the river once was, I found myself in awe of the greenery and beauty all around us. That notwithstanding, I found it difficult to believe the hydroelectric dam above us was responsible for silencing this once roaring waterway to a barely audible whisper.

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Map Courtesy of Google Maps, edited in Skitch.

After all of Otto’s valuables received a thorough bath, I decided to put my camera into the dry bag.

Our next stop was on a clean white beach at a major bend in the river. We all had beers, a snack, and broke into the rum. Sadly, Otto did not join us for this toast. He was too broken-up about his phone and camera.

At the time, I thought he might have been sulking a bit. Which he was. Though, upon writing this, it seems to me that he truly was broken-hearted. Otto is an Earth-keeper. He is one of the souls who in his own way, protects the Earth and ensures his great-great-great grandchildren will have a place to call their own. I think that he truly was mourning the loss of the Peñas Blancas river as much as the loss of his own things. He maintained that were the river not damned, it would have been flowing more freely and powerfully. Thus, the rapid that upturned his boat would not have existed and he would not have flipped.

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Approaching us Araya, in the photo above is about as happy as a person could be. Otto was most certainly acting for the camera, regardless of the accuracy of his portrayal.

We stopped again. Here, we he had another beer and I got to try a vegetable, or fruit, or something in between that is native to Costa Rica.

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It was…interesting. It was cooked, which at first didn’t occur to me. It was dry. So dry, in fact, that it sopped up what little moisture there was in my mouth. But, as Captain of Adventures, I am obliged to try nearly everything that comes my way.

Somehow Hugo knew that I use the pseudonym Captain of Adventures. He called me that a couple of times at one of our stops, and I said, “You know I have a blog, right?”

“No, but you’re going to write about this, aren’t you?”

“Of course!”

From there on out, Hugo would shout, “Foto! Foto! Para el Captain of Adventures!” (I’ve got to admit, I like being called the Captain of Adventures.)

Otto had been trolling for fish, and had some success with that. I think it helped him feel a little bit better.

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We hung out a little longer at this sandbar, laying in the water to cool off, finishing our beers. Some of the guys smoked cigarettes…

Otto lost his glasses when the canoe flipped, so he made himself some new ones.

Otto lost his glasses when the canoe flipped, so he made himself some new ones.

Our next stop was lunch. Before I really knew what was happening there was a fire going with garlic frying, a kind of tuna-ceviche being passed around, and more beers and rum.

Otto gutted and cleaned the fish. Vikis prepared everything and set to cooking it. I drank beer and took pictures. We all ate, swam, and sunned ourselves.

Throughout lunch, Otto played his harmonica and sang an impromptu Rachera song lamenting his losses for the day and the evil that is el ICE. We all hollered and howled and sang whatever we could, cheering him on. After one of his songs he said with a dramatic flourish, “Ahora, me voy a ahogar. / Now, I’m going to drown myself.”

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When the fish were ready, Hugo said something like, “You gotta try some fish, it’s great! The bones are totally fried; they’re crispy like chips.”

Hell yeah, I thought, that sounds cool. Otto came up with my portion.

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Let it never be said that I have not eaten fire-fried fish head.

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With lunch over, we packed up. Below is the last photo I took at lunch.

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The photo was prophetic in a way. Shortly thereafter, we came to a Class 1 “rapid”. Honestly, it was more like a couple of ripples on the surface of the water. Hugo and I made it through no problem. Ñacas and Vikis dumped, but righted themselves quickly. Vikis lost his wallet unfortunately, but nothing else. Otto and Araya were in the rapid, made it through, and suddenly, they dumped!

We parked ourselves and helped them out, but to no avail. Ñacas swam upstream and searched fruitlessly for any of Otto’s belongings. He surfaced after a couple of tries with a wad of paper and guffawed, “I found your agenda!”

When they brought their canoe over to us, there were two guppies swimming around inside of it. Colones and Dollar Bills floated. Medical prescriptions. Scraps of paper with phone numbers and names scribbled on them. A drivers’ license. A credit card. An empty wallet. A sunken battery.

