San Jose, Dec 26th
We took in a horse parade today, it was a lovely breezy cloudscape behind, the horses were doing their thing very elegantly, and there was a wide range of riders, from very smart and tricked out, with their mounts curving their necks and prancing, while others were casual and low-key, much smiling and cheering from the crowd.
There are a lot of greys, quite short-maned, and some chestnut roans, likewise, then a couple of breeds I never saw before, one silver-grey with long, jet-black mane, startlingly beautiful in the contrast.
Some sassy cowgirls, looking somehow Texan and tough, but very feminine.
Costa Ricans are such a mix of races, it's fascinating tracing genealogies in kink of hair, shine of skin, line of jaw, shape of skull. So many Indo-European traits, shaded and blended into Mestizo mixes! Here's an example
I like the narratives in this shot:
We hung out and people-watched
a while in front of the very elegant old theatre, time-travelling easily to stagecoach days while contemplating its classical facade, and staring at the angels perched on its roof. The building had held up well, there was something touching in the fading grandeur, and the stories it seemed to hold within its walls.
We stopped in to an art gallery, and were pleasantly blown away by the quality of the work, especially the stylised, surreal nature paintings, super fine-brushed with acrylic, with great detail, the charged colours of parrots in evergreen canopies, hummingbirds and toucans, macaws and monkeys, gambolling and skydiving in an intricate 3D maze of jewels, like being caught inside Isabel Allende's head.
I wondered at what strange Gaian accident/choice that placed more than two thousand DMT compounds into the botanical genepool of C. and S. America, when she's not exactly generous with them elsewhere, and the possible connection to the psychedelically vital artwork exhibited here. The colours have to seen to be believed, they claim your consciousness like only tropical colours do, take-no-prisoners, sobbing reds and greens that burst juicily behind the eyeballs, spattering vitality, with the masterful painting edging us over the formal credibility thresh-hold with light delicacy.
Mannered, yes, definitely, delightfully so. I was happy to see the prices quite high, so assumed the artists have a good standard of living, which was confirmed through chatting with the owner, a charming, very helpful gentleman, who shared many interesting insights with us about his country. His pride in the 92% literacy was palpable, and his demeanour, cultured and quietly, unpretentiously intellectual, personified the benefits of respect for education here.
He let me take some pics of the art work on sale there, hundreds of works, stacked together, the walls already full.
One last image of San Jose, for you irony fans...
Arriving at Alajuela, 27th December 2008
First impressions of Pura Vida Spa, beautiful landscaping, mature tropical gardens, expertly planted to accompany pathways hither and thither, to and from the various zones of rest and activity that are the nexuses of why we're all here, destinies inter-crossed in this week of spacetime.
My eyes drink it all in gratefully, exhausted by the exhaust fumes of San Jose, they'd been tearing up all day, and my chest felt scraped inside from being the wrong end of too many unmuffled diesels, too often.
We were shown to our 'tentalow', which was decidedly less impressive than the pic on the website, but had a comfy bed, a shared bathroom 20 ft away, and a nice view of the sunset that was unfolding. People were walking by carrying guitar cases and settling in, and some even sat outside and practiced their songs in the evening air, which was surprisingly chilly, definitely sweater weather. I was a bit saddened to see how we were quite close to the flight path to San Jose airport, and the noise levels of motor bikes and the drone of distant semi-urban life was never completely silent, though the wind made it come and go a bit, bringing dramatic interactions with the buildings by itself. After the first three days, and the return of good health, I enjoyed the great things about the place, and tuned out the rest. There was such a good buzz between the songwriters and teachers built there, it had proved itself a winning combo, quality instruction and education framed in very aesthetic and comfortable surroundings, (though the tentalow was a bit chilly, truth be told!).
A rainbow Eucalyptus at Pura Vida
Next morning woke up with flu, cough, streaming eyes and nose, fever. I missed the orientation, and then the afternoon lesson. Shivering then sweating, weak as a kitten, and starting to feel seriously sorry for myself, as another day went by in this way. S.O. was fine and did her yoga classes happily, as I spent as much time as I could sleeping, the only comfortable state of being available.
The third day the fever broke and settled down, and S.O got it in turn... I left her in a healing coma, and stumbled off to try and catch up some lost education.
Meaning the songwriters' workshop, 2 days late, with a hollow croak where once there was a voice, embracing the irony.
In the evenings there were song circles, held in a hall within close earshot of the tentalow, so some of my delirium was backed with their soundtrack, even deep within the mental fog of fever, I had discerned serious talent wafting around, which was confirmed by joining it on the third night, not alas to sing, but at least to accompany others with a few chords, a little slide guitar or mandolin, (which as usual got the most smiles!)
She's a little Martin, made in 1953, given to me by my brother my last birthday, and she sings as sweet as a nightingale, the wood of the soundbox is so seasoned and open.