All we could do was laugh while we helped scoop everything out. I believe that Otto and Araya flipped because they’re canoe was quite a bit shallower than ours. Or it could have been vertigo of the rum.

Before long we were on our way again. Shortly after this, the Peñas Blancas river met up with and grew into the San Carlos river. We took our final break at a sand bar here and toasted to a great, eventful, and educational scouting trip.

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Araya took the opportunity to thank us profusely for inviting him along. His speech was sappy, drunken, and overwhelmingly heartfelt.  He thanked us for the good company. He thanked the river and nature. He thanked us again. He thanked the river again.

See, Araya works at a bank in a big city. This experience was totally new for him. I don’t know that he’d ever set foot in a river before. While we were loading the canoes, I was handing out life jackets. I held out the biggest most buoyant one and jokingly said, “Ok, who doesn’t know how to swim?” Araya raised his hand without shame or embarrassment. I tossed him the jacket.

Apparently, this trip was exactly what he needed to sort out his head. I never would have guessed it with how jovial and present he was on the river, but as of late, he had been struggling. What with, exactly, I don’t know. Sometimes we just struggle in life, right?

But, as Araya illustrated beautifully on this trip, when we go with the flow and appreciate exactly what is in front of us and who we’re with, life can be a damned fun ride.

A little further down I spotted a set of stairs on the right leading up out of the river. We paddled to shore and tied the canoes off. Hugo dashed up the stairs to see if we could take out from there.

Once we had hauled up all the gear, we sat in what little shade we could find and waited for our driver with the trailer. We finished the little remaining rum, drank pipas, drank coffee (Otto brashly asked the beautiful woman whose backyard we used as our port of exit if she would make us some coffee; she obliged).

Araya’s wife, I presume, called him, worried. She had called him a number of times on the river, but his phone was in the dry bag and he never asked for it. He reassured her that everything was fine, and curtly hung up with her. She called back, still worried. Again he reassured her. Finally, before snapping his phone shut, he said, “Honey, I’ve got to go! It’s my turn to ride the bull!”

We decided to stop on the road for un zarpe (one last one) and a bite to eat. Everyone was fairly starving, and ordered quickly. I ordered nachos con pollo / nachos with chicken, thinking that would be a quick meal.

A dreamlike end to a fantastic day.

A dreamlike end to a fantastic day.

The waiter came out and said to Ovidio, our neighbor who drove us, that they were out of plantains and could he order something else. Ovidio asked for whatever was fastest so we could get out of there. Everybody got their meals. Araya, mid-meal, looked up and asked me, “Didn’t you order Eric?”

“Yes. It hasn’t come yet.”

My stomach was gnawing itself. I was consumed with trying to stay calm. I thought to myself, I can make fucking nachos in five minutes. What is taking so long?!

Otto was pulling the last of the meat off his pork ribs. “Didn’t you order, Eric?”

“Yes. It hasn’t come yet.”

Everyone else, Ovidio included, finished, and was wiping their hands. Finally, my plate came out. Had I not been so ravenous, I would have photographed my plate. It came out stacked full of half-tortillas fried crispy, smothered in pureed black beans and pulled chicken. That was all topped off with a half-liter of major league baseball game Queso Nacho sabor a Cheddar. And no jalapeños to boot.

I eat a lot of stuff, but bright orange pasteurized processed pourable cheese product is generally not on my personal menu.

Hugo has this delightful way of trying to make situations that are less-than-ideal a little better. He saw the plate and with an air of compassion and seriousness exclaimed, “Wow, that looks like it was worth the wait!”

I ate it thoughtlessly, like a mannerless 15-year old boy. I just wanted to finish it and leave.

Regardless of my supper, the day was hugely fun. We accomplished our objective of scouting. All topped off by a beautiful sunset and mellow drive home.

Chalk up another great day for the Captain of Adventures.

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2 comments

  1. Lu Fulgenzi · · Reply

    Another great adventure, my son!

  2. ryan yeats · · Reply

    Otto is my father in law. He’s a trip, no? Hugo is the greatest, which i’m sure you’re now aware of. How much longer are you touring around CR?

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