The course was great. The main teacher was Darrell Scott, a gentle-seeming, somewhat wary man in his fifties, born from a junkie mother and an alcoholic dad, the wrong side of the tracks around Nashville. He was a big bear of a man, with a gentleness and peace emanating from him, especially when he played and sang. A spiritual steadiness, rarest of jewels in this crazed world, riddled with childish greed, clumsy arrogance and deranged values. His carefully crafted songs cut artfully to the bone, no trace of self-consciousness or frippery, stripped to the core, their simple truths told... perennial, weatherbeaten, eternal.
Digging them roots, passing on traditions, I hear my favourite of them when he plays, picking up the baton that Lowell George carried so well, and taking it further, a slippery use of time, putting funk deeper into the rock, and making what seems wrongfooted (to the expectant part of the brain), feel natural as the appreciation of the syncopation kicks in, making the pieces fit and interlock the jigsaw puzzle of the beat, turning it around, juggling it, skipping the downbeat, with delicious offbeat accents that make your hips want to grind and put a grin on your face! Joyful, sly equivocation, charmed, playing with tight respect for every subdivision of the groove's nuances, yet with loose insouciance, an easy, relaxed feeling that slyly grabs you, making mojo as the music starts to play the player.
The second teacher was Mary Gauthier, who played an unsentimentally surgical role, dismembering the cherished delusions so familiar to artists of every stripe. At first I felt somewhat turned off by her directness, having heard through the grapevine she's already reduced one writer to tears during one of the sessions I'd missed, and right away I saw why....no mincing of words, no kid gloves, shred city.
Over the days I saw the Costa Rican atmosphere soften her disposition, and her pedagogic approach followed suit. Her songs were great, shot through with darkness and pain, sung them with a simple starkness that suited them perfectly, laying out the difficult, gritty soul work she had mapped and expressed through her songs'journey, a moving document of a life that would have broken most hearts beyond repair. The lonely, bitter pain of abandonment and betrayal had been alchemised into jewels of compressed experience, shorn of indulgence or self-pity. There was one about the death of the 'Last King of the Hoboes' she'd written, or better, conjured out of a short newspaper obituary of a couple of lines. That was really special, a slice of history, I could almost hear Woody Guthrie chiming in on a harmony! Then another piece about HIV that captured the rage, grief and bewilderment that surround this awful disease. Kudos to Mary too, a powerful teacher, definitely not for the faint of heart...!
The third teacher was Kenny Malone, a percussion player and drummer who'd been on a zillion hit records, and had worked with Darrell a while. He was 70, and as genial and warm as a man can be, just golden, and as might be expected, a master of rhythm and dynamic nuance. The last morning before leaving he gave me a one-on-one djembe lesson that was full of new ideas, recorded to practice with when home again.
The students were all American except for one Aussie woman, we became fast friends!
There was quite a lot of 'Barble-Belt' stuff about the wages of sin and the price of redemption coming through the lyrics of some writers, a little on the grim-christian, shudder-in-your-shoes side, though fervently heartfelt and soulfully expressed. Thankfully, for balance, there was some very light-hearted stuff as well. My personal favourites were Michael Lille, a brilliant and wise writer who accompanied himself on guitar with an especially complementary and imaginative style, and a couple, Michael and Siobhan, from Washington D.C. who sang such outstanding harmonies they had me in chills several times, (even after the fever had broken!)
There were others though too, whose names I regret not remembering better, in particular one 22 year old girl, Tracy from West Virginia with a Jesus tattoo, placed just underneath her bikini top, who sang like an angel about the most difficult of adult subjects, and tore my heart out of my chest with her magic combination of voice, playing and writing, several times. Bbeing present next to this quality of writers and performers was a dream come true, and rubbing musical shoulders with them at this workshop was just the get-better medicine I needed...
The course ended up about much more than songwriting, it was whatever we as students brought to the circle, bonding round the fire of Darrell's seasoned, generous spirit, and mellow wonder as he shared candidly about his own journey to understanding, how the struggle to distill truth was the hallmark of the art, indeed all art. Many friendships were forged and deepened, inspired by the contacts with other thoughtful, sensitive writers and their songs. All in all, it was a humbling, reassuringly transformative occasion, just as I'd hoped, salted with a lot of fun, sometimes ribald humour, and frequent tears of joy at the bittersweet poignancy of great words married to great music, bearing witness.
Thanks to Darrell and crew, a success on every level!
We both received some excellent massages while at Pura Vida, the therapists were warm hearted and very talented. We grew to love all the staff, and the food was excellent, (and mostly vegan-friendly), served in a lovely big dining room with choices of sitting with new people, or having a quiet corner by ourselves if we felt like it. The views down over the San Jose Valley and the mountains beyond were often extraordinary, with lots of flurrying, gusty winds, inconstant and playful.
This kept the cloud patterns on a swift refresh rate, and building into some impressively architectural whipped cream verticalities, sliced by eagles spiralling around on thermals, their silhouettes evocative and melodramatic against the cerulean blue, chasing the silver-gray cloud-castles.
After a week at Pura Vida, we were both well over our clean-out, and ready to move into the second week of our 3-week journey, heading for the Caribbean coast, specifically for the small village of Puerto Viejo, almost all the way to the Panamanian border.
Following on in part 3.